The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society.
by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor
Higher education has played a key role in the church’s training of true two-handed warriors since its earliest days. One could argue that the manner in which Jesus trained his apostles was so consistent with first-century rabbinic educational practices that the church was actually established with a ‘school’ at its very heart. And there is little doubt that the church began establishing more formal schools as early as the First Century when Mark the Evangelist and/or his disciples founded the world’s first ‘Christian College’ in the catechetical school connected to the Roman rhetorical university at Alexandria. Soon, this blending of the Spirit-driven early church with the truth-seeking Greco-Roman liberal arts tradition proved a powerful combination.
College Against Culture
It is difficult to imagine what European civilization might have become without the integrative mindset fostered among the faculty and students of the Alexandrian school, including three of the most influential minds of the Patristic era: Clement, Origen, and Athanasius. This single educational community provided clear-headed theological reflection and courageous cultural leadership in some of the most significant turning points in early church history.
This was particularly evident in their fourth century battle against the heresy of Arianism. By this time the Alexandrian school had grown into an academic powerhouse with strong secular connections and studies, so much so that Eusebius reports that even nonChristian noblemen entrusted their sons to instruction there. The school became the training ground from which their most famous alumnus, Athanasius, launched his attack against the official Roman endorsement of Arianism. Each time he was rebuffed and even excommunicated at Rome, Athanasius would return to Alexandria for counsel and prayer with the faculty and students of this robust educational community. The common perception that orthodoxy finally prevailed because of Athanasius contra mundum, “One Athanasius against the world,” is far too individualistic an interpretation. The battle was actually, “One Christian college against their culture.” And the Christian college won.
Over the centuries since, Christian colleges and theological seminaries have often proven significantly more effective than local churches in nurturing faculty and students whose leadership is genuinely transformational. Although God often furthers his kingdom through unschooled saints, a surprising number of the names in the honor-roll of church history are intricately connected to the schools where they studied and/or taught. Martin Luther and the University of Wittenberg; Timothy Dwight and Yale; John Henry Newman and Oxford, Charles G. Finney and Oberlin College; Fr. Michael Scanlon and the Franciscan University of Steubenville; D. L. Moody and A. J. Gordon and the institutions that bear their names to this day, each stand as a monument to the extent and influence of Christian higher education.
The Life of the Mind and the Life of the Spirit
One of the keys to the influence of these learning communities is the surprising degree to which the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit can and often do coexist in these learning communities. Church-related colleges and universities birthed many of the most significant reformation and renewal movements in history, while most reformation and renewal movements have, in turn, spawned colleges themselves. This is particularly event in American higher education where more than half of our first 600 colleges were established by evangelicals. In fact, the broad historic definition of the term evangelical is best applied to movements who hold to both the power of the Holy Spirit to produce new birth and holy lives with the power of the holy scriptures to guide and shape the life and practice of the church.
It is in these renewal schools that the integration of the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind has achieved its greatest synergy. The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, when empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society. In other words, they were effective because they were able to train young men and women to become what we have called two-handed warriors. By cultivating both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit they were able to produce students capable of mastering both faith formation and culture making.
The Troubled History of Maintaining a Two-Handed Approach
This potential Spirit/Mind synergy is of particular importance to faith-based colleges at the outset of the twenty-first-century. The dawn of the new millennium finds the evangelical College movement emerging from a century of cultural isolation into a remarkable renaissance. Attendance is booming, endowments are up, intellectual respectability is growing, U.S. News and World Report ratings are climbing. It is quite possible that the twenty-first-century will present the Christian college movement with the opportunity to articulate a distinctively Christian worldview in American society in a manner unparalleled in over one hundred years.
However, the history of American higher education is littered with colleges who have abandoned their lofty ambitions to train two-handed warriors for a decidedly more “one-handed” approach. Burtchaell (1998), Marsden and Longfield (1992), Marsden (1994), Reuben (1996), Benne (2001), Ringenberg (2006), Budde and Wright (2004) have carefully outlined how easily colleges lose their spiritual cutting-edge. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Reformed or Wesleyan, nearly every time a church-founded college or university manages to achieve societal respectability and financial independence they have immediately abandoned their integrative mission. Like prodigal sons, once they “received their inheritance” they have immediately “set off for a distant country where they squandered their wealth” and their ability to train true two-handed warriors. Their graduates go into the world with one hand tied behind their backs to the detriment of their own souls and the culture they create. It turns out that balancing a commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit even in a Christian college is not so easy as one would suppose.
The Twenty-First Century Challenge
Will the twenty-first-century be any different? Burtchaell’s (1998) chronicling of the demise of nearly every Christian college in American history (including at least two CCCU schools) reads like a modern-day Book of Judges. Knowing that within a few generations of the death of nearly every college’s founding leadership, “the people of God did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshipped other Gods” (Judges 3:7) is depressing reading for anyone who has given their life to Christian higher education.
Burtchaell concludes his book with a sobering challenge:
“The failures of the past, so clearly patterned, so foolishly ignored. And so lethally repeated, emerge pretty clearly from these stories. Anyone who requires further imagination to recognize and remedy them is not up to the task of trying again, and better” (p. 851).
Will the leaders of 21st century Christian colleges rise to his challenge? The future of two-handed higher education may very well depend upon it.
In future posts I will explore key movements history of higher education and how their educational philosophy and practices could help 21st century Christian colleges nurture two-handed warriors.
Benne, R. (2001). Quality with soul: how six premier colleges and universities keep faith with their religious traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Budde, M. L, & Wright, J. W. (2004). Conflicting allegiances: the church-based university in a liberal democratic society . Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
Burtchaell, J. T. (1998). The dying of the light: the disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churches. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
Holmes, A. F. (1975). The idea of a Christian college. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans.
Marsden, G. M., & Longfield, B. J. (1992). The Secularization of the academy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Marsden, G. M. (1994). The soul of the American university: From protestant establishment to established nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.
Newman, J. H. (1852). The idea of a university: Defined and illustrated. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Reuben, J. A. (1996). The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ringenberg, W. C. (2006). The Christian college: A history of Protestant higher education in America, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.