Tuesday 22 September 2020

In Memoriam: John C. Vander Stelt

by Lambert Zuidervaart (Senior Member Emeritus)

Pastor, scholar, teacher, and friend, Rev. Dr. John C. Vander Stelt died on September 19, 2020 while giving thanks for the love and the work of his life. His family had gathered in person and online to celebrate his and Sandy’s sixty years of marriage; his daughter Renee, a highly accomplished artist, had just shared her design ideas for the cover of John’s magnum opus in theology. Amid laughter and the tears of joy, John suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was 86 years old.

A Dutch immigrant to Canada and a graduate of Calvin College and Seminary, John Vander Stelt received his doctorate in theology from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam (VU). By then he had already served several key roles in the North American reformational movement: first as a Christian Reformed Church pastor at Bethel Community CRC in Newmarket, Ontario (1965-67); then as director of development and student affairs in Eastern Canada and the USA for the parent organization of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), during the year when Hendrik Hart began to offer courses there (1967-68); and finally as a professor of theology and philosophy at Dordt College (now Dordt University), from 1968 onward.

Although I began my studies in philosophy and music at Dordt in 1968, I did not take a course with Professor Vander Stelt until a year and a half later. From then on he challenged, inspired, and encouraged me to become a Christian philosopher in the reformational tradition. It is thanks to John that I met my future mentor, Calvin Seerveld. It is thanks to John that I pursued my graduate studies at ICS and the VU. It is also thanks to John that I remain as committed as he was to a transforming vision of life and society.

When John eventually received his doctorate in 1978, Joyce and I were the among the first to congratulate him in person: after the graduation ceremony, John and Sandy drove to West Berlin, where I was doing my doctoral research, to visit us. Then they drove us all the way back to the Netherlands to welcome us, during our first time there, to the country where both of my parents were born.

John was as passionate as he was compassionate, a rare combination of charisma, intellect, and empathy. He cared about the whole person, not just the student or parishioner whom he was hired to serve. It is no accident that so many of his students pursued graduate studies at ICS in the 1970s. In fact, five of the first six graduates from ICS’s master’s program—Brad Breems, Harry Fernhout, John Hull, Don Sinnema, and I—had studied with Professor Vander Stelt at Dordt. Then all of us went on to faculty and administrative positions at Calvin University, The King’s University, Trinity Christian College, and ICS. I like to think John’s passion and compassion have rippled outward through the students, schools, and communities we and others like us have served.

In his later years at Dordt, and during his retirement after 1999, John provided tireless and visionary leadership for the International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education (IAPCHE), then headquartered in Sioux Center, Iowa, and now called the International Network for Christian Higher Education (INCHE) and hosted by Calvin University. Increasingly, however, he returned to his scholarly pursuits to write an expansive tome on Reformed theology and the reformational tradition. His doctoral dissertation, titled Philosophy and Scripture (Marlton, NJ: Mack Publishing, 1978), had already provided a thorough historical, theological, and philosophical study of traditional Presbyterian theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. The magnum opus of John’s retirement years brings the same sort of careful and wide-ranging scholarship to the history of Reformed thought, including the theologies of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, the philosophical contributions of Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven, and the work of four influential figures at Calvin College and Seminary: Henry Stob, H. Evan Runner, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga. Through it all, John develops a vigorous reformational vision of theology and the life of faith.

The last time I saw John and Sandy together was at a concert by the Chamber Choir of Grand Rapids in the beautiful Basilica of St. Adalbert. Although tired and a little disoriented, John was obviously glad to soak in the glorious sounds and to support the group I sing with. I imagine him now at a different concert, where no coronavirus pandemic makes group gatherings dangerous, where no ailments hinder John’s passion and compassion, and where he, with a vast host of transformed singers, can embrace the beauty and grace of a completely renewed Earth.