Book Notice: “The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide” by Gene Fant

If you’re interested in Christ-centered learning, you’ll want to click here and make a purchase. Recently we posted about the new series Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (Crossway) edited by David Dockery, President of Union University. One of the first installments in that series is Gene Fant’s, The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide. Fant is a professor of literature and vice president for academic administration at Union University. With earned degrees in Renaissance literature, biblical studies, English, anthropology, and education, Fant serves as an expert guide for college students into the art and science of liberal arts.

Fant believes that “Christ-centered learning as viewed through the Scriptures . . . is able to teach, to reprove, to correct, and to train in righteousness” (p. 21; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16–17). Thus The Liberal Arts explicates this truth, surveying the history of liberal arts education and cogently and compellingly arguing for Christ-centered learning in seven chapters:

Chapter 1: The Beginning of Wisdom

Chapter 2: Christian Responses to the Rise of Liberal Learning

Chapter 3: What’s So Liberal about Liberal Learning?

Chapter 4: Wisdom and Liberal Learning

Chapter 5: General Revelation and Liberal Learning

Chapter 6: Liberal Learning and the Core Curriculum

Chapter 7: Current Opportunities for (and Challenges to) Liberal Learning

Fant wonderfully balances the relationship between the arts and sciences in the liberal arts, always connecting the two to God’s word and God’s Son. For instance, chapter 5: General Revelation and Liberal Learning, examines the nature of stories (narrative) and science and the relation of each to objective truth. Fant thus states, “Truth is discovered and described, but it is independent from human affirmation, existing apart from our understanding and unchanged by discovery” (p. 62). This point undergirds scientific inquiry and literature, for “Christians . . . understand that Christ seeks to reconcile all things, including our stories” (p. 76). Hence, chapter 5 in particular is an example of what kind of presuppositions and motivations govern “Christ-centered” education.

While The Liberal Arts is intended as a student’s guide, in keeping with the series, this book will benefit all those interested in learning more about learning, especially from a Christian worldview. Indeed, college students of liberal arts colleges and universities especially will benefit from learning about the history and intention of the liberal arts.

 

Ideas Have Consequences: The Place of the Liberal Arts within a Theological Education, Part 2

This is the second article in a series of two defending the study of the history of ideas as a crucial component in a balanced undergraduate theological education. 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.

I know it isn’t enough to say, “This is the way Christians have always done education,” without also explaining why. This brings us to my second point: a robust liberal arts education is key to any quality Christian ministerial training, because worldviews matter. The term “worldview” has become an almost meaningless buzzword in pop Christian culture, but that term represents a concept that is vital to Christian students. Every person living on this planet looks at the world with a certain set of assumptions upon which their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are situated. Until you understand a person’s worldview, communication with them about spiritual things in a meaningful way is nearly impossible, and communicating with people about spiritual things in a meaningful way is quite important to the life of the Christian. If, for example, you sit on the bus next to a person who grew up in the southern United States and say to him, “God loves you,” he will probably have some idea of what you mean (though it would be foolish to blindly assume that). But if the person sitting next to you on the bus just emigrated here from India, when you say, “God loves you,” he most likely misunderstands what you mean, because he has a radically different understanding of God than you do. Notice that this is not a case of you presenting the Gospel to a Hindu and the Hindu rejecting it. If he doesn’t understand what you mean by “God,” or more likely misunderstands what you mean by “God,” you haven’t accurately communicated the gospel yet at all. No one would think that the phrase “God loves you” would make any sense to a person who didn’t speak English, and Christians seem to have no trouble learning foreign languages to meaningfully communicate the gospel to people. Why then would we also not learn their worldview?

If worldviews really do matter then what is the best way to teach students in general and ministers-in-training in particular to think worldviewishly? The answer is, as you might guess, a robust liberal arts education. The History of Ideas is, in many ways, the history of worldview development. To understand, for example, why Plato reaches some of his more outlandish conclusions in the Republic and yet also seems to be making a very sensible argument for God’s existence in Laws (and both apart from a knowledge of the Bible) is an exercise in worldview thinking. The roots of the thinking of a modern Hindu are found in the ancient worldview of pantheism. And the best way to understand a worldview and to learn to think worldviewishly is to study the development of those worldviews, including our own. The great works of western civilization are the literary, philosophical, and historical record of worldview development, and therefore those famous works are the best material through which to teach worldview thinking, so long as they are taught alongside a rigorous biblical and theological course of study.

Finally, a robust study of the great works of western civilization (i.e. History of Ideas) is important because in many ways the development of ideas in western civilization is the history of the development of those ideas in Christian tradition, and ideas matter. Christianity has been immeasurably influential as the interpreter and influencer of western thought, but it has also been influenced by western thought. Understanding that relationship is vital to the minister-in-training. It is can be misleading, for example, to try to understand Aquinas without first understanding Aristotle, or Calvin without first understanding the Roman Stoics which he quotes so frequently, or Edwards without first understanding Hobbes and the other post-Newtonian mechanists to which he is indebted. And yet Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards stand as some of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, theologians, and Bible interpreters. We today are greatly influenced by them and their view of Scripture, as well we should be. But there is also a danger here. Though Christian theology is derived from God’s word, it isn’t formulated in a vacuum. The way we think about God and his Word is influenced by generations of thinkers in western culture, for good and for ill. It is easier for us to look back at Aquinas and identify where he departs from the Scripture and merely reflects his medieval culture than it is for us to examine our own theology to see where we depart from the Scripture and merely reflect our own largely post-Christian culture. Study in the History of Ideas is essential training for this necessary exercise.

There is a longstanding tradition in Christianity to teach the Bible and theology robustly but to also train Christian students in the liberal arts. Such training better prepares students to take the gospel in a meaningful way to a world that does not even share their basic understanding of God. Such training also prepares Christian students to understand the history of their theological beliefs so as to better spot where modern post-Christian culture has wormed its way into their thinking. Since tradition matters, worldviews matter, and ideas matter, training in the History of Ideas is not just essential preparation for would-be ministers, it is essential preparation for any serious, educated follower of Christ.

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.