Broad Minds and Big Hearts
A Case for Christian Liberal-Arts Education
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17)
At Bethlehem College & Seminary, where I teach, the primary goal for our students’ education is not technical or professional, is not merely career or skills oriented, but is rather aimed at shaping a certain kind of person for a lifetime. To that end, we teach not only Scripture and theology, but also history, literature, and philosophy.
One way to express the vision for our college, and liberal-arts programs like ours, is this: We aim to educate students who graduate as mature adults rooted in the Scriptures, enriched by the humanities, and passionate for God’s global glory in Christ. Or, to put it another way, the aim of our college is Christian discipleship, the formation of mature Christian adults.
Why emphasize the liberal arts and humanities alongside Scripture? Because a liberal-arts education, received under the lordship of Christ, uniquely prepares students to live as broad-minded, big-hearted Christians in the home, the church, and the world.
Begin with the individual student. In an age of extended adolescence, a liberal-arts program like ours does not aim to entertain boys and girls but to establish stable men and women in faith through challenge. Generally speaking, most incoming students at Bethlehem College have a good grounding in Christian belief and practice. While they are by no means perfect in either, most of them tend to come from good Christian homes and churches that have done a decent job of grounding them in the faith before they arrive at our doors. Thus, our college students tend to have assumptions about Christian belief and practice that we largely, if not completely, agree with.
What then do they gain from their education? One of the effects of our curriculum on students is to challenge many of their (good and biblical) assumptions. In other words, the aim is to subject the students’ beliefs, assumptions, and practices to stress testing in order to build resiliency. In most universities, such challenges often come with the aim of undermining or overthrowing these beliefs and assumptions. But the goal of a Christian college is to strengthen, solidify, and (sometimes) correct these assumptions, beliefs, and practices. Strengthening a student’s faith requires subjecting them to a process of engagement with authors and texts that articulate beliefs and ideas that differ from theirs.
This process, while often uncomfortable and difficult for the students, is good for them and the solidity of their Christian convictions. A liberal-arts education forces them to think about why they believe what they believe and to explore the deeper reasons for their faith, thereby shaping their overall orientation to the world. While such an education has value in enabling students to commend the faith to others, the first aim of the education is not apologetic or evangelistic, but formative and personal. We want our students to be real Christians, all the way down. To use Walter Hooper’s description of C.S. Lewis, we want them to be “thoroughly converted” (God in the Dock, xiv). The contemporary world poses significant intellectual, moral, and affectional challenges for Christians. Standing firm in the evil day demands deep Christian convictions that have been tested and tried (Ephesians 6:13). Our college delivers that testing and trying through broad exposure to the riches of a liberal-arts education led by wise and faithful professors who care about the outcome of our students’ faith.
But the aim of a liberal-arts education is not merely defensive; it also aims to broaden the mind and enlarge the heart of the student. We want students to lean into reality, to have eyes wide open in wonder at the world that God has made and that man has cultivated and adorned (Psalm 19:1; 104:14–15). A liberal-arts education helps students to grow in wisdom, to attune them to reality so that they are able to walk wisely and joyfully in the world.
The benefits of a Christian liberal-arts education do not stop with the individual; they extend to the home, to marriage and family. Everyone recognizes that we make many of our pivotal life decisions from the ages of 18 to 25. During these years, young men and women will lay foundations, set life trajectories, and settle on vocations, and many will also choose spouses and begin families. A Christian liberal-arts college is not only an ideal place to find a suitable and fitting spouse; it is designed to cultivate habits of imaginative honesty and inquiry that will serve marriages and families over a lifetime.
A Christian liberal-arts education is a humane education — that is, it trains the student in ways of being human, in grasping the tendencies, trajectories, and boundaries of our created nature (Genesis 1:27–28); in making them aware of the distortions, corruptions, and temptations of our fallen nature (Romans 3:10–18); and clarifying for them the gospel-grounded hope of our redeemed nature (2 Corinthians 3:18). And the first place that this understanding of human nature in all of its facets will be applied is in the home.
A liberal-arts education that produces stable, godly men and stable, godly women will inevitably foster stable, godly marriages and stable, godly families, which form the backbone of earthly society. One Christian liberal-arts college with a similar vision to Bethlehem’s uses the longevity of marriages and the low incidence of divorce among its alumni as a key measure of its success. In short, the faculty of Bethlehem College know from personal experience and from the initial results of our educational paradigm that an education in the humanities can be a significant means of strengthening marriages and families.
But not only marriages and families and the home. A Christian liberal-arts education serves the church. It does so, first, by creating men and women who love the church of Jesus Christ. Our curriculum studies all of history as redemptive history, as God’s works of creation and providence which climax in Christ and which issue forth in God’s mission in the world through Christ’s body (Luke 24:44; Matthew 28:18–20).
As we consider the future of the church in America and beyond, we ask ourselves: Who will be leading small groups in twenty years? Who will be teaching Sunday school? Who will be serving as non-vocational elders, and leading women’s ministries, and counseling the broken and hurting in dark nights? Bethlehem College aims to fill the ranks of lay leadership in churches around the country. And we believe that the best leaders will not only be rooted and grounded in the Scriptures as the ultimate source and standard of truth, but also enriched by the humanities and able to faithfully appropriate and apply wisdom from any area of human knowledge.
In addition to cultivating lay leaders in the church, a Christian liberal-arts education also provides an ideal foundation for pastoral ministry. To begin with, a significant portion of the great texts that we study were written by Christians. In reading them, we engage in historical theology and learn to read the Bible with the saints throughout history. But the value of the liberal arts for ministry extends beyond the reading list. One central aim of Bethlehem Seminary is to produce John Piper–like preachers and heralds of the word of God — God-entranced, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, missions-mobilizing, inflamed by passion and joy and zeal for the glory of God. But consider where John Piper himself came from. The humanities are an essential part of Piper’s and therefore Bethlehem’s DNA. One version of his biography reads this way:
At Wheaton College (1964–68), John majored in literature and minored in philosophy. Studying Romantic literature with Clyde Kilby stimulated the poetic side of his nature, and today he regularly writes poems to celebrate special family occasions. As pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, he would also compose story-poems (based on the life of a biblical character) for his congregation during the four weeks of Advent each year.
Without Wheaton and the Christian liberal-arts education offered there, John Piper would not be the preacher that he is. At Wheaton, he met C.S. Lewis (through his books) and learned to love beautiful words and penetrating logic. At Wheaton, Piper’s education in literature and philosophy gave him the habits of heart and mind that prepared him to receive and recognize the value of arcing as a method of representing an author’s flow of thought and analyzing an argument in the Scriptures.
If we want to fill pulpits with Piper-like preachers, it is not enough to have a seminary that equips pastors with the tools of rigorous biblical exegesis and God-besotted theology; we also must produce men who love beauty, who are moved by poetry and the power of words, who are able to carefully and logically construct good arguments and expose bad arguments, and whose imaginations are aflame and ready to be employed in the cause of God and truth.
Renaissance Men in the Pulpit
But the importance of the liberal arts for Christian ministry extends beyond the ministry of John Piper. Almost every model of pastoral ministry that we set before our students was liberally educated. Augustine studied classical literature and rhetoric, especially the works of Virgil and Cicero, and then as a Christian taught us to plunder the Egyptians in order to build the house of God. Luther wrote tracts advocating for the reform of education, since the longevity of a faithful and educated clergy depended upon a faithful and educated people. He commended the establishment of schools that would include training in Latin, music, literature, and philosophy, as well as the Scriptures and theology. Such schools “must be second in importance only to the church, for in them young preachers and pastors are trained, and from them emerge those who replace the ones who die” (“On the Councils and the Churches,” 263). John Calvin was classically trained in law and philosophy; his first book was a commentary on Seneca. Jonathan Edwards received a classical and humane education at Yale. While Charles Spurgeon had no formal education beyond one year at Newmarket Academy, he was widely read in theology, natural history, Latin, and Victorian literature.
Suffice it to say that until the eighteenth century, essentially all pastors were “Renaissance men,” rigorously steeped in history, philosophy, literature, and Latin. That shaped the way they pastored, articulated, and expressed their faith. If we wish to produce preachers and pastors who shape the future of the Christian church, it is essential that we graduate men who are not only deep in the Scriptures, but also broad in the humanities.
Finally, a Christian liberal-arts education is not just good for the church; it’s good for the world. Christendom was built largely on the liberal arts as universities emerged out of the church during the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformation accelerated and broadened the reach of this education by extending it to the masses. Zacharias Ursinus, a German Reformed theologian, wrote, “The maintenance of schools may be embraced under this part of the honor which is due to the ministry; for unless the arts and sciences be taught, men can neither become properly qualified to teach, nor can the purity of doctrine be preserved and defended against the assaults of heretics” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 1007). By schools, Ursinus meant universities and academies that taught both the Scriptures and theology, as well as the arts and sciences.
Time would fail to consider the full impact of the Reformed tradition on education in both Europe and America, but one only needs to consider the education of men and women like John Milton, William Wilberforce, Hannah More, Jane Austen, and Anne Dutton to see that many of the Christians who have had the greatest impact on the world received a robust liberal-arts education. And, of course, how many Great Books did C.S. Lewis have to read in order to be able to write Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia, not to mention the countless other essays, sermons, and books that have enriched the church over the last seventy years?
Listening to the Great Tradition
Aside from the historical precedent in the Reformed tradition, a liberal-arts education is especially useful in a diverse and multicultural society. In fact, a Christian liberal-arts education does what multiculturalism and diversity initiatives attempt to do: it helps us to recognize that our assumptions about what’s normal aren’t always universal, while also helping us to identify what is truly universal and human. In a liberal-arts education, we are brought into conversation with what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” In attending to the Great Tradition, we give voice to our ancestors, and thereby refuse “to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (Orthodoxy, 43).
In studying Great Books, we avoid the error of chronological snobbery and the parochialism of the present. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” (“Learning in War-Time,” 58–59). Or as the novelist L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things different there” (The Go-Between, 17). Thus, a Christian liberal-arts education is ideally suited to prepare students to live in a connected and globalized world in which they will regularly encounter the vast differences of culture, custom, and religion.
Additionally, because a liberal-arts education aims to equip students with certain fundamental habits of heart and mind, our graduates are lifelong learners who are able to acquire new skills and serve Christ in a great variety of educations. The rigor of our undergraduate education is ideal preparation for graduate studies and law school. By studying great works of literature, which give us windows into human nature, we prepare students who desire to pursue vocations in psychology and counseling. In forming mature Christian adults who can think critically and creatively as well as communicate clearly and compellingly, we help them to become the kind of people that employers want to hire, and who can rise in the ranks of businesses through their fidelity, stability, and ability to learn.
Finally, we must not underestimate the value of a Christian liberal-arts education for the cause of global missions. At Bethlehem College, we not only offer a program in cross-cultural ministry, but we see our foundational curriculum in the humanities as aiding the cause of world missions. Just as our rigorous biblical and theological education seeks to stand out among the pragmatic mindset of many missionaries, so also our humane education seeks to stand out amid the narrowness of much missionary training. We want to produce missionaries like William Carey, who was a self-taught “Renaissance man” whose education enabled him to engage and benefit the Indian culture from multiple perspectives so that he is still regarded by many Indians today as a pioneering linguist, botanist, and advocate for social justice. The breadth of his education enabled him to serve as mediator of knowledge in two directions, bringing the gospel to the Indian people, as well as helping the English to understand the situation in India.
A robust education in the humanities provides incalculable opportunities for anthropological insight that can serve cross-cultural efforts. Students who learn to understand great authors and great books from the inside out are better able to immerse themselves in other cultures and understand them from the inside out for the sake of gospel witness (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). Students who develop a deep sense of gratitude for their own cultural heritage are better equipped to enjoy and love the cultural heritage of others. Finally, in receiving a liberal-arts education, future missionaries are bringing together a felt sense of the urgency of the missions task with the proper patience to be well equipped to fulfill it.
Wisdom and Wonder
In conclusion, we know that not everyone can receive or should receive a Christian liberal-arts education of the kind that Bethlehem offers. Nevertheless, it is essential for the health of any movement or society that some receive a broad and liberal education. In this respect, Christian Hedonism is no different. The future of Christian Hedonism demands institutions capable of producing leaders who are broad-minded and big-hearted, with firm, Christ-exalting convictions, who are ready to pursue wisdom and wonder for the rest of their lives.