Christian Liberal Education

Many who discuss liberal education begin with a survey of past ideas going back as far as antiquity. They often begin by pointing to the Creeks as free men liberally educated. I do not intend to give such an overview here. In fact, it is not so much my purpose to discuss educational philosophy, as it is to point to some of the results which I believe Christian liberal education should bring about. Even so we cannot avoid reference to the philosophic antithesis between the secular idea of liberal and the Christian idea of liberal in education.

Freedom in Thought

In our day Existentialism has expressed the ultimate in what the secular mind presumes to be: freedom in thought and in action. Man should be so free that he is allowed to completely redefine himself by the course of his own free actions. Jean-Paul Sartre builds his philosophy around the slogan “Existence precedes essence.” By this he means that neither God nor neighbor can tell a man what he should be because he has to decide the issue for himself by his own living.

Auguste Comte, the father of logical positivism, suggested that man went through three stages in his search for truth. In the first stage, the theological stage, man looked to his gods for answers as to origins and basic meanings. Tn the second stage, the metaphysical stage, man concocted rational abstractions in an effort to explain the concrete things and events of his experience. In the third and present stage, the scientific stage, man uses his senses for inspection and his reason for organization and so gain power over his environment and gains freedom for himself.

Building on Knowledge

The emphasis since Comte has been on what is sometimes called cumulative knowledge. It is the kind of knowledge that builds on itself and can be successfully passed on for such cumulative results as a successful moon shot. This knowledge should not be disparaged as such, but the great difficulty with this kind of knowledge lies in the fact that it does not provide any ready solutions for all the psychological, moral, and spiritual hang-ups which continue to cause a breakdown in human relationships. Cumulative knowledge of that sort doesn’t seem to help man get along better with his neighbor and it does nothing to get him right with his God.

Unsuccessful Substitutes

The secular man has provided himself with various surrogates (substitutes) which he uses as a fill-in to satisfy his basic spiritual need, but without success. He has proposed democracy, socialism, trade unionism, communism, a grossly materialistic preoccupation with things, and, more recently, psychedelic escapism. None of these meet the basic need of his soul. None provides forgiveness and freedom from the guilt that overwhelms his heart because of his sin.

Even a secular historian such as Crane Brinton of Harvard has clearly seen that the surrogates do not work. He writes, “The inadequacy of the impersonal faiths in comparison with Christianity is especially evident in relation to the problems of the individual in trouble. The impersonal faiths are weak in the cure of souls” (Ideas and Men, p. 540 ). Brinton continues, “Moreover, there is another psychological weakness in modern surrogates for the older theistic faith. These new lay religions find it very hard to permit forgiveness” (p. 542). And is it not a fact that forgiveness .is the first step for man on his way to freedom?

So it turns out that secularized man’s liberalized knowledge and substitute religions leave him basically bound. He prides himself in his ability to free himself from the pull of gravity in order to set his feet on other planets but he cannot release himself from the pull of his own depravity. TIle secular mind comes to full expression in the words of President Nixon as he personifies secular man in apogee. He now fully expects his knotty problems to yield to the “spirit of Apollo 11.” The modern man is hardly more than a return to the sophistic man of the fifth century B.C. whom he so ardently admires. All the postures are the same, only a twentieth century sound track has been added. The apostasy of modern man is well illustrated in his substitution of the “spirit of Apollo 11” for the Spirit of Christ.

Necessity of Liberation

The Christian educator does not dispute the idea that education should help to create a free man. This creation, however, must begin with man’s re-creation. The Christian does not look to education to support man in his bid for untrammeled autonomy. “Free” for the Christian cannot mean the same as it does for the secular man. The Christian cannot base his freedom on a scientistic and rationalistic naturalism. The naturalistic idea of man must remain a phenomenalizcd idea of man. It can only study that part of man which emerges into the realm of sense observation and measurement. The methods of the positive sciences cannot free man from the basic enslavement by which he is in servitude to the sinful impulses of his inner and totally depraved central being, his heart.

The liberation of this central life, man’s heart, is the first phase in his liberation. This idea is scarcely meaningful to one who lives on the externals that have to do with the merely physical life. For a look at man’s heart, moral and spiritual insights are needed. Man can only become perspicuous to himself if he is able to go beyond the perspectives given him by science. He needs God-given insights in order to see himself as he is. The basic insight needed must yield the realization that only if the Son shall make him free can he be free indeed.

We must note a1: once that spiritual liberation in Christ does not bring instant and complete practical freedom. The liberated Christian still finds himself doing the things that he would not and not doing the things that he would. Even so, the essential principle of freedom is operative in his life. The new principle and spirit of freedom furnishes the motive force for his life.

We must also call attention 10 the fact that liberation in Christ does not immediately open up all the perspectives and vistas which are rightfully those of the liberally educated Christian. The Christian must learn that nil things are his because he is Christ’s and Christ is God’s. Only a short-sighted or lazy Christian can assume that the antithesis between the Christian and the world excuses him from active work in the arts and the sciences. He may not assume that there are some commonly secular areas which stand clear of the pervasive influence of faith.

Method and Responsibility

Christians sometimes become confused as to method and also as to responsibility. As to method, some would conclude that they can find ready answers in Scripture for the norms in all areas of human activity. For example, because Solomon said a lot of wise things and had perceptive and inspired insights, they want to make the book of Proverbs a psychology text. Others seem to assume that they can leave the discovery of the structural norms of the various aspects of the created order to the non-Christian while they apply the appropriate moral homilies. Let me cite a case in point. Some time ago I had occasion to participate in a discussion on linguistics. One of the participants mistakenly came with a list of scriptural exhortations as to the use of the tongue, assuming they were appropriate to the discussion of lingual laws as they constitute the science of linguistics.

We move on to say that, under the impetus of his saving faith, the Christian should feel impelled to enlarge his perspectives to meet his need for freedom in all areas of the created order. He now knows that he can know. He knows that science is now possible for him, that he must not disparage science by demanding answers from it which it cannot yield. However, the Christian can have the order of creation as the basis for the order which he establishes for himself in creation. He need not eternally swing on a pendulum between a stultifying determinism or an equally frustrating universe of pure chance.

Misguided Attempts at Problem Solving

Some Christians try to solve the problems created by their cultural responsibilities by making undue concessions to secular notions of autonomy and rationality. Others, with misguided fervor and often with more heat than light, condemn the aggregate of secular thought as categorically and completely unChristian and therefore without any countervailing value. Teachers affecting that kind of head-in-the-sand attitude seck to have their students avoid maximum contact with the deposit of secular thought. A marked example of that kind of obscurantism can be found in a recent writing on education where the author says, “I am thankful that John Dewey’s writings are not very readable or approachable by the average teacher, simply because more persons might knowingly promote his anti-Christian pragmatism if his teachings were dear.”1

It is hardly a wonder that our educational approach is still rife with pre-Reformational Thomism when the pulpit cooperates with the teacher’s podium to promote it. During the summer, a visiting minister preaching on the subject “Eternal Life” pontificated, “Eternal life is the opposite of physical life.” I do not use the term “pontificate” facetiously here but accurately. Such a pronouncement is indeed worthy of a pontiff, that is, the Pope. It cannot pass as part of a Reformed confession. In fact, we repudiate that kind of statement each Sunday when we confess to believe in the resurrection of the body. Because the above wrong emphasis tends to separate soul-saving from full-orbed God-serving it wrongly circumscribes Christian education as well.

God’s Word Our Guide

Though the process of liberal education does not presume to create an autonomous man, it should put him on his own, so to speak. So we may say that a Christian liberal education should free a man in his moral responses. It should teach him to rise above mere custom or tradition as the source and impetus for his moral decisions. The liberally educated man should act out of a free conscience using the revelation of God in his Word as a guide for his judgments. The coercion of custom, traditions, or the pressures of a surrogate religion, such as democracy deified, should not determine a Christian’s actions. This does not mean that a free man necessarily flouts custom as proof of his freedom. It does mean that the free Christian man will examine current customs, mores, and conventions to judge whether or not they be of faith.

A Christian liberal education should bring one to examine the foundations of his political thinking. It must give him a lively interest in the meaning of justice and the ways in which it can be brought to bear on communal life. The free Christian cannot allow another man, an institution, or a tradition to form his political mind for him so that he becomes someone else’s political proxy. A Christian should not need to borrow someone else’s political conscience.

A Christian liberal education should furnish a man with sound principles of economics. It should teach him to conserve and to use the economic resources at his disposal in such a way that he will not become economically enslaved and so that his resources become fully productive. Times and circumstances, for the most part, may be such that he would be flouting economic and moral laws by selling all that he has and giving it to the poor. His full responsibility may well demand that he make all the money he possibly can so long as he truly loves God and his neighbor.

A Christian liberal education should make it possible for a man to work effectively in the social context in which he stands. He must acquire the tools for free and effective social interchange. At the same time he must learn that social freedom is not social license; that social relation~hips impose social responsibilities. In the interest of effective social interchange, the Christian must acquire the skills of effective communication. He must master the language so that he can be ready with the word fitly spoken. This is doubly important for those who have had laid upon them the task of “rightly dividing the word of truth.”

Logic must be Our Servant

Coherent communication and expression demand coherent thought. The liberally educated Christian should be able to think in an ordered way. He should be schooled in the methods of analysis and synthesis.

He should be able to distinguish without losing the ability to relate. The free Christian should use logic as a servant that will assist him in the fuller understanding of the truth. He does not use logic as a dictator that rules over all questions of truth and meaning. The Christian cannot give logic, that is, the analytical mode of his existence some special kind of ontological status which sets it apart from all others in order to dominate the rest.

Strangely, there is a tendency among some evangelicals to argue that Christianity can successfully compete with other systems and take the palm as that system which is the most reasonable by the canons of logic. This approach has characterized the apologetics of the late Edward Carnell. Moreover, Carl Henry in his discussion concerning the need for a Christian university2 is concerned with taking “seriously the ontological nature of reason” and showing the “possibility of a logically consistent view of God and the world.” This, he would urge particularly, in view of the wave of irrationalism that has engulfed modern man.

One gains the impression that he is being invited to turn back the new irrationalism with the older rationalism. If that is the case, he would be well advised to save his money for a more reformational educational effort. Though engaging in critical thought, the Christian cannot turn away from obedient thought in his efforts to bring all things in subjection unto Christ, man’s analytical activity not excepted. The law of non-contradiction cannot lord it over creation but must bow to the Lord of Creation.

Science Belongs to the Christian

The liberally educated Christian should recognize science as pre-eminently his province because he alone has the possibility of relating his scientific activity to an ultimately meaningful point of reference. He also has the only long range incentive which makes science completely worth doing. His confession imposes no restrictions on the Christian’s scientific activity. He is free to explore the nucleus of the atom, the depths of earth and ocean, and the outer reaches of space so long as he does not presume to erect some new Babels in the “spirit of Apollo 11.” Man should examine the minute and cogitate on the cosmic in order to understand both and in order that he may render fitter praise for both.

Finally, as a culture forming creature, as a history making being, the Christian should write history and record the resutls of his cultural activities for the benefit of posterity. He must turn over the results of his work as a deposit for the benefit of succeeding generations. So the liberally educated Christian personally or indirectly becomes an educator. Having made God the center of his liberating pursuits, the educating Christian finds it impossible to leave God out of that learning which should in turn, by God’s grace, make free persons out of his children. He begins again with the fundamental freedom which is his in Christ as he sets the direction of a free education for those children.

1. Norman De Jong. Education in the Truth, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Nutley, New Jersey. 1009, p. 16.

2. Christianity Today, February 17, 1967.

Nick Van Til is professor of philosophy at Dort College, Sioux Center, Iowa.