The Mid-America Reformed Seminary 20 Years Old
From the start MARS has enjoyed a solid core of financial supporters from the Dutch Reformed community and a steady stream of students. This basic formula for success has remained unchanged since 1981.
by John P. Elliott
DYER, Indiana. If Mid-America Reformed Seminary is judged by the goals of its founders, then it has "failed." MARS was launched in 1981 to propel the reformation of the Christian Reformed Church. The new seminary was supposed to provide a growing supply of ministers committed to the historic Reformed faith. Over time the men from MARS would turn the Christian Reformed Church around. It didn’t happen. Most of Mid-America’s founders and graduates have left the Christian Reformed Church. And the news from Toronto that the council of its First Christian Reformed Church will permit practicing homosexuals to be elected to the offices of elder and deacon underscores the fact that the CRC continues on the same course it was on in 1981.
By any other standards, though, Mid-America Reformed Seminary is an unqualified success. In 20 years the seminary has trained 80 men for the pastoral ministry. Forty graduates have gone into United Reformed Churches, making MARS the unofficial URC staff college. The seminary has developed a broad base of financial support. As a result the mortgage on the new campus in the Chicago suburbs is paid off and the million dollar budget is in the black. The school now has five full time faculty and a theological library with 40,000 volumes. On the surface these are all impressive accomplishments. But seminary President Cornelis Venema points to the seminary’s most important achievement: "We have done what we said we would do – teach our students to preach." During a recent trip to California Venema was told by several churches that they liked what they were hearing from MARS graduates. That is what Professor Venema considers the real measure of success.
MARS and the Christian Reformed Church
Mid-America Reformed Seminary was born out of the struggle for the future of the Christian Reformed Church. In the fall of 1980 eight like-minded CRC ministers in northwest Iowa met each week in the Iron Horse Inn in Sheldon, Iowa. Then CRC, now PCA minister Rev. Thomas Vanden Heuvel, said that the conversations often centered on the Christian Reformed Church. "Our conversation always concluded with the conviction that our churches need a new infusion of ministers who had creedal commitment to the historic Reformed faith."
When the group floated the idea of a new Reformed seminary, the response was very positive. On April 21st, 1981, 70 Christian Reformed pastors and laymen gathered at the Airport Hilton Hotel at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to discuss the establishment of a new seminary. The core group enthusiastically supported the proposal and raised $40,000 on the spot to purchase the Harmony Youth Home in Orange City, Iowa. Rev. Vanden Heuvel became president of the Board of Trustees. Dr. Peter Y. De Jong and Rev. Henry Van der Kam were appointed as full-time professors. The first academic year opened in 1982 with four students. From the start MARS has enjoyed a solid core of financial supporters from the Dutch Reformed community and a steady stream of students. This basic formula for success has remained unchanged since 1981.
Onward to Indiana
The founding fathers intended MARS to be a seminary in the CRC and for the CRC. At the start all faculty and board were members of the Christian Reformed Church. In 1987 the seminary added a board member from the Reformed Church in the United States, and Rev. Robert Grossmann of the RCUS was appointed to teach church history. Nevertheless, the reformation of the CRC remained the focus for the first decade of its existence.
That focus changed as the CRC changed. The decision to move the seminary to the Chicago suburbs in 1992 coincided with the first large scale secession from the CRC. When the campus opened in autumn of 1995, the United Reformed Churches were beginning to take shape. The 1995 move is a useful dividing line because the seminary in Dyer, Indiana, is clearly different from the one in Orange City, Iowa. Today three of the five faculty members are not CRC ministers. Two are URC and one is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister. Three of the 12 Board candidates in 2002 are from the CRC while five are from the URC. The OPC now has a board member.
President Venema stresses that MARS did not abandon the CRC by leaving Northwest Iowa. Dyer has the advantage of being closer to a wider range of church homes for the students, most of whom now come from the URC, RCUS and OPC. The dozens of churches in Western Michigan and Chicago provide many pulpits for the students. Venema says that 10 to 15 churches a week use the students and faculty. With Dyer as a base the students get many preaching opportunities, which is, after all, the emphasis of MARS.
Professor Nelson Kloosterman identified the difference between Dyer today and Orange City in 1982. "The context of our lives then was intense controversy in the CRC. Today we are seeking to serve many churches." He noted that his work is less focused on issues and more on service and teaching. The students reflect the same change: they are less anxious about polemicizing
Mid-America began in Orange City as a denominationally focused seminary. In Dyer the vision has widened to include the URCs, the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches, the RCUS, the OPCs, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the CRC.
The Next Ten Years?
As Mid-America is on the cusp of its third decade the seminary is healthy financially. The mortgage on the Dyer campus was paid off in 1999. The budget shortfall in the first half of 2002 was quickly made up with a special appeal to supporters. Keith Le Mahieu, the Director of Development says the building committee is looking into on-campus student housing. The academic accreditation agency suggested that MARS might attract more students if it built its own student housing. The seminary has decided to examine the issue. But there are no plans for expansion at the present time.
President Venema has some ideas about the next ten years. Firstly, he has no desire to turn MARS into a mega seminary with hundreds of students. He would, however, like to see the seminary grow from its present 24 students to 45 full-time students. That number would make fuller use of the seminary’s resources. Since the pool of students in the URC and RCUS is not particularly large, he hopes to attract more Presbyterians. Currently Mid-America is "out of the loop" as far as the PCA goes. But Dr Venema thinks that can change. he also wants to attract more international students. Toward that end he is planning trips to Korea and New Zealand this year to raise the seminary’s profile among the Korean Presbyterians and Reformed Churches of New Zealand.
For his part Dr. Kloosterman thinks the seminary’s contribution for the future should continue to be aimed at serving the churches. An "ecclesio-centered" seminary, closely connected to the churches and training all its office bearers.
Even if Mid-America failed in its initial intent – to reform the Christian Reformed Church – it has still succeeded in creating a MARS theology. The MARS "school" arose from the decision of the founders of the seminary, as described by Rev Thomas Vanden Heuvel, to train graduates "committed to a faithful, compassionate ‘pastoral ministry, an historical-grammatical hermeneutic of Scripture and to thematic, covenantal, redemptive-historical preaching." This commitment to redemptive-historical preaching and covenant theology has had two consequences: it restored the connection to the Reformed Churches (Liberated) and their theology, and it resulted in a clash with the theology of Westminster Theological Seminary in California.
When the seminary board sent Nelson Kloosterman to Kampen II, it made a conscious choice – to reestablish contact with the (Liberated) Reformed Churches. Professor Henry Vander Kam underscored this when I visited Orange City in 1984. He proudly showed me every issue of the ‘Reformaatie’ in his library and talked about having heard Klaas Schilder preach when he visited Grand Rapids in 1948. Vander Kam considered the Christian Reformed Church’s loss of contact with the "Liberated" Reformed Churches after 1944 to have been a disaster. After the Second World War the CRC sent its theologians to the Free University of Amsterdam or Kampen I. As a result the CRC elite aped the modernistic course of their peers in the GKN.
By 1984 it was too late to change the GKN’s influence on the direction of the CRC. But the orientation of Mid-America to the redemptive-historical approach to preaching and the theology of the "Liberated" Reformed Churches would end up having consequences for the future of the URCs.
When congregations began seceding from the CRC in the first half of the 1990s, they took with them an understanding and appreciation for the theology of the Canadian Reformed Churches. The rapid movement of the URC towards federative unity with the Canadian Reformed Churches was facilitated by Mid-America’s theology.
If the MARS school of covenant theology has helped move the United Reformed Churches towards union with the Canadian Reformed Churches, it has also created tensions within the United Reformed Churches. Those tensions were inevitable once more URC pastors trained at Westminster Seminary-West joined the denomination. Westminster West was founded in the early 1980s on the heels of the Norman Shepherd controversy over the covenant and justification by faith. Most of the faculty at Westminster West were Shepherd’s critics and are sensitive to anything resembling Shepherd’s views. In general, the Westminster West theologians consider Mid-America to be too close to Shepherd. The result has been two years of theological polemics and growing questions about the cohesiveness of the United Reformed Churches.
MARS & CRC: A future?
Founded to reform the CRC, MARS has had its clearest impact on the formation and direction of the United Reformed Churches. Nevertheless, it may still have a future with the CRC. The Christian Reformed Church needs pastors. So far Calvin Seminary has not been able to keep up with the demand.
In the 1980s Calvin Seminary, concerned about losing students to Mid-America, made it increasingly difficult for MARS graduates to enter the CRC’s ministry. One means was to deny them denominational financial support for attending a seminary "not approved" by the CRC’s synod. Calvin Seminary’s President Dr. James De Jong also responded to MARS by building up a faculty considerably more conservative than the more liberal professors he inherited from John Kromminga. Neither measure produced the desired outcome. Mid-America soldiered on with grads entering the URCs.
In the past year the CRC admitted dozens of pastors from outside the denomination to help fill vacancies. Ex-Baptist ministers may be one way of getting by. But if remaining conservative CRC congregations want a candidate trained in the Reformed tradition, the CRC leadership may have to open the door to MARS graduates. Whether they would come, however, is another question entirely.
[President Cornelis P. Venema is the author of "The Promise of the Future" published by the Banner of Truth)
Christian Renewal, December 16, 2002
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