The Antithesis at Calvin College: “An Uneasy Alliance” – John J. Timmerman

Last night I did some more reading in John J. Timmerman’s “semi-autobiography”, Through a Glass Lightly (Eerdmans, 1987). I read his fascinating chapter on the early years of Calvin College (“Golden Branch among the Shadows”), since his father served as a curator of the board of the CRC Theological School. And, of course, Timmerman himself would go on to teach English there for many years.

Through a Glass Lightly-TimmermanA section at the beginning of this chapter in particular struck my attention. It touches on the “uneasy alliance” that existed early on between two groups in the CRC which understood the antithesis quite differently, especially as regards the nature of Reformed education.

For those new to this word, the antithesis refers to the Christian’s place and calling in this world, namely, that he is by God’s grace in Christ holy, set to be and called to live in spiritual separation from the ungodly world about him.

This is part of what Timmerman says about this “uneasy alliance” regarding the antithesis (I have slightly edited this paragraph for ease of reading):

In 1876 a small, poor, and humble people in a strange land established a theological school, and then successively an academy, a junior college, and in 1920 a college. They were in many ways attached to the culture of their homeland; but they were citizens of an often bewildering new land, and they profoundly believed themselves to be citizens of the kingdom of God. Between this kingdom and the secular world there was a profound antithesis, which demanded a form of education on all levels that would be uniquely designed to meet the demands of both kingdoms.

One group, the descendants of the Afscheiding in the Netherlands [the Reformed church separation of 1834 led by H.De Cock and others], viewed education essentially as a caretaking operation, devoted to the unaltered transmission of the Reformed faith with minimal dilution by worldly culture, and unfortunately sometimes tending to identify the antithesis with ancestral habits. The other group, the Doleantie [the Reformed church separation of 1886 led by Abraham Kuyper], also believed in the antithesis; but they saw education not as flight but as conquest, not safety but bold appropriation of the fruits of common grace, which when properly mediated by the believer required him to modify or conquer the culture around him.

These two impulses for many years lived in uneasy alliance, even at times in opposition, but until the 1930s no word was more pervasively influential at Calvin College, whether in bold prominence or quiet remembrance, than antithesis (pp.28-29).

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