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Creeds, confessions and Christian colleges

At the end of the day, any creeds or statements of belief are insufficient on their own to ensure academic fidelity within the Reformed tradition. An effective faculty mentoring program is essential to help new faculty understand the tradition. This needs to be done winsomely and hospitably, welcoming new faculty into the treasures of the Reformed tradition, and sharing how it historically traces back to Augustine and ultimately the Scriptures.

Creeds, confessions and Christian colleges

A 1988 statement from the Association of American Colleges and Universities suggested religious institutions that require faculty to sign statements of belief should be excluded from the circle of “authentic seats of higher learning.” The fact is that all research is guided by some kind of background assumption about the best way to discern truth. The Christian college is a community of scholars that agree to begin their teaching and research with a particular set of background beliefs.

In Reformed circles these background beliefs can be summarized using the “three forms of unity” (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort). Faculty at Calvin College, Dordt College and Trinity College are all required to subscribe to these confessions.

Although these documents are fallible and reflect a particular historical context, they have served as time-tested guides to a faithful reading of Scripture for half a millennium. Some have referred to the creeds and confessions using the metaphor of “wells” and “walls.” They provide “wells” of resources to draw on for teaching and scholarship, but they also provide “walls” that mark the boundaries of the Reformed tradition. These walls can also provide a measure of protection and stability. Without the creeds and confessions, institutions are more susceptible to the blowing winds and spirits of the age. A book called Quality with Soul argues that the faith-based schools that have continued to thrive are ones that maintain a strong connection to their founding tradition in ways that continue to inform the mission and life of the institution.

Biblical lens
Rather than chafing against these confessions, faculty can serve the church by applying a Reformed lens to engage a wide variety of contemporary areas. Sometimes this involves exploring the boundaries of Reformed thought, and so it should come as no surprise that curious faculty will be drawn to climbing the “walls.” Without creeds and confessions, it is more difficult for an institution to provide a backstop against specific heresies. On the flip side, the creeds and confessions can be appealed to by faculty who would otherwise be more vulnerable to the arbitrary whims of administrators and internal politics.

While the creeds and confessions can provide a “well,” their use in guiding and informing Christian scholarship is limited in certain disciplines. How should a Christian scholar approach cell biology, literature, neuroscience or engineering? These were not the motivating questions that the confessions were designed to answer. This is where the contemporary testimony, Our World Belongs to God, can provide a helpful additional resource. This testimony is not only contemporary; it rests soundly on the three forms of unity and echoes them. It sketches a comprehensive worldview based on the biblical themes of creation, fall and redemption and models how a comprehensive biblical lens can be applied to a variety of areas.

Map and compass
Not all Reformed Christian colleges use the three forms of unity. Redeemer University College has its own statement of basis and principles (which makes mention of “the historic creeds of the Reformation”) along with another document titled The Cross and Our Calling. Likewise, the King’s University College has its own statement of faith which makes reference to the “creeds of the Protestant Reformation.”

At the end of the day, any creeds or statements of belief are insufficient on their own to ensure academic fidelity within the Reformed tradition. An effective faculty mentoring program is essential to help new faculty understand the tradition. This needs to be done winsomely and hospitably, welcoming new faculty into the treasures of the Reformed tradition, and sharing how it historically traces back to Augustine and ultimately the Scriptures. This vision must also animate the rest of the college, including the student life department where the chaplain, co-curricular staff, sports coaches and dorm leaders influence campus life to an extraordinary degree.

In an article titled “The Value of Limitations,” Calvin College philosophy professor Lee Hardy suggests that rather than limiting freedom, creeds can assist us in tracking the truth about the world. We can “receive it gratefully, as one would receive a map and compass in the wilderness.”

This has been my experience having worked at three different Reformed Christian colleges. My own work has been deeply informed by a Reformed “map and compass,” a freedom that would be much more difficult, if not impossible, at a secular university.   

About the Author
Creeds, confessions and Christian colleges

Derek Schuurman, Columnist

Derek Schuurman worked in industry for several years as an electrical engineer and completed a PhD in the area of robotics and computer vision. His interest in computers began in his early teens with his first computer, a ZX-81. Besides his technical pursuits, he has taught and written about a Christian perspective of technology. He is the author of a recent book which explores a Christian perspective of computer technology entitled Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology. He has taught computer science at Redeemer University College and at Dordt College and is currently a professor of computer science at Calvin College. He is a Canadian, but is currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his family.