What are the necessary ingredients in forming a philosophy of higher education both at the college level and at the theological level? The situation at the time of the Reformation provides an answer to this question.
Humanism, a movement that lasted over three hundred years, was part of the background of the Reformation. At that time humanism was a spirit of free inquiry in contrast to a fixed philosophical tradition in Aristotle or the dogmatic decrees of the Church. It was in the best sense an attempt to be scholarly and academic. It had one great desire: to return to classical culture.
The classics of Greece and Rome were works produced by the outstanding poets, philosophers, and historians of the Greek and Roman period. Humanists believed that by studying the Greek and Latin languages, with the help of commentaries, grammars, lexicons, and histories, they could recover this era. Humanistic learning therefore stands in radical contrast to the scholasticism that prevailed in university education at the time of the Reformation.
One of the accomplishments of humanists was to understand thoroughly the weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church in their day. They realized that the church desperately needed some kind of revitalization. Yet the amazing thing is that these humanists were not reformers. They were enmeshed in their Latin and Greek and philosophical studies, and although they presented all the weaknesses of the church, they never actively sought remedies. The humanist mentality finds the mentality of the reformer uncongenial. The pure scholar, the research worker concerned with the pursuit of truth and not with the achievement of truth, the person interested in the mechanics of scholarship and not in the burning issues of life, never becomes a reformer.
What has just been said applies to Christian colleges. I have spent twenty years teaching in colleges and seminaries and universities, and I still find the humanist mentality in our Christian education. Much about the humanist tradition is good and noble—the desire to be fair, to be academic, to be scholarly, to get away from partisanship and see the truth as it is. Basically, however, the humanist mentality does not include the elements of a reformer or of a revivalist in the good sense of the word.
What Luther knew, the humanists knew also; yet the Reformation did not originate in the humanist camp. It began, rather, with those men such as Luther who wholly dedicated themselves to the Word of God.
In the course of a trip to Rome Luther became disenchanted with Rome, but this disenchantment was not unusual. Indeed, it was typical for travelers from other parts of Europe to see in Rome the problems of the curia, the papacy, and the church, and then to return home completely disillusioned. Rome to them stood for the center of Christianity, for everything holy and sacred and wonderful. But when they got there many found it to be a mockery of the Christian religion. It was not Luther’s journey to Rome that made him a burning reformer.
The Reformer And The Bible
Where, then, did Luther’s tremendous reformation spirit originate? It came primarily from Scripture. At the age of thirty-two Luther was made a doctor of the Bible, his task being to give lectures on the Bible to monks and students. When he began his career in 1505, he was thoroughly a child of the church and a captive of the four-fold hermeneutical system, in which every passage of Scripture is given four interpretations.
Why was Luther able so incredibly to defy the whole Roman Catholic Church? The church had the power to take his life. It was an institution that had stood for 1,500 years—and one monk in a primitive part of Germany challenged everything that the pope and the papal nuncio had said. Why could Luther do this? Because he broke through to a profound understanding of the heart and core of the Word of God.
Between 1509 and 1518 Luther completely buried himself in the study of Sacred Scripture, particularly the Psalms, Hebrews, Galatians, Romans, and Genesis. It was out of this tremendous biblical background, this deep understanding of the meaning of the Scriptures, that this monk withstood the Roman Catholic Church in all her power and wrested from her the Reformed churches which we call Lutheran today.
The Reformation did not, then, grow out of humanism; it arose out of a profound investigation of the content of Sacred Scripture.
With this new insight into Scripture came the new synthesis—the new understanding of justification by faith, of the priesthood of believers, of the Christian Church, of the way of the Christian man. In other words, a completely different understanding of the Christian faith came about through a profound and diligent study of Sacred Scripture.
It was a saturation of the Word of God at tremendous depth that brought about the Reformation. Then an unusual thing happened: there was a marriage of humanism and the Reformation. Luther by his own studies actually achieved the humanistic standards of research in ancient documents. He was not in the proper sense a humanist. But by the diligent way in which he applied himself to the Word of God, he virtually arrived at the humanist view that a document must be understood in its literary-historical sense and in its original languages.
So Luther broke open an entirely new way to study the Bible and initiated a new hermeneutical theory. Just as soon as he heard of the new humanism he espoused it.
Melanchthon At Wittenberg
And then in 1518, the year after Luther published his famous tract against indulgences, a very important thing happened: Melanchthon arrived on the scene at the University of Wittenberg.
Melanchthon was completely given over to humanism, in contrast to the sterile traditionalism of the average Roman Catholic faculty. He had begun as a tutor at the University of Tübingen, which was deep in tradition; but tradition did not hold his attention. Therefore, when the invitation came he quickly moved to Wittenberg, carrying with him the new spirit of humanism. He remade the university and greatly influenced education all over Germany, and from then until his death, the University of Wittenberg manifested a remarkable combination of humanistic learning and Christian theology. In short, Melanchthon also joined together the Reformation and the new humanism. In so doing, he brought to the Reformation great academic dignity.
Turn now to John Calvin. Calvin took a high view of Scripture as the inspired, holy, authoritative Word of God, and he too accomplished remarkable things. He used the tools of the new humanism to produce what is, measured by our contemporary standards, the first truly scientific commentary on the Holy Scriptures. Why was John Calvin the first scholar in 1,500 years to give the Church a scientific commentary on the Bible? The reason is that he not only possessed a sense of the majesty and divinity of Scripture but also was a humanist. Thus he took the tools of humanism and applied them to biblical exegesis.
What really brought the Reformation to pass? What gave it stature? Why was it so successful in winning one-third of Europe away from the Roman Catholic Church? The answer is plain. The Reformation was a happy synthesis of humanism and, in the good sense, biblicism. Without these two elements, there never would have been a Reformation.
This brings us to higher education today, to the theological seminary as well as the college. I believe that the synthesis of the Reformation is what we ought to have today. We need the union of a strong biblicism, a strong and deep theology (exegetically, historically, and comparatively), with the liberal arts. It is this fusion that makes for greatness in Christian higher education.
There are some who specialize in memorizing the Bible and in sheer mastery of its content. What is important, however, is not how much of the surface is covered but how deeply it is penetrated. A student who has bypassed the liberal arts, and who therefore has bypassed a real education, simply does not have the intellectual lung power to dive in deeply. He does not have the tools for profound scholarship. Such lack of a liberal arts background breaks down the synthesis that is so essential to Christian education.
On the other hand, there are a great number of colleges called Christian that are dominated by religious liberalism. And what have they produced? Sophisticated works, to be sure, but works lacking great depth. For they too have in their own way broken down the synthesis without which first-rate Christian education cannot exist. In such colleges and universities the usual course in religion is no stronger than pabulum, for there is no penetration, no experience of being mastered by the Scripture.
The Word of God is not something that we grasp; it is something that grasps us. If we are overpowered by a critical attitude, we never get to the point where the Bible lays hold upon us. All we have is sophisticated courses in religious education devoid of dynamic. Thus the colleges committed to a rationalistic, critical view of Scripture have broken down the synthesis. They have honored humanism or liberal arts but have failed to recognize the depth, the vitality, the power, the authority of the written Word of God and the living Word of God.
The conclusion is plain. Christian education will be great only when it is a synthesis of biblicism and humanism. On the one hand, we must uphold the integrity of the liberal arts and demand that liberal arts courses in our Christian colleges be competently taught. On the other hand, we must maintain the dignity, the authority, and the depth of the revealed Word of God that we have in Sacred Scripture. Only then shall we have the synthesis that makes for greatness.
Any school, college, or seminary that breaks down this synthesis is headed for mediocrity. To become so preoccupied even with evangelism and the Gospel and the Bible as to depreciate the liberal arts is to clip the wings of Christian education and to stultify those powers that are essential to becoming mighty in the Scriptures. For it is possible to be religious and at the same time mediocre.
Contrariwise, there is the great temptation for a school to become only humanistic, simply an academic institution with religion pushed to one side. This too is a real peril. For the institution that implies that religion courses are for the sentimental and the immature and that the only solid courses are in the liberal arts is doomed to spiritual mediocrity.
Greatness is found only as we bring together in a happy, harmonious synthesis a profound study of Sacred Scripture and the integrity of the liberal arts.
At The Church Door
As I stood meditating within the sanctuary of God’s house, I heard an insistent knock upon the door. “Why does someone knock upon the door of God’s house?” I asked myself. “Does he expect me to stop my worship to open a door?” But I went to the door and opened it. “Enter,” I said. “It is wet and cold out there.”
My words were addressed to a man who, though dirty and shabby, had a certain air of authority. Looking me straight in the eye he said, “Come out with me and see the world and its need. Come out and walk the streets; share with me the pain and toil of life.”
“Sir,” I replied, “the church is warm and comfortable. Come in and discuss your problems with me. Come in and we will try to make things right.”
“But my need is out here,” cried the man, “in my home—in the factory where I work—in the bar and bowling alley where I play.”
“Ah, sir,” I reproached him, “do not take me to your shame. Leave the wrong. Come in and forget.”
The man turned his head, looking down the sloshy street. “I can’t forget my friends, my children,” he said sadly. “They are out here. We need to wash, but we do not know how. Come out and wash our feet.”
“But sir,” I complained, drawing the door to me a little, “consider my schedule; look here on my calendar. See the neat lines of events. My life is split up into activities that keep me here.”
The man turned and looked into the street. Then he pointed to a house and demanded, “Who lives there?”
“Why, Mr. and Mrs. No Good,” I replied. “They never go to church.”
“Do you know the hell they live in?” he asked. “Do you know of her unfaithfulness? of his constant drinking? of their young child’s lying to get attention? of their older boy’s seeking after thrills?”
“Of course,” I sighed. “Who doesn’t? We stand ready to receive them when they straighten out.”
“But,” pleaded the tattered man, “they need you to go to them and love them and share their problems.”
“Me?” I nearly shouted. “Me? Are there no AA workers? Have they closed the mental institutions? Where is the welfare agency?”
The man slowly turned and started down the stairs. I closed the door as quickly and quietly as possible, leaning against it. And from somewhere I heard the words: “When saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”—DONALD B. MOFFETT, minister, First United Presbyterian Church, Pataskala, Ohio.
Bernard Ramm is professor of systematic theology and apologetics at California Baptist Theological Seminary, Covina, California. This essay is adapted from a convocation address Dr. Ramm gave in September, 1963, at Bethel College and Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
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