The Lucky Son of a Barber-Philosopher: The Serendipity of Al Wolters’ Worldview

An Anniversary Reflection

Albert Wolters was my New Testament Greek professor, a columnist for The Christian Courier, a global expert on the Copper Scroll, and preached regularly through the decades in Christian Reformed churches, but he is best known internationally as the author of Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview—what philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff called “The best statement I have come across of the ‘reformational’ Christian worldview.” It was first published by Eerdmans in 1985, with an expanded second edition published on the 20th anniversary in 2005. The book has been printed in over 12 languages now, and currently a Chinese edition is being developed. Wolters is not officially a Global Scholar, but his scholarship is global, and his articulation of the Christian worldview is one that has served well in giving a scaffold to the project of Christian research, writing, and teaching all around the world. But there is much more to the story.

Dr. Wolters holds a 1594 edition of the Geneva Bible, the generally accepted English version of the Bible before the King James Version. Photos by Hank Rintjema.

One word that might summarize Wolters’ life is serendipity. “It was very providential,” he repeated to me a few times while reflecting on one or another surprising turn in his life. I interviewed this former professor of mine in September 2020, and once he even said he felt lucky but then added that it was providential luck, or blessing. Wolters is now 78 and moving into a retirement community with his wife Alice. It is the 35th anniversary of his landmark book and the 40th anniversary of his work on the Ontario Christian College Association, a group that helped bring a charter for Christian universities in Ontario and give them the legal space in which to grow and flourish. I wrote in more detail about this latter anniversary in my short biography of Justin Cooper.

Son of a Barber-Philosopher

Wolters was born in Holland in 1942 and immigrated with his family to northern B.C. where his father Syrt worked in the lumber industry. He first worked as a faller, later as foreman at a planer in 1948. They then moved to Victoria, where his father returned to his earlier vocation as a barber. Young Wolters didn’t shine as a model student in these early years, but a scolding from his father in high school prompted him to start focusing his efforts. “You better shape up,” his father admonished.

I say “vocation” as a barber because Father Wolters didn’t just cut hair and talk about the weather or sports, as most barbers do; he made political and philosophical conversation with his customers. Its not uncommon for Dutch laymen of the time to have read a lot, having been shaped by a young people’s society that was really more of a study club. “My dad was well-read in theologians like Kuyper and Schilder,” explains Wolters. “He was a self-taught neo-Calvinist who had some really strong opinions, and some customers would pay for an extra 15-minute appointment just to enjoy conversation with him after the hair cut was done.” There is more to this man, as Syrt and his wife Lucinda Seinen’s names are also engraved on a wall in Jerusalem, alongside other Gentiles who helped protect Jews during the Nazi occupation of Europe (Yad Vashem Award).

Young Wolters’ relationship with his father, however, contained contrasting dynamics. On one hand, “he was pleased as punch” over Wolters’ developing academic career. On the other hand, he never communicated this pride to his son personally, and instead, his own strongly held convictions made it difficult for him to treat his educated son as an equal discussion partner.

Young Wolters was formed in the public schools of Victoria, and his own inner life developed some increasing tension. On one hand, he attended the local CRC church and read the books by Herman Bavinck and Klaas Schilder that his father fed him regularly. On the other hand, he haboured an increasingly skeptical mind, and he began to doubt substantial matters of Christian doctrine. “I was basically an agnostic,” he said, describing his younger self. “I went as far as believing there was a Creator, but that was about it.”

His father, Syrt, took a trip to Holland after his wife died. There he met a young woman that drew his attention, Diny Van der Heide, who was boarding with his relatives. They corresponded for a time, and in what is quite a remarkable story in itself, married after she flew to Victoria to see him again. She still lives in Victoria and has published a children’s story book.

An Agnostic at Calvin College

After high school he considered joining the Canadian military, which meant your undergraduate education would be paid for. But the sudden and tragic death of his mother put an end to those plans. “Even though I was an agnostic, I said I wanted to study theology. I said I wanted to go to Calvin College, study for the ministry, in the hopes that I will get faith along the way.” He completed a year at University of Victoria, and then transferred to Calvin College, and majored in Greek as part of the pre-seminary program. He wanted to test the faith, and see if it could hold up; if they couldn’t convince him there, then he had done his homework and could move on to other philosophical pastures.

Two things happened at Calvin that would challenge his skeptical posture and reinvigorate his Christian faith. “It was all very providential,” prefaced Wolters. The first was another tragic event: his dad’s intellectual hero, Calvin College professor Henry Van Til, had a heart attack and died while teaching in the classroom. “Suddenly it was brought home to me that these intellectual games I was playing were actually a matter of life and death,” explains Wolters. It was a wake-up call to a spiritual seriousness.

Secondly, the philosophy department was buzzing with the excitement generated by the charisma of Dr. Evan Runner, and Wolters was caught under his spell. In fact, it was Runner that convinced him to shift his trajectory from seminary and fly to the Free University in Amsterdam and study philosophy in graduate school instead.

What happened that changed his heart and mind about the Christian faith as the one true story of the whole world? He was reading some C. S. Lewis at the time and wrote a paper on G. K. Chesterton, but ultimately, he confessed, “My transition to faith was a leap of faith. I had not read Kierkegaard—or Pascal and his wager—but I sort of said to myself, I’m going to wager it is true. It’s a very reprehensible thing to do. It’s theologically not very kosher. But that’s the way it worked out. It was an irrational, blind faith. It had no ground.” Then he said something that sounded like philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s notion of “warrant” for belief: “It’s not that you can prove the faith, but it’s not that there’s no evidence for it. There is the world; it didn’t just happen. Even when I was an agnostic, I did believe there was some sort of supreme being who created the world.”

Wolters graduated from Calvin in 1964 and spent 8 years in Amsterdam, completing a dissertation (1972) on Plotinus, a third-century Greek philosopher who had considerable influence in the life of St. Augustine (the same figure on which global scholar Wendy Helleman did her PhD). During that time, Wolters began correspondence with a young woman who had been in his social circles at Calvin—Alice Van Andel from New Westminster, B. C. He took a trip back to North America to see her, and they got engaged. “Its quite a remarkable story,” reminisced Wolters. “Our courtship was by letter and I still have the letters.” They married in 1968 in New Westminster.

The Book that Almost Never Was

Wolters’ first position was as a history of philosophy professor at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto (ICS), starting in 1974, after being a student recruiter there for two years. It was his introductory lectures in the Philosophical Prolegomena course that would eventually become Creation Regained.

Wolters actually never determined to write or publish this book. In fact, it was the encouragement of his peers, and specifically the late Bob Vandervennen that pushed him to start bringing his notes together in the early 1980s. In fact, it was Vandervennen that sent the manuscript to Eerdmans for publication. They saw the value in the book—as a key that explicitly connected the Bible to the Reformational philosophy that culminated in Herman Dooyeweerd. Wolters’ long-standing interest in the Bible, coupled with his training in philosophy, supported by his reading of Herman Bavinck which stretched back to his days in Victoria—this all came together in one short, accessible account: a summary of one book (the Bible) in three movements (creation, fall, redemption). All of reality, wrote Wolters, could be adequately understood through those three themes, and this framework could give direction to Christian endeavours in any cultural sector. In a word, it was a Christian world-and-life-view for enthusiastic but also critical participation in the arts, humanities, social sciences, engineering, and the natural sciences. A good creation supplies the foundational structures, and God’s Word and Spirit provide the normative direction for redemptive culture-making in our good-but-fallen world. (See more on worldview here and here and a nice 30th anniversary article here at Cardus and here for an appreciation of Creation Regained).

The process of getting published was delayed, in part because Eerdmans was waiting for the blessing of Nicholas Wolterstorff on its printing. This came at a dark moment for Wolterstorff—the season in which his son Eric died in a mountain climbing accident, an event which gave birth to his account called Lament for a Son. So Creation Regained lay neglected on his desk for months. But when he did finally get to it, he gave it a glowing review (mentioned above) that ignited its publication and still graces Wolters’ book to this day.

The genius of this book is that for a devout Christian who intuitively feels the gospel as private salvation is just too theologically small for the Lord of the Universe, it convincingly demonstrates how the Biblical story is really about the whole world—the entirety of human activities, even the whole cosmos. Put starkly: there is no “secular” planet or even secular cities; our world belongs to God. There are only secular cultural endeavours, secular directions for human activity. Says Calvin University history professor Will Katerberg: “I was at Redeemer as a student at the time when Creation Regained was first published in 1985. It was earnest and rich—and delightful in that regard. The discussion of government as part of the created order, and not a product of sin, sticks with me. We’d need traffic laws, for example, even in a sinless world!” Creation Regained opened students to a wide variety of faithful vocations beyond the church, aimed towards the common good and the many-splendored wisdom of God’s kingdom.

As mentioned, this small book has made an international impact. Wolters has often been told, “Your book has changed my life,” which startles him. In South Korea, he was treated like something of an academic rock star, and students asked for his autograph on their personal copies (sometimes even photocopies!)

Twenty years after first printing in 1985, the second edition also has an interesting story connected to it. Former Redeemer professor Michael Goheen had been using Creation Regained as a classroom text for many years, and because Goheen’s Ph.D. work was on the famous missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, Goheen was able to entice Newbigin to give some feedback on the book. Wolters had his assistant (and now pastor) Ray Vander Kooij read the book on cassette so the aging and almost blind Newbigin could reflect on it. Newbigin was appreciative, no doubt, but the one remark that stuck was that the worldview focus had obscured the narrative structure that lay within the Biblical themes of creation, fall, and redemption. So one of the edits on the second edition was not only to take note that worldview arose out of a story, but that it also leans toward God’s mission. It’s a story that we are called to live inside and act out into the world.

One measure of scholarship is the fruitfulness of research it stimulates. The thin book After Worldview (2009, Dordt Press) brings together many worldview scholars to revisit the usefulness of the term “worldview”—in part as a reflection on Wolters’ “foundational” book. Some say “worldview” suggests an anthropology that is too cognitive, too focused on the visual, or lacking necessary emphasis on narrative and mission. Wolters reminds readers of his chapter that it’s a “world and life view” – “one’s overall orientation to reality at large”—stretching it beyond a purely intellectual framework. But Wolters doesn’t make an idol of the concept and neither does the book. There are other concepts that help us approach a faithful imagination and simultaneously see the fundamental religious nature of human beings. For example, consider St. Benedict (rule of life), James K. A. Smith (cultural liturgy), Charles Taylor (social imaginary), Calvin Seerveld (lifestyle), and Jim Olthius in the book suggests adding to world-view: world-feeling, world-touching, world-smelling, world-tasting and world-hearing. Wolters himself played with the concept of “testimony”—as used in the Contemporary Testimony of the CRCNA. Peter Enns more recently has suggested the term “wisdom” as the goal of Bible reading.

What some of these re-evaluations suggest that there is something missing from a narrow interpretation of worldview—in particular the more mundane practises and routines that make up everyday life. Wolters may have not recognized this immediately, but later in his career, he came to see it personally—in his spiritual walk. He realized the Reformational tradition needed supplementing by the practises of spiritual formation, connecting worldview to church and to the ground of daily life. Wolters himself pursued spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition—from a Jesuit priest and a Catholic nun. This, as well as his appreciation for aspects of the charismatic movement, demonstrates his openness to insight beyond his own inheritance as well as his humble willingness to not just lead when called, but also to be led by others.

ICS to Redeemer, Philosophy to Biblical Studies

There is much more to Wolters than Creation Regained. ICS was a stimulating environment, and Wolters worked closely with graduate students. The subculture there was heady and at times, abstracted. In his 10 years there he felt himself leaning to a more conservative posture, and to closer Biblical study, and this at times caused some tension.

Dr. Wolters at an Ontario Christian teacher’s conference on October 30th, 1998, in Hamilton. Here he lectures on the meaning of the writing on the wall in Daniel 5.

It was while he was teaching at ICS that he was asked to join the Ontario Christian College Association, a group dedicated to lobbying the government for a charter to start a Christian university in the province. The research, planning, and advocacy work the association did over a few years culminated successfully in a charter in 1980, and soon the doors of Redeemer College were opened on Beach Boulevard in Hamilton in 1982. Wolters joined the original faculty of eight in 1984, but he was asked to teach in a different discipline, the field of Biblical Studies.

“I don’t have a degree in Biblical Studies,” said Wolters to the hiring team.

“Then get a graduate degree from McMaster while you teach,” they replied.

So Wolters, after some prayer and discernment with his wife Alice, shifted his vocation from ICS over to a fledgeling undergraduate institution, and into a new discipline of Biblical Studies. This meant more teaching, taking classes again, writing papers, and tending a young family with two children. It also meant being able to focus more fully on his deep love and reverence for the Scriptures.

Remarkably, the change was a tremendous relief. “I suddenly blossomed,” said Wolters. He was linguistically gifted (he has working knowledge of 12 languages) so he thrived in his investigation of the ancient languages and teaching Greek. Almost every essay he wrote for his new graduate courses at McMaster turned into a publishable paper for a reputable Biblical Studies journal. This quickly became a vocation for Wolters—to publish respectable scholarship from an orthodox Christian perspective in the mostly secularized pages of academic journals focused on the Bible (known as “higher criticism”). “I wanted to play in the big leagues for which I had no credentials,” reflected Wolters. “So I threw myself heart and soul into that calling.”

One of his papers for his graduate studies focused on the Copper Scroll (essentially a list of treasure) from the Dead Sea Scrolls, a unique opportunity facilitated by a visiting Israeli professor at the time, Shlomo Morag. By “providential fluke,” someone bumped into him at a conference who asked him to write a volume for a series on the Dead Sea Scrolls, as if he were an authority on the subject. Well, he embraced the task, the Hamilton Spectator did a story on his research, and he has since been considered the global expert on this scroll to this day.

Photos by Hank Rintjema.

Then while doing some graduate research on a text in Daniel 5, the story of the handwriting on the wall, he stumbled on something never noticed before: the word “scales” in the Aramaic could also refer to the constellation libra. This opened opportunity to compare the date indicated in the text against the movement of the stars, an exercise which verifies the historicity of Daniel—a finding that challenges the secular scholarly consensus. A similar stumbling into fresh interpretations happened with the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, where he offered a significantly novel rendering of one particular Hebrew word. “Left and right I fell into these extraordinary discoveries,” said Wolters recalling the opportunities with a genuine sense of wonder. “I’ve been so providentially blessed.” He graduated with an M.A. in Hebrew Bible Studies from McMaster in 1987.

One more example: out of the blue Wolters got a request from Holland to write a commentary on the book of Zechariah for a special Old Testament series. “I thought it was a case of mistaken identity,” smiled Wolters. “So I quickly read the book of Zechariah and investigated the matter a little and said, ‘I’d like to do this.’ He was then signed on with an international team, and even asked to be part of a small editorial team. “It’s a little strange how it all happened,” he explained. But after 21 years of research and writing, with regular encouragements from Justin Cooper, Wolters completed the commentary in 2014. Some academics release books almost annually; for Wolters, they are born through many long labours and through cheers from those who believe in his calling. Other books he’s written include Ideas Have Legs (ICS 1987), The Copper Scroll: Overview, Text and Translation (Sheffield 1996), and The Song of the Valiant Woman: Studies in the Interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31 (Paternoster 2001).

Oddly enough, Wolters never used Creation Regained as a textbook for a single course he taught, as his courses were in Greek, hermeneutics, and ancient philosophy at Redeemer. He did not ride the success of this text to create his career; in some ways, it was a sideline. But his research in Biblical Studies became his own application of the Christian worldview he expounded—now in a specific sub-discipline, as he unmasked secular assumptions and demonstrated the value of a faith-filled hermeneutic. You might say he wrote the book and then followed its instructions in his own academic field. Or from a different angle, he got the big-picture philosophically speaking and then dove into the minute details of language and text. The ability to see both forest and trees is a delicate skill, but also a gift of grace, and some would say in his Biblical studies Wolters became too engrossed in the trees. In what follows, he received more critique than he ever received in writing Creation Regained.

Biblical Studies, Social Issues

Al Wolters’ biblical research sometimes enters controversial territory. For one, he contends that the office of preaching pastor is closed to women by the Bible, and particularly by 1 Tim. 2:12, which places this prohibition in the context of creation order. I have an old Bible scribbled all over with notes from my wife’s great aunt, Jenny Visser, who lived to be over 100 years old. One page at the front is dedicated to a summary of Wolters’ talk on the subject of “submission,” including the argument that the “submit to one another” in Ephesians 5 is not intended in an absolute sense, and the expression, while claimed to be the hermeneutical key for many, is found in none of the other domestic codes in Paul’s letters. Submission is intended by Paul in one direction—in parallel for wives, children, and slaves to husbands, parents, and masters. Curiously, aunt Jenny Visser was a teacher, principal and leader in the early Christian school movement in Ontario, and I wonder if she felt some inner tension as she took notes. Wolters’ wife Alice was herself the first female elder elected in the Hamilton classis, of which Wolters is appreciative.

My wife pointed out a number of layers of irony in the last paragraph after I uploaded this tribute. Great Aunt Jenny lived to be 100 and never married. She had no husband to which she could submit. In fact, she was a leader in the Christian school movement in Ontario, a teacher and then principal, and anyone who had known her for more than five minutes would soon realize she was anything but a submissive woman. You can interpret that in a number of ways, but the last irony is that she dutifully wrote down the notes from Wolters lecture into her Bible without critique. Her Bibles, letters, and journals were thick with her theological scribblings, and her bookshelf had numerous writings from Dutch theologians. Life often comes in these surprising and ironic layers.

Wolters has taken on many roles beyond that of professor. He was a researcher for the now defunct Paideia Centre, and has served on numerous ecclesial study committees, researching contemporary topics such as Third-Wave, science and Genesis, inclusive language for God, and the re-translation of the canons of Dort. Most recently, he is the co-chair for the CRCNA’s study committee to “Articulate a Foundation-Laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality,” and what the report for Synod 2021 offers the church is a fresh take on traditional—arguably Biblical—sexual norms, which some find convincing and others will no doubt find disappointing and unacceptable. The report is now available for study (and the denomination also has provided a congregational discussion tool kit). What is especially bold about the report is that it states that its teachings on such matters as divorce, homosexuality, and gender transitioning are on the level of status confessionis—meaning that they are based on the authority of the confessions of the denomination, and are thus binding on membership and ordination. Specifically, Q. and A. 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism are key to its take on these sexual issues–which states that the seventh commandment “condemns all unchastity.”

This is a line drawn in the sand that will shake the denomination and potentially expose a deep divide that runs through other North Atlantic denominations. Yet Wolters is not a contentious person, and he is not fond of rancour. When Wolters gave a presentation on the subject of gay marriage at Meadowlands CRC in January 2015 he was confident and clear about the consistently negative view of the Bible on the matter, linking Greek translations of Leviticus to Paul’s writing on sexual ethics. But he admitted his deep appreciation for the young adults he heard who spoke of their journey of growing into a gay sexual identity, and of the angst that accompanied such transitions. In one of his last comments that evening, Wolters said, “I feel torn.” It was genuine, and it left space for others to dialogue with him at the time.

These social issues speak to the heart of the family and the church’s social fabric, and they stand in sharp contrast to the values of the dominant North American “expressive individualist” culture (Charles Taylor’s term). For this reason, Wolters can be admittedly pessimistic about the future of the church in the West, and he has sympathy for movements like The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher that look to monastic models for inspiration. Is this a shift from the culture-engaging Reformational worldview that he has championed for so many decades? Wolters replied, “It’s a recognition of the culture wars are pressing upon faithful Christianity and we are being driven into a persecuted situation. Which will mean a certain kind of retrenchment.”

If I might insert a commentary here, I don’t think retrenchment necessarily requires endorsing something monastic or Anabaptist in nature here; culture-making still occurs in a deliberate sub-culture; in fact a Christian world and life view may find a more free and creative environment in which to flourish and be a light for the nations when unencumbered by conflict with secular law, media, and education. This is a long way from the triumphalism of the Moral Majority or the ICS sub-culture in the 1970s, and cultural issues will certainly be a matter for debate with the next generation of Christians, which is sadly now a shrinking demographic in Canada. Retrenchment isn’t enough on its own: Calvin University professor James K. A. Smith, for example, states in Awaiting the King that while Christians live with a profound ambivalence toward the dominant secular political mileiu, there is still room for ad hoc forays into cultural arenas where faithful cooperation and participation are possible. Furthermore, politics isn’t only government policies: its the whole world of the public, including civil society. There is much more room for Christian participation in this wider view of “politics.”

Wolters has been a keen Biblical scholar, even while immersed in Reformational philosophy. He never set out to be an innovator of social ethics; he saw himself more as a guardian of a trust. “I have a very keen sense of being rooted in a tradition,” he explained. “And have wanted to maintain a connection with that tradition, even though with immigration over and people no longer understanding Dutch much of it will be lost; but to the degree possible, I want to stress the continuity and strength of this particular tradition.” In fact, this is what the word tradition means: its Latin roots lie in the word tradere, which means “hand over” or “hand down”—typically something of cultural value that includes a vital link to past generations. For Wolters, a large part of that is a deep and abiding love and attention to both the details and the overarching narrative unity of the Scriptures.

Research, Writing and Respect

Wolters to this day holds his father in high regard (he dedicated his dissertation to his teacher Dr. Evan Runner and his father). However, he consciously developed a posture unlike that of his dad. His father was a man of strong opinions and “could run roughshod” over those with whom he disagreed. It wasn’t just his father, either. “I always cringed at Calvin because he was so hard on his opponents – you know those polemical exaggerations of his,” explained Wolters. Now that was a common way to debate in the 16th century—and in those days the particularity of one’s faith was (perceived to be) a matter of life and death. But Wolters’ dad also gave him Herman Bavinck to read and one of the things he loved about Bavinck was that “he honoured his opponents. He always painted them in the strongest colors—he gave such a sympathetic portrayal that you would think it was his own position.” Wolters found a mentor in Bavinck—not just in his theological content, but also in the tone of his scholarly writing and speaking. “That was such a welcome relief to me that I became a great fan of Bavinck,” related Wolters. “Just because of the tone.”

It has been said that arrogance and ego are the pillars that hold up the modern academy; at worst, it certainly can be a culture of pride, offence, and contempt. Wolters, however, has always aimed for respectful and rigorous academic exchanges. In fact, he reports that his critiques begin with a summary of his opponent’s position, and when possible, he sends his summary to the writer in question, asking “Is this what you said, is this a fair assessment?” Once he has their agreement, which sometimes involves adjustments, he then shares his critique. “Its something I really strive to do,” he maintains. This conciliatory approach to scholarship also positioned Wolters to be a mediator in some university community disputes, and there were times when he stepped between colleagues to try and restore broken ties.

More recently, in September 2019, a public dialogue with former student Sylvia Keesmaat on sexual morality and gay marriage at London Christian High School, Wolters reported that while their Biblical interpretations differ sharply, the event demonstrated some mutual understanding and Christian charity. They went out for a friendly coffee afterwards. I have also been told that ICS philosopher Henk Hart—himself on his death bed—read this blog shortly after I uploaded it and wrote to Wolters: “Serious disagreements notwithstanding, I read the article gratefully as written about a brother and friend.” If gay marriage is prohibited in a confession of the church, that’s up for deliberation in the CRCNA; but its not mentioned in any of the ecumenical creeds. There is room for deep family differences while still remaining family.

The respect he gave in many instances like these has been reciprocated. Says Justin Cooper, his junior colleague but later his President at Redeemer: “He was a dedicated and gifted faculty member, noted for his effective teaching, exemplary scholarship and faculty leadership on matters of confessional and academic substance, not to mention his inaptitude for matters administrative. His scholarship was globally recognized, but it was coupled with local contributions to community dialogue, faculty development and seminal institutional documents regarding this vision. At bottom, what made this witness particularly powerful was the way his Biblical knowledge and intellectual acumen were coupled with a deep personal faith, sincerity and humility.”

“Inaptitude for matters administrative” is said humorously, but honestly. Wolters was never a department head or dean; he was never asked to President’s Council, and really, never occupied a leadership position. But he carried moral and academic authority at Redeemer and beyond. Wolters humbly reflected, “One of the great blessings of my life is that I am respected, and respect is a form of love.” He helped articulate a rich theological and philosophical tradition and hand it down, not just to another generation, but to thousands around the world today, across many cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Wolters was personally cautious in terms of getting involved in the politics of institutions. “I was a scholar, and my focus was scholarship” he reflected. In fact, Wolters was the epitome of academic. I recall seeing Wolters at the movie theatre one weekend when I was his student. He was in line at the concession stand, intently reading a book. Yes, he is dedicated to his vocation. Still, he was at least getting out to the theatre, and he does enjoy TV programs like The West Wing, Downton Abbey, and Call the Midwife. There is much more to Al Wolters than what you read here.

The fact remains, the quality of his scholarship was recognized by many and solicited invitations to apply for positions in larger institutions, institutions with graduate students and seminarians to stimulate his research and build on it. Wolters, however, was not enticed.

“I had no colleagues that I could talk to in my specialty at Redeemer,” said Wolters, who missed the banter of other experts in his field. “But to uproot my family, go to the states, no. Plus I was invested in Redeemer. I was one of the people that set it up. This was not just a place of employment: it was a dream come true.”

It’s been exactly four decades now since Wolters helped obtain a government charter and frame a fresh curriculum for Christian university education in Ontario. His book, now at age 35, has been a manifesto for Christian higher education and faith-full research around the world. He has moved into a retirement community with his wife, and a mild form of Parkinson’s disease has taken hold of him. He is slowing down on his engagements. Wolters’ legacy is one of disciplined intimacy with the Bible, quietly following where the Spirit leads, and humbly cultivating integrity and harmony in institutions that seek to be a resurrection leaven in God’s broken-but-being-redeemed world. It’s the legacy of Christian worldview, and its institutional expression is a dream coming true. The best of all, says Wolters, all this is the gift of Providence.

A more recent photo of Dr. Albert Wolters (2012 or so).

I believe there are two tasks that face all of us as we inherit a legacy from a previous generation: one is to honour those who came before us, and express gratitude for their hard work, sacrifice, and gifts. The second task is to take those gifts and creatively build on them and re-shape them to address the challenges of a new context for a new generation, separating the gold from the dross. Al Wolters has given us a comprehensive vision that itself builds on a previous generation’s work. Younger scholars like Mike Goheen and Craig Bartholomew (and others!) have taken this tradition into dialogue with formational and missional resources. They continue to write and reflect on this Reformed inheritance, but they are no longer young either.

I suspect the next cohort of Christian thinkers and leaders will surprise us, coming from unforeseen places, and taking us to unimagined new horizons of philosophy, theology and ministry. The health of the Western church is not encouraging, but the church in the majority world seems invigorated in fresh and hopeful ways. Perhaps Creation Regained, now in many other languages, will inspire cultural others for further unfolding and stewarding of both the Bible and creation’s mysteries.

Artist: Sean Purcell from the Coalition for Christian Outreach. A pretty good likeness from a few quick lines…

One thought on “The Lucky Son of a Barber-Philosopher: The Serendipity of Al Wolters’ Worldview

  1. As a member of Fellowship Church with All Wolters, I was blessed to be in counsel with him. He loves and was loved and continues to be loved by me..

    Like

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