Understanding Reformed Identity from a Teaching, Learning, & Scholarship Perspective

Date Published

February 15, 2024

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Published by Calvin Seminary

Calvin Seminary identifies as a Reformed seminary. What does this look like in the classroom? Is the type of Reformed learning that takes place at Calvin Seminary unique? 

Calvin Theological Seminary recently hosted two roundtables to discuss the Reformed tradition and how it shapes life and learning at the seminary. The following excerpt is adapted from these discussions between seminary scholars. To view the roundtable discussions in their entirety, view on YouTube.

Jeff Sajdak, Dean of Students: I think it starts with an essential double knowledge: it’s about knowing God and knowing ourselves. We are all being formed in the image of Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the Trinitarian formational work that is essential to what we do here at Calvin Seminary. Whether it’s learning theology in the classroom, in-context learning, or uncredited learning happening in chapel and other places, we take seriously the importance of forming the whole person.

Ronald Feenstra, Professor of Systematic Theology: The way I teach systematic theology is rooted in scripture. We pay serious attention to scripture at Calvin Seminary! But we also teach theology to give life to the statements that we make in the creeds, that we believe as part of the holy catholic church. We ask, ‘What does it mean that we are part of the catholic church?’, ‘What does it mean that we’re part of the universal church?’

We are engaged in that same kind of process today. We need to look towards scripture and church tradition in the same way. We should examine what the early church says about things, what the great medieval theologians had to say, what the reformers say, what people since the reformers have had to say, for the purpose of learning.

John Witvliet, Professor of Worship and Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship: In the teaching of worship here, it’s essential that there is a theological center to all our discussions. We approach worship in a way so that the Bible is informing everything about what we do. Not just the actions of worship, but the theological imagination that allows us to put those actions into practice. Seeing worship as trinitarian and covenantal is essential.

Karin Maag, Director of the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies and Adjunct Professor of the History of Christianity: At Calvin Seminary, I think there is a willingness to think deeply about complicated issues. There is a willingness to remain in complex realities. We don’t say ‘Here is a cut-and-dry answer. Go and memorize it and you’re done.’

Yudha Thianto, Chief Academic Officer, Professor of History of Christianity and Reformed Theology: And redemption is at the center! We believe here that Christ’s redemption is so powerful that it encompasses the whole creation. Within this redemption Christ has given us, we are not afraid to wrestle with difficult issues. We are not afraid to try to find the answers in conversation with other areas of studies.

Gary Burge, Adjunct Professor of New Testament: The Reformed tradition says to take the things we learn from scripture and bring those learnings into a larger conversation. So, when I teach the Book of Romans, what’s important is not simply explaining what Paul meant by his writings, but I also want my students to understand these great ideas found in Romans are seed ideas. These ideas have contributed to the formation of our great traditions. I don’t see the book of Romans in isolation. If my students develop a reflex so that when they read scripture, they see they’re reading a part of a great story, then suddenly the entire message of the Bible begins to make sense. They have greater clarity and see unity in the scriptures.

John Witvliet: I’ll add that when students come to Calvin Seminary, we invite them into classes in a variety of departments: Bible, theology, history, ministry practices. However, oftentimes what happens is students will discover that one specific class covers all these areas. 

As professors, we have our own discipline or expertise, but one of my prayers is that when students leave a class in worship, they think ‘Wow, that was a class on theology,’ ‘That was a class about the Bible,’ ‘That was a class about leadership,’ or ‘That was a class about pastoral care,’ in addition to learning about how to participate in worship, how to shape a worship service, and prepare a congregation for worship. There’s a symphonic vision in our classes that I pray students will increasingly learn to see and love.

Jeff Weima, Professor of New Testament: The key word I think you’re talking about is integration. And I’d like to think, and I have some evidence to the fact that this is true, that there is a lot of good integration taking place. I know that in theology they’re working with the scriptures and they’re encouraging students to memorize key texts. I also know that in worship class, too, they’re looking at biblical texts and what principles they have for worship. That’s the kind of ideal integration that ought to take place in any education. And I’m happy to say that there’s evidence that that’s happening at Calvin Seminary.

What does it mean that Calvin Seminary has a Reformed identity? What does it mean to be Reformed? 

Jeff Sajdak: I think it’s an awareness of Scripture being very central to what we know. Knowing that God is sovereign, that He rules in all things and in all areas, that Christ is Lord in all places.

Jeff Wiema: I see our Reformed identity coming to the forefront in what we sometimes call the theological approach, using the paradigm of creation, fall, redemption, consummation.  It can also be seen in our thinking and teaching about the lordship of Jesus Christ over every aspect of life.

Wilson de Angelo Cunha, Professor of Old Testament: A theme we often emphasize within Reformed theology is the Kingdom of God. The Old Testament is full of examples of what God is doing in the world and proclaiming the Lord reigns. That’s the word of the Psalms, for example. And often, it’s proclaiming the Kingdom of God in a situation where the world has gone wrong. 

The Old Testament is not shy about pretending the world is not broken, but the Old Testament is seeking this God who reigns in prayer and in worship, and creating a community that waits for this God to put things right again.

Yudha Thianto: As I think about the way Reformed beliefs were shared and spread in the East Indies, what I see is it was not done by individuals, but instead it was done communally. Maybe it went from the clergy through the other church workers, elders, and deacons, even through itinerant catechism teachers in the villages. In all of this, I notice that Reformed theology is adaptable, but it also takes the community to accept it, to be willing to wrestle with it and ask questions. 

This is how I see covenant ‘in work.’ I’m not talking about covenant ‘of work,’ but covenant ‘in work,’ in the sense that we are covenantal people. We are in the presence of God, but we are also the ones bringing God’s covenant to each other to form the community.

How does Calvin Seminary’s Reformed scholarship prepare graduates for work in ministry? 

Ronald Feenstra: When I start my classes each semester, I make it clear that the purpose of doing theology is actually to address the pastoral needs of the church, questions that people have in their spiritual lives, moral questions that people have. Theology isn’t primarily to address intellectual issues, but it’s about trying to help us understand how Scripture and the Christian tradition can help us to address the real needs in the church.

Jeff Weima: We equip future leaders to be able to handle, or have the tools to handle, the scripture text in the original languages. The historic element is really important. Revelation happens in history and in real situations in time. So, we try to equip students with knowing more about the history and the personalities and the specific churches that are being addressed.

 The problems of life are great and we can’t cover them all in, say, three years of study. So, we give students the tools by which they can come to the answers themselves.

Jul Medenblik, President: Leadership takes place in a community of faith, especially in a Reformed context. You’re not an individual leading a group, you’re actually joining a group, a covenant community, and helping that community learn, question, and discern together where God is leading your ministry.

Karin Maag: Calvin Seminary has such a strong community of students from all over the world, and this is one of the ways which we equip, not just students, but ourselves for service to the church. Our God is a big God. His church is a big church. And it encompasses people from all sorts of backgrounds. I think it’s an increasing strength of Calvin Seminary.

Cunha: When looking at the Old Testament, we often find the question, ‘Why is God forming this new people, this new community?’ And the answer comes right in Exodus 19: to be a blessing to the nations. We want our students to leave here knowing what their purpose is and what the purpose of the church is, which is to be a blessing, an instrument of God, in order to bless the whole of His creation.

Jul Medenblik: As we think about our students and what it means for them to faithfully serve in a ministry setting, we are equipping them to be a faithful witness in those communities, to help that community give testimony to God’s grace and to think about how they are being graceful people as they engage the broader community. As Professor Cunha just noted, we are forming people who are called to be a blessing, to bless their future ministry communities, wherever they might go.


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