A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 06/04/00

John 8:32

The Conversation: Thoughts on Christian Higher Education In the evening I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off the clothes I have worn all day, mud-spotted and dirty, and put on regal and courtly garments. Thus appropriately clothed, I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men, where, being lovingly received, I feed on that food which alone is mine, and which I was born for; for I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask the reasons for their actions, and they courteously answer me.

Niccolo Machiavelli1

There has never been a great revelation of the word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists.

Martin Luther2

The end, then, of learning, is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love Him, to imitate Him, to be like Him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which, being united to the heavenly grace of faith, makes up true perfection.

John Milton3

And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

Jesus of Nazareth4

On these four pillars set as cornerstones--the Renaissance Scholar, the Protestant Reformer, the Christian Poet, and, supremely, the Lord of Glory--we may build as on a firm foundation our Christian philosophy of education.

The classical concept of education which inspired men of the Renaissance like Machiavelli involved growing out of the provincialism of one's own time and place to become a citizen of the ages. They heard around them the echoes of a great Conversation as old as the race, in which the great Minds wrestled with the great Questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is ultimately real? What is the Good, the True, the Beautiful? How do we know? They strove to acquire the intellectual equipment--languages, logic, hermeneutics, etc.--which would enable them to enter into that Conversation themselves, to benefit from the wisdom of the ancients, and perhaps even to make a small contribution of their own for the use of future generations. It was in books that the Conversation took place, and in their own books it would continue when they themselves had faded into dust.

The Christian vision of education is both broader and deeper than that of the ancients. It is more, but not less; it includes the classical ideal while going beyond it. We too seek to join a great Conversation already going on around us. It contains many of the same voices and deals with all of the same questions. But our Conversation is guided by the Voice of Scripture more surely toward the Truth, and it has as its goal not just our own personal enrichment and fulfillment but the glory of God in practical service. Therefore, the greatest service a Christian college can perform is to introduce its students to the Participants in the Conversation so that their lives can be enriched and their service informed by it. It is, in other words, to make them lovers of books: the Bible supremely, the classics of course, and a host of heroes of the Faith who have blazed the trail before us as well.

Both Calvin and Luther recognized the debt that the Reformation--the recovery of the Gospel in its purity--owed to learning. For it was Renaissance Humanist scholars like Colet, Valla, and Erasmus with their battle cry of ad fontes, "back to the sources," who had not only recovered the original text of Scripture but pioneered the grammatico-historical exegesis that allowed its Voice to be heard clearly once again.5 A providential confluence of dates captures the relationship: in 1516, Erasmus the Humanist scholar published the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, and in 1517, Martin Luther the Protestant Reformer nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg Church Door. As a contemporary proverb said, "Erasmus laid the egg, and Luther hatched it."

If we wish to preserve, defend, transmit, and intelligently apply the Gospel the Reformation recovered, we would do well then to recapture the educational emphases that made that recovery possible. For, as Luther knew, to acquire as much skill as possible in the languages and literature not only of the New Testament itself but also of the Greco-Roman world from which it sprang is to attune our ears to the message of those John the Baptists who can help to point us to Christ. The proliferation of technical competencies required for entry to the modern marketplace makes it impossible to reproduce literally the classical education of the past. But Evangelical Christians should recognize that their descent from both the Apostles and the Reformers gives them a special motivation for keeping all those classical voices as part of the Conversation heard by the next generation.

Listening to those voices, then, we seek to train whole people for whole lives that give glory to God in every arena of life. We must understand, as Milton reminds us, that they were made in His image, have fallen from it, and are being restored to it by His Grace. As children of the King of Heaven, the whole universe is their back yard. Therefore, they alone have the right to make truthfully the claim of the pagan Terence: "Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto" ("I am a man; nothing human do I consider alien to me"). Hence, before we educate ministers, missionaries, workers for business, or teachers, we educate men and women. Professional competence to pursue their calling they must have, but much more: As Milton also reminds us, "I call, therefore, a complete and generous education, that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both public and private, of peace and war."6 The Bible, the Liberal Arts, and Professional Skill thus form for Christian educators, in a way that is impossible in the secular academy, a unified and coherent whole which they should understand and articulate as such.

The content of education for Christians is a whole based on the unity of the Truth which flows from the one God, whether revealed in Scripture, in Nature, or in History. With Scripture as the authoritative key and guide, Christian education introduces students to the ongoing quest for that Truth in its fullness, wherever it is found. As Milton explained again

Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when He ascended, and His Apostles after Him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who . . . took the virgin Truth and hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, . . . nor ever shall do, till her Master's second coming; he shall bring together every joint and member, and shall mold them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection.7 Even the limited, partial, and fragmentary glimpses we have now through a glass darkly can inform, inspire, transform, and liberate, helping us serve the Lord of Truth with the intelligent zeal He deserves.

As servants of the Lord of Truth and Light, Christian educators will strive to model and teach wholesome values and ideas. But they do not do this by burying their heads in the sand, nor by encouraging their students to do the same. As servants of the Lord of Truth, they are afraid of nothing. They also agree with Milton that they "cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."8 The primary reason their students should want to attend a Christian college is not negative but positive; not to escape the evil influence of the secular academy but because the Christian college is the West Point for Christian soldiers, preparing them to make an impact on the front lines of the spiritual and cultural wars that rage around us.

When Jesus said that the Truth would make us free, His primary reference was no doubt soteriological. But if God's purpose in salvation is to restore us to the fullness of our intended status as sub-regents of creation made in His image, then our Lord's dictum has pedagogical relevance as well. Truth seen as a Christ-centered whole frees us to become what we were created to be. Learn to "see God in everything," said John Donne, "and thou needst not then take off thine eye from . . . anything."9 It is just that theocentric vision that Christian educators have the privilege of imparting as the basis of a life that can test the limits of our potential to glorify our Father in the marketplace of commerce, the marketplace of ideas, indeed truly in all the arenas of life.

1 Niccolo Machiavelli, Letter to Francesco Vittori, 10 December 1513, trans. Alan H. Gilbert. Qtd. From Maynard Mack, et. Al., eds., The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, 5th Continental ed., (NY: Norton, 1987), p. 1061.2 Matrin Luther, Letter to Eoban Hess, 29 March 1523.3 John Milton, "Of Education," 1644, in Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, eds., Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2n ed. (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982), p. 389.4 John 8:32.5 For a fuller treatment of these issues, see Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls, Ga.: Toccoa Falls College Press, 1996), esp. chp. 3.6 John Milton, "On Education," op. cit., p. 390.7 John Milton, "Areopagetica," 1644, in Witherspoon & Warnke, op. cit., p. 411.8 "Areopagetica," p. 402.9 John Donne, "Sermon XXIII," 1640, in Witherspoon & Warnke, op. cit., p. 79.