Is Dordt losing sight of its Reformed vision?

Kelly Zatlin, Editor

Seven years after Dordt’s 50th anniversary, when English Professor Jim Schaap’s speech “Jubilee” was presented and published, questions are still being raised amongst faculty regarding Dordt’s role as a Reformed Christian institution, specifically how well the original vision of the college is being carried out, and if that vision  is even an issue that needs discussion.

Schaap’s “Jubilee” tells the haunting story of a small school in South Dakota that closed its doors just 39 years after it began. The speech also mentions the names of five Midwest colleges that were forced to close down, in large part because their original visions were lost amidst the changing world around them. In his speech, Schaap, though recognizing Dordt’s many blessings and achievements, fears this same loss.

“…And I know—I can feel it in my bones—that the original vision for this institution, a college rooted in the Reformed tradition, has altered, as all things must, in the withering movements of time itself,” said Schaap in “Jubilee.”

When Dordt (originally called Midwest Christian Junior College) opened its doors in 1955, its founding president, B.J. Haan, intented the college to be Reformed through and through. In 1956, when the name was changed to Dordt College, he told the Sioux Center News that “the name ‘Dordt’ will constantly remind us of the heritage in which we are rooted and the goals we should strive for. It will give us a constant source of inspiration to continue in the faith of the fathers. It will tell all people everywhere just exactly what we are and what we stand for.”

Currently, questions like “What does it mean to be a Reformed college?” and “Is Dordt still carrying out its original mission as a Reformed institution?” are being discussed. Some, however, wonder if those questions are being discussed in the proper places.

Others may ask what “Reformed” even means and why it matters. What does it matter if Dordt is Reformed or non-denominational, or just broadly Christian? According to its founder and those who have a history with this college, such questions do matter. Dordt’s “Reformed perspective” on every aspect of life is what has defined the institution for over 50 years.

Retiring Professor of History Keith Sewell believes that defining an institution as “Reformed” is not an easy thing to do because there is no one definition of a “Reformed worldview.”

“One has to face the reality that can mean different things for different people,” said Sewell. “Now, for the kind of people who have focused on Dordt College, I suppose it very much means ‘Reformed’ as understood by the great Dutchman, Abraham Kuiper. There’s no doubt that B.J. Haan, the first president, and his successors were quite strongly committed to that, and many of the faculty still are. But I think it’s getting harder to find faculty who understand what that means.”

Aaron Baart, the Dean of Chapel here at Dordt, described how Dordt implements the “Reformed worldview” in all aspects of the college. “The most significant part of it has to do with the emphasis on the sovereignty of God in all of life. In some Christian settings you wouldn’t talk about your faith and your work, or your faith and your study; [it means] to try to be incredibly consistent in terms of applying your faith, not just having bible classes in your curriculum, but by talking about what does Christ’s Lordship look like in chemistry, and in journalism, etc.”

Theology professor Jason Lief also explained what he thinks a Reformed college should look like. “One of the things that a Reformed college should be about is helping people explore the world and the culture that we inhabit so that we don’t view our Christianity as just this thing about going to heaven when we die, but it’s about a lived form of discipleship in the context of the world…We’re not separatists; we’re not trying to separate ourselves out. We’re trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ in the context of creation and in the context of the world.”

While some faculty members worry that this foundation may be getting overlooked in order to keep up with the times and the culture, many still believe that Dordt has not strayed from its Reformed ideals in campus ministries, in the administration, nor in the classroom. They speculate that changes have occurred on different levels, but that those changes are a result of a changing culture. Most understand that there is a broader context of understanding involved with the Reformed faith and how it is practiced in various churches, as well as at Dordt.

Concerning Reformed worship and campus ministries, Baart explained, “I don’t think our worship has moved away from being ‘Reformed,’ I think it’s reminded us that the Reformed umbrella is bigger than we give it credit for. I think before people have often meant and thought that when I say ‘Reformed worship,” I need tradition, I need a liturgy, I need an organ, I need a responsive reading. I think our Reformed theology has a way bigger umbrella than just that. I think we confuse our cultural background with our actual theological background and we get in to a lot of trouble when we do that.”

President Carl Zylstra wants to remind people that campus ministry at Dordt is not meant to be a church service. He stated, “We don’t do liturgical worship here; we do student and academic worship. It’s focused around who we are as an academic community. So that makes it different from what you’d find in a church, for instance.”

Zylstra went on to say, “I think a ‘Reformed perspective’ is not, first of all, style of music or format of speaking and planning of events; a ‘Reformed perspective” is [asking the question] ‘what does it take to focus on who God is, what does it take this group of people to focus on who God is, and what does it take to deepen our understanding of what it is that God wants us to do?’ — and then to mold our lives according to his word.”

Another level that this topic is being discussed is on the administrative and student-based level. Some faculty members see a shift in the way the college presents itself in order to bring in more students. Because of the social and economic changes in today’s culture, sometimes it seems as though the only way to bring in students is to do what the other colleges are doing, according to Professor Sewell.

“I think it’s becoming an open question as to what extent does the Reformed worldview actually control the decision-making of the college,” said Sewell. “There’s some kind of contention within the college, and there are faculty who have increasing reservations about whether or not the college is becoming rather too broad in its outlooks–probably to be sure that it gets plenty of customers. You’ve got to keep the students coming in. So that can tend to make it too much like an academic supermarket. What happens when the spirit of the times combine with movements in society? What happens when they don’t quite mesh with what you think?”

Lief made a similar point, saying, “I believe everyone here at Dordt has good intentions, and I think we want to live this out in all of these different areas, whether it be administration or campus ministries or in the classroom; but I think sometimes we kind of butt up against the brokenness and difficulties of living in a world where sin is real.”

Lief explained that there is a real temptation for a Christian college to mimic what higher education looks like in the United States and then to just pull the Bible into it, making it Christian. He said, “I think that to really be a Reformed institution means to hold everything in kind of a tension – We always have to constantly ask questions about our motives and our presuppositions. Why are we doing it this way? Is this because it’s truly a Christian approach or is it simply an expedient way of doing it because it’s efficient and because it’s the way everybody else is doing it?”

With the changing times and the inevitable shift in culture, Dordt is not immune to the effects that bear down upon all organizations. According to some faculty members, Dordt need not give in to the same consumer mindset of the surrounding universities. The difficult question raised by many is not one easily answered. That question is “how?”

Some believe Dordt College remains true to its Reformed foundations, while others are wary of the path they see Dordt traveling down. . Changes will inevitably be made with the appointment of a new president, who takes the office next fall.

“There’s a new president coming in,” said Sewell. “I don’t know who it is, but a new man, a new woman, might be able to surmount, address, or deal with emerging challenges and strengthen the college where presently it is weak. I don’t want to be a kind of doomsday prophet, but there are various challenges. It’s not impossible to meet them, though.”

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