John Bolt Retires
Published by Calvin Seminary
After nearly three decades, John Bolt is approaching his impending retirement from Calvin Theological Seminary with admitted ambivalence, grateful to be liberated from long faculty meetings and other academic tedium but wistful about closing a long and lively chapter of engaging students with a bracing seminar on Reformed dogmatics.
“I feel incredibly privileged when I reflect on what’s transpired in my life and career,” Bolt said.
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Do you like your work?’ and I tell them, ‘This is what I do — I read books and I talk to people and they pay me for it.’ Even better, I’m reading books that lead me to think about God, and then I get to talk to people about that. Shoot, I would do that for free.”
Bolt joined the seminary faculty in 1989 following pastoral postings in British Columbia congregations and undergraduate teaching stints in the religion departments at Calvin College and Redeemer College.
“I loved teaching at the college level, but I had a very strong sense of call about teaching at Calvin Seminary,” Bolt said. “I was persuaded that God in his providence brought me here for a reason.” That divinely orchestrated reason became evident early on in Bolt’s tenure at the seminary, when he was selected as the lead editor for the translation of Herman Bavinck’s epic reflection, Reformed Dogmatics. That assignment touched off a monumental 16-year project that has made accessible in English and other languages the theological insights of a titan of Dutch Reformed thought and introduced his masterwork to a new generation of scholars and lay leaders. To Bolt’s everlasting astonishment, more than 15,000 sets of the four-volume series have been sold thus far.
“The Bavinck project really provided a focal point to my work with students,” Bolt noted. “Having this as the center of my scholarship and passion — and seeing such rewards from it — has been invigorating. My Bavinck seminars are always well-populated, and I’ve been pleased to see a number of my students go on to do impressive PhD work elsewhere. And the fact that Reformed Dogmatics sold incredibly well in English meant that it’s subsequently been translated into Korean, Portuguese and Indonesian, and it’s currently being translated into Mandarin by two of our Chinese students.”
For the past five or six years, Bolt has been working on yet another epic Bavinck project, translating a recently discovered 1,100-page manuscript from Dutch to English for a multi-volume work entitled Reformed Ethics. The first volume in that three-volume set, based on hand-written notes from Bavinck’s lectures at the Reformed theological school in Kampen, will be published in the fall of 2018.
Bolt was born in the Netherlands, in the tiny village of Sebaldeburen in the northern province of Groningen, and moved with his family to Canada as a young boy. He grew up in an observant Christian Reformed family and after flirting with a chemistry major in his first years of college at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Bolt enrolled at Calvin College in order to pursue growing interests in theology and philosophy.
“At home I learned about the world of Abraham Kuyper and the influence he had,” Bolt recalled. “I came to learn of Bavinck a little later when I was studying at Calvin Seminary. One of my professors, Anthony Hoekema, was such a big fan of Bavinck’s dogmatics. He had translated some segments of his dogmatics for us, so it was Professor Hoekema who first hooked me into Bavinck. Bavinck was to me the true theologian in the Dutch Reformed tradition.”
Bolt’s education at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary provided both breadth and depth for a young man whose intellectual interests had been piqued by his family’s discussions and devotions around the dining room table and by reading the encyclopedias his parents purchased.
“Calvin was wonderful for me, very liberating,” he remembered. “I took a history class that opened my eyes. I took an economics class with Tony Brouwer and he made me think. It was broad. I was exploring other things beyond the narrow sciences. From there, it was all providential leading as doors were opened and there was ongoing confirmation of what I was doing and where I was going.”
After graduating from Calvin Seminary, Bolt served two small Christian Reformed congregations in British Columbia for a few years before returning to the seminary to earn a ThM degree and then launching into his career as a teacher and scholar.
“For me,” Bolt said, “the joy of teaching has been to see some of my students go on to do work that makes me stand back and say, ‘Wow!’ The goal at the graduate level is that they begin to become conversation peers with us. Teaching in the doctoral program has been really rewarding. I think I surprise quite a few of my students. They come in and they’re thinking, ‘Hey he’s a pretty conservative, orthodox, theological person.’ And I am, but even so I encourage them to do something that’s their passion, even though it might be out of the box.”
Bolt will retire from his classroom and faculty obligations at the end of the 2017 calendar year without hesitation or regrets.
“I can honestly say that the last three or four years have been some of my best years of teaching, but after 37 years of college or seminary teaching it’s time to play with the grandkids and travel more often and spontaneously.”
He hopes to visit more of the National Parks in the United States, and the major league ballparks scattered around North America, in addition to his ongoing editing and translating work.
“When I’m done with Reformed Ethics, I might be interested in writing a new history of the CRC,” Bolt said. “The last serious history of the denomination came out in 1935 and the research that’s come out since then has helped us see things that were going on that weren’t even known when I was in seminary.”
As he moves into the next phase, Bolt noted that he leaves the seminary with “an overwhelming sense of gratitude” for his experiences and the collegial relationships he’s forged through the decades.
“I’m profoundly aware of having been a steward of a very rich and very important tradition,” he said. “But I’m also keenly aware that each new generation has to chart its own way, God guiding us.”
By Bruce Buursma
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