The forces threatening to pull the Christian liberal-arts college from its philosophical moorings are almost irresistible. Their influence in America has been increasing since the mid-nineteenth century, when they became noticeable. At that time, numbers of liberally educated American students, attracted by the academic specialization found in the German universities, began going to Germany for post-graduate degrees. Returning home, they held doctorates in fields that were narrower than those customary in America. Their expertise and desire for professional research, patterned after their foreign mentors, lent strong support to those educators already questioning the basic validity of the traditional American general education.

Although the process of reappraising American liberal-arts education has taken a couple of major turns since the mid-nineteenth century, the assumptions behind it still stem from the Enlightenment and its philosophical aftermath. These assumptions did not underlie the thinking of the colonists as they established the earliest American colleges, however; their thinking was closer to the philosophical orientation that gave rise to the medieval universities. And it was also closer to the interpretation of Christian theism upon which virtually every evangelical Christian college of the arts and sciences is founded. But it is a position whose implications for higher education are less and less understood and followed today.

This version of Christian theism holds that God is freely the creator and sustainer of a universe in which he has always manifested his “eternal power and deity” through his handiwork. God is infinite personality, in whose image man is created. As such, he is a rational, moral agent whose holy and just will determines absolutely the moral quality of the actions of every human being. Furthermore, he has revealed himself historically through his Son as an infinitely merciful and loving Being ready to redeem the entire life of any person so desiring, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This special or supernatural revelation through his Son is infallibly recorded and interpreted in the Holy Scriptures. Hence, they are the final arbiter and guide in all matters of faith and practice for those who are members of his Church universal.

To construct a world and life view around these basic doctrines requires certain assumptions that many educators today find difficult to accept. This difficulty derives from the naturalistic understanding of the scientific method, and has been intensified by the Enlightenment and subsequent philosophical developments. Earlier, the Christian theism of the medieval universities had viewed the world of experience as finitely real. This gave scientific endeavors a metaphysical justification. But what is more important, the reality ascribed to the objects of science was dependent upon a Being who designed the world in such a way that it could never be truly understood unless seen as tending toward him ontologically and pointing toward him epistemologically. Medieval science, then, looked for the purpose behind the phenomena studied. Science was an integral part of the Christian’s world and life view, because it facilitated the discovery of the meaning God has placed in his earthly creation. But later, when the experimental method came to be regarded as the proper method of science, the corresponding purpose of science was thought to be describing what happened and how it happened. The nature of the reality knowable by man also underwent redefinition.

Anyone who still refused to exchange his qualitative and teleological view of reality for the quantitative and mechanical one demanded by the new scientific method had to break his world and life view apart. The theological part would have to thrive on unreasoned religious belief, while the philosophical part would be grounded upon, but limited by, whatever the scientific method was adequate to handle—that is, only that which could be measured quantitatively and described mathematically.

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Except for Roman Catholics, no significant thinkers reacting against this new use of the scientific method to define philosophical reality have turned back to the Christian theism of the medieval thinkers. Nevertheless, there have been groups of Christian theologians, such as the Puritan divines who established the colleges in colonial America, upon whom the leading philosophers of the day had little influence, for good or bad. They were largely untouched by the new view of God, man, and the world dominant in the Europe of their day. Their rationale for introducing higher education into the New World is more reminiscent of the last of the great integrative systems of orthodox Christian theism. That system appeared, of course, back in the Middle Ages.

More recent Christian educators, in overseeing and staffing institutions that are trying to maintain the liberal-arts tradition of the colonial colleges, have been unable to avoid interacting with the thinking of the day. In itself, this development is no doubt all for the good. But many of these men have proven equally unable to avoid compromising the Christian theism supposedly constructed around their conservative theological tenets. The result is a continual struggle within Christian colleges between those for whom the integration of religious faith and learning is the primary goal of a college education and those who share the dim view of this goal taken by the majority of American educators for over the past hundred years. The latter view, reduced to its logical implications, is more consistent with the Enlightenment’s proud deistic assessment of human culture, later philosophical developments notwithstanding.

No one wishes to argue that the intentional alteration of the basic fabric of American higher education in the mid-nineteenth century was done capriciously. The technological and social needs of the rapidly growing nation could no longer be met by colleges and universities that offered little more than a general education in the liberal arts and sciences. Nor can the Christian liberal-arts college today ignore such contemporary educational realities as the usefulness of the scientific method, the effectiveness of research in specialized fields at the university, the needs of the student as a whole person who is frequently immature and is in college for more than academic reasons, and the needs of our democracy for citizens trained in various socially helpful skills. But unlike the university, the Christian liberal-arts college is adaptable to providing the kind of synoptic, integrative education deemed philosophically possible by all educators in the Middle Ages and by the founders of the first colleges in the American colonies.

Such an education need not be viewed merely as a way of preserving and transmitting the cultural heritage of the past to the elite of the future. If it is to be described as Christian liberal-arts education, it must be grounded upon the conviction that reality can be known and systematically described. This means that no scientist may demand any kind of priority for the full understanding of reality. It means that no scholar in the humanities can ignore the assured results of the scientific study of God’s creation. It means that all branches of learning must be allowed to criticize and learn from one another. It means that no human knowledge can be truly grasped or interpreted outside the framework provided by God’s infallible Word. And it means that man’s ultimate happiness and purpose will be taught as lying in an ever closer conformity with God’s revealed will.

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The unique purpose of the Christian liberal-arts college in providing the opportunity for an education of this type can easily be compromised by influences deriving ultimately from non-theistic sources. Such influences often encourage educators, when financial or other considerations force a decision, to sacrifice the philosophically integrative components of the college curriculum, and of the college scene in general. In their place are added components with greater value to the professor or student interested in specialization or in research, rather than in a general, liberalizing education. Such a professor or student may desire an inordinate emphasis on such things as the athletic program, or research facilities for the sciences or humanities, or a professionally tailored curriculum. The university provides for these needs, all of which are in themselves legitimate. But the college must never allow them to block its attempt to develop the student’s entire personality. The student in the Christian liberal-arts college must be able to gain a balanced perspective on all human knowledge as understood from the standpoint of Christian theism.

Compared with the university, the liberal-arts college is oriented more toward the accumulated wisdom of the past. It is interested less in increasing man’s total store of knowledge through investigation and research than in helping the student develop an understanding, appreciation, and critical evaluation of his cultural heritage. Such matters as the basic techniques of science, the needs of society, and the rudiments of business procedures will not be forgotten in the curriculum. But they must never be allowed to encroach upon the liberalizing courses. The graduate of a liberal-arts college should have a broad grasp of the insights into the human situation that men through the centuries have found most significant.

As a Christian college loses its liberalizing vision, it either ceases to be genuinely Christian or begins to dogmatize. Dogmatizing is as antithetical to a liberal-arts education as the compartmentalizing of knowledge found at the university. Dogmatizing in a Christian college prevents the student from gaining the intellectual poise and emotional stability necessary for leadership in the Christian community. Deprived of wide acquaintance with the basic problems and concerns of his fellow man now and in the past, uninformed about how mankind has dealt with these matters, the dogmatized student will be unable to decide for himself their relative merits. Instead, he will learn to labor under the false impression that the solutions his mentors have found for their generation’s problems are to be carried over into his own generation. What the student really needs is guidance in assessing the issues of the past and the present with confidence in himself, in the authority of Scripture, and in the assistance of the Holy Spirit. But from dogmatics he cannot avoid picking up a feeling of doubt about the relevance of his faith in Christ for the problems that have always confronted a human being most forcefully.

A similar apprehension about the significance of the Christian faith can be instilled in the hearts of students another way. A college can call itself Christian but see its real task as the training of Christians for meeting the specific needs of the community or for taking their place in the ranks of those engaged in scientific research, business, and other fields. Such training is indeed valuable, but it has no priority over the development of the whole man, which a truly Christian liberal-arts college claims to be able to accomplish uniquely. The Christian liberal-arts college whose main distinction is the demand of a commitment to Christ on the part of its faculty and students, but whose major objectives do not center around extending this commitment to the limits of man’s knowledge, gives the impression that the Christian either need not do this or cannot. Such a college would then not be a Christian liberal-arts college. It would be a training college for Christians who wish to prepare themselves for certain vocations and professions.

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A college seriously intending to view the liberal arts and sciences within the framework of Christian theism can confidently affirm the possibility of accounting for both the natural order and man’s place in it in terms of God the creator and the Word of God incarnate. Anything less than this arises from a lack of faith in the sufficiency of God’s revelation of himself and his illumination of our minds. Christian theism can never countenance any theory of human knowledge and its boundaries that ignores the moral reasons for man’s existence. To the full extent of its manifestation to man, the existence and nature of God must be seen to have implications for all human knowledge and activity.

Guidance in the theoretical and practical implementation of this truth is the unique and primary purpose of the Christian liberal-arts college. Any goal less comprehensive and profound is a travesty of the relation between orthodox, evangelical Christian theism and the liberal arts in American higher education.

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