This article appears in the Winter 2021 edition of the Calvin Seminary Forum
Interview with Mary VandenBerg
This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of the Calvin Seminary Forum
Mary VandenBerg is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Seminary, the first tenured female professor. She recently sat down to discuss aspects of her teaching, ministry, and calling.
How were you called to seminary?
My call to seminary came later in life. I was a graduate of Calvin College, where I studied biology. After graduation I worked in a couple different jobs before we had our first child. With his birth, my husband and I decided I would not return to paid employment. I became a full-time homemaker at that point. We received the gift of 2 more children in the next several years. In addition to home-making, I volunteered many hours at church and at our kid’s school as well as working part-time on and off.
There were a number of moments in my life that led me to seminary but one huge influence was my love of the Bible, something nurtured in Bible Study Fellowship. In my late thirties, as my youngest child was nearing school age, I began asking God what was next for me. As I was praying one day, and asking God this question I heard the question back, what about seminary? I had never in my life thought about seminary studies so this sent me on a journey of discerning if seminary could be in my future.
How did you choose Calvin Seminary?
During this time of discernment, I attended an event held by Calvin Seminary at a local church. It was about discerning one’s call to seminary. The registrar at the time, John VanderLugt, convinced me to try taking a class.
I chose to take the course “Doctrine of Salvation” with Dr. Neal Plantinga. I had read his book on sin and was excited for the possibility of being taught by him. I had a lot of questions and knew almost nothing about theology. The first day of class Dr. Plantinga told us that a living faith is a faith that asks questions, a faith seeking understanding. When I heard those words I felt like the spirit was saying, you found your place.
What was your experience like as a student, and how did you transition to the faculty?
I had no plan when I began my studies, but soon enrolled in the Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree program. During that time I had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant with Dr. Dan Kroeze at Kuyper College. I ended up focusing on Old Testament studies, and was encouraged by some of my professors to consider doctoral work. After finishing the MTS degree I taught Old Testament Survey at Cornerstone University where I was once again encouraged to consider doctoral work.
Wondering if God was suggesting I pursue teaching, I applied and was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Calvin Seminary. Although I intended to study the history of Old Testament exegesis with Dr. Richard Muller, in my second quarter of doctoral studies I took an atonement course with Dr. Ronald Feenstra and switched into Systematic Theology. During the fourth year of the program I had the opportunity to teach courses at Calvin Seminary, Western Seminary, and Kuyper College. These opportunities affirmed my calling to teach.
The following year, in order to focus on finishing my dissertation, I turned down all teaching opportunities except for teaching one course at Calvin Seminary. In December of 2007 Calvin opened a position for teaching, and specifically invited women and minorities to apply. After a rather grueling interview process, I was offered a position teaching Systematic Theology and Old Testament in May 2008 and was affirmed by Synod in June 2008.
What has been difficult about your journey? What has been life giving?
Several things were difficult. I did not know where all of this education was leading. I enjoyed the MTS program and made good friends but I did not have a clear sense of a specific calling other than to continue my studies. That uncertainty remained into my PhD studies and was frustrating at times. In addition, the Ph.D. was a very challenging and very lonely time. I think following God often isn’t easy. The stories of the people in Hebrews 11 make that clear. And then there is the imposter syndrome that many professional women face. Questions like, ‘am I good enough,’ or ‘do I measure up’ remain close to the surface, even as a professor. What is important, however, is that throughout my time as a student and also as a professor, I can testify that God who called me is faithful. He is at work within me, reminding me I am not alone. (Phil. 2:13) Remembering this during really tough weeks or when I feel like I just don’t fit gives me encouragement to persevere.
Despite difficulties, God has blessed me here at Calvin Seminary. I am so grateful God called me here. Some days I still find myself surprised and almost giddy that I have the privilege of spending large blocks of my time doing what I love – wondering and thinking about God. The best part of my work is interacting with students. These interactions are very often life-giving, glimpses of grace. Teaching energizes me and the lack of face to face contact with students this past year has been hard. My mission has always been to teach in a way that shows students why theology matters and what difference good theological thinking makes in life. In the end, I hope my teaching points students to God as he has revealed himself and that it makes them want to know and love God more. I hope to leave them wondering and thinking, not having all their questions answered, just like my professors did for me. I hope I am a piece of their formation that pushes their faith to continue to seek understanding, even when that understanding comes cloaked in mystery.
This article appears on page 22 of the Summer 2021 edition of the Forum. Download this issue.