Rev. DeVries is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Wingham, Ontario, Canada.
The first week of September brought gorgeous late-summer weather for West Michigan. Many had traveled—some long distances—to attend the conference (September 3—5, 2009) sponsored by the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary commemorating the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. The conference was entitled, “After 500 Years: John Calvin for Reformed Churches Today.” My wife and I had been planning for some months to attend at least part of the conference. When I received a classical appointment to preach in Byron Center the Sunday following the conference, we were able to travel from our home in Wingham, Ontario knowing we could attend the entire conference. The publicity leading up to the conference was very well done. What Reformed individual would not have his or her interest piqued and be motivated to attend a speech described this way: “‘Preaching…what is the point? How outdated can you be? If you have to speak, keep it entertaining and keep it brief, real brief.’ Such, sadly, are the thoughts of many in the church of our day. But there is another perspective. Come and hear what John Calvin had to say about preaching, the place preaching occupied in his own ministry, and why it matters to us today….” These announcements describing each of the seven scheduled speeches, appearing in many church bulletins, made it clear that the speeches would not be a boring rehash of Reformation history, but would be lively presentations filled with relevance for us today, as the conference theme suggested.
The conference was held at a convenient location in Byron Center, Michigan, making use of the fine facilities of the First Christian Reformed Church. The sanctuary was comfortable and spacious, the narthex large, conducive to visiting with others. The fellowship hall was convenient for the scheduled refreshment breaks. A nice-sized audience was able to assemble for the daytime speeches. Large numbers gathered for the two evening speeches, making use of the church balcony necessary for seating. It was wonderful to meet and greet friends and fellow saints from so many of our churches and other denominations as well—old friends from Iowa, Texas, South Dakota, Alberta, and elsewhere, as well as new acquaintances from as far away as Ireland and Australia!
The conference schedule was well arranged. Each speech included a beautiful organ prelude, lively audience singing, devotions, and an introduction by one of our current professors. But the focus was always on the speech itself. Real treats were a brief concert before the lecture program on Thursday evening by the Hope Heralds men’s choir, and the piano and cello concert by Eric and Crista Phelps prior to the Friday evening speech. Interestingly, the Phelps included in their selections Psalm 23 from the Genevan Psalter, the songbook created under John Calvin’s supervision and used during his ministry.
The speeches themselves were outstanding, in my humble opinion. There was an excellent assortment of speakers—our seminary professors, both active and emeritus, as well as ministers of the Word, all of whom were graduates of our Seminary, but serving congregations in Northern Ireland and Australia as well as the United States. The subjects dealt with in the seven speeches concerned not what were perhaps interesting but esoteric or relatively unimportant matters, but timely and significant truths and issues of John Calvin’s life and work. The speeches gave evidence of considerable research and study but were profitable, not just for scholars, but for all of the people of God, also the young people in attendance.
During the scheduled breaks between the speeches, there was more to occupy the time than enjoying tasty refreshments and warm fellowship. The Reformed Free Publishing Association had a table set up in the fellowship hall with some of their publications, most notably their latest book, available for the conference, The Reformed Faith of John Calvin—The Institutes in Summary, by Prof. David J. Engelsma. Occupying several tables was an excellent assortment of Reformed literature, new and used, provided by Mr. Gary VanDerSchaaf, Credo Books. It appeared to me that Gary was doing a brisk business, selling out of some of his books dealing with Calvin. Also on display in the fellowship hall were many impressive church history projects provided by students of our Protestant Reformed high schools. What a lot of time and effort were put into these projects! It was nice that there was a good amount of free time over the course of the conference to take advantage of these things.
The Byron Center PRC Young People’s Society came up with a great idea when they decided to provide lunch and a couple of suppers for conference attendees at their church building. My wife and I enjoyed a delicious chicken dinner on Friday evening at the church—another opportunity for good fellowship with fellow believers in Christ.
The final session of the conference was an open question period. Written questions could be submitted throughout the conference regarding the speeches or related matters. Many of these questions were answered by the full panel of the conference speakers at the session. Initially I thought it might have been better to have a time reserved for questions after each speech. But upon reflection this was a very good way to cap off the conference. Many perceptive, interesting questions were asked and answered, sometimes by more than one of the speakers.
A couple of other items I would mention: There were at least sixty entries in the writing contest sponsored by the Seminary in conjunction with the conference. On Friday evening the first, second, and third place winners of each division were announced. It is wonderful that so many participated in this contest. I really appreciated, also, the beautiful prayers or portions thereof of John Calvin used by Prof. Gritters in his devotions. And a nice activity for visitors to the Grand Rapids area on Saturday afternoon was the bus tour, which included the Seminary, churches, schools, as well as other points of interest. I have no doubt that Prof. Cammenga proved to be an entertaining tour guide.
All in all—a first-class conference from every point of view! Our Seminary and the Theological School Committee are to be commended for sponsoring this conference. Also deserving of appreciation is the Evangelism Committee of Southwest PRC, which handled the logistics for the conference—publicity, refreshments, and much more no doubt.
This was a wonderful commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, from beginning to end honoring our sovereign God’s work in and through His servant John Calvin. The conference succeeded well in underscoring “the importance for the contemporary church to maintain Calvin’s Calvinism.”
Tapes are available through the conference website (500years-ofcalvin.org).