Religion Department's Golden Age of Scholarship

The Religion Department’s Golden Age of Scholarship

Christians worship the incarnate Word of God — Jesus Christ, who was in the beginning, who was with God, who was God, and who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 14). We are also people of the Book — itself a collection of smaller books inspired by God.

It’s little surprise, then, that Hope’s Department of Religion would be characterized by both words and books: In 2019 alone, faculty members from the religion department published five significant scholarly works. Add in a handful of books from 2017 and 2018, and the total jumps to eight publications in just the past three years.

In fact, as of fall 2020, all 10 of the religion department’s full-time faculty have published major scholarly books — a significant feat that reflects the high caliber of the program’s teacher-scholars.

“It is pretty remarkable that at a liberal arts college that traditionally focuses on excellence in teaching you have at the very same time this outpouring of excellence in scholarship throughout the department,” said Dr. Steve Bouma-Prediger ’79, Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology.

Dr. Jeff Tyler ’82, professor of religion and chair of the department, echoed Bouma-Prediger’s assessment: “We are enjoying a golden age of scholarship in the religion department in terms of the number, quality and range of our books.”

Tyler is quick to point out that these books are not just significant for the academy or within each faculty member’s particular discipline. Instead, he said, they’re equally relevant for the church and for Christian faith.

One work published in 2019 was Responsive Becoming: Moral Formation in Theological, Evolutionary, and Developmental Perspective by Dr. Angela Carpenter, assistant professor of religion. Carpenter received the 2020 Dallas Willard Book Award from the Martin Institute and the Dallas Willard Research Center (MIDWC) at Westmont College for her book. Published as part of an Enquiries in Theological Ethics series, Responsive Becoming explores moral formation in terms of sanctification (our transformation into the image of Christ) rather than the more typical approach of virtue ethics.

“I was interested in moral formation from a Christian perspective, and in the Reformed tradition, this is traditionally talked about as sanctification,” Carpenter said. “When you really dive in and look at what sanctification is in the nuts and bolts, it actually, I think, is something that fits more in our sense of who we are, as human beings, than we would have anticipated before. The doctrine of sanctification has something to contribute that virtue theory deemphasizes, or doesn’t contribute.”

Carpenter examines insights about sanctification from three core theologians (John Calvin, John Owen and Horace Bushnell) and incorporates observations about human development drawn from evolutionary anthropology and developmental psychology.

“If we’re talking about human nature and human transformation, we also need to think about who we are as human persons,” Carpenter said, “What is our experience of transformation? So there’s an interdisciplinary component here.”

If Carpenter drew on anthropology and psychology to produce her interdisciplinary work, Dr. Rakesh Peter-Dass, assistant professor of religion, has drawn on his expertise in Indian languages, culture, law and religion to produce Hindi Christian Literature in Contemporary India. Described by its publisher as “the first academic study of Christian literature in Hindi and its role in the politics of language and religion in contemporary India,” the book was nominated for the “Best Book in Hindu-Christian Studies, 2015–2019,” awarded by the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies. (The winner will be announced later this year.)

Another major book, Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition, promises to shake up the scholarly understanding of deification in the Eastern and Western churches. In this volume, Dr. Jared Ortiz, associate professor of religion, solicited and edited essays from 13 leading scholars to explore deification in the writing of 12 Latin church fathers, including Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine and others. In addition to editing the essays, Ortiz contributed a chapter on deification in the Latin liturgy.

“The word deification means to make into God, to transform into God or the divine. It’s the early Christian vision of salvation,” Ortiz said. “We all know what we’re saved from, right? We’re saved from sin. But what are we saved for? The early Christian answer is that we’re saved for union with God, which transforms us by being united to God who shares his divine life with us.”

Ortiz said the prevailing opinion was that deification was native to the Greek- and Syriac-speaking Eastern traditions while being foreign to the Latin-speaking West — it was a key doctrine that, many claimed, was something that Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions have had to borrow from the East. But his book turns that understanding on its head.

“The idea that this was in the East and not in the West was a given,” Ortiz said. “This book is a very clear demonstration that this vision of salvation is present as fully and as natively in the West as in the East.”

Ortiz said that his book, which came out of a seminar he hosted at the Oxford Patristic Conference in 2015, would not have been possible without financial support from Hope College. If the Department of Religion has been so productive lately, it’s largely because it’s part of a college that truly values scholarship and, critically, is committed to backing that commitment with institutional financial support.

In addition to helping with costs for the conference in Oxford, the college supported Ortiz’s scholarly work — as well as that of other faculty members in the religion department and across campus — with a Nyenhuis Grant and during a Towsley Research Scholars sabbatical. (The Jacob E. Nyenhuis faculty development summer research grant program provides funding for individual or collaborative faculty research, and the Towsley Research Scholars program provides summer research funding and sabbatical to pursue scholarly research. Both are administered by the Hope College Office of the Provost.)

“A lot of us benefit from the institutional support and institutional encouragement to do this. It’s a priority; they expect it, encourage it, and want us to thrive in it,” Ortiz said. “It’s not like you have to overcome something to do scholarship, which is the case in a lot of places.”

Dr. Steve Bouma-Prediger ’79 also identified Hope’s commitment to scholarship as essential to the religion department’s recent productivity. “Part of it is simply the ethos at Hope, which has been cultivated for quite some time,” he said. “The college has been intentional over the last 40 years or so in hiring people who fit the teacher-scholar model and then providing money to help people do their research.”

Bouma-Prediger relied on Hope students who were paid to conduct research for his latest book, Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic, which addresses creation care from the standpoint of virtue ethics and, in particular, Christian virtue ethics.

“The thesis is pretty simple: We need to think more about the kind of people we need to be and not just about what we need to do in terms of consequences and rights and duties,” Bouma-Prediger said. “I and a few other scholars are trying to reframe the whole discussion in terms of character, because character is more fundamental than conduct, than dos and don’ts.”

Earthkeeping and Character focuses on eight different virtues: wonder, humility, self-control, wisdom, justice, love, courage and hope. Additionally, the book includes snapshots of moral exemplars — role models who embody one or more of these virtues in their lives.

“I’m hoping it helps people think about how to be more intentional about becoming a person of love or justice or humility or courage or hope or a host of other virtues,” Bouma-Prediger said. In other words, the fundamental ecological question isn’t What should I do? but Who should I become?

Another ethics-driven work, Honoring God with Body and Mind: Sexual Ethics for Christians, grew out of Dr. Steven Hoogerwerf ’79’s experience teaching “Christian Love,” a 200-level religion course. Over the years, Hoogerwerf found that the book he had been using for the course’s unit on Christian sexual ethics felt more and more dated.

“Most books on Christian sexual ethics take a particular stance about what’s right and wrong, what’s good or bad, and argue why you ought to comply with that,” Hoogerwerf said. “But I don’t teach that way, so I decided I didn’t want to write a book that way.”

Instead, Honoring God with Body and Mind presents three major models of sexual ethics represented in the Christian tradition: a boundary ethic, which prescribes rules or lines that should not be crossed; a relational ethic, in which an increase in social and emotional intimacy can be matched by a commensurate increase in physical intimacy; and an ethic of sexual integrity, in which the formation of Christian virtues, rather than rules, determines sexual activity.

“The book is a resource for helping people think through their own sexual ethic,” Hoogerwerf said. “If you’re trying to figure out, ‘What does my sexuality have to do with my spirituality? How do I live my sexual or romantic life as a Christian instead of compartmentalizing it in some other place?’ — it can help people answer questions like that.”

Hoogerwerf’s experience teaching Christian Love directly influenced the material in his book, incorporating critiques and insights from students into the material; one chapter answers a series of questions that his students have asked over the years, and he used a draft of the book for four semesters to gauge students’ responses and refine the manuscript.

In a way, Hoogerwerf’s process points to another impetus for the recent spate of faculty publishing, perhaps more important than the college’s encouragement and support: It’s produced out of love — love for the scholarly discipline, yes, but also love for students, for the world and for God.

“All of us are devoted to what we do. It’s not just an academic enterprise. I think for all of us in the department, the things that we study are personally transformative,” Ortiz said. “We care about it not just as scholars, but as people and as believers. I think a lot of us study and write about things that are transformative to us.”

The result is ultimately transformational for Hope’s students as well, providing the best of two worlds: academically rigorous scholarship and lives transformed by Hope.

Recent Publications by Religion Department Faculty Members

Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic
by Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger ’79
Baker Academic, 2019

Splitting the Day of the Lord: The Cornerstone of Christian Theology
by Dr. Wayne Brouwer
Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2018

Responsive Becoming: Moral Formation in Theological, Evolutionary, and Developmental Perspective
by Dr. Angela Carpenter
T&T Press, 2019

Honoring God with Body and Mind: Sexual Ethics for Christians
by Dr. Steven Hoogerwerf ’77
Cascade, 2019

Preaching the Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter
by Dr. Lynn (Winkels ’81) Japinga
Westminster John Knox Press, 2017

Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition edited
by Dr. Jared Ortiz
Catholic University of America Press, 2019

Hindi Christian Literature in Contemporary India
by Dr. Rakesh Peter-Dass
Routledge, 2019

Jeremiah, Lamentations (Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament)
by Dr. Jeff Tyler ’82
IVP Academic, 2018