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Building The Christian Academy

Building The Christian Academy

by Arthur F. Holmes

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Until Relatively Recently, the history of higher education in the West was the story of a Christian academic tradition that played a major role in both intellectual history and the history of the church. Over the last one hundred years, however, we have witnessed the progressive secularization of higher education. George Marsden goes so far as to suggest that the


Until Relatively Recently, the history of higher education in the West was the story of a Christian academic tradition that played a major role in both intellectual history and the history of the church. Over the last one hundred years, however, we have witnessed the progressive secularization of higher education. George Marsden goes so far as to suggest that the American university has lost its soul. But what was that putatively Christian soul? Precisely what in the Christian tradition has now been lost? And what should we know about that tradition as a condition of practical wisdom for the present?
Seeking to answer these questions, Arthur Holmes here explores the Christian tradition of learning, focusing on seven formative episodes in history that pertain to building and maintaining a strong Christian academy today. Holmes's fascinating treatment is set within the history of ideas -- the early church in a pagan culture, Augustine's formative influence on monastery and cathedral schools, the rise and decline of scholasticism, Renaissance humanism's contribution to the Protestant Reformation, the utilitarian view of education that accompanied the scientific revolution, and struggles with Enlightenment secularization -- and incorporates the educational thought of Plato and Isocrates, Clement and Origen, Abelard and Hugh of St. Victor, Aquinas and Bonaventure, Erasmus and the Reformers, Francis Bacon and John Milton, and John Henry Newman.

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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Building the Christian Academy

By Arthur F. Holmes

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2001 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-4744-7

Chapter One

The Soul of a University

At the conclusion of his three-volume work, Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, Hastings Rashdall declares that "some knowledge of the past is a condition of practical wisdom in the present." Over the last hundred years or so, we have witnessed the progressive secularization of higher education in America and throughout the Western world, and George Marsden goes so far as to suggest that the American university has lost its soul. What was that putatively Christian soul? What was it that the Christian tradition in higher education contributed that has now been lost? What should we know about that tradition as a condition of practical wisdom for the present?

Until relatively recently, the history of higher education in the West was, in fact, the story of a Christian academic tradition that played a major role in both intellectual history and the history of the church. To explore that story I have chosen to focus on seven formative episodes, asking in each case what problems educators faced and what major concerns guided educational thought and practice. I find four recurring emphases, which I take to be the heart and soul of the Christian academy:

1. The usefulness of liberal arts as preparation for service to both church and society

2. The unity of truth

3. Contemplative (or doxological) learning

4. The care of the soul (what we call moral and spiritual formation)

This book, then, is about the philosophy of higher education and the outworking of these four emphases in key historical contexts. The concluding chapter considers the twentieth-century scenario, in which confessionally Christian colleges and universities were the closest approximation to that tradition, and affirms that we need to reclaim for our day both the four traditional emphases and the theological foundations of Christian learning.

These four emphases obviously reflect biblical influences on educational thought and practice. Consider some biblical examples of educated leaders. Moses, adopted by the princess of Egypt, had opportunities unavailable to the Hebrew people. Educated in the learning of the Egyptians and exposed to governmental leaders, he gained a sense of political responsibility and acquired thinking skills and qualities of mind that are essential for leadership. Although he retained his Hebrew identity, he spent forty years in the wilderness contemplating what he had learned before God called him, a man now of both faith and learning, to lead his people. He was timid about public speaking, but demonstrated tremendous organizational skills and administrative know-how. Above all, he became the moral leader of an emerging nation in which all of life was to be lived under the guidance of God's law. Today his name is ensconced in the courtroom of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Think of Solomon, who at the outset of his kingly career asked not for wealth or personal honor but for wisdom to rule well and to discern good and evil. Apparently he had to work at developing that gift, for he complained that "much study is a weariness to the flesh." The first book of Kings tells us that he studied biology (both animal and plant life), wrote over a thousand songs, and collected three thousand proverbs from sources in the ancient world. Ecclesiastes indicates that he weighed and studied these proverbs and arranged them in order. That he sought "pleasing words" as well as words of truth indicates his concern about the aesthetic. Foreign rulers came to him for advice, and his decision-making amazed them. He invested in international commerce and spurred the economic development of his country. And he built a magnificent place of worship whose symbolism spoke of the overwhelming holiness of God, and whose intricate craftsmanship and artistic splendor glorified the Lord of creation. Its beauty may well have been inspired by the call we still hear to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." But Solomon's name has stood through three millennia for wisdom, its importance, its social application, and its divine source.

And there is Daniel, "showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace" (Dan. 1:4). He studied the language and literature of the Chaldeans, and that helped him to understand not only those he served, but also himself. (Literature does that for us still.) He rejected, however, the Chaldeans' self-indulgent lifestyle and disciplined his eating habits beyond what the Mosaic dietary laws required. That kind of self-discipline helped build courage, enabling him to hold on to his Jewish faith in the face of the threat of death in the fiery furnace and in the den of lions. He risked his life in telling Nebuchadnezzar and then Belshazzar the fate awaiting them and their kingdoms, for God had entrusted him with insight into things nobody else could figure out. Daniel's name is still synonymous with courage.

The Apostle Paul grew up in the Asia Minor city of Tarsus, a university city and a center of Stoic philosophy. His writings make use of Stoic vocabulary and adapt some of its ideas, and in Athens he was able to interact with Stoic philosophers. But he was also educated as a Jewish rabbi at the feet of Gamaliel, studying the law of Moses and the wisdom of Solomon, and he doubtless read about the courage of Daniel. He became a Jewish activist, fired by faith and learning, but after his encounter with Christ he spent three years in independent study in Arabia. Inspired now by Christian understanding, he became a pioneer missionary who brought the gospel to Europe, a church planter, a missionary strategist, and a creative theologian. He was able not only to distinguish truth from error and right from wrong but also to spell out the theological and ethical implications of the gospel for both church and society in a worldview that is still valid today.

To these examples should be added the biblical literature itself-its history and rhetoric and poetry, its appreciation for music and the arts, its wisdom writings, and the prophets with their insight into the moral and religious direction of history. Not all its writers nor all its heroes had the education of a Moses, Daniel, Solomon, or Paul, for they represent a broader cross section of people, but there is clearly no incompatibility between vital faith and deep, disciplined, wide-ranging learning, between piety and hard thinking, between the life of faith and the life of the mind. Intellectual, aesthetic, and political activity were part and parcel of the life of faith, neither apart from it nor independent of it, and certainly not in conflict with it. Biblical faith had no room for anti-intellectualism; instead, faith and learning were mutually supportive and mutually enriching.

These examples illustrate the four emphases that were to shape higher education. The concern for moral character and faith development ("care of the soul") is obvious, along with the broad uses learning served. The unity of truth is apparent in the contributions of "secular" learning to the theocentric worldview of these individuals. The Mosaic law addressed sex and marriage, food and festivity, property and working conditions, social justice and political order. Solomon's wisdom extended to friend-ship, marriage and family, work and wealth, life's fulfillment and its frustrations, even old age and death. In Daniel's view of history, the destiny of nations was in the hands of God, the just judge of all the peoples of the world, and Paul insisted that, whatever we do in whatever station in life, it should be done heartily as an offering to the Lord. This all-inclusiveness results from broad education and a contemplative approach to life; it involves not just doing things or doing them thoughtlessly, but reflecting on how whatever we do in life relates to its creator and lord. It makes life and learning a continuous doxology of praise to God.

Of particular importance for education is the biblical concept of wisdom. The first nine chapters of Proverbs, for instance, appear to be intended as moral education for a son, while Job and Ecclesiastes ponder the vicissitudes of life. Wisdom in these books is not just a body of knowledge or even a depth of understanding, for it requires good judgment that embodies fundamental values inherent in the overall meaning and purpose of life. In ancient Israel, as in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, an understanding of wisdom arose that emphasized the order of nature and a right ordering of the moral life and the basic structures of society. God's wisdom could be seen in his creation, and it should guide lives. The wisdom of ancient Israel was thus God-centered, since "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

This wisdom was based more in natural than in special revelation, and in creation rather than in God's covenant of law or grace, although some like Solomon and Daniel were specially gifted by God. Occasionally, as in Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as having existed from before the beginning of creation, and as speaking what is right and true. But wisdom based only on human experience and the observation of nature is not always reliable or sufficient. Psalm 19 declares that while the heavens speak of God's wisdom, his law speaks more directly and more powerfully; this was also Paul's theme in his letter to the Romans, when he appealed not only to the witness of nature but also to God's law and his grace. Both natural and special revelation are therefore needed. In the New Testament, moreover, "one greater than Solomon" arrived (Matt. 12:42), for God's wisdom became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Paul calls Christ "the power and the wisdom of God," in contrast to the power of eloquent rhetoric that some of the Greeks regarded as wisdom (1 Cor. 1:20-31). Solomon had said that "wisdom is better than jewels," while Paul adds that "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" are hidden "in Christ" (Col. 2:3).

The letter to the Colossians was written to a Gentile church in a Hellenistic city where the main purpose of education was to acquire wisdom, namely, the proven values and the understanding of nature passed on from generation to generation through the liberal arts. But Paul points also to a specially revealed wisdom, for the Christ who created everything in heaven and earth and sustains its order has now come to reconcile it all to himself, and in everything he will eventually be supreme (1:15-19). Wisdom and knowledge, including the liberal arts, are therefore the treasures they are because they are about his wisdom and work, and so are about him. He is, after all, the cosmic Christ, the Christ of the entire creation, including all its arts and sciences. Paul contrasts this philosophy with one rooted only in this-world beliefs (2:8). True wisdom requires a distinctively Christian worldview.

Related to this biblical concept of wisdom is the personified Logos with whom John's Gospel begins. John probably had in mind the Hebrew term dabar, usually translated "word" in the Old Testament, since his opening line "In the beginning was the Word" recalls the opening line of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ... and God said...." But in the Hellenic world, logos was used not only for a speech or explanation, but also for intelligible order, for reasoning or even wisdom, used therefore about both rhetoric and philosophy (literally, "love of wisdom"). As the creative Word, then, Christ is God's most powerful rhetoric, calling worlds into being and calling us to himself; but as the divine Wisdom he was in the beginning with God, ordering the creation, and, by his coming, full of both grace and truth, he enlightens our understanding. John had experienced this himself, as his Gospel recounts, for he had heard and seen and touched the living Logos (1 John 1:1-3). Moreover, like Paul, he predicts that the Logos will eventually have the last word about the creation (Rev. 19:11-13).

It is a short step, as we shall see, from the biblical concepts of wisdom and logos to a theological foundation for the four Christian emphases we noted in higher education. In addition to their implications for faith, for moral development, and for the unity of truth in a Christocentric worldview, they invite the student of arts and sciences to contemplate for himself the eternal wisdom of God, which made these disciplines and their usefulness possible in the first place.


Excerpted from Building the Christian Academy by Arthur F. Holmes Copyright © 2001 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.
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