Sacred Book, Sovereign God, Serious Joy

Why Study Liberal Arts in College

Bethlehem College & Seminary Commencement | Minneapolis


The question I want to try to answer in this message is: Why is there a Bethlehem College? This includes the question: Why do we do it the way we do it? And lest you seminary graduates think this is less relevant for you, think again. Not only will you need to cast a vision for what education is, but some of you will be called to start colleges and seminaries.

Get out of your heads the status quo that says a large university here and a large Christian college there is going to satisfy the global need for coming generations of young people who are saturated with the sacred Book, satisfied by the sovereign God, and serving King Jesus with serious joy. That will not happen with the status quo. From now until Jesus comes, there will be a need for thousands of new colleges and seminaries around the world.

Our Educational Impulses

Most people don’t blink at the expectation that our children will be in school from age six to eighteen. Virtually everyone assumes that a formal education is a good idea for teaching reading and writing and arithmetic for younger children, and English and math and history and social studies and science and p.e. for young people between thirteen and eighteen.

“Life is for more than making a living. Life is for the glory of God and the good of man.”

But after those first twelve years of general education, the common assumption of what to do next, and why, evaporates.

  1. You can go straight into the labor force and learn as you earn.
  2. You can take some technical training in a specific skill.
  3. You can study at a university toward a professional degree, like engineering or nursing or computer science or business.
  4. Or you can go to a college that focuses on the liberal arts.

In this context, liberal means freeing or instilling freedom. Not liberal as opposed to conservative, but liberal as opposed to constricted, bound, unable to act in freedom and generosity. The best liberal arts education is a Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated critical immersion in history, and literature and philosophy and natural and social sciences, all with a view to forming life-long habits of mind and heart that make a free people possible. This includes capacities to

  • observe reality accurately for yourself,
  • understand the complexities of a situation,
  • evaluate on solid grounds what is good and evil,
  • respond to life with mature, appropriate feelings,
  • apply knowledge wisely and helpfully,
  • and to compellingly express in speech and writing and action to what you know and love.

More Than Marketable Skills

Why would you choose any of these four paths of post-high-school education: (1) Go straight into the workforce, (2) take a technical course, (3) study for a professional degree, or (4) put yourself in the crucible of a Christ-exalting encounter with the liberal arts?

You know the most common answer to that question. Why get a post-high school education? To make a living. To get a job. So, if you take a course of studies — like a liberal arts degree — people will ask you, “What are you going to do with that?” What they mean is, “What money-making job does that prepare you for?”

And, of course, there are astute leaders in liberal arts schools that are very adept at giving an answer to that question on the very pragmatic grounds that the question assumes. Here’s one that I copied from the web:

Liberal arts graduates are well suited for today’s job market. Why? Because the state of the economy, technology, and a broader global perspective have made liberal arts majors — and the wide range of skills that they impart — more essential than ever before. Employers are recognizing that while employees can be taught the technical skills of a job, the ‘people’ and communication skills that liberal arts majors possess aren’t as easy to find or teach.

Now I suppose that’s true. But that’s not the way we answer the question: Why get a college education? Why a focus on the liberal arts?

More Than Necessities

In order to get at our answer, let’s analyze the meaning of the other answer, namely, get an education in order to make a living. To get a job. To be marketable. What does that mean?

It means that education should be designed to help you make enough money to provide what you need. Specifically,

  • to provide clothing so you won’t freeze or be arrested for indecent exposure or be burned by the sun;
  • to provide food so you can stay alive and have strength;
  • to provide shelter — an apartment or house where you can be out of the cold and have place to relax and sleep in safety;
  • to provide basic healthcare so if you get sick you won’t die;
  • to provide some kind of transportation to get where you need to go.

And if you make enough money to provide all that — both for yourself and eventually for your family — then you are making a living. And your education was worth it.

“Living is for the glory of God. Education is learning how that happens.”

There is no doubt that God wills for people to make a living in this sense — to earn enough money to pay for the essentials of life. The Bible is clear and blunt: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). So, we do not belittle the preparation and training it takes to master skills and make a living. And we are glad that there are apprenticeships, and technical and professional degrees — otherwise, we would not have a building or heat or lighting or roads or cars or computers, or medical care. Our special calling in this college is not a belittling of other callings and other paths.

More Than Making a Living

But that is not the way we think about college education at Bethlehem. So how do we think about it? We look at the practical outcomes of making a living and say, Clothing is fitting us for something. The energy and alertness we have from food and health is strengthening us for something. Shelter is a place with a purpose beyond staying warm and dry. Transportation is a way to get somewhere for something.

In other words, the college education we are called to is not primarily about providing clothing and food and shelter and transportation. It’s primarily about what clothing and food and shelter and transportation are for. Animals have clothing — fur. They find their food. They build their shelters. They lick their wounds until they’re clean. They get where they need to go. But human beings are more than animals. Life is more than making a living — infinitely more. What we are called to is educating for that life — the life that living is for.

God’s Glory, Man’s Good

And the biblical answer of what living is for is:

  1. Living is for the glory of God, and
  2. living is for the good of man.

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Living is for the glory of God. Education is learning how that happens.

We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

Living is for bringing about good for others. Education is learning how that happens.

Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Colossians 3:17)

Living is for the name and the fame of the Lord Jesus. Education is learning how that happens.

Be careful to devote yourselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:8)

Living is for bringing about what is excellent and beautiful and profitable. Education is learning how that happens.

How does living — all of living become worship to the glory of God? How are the connections made between all of living and the name of Jesus? How does all of living become works of virtue and works of excellence and beauty for the good of others? These are the quest of education.

And that work is made unusually demanding because of the many levels and facets and dimensions of our culture that need to see us living for the glory of God, living for the name of Jesus, and living for the good of man in works of virtue and works of excellence. It will take deep, stable, mature habits of mind and heart to bring truth to bear on these levels and facets and dimensions of culture for the glory of God for the good of man.

Education in Serious Joy

And we believe that, in God’s providence, the major works of literature and history and philosophy and art and science over the last three thousand years, colliding with the sovereign God and his sacred book, become a kind of educational crucible in which these habits of mind and heart are fruitfully formed.

“It will take deep, stable, mature habits of mind and heart to bring truth to bear on our culture.”

In the crucible of this encounter, under the prodding of great teachers, students form the lifelong, thoroughly biblical habits of

  • observing reality carefully for what it really is,
  • understanding that reality in all its relevant relationships,
  • evaluating that reality fairly and truly by God’s sacred word,
  • feeling that reality with appropriate, Spirit-formed emotions,
  • applying the truth wisely for the temporal and eternal good of others, and
  • expressing the truth that we know in compelling words and actions.

When these habits of mind and heart come under the absolute sway of the sovereign God and his sacred book, they are permeated by a serious joy. Serious, because God is holy and all-seeing. Joy, because God is merciful and all-satisfying.

This serious, God-besotted joy, and these habits of mind and heart, forged in the crucible of a Christ-exalting encounter with the liberal arts, we believe, has extraordinary potential for displaying the glory God for the good of man in our day around the world.

Not everyone is called to this kind of focused, integrated, liberal arts education. And there is nothing to be ashamed of if a young person enters the workforce right out of high school, or takes a technical course, or does a professional degree.

But we believe there are many young people — thousands of them all over the world — whom God is preparing precisely for this kind of education. The kind that asks not: How can I make a living? but How can I turn a living into a life for the glory of God and for the good of man in this ever-changing, complex world that belongs to God?