The Christian College and the Higher Education Enterprise
This article appeared in BreakPoint's Findings Journal.
A review of Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), by Douglas V. Henry and Bob R. Agee, eds.
Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation is a compilation of annual talks from the H. I. Hester Lecture Series for the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools. All were previously published in the Southern Baptist Educator, and so go back nearly twenty years. The lectures chosen for this compendium represent a wide range of evangelical higher education, from Wheaton to Eastern University, Calvin College to Baylor, Notre Dame to Pepperdine. Even friendly outsiders (or barely insiders) Martin Marty and Parker Palmer make contributions.
The purpose of this volume is to encourage Christian colleges to take an aggressive role in the recovery of truth in higher learning. The key to this, as several of the writers explain, is in choosing and developing faculty members who are both deeply spiritual and earnestly intellectual. Faculty members who have a vibrant faith and an expansive biblical worldview can play a major role in helping Christian colleges to make an even more significant contribution to the debate over truth and learning than they have in the past generation. The colleges cannot do this alone; they will need the aid and encouragement of the churches if they are to succeed.
This book is really a kind of enchiridion for those considering a scholarly vocation. Part history, part theological reflection, part guidebook, and part prospectus, it can be useful for any young person who believes God may be calling him or her to a career in higher learning from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Several common themes recur throughout: the validity of what George Marsden has called “the outrageous idea of Christian scholarship”; the need for faculty members to connect their faith with their calling and to express their worldview through their lives and their teaching; and the Christian higher education enterprise as part of the mission of the Church.
Christian higher education in the past has sometimes been the occasion for the burial of truth. Students in sectarian colleges in previous generations were not encouraged to engage with worldly ideas. The scholarship to which they were exposed was ingrown and outdated, and the result was little sparking of new ideas and little advancing of biblical truth. The writers in this volume hope to see Christian colleges become a breeding-ground for a new generation of scholars and church leaders, who are imbued with a biblical worldview and devoted to the life of faith without compromise of convictions. As Richard T. Hughes puts it, “Surely the life of the mind has little to do with rote memorization or the manipulation of data. Instead it has everything to do with . . . rigorous and disciplined search for truth . . . genuine conversation as we seriously engage a variety of perspectives and worldviews . . . [and] critical thinking, as we seek to discriminate between those worldviews and perspectives.” Such a challenge requires Christian scholar-teachers. C. Stephen Evans defines such a person as one who “believes in Christian higher education, who is committed to the mission of his or her institution.” These teachers will see themselves as missionaries in the service of the Great Commission, making their students disciples of Christ through all the disciplines of the curriculum. The Christian college serves both the Church and the public weal, according to Joel Carpenter, by nurturing students who are equipped to bring the shalom of God into every area of life, as witnesses for Christ and agents of His kingdom.
The time is right for rethinking the role of the Christian college and Christian scholarship. Contemporary intellectual life is drying up, but students are still hungry for truth. American culture is in disarray, but the Christian college can help to reconnect the nation with its cultural roots and heritage. But to do this, as Nathan Hatch argues, Christian colleges must see that [a]ttracting and developing faculty is our single most important job, the one responsibility that should elicit our greatest creativity.” Here is where the opportunity for the young or aspiring scholar presents itself. Young people with a vibrant personal faith, a commitment to mission, and a love of learning will be welcome in the Christian colleges of tomorrow, and the colleges should begin seeking them out and encouraging their preparation today. As Denton Lotz, quoting Stephen Neill, says in commenting on the task of “converting” the Christian college, “we must begin with Christian faculty members; and if there aren’t any, we need to convert some!”
Faithful Learning is a thoughtful volume. I was encouraged, reading these essays, to know that such interesting and promising discussions have been going on for over twenty years. Let’s hope and pray that the vision and resolve indicated in Henry and Agee’s compendium might begin to translate to the work of identifying a new generation of missionary/scholars who will lead Christian colleges in the recovery of truth and the proclamation of a biblical worldview, unto the shalom of the nation and the Church.
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