Broad Minds and Big Hearts

A Case For Christian Liberal-Arts Education

Why emphasize the liberal arts and humanities alongside Scripture? Because a liberal-arts education, received under the lordship of Christ, uniquely prepares students to live as broad-minded, big-hearted Christians in the home, the church, and the world.

 

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17)

At Bethlehem College & Seminary, where I teach, the primary goal for our students’ education is not technical or professional, is not merely career or skills oriented, but is rather aimed at shaping a certain kind of person for a lifetime. To that end, we teach not only Scripture and theology, but also history, literature, and philosophy.

One way to express the vision for our college, and liberal-arts programs like ours, is this: We aim to educate students who graduate as mature adults rooted in the Scriptures, enriched by the humanities, and passionate for God’s global glory in Christ. Or, to put it another way, the aim of our college is Christian discipleship, the formation of mature Christian adults.

Why emphasize the liberal arts and humanities alongside Scripture? Because a liberal-arts education, received under the lordship of Christ, uniquely prepares students to live as broad-minded, big-hearted Christians in the home, the church, and the world.

Personal Formation

Begin with the individual student. In an age of extended adolescence, a liberal-arts program like ours does not aim to entertain boys and girls but to establish stable men and women in faith through challenge. Generally speaking, most incoming students at Bethlehem College have a good grounding in Christian belief and practice. While they are by no means perfect in either, most of them tend to come from good Christian homes and churches that have done a decent job of grounding them in the faith before they arrive at our doors. Thus, our college students tend to have assumptions about Christian belief and practice that we largely, if not completely, agree with.

What then do they gain from their education? One of the effects of our curriculum on students is to challenge many of their (good and biblical) assumptions. In other words, the aim is to subject the students’ beliefs, assumptions, and practices to stress testing in order to build resiliency. In most universities, such challenges often come with the aim of undermining or overthrowing these beliefs and assumptions. But the goal of a Christian college is to strengthen, solidify, and (sometimes) correct these assumptions, beliefs, and practices. Strengthening a student’s faith requires subjecting them to a process of engagement with authors and texts that articulate beliefs and ideas that differ from theirs.

This process, while often uncomfortable and difficult for the students, is good for them and the solidity of their Christian convictions. A liberal-arts education forces them to think about why they believe what they believe and to explore the deeper reasons for their faith, thereby shaping their overall orientation to the world. While such an education has value in enabling students to commend the faith to others, the first aim of the education is not apologetic or evangelistic, but formative and personal. We want our students to be real Christians, all the way down. To use Walter Hooper’s description of C.S. Lewis, we want them to be “thoroughly converted” (God in the Dock, xiv). The contemporary world poses significant intellectual, moral, and affectional challenges for Christians. Standing firm in the evil day demands deep Christian convictions that have been tested and tried (Ephesians 6:13). Our college delivers that testing and trying through broad exposure to the riches of a liberal-arts education led by wise and faithful professors who care about the outcome of our students’ faith.

But the aim of a liberal-arts education is not merely defensive; it also aims to broaden the mind and enlarge the heart of the student. We want students to lean into reality, to have eyes wide open in wonder at the world that God has made and that man has cultivated and adorned (Psalm 19:1104:14¬–15). A liberal-arts education helps students to grow in wisdom, to attune them to reality so that they are able to walk wisely and joyfully in the world.

The Home

The benefits of a Christian liberal-arts education do not stop with the individual; they extend to the home, to marriage and family. Everyone recognizes that we make many of our pivotal life decisions from the ages of 18 to 25. During these years, young men and women will lay foundations, set life trajectories, and settle on vocations, and many will also choose spouses and begin families. A Christian liberal-arts college is not only an ideal place to find a suitable and fitting spouse; it is designed to cultivate habits of imaginative honesty and inquiry that will serve marriages and families over a lifetime.

A Christian liberal-arts education is a humane education — that is, it trains the student in ways of being human, in grasping the tendencies, trajectories, and boundaries of our created nature (Genesis 1:27–28); in making them aware of the distortions, corruptions, and temptations of our fallen nature (Romans 3:10–18); and clarifying for them the gospel-grounded hope of our redeemed nature (2 Corinthians 3:18). And the first place that this understanding of human nature in all of its facets will be applied is in the home.

A liberal-arts education that produces stable, godly men and stable, godly women will inevitably foster stable, godly marriages and stable, godly families, which form the backbone of earthly society. One Christian liberal-arts college with a similar vision to Bethlehem’s uses the longevity of marriages and the low incidence of divorce among its alumni as a key measure of its success. In short, the faculty of Bethlehem College know from personal experience and from the initial results of our educational paradigm that an education in the humanities can be a significant means of strengthening marriages and families.

The Church

But not only marriages and families and the home. A Christian liberal-arts education serves the church. It does so, first, by creating men and women who love the church of Jesus Christ. Our curriculum studies all of history as redemptive history, as God’s works of creation and providence which climax in Christ and which issue forth in God’s mission in the world through Christ’s body (Luke 24:44Matthew 28:18–20).

As we consider the future of the church in America and beyond, we ask ourselves: Who will be leading small groups in twenty years? Who will be teaching Sunday school? Who will be serving as non-vocational elders, and leading women’s ministries, and counseling the broken and hurting in dark nights? Bethlehem College aims to fill the ranks of lay leadership in churches around the country. And we believe that the best leaders will not only be rooted and grounded in the Scriptures as the ultimate source and standard of truth, but also enriched by the humanities and able to faithfully appropriate and apply wisdom from any area of human knowledge.

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