Academics and a Christian Worldview

By Michael J. Stell, MATS

“What fellowship has light with darkness?” Paul asked the Corinthians this when it came to the issue of being married to an unbeliever (2 Cor. 6:14). Many Christians apply this same idea to the relationship between a Christian worldview and the life of learning. At best it is a kind of disjointed fellowship; at worst, a syncretistic marriage of the things of God and the things of Baal. If there is any admission that academics are important to life, it is only because they serve a secular purpose, to get a job and to function in the state. For them, secular learning has no fellowship with discipleship, which is a matter of the heart. After all, Christ commanded the making of disciples, not scholars.

The problem is discipleship and the life of learning are often presented as two opposed activities. Brandon Cooper thinks that the pursuit of academic excellence is the pursuit of the good, instead of the best; an idolatrous pursuit of lesser gods.1 Tertullian in the 2nd century expressed the same idea when he famously quipped, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Instead of the Academy (think Plato), we are taught by the Lord who is sought in simplicity of heart.2 We do not need to learn at the feet of philosophers; we only need Christ.

However, if we think of Jesus’ understanding of the greatest commandment, loving God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, such a dichotomy seems to be a misunderstanding of how we should love God. Instead of seeing a division between the love from the heart and the love from the mind, we should view them as Jesus intended: an integrated whole. Discipleship is not a head vs. heart issue. Discipleship is an integrated whole because head and heart both love God.

If we take as our premise that discipleship is the correct stance of the Christian educator and the Christian school, then the question we need to pursue is whether the life of the mind is an idolatrous distraction or an integral path to the life of discipleship. In other words, is Tertullian right or Augustine? Augustine said, “A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging even in pagan literature.” 3 He likens it to the Israelites plundering the gold of the Egyptians during the Exodus (Ex. 12:35-36). He actually calls it God’s gold; the Israelites were just taking it back. In the 20th century, Frank Gaebelein took this idea and famously said, “All truth is God’s truth,” which has been the Christian school mantra for 50 plus years.4

Instead of viewing academics as an impediment to discipleship and the Christian worldview, I think it is better to examine how our understanding of God’s truth, regardless of where it is found, can be seen as part of discipleship. Paul tells us that we are to be involved in the process of renewing our minds, which literally means to renovate (Rom. 12:2). This is not change of paint color in a room, but a complete overhaul, right down to the studs as they say. This complete overhaul is not done at the expense of the mind—or for that matter the heart—but the mind is the material that needs to be renovated. The problem is ignorance and lies—coming from the father of lies. The truth—true truth as Francis Schaeffer called it—is the solution.

The Puritans understood this better than we do today. One of the first laws of the Massachusetts Commonwealth was the “Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647.” In it, the Puritans saw education as an act of subversion against the “chief project of that old deluder Satan,” who desires to keep men ignorant of the Scriptures through lack of understanding. In response, all children (both boys and girls) should be taught to learn and prepared or ‘fitted’ for ‘universitie.’ The way to overcome Satan was through education because education connected God’s people to the Scriptures. Education for them was a means or a path to discipleship.

In his essay “Learning in War Time,” C.S. Lewis reminds us that we are always living on the verge of death. We do not know the hour of our death, whether in war or in peace, so perhaps learning is of little value in light of impending eternity. However, instead of despair, Christians should manifest our humanity—the image of God renewed through Christ. He says, “We can pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing, we are either advancing the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.” He adds later, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Deception comes not through learning, but through ignorance. Truth and learning are the antidotes to the poison of lies and ignorance. Ignorance is the weed that grows in the soil of lies. Unchallenged, the weed will take over.

In thinking about a Christian worldview and the academic life, we must understand that we are not to be afraid of truth and learning, but we should be cognizant of the sinful heart. A Christian worldview reminds us that the gold that was taken from the Egyptians was used by the Israelites to make the Golden Calf as well as the Ark of the Covenant. Because we fear one of the potential outcomes does not mean that the gold is flawed. Learning, like gold, can become an idol, but it can also be used to make something beautiful: a mind, renovated and loving Christ. As a Christian school, we should see learning as building the later, not the former. Not teaching our children about God’s gold, even the gold formed by the Egyptians, does not solve the problem of idolatry. Teaching our children to love God, using the knowledge they gain wherever it is found, is one of the ways that we can help solve the problem of idolatry. The academic disciplines can remake the gold of the Egyptians into a Tabernacle where we can worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This requires intentionality and discipline of mind, taught by educators who have learned this themselves and are passing it on to the next generation. This is the essence of discipleship and a Christian worldview.


Michael J. Stell, MATS has served at three different Christian schools in the Northeast as a Bible/History teacher as well as an administrator. He recently began full-time doctoral studies in systematic theology with hopes of teaching again full-time. In addition to his studies and learning Latin, he is currently working on a book on Apologetics written for Christian students at college/university to help them answer the objections to their faith which they encounter while in school. He and his family live in Hagerstown, MD.

Footnotes

1. Brandon Cooper, “The Principled School: On Educational Idolatry and the Ministry that cannot change.” Christian School Educator. Vol. 14, No. 3.

2. “The Prescription Against the Heretics,” found in Readings in Christian Thought. Ed. by Hugh T. Kerr. Nashville: Abington Press (1991), p. 40.

3. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, p. 47.

4. The Pattern of God’s Truth: The Integration of Faith and Learning. Chicago: Moody Press (1968).