Confessional Commitments and Academic Freedom

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The Context for Calvin’s Report to Synod 2014

Since its founding in 1876 as the college of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Calvin College has been grounded in the Reformed tradition’s firm faith in a powerful God at work in the world, a secure conviction out of which grows a reverent curiosity to see, understand and bear witness to that work. 

Teaching and scholarship are hard and sometimes heady work, and occasionally the confessional commitment of the college’s faculty is a point of discussion, if not controversy, in some quarters of the college and denomination. The faculty at Calvin work at their tasks checked by the truth expressed well in the Belgic Confession: “that we are not competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but that our competence is from God” and that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” 

The challenge of the academic calling can also be a great gift. Calvin College and the CRCNA have a healthy covenant relationship in which the distinct callings and gifts of each have been exercised for the betterment of both. The college’s Expanded Statement of Mission affirms that the best description of the bond between college and church is “a mutual pledge of fidelity, service, and support between partners.” 

The church has always had a strong commitment to Christian education, including Christian higher education, as a means through which knowledge and culture can be understood, shaped and by grace redeemed. This ecclesiastical commitment was foundational at the college’s founding and remains critical today. In particular, the historic creeds and Reformed confessions of the CRCNA give the college and its faculty a well-articulated faith context in which to work.

Whereas the commitments of the CRCNA are at Calvin’s foundation, standards for accreditation require that the CRCNA delegate college governance to the college’s Board of Trustees. 

Responding to concerns over how the college handled an issue of academic freedom around the writing and production of a play about sexual orientation in 2007, and informed by a 2010 controversy over the publication of two articles on human origins, in late 2010 the Faculty Senate and Board of Trustees ratified a series of improvements to the college’s process that governs matters of confessional orthodoxy and academic freedom at Calvin College. This document, Confessional Commitments and Academic Freedom (CCAF) is presented at synod this year for information. 

Faculty personnel matters related to confessional interpretation are delegated by the Calvin College Board to the Professional Status Committee (PSC), which includes the president and provost. Scholars hoping to teach at Calvin are clearly informed of the college’s commitment to the Reformed confessions in all college advertising for positions and in campus visits by prospective faculty. Before a formal hiring decision is made, the department, dean, and the PSC also interview all persons offered regular teaching positions to make clear the college’s confessional requirements. 

Upon employment, faculty are required to sign a Covenant for Faculty Members, virtually identical to the CRCNA’s Covenant for Office Bearers. Faculty members who later may conclude that they can no longer agree with a portion of the confessions are required to communicate their views in writing to the Board of Trustees. The Board delegates to the PSC the authority to investigate these concerns and to advise the Board about the appropriate action. The PSC is guided by a desire to promote confessional integrity, due process, and the kind of constructive engagement with difficult issues that serve the CRCNA and the Christian community at large.

The CCAF document Calvin College sends to synod provides a thorough explanation of this process of oversight and review. The confessions are documents that belong to the church, and the college submits this report mindful that it is the church that is the final arbiter of confessional matters.    

The CCAF document is consistent with and honors synod’s own work on confessional affirmation. It reminds readers of the complex institutional governance and Reformed polity practices within the CRCNA that serve to foster highly consultative, transparent, and deliberative processes. 

The college’s own internal processes are similarly complex, and intend to also foster high-trust communication, confessional integrity, and mutual encouragement and accountability. Calvin College covets the blessing of the Christian Reformed Church to support the college’s calling as an academic community and the faculty’s calling to explore God’s world with a holy curiosity rooted in the convictions of our Reformed confessions.  

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"This document, Confessional Commitments and Academic Freedom (CCAF) is presented at synod this year for information". (Bold is mine HB)

I made a comment re Calvin College in the context of Finances (Ministry Shares). The above quote is interesting because it raises a question in my mind of why Calvin College can not become totally independent just like e.g. Dordt College in USA and Redeemer and The King's in Canada.

Don't get me wrong, as mentioned by Dr. Le Roy, Calvin and the CRCNA have been a blessing to each other. Should we open this discussion or put it on a Synod agenda at some point?

Community Builder

Michael, I would be interested to learn how Calvin College would respond to the Community Covenant Document  that Trinity Western Students and Faculty (in Langley BC Canada) sign and that has caused a firestorm in the media in Canada. Please look up the document on their website. In summary, many Canadian lawyers and teachers believe the graduates from TWU are unfit to practice law and teach in Canada. The Supreme Court overruled the teachers in 2010 but now the lawyers are starting the same process.