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How Great Thou Art!

By Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

A year ago when we were trying to pick out hymns for Dordt College’s Jubilee worship, we reflected on what hymns would have been viewed as “contemporary” and “popular” fifty years ago. We immediately thought of the well-known Swedish hymn that took American evangelicalism by storm in the 1950s: “How Great Thou Art.”

In many respects that would be a good hymn to mark the significance of Dordt College. We are a college that was established, as our motto says, for the glory of God alone. And we now have a half-century-long tradition of trying to enable students to know more about God’s world—and whether they’re looking through a microscope or a telescope, to exclaim about the wonders they discover, “How Great Thou Art.”

There’s a problem, though. Far too often we think immediately of the “mighty stars, the rolling thunder” as evidences of God’s power throughout the universe displayed. And while there’s nothing wrong with such sentiments, as far as they go, there’s a real problem if that’s where we end.

For when we read the book of Genesis we discover that immediately after God made the stars, the fish, dry land and the seas, he set humankind out on a journey to develop that world in keeping with his will and way. What’s often been called the “cultural mandate” to develop the world is one we need to take seriously as our own calling still today. When we see that work accomplished across our world through well-engineered bridges, beautifully crafted furniture, gracefully soaring skyscrapers, or intricately designed computer chips, we must exclaim again, “How Great Thou Art.” It’s not just wandering through the “forest glades” that brings us close to God, it is walking through a wonderfully constructed home built from the products of that forest that ought to move us to praise and honor the creator whose hand we see all around us.

That’s why, for instance, Dordt College started an agriculture program. It’s not enough just to praise God for the wild berries that grow in the woods; we also must honor him through responsible agriculture that tills and cares for the land and husbands the animals he has created. That’s why our strategic plan encourages us to develop a biotechnology initiative. For who knows what new and wondrous ways of developing God’s good creation in keeping with his laws still lie ahead in these newly unfolding fields of study and service.

Just as human sin has tarnished the glory of God in the so-called “natural” world around us, so the rebellious human spirit can misdirect the ways in which we study and develop the creational materials God has given us. But, far from stopping us from trying, the reality of that perverse human spirit ought to prod and stimulate God’s redeemed people all the more to develop God’s good creation in still-to-be-discovered amazing and wonderful ways.

In the end, then, instead of “How Great Thou Art,” we chose a new hymn that hadn’t even been written when the college began. It begins “Earth and all stars . . . sing to the Lord a new song.” But it also declares that it is time for “hammer and steel, classrooms and labs, test tubes and strong willing workers” alike to bring praise to God. We chose a hymn that explicitly recognizes that all good things built by human hands also are really part of the marvelous things that God has done—and for all that too we need to “praise him with a new song.”

As we now face our second half century of service as a college, I hope we all are stirred at the deepening recognition that the glory of God is revealed not just through those parts of the world “untouched by human hands” but maybe even especially through those parts of the world around that have been crafted and developed by human effort for the glory of the one who himself has made all things.

I certainly don’t know what will come of our biotechnology initiative or what other initiatives may lie over the horizon during the coming years. I do know, however, that if we are true to the vision of those who started us on this road fifty years ago, we will honor and applaud these amazing developments in technology and human ingenuity and be moved to sing along with our founders, “How Great Thou Art.