Why Christian Education and the Liberal Arts?

August 23, 2016

When people learn that I am a professor at a Christian college their responses are varied. Some act as though my profession represents a quaint reminder of by-gone eras, an intellectual Mayberry forever trapped in the “good ol’ days.” Others assume that my vocation entails little more than rehashing tired Sunday School lessons with a healthy dose of mental steroids. It would seem that few understand the true value of a well-rounded Christian education.

When the Pharisees challenged Jesus on the meaning of the Law, Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

Jesus drew these words from the Law itself. Interestingly he summarized the content of the Law by expounding upon Moses’ intent. Moses wrote, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Yet, Jesus chose to say that we are to love the Lord “with all [our] mind.” God’s people are to love the Lord with their entire being, including the mind.

In the centuries between Moses and Jesus the world took many steps forward. Various world powers had come, gone and had long since been forgotten. The Greeks, however, changed the way the world thought about the world. Jesus’ contemporaries were bombarded by secular thinking and challenges to the faith of their fathers.

In the nearly two thousand years since Jesus’ day, those changes and challenges have accelerated. All along Christians have struggled with how to reconcile their faith with what the world calls knowledge. A Christian liberal arts education provides the tools needed to answer that challenge.

While some may argue that a liberal arts education is irrelevant, a distraction from more important studies that drive earning potential, Christian educators rightly argue to the contrary. A true educational experience must be about more than the transferal of information. It must be about transformation. While professional studies prepare the student to make a living, the liberal arts prepare the student for living.

The liberal arts introduce students to things that have changed the course of history, those ideas that transcend time and place, those concepts that shape the soul. In the great books they encounter people and places that inspire and challenge them to be better or different. In philosophy they are taught how to think, not just what to think. In ethics students begin to formulate their own value system based on a knowledge of the broader world rather than their narrow opinion. In the arts they find beauty and the words to express it. The liberal arts equip students to see the world and engage it in a meaningful fashion, regardless of their major.

Moreover, in an age of ever-greater occupational specialization, we risk creating generations of one-dimensional automatons, students highly skilled in their chosen fields, and yet detached from the world around them. To the detriment of our society, without the liberal arts we graduate legions of uneducated craftsmen, properly credentialed and improperly schooled.

Employment specialists tell us that as the millennial generation ages, their profitable work years will be marked by repeated career, not job but career, changes, as many as five or six by some estimates. Professional degrees alone cannot adequately prepare students for such continual change. The information and the skills they provide are only as up-to-date as the last software update. However, a thoroughgoing liberal arts education that focuses on the whole student and the broader world can prepare graduates for career changes and technological changes by teaching them how to learn, how to adapt, and how to respond to the world around them. Those skills will never be replaced by employment trends or technological change.

Christian liberal arts education exists to prepare students who are well-versed in those areas of learning that make us human and to integrate those studies with that knowledge of the Gospel that makes life truly worth living. Some schools will focus on the former while others highlight the latter. Separately both approaches fall short. Together they accomplish the divine command to take every thought captive to the authoritative truth as it is contained in Scripture and revealed in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Thus, Christian colleges and universities fill an important niche in the church’s fulfillment of the Cultural Mandate.

Because of that, Christian education aspires to help shape the hearts and minds of the next generation of Christians, to encourage them to think biblically, theologically, and holistically. A Christian liberal arts education does more than fill minds with facts. It helps mold faiths. Christian higher education teaches truths and trains hearts in light of creation, fall, redemption and new creation available through Christ alone.

If Christian educators are to impact the students’ lives at every level, they must demonstrate to the students the all-encompassing nature of the Christian life and its relevance to whatever vocation God may call them. This is accomplished by teaching them to read their Bibles more correctly and passionately. But, they must also be introduced to the beauty of the world in which they live, the wonder of science, and the joy of literature as seen through the lens of faith, through the eyes of the Creator as he has revealed himself. As William Dyrness said, “Christianity doesn’t put people in a box. It gives us a window to see the world.”[1]

Thus, Christian colleges are not just educating Christians for the church. They are preparing Christian citizens for the world, ambassadors of the Gospel serving in every area of employment and study.

For the Christian professor this means their task is one of shepherding intellectual souls. They are leading students through God’s revelation, general and special, to direct their attention back to God that they might glorify him as he desires. To achieve such lofty and eternal goals, one needs to recognize that Christian educators must have more than academic knowledge. They must know more than their peers in secular education. They must know God as well. And, they must know how the two intersect, their faith and their particular field of study, in ways that other professors cannot imagine.

All of this, of course, presupposes the most significant piece of the Christian education pie. The college professor must be a professor of Christ. He needs to be a student in the school of the Master. Otherwise, he cannot teach what he does not know. Thus, in addition to being a convert who happens to be an expert in an academic field of study, she needs to be discipled, to be an active participant in the life of the church, the God-ordained community of faith that encourages others to good works. The key to the Christian educator’s faithful completion of the task at hand can be found in the example of Ezra who “set his heart” to study the Word, to obey it, and then to teach others to do the same (Ezra 7:10).

In the end, a Christian liberal arts education does not merely provide facts. It helps students interpret and apply those facts in light of a God who wants to be known by his creation. “The point is to praise God with the mind,” Mark Noll wrote.[2] Christian education begins, then, not with creature but the Creator who has revealed himself both in nature and, most supremely, in His Son. A complete education must be Christian.

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When asked I recommend the following books as an introduction to faith integration:

Balzer, Cary and Rod Reed, eds. Building a Culture of Faith: University-Wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012.

Dockery, David. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008.

Holmes, Arthur. The Idea of a Christian College. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987.

Litfin, Duane. Conceiving the Christian College. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004.

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NOTES

[1] “The Contribution of Theological Studies to the Christian Liberal Arts,” in Making Higher Education Christian: The History and Mission of Evangelical Colleges in America, ed. Joel A. Carpenter  and Kenneth W. Shipps (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1987), 182

[2] The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995), 248.

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