Skip to navigation

A Path with Purpose

President Halvorson’s Inaugural Address


Members of the Board of Trustees, President Nielson, President Brock, President Essenburg, Mr. Barnes, Dr. Rayburn, distinguished guests, friends, family, staff, faculty and—especially— students and alumni, I want to thank you for being here for this celebration of Covenant College and the Lord’s faithfulness to it. It’s a tremendous privilege and honor to be called to serve as Covenant’s sixth president, and I want to thank the Presidential Search Committee and the Board of Trustees for entrusting me with this weighty responsibility. I’d also like to thank the Covenant family for so warmly welcoming my family and me back to Lookout Mountain, and I’d like to thank the Presidential Inauguration Committee and the other faculty and staff of Covenant who have labored so diligently to prepare for this week’s events. Wendy and I greatly appreciate those who have served to make this day possible.


There are others I must thank as well. While this day marks something of a new beginning for Covenant College and for me, we all know that within the created order new beginnings do not come ex nihilo, out of nothing. I’m indebted to a number of people for making this new beginning possible. With respect to Covenant in particular I want to thank and publicly applaud my predecessors for their able leadership in the preceding decades of the College’s existence. It’s a delight to be called to serve on the sure foundation that you have established.


My path into this role has been shaped by the influence and investment of many people, some of whom are here today. I’m deeply indebted to my parents, Märni and Steve Halvorson. Among her many other admirable qualities, my mom is faithful, persevering, and forgiving. Whatever inclinations I show toward those traits are to be credited to her. My dad is zealous for the faith—a man with an active mind who loves theology and the Word of God from which theology springs. Whatever inclinations I show in those directions I owe to him. (My dad also taught me to love the Green Bay Packers, so that’s his fault as well.) I’m indebted to my three brothers—Hans, Kurt, and Hoyt (all Covenant alumni). Growing up in a house of four boys taught me a lot about teamwork and competition and getting along with fallen human beings, and each of my brothers has taught me invaluable lessons about discipline and service and fun. (Those of you who know them will be able to guess which one taught me what.) Dr. Lou Voskuil, emeritus professor of history here at Covenant College, inspired me as an undergraduate to consider a calling in higher education. I wanted to be like him when I grew up. Dear and lasting college friends—Marshall Brock, Chris Hitchcock, Adam Neder, and Bryan Pierce—have walked faithfully alongside me, offering counsel, correction, and encouragement, since our days of living together on the second floor of Carter Hall (on a hall that will remain unnamed for the sake of preserving my reputation among this assembly of august guests). The late Professor Heiko Oberman put me through the intellectual ringer in the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies at the University of Arizona, but also introduced me to the beauty of excellence in historical scholarship—an introduction that was expanded on by my dissertation supervisor, Fr. Robert Bireley of Loyola University Chicago, who honors me with his presence here today.


I’m indebted to my wife, Wendy, more than I could ever express in an inaugural address, but I will say publicly that she has taught me priceless lessons about passion for the truth and passion for Jesus Christ and real self-denial for the sake of His kingdom. I’ve also learned from my children, Banks and Whitman, who have taught me both patience and how to look at the world with wonder and with joy. I have many other debts, to teachers and schools and friends and roommates and coaches and pastors and bosses. These debts are indicative of lessons learned along my path, and those lessons have shaped me and brought me to this place.


Today marks a new beginning for me and my family, and also a new beginning for Covenant College. (For those of our distinguished guests who don’t know, I am the first alumnus to take up the presidency.) And these new beginnings take place in an institutional context that is, in the grand narrative history of higher education in the western world, new. Folks at the universities of Paris and Bologna and Oxford like to bicker about whose is the oldest university. Regardless of which side you take in that debate, all three of those institutions are approaching their 1,000th birthday. In a little over three decades, Harvard College will celebrate its 400th birthday. Covenant College is, in comparison, a very new institution. We were established in 1955. We came to this beautiful mountaintop location only in 1964. At that point, there was just the old, abandoned hotel. (Some of the people in this chapel today helped us to move in.) By the time I arrived at Covenant as a freshman, there were a few more buildings, but this was still a relatively young, or new, college. Now there are more than twice as many buildings on campus as there were when I came. And a lot more new students. And remarkably gifted and committed new faculty. And impressive new academic and co-curricular programs. There is a lot about Covenant that is new and vibrant and young and full of life and loaded with potential. It’s exciting, this newness.


I should tell you, though, as a historian, that we modern folks tend to have an obsession with novelty. There’s a lot that’s appealing to us, as 21st-century Americans, about “the new”—things that are new, experiences that are new. People today like new things. However, that infatuation with the new is . . . well . . . new. At the dawn of the modern era (the period that’s the focus of my own scholarly work), ‘novelty’ was something to be avoided. It was a vice, not a virtue. John Calvin believed the intentional pursuit of novelty to be a failing of weak minds at best, and an evidence of human wickedness. For pre-modern Christians, and even for the sixteenth century Reformers in whose spiritual and intellectual lineage we at Covenant stand, new things were not good; old and ancient things were good. I, as a historian, like old things. And so, as excited as I am about this relatively new college, and my new beginning here, and the new faculty, staff, students, buildings, academic programs, co-curricular programs, etc. . . . I’d like to take time this morning to look to, and to celebrate, the aspects of Covenant that are not so new, that are old-fashioned, that might even be characterized as ancient. (And no, I am not referring to senior members of the faculty, though I would look to them for counsel and celebrate their contributions to this college.)


You heard, in the first of the two Scripture passages read earlier, the prophet Jeremiah’s admonition to the people of Israel (Jer. 6:16):
Thus says the LORD:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.”


I want to talk today about ways in which Covenant is walking in, and should continue to walk in, the ancient paths. Because what we do here at Covenant is, in fact, very old-fashioned. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that what we’re engaged in here at Covenant could even be described as creative anachronism for Christian higher education—both new and ancient at the same time.


I can see my wife squirming in her seat a little. When she first met me, I was trading foreign currencies, in Chicago, for one of the nation’s largest banks. I worked on a state-of-the-art trading desk on the 27th floor of the Sears Tower, and by all accounts I had a potentially lucrative career in front of me. When I told Wendy that I wanted to quit my job and go to graduate school to study medieval history, she responded—gently—with a good degree of concern. Her initial fear was that I was going to start dressing up in armor, jousting on the front lawn, and moonlighting at Medieval Times. I assured her that I was thinking of something more along the lines of a tweed jacket with elbow patches, a pipe, and the occasional research trip to London or Paris. This vision seemed to assuage her fears.


The creative anachronism that we undertake at Covenant is a little more profound than that which takes place at Renaissance fairs. The “new” side of this combination is, of course, related to Covenant’s relative youth and to some of the exciting new developments at the college that I mentioned earlier—gifted and growing body of new students, talented new faculty and staff, new academic programs, new athletic programs, new facilities, new technologies, etc. The anachronism, or ancient-ness, probably merits further explanation. In my view, it falls under two headings: academic and theological.


What is happening here at Covenant is—and should be—academically old fashioned. It hearkens back to the premodern college and university, to an era that had a different vision for the end purpose of higher education than is common today. What we know today as colleges and universities grew out of the monastic schools of the Middle Ages. For centuries the collegiate paradigm was shaped by the religious and communal character of those early schools. In the late 1800s, with the rise of modernist individualism and of the secular scientific worldview, a new model became dominant in higher education: that of the research university. Research universities are good at some things—like research—and not so good at other things. These institutions abandoned the notion of an education that would shape whole persons, and that would do so via an academic community that cultivated and practiced particular Christian virtues such as humility, self-denial, friendship, and charity. Instead, the new research universities of the late nineteenth century celebrated the making of knowledge by individuals and virtues such as productivity, calculation, control, ambition, and rationalism. Some of these very modern values are not wrong in and of themselves, but their combination in the research university does not provide for the sort of educational context in which whole Christian persons are intentionally formed. That’s not to say that individuals don’t get shaped by their experiences in research universities, but it’s not a purposeful shaping, with a particular end in mind. The best scholarship on higher education shows clearly that the research university model is not a good model for intentional, transformational education. By contrast, the old (or ancient) model—the small, residential, liberal arts college, similar in many respects to the colleges and academies of the medieval and early modern eras—is a good model for shaping whole persons. In fact, Alexander Astin, professor emeritus of education at UCLA (a research university) and one of America’s leading scholars of higher education, argues that the residential liberal arts college is the best model for delivering transformational education.


Transformational education—education that is not simply about the transmission of data from one brain to another, not just about the accumulation of facts or the awarding of credentials, but is concerned for the shaping, of whole Christian persons—is exactly what we’re after at a place like Covenant. And this approach is perfectly in keeping with Paul’s instruction to the early church at Rome, which we heard in the second passage read earlier. Many of you in this room (and under the tent on the lawn) will know the general outline of the book of Romans, and will recognize that this passage is the hinge point in that book. After laying out God’s glorious plan of salvation in the first eleven chapters of his letter, Paul concludes with this wonderful (and famous) doxology (Rom. 11:33-36 ESV):


Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.


Paul is clearly euphoric about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. There are exclamation points in the text. And frankly, we probably feel like we could stop right there. But Paul doesn’t. He turns in Romans 12:1 and begins to lay out the natural consequences of Christ’s saving work in our lives. Here’s what he says (Rom. 12:1-2 ESV):


I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.


Paul appeals to Christians—the early Roman Christians and to us—to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice.” And of course he doesn’t just mean our bodies. John Calvin points out that this is a synechdoche (that one’s for all of the English majors in the room), a part representing the whole—that Paul is urging Christians to give their whole selves, their entire person, the totality of which they are composed, as a living sacrifice. Paul says (in the Greek) that this is only logikos, logical, in light of what God has done for us; that this is our logical, or spiritual, worship.


And how do we accomplish this presentation of our whole selves as a living sacrifice? Well, in verse two Paul tells us that we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. We are literally to be metamorphed. For those of you who don’t recall your high school biology class, let me refresh your memory with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of metamorphosis, which means change “in form, shape, or substance; esp. transformation by supernatural means; a complete change in the appearance, circumstances, condition, or character of a person, a state of affairs, etc.” That’s pretty comprehensive. And it begins with the renewing of our minds, our intellect. The path we tread, the task we undertake, at a place like Covenant College—and what happens at many of the other institutions represented in this room—is one that is unmistakably intellectual, or academic. And yet it is, it has to be, more than just that. It has to be intellectual and it has to effect the transformation of the whole person, so that whole person can be presented to God as a living sacrifice.


This goal, or purpose, for education is ancient, old-fashioned, anachronistic. We desire that our students would be shaped, changed, metamorphed—comprehensively, for the good—through their curricular and extra-curricular activities in the college. And so the model for our education is, and ought to be, ancient. We are, and ought to be, a small college that values personal interaction between students and faculty and between students and other students. We ought to be a place that celebrates intellectual and spiritual discipleship. Ours ought to be a vibrant learning community. The ethos of our community ought to be characterized by the same spiritual virtues (the “monkish”virtues) that characterized the earliest colleges (and that animate many of the colleges represented here today). We are, after all, not only about the transmission of data and the development of skills, though that’s certainly part of what we do. We are about the shaping of whole, thoughtful, purposeful, discerning Christian persons, who can function and thrive in a complex world as they pursue God-given callings in both ordinary and extraordinary places, bringing glory to God and benefit to those around them.


I want to add that while this model is perhaps anachronistic, it’s becoming increasingly popular as educators and the public become aware of the failures of the research university model when it comes to education that purposefully engages whole persons. It’s for this reason that Vanderbilt recently began placing all of their freshmen in residential houses and is building residential colleges for upperclassmen. Likewise, Princeton, Rice, Ole Miss, and others have recently built new residential colleges. (For those of us already at small, residential colleges, man, it is nice to be ahead of the curve!)


So Covenant is, in important respects, academically old-fashioned. Because of our commitment to an education that shapes lives, not just fills brains with facts, we employ an educational model that is ancient and time-tested. But the ancientness doesn’t stop there. In addition, we are—and ought to be—theologically oldfashioned. We, as an institution and as a community, are rooted in the tradition of the Protestant reformers of the 16th century—specifically those of the Scottish persuasion (though one would have to admit that we’ve borrowed quite a bit from our brothers and sisters of the Continental branch of the Reformation). Now, despite some hype a few years ago about “John Calvin: Comeback Kid” (Timothy George, Christianity Today, September 2009), it would be difficult to deny that ours is an old and out-of-fashion tradition. However, that tradition defines in very important ways who we are as an institution and as a community. George Marsden has outlined some of these ways in an essay entitled “Reformed and American,” where he identifies three emphases that have been characteristic of Reformed Christianity in America: the doctrinalist emphasis, the pietist emphasis, and the culturalist emphasis. All three of these emphases can be found on Covenant’s campus today, and one of my prayers is that we will continue to champion all three—passion for the truths of Scripture; fervent, Christ-centered piety; and the desire to bring the good news of the cosmic, redeeming work of Christ and the truth of His Word to bear on every aspect of the culture in which He has placed us. There’s a natural human tendency to exalt one of these emphases over the others, as anyone who knows a bit of church history can attest. However, we ought to be a place where all three are maintained in fruitful tension by virtue of their being rooted in our love for Christ.


As those of you who are a part of it know, while it’s old, this Reformed tradition of which Covenant is a part is still very much alive. It’s another of my prayers for Covenant that it would remain so here. I have no interest in falling into what Jaroslav Pelikan has defined as ‘traditionalism’: “the dead faith of the living.” I long for Covenant to cling to a ‘tradition’—what Pelikan calls “the living faith of the dead”—that has been handed down faithfully by our forefathers. But how does this happen? How do we ensure that ours remains a living tradition? We can glean one critical piece of guidance from the great Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, who famously declared that, “Stress in creedal confession, without drinking from the Living Fountain, runs dry in barren orthodoxy….” Without a focus on Jesus Christ, the living fountain, without Him as the centerpiece of our mission and Him as the source of our motivation and strength, we will quickly become advocates of a dry, wooden, dead tradition. Jaroslav Pelikan is again helpful when he writes that, “Tradition is like an icon (not an idol or a token) that points beyond itself; we look at it, but also through it and beyond it to the reality it represents.” We at Covenant ought to value the good gift that is our tradition, and we ought to seek to hold its attendant emphases in fruitful tension, but we must remember that it points beyond itself, to the matchless Savior and Lord of all and to His truth delivered to us in Scripture. I think this is part of why I like Covenant’s motto so much: “In all things Christ preeminent.” Our embrace of our living tradition, with its doctrinalist and pietist and culturalist streams, will be fruitful and nourishing to us and to our witness in the world so long as Christ is exalted as preeminent in all things. When we drink from the Living Fountain, we will bear fruit. When we stop, we will become barren.


And so, as I join the Covenant family in this new endeavor, and as we consider the promise of this new beginning, I would point us back to an ancient path—to the old-fashioned, anachronistic nature of our project, both in terms of the form it takes academically and in terms of the foundation upon which it rests theologically. Let us be ancient even as we are new. Even in our youth, let us walk the ancient path, because it is a path with purpose. Let us be a small, residential college of the liberal arts and sciences that takes seriously the transformation of students in every respect, accomplished through faithful academic rigor and an ethos of humility, self-denial, friendship, and love. Let us be a college that cherishes its theological heritage—one that loves doctrine, that values piety, and that brings the truths of Scripture to bear on every aspect of life and culture. Let us be a college that is animated by a theological tradition that is alive—alive because it is based on and rooted in and points to the One who is the source of all life. Let us be a college that seeks to honor—in the way we pursue our scholarship, in the way we live together, in the way we serve the church and the world—the Christ who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, the sustainer of all things, the first-born from the dead, the reconciler of all things. For in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). He is our Living Fountain. He is our life (Col. 3:4).


St. Augustine famously described God as a being of eternal beauty, ever ancient, ever new. Would that this God, our God, ever ancient and ever new, be glorified as we tread an ancient path with a distinct purpose, equipping and inspiring generations of men and women to explore and express the preeminence of Christ in all things.


Thank you.