Zylstra on Runner

The following is taken from Bernard Zylstra ‘Preface to Runner’ in The Relation of the Bible to Learning (Paideia: Jordan Station, Ontario, 1982, 5th edn.) pp. 10-13

Runner was born in 1916, in Oxford, Pennsylvania, the only child in a solidly evangelical Presbyterian family. His life was divided between the intense piety of home and church and the neutralizing impact of “the American way of life” evident in the public schools and in the maelstrom of a mixed Irish Catholic, Jewish and Protestant working-class neighborhood. The local Presbyterian congregation of which his parents were active members was deeply involved in the conflict between liberalism and orthodoxy that divided the Presbyterian church and led to the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1929 and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936 under the leadership of J. Gresham Machen. The piety of his father and mother did not make him question the penetrating influence of liberal humanism on the American way of life. Instead, it nurtured his desire to become a missionary in foreign lands-Korea or China. His parents sacrificed much in the heart of the depression to send him to Wheaton College, the major center of evangelical liberal arts learning in the thirties. He was there from 1932-1936-about the same time as Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry-except for his junior year, which he spent at the University of Pennsylvania to learn more Greek than Wheaton offered. That is important to note. From the moment Runner entered college, his desire to be a missionary was constrained by his love for philosophy and a classical education. Here we detect the tension created in the life of a young student by the clash between the Gospel as interpreted in the evangelical-fundamentalist setting and the world of scholarship in its classical humanist interpretation. A growingĀ· awareness of that clash led Runner gradually to the realization that there are two fundamentally conflicting religious spirits at work in modern culture-faith in Jesus Christ and faith in human personality. Runner’s development from 1936 to 1951 can be described in terms of his growing awareness of the range and depth of that conflict. At first he viewed it primarily in terms of theology; he realized that the battle for the direction of the theological schools in the mainline churches concerned an accommodation of theology to the spirit of modern, secular thought. For this reason he went to Westminster Theological Seminary in 1936 to study with Cornelius Van Till. And for the same reason, in 1939, he went to study with Klaas Schilder at the Theological School in Kampen, the Netherlands. Then he began to sense that the spiritual conflict in our culture is not one of theology but that it is much broader, that it encompasses the whole of philosophy and science. This awareness greatly increased during his stay at Harvard University from 1940 to 1943, where he studied with George LaPiana and Werner Jaeger. And because of this awareness he returned to Holland immediately after the war to study with D.H.T. Vollenhoven of the Free University.
The period from 1946 to 1951 was decisive. During that time Runner learned that the conflict between the Christian faith and the humanist faith is not in the first place a theoretical conflict whether theological or philosophical-but of life in its concrete practice, in politics, economics, culture, schooling, etc.
This explains Runner’s interest in reformed Protestantism in Holland. This is how he recently described this interest.

I began to realize that there was a broad spectrum of Reformed life, and that I had never experienced anything like this before. And I began to ask myself: Where did all this come from? There was the theology that I was used to, there was the philosophy that I was busy studying, but now I learned there was also a practical life. How were they related? I don’t remember how I first got steered to Groen van Prinsterer – probably through talks with Leo [Oranje] at some meal or so at the girls’ home – but I bought myself a copy of Ongeloof en Revolutie (Unbelief and Revolution) and read it … And then the problem that I originally had between philosophy and theology as two forms of scientific life got broadened out to also include prescientific life – what lies behind all this? And I began to see the importance of the religious dimension of the heart and the covenant of God, and that all the various aspects of our life are embraced in that, and how that openness or closedness of the heart to His revelation which impinges upon us and to which we must respond gives direction to all the various expressions of our life, whether they are scientific or pre-scientific. That began to take on some shape, but only gradually, and I don’t think that I got that all worked out until I had begun to teach at Calvin, really.

Runner began to grasp that the work of Christians in politics, in labor, in journalism, in social work, and in scholarship presupposed “the revival of Biblical religion that occurred during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Netherlands. “

In the Netherlands the appearance on the scene of Oroen van Prinsterer, Kuyper, the philosophy of the Law-idea … , etc. signalled a desire for a radical break with long-established patterns of synthesis-thinking in favour of a radically scriptural outlook upon and approach to life. That is what has made Dutch Calvinism distinctive; that has been the strength of the revival of Christian life and scholarship in the Netherlands.

When Runner returned to the United States in 1951 he was convinced that Christianity in North America was in need of “a revival of Biblical religion,” that is, “a radical break with long established patterns of synthesis-thinking in favor of a radically scriptural outlook upon and approach to life.” His life mission consisted in an effort to contribute to such a revival of Biblical religion in North America. This reformational mission was directed primarily toward three major interrelated concerns. In the first place, he wanted to contribute to a new consciousness of the relation between the revelation of the Scriptures and the civilization of the West, especially in the context of the culture of the United States. In the second place, he pressed for a distinctly new way in which Christians should attempt to help shape the culture which they share with humanists in the modern age. Here Runner was greatly influenced by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch church reformer and political leader, who had pursued the avenue of organized communal witness and action on the part of Christians outside of the institutional church. In the third place, Runner attempted to develop a new Christian mind which he considered essential for decisive spheres of modern society. The lectures contained in The Relation of the Bible to Learning and in its companion volume, Scriptural Religion and Political Task, are his most significant statements about the foundations and contours of such a Christian mind.

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One Comment on “Zylstra on Runner”

  1. Suusanne E. Vandenbosch, Ph. D. Says:

    I took a philosophy class from Professor Runner at Calvin College in 1953 or 1954. I remember him lecturing about Christian influences on Plato. I was somewhat skeptical about this as Plato lived 400 years before Jesus Christ. Probably I was influenced more by my Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics majors than by my Philosophy minor.


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