[Editor’s Note: Over the next three weeks we have the honor of sharing the wonderful insights of one of today’s most experienced voices on the state of Christian Higher Education. David S. Dockery is the 15th president of Trinity International University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dockery, the author or editor of 30 books, formerly served for almost two decades as president of Union University.]
Challenge and change characterize the world of Christian higher education in 2018. Faculty and staff live with a new global perspective; students have never known a world without advancing technology, terrorism, and intercultural awareness. A look around the globe points to a shift among the nations that will influence the world for decades to come. Anyone interested in the future of Christian higher education will want to keep an eye on global and cultural trends, for our work never takes place in a vacuum.
Special interest groups can be expected to offer pressure for higher education institutions to conform on issues that will potentially compromise our mission. We must anticipate that issues of sexuality, sexual freedom, and same-gender unions could impact federal funding and possible accreditation matters for some private church-related institutions. The right to hire will likely be the most important legal issue that Christian colleges and universities face in the near future. These and other issues make the challenges of providing Christ-centered higher education in the 21st century more challenging than ever before, and these observations do not begin to address the changes in higher education itself in terms of focus, funding, philosophy, methodology, and delivery systems.
Understanding Christian Education
Christian higher education involves a distinctive way of thinking about teaching, learning, scholarship, subject matter, student life, administration, and governance that is grounded in the orthodox Christian faith. Distinctive Christian higher education is not just about an inward subjective and pious Christianity, as important as that is. Christian educators recognize that the Christian faith is more than a moral faith of warmhearted devotional practices, for the Christian faith influences not only how we act but also what we believe, how we think, how we teach, how we govern, and how we treat one another.
What is needed today is a full-orbed, theologically-shaped vision for Christian higher education that will help us to engage the culture and to prepare a generation of leaders who can effectively serve both church and society. Such an approach begins with an understanding of the self-revealing God who has created humans in His image. We believe that students created in the image of God are designed to discover truth and that the exploration of truth is possible because the universe, as created by the Trinitarian God, is intelligible.
These beliefs are held together by our understanding that the unity of knowledge is grounded in Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17), and in whom are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). The Christian faith then provides the window to see the world, recognizing that faith seeks to understand every dimension of life under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Learning from Those who Have Gone Before Us
Our efforts to advance authentic Christian higher education are greatly shaped by those who have gone before us. These influencers and influences have not only shaped us but also reflect who we are. It will become more and more important in the days to come for Christian educators to clarify our confessional commitments and to re-appropriate the best of the Christian intellectual tradition.
The richness of the Christian tradition can provide guidance for the complex challenges facing Christian higher education at this time. We believe not only that an appeal to tradition is timely but also that it meets an important need because the secular culture in which we find ourselves is, at best, indifferent to the Christian faith and because the Christian world – at least in its more popular form – tends to be confused about beliefs, heritage, and the tradition associated with the Christian faith.
The world in which we live with its emphasis on diversity and plurality, may well be a creative setting for us to see what Thomas Oden referred to as a “paleo-orthodoxy” for the 21st century. Here we ground our unity not only in the biblical confession that “Jesus is Lord” but also in the great confessional tradition flowing from the early church councils. Such historical confessions, though neither infallible nor completely sufficient for all contemporary challenges, can provide wisdom and guidance when seeking to balance the mandates for right Christian thinking, right Christian believing, and right Christian living.
At the heart of this calling is the need to prepare a generation of Christians to think Christianly, to engage the academy and the culture, to serve society, and to renew the connection with the church and its mission. To do so, the breadth and the depth of the Christian tradition will need to be reclaimed, renewed, revitalized, and revived for the good of Christian higher education.
A Distinctive Vision
We must not be naïve to the challenges that will be encountered along the way. Unfortunately, some will be satisfied with a minimal commitment to a warmhearted piety that encourages campus Bible studies, kind relationships, and occasional mission trips. Certainly, we want to encourage and applaud such things, but not as an encompassing vision for Christian higher education. Some of these things can be carried out on public university campuses among parachurch organizations. We definitely want to see these things take place, but more importantly, we want to see Christ-centered institutions that are primarily concerned with Christian thinking and thinking Christianly, learning to think carefully, creatively, and critically, seeking to engage the academy and the culture. And as we do so, we need to be aware that some in the academy, the culture, and the church will question the legitimacy of this project.
Christian higher education does not exist primarily to survive. Whether or not these institutions prosper is of less importance than their commitments to their distinctive mission. We thus dream of Christ-centered campuses that are faithful to the lordship of Jesus Christ, that exemplify the Great commandment, that seek justice, mercy, and love, that demonstrate responsible freedom, that prioritize worship and service as central to all pursuits in life.
Christian higher education institutions must seek to build grace-filled communities that emphasize love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as the virtues needed to create a caring context where undergraduate and graduate education grounded in the conviction that all truth has its source in God can be offered in the midst of the challenges and changes all around us. In sum, we hope to provide quality Christ-centered education that promotes academic excellence and character development in service to the church, and the academy, as well as culture and society.
[Many aspects of this article have been adopted from David S. Dockery,” “Christian Higher Education: An Introduction” in Christian Higher Education: Faith, Teaching, and Learning in the Evangelical Tradition, edited by David S. Dockery and Christopher W. Morgan (Wheaton: Crossway, forthcoming 2018) 11-25.]
Image: By Relhak78 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47982916