Review of Christian Higher Education

Overview

When one begins to contemplate the theory of teaching or education, one is quickly confronted by the sheer volume of relevant literature and the debates among this literature.1 Having a solid guide through this maze is necessary for us all; to have as your guide fellow Christians, Christians who are also experienced educators, is surely a blessing! The contributors to Christian Higher Education have not sought to be such guides, but through their respective essays, they manage to provide a thoughtful, Christian perspective on many of the significant questions being asked today. Their specific purpose has been to provide a “multiauthored, symphonic, and theologically shaped vision for the distinctive work of Christian higher education” (13). They offer it to help both those new to Christian higher education and to those who are well seasoned in their labours (13). Within the Evangelical tradition, the authors consider how faith, teaching, and learning interact with one another within various fields of education and within the broader educational context (18). The work also fits within the broader Evangelical trend of ressourcement, drawing on the wealth of tradition to answer the problems of today.2 Crossway has released a series dedicated to this end;3 the first essay by Dockery positions Christian Higher Education within this stream of works seeking to “reclaim and advance the Christian intellectual tradition” (22-23): “We offer the Christian intellectual tradition to twenty-first-century Christ followers as a guide to truth, to that which is imaginatively compelling, emotionally engaging, aesthetically enhancing, and personally liberating” (33).

As a bridge between description and evaluation, it is worth noting at this point that summarizing the book is difficult, for there is no effort in the preface or first essay to offer a clear organizational scheme for the essays that make up the volume. The book is divided into three parts, yet this division is not clearly explained. Part 1 is somewhat clear; it appears to be a broadly concerned with laying the foundations for an Evangelical theology of education from the “Christian intellectual tradition” and from the Scriptures (141). The different emphasizes of Part 2 and 3 are not so clear. Both contain the triad “faith, teaching, and education” in their description, and Part 3 includes “application and implications,” yet both appear to be addressed with the more practical working out of general theology of Christian higher education from Part 1. Part 2 addresses particular disciplines, showing how “the Christian worldview functions much like a compass” (141), whereas Part 3 focuses on more general themes that impact education, such as intercultural approaches, catechesis, etc.

Evaluation

The great benefit of such a far-ranging volume is its ability to introduce the reader to many issues in contemporary education, especially the issues facing a Christian. However, the downside of a volume of this size and scope is that it cannot manage to thoroughly address these issues. For those new to the study of education theory, this volume provides a great introduction to many pertinent issues. For those who have thought deeply about the issues, its contribution may be to introduce the perspectives of practitioners from different disciplines and with different experience, offering new ideas and potential solutions to the problems we face in higher education. I came to this volume having taken two seminary level classes on educational theory, studied for pastoral ministry—and so covered similar territory—and having read broadly and thought deeply about the issues of training pastors and Christian leaders in a higher educational context. I found many chapters a useful refresher on material I have read over the last 10 years of such study and a rich trove of interdisciplinary perspectives on different subjects. The main part I was interested in was Part 1, considering a general theology for Christian Higher Education. I was unfortunately underwhelmed by this section.

Ressourcing the “great tradition” is all well and good, but this section was missing a serious wrestling with the Biblical teachings concerning why we should engage in higher education (in education at all), whom we should educate, how the Biblical vision of Christians as exiles fits into the Western model of education. One reason for this deficiency, I believe, is the broadly integrationist approach adopted in the volume (‘integrationist” being a term borrowed from Christian approaches to psychology). By integrationist, I mean that the authors are more than willing to integrate theory and structure of contemporary education into their model of Christian Higher Education. To be sure, the roots of modern education are in Christendom (cf. Chapter 1), yet it is shaped in the classic model by Greek Philosophy and in the post-enlightenment model by Enlightenment values. Dockery hopes that by going back to the tradition they can overcome the issues of the Enlightenment, yet this may not be going back far enough, for in doing so you will end up with the issues of Greek thought (22-23).4 Furthermore, whether the authors adopt a view that Christians ought to transform culture (“transformationist”) or that culture is a parallel entity to the Church (“two kingdoms”) is unclear (though these seem to be the views that would be taken by the authors). The authors surely adopt different positions from one another, leading to some of the tensions mentioned in the preface (13). One’s view on the so-called “Christ and Culture” debate will heavily influence one’s view of education, so these issues are not secondary. A Christian view of education needs to be formulated in a clear context of what it means to be Christian in the World. With a firm view of this, the question then ought to be asked “should we pursue Christian higher education?” If our answer is yes, we need to give the reasons why we should pursue Christian higher education. Only then can we ask the how and what questions that Christian Higher Education asks. As an example of this, consider with the me the essay on the study of Scripture in Higher education.

“The Study of Holy Scripture and the Work of Christian Higher Education” (81-100)

George Guthrie is a first-class Biblical scholar with a particular emphasis on lay education that lies close to this author’s heart. However, I cannot quite figure out the role of this essay in the volume. The focus on how to teach Biblical studies seems to make it better suited to Part 2, however its place in Part 1 probably emphasizes the foundational role of Biblical studies in Christian higher education. It is nevertheless a hard fit here and underscores the problems noted above.

Guthrie observes, and so takes for granted, the intersection of secular Biblical studies and Christian Biblical studies (and theology) (86-88). This presupposes many answers to theological questions about “Christ and Culture,” the nature of unbeliever’s knowledge, the role of faith in right reading of the Bible, epistemology, etc. These questions are by no means incidental to a theory of Christian higher education. Furthermore, the theory of Biblical interpretation he espouses in this context (though of standard Evangelical fare) is itself a product of certain views on the previous questions and ought—in some eyes—to be revised in light of different answers to those questions.5 The point is this: in Guthrie’s essay and throughout the volume, some of the most significant questions concerning the role and nature of distinctly Christian education—such as whether there ought to be a distinctly Christian Higher Education—are not addressed from  the Bible. This will not be an issue for many readers, but that itself is (I believe) an issue with contemporary Evangelical approaches to education. It is an issue that this volume does not address and yet is lesser because of its absence. However, the positive contribution of the volume is still significant. Such an approach is evident in the volume Media, Journalism, and Communication. Ibid.

  1. E.g. are PowerPoint presentations helpful or deadly? Should we tailor our education specifically to each student or aim for the lowest common denominator? How seriously should we take “learning styles”? Is classical education a way to get beyond the contemporary breakdown of public and collegiate education? How much should intersectionality shape our approaches to education? Should we and how should we address systemic inequality in the classroom and broader education system? Should a teacher deliver information to students or participate in the investigation of the objects of study with the students? How helpful is online study vs an actual classroom (though this question seems moot at this particular point in time)? []
  2. Hans Boersma defines “ressourcement” as looking “to the history of the church for resources to give theological direction to people in the twenty-first century.” Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 9. []
  3. “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition.” See my review of one volume in this series, J. Alexander Rutherford, “Review of Media, Journalism, and Communication,” Teleioteti, May 10, 2018, accessed March 25, 2020, https://teleioteti.ca/2018/05/10/review-of-media-journalism-and-communication/ []
  4. Such an approach is evident in the volume Media, Journalism, and Communication. Ibid. []
  5. Cf. J. Alexander Rutherford, The Gift of Knowing: A Biblical Perspective on Knowing and Truth, God’s Gifts for the Christian Life Part 1 Vol. 1 (Vancouver: Teleioteti, 2019); J. Alexander Rutherford, The Gift of Reading – Part 1: Reading the Bible in Submission to God, God’s Gifts for the Christian Life Part 1 Vol. 2a (Vancouver: Teleioteti, 2019); J. Alexander Rutherford, The Gift of Reading – Part 2: A Biblical Perspective on Hermeneutics, God’s Gifts for the Christian Life Part 1 Vol. 2b (Vancouver: Teleioteti, 2019). []

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