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
its founders, then it has "failed." MARS was launched in 1981
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
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
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
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
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
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
conversations often centered on the Christian Reformed Church. "Our
conversation always concluded with the conviction that our churches need
new infusion of ministers who had creedal commitment to the historic
When the group floated the idea of a new Reformed seminary, the response
was very positive. On April 21st, 1981, 70 Christian Reformed pastors
laymen gathered at the Airport Hilton Hotel at Chicago's O'Hare Airport
discuss the establishment of a new seminary. The core group
enthusiastically supported the proposal and raised $40,000 on the spot
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
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
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
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
one in Orange City, Iowa. Today three of the five faculty members are
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
church homes for the students, most of whom now come from the URC, RCUS
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
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
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."
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
Mid-America began in Orange City as a denominationally focused seminary.
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.
academic accreditation agency suggested that MARS might attract more
students if it built its own student housing. The seminary has decided
examine the issue. But there are no plans for expansion at the present
President Venema has some ideas about the next ten years. Firstly, he
no desire to turn MARS into a mega seminary with hundreds of students.
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
particularly large, he hopes to attract more Presbyterians. Currently
Mid-America is "out of the loop" as far as the PCA goes. But
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
future should continue to be aimed at serving the churches. An
"ecclesio-centered" seminary, closely connected to the churches
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.
MARS "school" arose from the decision of the founders of the
described by Rev Thomas Vanden Heuvel, to train graduates "committed
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
connection to the Reformed Churches (Liberated) and their theology, and
resulted in a clash with the theology of Westminster Theological Seminary
When the seminary board sent Nelson Kloosterman to Kampen II, it made
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
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
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
the CRC. But the orientation of Mid-America to the redemptive-historical
approach to preaching and the theology of the "Liberated" Reformed
would end up having consequences for the future of the URCs.
When congregations began seceding from the CRC in the first half of
1990s, they took with them an understanding and appreciation for the
theology of the Canadian Reformed Churches. The rapid movement of the
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
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
be too close to Shepherd. The result has been two years of theological
polemics and growing questions about the cohesiveness of the United
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,
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
In the 1980s Calvin Seminary, concerned about losing students to
Mid-America, made it increasingly difficult for MARS graduates to enter
CRC's ministry. One means was to deny them denominational financial support
for attending a seminary "not approved" by the CRC's synod.
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
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
getting by. But if remaining conservative CRC congregations want a
candidate trained in the Reformed tradition, the CRC leadership may have
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
published by the Banner of Truth)
Christian Renewal, December 16, 2002