These curricular values shape each course Western offers:
Reformed – We are committed to a generously Reformed theological identity and seek to shape our students in this tradition.
Biblical – We are committed to a curriculum that is soaked in Scripture. We believe that Scripture is not an “object” to be analyzed, but a living document that transforms us.
Theological – Connected with the two values above, we believe that our curriculum is thoroughly theological. We do not perpetuate the division and silos of traditional fields. Rather, we seek deep integration of biblical courses, ministry courses, and theology courses.
Sacramental – We celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Friday and remember our baptisms each day in the worship life of our school, which fundamentally shapes our identity and ethos.
Missional – The church is called to participate in God’s mission in the world. We are committed to building a curriculum that explores that central theme of the Christian faith.
Formational – We do not simply “deliver” a degree program. We are called to form students into deeper, wiser, more pastorally aware, more skilled practitioners of ministry practices, and more committed disciples of Jesus.
Contextual – Theology and ministry always happens in a particular time and a particular place with a particular people. We help our students see the thoroughly contextual nature of theology, Scripture, church, and their own selves.
Preparing seminary students to lead the church in mission, Western aims to be the top Reformed seminary in the nation.
MISSION: The purpose of Western Theological Seminary is to prepare Christians called by God to lead the church in mission.
IDENTITY: Western Theological Seminary is an evangelical and ecumenical community of faith and learning in the Reformed tradition that serves the church of Jesus Christ. In covenant with the Reformed Church in America, Western equips men and women for Christ-centered, biblically based, theologically integrated, culturally competent, and mission-oriented Christian leadership.
VISION: By 2020, Western Theological Seminary will be a nationally recognized center that forms leaders to empower, renew, and plant congregations and ministries that participate in God’s ongoing redemptive work in the world.
Mission Statement Emphases
Our mission statement informs our way of being in community, the goals of our curriculum, our relationship with students and colleagues, and our commitment to church and society in the name of the gospel. From this mission statement comes several particular emphases:
We are a community of formation for ministry.
We are Reformed in theological identity. Our teaching is shaped by the confessional standards of the Reformed Church in America, The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, and the Belhar Confession.
As an implication of our Reformed identity, we are particularly eager to affirm the sacramental character of Reformed theology and worship. We wholeheartedly affirm baptismal identity in a covenant framework, which leads to the further affirmation of infant baptism. We also affirm Eucharistic identity in Jesus Christ that nourishes our faith and service. We joyfully receive the Lord’s Supper each Friday in community and worship. These theological affirmations of our seminary mean that all faculty are expected to uphold a Reformed baptismal and Eucharistic perspective in their teaching.
We are committed to Scripture as the living word of God. We are eager to form our students in a deep hunger and thirst for Scripture.
We are committed to affirming the gifts and the calls to ministry of women and men.
We support the inclusive language policy of Western Theological Seminary as a form of hospitality. This means that faculty will expect students to demonstrate inclusive language in written papers, spoken presentations and sermons. In brief, we expect language with respect to human beings to be gender neutral and/or inclusive and language with respect to God to exhibit the wide variety of biblical names and images of God.
We are committed to racial reconciliation. Western Theological Seminary imagines and encourages ways in which our life together should embrace the racial-ethnic diversity of God’s family. WTS seeks in every way to attract and integrate others from our multi-cultural context to share in the broad Reformed tradition. We will pursue practices and policies of hospitality and justice reflecting the character of God for all the members of the seminary community.
We are committed to recognizing our students as adult learners. This means that we will relate to our students with gracious respect. It also means that we can expect from our students their respect toward professor and peers in the classroom and their responsibility for course assignments/readings.
We are committed to the formation of our students in their theological and pastoral identity. We believe that this commitment holds us to a high standard of community involvement. It also holds us to the standards of behavior as identified in the Vision of Our Life Together and Code of Conduct.
Vision of Our Life Together
Western Theological Seminary is committed to providing a learning environment that maintains a healthy climate for the development of relationships among its students, staff and faculty. All our relationships in our Christian community must reflect the value of each person, for each person is an image-bearer of God and ought both to give and receive respect. Our vision of what a healthy Christian community should be includes the following characteristics:
1. We seek to be collegial rather than competitive.
A basic understanding of the nature of a Christian community recognizes the value and worth of all persons and their contribution to theological education. Modeling a spirit of collegiality rather than competition in communal life is imperative in educating people to become leaders of communities. Collegiality creates an atmosphere of openness to all people. When, for example, differences in theological positions, denominational affiliations, or understandings of ministry occur, those differences should be expressed and addressed in a manner that respects each person’s growth in wholeness and each person’s gifts to the larger body.
2. We seek to foster a spirit of freedom rather than fear.
The seminary community seeks to be free from intimidation, threat, coercion, or the abusive use of power in carrying on its discourse in the classroom as well as in the ethos of its life together. Freedom of expression in spoken and written work is not only an American constitutional right but, more fundamentally, it is an issue of Christian hospitality and humility and as such is the expected courtesy accorded to every member of the community. To the extent that the community is reflective of this freedom of expression without recrimination, so it will exhibit an atmosphere of trust and safety rather than fear.
3. We seek to promote a spirit of excellence and inquiry.
Excellence and inquiry are essential to the work of the seminary and to the practice of ministry. Excellence involves the necessity of asking the difficult questions, wrestling with controversial issues, and dedicating oneself to the disciplines of prayer, study, worship, research, dialogue and continuing growth. In the spirit of freedom and in dedication to the truth, some issues will be challenging for students, staff and faculty alike. The community values the opportunity to engage in dialogue, debate, and inquiry at its very best without demeaning or devaluing another person in the process. Our pursuit of excellence should not be confused with perfectionism, which inevitably leads to loss of community with self and others. Instead, it should be understood as the worship of God with our minds and the proper stewardship of our intellectual gifts.
4.We seek to promote and encourage equality and access.
The Christian community is reminded that in Christ, divisions predicated on gender, race, or social status are put aside (Galatians 3:28). The community is to reflect the reality that the dividing walls of hostility between people have been broken down by their being united in the body of Christ (Ephesians 2:13-16). Every effort will be made by the members of the community to encourage and ensure that the spirit of equality results in the practice of access for every member of the community, thus living in the truth and promise of these affirmations.
5. We seek to engender a spirit of forgiveness and love.
As a community, we are aware of the reality of sin as alienation, brokenness and estrangement in our relationships to God, others, nature, and ourselves. We recognize in particular that the misuse and abuse of power and specific actions of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or sexual abuse have marred even the community of the Church. The reality of sin requires of a community repentance, reconciliation and restitution in order that restoration may occur. The Western Theological Seminary community will attempt to distinguish itself as one that is ready to forgive, welcomes the restoration of the penitent and works for the justice of the victim.
The Spirit of Western
In the summer of 2015, Dr. Thomas Boogaart, the Dennis and Betty Voskuil Professor of Old Testament, wrote “The Spirit of WTS” in an attempt to capture what historically has animated Western for the past 150 years. His short essay is below.
The Spirit of Western Theological Seminary
Scripture tells the story of how God loves his people and draws them into his presence. God is sovereign over all creation, but God does not rule from some distant heavenly palace. Again and again Scripture tells us that the Sovereign One sets his tabernacle in the midst of his people, lowers the scepter, and draws them into his presence. As John puts it so memorably in his Gospel, the Word-made-flesh “tabernacles” among his people who behold his glory and receive from him grace upon grace.
In his parable of the prodigal son, Jesus summarizes this scriptural witness of the embrace of God. He portrays the sovereign God as a Father who longs for his wayward child to come home. God’s eyes scan the road; God’s feet are ready to run to him; God’s arms are poised to embrace him; and God’s heart desires nothing more than to sit at table with all his children and share in the feast he has prepared for them. In speaking of God’s provision, the Heidelberg Catechism memorably says, “God is able to do this because he is almighty God, and desires to do this because he is a faithful father.” Rembrandt captures all this in his unforgettable etching of the return of the prodigal son.
It is this profound sense of being drawn into the presence of God that inspires our life together at Western Theological Seminary. Being held in the arms of God, we learn to know God and to know in turn ourselves and what God desires of us in the world.
We experience the presence of God particularly in daily corporate worship. Gathered around the table and font, we celebrate the real presence of the triune God in the breaking of the bread, the pouring of wine, and the cleansing waters of baptism. This experience of God’s presence in bread, wine, and water begins to shape our view of God’s presence in the larger world. Seeing God’s glory at the table and font helps us to see God’s glory in the world. A sacramental world view carries over from the chapel into the classroom where it creates a foundation for understanding more deeply God’s mission in the world.
God is present to us in his word. We are a community that emphasizes learning the original languages of scripture and encourages thoughtful, contextual theological reflection. Across the curriculum we practice ancient and neglected discipline of memorization. We learn the word of God by heart so that it is woven into the very fabric of our being and available to the Holy Spirit who, as Calvin taught us, resides in our hearts as the word’s true witness.
God is present through this gift of the Spirit, and Western is committed to creating an environment in which the Spirit can work in the hearts of students and manifest its fruits of love, joy, peace, etc. in their lives. We have trained faculty and staff, and we have designed our curriculum, to foster the emotional and spiritual growth of students alongside of their intellectual growth. While academic rigor is a high value, it is not the only pastoral quality we seek to instill in our students.
The community formed by Western’s students, faculty, and staff does not exist for its own sake but lives as a sign and foretaste of the reign of God. Because scripture teaches us that our God tabernacles among us and longs to embrace all of his children, we strive to eliminate the barriers that separate people so that we can all stand together in the presence of God. We live by the words of Paul: “For all of you are one in Christ: there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Galatians 3: 28). We stand together in all our diversity, and we stand together with people with cognitive disabilities who live in our Friendship House, the poor and disenfranchised in Holland who eat at our Community Kitchen, and the poor and disenfranchised of the world who sell their crafts through our gift shop, the Bridge.
The spirit of Western Theological Seminary is seen in today’s faculty and staff, who join a long tradition of pastor/scholars whose arms were open – to students, to the church, to the wider world – with a consciousness of being embraced in the arms of God and a call to be a sign of God’s presence in the world.
The seminary is committed to working toward racial-ethnic diversity in our community.
Faculty Fellow Program – Racial-ethnic scholars are invited to teach at the seminary part time while they finish their doctoral studies in a seminary-related field. Western created this program to help prepare leaders for diverse congregations. Since 2010, five scholars have been fellows at the seminary (Eric Williams, Rev. Chris Dorsey, Han-Luen Kantzer Komline, Dr. Dynna Castillo Portugal, and Rev. Duane Loynes, Sr.). They taught classes in topics such as modern black theology, multi-cultural ministry, theology and social movements, pastoral care and counseling, and justice/liberation. Gordon A. Govens is our Faculty Fellow in Theology for 2017-18.
Graduate Certificate in Urban Pastoral Ministry– This program meets the educational needs of those practicing ministry in an urban context. An ethnically diverse group of professors balance theory with practical learning as they teach the courses. This program is directed by Joseph Ocasio, Director of Hispanic Programs.
Partnership with Instituto Biblico Ebenezer (IBE) – In 2014 the seminary entered into a strategic partnership with IBE of Holland, MI. IBE is a biblical training school for Latino/a church leaders. We provide space in our building for their classes, and both communities (WTS and IBE) gather for fellowship and conversation about the joys and challenges of ministry in a multicultural world.
Disability Advocacy and Ministry
In 2007, WTS made an enormous stride in the area of disability awareness. By building The Ralph & Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House, WTS ensured the presence of people with disabilities on campus and offered WTS students an experience of shared housing with young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Including these new friends into the WTS community has impacted everyone in the seminary. Each student, staff member, faculty, and future ministry leader at WTS carries in his or her heart a heightened awareness, a sense of compassion for all persons with disabilities, and a basic ability to minister to and with them and their families. That is good news for the Church!
The spirit of Friendship House has also found a home in the academic curriculum.
In the Fall of 2016, Western Theological Seminary created a 24 credit program that gives men and women the knowledge and skills to lead congregations, ministries, schools, colleges, medical practices and businesses to be inclusive of people with disabilities.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39
At Western we believe actions speak louder than words, and so we strive to live out our core values in tangible ways:
Community Kitchen – each weekday at lunchtime, the Commons is open to anyone in need of a meal. Volunteers from local churches feed 75-200 people a day, year-round.
The Bridge – the seminary operates a store in downtown Holland selling goods from artisans around the world who depend upon their work for economic survival, ensuring a fair return to the artists for their work.
Fair Trade Coffee – the seminary’s bookstore, The Sacred Page, only sells fair trade coffee, which means that the farmers who grew the beans get a fair price for their crop.
The History of Western Theological Seminary
In 1866, seven of the eight members of Hope College’s inaugural graduating class wished to become ministers and petitioned the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, asking that “arrangements be made for them to prosecute their theological studies at that college.” The RCA operated New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey, but these students did not want to relocate. Synod responded favorably, noting that the first request to establish a theological center in the West had come in 1848. Dr. Cornelius Crispell was appointed professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology of Hope College’s new theology department, and was soon joined on the theological faculty by Dr. Philip Phelps, president of the college, and Dr. Albertus C. Van Raalte, founder of the Holland colony.
A number of challenges confronted the college including a devastating fire that destroyed most of the city of Holland in 1871, a nationwide financial crisis in 1873, lower than expected enrollments, and inadequate financial support from the western churches. The situation became so critical that the General Synod directed the college to suspend the activities of the theological department in 1877. To that date, 29 students had graduated with advanced degrees.
Theological education was resumed in 1884 with Dr. Nicholas Steffens installed in the freshly endowed ($30,000) chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology. Five students enrolled. A year later, in 1885, the seminary formally separated from the college, establishing its own governing board, faculty, and curriculum. The name of the new school was the “Western Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church in America.”
The new school had very little, and instruction continued on the Hope College campus. Years later, Dr. Albertus Pieters reflected, “What there was in my student days is easily described: grounds, none; recitation hall, none; maps, none; library, none; periodicals, none. This is a complete and accurate inventory of the Western Theological Seminary at that time.”
The first building, Semelink Family Hall, housing five classrooms and a chapel, was constructed in 1895. Zwemer Hall, a student dormitory, was built in 1914 at a cost of $27,216. Dr. James Zwemer was an indefatigable fund raiser for the seminary, as well as professor of practical theology and president of the faculty. About the same time a library was added, built by Dr. John W. Beardslee, Sr., professor of Biblical Languages and Literature, at his own expense. The enrollment grew steadily (there were 94 graduates in the 1910s and 131 by the 1930s) and eventually Western became the largest supplier of ministers, missionaries, and theological professors to the RCA.
In 1955, under the leadership of President John R. Mulder, the familiar Georgian colonial seminary building was constructed during a time of sharp enrollment increases following the Second World War. 282 students graduated in the decade of the 1950s. A Master of Christian Education degree was developed in the 1960s and women faculty and students joined the Western community.
The late 1960s and 1970s saw much change, including a creative experiment called the “Bi-level Multi Site” with New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey. For a short time, Western’s President Herman “Bud” Ridder became president of both schools, and students also moved between both institutions. The school also was becoming, albeit slowly, more multi-cultural.
The six-story Cook Center for Theological Research was opened in 1981 during the presidency of I. John Hesselink. The city of Holland closed 12th Street about the same time between Columbia and College Avenues, causing Western to relocate its main entrance onto 13th Street. The school expanded its educational offerings significantly during Hesselink’s presidency by establishing a Doctor of Ministry degree.
During the presidency of Marvin D. Hoff in the 1980s and early 1990s, a growing need for better student housing resulted in townhouses being built across 13th Street. During those years the Bast Preaching Initiatives were endowed, and a professional development staff was added.
Over the years, the seminary has been blessed with strong, visionary leaders who led Western through program, building, finance and faculty expansions all in the name of preparing leaders for the church of Jesus Christ.
During the presidency of Dennis Voskuil (1994-2008), Western successfully completed two capital campaigns and built the DeWitt Center for Theological Education, housing the Burggraaff Atrium, classrooms, and administrative and faculty offices. A new Distance Learning Master of Divinity degree was launched, and in 2007 the Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House was built, the first student housing of its kind in the country, where seminarians live alongside adults with cognitive disabilities.
Timothy Brown became president in 2008, and the seminary enrollment has reached record heights under his leadership. Innovations took place, like the partnership with the Newbigin House of Studies of City Church San Francisco and the Ridder Church Renewal process. A major renovation of the Mulder Chapel was completed in 2012, and a Master of Arts degree was added in 2013. The seminary leadership adopted a comprehensive strategic plan in 2014, with ambitious initiatives in diversity, curriculum, and facility renovation.
The history of Western Theological Seminary is strong. It is a history of preparing leaders for the church of Jesus Christ through times of challenge and change. The future is bright, and Western will continue to prepare relevant, engaged leaders for the enduring work of the Gospel in all times and places.