Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living

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Library Journal
Plantinga (former dean, Calvin Coll. Chapel; Not the Way It's Supposed To Be) has written a sage, mature, and avuncular even paternal guide to the essentials of the Christian life for the college student. Most valuable, perhaps, is the final section, where he holds forth a vision of how a student should use "knowledge, skills, and virtues" in the service of God. For most collections and all seminaries. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802839817
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Pages: 150
  • Sales rank: 164,165
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 9.14 (h) x 0.49 (d)

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Engaging God's World

A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living
By Cornelius Plantinga Jr.

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-3981-9


Preface for Students

In a pamphlet of 1643, the founders of Harvard College wrote their mission statement for the new school, capping it with some straight talk about the purpose of higher education. The founders said this: "Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn. 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning."

Harvard began life in union with Jesus Christ. Its founders were Puritans, which is to say that they were English-speaking Calvinists, and they established Harvard only a few years after they had gotten off the boat at Massachusetts Bay. They could hardly wait to build a college. As a matter of fact, they and their descendants could hardly wait to build a lot of colleges. Harvard was just the beginning. According to one historian of New England, the United States had about two hundred colleges by the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, and two-thirds of them were either founded or controlled by the theological heirs of John Calvin.

"Something there is about Calvinism that likes a college," writes James Bratt(with apologies to Robert Frost), and this has been so from the start. In 1559 the reformer John Calvin urged his local government to establish an academy in Geneva, and then he accepted an appointment as one of its first five professors. From then till now, people of Calvinist outlook have set up colleges wherever they've settled. In fact, they have lent their minds, hearts, and money to the cause of Christian higher education so often that the name of a place like Calvin College (my own alma mater) is almost redundant.

Why such enthusiasm for Christian colleges among Calvinists? No doubt one reason is that John Calvin himself loved the life of learning. Calvin understood that God created human beings to hunt and gather truth, and that, as a matter of fact, the capacity for doing so amounts to one feature of the image of God in them (Col. 3:10). So Calvin fed on knowledge as gladly as a deer on sweet corn. He absorbed not only the teaching of Scripture and of its great interpreters, such as St. Augustine, but also whatever knowledge he could gather from such famous pagans as the Roman philosopher Seneca. And why not? The Holy Spirit authors all truth, as Calvin wrote, and we should therefore embrace it no matter where it shows up. But we will need solid instruction in Scripture and Christian wisdom in order to recognize truth and in order to disentangle it from error and fraud. Well-instructed Christians try not to offend the Holy Spirit by scorning truth in non-Christian authors over whom the Spirit has been brooding, but this does not mean that Christians can afford to read these authors uncritically. After all, a person's faith, even in idols, shapes most of what a person thinks and writes, and the Christian faith is in competition with other faiths for human hearts and minds.

But John Calvin's own love of learning is only one reason for the appearance of Harvard and its descendants. Long before Harvard or the Genevan Academy, medieval Christians established universities in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere, centering their study in the liberal arts. Before and alongside the universities, Christian monks preserved and extended knowledge to such a significant degree that many historians, Christian and non-Christian alike, credit the monks with saving Western civilization.

In any case, to do what comes naturally for human beings - that is, to pursue learning - Christians have wanted colleges. And to pursue learning in the light of God's Word, they have wanted Christian colleges - Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Baptist, Mennonite, independent - each with its own approach to the integration of faith, learning, and service.

What do Christians do in their colleges? What characterizes their approach to higher education?

Thoughtful Christians know that if we obey the Bible's great commandment to love God with our whole mind, as well as with everything else, then we will study the splendor of God's creation in the hope of grasping part of the ingenuity and grace that form it. One way to love God is to know and love God's work. Learning is therefore a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with. The person who studies chemistry, for example, can enter into God's enthusiasm for the dynamic possibilities of material reality. The student who examines one of the great movements of history has moved into position to praise the goodness of God, or to lament the mystery of evil, or to explore the places where these things intertwine. Further, from persistent study of history a student may develop good judgment, a feature of wisdom that helps us lead a faithful human life in the midst of a confusing world. And, of course, chemistry and history are only two samples from the wide menu of good things to learn.

But Calvin and his followers, who wanted to "reform the church according to the Word of God," had yet another purpose in mind when they built colleges. "Reformed" Christians, as they came to be called, have always believed that getting educated is one way to prepare for service in the kingdom of God. It's not the only way, but it's an excellent way.

Certainly, if you hope to reform a church, a government, or an academy, you will need a standard to go by, and the highest and best standard for reforming all of life, so Calvin and others believed, is the written Word of God. Educated Christians therefore need to "know their Bible" in order to lead a life that fits in with the purposes of God. But to reform a complex institution - or, as a matter of fact, to write a law, treat a patient, or perform any of a number of other human undertakings - you will need to gain wisdom from many sources in addition to Scripture. You will need to look for truth wherever it may be found.

The point of all this learning is to prepare to add one's own contribution to the supreme reformation project, which is God's restoration of all things that have been corrupted by evil. The Old Testament word for this restoration of peace, justice, and harmony is shalom; the New Testament phrase for it is "the coming of the kingdom." You can find the Old Testament's teaching about shalom especially in the prophets, and you can find the New Testament's teaching about the kingdom especially in the Gospels and in some passages of St. Paul's epistles. According to Scripture, God plans to accomplish this project through Jesus Christ, who started to make "all things new," and who will come again to finish what he started. In the meantime, God's Spirit inspires a worldwide body of people to join this mission of God.

So when Christians strive to make God's purposes their own, they tilt forward toward God's restoration of all things, the final coming of the kingdom. They think about it, pray for it, study and work in ways that accord with it. Thinking personally as well as globally, they want the kingdom to come in their own hearts as well as in the whole world.

Admittedly, given the depth and range of evil, such cosmic restoration sometimes looks doubtful. But in a world that can be forever changed by terrorists in hijacked airliners on a bright Tuesday morning in September, restoration also looks desperately necessary. In either case, Christians live by faith in Jesus Christ, and when their faith leans forward toward the coming of the kingdom, they call it hope. The person who pursues a college education in hope, and who then shapes his or her life accordingly for service in the kingdom - such a person has a calling that will outlast every recession. The motto of Wheaton College, one of the leaders in the Christian college movement, has it exactly right: Christian higher education is "For Christ and His Kingdom."

In the case of Calvin College, its leaders stated back in 1921 that they wanted a college in which young adults would gain an education that was Christian all the way through. College faculty and staff would knead the yeast of the gospel through everything that happened on campus, so that "all the students' intellectual, emotional, and imaginative activities" would be "permeated with the spirit and teaching of Christianity."

This thoroughgoing vision of Christian higher education may be traced to John Calvin, and to others before him, but its nearer proponent for Calvin College was Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), an extraordinary Dutch theologian, newspaper editor, and prime minister. Kuyper took a large view of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, assuming that when Scripture says God has made Jesus Christ "the head over all things" (Eph. 1:22), "all" means what it says. Thus Kuyper's most famous saying: "There is not a square inch on the whole plain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not proclaim: 'This is Mine!'" As generations have seen, the implication is staggeringly clear: those who follow Christ must bring all the parts and passions of their lives - including education - under the Lordship of Christ.

Christians of many kinds undertake this project in many ways. Colleges in the holiness traditions may start their educational philosophy by thinking that "a holy life means a whole life," in education as anywhere else. Colleges in Lutheran and Anabaptist traditions may center their thinking on Christ's suffering servanthood and a Christian's "strength in weakness" that flows from Christ. But no matter how a Christian college plans to integrate faith, learning, and service, it will never just conduct education-as-usual - not if it is serious about Christian higher education. It won't even do education-as-usual with Bible classes tacked on, or education-as-usual with prayers before class, or education-as-usual with a service-learning component and a ten o'clock chapel break. No, a solidly built Christian college will rise from its faith in Jesus Christ and then explore the height and depth, the length and breadth of what it means to build on this faith - not just for four years at college, but also for a lifetime of learning and work within the kingdom of God. In short, like the Puritans at Harvard, the sponsors of top-notch Christian higher education in the twenty-first century will "lay Christ in the bottome."

Of course, it's one thing to start a Christian college and another thing to keep such a college Christian. Harvard University no longer functions as a distinctly Christian college, and people on its campus don't always speak well of Puritans. The same goes for most of those other Christian colleges that had been established by the time of the American Civil War. These institutions gradually slid off their foundation. We may be sobered by such slippage, but perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Keeping a strong Christian purpose on any campus requires enormous effort. To succeed in this undertaking, a college's trustees, faculty, administration, staff, and most of its students and constituents have to work and pray in the same direction, trying aggressively to combine the whole life of the mind with the whole life of service under the headship of Christ. What's more, they must introduce this project to each new class of students, helping them see its strength and beauty.

Hence this book. You are holding a monograph that Calvin College commissioned me to write when I was its Dean of the Chapel. I have edited it for a wider Christian audience, but I still write as who I am - a Christian minister in the Reformed tradition who probably quotes Calvin too often. To say the theological location from which I write is "Reformed" might seem to distinguish it from, say, Lutheran, Catholic, Holiness, or Anabaptist perspectives. And, indeed, there is something characteristic about the pattern of emphases within a Reformed outlook on life and learning - including, for example, an emphasis on the immensity of creation, fall, and redemption. All has been created good, including the full range of human cultures that emerge when humans act according to God's design. But all has been corrupted by evil, including not only culture but also the natural world. So all - the whole cosmos - must be redeemed by Jesus Christ the Lord. What follows is that all of life is sacred: the whole of it stands under the blessing, judgment, and redeeming purposes of God.

When Christians talk this way they are speaking with a Reformed accent, and perhaps with an Augustinian one. (The writing of the great fifth-century North African bishop, St. Augustine, is as close as we get, after Scripture, to a universal Christian voice.) Every Christian naturally speaks the faith with his own accent, and you may be used to hearing the faith spoken in tones somewhat different from the one you will find in this book. Still, I think I can say that its main lines belong to what C. S. Lewis (with thanks to Richard Baxter) called "mere Christianity," a historic, frankly supernatural vision of the triune God, creation, and their relation. This vision derives from Scripture, centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and grows rich from the contributions of ecumenical creeds, church confessions, and the thinking of such heavyweight theologians as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth. In these respects, I believe you will find the presentation in the pages ahead to be not only Reformed but also catholic and evangelical.

The idea in this book is to lay out some main themes of the Christian faith and to show how Christian higher education fits inside a view of the world and of human life that is formed by these themes. Perhaps you will read this book near the beginning of your Christian higher education as an introduction to it, or near the end, as a summary of it. In any case, a coherent understanding of the big themes - creation, fall, redemption, vocation, the kingdom of God, the hope of shalom - may become a kind of frame for your education, so that (if you cannot already do so) some day you will be able not merely to recognize a Christian "world and life view," but also to articulate one.

I should add that nobody assumes you will automatically adopt such a view. Your college leaders naturally hope that you will find this perspective inviting and, finally, compelling. But they know that you may have come to college with another scheme for organizing your ultimate loves and loyalties and that you might leave with it unchanged. Maybe you're at a Christian college only because your parents sent you there. Maybe you will change your mind about "first things" five times in four years. In any case, no human being can change your mind for you. Only the Holy Spirit can start Pentecost. Only the Holy Spirit can blow across your bow strongly enough to turn you around for good, but your college can help you hoist your sails. It can help you to see, and invite you to ponder, a Christian vision of the world and of education that we older brothers and sisters think is big, challenging, and dynamic. More important, we think it is true. We think it arises naturally from Scripture and that it possesses great power to organize and inspire human life and learning.

As author, I have tried to write straightforwardly, wanting very much not to puzzle you unnecessarily. I'm aware that readers will come to this book from many points on the spectrum of familiarity with Christian doctrine and theology and that what seems novel to some will seem old hat to others. So I've had to make a critical decision about how best to present the central ideas. I've decided to write quite simply and to use plenty of examples. In choosing this approach I run the risk of boring some of you in order, as much as possible, to avoid mystifying the rest of you. I hope my decision is right, but I'm confident that if it isn't, somebody will let me know.

After some thought, I've also decided to refer to Christians as "we" and "us," and not as "they" and "them," even though I know that some of you are not believers in Jesus Christ, or not yet believers. My situation is like that of Christian believers with Jewish or Muslim dinner guests. Should table prayers on such an occasion end "in Jesus' name"? I believe so. Christians mean no inhospitality to non-Christians by praying in the only way Christians know how to pray. Similarly, when I write from inside the Christian faith I naturally write as a believer and as a representative of a confessionally Christian college, but I intend no disrespect to those of you whose faith now points elsewhere.


Excerpted from Engaging God's World by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Preface for Students ix
1. Longing and Hope 1
2. Creation 17
3. The Fall 45
4. Redemption 69
5. Vocation In The Kingdom Of God 101
Epilogue 135
Appendix Talking Points for Chapters 1 through 5 145
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