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A home for sojourners: 50 years for the Institute for Christian Studies

'A place where people come to work out their salvation in fear and trembling'

In the early 1980s, the Ontario Government had a problem. Waves of unprecedented student enrolment sparked the troubling rise of “degree mills” in Canada. New institutions claiming to be “colleges” or even “universities” offered the prospect of a degree to vulnerable students willing to pay for low-quality education. The government had to respond, and it did so by taking a microscope to its lesser-known degree-granting institutions.

In 1982, the Government turned its sights on the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto. It was in for a surprise.

Nestled strategically at the intersection of College Street and Spadina Avenue, ICS stood feistily at the heart of Canada’s largest and most influential city, at the doorstep of its largest and most influential university. Here was an institution founded on its proclamation of the crucified Christ – public and unapologetic – addressed not only to church communities, but also to an overwhelmingly secular academy that prided itself on being beyond such things. These wild ambitions could not be sanctioned by the Ontario Legislative Assembly. Or could they? 

ICS was a ragtag outfit, no doubt. As Senior Member Emeritus Calvin Seerveld remarks, ICS was always “a place where rambunctious university students had a ball.” It grew out of the bubbling spiritual vitality of the 1960s Unionville Conferences, where leading Reformed intellectuals gave cutting-edge lectures in, well, a barn. Traditional academic hierarchies were flattened, new ideas flew at breakneck pace, and as one early student remarked in a letter to his parents, “We threw the fully-clothed chairman into the pool!” Rambunctious, indeed.

  ICS staff, students and faculty pictured in front of its present home at 229 College St. in Toronto

Perhaps paradoxically, such youthful vigour proved to fuel ICS’s active capacity for scholarly rigour and ingenuity. World-class philosophers and theologians regularly paid visits. Fresh ideas born of ICS seminars found flight in publications by Senior and Junior Members. From elite academic presses to family conversations over dinner tables, they were “all things to all people.”  

Influential people took notice. When called to give its apologia for its degree-granting status, leading academics saw fit to show support, speak and write on behalf of ICS to the Assembly. However quirky and enigmatic, one thing was clear: this was a Christian institution where first-rate scholarship was taking place.

In short, with the help of its unlikely academic compatriots, ICS won. The Institute’s Masters in Philosophical Foundations was sanctioned by the 1983 Institute for Christian Studies Act, a legislative precedent that proved important for the recognition of other religious post-secondary institutions in Ontario. The Master of Worldview Studies followed in 1992. Students continued to come and participate in powerful seminars led by internationally renowned Senior Members. Alumni carved out influential career paths in every aspect of life, including education, art, law, ministry, politics, labour, social work, and business. ICS seemed poised for a period of mature flourishing.

Despite shoestring budgets and rumbling ideological controversies, flourish it did. ICS’s influence in and beyond the academy continued to exceed all reasonable expectations. The Reformed “worldview” tradition, which found its first theoretical form in the “reformational philosophy” of Herman Dooyeweerd and D.H.Th. Vollenhoven, became incarnate in North America. Senior Members became leading experts in several academic fields. Hundreds gathered at annual “family conferences” across Canada to talk seriously about the challenges of Christian life within and beyond the academy. After securing its rights to grant the MA and PhD degrees in 2005, ICS earned a title it retains today: the only graduate institution of reformational philosophy on the continent.

Fifty years later, thanks in large part to a support community whose continued sacrifice has inspired multiple generations of ICS Junior and Senior Members, we can still reference ICS in the present tense. Present ICS is as creative and as faithful as ever. New and vibrant partnerships with The King’s University, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Centre for Community Based Research and Toronto International Film Festival (among others) have yielded precious and promising fruit in the form of events, research projects and lasting support for local communities. The list of ICS’s recent successes is long and exciting, as are the joyful workdays of its faithful administrators, staff and students.

More so than anything else, though, ICS is for spiritual sojourners. Senior Member James Olthuis likes to say that “ICS is a place where people come to work out their salvation in fear and trembling,” however inconvenient or uncomfortable it might be.

In a sense, one could say that the Ontario government still has a problem. As certain secular reviewers of ICS’s proposal for degree-granting status once charged (in glorious self-parody), this “sectarian program” is a threat to the legitimacy of graduate education in the province. Maybe they were right, if uninformed. A skandalon ICS is, and so will it be, should the Holy Spirit see fit to sustain this rambunctious miracle.  

This article is sponsored by Institute for Christian Studies.


  • Joshua is a PhD Candidate at the ICS and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, a teacher of philosophy at Providence College in Providence, RI, and CC’s former Global News Editor.

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