Ideas Have Consequences: The Place of the Liberal Arts within a Theological Education, Part 1

Our guest author for this article is Ed Gravely, who serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and the History of Ideas at Southeastern Seminary. His teaching responsibilities include courses in New Testament at both the graduate and undergraduate level and courses in the History of Ideas for undergraduate students at The College at Southeastern. Though Ed is a text critic by training, but he is the quintessential “Renaissance Man” with interests in philosophy, intellectual history, economics, political theory, and modern fiction. This is the first article in a series of two. The second part will be published tomorrow.

Not long ago I sat with a student in my office and listened to him explain to me all the reasons he had concluded that most of the education he was receiving in The College at Southeastern was a waste of his time. The student was especially keen on explaining to me how my History of Ideas course, in particular, was really just not that important. He had a number of reasons prepared, but nearly all of those reasons could be distilled down to one core assumption on his part. “If the Bible is sufficient,” he said. “I don’t need to study anything but it.”

Since I began teaching at Southeastern in 2001, I have had this same conversation dozens, if not hundreds of times, at least once a semester. “I don’t need to study anything but the Bible” is a familiar refrain in my office and in my classrooms, and I am glad the statement is made or the question asked. It affords me the opportunity to make an apologia for the robust liberal arts education we offer.

To clear the air first, I know that when students say, “I don’t need to study anything but the Bible,” they don’t really mean that exactly, especially since many of the students who make such claims got the idea in their heads from reading books other than the Bible. Most people are astute enough to know that when we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture, we surely don’t mean that the Bible is the only thing worth studying or worth knowing. I know of no one who would argue, for example, that heart surgeons should only study the Bible to learn how to perform bypass surgery or that the Bible is a sufficient source to learn vector calculus. When students say, “I don’t need to study anything but the Bible,” they usually mean, “I want to be a minister. I don’t need to study anything but the Bible to be trained to do that job.”

Clearly, for students preparing for vocational Christian ministry, the study of the Bible and all of the accompanying disciplines (Greek, Hebrew, Theology, etc.) are of vital importance. I will be the first to say that in-depth biblical education is of vital importance for all Christian students, not just those who are preparing for vocational Christian ministry! Knowing God’s word is of paramount importance in the life of any believer. But it is naïve to say that the other disciplines crucial to a robust liberal arts education don’t matter, disciplines like Philosophy, History, Science, and Literature. These subjects do matter, and they are especially important for those training for vocational Christian ministry. We at Southeastern think they are so important that we have created a series of courses for our undergraduate students that specialize in the study and integration of these disciplines. Those courses are appropriately named History of Ideas (HOI), and all undergraduate students are required to take at least 12 hours of HOI alongside their biblical and theological courses.

The reasons for the importance of a robust liberal arts education are legion, but they can be summarized in three simple axioms: tradition matters, worldviews matter, and ideas matter.

First, a robust liberal arts education is key to any quality Christian ministerial training, because tradition matters. It should be noted on the outset that idea that ministers-in-training only need to study the Bible is a relatively new one. It is not representative of any historic Christian tradition from ages past. It is Calvin who boasts, “Indeed, men who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom” (Institutes 1.1.5 – and Calvin may be making reference to Seneca here). Surely Jonathan Edwards believed that study outside of the Scripture was vital to true devotion to God as he wrote essays on the human mind, optics, and spiders. Even when Tertullian infamously hails, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem or the Academy with the Church” (De praescriptione, vii), he makes his case against the philosophies of his day with all of the logical and rhetorical tools available to a highly educated lawyer. It is hubris of the grandest kind to think that we have outgrown the need for a robust liberal arts education for future ministers when our spiritual forefathers demanded it. Don’t forget that our “Ivy League” schools, the greatest centers of academic learning in North America, all began as places to train ministers. To claim that the Scripture is the only proper material for education, without also studying how the Scripture answers some of the great questions of western civilization (philosophy), how to address questions of right and wrong that aren’t specifically dealt with in the Bible (ethics), how to understand what role the arts play within a Christian theistic worldview (aesthetics), and so on, is actually representative of a low view of the sufficiency of Scripture rather than a high one. Christians, historically, have understood this and held their students, particularly ministers-in-training, to a very high standard of learning in the liberal arts. We should too.