The Winter 2003 issue of Comment carried an article by Dr. Al Wolters on “The Importance of H. Evan Runner.” The article explained how this charismatic figure came to exert an inordinate influence on many academics, ministers, and social activists through his inspired teaching and his erudite elaboration of the neocalvinist worldview with its defining themes of integral religion and the order of creation as manifest in both structure and direction.
In this essay, I would like to add my personal experiences of Dr. Howard Evan Runner (1916-2002) and tell about the instrument that this unforgettable teacher used so effectively, in addition to his regular course lectures and public speaking engagements. That instrument was a student club named the Groen van Prinsterer Society, better known as the Groen Club.
Student clubs with lasting impacts are a common phenomenon in the life of universities. In the 1780s, for example, the University of Edinburgh boasted The Club, which embraced members such as Walter Scott, friend of traditional folk and later historical novelist, and Thomas Douglas, the adventuresome philanthropist who as Lord Selkirk took pity on dispossessed Scottish peasants evicted by “improving” landlords and founded settlements for them across the Atlantic, most notably along the Red River near present-day Winnipeg.
Half a century earlier, in the 1730s, Oxford had the Holy Club, started by Charles and John Wesley for the purpose of study, prayer, self-examination, mutual encouragement, and good works, such as visiting prisons. This was the beginning of the Methodist movement in the Church of England, with historical repercussions to this day.
In 1810, a band of theological students in Geneva formed a club under the unassuming name Société des Amis. This club turned into a gathering place for critical reflection which soon became the base of operations for two visitors from the British Isles, Robert Haldane and Henry Drummond. The private lectures on Bible books by these two men soon ignited an evangelical revival that would radiate outward over Switzerland and other parts of Western Europe.
And, to name one more, in the 1830s in the Netherlands, the city of Leyden witnessed the rise of the controversial Club van Scholte, a more or less informal group of students who together attended a weekly prayer and Bible study evening. Named after Hendrik Pieter Scholte, its members included Albertus van Raalte, Anthonie Brummelkamp, and Simon van Velsen. All would soon become leaders in the Secession by orthodox people from the broad national church. The last two became professors in the new denomination’s seminary in the city of Kampen; the first two took their flocks to the freedom of Iowa and Michigan in the New World.
All these clubs were high-minded endeavours whose impact rippled through the decades to follow, far into the next century, causing changes in their society that have lasted to the present day. The Groen Club—its members and its mentor—whose historical impact we can today assess in a provisional manner, may well fit in the same category.
The seed for the Groen Club was sown on February 5, 1953 when Calvin College professor H. Evan Runner delivered a public address, Het Roer Om! [“Rudder Hard Over!”] in the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The occasion was the launching of a new organization, the Calvinistic Cultural Association. In his invited address, the professor argued that North American Christians needed to depart from their individualistic ways of being involved in society and to strike out for an uncompromisingly Christian way, in distinct organizations where appeal could be made to the law of God. He further stated that American public life was rooted in rationalist humanism, that Republican or Democrat should not exhaust a voter’s choice, that neutral institutions are really “expressions of an apostate faith,” and more of the kind.
In the days and weeks that followed, these provocative statements sparked a general discussion—at times flaring up into heated debate—on the college campus. A small number of students said to each other: Do we really have to “throw the rudder over”? True, our immigrant parents have tried to warn us about the American way of life and its questionable roots. But this is so radical! We’d like to hear more about this “third way.” Imagine, he talked about a “Christian culture,” and he seems to believe in such a thing as a “Christian organization.” We have heard these things at home, but we never thought they could be relevant in the New World.
As a result of their curiosity, two students were delegated to approach professor Runner. One of them was fresh off the boat from Amsterdam, and the other had immigrated with his parents from Friesland to Michigan. They asked Runner if he would be willing to meet with students one evening every other week to discuss the things he had orated about. He agreed.
That fall, the new student club was born. Its first meeting was held in Room 32 of the college’s Administration Building. Naturally, Runner was the faculty sponsor—every club on campus had to have such a sponsor. He came to the expectant members with an ambitious program of study. It was designed to be a systematic approach to delving into the meaning of the Reformed or Calvinist religion in all its ramifications for the life of service that students were preparing for, whether that be in science, business, the gospel ministry, medicine, law, or education.
Interviewed in 1976, Runner recalled this about the program:
It involved the question of who the Puritans were, the meaning of the Enlightenment, its influence in America, the basic ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, the nature of Scholasticism, particularly as manifested in Reformed theology, the concept of natural law, the religious ground-motives that have successively given order to the experience of Western man, the origins of capitalism, the rise of the labour movement, and so on and so forth.
Interestingly, these were themes that echoed closely what Runner had noted down as his main educational goals when he was writing his dissertation and preparing for a teaching career but which by 1953 had sunk into his subconscious. Some years earlier, he had scribbled: Take distance from the Pilgrims and Calvinists of New England (they were compromised by rationalism); repudiate conservatism (it is merely one wing of the humanistic bloc); train young college students to think of these things (they can awaken the Christian community in North America).
The new club adopted the program of study. It was obvious that it meant business. The topics were divided over the dozen or so members, who then met in small groups and reported on their findings in the plenary meetings. Here they would read Scripture, open with prayer, and make their presentations followed by discussion. Before long, the members prepared a translation from the Dutch of a syllabus that they found very useful. Entitled The Bible and the Life of the Christian, it was originally composed as a manual for a leadership training course and consisted of a wide-ranging but coherent set of chapters that explored “structures of creation” and issues in key areas of modern society—all from an “anti-revolutionary” standpoint.
Indeed, members were soon learning about the emergence in nineteenth-century Holland of the “anti-Revolution,” a movement that had marked a revival of a culturally engaged Calvinism in its principled opposition to “unbelief and revolution” or modern secularism in public life, an ideology first preached by the Enlightenment and launched by the French Revolution. Runner again:
We needed to get into Groen van Prinsterer’s Ongeloof en Revolutie, so I assigned it chapter by chapter, and we had just begun it when I also decided that we ought to try our hand at translating it, to get more deeply into the work and into the meaning of it. That all happened in those early years, and although I myself only half knew where it would take us, we soon felt sure in our hearts that we were working in the right direction.
Runner himself only “half knew”? Yes, that’s how he remembered it. We are fortunate to have his reminiscences from the year 1963, when the Groen Club celebrated its tenth anniversary. On that occasion, he reflected aloud about the meaning and origin of the club. (The speech was later stencilled and made available in a small booklet, which I shall quote several times.) In the course of those reflections, he related how one of the charter members came to him many years later and informed him, with a smile, that in the first year of the club probably none of the fellows really knew what they were doing. To this anecdote Runner added: “I did not, even at that late date, dare to confess to him that I, the sponsor, had only half known!”
It is a real eye-opener, after 40 years, to read how Runner himself, on the club’s tenth anniversary, sized up what the Groen Club was all about. His opening words on that occasion are in his characteristic style:
There is something really “fascinating” about the Groen Club, just as Rudolf Otto said there is about the object to which our sense of the holy is directed, the so-called mysterium tremendum. Indeed, the Groen Club is altogether an amazing phenomenon, at once (again using Otto’s terms) “quelling and yet entrancing the soul.” Everyone finds it difficult to say what the Groen Club actually is; for to speak of it as a club is simply to state our lingual embarrassment and impotence. Above all else, I suppose we may say, the Groen Club is a movement.
Runner became more specific when he went on to say that “many of our young men have been swept up into a new movement for a radically Scriptural reformation of the branches of theory and the several areas of life practice, and are now at this or that stage of preparation for assuming positions of leadership in the gigantic struggle of our time.” Deeply impressed by 10 years of startling growth, Runner wondered out loud: “Whatever put all this life into that little band of men with which we began back there in the fall of 1953? What is the power, the strength, the attraction, the fascination of the Groen Club? What has given it its sense of urgency and all the energies it has so variously deployed through these years?”
Pondering these questions, Runner came up with this answer: “I have been mightily confirmed in my conviction that there is in our human life a depth level of religion, and that it is at this level of the mainsprings of our life that we are to find the explanation of the phenomenon we know as the Groen Club.” In that fumbling first year 1953-1954, he recalled, the members and their sponsor felt that there was “something of radical importance” in their work, something that would prove to be decisive for the rest of their lives.
The Groen Club was first of all a spiritual or religious sensing of the possibility of a radically and integrally Scriptural life-expression before there came any articulation of that sense in particular form. . . . There had to be introduced into our life a germinal principle so fertile that it would grow to embrace almost all the discussions that most other clubs [on campus] have, whether they be pre-sem clubs, mission clubs, political science clubs, psychology clubs and you can go down the list. I have insisted for many years now that our Groen Club cannot be considered a rival to other existing clubs: it functions at a deeper level. The seed was introduced, but imagine the embarrassment of us the recipients, who had had neither the time nor the experience to prepare for what was bound to come of that seed. For one thing, the “wholeness” of the new life-principle had to be grasped more or less at once, though in club meetings we had as a rule to limit our discussions to this or that restricted topic. This meant that the club meetings often did not satisfy us that we were succeeding in getting at what we all felt was there to be got at.
That is how the sponsor after a decade recalled the early years of the club. I was a member between 1959-1964, the fortunate object of the life-shaping education that was to be had in its meetings. Despite a hostile environment—there were taunts and jeers; posted announcements were ripped off; at one time, Room 32 was declared out of bounds for the club; at another time, the college tried to foist another sponsor on the club—we club members carried on. We wanted our Christian life to be all of a piece, and so we were driven by a fierce desire to try and grasp what the Dutch church father of the nineteenth century, Abraham Kuyper, had meant when he spoke of “the re-discovery in our time of the Reformed principle as a life-principle.”
It was understood from the start that the Groen Club had to be a loose organization, one with an open-door policy suited to “the frontier situation” in which it found itself. But experience had made our sponsor cautious. He persuaded the founding fathers that a distinction should be made between, on the one hand, a “closely knit inner fellowship” of those who shared a “radical commitment to root religious questions,” and, on the other hand, all those students who were still only seekers—a broad fringe of members who were seriously in search of a life vision but who had to be content for the time being to stay on the fringe and not aspire to give leadership. The ultimate prize was a vision that would enable members to turn, in Runner’s words, “from a form of Christianity which has been accommodated to the cultural patterns of the hitherto dominant humanism, to a radically Scriptural Christianity which seeks the reformation of all life-expression.”
Clearly, this was a totalist approach requiring something like total dedication. I vividly remember the powerful appeal of its radical nature. Its counter-cultural non-conformism and missionary zeal could not but tug at the hearts of college students looking for a cause to which they could give themselves. Predictably, we became overconfident and at times turned arrogant if not obnoxious with other professors in other classrooms. In our better moments, however, our overriding motivation was to proselytize and to witness, if perhaps too enthusiastically, to our growing conviction that biblical principles, which everybody espoused in general terms only, should be made directly relevant for the subject-matter of our courses. In the words of our mentor: “The powerful Word of God, which is the ordering Principle of our life, should also structure the life of the mind.
One of the secrets of this teacher’s effectiveness must have been that he focused on the total person. Whether in the classroom or in the club, Runner gave of himself, sharing not only his knowledge but also his life and his deepest convictions. And once he had you he held you. He looked after his little flock like a shepherd, invited straying sheep to his house, going for long walks with them. At times, he would take the club’s president aside and say, “That fellow in the front row, talk to him tomorrow, and tell him to listen for a few meetings before asking his questions.” Or again: “You see that boy who always sits in the back? He needs to be encouraged to stay with us. Look him up some time soon.”
Incidentally, it was some years before women students were welcomed as members. For awhile, they met separately. But Runner always respected and encouraged them in their academic work. In 1961, the club became co-educational.
Who joined? The faculty sponsor was not above actively recruiting for his club. I am a case in point. When I went to Calvin College in 1959, I had never heard of Dr. Runner, and I knew nothing about a Groen Club. That first week, a professor wearing a brown suit and a floppy fedora buttonholed me in front of my locker and said, “Hello! Are you from Canada?”
“Yes, sir,” I stammered. (It must have been my haircut that gave me away.)
“Aha,” he went on. “And what brings you to our campus?”
His kind face and smiling eyes encouraged me to say what was on my heart. “Well, I graduated from a public high school in Ontario, and I am tired of fighting my teachers. I want to learn a Christian approach to history.”
At this he looked me straight in the face, gently poked his finger at my chest, and said, “You know, you may soon discover that our college is not quite what it should be. But you ought to come to the Groen Club! We’re meeting this Thursday night, eight o’clock, up in Room 32.”
Of course I went. And I was hooked.
When Runner came to sum up the appeal of the club in that tenth anniversary speech, he resorted to the language of faith by offering this explanation:
The “fascination” of our club is the winsome influence of the Holy Spirit of God at work in our midst. The “power” in our movement is nothing of ours, but is the Spirit’s irresistible power. The Groen Club has never been the cause of us who first stumbled onto it or who have kept it going since then. From the start we have wanted to put ourselves at the disposal of the sovereign God speaking in His Word. We want the power He employs to bring in His Kingdom to be operative through us in our club activities. That is the only secret the Groen Club has. It is mystery only to such Christians as have not learned to take the Lord at His Word.
Runner ended his speech by quoting former members who had often remarked in their words of farewell at the club’s annual closing banquet that they thought it “a remarkable providence of the Lord which had brought the club’s sponsor and the first Canadian students to Calvin College within a year of each other.” That was indeed remarkable and deserves a further comment.
In the very years that Runner started his teaching career in Michigan, a large contingent of Reformed immigrants from the Netherlands moved into Alberta and Ontario and some of the other provinces and, hardly having settled down, began to work at introducing alternatives to the prevailing secular philosophy entrenched in the public life of their adopted country. They launched ventures for promoting scripturally-directed education, non-adversarial labour relations, stewardly farming practices, Christian media.
As the first fledgling organizations began to stir, news of them reached Runner, who at once recognized these folks as his spiritual kin. Before long, the Dutch-Canadian immigrants and the American college professor met and joyfully encouraged each other. And when the sons and daughters of these immigrants came to the college where Runner taught, many of them naturally gravitated to his courses and his Groen Club.
The mutual recognition of spiritual kinship was helped by the fact that Runner was himself an immigrant. He was of Scotch-Irish extraction but lived and worked in Grand Rapids, in a community whose Dutch background after a century was still palpable. Thus he, too, often felt like a stranger in a strange land. Over time and against its will, a kind of ethnic wall arose around the Groen Club, or at least so it was perceived from the outside. This barrier began to stand in the way of the purpose for which it was founded. After 20 years, in 1973, Runner discontinued the club.
For many students, in the meantime, the Groen Club had changed nothing less than the direction of their life, while for others it reinforced a Kuyperian upbringing at home and church and helped articulate what came to be referred to as a reformational approach to their discipline. For all of us, it drove home a lesson for life: We were not called to safeguard a ghetto but to be a penetrating salt in the time and place where God had put us.
A similar urgency was felt by those Reformed students whose chosen fields of study had taken them to the secular provincial universities and who had formed study groups of their own. The best known of them went by the collective name of F.O.C.U.S. Before long, they took up contact with the Groen Club and invited its sponsor to come over and give an inspirational address. A number of these clubs also adopted the Groen Club syllabus.
All this came accompanied by a strong historical sense. We were drilled in the “grand sweep” of Western culture. This story ran from pagan Greek beginnings, through the misguided medieval synthesis, to a rediscovery of the gospel as a power at the time of the Reformation, to the demise of the Reformation as a cultural force and the rise of the first Great Apostasy of Christendom in the form of the Enlightenment, followed by a second Great Apostasy as a result of the social question that wracked the nineteenth century, from there into the twentieth century and the age of destructive ideological wars, but finally also to the wondrous revival of reformational thought and action in the form of neocalvinism.
A relatively high percentage of Groen Club members went on to graduate studies, earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. In the acknowledgements at the head of their theses, they would write words of thanks such as the following: “To Professor H. Evan Runner I owe a special debt of gratitude for providing me with new vistas.” Another wrote: “To Dr. Runner I owe but one thing: the conviction that life is religion. One could hardly owe more to a human being.” Still another: “It was Professor Runner who through his inspired teaching first awakened my interest in Christian philosophizing. Without his urging I would not have gone to study at the Free University in Amsterdam.” I myself wrote: “Professor H. Evan Runner was my guide in the transition from worldview to academic studies; his articulation of the possibility of integral Christian scholarship gave me direction when I needed it most.”
Here lies at least one other reason for the lasting impact that Runner had. Long before it became common currency, he inspired us with the dream to be satisfied with nothing less than “integral Christian scholarship.” That is not a question, he explained, of somehow bringing together competent science and Christian habits and values. Rather, it is a person’s single-minded and whole-hearted endeavour to think like a Christian from the word go. It is the exciting task to grapple in terms of scriptural guiding principles with the starting points and methodologies of one’s academic discipline. It is the sacred calling to drop vain imaginations and, in the words of the apostle, “to surrender every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
This challenge was held out to us with the motto that Runner coined: Life is religion! Even in your studies, you serve either the Creator or a god of your own making, an idol. Over and over again he would remind us of the all-encompassing scope of God’s dealings with humankind—in creating and sustaining us in all the rich variety of ordinary human life, and no less in redeeming us from the curse of sin and corruption through the saving and restoring work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ the Lord, he would say, is lord over every aspect of created reality and lays claim to all of it, academics not excluded. One of the club’s past presidents wrote me the other day: “Dr. Runner helped me to make the transition from a basically dualistic life view to an integrated one, a transition that has enriched me the rest of the journey.”
One scripture passage was never far from our discussions. It was a single verse from the 86th Psalm: “Unite my heart to fear Your name!” It was the keynote, really, of all of Runner’s teaching and all his public addresses at rallies in Grand Rapids, Edmonton, Sarnia, Ontario, and Toronto, and at student conferences at Unionville, Ontario and Banff, Alberta. Undivided devotion to a sovereign God. Nothing less would do. Hence the need to recognize the antithesis in human life, the struggle between obedience to God’s laws and disregard of them. On this score, Runner’s whole being opposed all halfness and compromise. He was utterly averse to any talk of accommodation to our culture and adjustment to the facts.
The keynote of the Rudder Hard Over speech was never forgotten. After studying at Wheaton College, Westminster Seminary, and Harvard University, Evan Runner had spent four years at graduate studies in Kampen with theologians such as Jan Ridderbos and Klaas Schilder and in Amsterdam with philosophers such as Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven. During his years in the Netherlands, he had observed that a revival of scriptural religion does not just produce personal piety and theological orthodoxy, but that it leads to a fresh and aggressive engagement of society and culture on many fronts.
From this he drew the conclusion that the biblical injunction, “Come out from among them and be separate” was of strategic value and acute relevance in the modern world. For Christians to be effectively involved in society and participate in the life of their nation, they needed to act as a body, Runner learned, and to consort together in their own separate organizations. For only here can the Bible, and not the wisdom of man, be the first and foremost source of inspiration and the authoritative compass. Only here can involved Christians sharpen one another’s insights and build each other up. Only here can man-made ideologies be unmasked as unsafe guides and false prophecy, in need of replacement by full-scale alternatives.
Of course, most Christians will readily agree that organizing separately holds for the church, and perhaps also for educational institutions. But Runner hammered it into us that this vital strategy holds also for the university, the world of work and industry, the media, and similar socio-cultural zones. Only in this way, he insisted, can Christ’s Body share its undiluted testimony with a lost and needy world, on an equal footing, in a directly relevant way, appropriate to the life zone in question.
Naturally, an emphasis such as this made Runner a much sought-after speaker at key gatherings of such organizations as the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship and the Christian Labour Association of Canada, two organizations that were founded half a century ago and that have sponsored, respectively, the Institute for Christian Studies and the Work Research Foundation. That is why readers of this journal may find it interesting to learn more about H. Evan Runner, who indirectly figured as one of Comment‘s spiritual fathers.
- “Our Sponsor Reflects on the Meaning and Origin of the Groen Club.” In Groen Van Prinsterer Club: 10th Anniversary Booklet, by Sidney Greidanus and James H. Olthuis, eds. (Grand Rapids: The Groen van Prinsterer Society, 1963), 1-24.
- H. Evan Runner, “Can Canada Tolerate the CLAC? The Achilles’ Heel of a Humanistic Society,” in A Christian Union in Labour’s Wasteland, by Ed Vanderkloet, ed. (Toronto: Wedge, 1979), 71-106.
- Runner, “Christian Witness Requires Christian Organization,” Torch and Trumpet 4.2 (June-July 1954), 1-8.
- Runner, “Het Roer Om! A Call to Christian Action,” Torch and Trumpet 3.1 (April- May 1953), 1-4.
- Runner, “On Being Anti-Revolutionary and Christian-Historical at the Cutting-Edge of History,” in Christian Political Options, by C. den Hollander, ed., (The Hague: AR-Partijstichting, 1979), 109-39.
- Anon. [Runner], Place and Task of an Institute of Reformed Scientific Studies (Hamilton, Ontario: Association for Reformed Scientific Studies, nd ).
- Runner, “The Christian and the World: An Historical Introduction to a Christian Theory of Culture,” Torch and Trumpet 5 (1955), continuing series, April to October.
- Harry Van Dyke and Albert M. Wolters, “Interview with Dr. H. Evan Runner,” in Hearing and Doing: Philosophical Essays Dedicated to H. Evan Runner, by John Kraay and Anthony Tol, eds. (Toronto: Wedge, 1979), 333-361.
- Bernard Zylstra, “H. Evan Runner: An Assessment of His Mission,” in Life Is Religion: Essays in Honor of H. Evan Runner, by Henry Vander Goot, ed. (St. Catharines, Ontario: Paideia, 1981), 1-14.
- Zylstra, “Preface to Runner,” in Foreword to The Relation of the Bible to Learning, 5th ed., by H. Evan Runner (Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia, 1982), 9-34.