Arthur Holmes on “Why a Christian College” – A Summary and (Brief) Response Ross Parker

February 2, 2017

In this post I begin my chapter-by-chapter summary of Arthur Holmes’s The Idea of a Christian College.[1] Holmes begins his book with an important question, especially for those of us who serve in Christian colleges and universities – “Why a Christian College” (this is the title of his first chapter).

[Let me address terminology briefly: Holmes uses the language of Christian college exclusively, but a Christian liberal arts university is roughly equivalent to a Christian college as described by Holmes. Since I am ministering at Charleston Southern University, the language of Christian university is more natural to me. So I’ll use the terms Christian college and Christian university interchangeably where Holmes uses only Christian college.]

Holmes begins chapter 1 by arguing that most students don’t have an understanding of what their college education truly ought to be – they only have a vague idea that it’s something connected with preparing for a job and developing socially. This is a problem for the Christian university. If students don’t know why they are attending college, or what a college education is for, then, practically speaking, Christian universities aren’t going to be able to attract students, and without students, Christian universities won’t be viable.

Holmes then turns his attention to some common misconceptions of what a Christian college is, referring to these as “pitfalls.” Pitfall #1 is to see the Christian college as fundamentally a “defender of the faith” – as a place where students go to be indoctrinated in Christian faith and to be protected from false secular ideas. There is a problem, though, with this approach. If students are simply indoctrinated with the responses to make to current non-Christian ideas, they will be unable to evaluate and interact with new ideas they encounter. A student “needs a disciplined understanding of his heritage plus creativity, logical rigor and self-critical honesty, far more than he needs prepackaged sets of questions and answers.” (p 5)

Pitfall #2 is to see the Christian university as a place where one can get a good education and in addition there are Christian add-ons (Biblical Studies classes, Christian activities, chapel, etc.). This can’t be the essence of the Christian university, according to Holmes, because one can accomplish these things at a secular university through campus ministries and other resources outside of the university.

Pitfall #3 is to see the Christian university as fundamentally aimed at full-time Christian ministry training. Holmes points to the inadequacy of this approach through distinguishing between training and education. Training “develops skills and techniques for handling given materials and facts and situations.” (p 5) Education will include training, but it goes beyond to include the ability to evaluate new ideas and to learn new skills and techniques. The Christian college must be engaged primarily in this task of education.

Pitfall #4 is to think of a Christian university as fundamentally a place where Christian students can get social and extracurricular benefits, such as finding Christian friends (and a Christian spouse) and enjoying the advantages that come from a smaller school (more access to professors, etc.). Simply put, these things can be achieved without going to a Christian university, so they shouldn’t be the fundamental purpose of the Christian university.

With these pitfalls out of the way, Holmes zeroes in on his view of the essence of a Christian liberal arts college/university. “College is for education, the liberal arts college for a liberal education, and the Christian college for a Christian education.” (p 6) Holmes further advocates that the distinctive of a Christian college is that it provides an education which aims to integrate the Christian faith with learning and culture. Holmes emphasizes that “all truth is God’s truth” so the Christian university must bring together the truths in the various disciplines with the truths revealed in Christian Scripture. (p 7)

Holmes argues that the task of the Christian college is distinct for two reasons. Educationally, the Christian college is the only place where a liberal education in the broad spectrum of disciplines is done with the intention of integrating this knowledge with the Christian faith. Christians working in secular universities can bear witness to the Christian faith, but they are not free to focus on integrating their Christian commitments with their teaching and research. Bible colleges focus on educating students in the Christian faith, but they are not doing so across all the disciplines. So Christian universities are distinct educationally.  The task of the Christian college is also religiously distinct. Secular higher-education institutions have given up on the idea of a religious truth that unifies all education. The Christian college maintains a commitment to the unifying Christian worldview that brings together the truths of all the disciplines.

Holmes concludes with a note of hope. There are some who think that there is no practically viable place for the Christian university, especially in the contemporary context.  Holmes disagrees: “[T]he Christian college has not sufficiently articulated its educational philosophy, and has not sold the evangelical public or perhaps even its own students and teachers on what it is trying to do.” (p 10) The remainder of Holmes’s book will help with this articulation of the task of, and the importance of, the Christian university.

My response is fairly simple: yea, verily, and amen! The Christian university has the unique task and privilege of educating students about the Christian Worldview, and from the perspective of the Christian Worldview as it affects all the university’s disciplines. Schools like CSU are not just a place where college students go to be sheltered from bad stuff that goes on at other schools.

With that said, I would note that some of the aims of a Christian university Holmes lists as pitfalls when considered as the primary aim, are good considerations for the Christian university as lower-order aims. I think here particularly of the issues addressed in Pitfall #4.

Professors in a Christian university have the privilege of pursuing truth in their disciplines, and directing our students in the pursuit of this truth, standing on the foundation of God’s general and special revelation. I’m grateful to have a part to play in this task at CSU.

NOTES

[1] Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987). Parenthetical page references are to this work.

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