The Lucky Son of a Barber-Philosopher
The serendipity of Al Wolters’ worldview: An anniversary reflection.
Albert Wolters was my Greek professor, a columnist for Christian Courier, expert on the Copper Scrolls and a preacher, but he is best known internationally as the author of Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview – what philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff called “The best statement I have come across of the ‘reformational’ Christian worldview.” First published by Eerdmans in 1985, the book has been printed in 12 languages, with a Chinese edition currently being developed.
One word that might summarize Wolters’ life is serendipity. “It was very providential,” he repeated to me a few times when I interviewed him recently. Once he even said he felt lucky but then added that it was providential luck, or blessing. Wolters is now 78 and moving into a retirement community with his wife Alice. Fall 2020 was the 35th anniversary of his landmark book and the 40th anniversary of his work on the Ontario Christian College Association, a group that helped bring a charter for Christian universities in Ontario and give them the legal space in which to grow and flourish.
Agnostic Son of a Barber-Philosopher
Wolters was born in Holland in 1942 and immigrated with his family to northern B.C. where his father Syrt worked in the lumber industry and then as a well-read barber, known for his engaging conversations. Wolters Jr. was formed in the public schools of Victoria, and his own inner life developed some increasing tension. On one hand, he attended the local Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and read the books by Herman Bavinck and Klaas Schilder that his father fed him regularly. On the other hand, he harboured an increasingly skeptical mind, and he began to doubt substantial matters of Christian doctrine. “I was basically an agnostic,” he said of his younger self. “I went as far as believing there was a Creator, but that was about it.”
After the sudden and tragic death of his mother in his teen years, however, he decided to study theology. “I wanted to go to Calvin College, study for the ministry, in the hopes that I would get faith along the way.” He completed a year at the University of Victoria, and then transferred to Calvin College, and majored in Greek. He wanted to test the faith and see if it could hold up; if they couldn’t convince him there, then he had done his homework and could move on to other philosophical pastures.
Two things happened at Calvin that would challenge his skeptical posture and reinvigorate his Christian faith. “It was all very providential,” prefaced Wolters. The first was another tragic event: his dad’s intellectual hero, Calvin professor Henry Van Til, had a heart attack and died while teaching in the classroom. “Suddenly it was brought home to me that these intellectual games I was playing were actually a matter of life and death,” explains Wolters. It was a wake-up call to a spiritual seriousness.
Secondly, the philosophy department was buzzing with the excitement generated by the charisma of Dr. Evan Runner, and Wolters was caught under his spell. In fact, it was Runner who convinced him to shift his trajectory from seminary and fly to the Free University in Amsterdam and study philosophy in graduate school instead.
What happened that changed his heart and mind about the Christian faith as the one true story of the whole world? He was reading some C.S. Lewis at the time and wrote a paper on G. K. Chesterton, but ultimately, he confessed, “My transition to faith was a leap of faith. I had not read Kierkegaard or Pascal and his wager, but I sort of said to myself, I’m going to wager it is true. It’s a very reprehensible thing to do. It’s theologically not very kosher. But that’s the way it worked out. It was an irrational, blind faith. It had no ground.” Then he said something that sounded like philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s notion of “warrant” for belief: “It’s not that you can prove the faith, but it’s not that there’s no evidence for it. There is the world; it didn’t just happen. Even when I was an agnostic, I did believe there was some sort of supreme being who created the world.”
Wolters graduated from Calvin in 1964 and spent eight years in Amsterdam, completing a dissertation (1972) on Plotinus, a third-century Greek philosopher who had considerable influence in the life of St. Augustine. During that time, Wolters began correspondence with a young woman who had been in his social circles at Calvin – Alice Van Andel from New Westminster, B. C. He took a trip back to North America to see her, and they got engaged. “It’s quite a remarkable story,” reminisced Wolters. “Our courtship was by letter and I still have the letters.” They married in 1970 in New Westminster.
The Book that Almost Never Was
Wolters’ first position was as a history of philosophy professor at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, starting in 1974. It was his introductory lectures in the Philosophical Prolegomena course that would eventually become Creation Regained.
Wolters didn’t plan to write or publish this book. In fact, it was the encouragement of his peers, and specifically Bob Vandervennen, that pushed him to start bringing his notes together in the early 1980s. Vandervennen sent the manuscript to Eerdmans for publication. This was Reformed worldview in one short, accessible account: the Bible in three movements (creation, fall, redemption). All of reality, wrote Wolters, could be adequately understood through those three themes, and this framework could give direction to Christian endeavours in any cultural sector: the arts, humanities, social sciences, engineering and the natural sciences. A good creation supplies the foundational structures, and God’s Word and Spirit provide the normative direction for redemptive culture-making in our fallen world.
The impact of this small book has been international in scope. Wolters has often been told, “Your book has changed my life,” which startles him. In South Korea, he was treated like something of an academic rock star, and students asked for his autograph on their personal copies (sometimes even photocopies!).
The second edition came 20 years later, in 2005, and with input from Michael Goheen and Lesslie Newbigin, the significance of narrative and mission were integrated with worldview. Wolters furthermore realized the Reformational tradition needed supplementing by the practises of spiritual formation, connecting worldview to church and to the ground of daily life. Wolters himself pursued spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition – from a Jesuit priest and a Catholic nun. This, as well as his appreciation for aspects of the charismatic movement, demonstrates his openness to insight beyond his own inheritance as well as his humble willingness to not just lead when called, but also to be led by others.
It’s been exactly four decades now since Wolters helped obtain a government charter and frame a fresh curriculum for Christian university education in Ontario. He has since established himself in the field of Biblical Studies and become the go-to expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Copper Scroll. His writings in this field come replete with moments of serendipity – just being in the right place at the right time. He has been part of numerous church study committees, including the latest one for the CRCNA on human sexuality, which is sure to generate some intense debate.
Creation Regained, now at age 35, has been a manifesto for Christian higher education and faith-full research around the world. Wolters’ legacy is one of disciplined intimacy with the Bible, quietly following where the Spirit leads, and humbly cultivating integrity and harmony in institutions that seek to be a resurrection leaven in God’s broken-but-being-redeemed world. It’s the legacy of Christian worldview, and its institutional expression is a dream coming true.