The Christian intellectual tradition serves as a valuable resource for Christian higher education, helping faculty and students to understand the way that Christians through the years have read the Bible, formulated doctrine, provided education, and engaged the culture. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Thessalonica, urged the followers of Jesus Christ to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught” (2 Thess.2:15).
The Christian Intellectual Tradition
Wherever the Christian faith has been found, there has been a close association with the written word of God, with books, education, and learning. Studying and interpreting the Bible became natural for members of the early Christian community, a practice inherited from late Judaism. The Christian intellectual tradition has its roots in the interpretation of Holy Scripture.
Since the earliest days of Christian history, Christians have drawn on the Bible in various ways. The rich heritage has shaped the Christian tradition in both individual and corporate practices. In order to recover this valuable resource for Christian higher education, we must seek to learn from interpreters of Scripture, from theologians, philosophers, educators, and other Christian scholars and leaders.
Christian educators can learn to think deeply about the things of God from representatives of this tradition who have gone before us and on whose shoulders we now stand. We have much to learn from Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine and many others. As we learn from the best of this tradition, we will see our faith strengthened and will experience a renewal of our orthodox commitments to the divine nature and authority of God’s written word, to the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, to a heartfelt confession regarding the holy Trinity, to the uniqueness of the gospel message and the enabling work of the Holy Spirit, to salvation by grace through faith, to the global church, and the hope of the coming kingdom, and to the sacredness of life and family.
Thoughtful Christians will work to develop a model of dynamic orthodoxy in conversation with Nicaea, Chalcedon, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, the Pietists, and the influential global Christian leaders of the 21st century in order to reclaim and build upon the great Christian intellectual tradition.
The great tradition of Christian thinking not only helps to shape our biblical and theological understanding, but also provides a vast resource for philosophy, art, music, literature, drama, architecture, law, political and social thought, the sciences, and other forms of cultural and academic engagement. It is my hope that as we wrestle with the many challenges facing Christian higher education in our day, the great tradition of Christian thinking will provide valuable resources and examples to encourage our faith and to shape significant educational, church, and cultural pursuits, even as we grow in our appreciation for and commitment to thinking Christianly for the glory of God.
Reconnecting with the great confessional tradition of the church will help Christian educators to avoid fundamentalist reductionism on the one hand and liberal revisionism on the other. Fundamentalist reductionism fails to understand that there are priorities or differences in the Christian faith. Fundamentalism often fails to prioritize doctrines in a way consistent with the emphases of Scripture. Liberal revisionism on the other hand, in its attempt to translate the Christian faith to connect with culture, has often wound up revising the Christian faith instead of translating it.
As we reflect further on these important matters, let us take a brief look at the key commitments found in the Creed of Nicaea, a confessional statement shared by all Christian traditions. The Creed of Nicaea (325/381) was drafted to refute the claim that Jesus was the highest creation of God and thus different in essence from the Father. When we contend today for Christ-centered higher education, we are in effect confessing that Jesus Christ, who was eternally the second person of the Trinity, sharing all the divine attributes, became fully human. Thus, to think of Christ centeredness only in terms of personal piety or activism resulting from following some aspects of the teachings of Jesus, while important, will be inadequate.
A healthy future for Christian higher education must return to the past with the full affirmation that when we point to Jesus, we seek the whole man Jesus and say that He is God. This is the great mystery of godliness, God manifested in the flesh (1Tim. 3:16). It is necessary that Christ should be both God and Man. Only as a man could he be the Redeemer for humanity; only as a sinless man could he fittingly die for others; only as God could his life, ministry, and redeeming death have infinite value and satisfy the demands of God so as to deliver others from death.
Any attempt to envision a faithful Christian higher education for the days ahead that is not tightly tethered to the great confessional tradition will most likely result in an educational model without a compass. The only way to counter the secular assumptions that shape so many sectors of higher education today is to confess that the exalted Christ, who spoke the world into being by his powerful word, is the providential sustainer for all life (Col, 1:15-17; Heb. 1:2).
As we seek to bring the Christian faith to bear on the teaching and learning process in the work of distinctive Christ-centered higher education, our strategy must involve bringing these truths about Jesus Christ to bear on the great ideas of history as well as on the cultural assumptions of our post-Christian context in light of God’s eternal truth. We, therefore, want to call for the work of higher education in the days ahead to take place through the lenses of the Nicene tradition that recognizes not only the Holy Trinity but also the transcendent, creating, sustaining, and self-disclosing Trinitarian God who has made humans in his image.
As I envision a blessed future for the shared work of Christian higher education, I am in no way naïve to the multifaceted challenges and multilevel changes all around us: financial, technological, denominational, educational, legal and cultural. I have offered a threefold focus in these three articles on the central and foundational commitments needed to envision and sustain a faithful future for Christian higher education where the Christian faith will inform and shape our teaching, learning, scholarship, and service. As we do so, I pray not only for renewed confessional convictions, but also for a genuine orthopraxy and a flourishing model of higher education that can be seen before a watching world.
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.
Click below to read the other two articles in this series.
[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; also, David S. Dockery, “Christian Worldview, the Great Commandment, and the Christian Life,” in CBS Worldview Study Bible, edited by David S. Dockery and Trevin Wax (Nashville: Holman, 2018), 1593-1595.]
Image: Tiu.edu. Used with Permission
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