The Reverend Dr. I. John Hesselink died on Sunday, October 28. He was the President of Western Theological Seminary between 1973 and 1985. Following his service as president, he was the A.C. Van Raalte Professor of Systematic Theology at Western until his retirement from the faculty in 1992. He was a beloved figure and frequent visitor to the school, especially for communion on Fridays, until a few weeks preceding his death.
Born in Grand Rapids in 1928, Hesselink was the son of a Reformed Church in America minister, and spent much of his youth in Pella, Iowa. He attended Central College in Pella and after a year at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey, transferred to Western, where he graduated in 1953. Upon graduation, he became an RCA missionary in Japan. Over the course of twenty years of missionary service he taught in several Japanese universities and became a friend of the esteemed theologian Emil Brunner, who was also teaching in Japan. In 1961, Hesselink earned a Ph.D. at the University of Basel, Switzerland. His Ph.D. mentor was Karl Barth, perhaps the most significant theologian of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, Hesselink engineered a reunion between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, who had become estranged decades earlier. Hesselink also did post-doctoral study at several prestigious institutions, including the University of Chicago, the Free University of Amsterdam, and Oxford University in England.
Hesselink was the author of several books including On Being Reformed: Distinctive Characteristics and Common Misunderstandings (1983) and his final book was Calvin’s Theology and its Reception, which he co-edited with his Western Theological Seminary colleague J. Todd Billings in 2012. Hesselink was ordained as a minister in the Reformed Church in America in 1953 and served as President of the General Synod of the RCA in 1995-1996. He was known as one of the world’s foremost scholars on the life and work of John Calvin, and his knowledge of Calvin brought him a friendship with the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, which he enjoyed greatly in the latter years of his life.
“John Hesselink was not only a great mentor and role model,” said Western Theological Seminary President Timothy Brown, “but one of my dear friends as well. I miss him deeply. He possessed an incredibly sharp theological mind and also a very warm and sincere Christian faith. He was a giant in the history of Western Theological Seminary, and a giant in the world of Reformed theology. I treasured my relationship with John.”
Hesselink married his college sweetheart Etta (ter Louw) in 1951. They celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary in August. He and Etta are the parents of five grown children.
Funeral arrangements and the obituary written by Dr. Hesselink’s family can be found here.