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Nothing matters more

An interview with Wheaton College's new president

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

When Wheaton College's trustees gathered on Friday evening, Jan. 19, it was to wrap up the most important task any such board ever takes on. They voted to approve the appointment of Philip G. Ryken as the college's eighth president in its 150-year history. Ryken, 43, is a Wheaton graduate (1988) and holds degrees as well from Westminster Seminary and Oxford University. For the last nine years, he has been senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philadelphia.

I've explored several times on this page those forces that prompt schools either to hold fast to their founding principles or to drift, as they so often do, to the left. In that context, I've concluded, nothing matters more than top leadership.

So now, to those critics, cynics, or more casual observers who have sometimes puzzled over Wheaton's direction over the last generation or two, the school's board has sent a clear message. In picking Ryken, the trustees have said boldly-and unanimously-that Wheaton's historic evangelical commitments matter. I asked Ryken:

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Wheaton College, for at least a couple of generations, has enjoyed a reputation as the flagship academic institution of evangelicalism. Does Wheaton still deserve that reputation in 2010? By the grace of God, Wheaton continues to set a high standard of excellence in Christian liberal arts education. Wheaton is also a definitional institution. People both inside and outside the evangelical community look to the college for clarity about what it means to be evangelical. Although we do not claim a position of leadership for ourselves, we do seek to provide leadership where it is looked for.

What's the biggest threat to Wheaton, and the trust evangelicals have placed in the college for so long? The main challenge for any Christian community is always the same: to maintain theological integrity and spiritual vitality from generation to generation. The biggest threat is that we will lose our way and cease to be what the college has always tried to be: "For Christ and His Kingdom."

You have a personal reputation for some pretty explicit biblical and theological commitments. But academia in general-and sometimes even Wheaton College-seems preoccupied with diversity. How will you handle that? The theological diversity of Wheaton College is appropriate to its academic mission. One of the things I have always appreciated about Wheaton is the rich diversity of evangelical traditions that intersect on its campus. Our Statement of Faith identifies the core doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, on which we all agree. Beyond that, we have the academic and theological freedom to hold our own doctrinal views (Reformed, in my case)-and the loving responsibility to respect those who differ.

You are a churchman, coming from one of the most noteworthy congregations in America. During the presidential search at Wheaton in recent months, some Wheaton alumni and other activists openly scoffed at the idea of a pastor being selected as the new president. They also didn't like the fact that Wheaton's retiring president had come from the pastorate. What's your response? I understand the need for an institution of Wheaton's caliber to be led by someone who understands higher education-a qualification most pastors lack. I also recognize that there are some important differences between pastoral and presidential leadership. I will have a lot to learn. Yet I also pray that my pastoral background will be an asset in resolving conflicts and building consensus, in exercising theological discernment, in edifying the student body through chapel addresses, and in fostering a community of grace on campus.

Why do even good institutions so predictably drift to the left? What can Wheaton, and other evangelical colleges, do specifically so they don't have to be included in some later version of James Burtchaell's sad book from 1998, The Dying of the Light? Burtchaell focuses on the role that the Board of Trustees needs to play in maintaining institutional integrity-that's part of it. So is the recruitment and retention of faculty, staff, and administrators who truly share Wheaton's theological commitments and spiritual vision. But as much as anything, we need the help of God's Spirit.

Good stories center on a problem, and that problem's resolution. So ideally, 20 years from now, how would you like the story of Philip Ryken's presidency at Wheaton College to read? What problem? What resolution? I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, so I can't even begin to write the script for my tenure at Wheaton. My simple prayer-for a calling in which I am desperately dependent on the grace of God-is that I will be faithful to Christ and the work of His kingdom.
If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Joel Belz, click here.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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