Listening In: Philip Ryken

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with the president of Wheaton College, Dr. Philip Ryken.

Dr. Philip Ryken is the 8th president in the 160-year history of Wheaton College, a college which is widely regarded as one of the top Christian colleges in the country.  He’s been in that role for nearly 10 years.

Before assuming the presidency of Wheaton College, he was a pastor at the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, first joining the pastoral staff in 1995, and then becoming senior pastor upon the death of James Boice in 2000.

Ryken is also the author of a number of books, including “Art for God’s Sake,” published in 2006 and which some credit with a resurgence of interest by the church in the role of Christians in the arts.  We discuss that book later in the program.

I had this conversation with Philip Ryken on campus of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Philip Ryken, welcome to the program. And, you know, providentially, fortuitously, whatever word you want to use, a couple of days ago there was an announcement that Concordia College up in Portland—Concordia University—was shutting its doors. A Christian college that had been around for well over a hundred years. And it just made me realize and have a recent data point to say that Christian higher ed has a lot of challenges these days.

PHILIP RYKEN, GUEST: Yeah, certainly there’s a lot of financial challenges in higher education right now. And Christian higher education definitely is not immune from those challenges and that’s a sad event because the alumni of an institution have a very strong personal sense of connection. So there’s a loss and a grief that goes with that. I think people have been forecasting more closures and mergers in higher education and we are seeing some uptick in that. It’ll be interesting to see what these coming years bring.

SMITH: Yeah. And I want to drill down into that a little bit and also talk about your own experience at Wheaton because you say alumni have a powerful connection to the school. You’re an alum of Wheaton, right?

RYKEN: Yeah. So, and that’s not too uncommon, but you know, it’s such a privilege as a college president to come back to a school you love and have an opportunity to give something back and serve an institution that’s made a big difference in your life.

SMITH: Well, let’s talk about some of those challenges. Concordia—I think the conventional wisdom among—and it’s not just Christian colleges—but some of the challenges that all colleges are facing are demographic challenges. Some of them are sort of funding models and financial challenges, but I think the conventional wisdom has been that if you kind of have a critical mass, if you’re large enough, if you’ve got maybe more than a couple of thousand students, and if you’ve got an endowment and you’ve got an alumni base, it’s been around for a while, all of which Concordia had, that you’re immune to some of those challenges. But leadership must matter somewhat as well.

RYKEN: Yeah. So I don’t know that any school is really immune. There may be a few schools that are immune from financial challenges, but you know, the factors that you mentioned are all definitely in play—the size of your student body, the scope of your endowment. The one you didn’t mention in that list is the school’s brand and reputation and the sense that people have that this is an excellent place to provide an education. So that sense of mission and making sure you’re clear about your mission for your constituency is also very important. I don’t know any of the details at Concordia, I will say I see many Christian colleges that I believe are well led—we have many excellent college presidents in this country. I mean, I spend a lot of time with other college presidents and just so many people I admire—but sometimes the challenges are greater than the leadership you’re able to provide. So I think we’re entering into that kind of turbulent season.

SMITH: Let’s talk a little bit about Wheaton specifically. And especially since you brought up that word, the R-word, reputation, the brand, you know, Wheaton kind of has the reputation of being the Christian Harvard, so to speak. It’s been around for a long time—150 plus years. It’s got a long list of distinguished alumni. Many of the leaders in the evangelical church for the last 75 to 100 years have either graduated from or at least attended or been associated with Wheaton at some point along the way. Does that help you guys?

RYKEN: So yeah, for sure it does. And I think there aren’t that many schools that were founded in the 19th century which maintain their distinctively Christ-centered mission today. There are a handful, but most of the colleges that were started all over the country in the 19th century were denominational schools. They were founded on Christian principles. I mean, if you had gone to visit Wheaton College and the University of Chicago in the year 1900, they would have been not indistinguishable, but pretty close to that. You would have said, yeah, these are very similar schools. They have a very similar kind of mission and the trajectory that our two schools have gone in the 20th century is so radically divergent. And that’s just one little example of what we’ve seen in higher education, generally. I think the more touch points people have with your alumni, with your legacy, it definitely strengthens your ability to attract students. Having said that, we are talking about 16, 17, 18 year olds that are making college decisions for all kinds of reasons. So you can’t just kind of point to a historical legacy. It’s really about the kind of education that you’re providing today, the kind of spiritual community you have, the academic opportunities. It’s very much about the now, not just the then.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, and I want to talk about the now, but I want to also since you mentioned the comparison say between the University of Chicago and your school in the year 1900, I want to talk about the then because a lot’s happened during that century in a fifth, 120 years since that year, 1900. What made the difference for Wheaton? Why did Wheaton, you know, sort of stay on that path of biblical fidelity and a school—you mentioned Chicago, I would think a school that comes maybe closer to my mind would be a school like Oberlin, for example, which was you know, one of the first presidents was was Charles Finney who is sometimes considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Second Great Awakening, one of the great revival movements in this country. And Oberlin could not be farther from its Christian roots and farther from anything related to conservatism or biblical fidelity. What made the difference for Wheaton?

RYKEN: Yeah. So, you know, Oberlin I think is a very apt comparison because there would’ve been a lot of interconnections between Oberlin and Wheaton in those days—abolition of schools, very evangelistically minded, really part of the same milieu. There was a lot of affinity between those schools. I think in the end it’s really a work of the grace of God. And I take my primary responsibility to be, to do what a college president can do, which is not everything, but it is something to promote the spiritual vitality, defend the theological orthodoxy, and advance the academic excellence of an institution from one generation to the next. We’ve been blessed by very long serving presidents. That’s helped us a lot. I’m only the eighth president. We’re 160 years in. We’ve had very committed boards and an unusual board structure. Our board terms are 10 years long and many of our trustees serve until retirement at age 75. The institutional continuity we get with that is incredible. It doesn’t make us the most nimble or innovative institution in the world. So, I think those things are important. I’ll point to another thing, you know, when my family came to the college when I was one year old. My father started teaching 51 years ago.

SMITH: Yeah. And let me, if I could interrupt, your father, Leland Ryken, who many in the evangelical world will know as an author and a speaker and a college professor and a thought leader in many ways.

RYKEN: Yes. So, his was his first job out of university and so we’ve been there for half a century. My mother in her first year at Wheaton joined the Thursday morning women’s prayer group that meets every Thursday morning for a couple hours during the academic year. That’s a prayer group that’s been going for 75 years. Now meets in our home. My wife leads the group as the president’s wife. A lot of prayer has gone into the work of Wheaton College and I think that’s one notable example of it.

SMITH: Dr. Ryken, I appreciate very much what you said in the last segment about some of the factors that went into helping Wheaton sort of stay on the straight and narrow path, so to speak—the prayer and the board of governance and leadership and all of the rest of it. Despite that, there are challenges in the world. I mean you almost can’t build a hedge too high to keep those challenges from coming in. I’m going to name a couple of specific challenges and controversies that are in our culture generally, but that Wheaton has had to deal with. And just to get your thoughts about those. One would be around evolution, theistic evolution. A school like Wheaton, which is large enough to have a wide range of majors, has to deal with this in your science departments and you guys have had to struggle with this. What’s your position about that and how’s Wheaton managing that process?

RYKEN: Yeah. Well, so a couple of comments on that. So we were thrilled to have the strong science program that we have with a lot of research going on and lots of our undergrads going on to careers in the sciences as well. Wheaton is a little unusual in that we have in our doctrinal statement a specific commitment to a historic Adam and Eve. That’s unusual, actually. Most Christ-centered schools in this country do not have as explicit a commitment as that. One thing that’s interesting to me is that we had a sort of summit meeting around teaching of creation with a lot of colleges from the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. And what was interesting about that gathering was that despite a range of views—from six day creation, young earth views, which is uncommon but is present within the CCCU schools, to more old  earth views, a certain views that might be associated with theistic evolution. Actually what is taught in the classroom is very similar on those campuses because all campuses part of a good education want to teach a range of views and help students understand these are the views that are taught and here are the strengths and weaknesses of these different positions. So it’s interesting to me, I think, that there’s a similarity in terms of the teaching because that’s part of a good education. These are the secular views, these are the views that deny the sovereignty of God and his creative power. But these are the kinds of uses you’re going to encounter in grad school and things like that. And we want to prepare our students for that kind of world.

SMITH: Another area that is obviously important in our culture right now and talked about a source of great controversy and trouble, candidly, for Christian colleges and universities, many of them have not figured out an appropriate way to do with it is the LGBTQ issue. First of all, before I ask specific questions, you know, what’s your position? What’s Wheaton’s position on issues like, say Fairness For All or LGBTQ students at your school?

RYKEN: Yeah, those are two quite different issues. We don’t have a view as an institution on Fairness For All. We typically don’t have views on particular legislation. We certainly have—

SMITH: You’re a CCCU school though. Is that accurate? 

RYKEN: Correct.

SMITH: And they do have a position on Fairness For All. 

RYKEN: The CCCU has a variety of advocacy positions, biblical definition of marriage, approaches that they take to religious liberty. But the CCCU in terms of the school members has a wide perspective on almost every issue, as you would expect from a multi-denominational organization. You know, Wheaton College is very committed to a biblical sexual ethic. That’s clear in our Wheaton College community covenant. Definition of marriage is one man and one woman for life. A recognition that all of us experience challenge and brokenness in our sexuality and face various temptations. For some of us, those temptations may be in heterosexual areas. For some of us, they may be in same-sex areas. That’s an opportunity for God’s grace to be worked at in our lives and for us to pursue chastity, which is a commitment for every believer in Christ whether they’re married or single. And that’s the kind of discipleship we promote on our campus—faculty, staff and students alike.

SMITH: Is there an LGBTQ student group on your campus? 

RYKEN: So, not in the sense that there’s a group advocating for LGBT practice or a group that has a primary identity as LGBT. We do provide a variety of discipleship resources for students that are navigating issues of same-sex attraction. Some of those are small groups that are led in some of our faculty homes and care for students that are navigating those issues, whether personally or in relationships with others.

SMITH: We mentioned a couple of times the CCCU, the Coalition—

RYKEN: Council, actually. 

SMITH: Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. 

RYKEN: It used to be called the Coalition. There is also a Christian College Consortium. So, call it a council, a coalition, or or consortium. 

SMITH: Got it. About 100, 120 schools—

RYKEN: 140, I think actually in the U.S. and 40 or 50 international affiliates, something close to that.

SMITH: And as we’ve already identified, Wheaton is a member of that group. And yet I think it’s also fair to say that that group has been a lightning rod of concern that it allowed—and I’m going to short circuit a whole lot of history here—but it allowed a few colleges, a number of colleges that did not maintain explicitly Christian distinctives to stay in. And that caused some schools that were maybe a little bit more conservative to say this is no longer the group for us. And they left. That happened maybe five or six years ago. I’m thinking of schools, for example, like Oklahoma Wesleyan who left and when I think it was one of the Mennonite schools was allowed to stay in. And then that fast forward now to within the last year, a completely separate group has started that’s an international group. I think David Dockery is the leader of that group, or at least the chairman of the board, I’m not sure he’s the staff person. That has created some tension within the leadership of Christian colleges around the country of trying to decide which group am I going to affiliate with. Am I going to affiliate with neither of those groups? And maybe go a third way, which is what a college like, for example, I think the King’s College or Grove City has done. They don’t affiliate with either of those two groups. Can you editorialize about that a little bit? 

RYKEN: Well, first of all, I’ll do some fact-correcting a little bit first. I mean, another thing that happened. So, I think the CCCU definitely clarified some of its membership standards. And another significant thing happened, which is a number of schools which had a different perspective, particularly on sexuality, have left the CCCU because they were not consistent with that biblical definition of marriage that I was talking about a minute ago. So, the other thing I’ll just say about the David Dockery group that you mentioned—and I can’t just think of the name of it offhand—they’ve been very clear in their public communications they’re not inviting people to leave any other organizations. They want to be complimentary. And many of us are affiliated with three or four or five different affiliations that have different purposes. The new group is also committed to Christian education at the K-12 level. And that’s a great vision. You know, K through college. The CCCU focuses only on colleges and universities. And, you know, to this point there’s been very little attrition from the CCCU. Our membership has been very strong and I think people appreciate the unique work that the CCCU can do. So we need different organizations for different purposes.

SMITH: So you would reject, then, the narrative that this group is a reaction to anything resembling a liberal slide at the CCCU level?

RYKEN: No, that’s not what I said. 

SMITH: No, I’m saying you would reject that narrative. 

SMITH: Well, no, I wouldn’t. I think there’s some truth to that. I think there is a concern about confessional orthodoxy that’s reflected in this group. I was just making the point that they’ve made it very clear that they see their work as complementary—institutions like Trinity, David Dockery’s own organization continue to be very involved in the CCCU. And I think we may see some institutions pull out of the CCCU, but we haven’t seen that yet in a significant way.

SMITH: Dr. Ryken, I want to pivot in our conversation a little bit because when I have to have a chance to talk to a guy like you, which I don’t get a chance to talk to often enough, I want to kind of step back from the news of the day so to speak, and look at the broader sweep of things and your career in particular. You wrote a book a few years ago called Art for God’s Sake. Small little book, I think 60 or 70 pages was all it was, had an outsized impact on guys like me and others within the Christian world who were I think thirsty, hungry for a biblical, thoughtful, maybe not complete story of what it means to be made in God’s image as a creator. We could do a whole systematic theology on that, but it talked about the key issues. Is that why you wanted to write that book?

RYKEN: Yeah. So no, I agree with you that it’s had an outsized impact. I mean, it is just a little book. And it really came out of teaching and preaching I was doing a Tenth Presbyterian Church. And I had been preaching through Exodus and had been speaking about Bezalel and Oholiab and their anointing by the Holy Spirit for the artistic task of creating a tabernacle. And I had one of our art teachers, high school art teachers come running up to me after the service wanting to get a copy of it so that he could do some devotional work with his classes at a local Christian school. And he said, you really ought to publish this. And so we thought about that and I ended up collaborating with opera singers, visual artists, dancers, photographers, people from our congregation to expand a little bit the perspective of that book beyond the visual arts. And I think it’s been so rare for people in pastoral leadership and maybe particularly in reformed communities to affirm the arts as a legitimate calling that it was like water in a thirsty place. And I’ve heard that from many, many people. So I’ve been happy to do my part. I’m really an amateur. It’s not my area of specialty particularly, but I think it just shows the power when pastoral leadership affirms a calling with some understanding at least of what that calling is. It can be deeply encouraging.

SMITH: Well, since you mentioned Tenth Pres, that was another area that I wanted to pivot to as well. You at least twice in your career have moved into an institution that has a storied history. At Tenth Pres, Jim Boyce was the pastor there for many, many years and was, again, one of the sort of the leaders of evangelicalism. And we’ve already talked about your leadership of Wheaton, only the eighth president in 160 years there and sorta the Christian Harvard in this country. What have you learned about that experience? These have not been turnaround situations per se. These have not been startup situations. These have been organizations that have had storied histories, great traditions, a rich legacy. You could have gone in and screwed up both of those.

RYKEN: So, yeah. So, well for a couple of these, let me just touch on Harvard of evangelicalism cause that’s just a term we don’t like to use at Wheaton. Harvard, because Harvard is a research one institution with some, you know, exceptional resources and a student body that’s a higher caliber student body in objective measures than ours. So it’s just a comparison we’d be careful about making. 

SMITH: Well, as John Calvin would say, good luck making that comparison go away because I do think that that is the reputation that—I mean, Harvard is considered the greatest, you know, American university. And to be called the Christian Harvard, while I appreciate your concern about it, it’s not an insult. 

RYKEN: No, no. It’s complimentary. It’s complimentary and it’s appeared in print enough times there’s no stopping it, that’s for sure. Now, you know, my field is church history. I’m very interested in the history of things and I get tremendous value understanding and perspective from knowing the history of an institution. In fact, when I was a freshman at Wheaton, one of the things I did was read the college history just for personal interest. And I thought it would help me understand who I was and what this education was all about. So I love the history of Tenth Church. I love the history of Wheaton College. By temperament, I think I’m an improver. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not especially innovative, but I am somebody that can take a situation and say, hey, here’s an area we can improve. Here’s an area we can improve. Protecting the things that need to be maintained, but also being responsive to the current situation. So, I think that’s kind of how God has wired me and what I’ve been called to do. And I love being in a historic institution.

SMITH: So, given what you just said and all the things that we’ve talked about and also hoping that you’ll be one of those Wheaton presidents that also has a very, very long tenure with a years ahead of you, I think it’s fair to say you are enough of a Bible scholar to understand that you won’t last forever. It’s appointed unto man once to die and after that, the judgment. What do you want history’s judgment to be of you as the eighth president of Wheaton?

RYKEN: Yeah, so I don’t think so much about that question. I will circle back to it. From day one when I came to Tenth Church and from day one when I came to Wheaton College, I was thinking about what kind of foundation will be laid for my successor. And my commitment at both places was not to leave one day before I was supposed to leave and not to stay one day longer than I was supposed to stay. And I do think a lot about who will succeed me and I often challenge my cabinet. We want to be making the decisions now that people 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now will look back and they won’t just say, I understand why they had to do that. But they will say, I’m so glad they made that decision. So that’s part of my orientation.

When I think about legacy, frankly, what’s much more important to me is my family connections, what God is doing in the lives of my children, and Lord willing my grandchildren and whether they have seen lived out a consistent, flawed and yet faithful Christian testimony and witness. When I think institutionally, I think my main desire would be for Wheaton to be biblically faithful, evangelically Orthodox, academically excellent in the next generation. And I realize there’s so many things I can’t control with that and I can’t control the future. And God has his ways of working in history. One thing I know is the work of the church will continue independent of any particular institution. And our primary calling is to be faithful to what God has in front of us today and to leave the results of that to him and to leave the reputation of that and really to others. 

SMITH: Dr. Philip Ryken, thank you so much for being on the program. 

RYKEN: Thank you, Warren. It’s been a good conversation.

(Photo/Wheaton College, Philip Ryken)

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