Published by Calvin Seminary
John Cooper admits he’s been stuck in a bit of a rut ever since he arrived for his first kindergarten class in Passaic, New Jersey, almost 65 years ago.
“I’ve been trying mightily to be a good boy in school since I was 5 years old,” said Cooper. “Maybe at age 70, I can give that up.”
By any measure, it has been a very long stretch of schooling, with largely high marks for comportment. And now, with the imminent close of the current academic year, it is about to come to a satisfying end for Cooper who has taught philosophical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary since 1985. Prior to joining the seminary’s faculty, Cooper taught just across the pond in the philosophy department at Calvin College from 1978 to 1985.
As he reflected on his nearly four decades on campus, Cooper observed that he “tried to hand on to my students what was given to me from the great Christian tradition, from the Reformed tradition, from the Kuyperian/ Bavinckian branch of that tradition. If I rightly understood it and passed it on in a way that was not just replication, but application to the next generation, then I would have accomplished a great deal. And if I did that with any enthusiasm or contagious interest, then that was an extra blessing.”
In addition to serving as a guide and mentor to his students at the college and the seminary, Cooper also made himself readily available as a resource to the Christian Reformed Church Synod and other denominational leaders as the church struggled with a drumbeat of difficult theological and cultural controversies during recent decades.
He has written fearlessly about women in church office, inclusive language for God, same-sex marriage, creation and evolution, and other topics on which there are strong and divergent opinions in the CRC.
“I’ve done so not because I wanted to lobby one way or the other, but because I wanted to keep us on track about scripture, about proper hermeneutics, and sound doctrine,” he explained. “I wanted to keep us honest because there was a lot of misunderstanding of Scripture and misrepresentation of others’ positions by both sides.”
Cooper unapologetically holds a traditional, high view of the authority of Scripture — a stance that causes him concern about developments in many parts of the church today.
“It seems like part of the church embraces the theology and politics of American evangelicalism and another part endorses the theology and politics of mainline Protestants,” Cooper said. “I am grateful for those who remain Reformed in doctrine, piety, and the vision of the Contemporary Testimony, ‘Our World Belongs to God.’ ”
In addition to his defense of historic theology for the CRC, Cooper has published widely read books and articles on the human body-soul relation and also on panentheism, the primary mainline view of God and the universe. Both of those themes are major current issues in philosophical theology.
Cooper, the son of a preacher who migrated from the Reformed Church in America to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and then on to the CRC, is at times bluntly critical of many current trends in the church — but he also sees signs of faithfulness and hope both inside the denomination and in other churches where confessional Reformed thinking, worship, evangelism, and engagement with the world are being articulated afresh.
“Our faith is in the gospel of Jesus Christ and if you understand and practice it well, then life flourishes,” he said. “Orthodoxy and existential flourishing are two sides of the same coin for me.
Cooper continued: “In God’s good providence I can see that the best of what the CRC is and stands for is shared by other churches, as well. For example, Tim Keller (a pastor and writer in a Presbyterian Church in America multi-campus church in New York City) has a vital ministry and is proof positive you can be thoroughly Reformed and grow a mega-church in a culturally diverse metropolis.”
As he takes leave of Calvin Seminary, Cooper voiced hope that the school will “continue to educate our ministers in Scripture and in confessional Reformed theology, but in a way that’s practical and life- relevant. It’s my hope that Calvin Seminary will continue offering enough intellectual substance and an emphasis on reading the Scripture deeply and applying Scripture and its basic doctrines to real life — because it’s the Word of God that shapes your life.”
He hopes to spend more time in his retirement traveling with his wife, Sylvia, and perhaps put the finishing touches on a couple of books he is writing. Cooper also expects to maintaining his practice of swimming three or four times a week year-round and running in Michigan’s more hospitable seasons.
“Maybe my story is ‘six decades shalt thou labor and do all thy work, and the seventh decade is a sabbath unto the Lord,’ ” Cooper said with a chuckle. “If it goes that way, it’ll be OK with me.”
By Bruce Buursma
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