Arthur Holmes on the Theological Foundations of a Christian University Education – a Summary

This post is the second in a series of posts summarizing the content of Arthur Holmes’s The Idea of a Christian College. (My post explaining my intentions for the series can be found HERE; The first post can be found HERE.) In this post, I summarize the second chapter of the book, entitled “Theological Foundations.”

The thesis of this chapter can be summed up by the last sentence – “The Christian has a mandate in education.” (p 22) More specifically, the chapter aims to “unfold the biblical and theological mandate… for the Christian liberal arts college…” (p 13) Holmes notes that attending a Christian university is not the only way to fulfill this mandate; rather, he argues that it is a way. Holmes develops his case on the basis of four considerations – (1) the Christian understanding of creation, (2) the Christian understanding of the human person, (3) the Christian understanding of truth, and (4) the Christian doctrine of the cultural mandate.

(1) “Creation”

Some might be concerned that the Christian university is providing classes on “worldly” topics, and as such violates Scripture’s injunction to avoid the world’s influence. This objection, though, assumes a dichotomy between “the church” and “the world”, or “the secular” and “the sacred.” This dichotomy is at odds with a Christian doctrine of creation. God created all aspects of the world as good. Yes, sin has affected this world, but it is still the world created by God, and all aspects of it are valuable as God’s creation. Every discipline we study at the university – from biology to psychology to history – studies the world that God has created. So “[t]o neglect the kind of education that helps us understand and appreciate God’s world betrays either shallow thinking or fearful disbelief.” (p 15) The Christian college, on the other hand, embraces this kind of education as studying the good creation of God.

(2) “The Human Person”

We can also see that the work of the Christian university flows out of a Christian anthropology. All humans “are persons equipped by God with rational, moral, and artistic powers to invest for our Maker.” (p 15) So we have a God-given responsibility to develop these capacities as a part of becoming who God intended us to be. The Christian university aims to develop human capacities in students, and as such aids in the fulfillment of this God-given responsibility.

(3) “Truth”

Holmes provides a slogan that has come to be associated with his name in Christian education circles (he attributes the idea to the early church fathers) – “all truth is God’s truth, wherever it be found.” (p 17) This principle is key – if this is right, then “the worlds of literature, philosophy, history, science, and art become the Christian’s rightful domain.” (p 17) Additionally, according to Christian Theology, the truth is unified. All truth finds its ultimate ground in the Triune God.

Holmes then turns his attention to God’s revelation of truth. He affirms that God has revealed himself fundamentally in the Scriptures, and that “biblical revelation” is “the final rule of faith and conduct” for the Christian. (p 18) But the Christian need not, and should not, think of the Scriptures as the “exhaustive source of all truth.” (p 18) We can find truth through reasoning about the world, and we can be confident that the truth we find in the Scriptures will not contradict the truth we find through reasoning about the world, if we’re reasoning rightly and interpreting Scripture correctly. Holmes is no rationalist, but he insists that reason is given to us by God for interpreting God’s revelation, whether special revelation or general revelation.  Connected to this discussion of reason and revelation, Holmes gives what I see as a thoroughly biblical definition of Christian faith (though one that is at odds with some popular accounts of Christian faith): “Faith is neither a way of knowing nor a source of knowledge. Faith is rather an openness and wholehearted response to God’s self-revelation.” (p 18)

The Christian college embraces this view of truth; the study of each discipline is shaped by the conviction that there is an objective truth that is rooted in God’s intentions for the world and that we can know about that truth.

(4) “The Cultural Mandate”

Human beings are inherently cultural beings. We don’t live to ourselves; we live in communities and work together to produce food and shelter. We make art. We organize and govern ourselves. These are just some of the aspects of culture. Christianity affirms that mankind was given the task to be creators of, and participants in, culture. According to Holmes, “At creation God made us in his own image, to steward our own and nature’s resources creatively and wisely.” (p 19) These responsibilities continue despite the fall; we are called to continue to engage in culture making under the Lordship of Christ. We are to “see every area of thought and life in relation to the wisdom and will of God and to replenish the earth with the creativity of human art and science.” (p 21) It’s easy to see the connection between this point and the mission of the Christian college.

The Christian university is an institution that educates students to fulfill the tasks that God has given us as humans created in his image. Though it is not a necessary requirement to attend a Christian university to fulfill these tasks, consideration of these four theological foundations shows how important the work of the Christian college is.

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