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Interview by Todd C. Ream


Leadership for Christ and His Kingdom

A conversation with Philip Graham Ryken.

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Just as Wheaton College was celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2010, it also found itself naming a new president. Duane Litfin had announced his retirement plans a couple of years earlier, and the community turned to an alumnus and son of a celebrated faculty member to wear the mantle of leadership. While the decision to leave the pulpit of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church was not an easy one, in many ways the journey back to Wheaton proved to Philip Ryken that one can truly go home again. Shortly after he had completed his first year in office, Todd Ream sat down with President Ryken in historic Blanchard Hall on the Wheaton College campus.

You grew up on campus, and your father has been a professor of English here for more than 40 years. You were a member of the class of 1988, and you have been a member of the board of trustees, so in many ways serving as the president is like coming home.

I've actually been surprised at how familiar the campus context feels to me. They say you can't go home again, but I feel in so many ways I really have come home. The vibrancy of the student community, the ongoing life of teachers and scholars who are engaged as faculty members on a liberal arts campus like this, the physical space in which we do our academic work—all of these things were part of my childhood. Whenever I came back for a visit, during our many years away, I had a sense of being in my natural habitat. This may be the only place in the world I can go where people still call me Philip—there are faculty members here who remember me from when I was a boy.

What in particular propelled you to accept the presidency?

The short answer is it became really clear that God was calling us to do this. My wife and I had for some period of time been open to the possibility of coming to Wheaton. From the very day I started Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, I approached that as potentially a life-long calling. We were very happy there, those were our close relationships and all the things about leaving were negative, not positive. We loved living in the city, loved the people I was working with on staff at the church. But we were open to the possibility of coming to Wheaton partly because as the college developed its profile, it seemed to us just as a matter of sober judgment that it might be something that I would have the gifts to do. It was a process of the door always just being a little bit more open and a little bit more open and a little more open, rather than closing at one of any number of places where it could have closed. So I view it as both an inward calling and an outward calling that's a matter of obedience to the Holy Spirit.

What do you see as the most important dimension of your role as president? Your predecessor, Duane Litfin, said it was encouraging or cultivating an environment for the integration of faith and learning. You may have a different answer.

My answer would be very similar to that. The way I usually say it is that my primary responsibility is to do what a president can do to cultivate, maintain, encourage, and promote into a new generation the theological orthodoxy, spiritual vitality, and intellectual rigor of Wheaton College as a Christ-centered liberal arts campus. There's a theological dimension to that, and there's also a spiritual dimension, which of course is closely tied to the theological but is a thing unto itself. We're an academic institution, so there's always a commitment to the life of the mind. And we do talk about integrating learning with faith or learning with faith and living. I prefer to talk about integrating learning with faith so that faith is clearly seen to be the fundamental thing—the reintegration of learning with faith, partly for historical reasons, because I think that's something we've gotten away from in higher education in America, but also thinking in terms of the flow of redemptive history.The life of faith and the life of the mind were always intended to be together, and it's only in the fallen world that they get separated and need to be brought together again.

Wheaton is an evangelical institution. In their recent book The Anointed, which takes a critical look at evangelical populism and anti-intellectualism, Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson observe that evangelicals "are arrayed along a broad spectrum of believers." Some schools have a denominational connection, but Wheaton is rooted in the larger evangelical movement. In what ways does that "broad spectrum" influence the statement of faith, the educational purpose, and the lifestyle expectations of the school?

The definition of "evangelical" has been a contested issue for a long time, and that's undergone a lot of sociological and historical scrutiny. At the end of all that, I'm not sure if we're any clearer on what an evangelical is or isn't. We certainly are very comfortable talking about Wheaton as an evangelical institution, but if you ask how we're defined, it's not so much by that label as it is by our mission statement and our statement of faith itself. Students and faculty and staff at Wheaton College come from many different denominations and backgrounds. I think that's always been one of the great things about Wheaton. I have a lot of respect for many other Christian colleges and universities in the United States, many of which have vital denominational connections. At the same time, I think there is something healthy about us living in community with believers in Christ who do not have all of the same views that we have and do not have all of the same background and practices that we have. It's similar to the kind of physical health that comes to a community when it's not so homogenous that it's susceptible to certain kinds of viruses and diseases; there's a spiritual health that comes through those communal relationships in the wider body of Christ. What unifies us fundamentally is our relationship to Christ and the work of his Spirit, but what enables us to live in community is also our statement of faith and our community covenant, and so if you want to know what the boundaries of our community are or what we mean by evangelical, it's in large measure defined by our statement of faith and community covenant.

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