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Peter J. Leithart on College & the Gospel
Not surprisingly, challenges to Christian education often come from secularists, who believe that requiring a statement of faith inhibits academic freedom and who cannot imagine a biology class that does not affirm the dogma of evolution. They have their reward.
Challenges to Christian higher education also often come from Christians, and these are, for Christians, more weighty because they come clothed in the gospel. Many Christians sense that Christian scholarship is incompatible with the simplicity of the New Testament message and is a threat to the centrality of Christ and of faith. Why, it is asked, do we need philosophy if all wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ? Why study the canon of Western literature when we have a canon of our own? Why do we need an argument when we have a gospel, an academy when we have a church?
It is easy to dismiss these objections as fundamentalist; too easy, in fact. And it is also possible to respond to these challenges on the wrong grounds. It is tempting to justify Christian scholarship by saying that the world is bigger than the gospel. There are plenty of things to study, and they do not all have to be “evangelical.” In some traditions, the gospel has to do with a sphere of “grace,” while Christian education and scholarship is in the bailiwick of “nature.”
Among Evangelicals, the defense of Christian scholarship often goes like this: The gospel of Jesus is central, but Christianity is also a worldview that embraces all areas of life and is not just about salvation. The proper activity of the church is the proclamation of the gospel, and although the Christian school’s work is not completely separated from the gospel, it is devoted to other dimensions of Christian faith, to the intellectual or academic or scientific “spheres” of human existence.
The Provocative Gospel
But Paul said that he had determined to know nothing but Christ crucified, and that determination was not confined to “religious matters.” Paul was an apostle, of course, but the same obsession is demanded of all Christians, in the laboratory and the library as much as during worship or when preaching. When we are asked to measure Christian education by the gospel, we should not ask to be measured by some other standard. We should not dodge the “fundamentalist” challenge to Christian education by hiding behind “nature” or “worldview.” Instead, we should meet Christian challenges by insisting that Christian education is demanded by the gospel and arises from the gospel. If we are going to justify our existence, we must be justified by faith.
The question thus is not whether Christian colleges must be evangelical; of course they must. The question is, what is the evangel? When we pose this question, it is apparent that the Christian challenges to Christian higher education distort or misconstrue the gospel in at least two ways.
First, they underestimate the contentiousness of the gospel. As the American theologian Robert Jenson has put it, “The Gospel is a message, and its reflection therefore an argument. . . . The university was founded by believers, to have a place to exegete their Book and argue interpretations of their message. Just so, no book and no argument could be foreign to it.” And again, “Christians’ calling to nurture argument can be very bluntly and quickly stated. Since the message we have for the world contradicts everything the world could possibly suppose, argument is guaranteed whenever we show up—unless we have forgotten ourselves.”
The gospel demands Christian education and Christian scholarship because the gospel, when preached without compromise, provokes dissent, and that dissent must be addressed.
Second, these challenges are usually based on a limited and therefore false grasp of the gospel. Instead of saying that Christianity is bigger than the gospel, we should say that the gospel is bigger than is often imagined. The gospel is not a message of individual salvation, which can then be applied to the “worldly” concerns of literature and politics, of economics and art. Rather, it announces the world’s redemption, and “worldly” concerns are inherent to it.
The gospel announces that the wall is broken down by the Cross, and therefore the Gentiles are welcomed to the same table and on the same basis as Jews; thus the gospel is sociology. It announces that the babble of tongues has been transformed into the harmony of Pentecost; thus the gospel is international relations. It announces that God has founded a new city, the Body of Christ, and that the King has been installed in heaven, at the right hand of the Father; thus the gospel is politics. It announces the coming of the new creation and includes the promise that the groaning creation’s labor will someday end in a glorious birth; thus the gospel is science.
For the Christian school, then, the whole curriculum must be cruciform. All philosophy originates in wonder at the strangeness of the world, but the Christian philosopher finds the world infinitely stranger than Parmenides or Plato could have dreamed. For Christian philosophy, the central questions must be, “What kind of world do we live in if everything hinges on a crucifixion one spring afternoon in first-century Palestine?” and “What kind of world is it if ultimate reality reveals itself as Gift, as incarnate and self-sacrificing Love?”
The Christian artist begins with the insight that beauty must be terrifying as well as attractive if the glory of the infinitely beautiful God is revealed in a Cross. The Christian historian founds his study on the belief that not only Israel’s history but all history announces that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and die, and to enter into his glory. The Christian musician takes his cues from the heavenly choir that sings forever in praise of the Lamb that was slain.
The cruciform character of Christian education does not end with the curriculum. During graduation at the college where I teach, the faculty addresses the graduates, in Latin, with “To whom much has been given,” and they respond with “much is required.” This motto summarizes the demands of the gospel, that we follow Christ in taking up the cross and giving ourselves.
And that finally is the test of a cruciform education. Success is not measured just by a student’s ability to respond when the gospel provokes argument, not just by his skill in showing how the gospel is the master story of the world, that it embraces all and everything. It is not enough for the curriculum to be cruciform; the students themselves must end up cruciform. A Christian education, however rigorous and instructive, will succeed only when the students grasp this point: That they possess the things that have been given only if they freely dispossess all; that they will find life only by losing it; that only if they die will they bear fruit.
This article is adapted from a commencement address given at New St. Andrews College in the spring of 2002.
Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante's Divine Comedy and Against Christianity (both from Canon Press). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.