Christianity and the Disciplines: The Transformation of the University

Oliver D. Crisp, Gavin D’Costa, Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson (eds.)
Published by T&T Clark in 2012

Theology and Philosophy – Faith and Reason

Oliver D. Crisp, Gavin D’Costa, Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson (eds.)
Published by T&T Clark in 2012

Todd C. Ream is Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University, a research fellow with Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and the co-author (along with Perry L. Glanzer) most recently of The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).

The university has collapsed into an entity where colleagues in one discipline rarely, or are often unable, to even speak to colleagues in another. Such a reality led Clark Kerr, a former Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, to remark approximately fifty years ago that what we have before us is no longer aptly described as a university but a multiversity–a place where specialized forms of knowledge exist in relative isolation from one another.1 To spend time wandering from one intellectual fiefdom to the next that comprises the current university is to wonder if anything can save us from our fragmented landscape.

In a noble effort to reclaim the place of wisdom, a transcendent vision of knowing that could not only capture the depths of particular forms of knowledge but also the connections that bind them to one another as evidence of the Creator’s hand, Mervyn Davies (Sarum College), Gavin D’Costa (University of Bristol), and Peter Hampson (Blackfriars Hall, Oxford) step forward to offer us a grand vision of theology. In their recently launched Religion and the University series with T&T Clark, the lead volumes in their series, Theology and Philosophy – Faith and Reason and Christianity and the Disciplines: The Transformation of the University (also edited with Oliver D. Crisp of Fuller Theological Seminary), outline critical steps toward reimaging a vision of wisdom that once proved definitive of the university. Along with a couple of other critical steps, the university has the chance to fulfill the vision that led to its very creation.

Driving Questions and Core Convictions

Initially proposed as a two-volume set, this series is defined by two driving questions. First, is the revitalization of Christian culture linked to reform within the university? Second, is the revitalization of culture made possible through university education? The editors of these two volumes and the series as a whole confirm answers to these questions are within reach. In the twentieth century, the university in the United States came to be viewed as a peddler of secularism. Scientific naturalism not only shifted the line of sight of intellectuals earthward but also reduced the scope of their vision. At the same time, the university and the society it sought to serve lost the ability to look heavenward and thus see the web of connections defining the created order.

Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson’s response to this predicament starts from six guiding beliefs. First, theology is best conducted within an ecclesial context and faith and reason play mutually accountable roles in that context. Second, philosophy should operate with a limited level of autonomy not only to the community of faith but also to the members of its professional community. Third, philosophy is theology’s handmaiden and together they form the essence of wisdom that witnesses to relationships across the disciplines. Fourth, some of the university disciplines have developed methodological assumptions that initially compel them to be at odds with the Christian faith. Fifth, Christians working within those disciplines have the responsibility to uncover those methodological assumptions. Finally, “the idea of a Christian university should be viewed positively.”2

Drawing upon these beliefs in a manner that can answer the previously-mentioned questions is no small challenge. As a result, the two initial volumes draw upon the work of a host of contributors while also establishing space for an elastic and ongoing dialogue.

Volume I: Theology and Philosophy – Faith and Reason

Given the prominent role philosophy plays in a number of the core convictions identified by Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson, the relationship between philosophy and theology becomes a reasonable focus for the first volume. The editors argue, “that Athens and Jerusalem could have and should have much to do with each other.”3 Given the arguments launched by its cultured despisers, theology needs the role philosophy can play as a bridge to segments of a world it is currently unable to reach. In order to do so, the editors (and many of the contributors whose essays are included in this volume) believe that philosophy thus serves two roles–the formal and the material. With regard to the former, philosophy “helps theology with the formal tasks of developing coherence, logical rigour, intelligibility and rhetorical elegance–among other things.”4 In terms of its material role, philosophy “helps theology in providing complex and sophisticated systems of conceptuality that have been employed to address a huge variety of questions.”5

Structured into two parts, the chapters included in this volume then explore how those roles play out. In particular, the first half explores those roles through the lenses of a host of theological traditions – Greek, Roman, Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican. The second half examines how various schools of philosophical thought facilitated these roles. Risking oversimplification, the chapters in both sections are not only thematic in nature but are also defined by an historical thread. As a result, most chapters not only offer an introduction to basic terms and key figures but they also come to a point where they clearly delineate what impact those resources have upon the relationship theology shares with philosophy and thus the relationship theology shares with the larger world.

In terms of the contributors, the majority of the scholars who lend their voices to this volume are also leading voices within the particular traditions and/or schools of philosophy they represent. For example, in the chapter dealing with the legacy of Immanuel Kant’s work, Merold Westphal takes on the challenge of not only making Kant explicable but also helps us appreciate both the challenges and the opportunities introduced by Kantian thought. In particular, Westphal argues that distinct components of Kant’s legacy, such as arguments for a universal religion and autonomy, work against the handmaiden role philosophy is called to play. At the same time, Westphal claims that Kant’s primacy of the practical “can serve as a valuable reminder to theology. The theoretical knowledge it purports to possess should always be going beyond itself in the service of what we might call good practices.”6

Despite the wide array of theological traditions and schools of thought included in this volume, a large percentage of the contributors draw upon the work of Thomas Aquinas. In their introduction, Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson contend, “Aquinas conducted a masterly synthesis of Augustine and his neo-Platonic heritage with an epistemology and metaphysics drawn from Aristotle.”7 Aquinas’ work is referenced in G. R. Evans’ chapter in the first section of the volume concerning the Roman (or Latin Western) tradition. Paul Avis opens his chapter on the Anglican tradition and, in particular, identifies Richard Hooker as being “particularly indebted to St Thomas Aquinas.”8 While it is not surprising that an entire chapter in the second section of this volume pertains to the Aristotelian and Thomistic school of thought, the bulk of even Martin Ganeri’s chapter concerning non-Western philosophy focuses upon Aquinas’ utilization of Muslim and Jewish scholars.

Aquinas’ towering influence, however, creates what I will argue is a shadow effect. In essence, does this process of historical retrieval preclude us, albeit unintentionally, from fully appreciating the contributions made by other scholars? Few, if any, could (or should) argue for a better way to frame such contributions than the work of Thomas Aquinas. However, perhaps perceptions of Aquinas’ contributions would prove strengthened if other voices, particularly voices who contributed to his own University of Paris, were added to these efforts (a possibility I will explore in somewhat considerable detail later).

Volume II: Christianity and the Disciplines: The Transformation of the University

While not as prominent in the second volume, Christianity and the Disciplines: The Transformation of the University, the shadow effect cast by Thomas Aquinas continues. For example, in his foreword, Rowan Williams (who also contributed a foreword for the first volume) lays the groundwork for several of the essays to come when he offers that “Thomas Aquinas, in response to the well-intentioned but disastrous idea that religious truth belonged to a different order from other truth claims, insisted that there were not several different kinds of truth but ultimately one.”9 What then follows is a range of essays seeking to explore not only various disciplinary truth claims to larger understandings of truth but also the role theology plays in that relationship.

Building upon the ground cleared by the first volume concerning the relationship theology and philosophy share, Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson ask in the second volume, “how then does theology relate to the other non-theological disciplines?”10 Part of the challenge they note in answering this question is the independence or autonomy sought by an ever-proliferating list of disciplines and sub-disciplines. This challenge is in large measure responsible for the demise of transcendent wisdom and thus the inability to see across disciplinary lines. Autonomy is born in some measure when a discipline or sub-discipline establishes a set of scholarly practices and a language uniquely its own. Some more cynical critics may go so far as to argue that the more arcane the practices and the more esoteric the language, the greater the level of autonomy.

However, another part of this challenge that Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson note is the role that theology itself may have played. While identifying John Duns Scotus and his brand of nominalism as one of the roots of the challenges currently plaguing theology is now almost fashionable (and perhaps rightfully so), they also note:

This gulf between the created and uncreated order has meant that for large periods of history theology as an academic discipline was done in careful isolation from other disciplines and these other disciplines, as in the University of Paris, were forbidden to trespass upon the subject matter of theology: God.11

It is thus possible that by protecting their own disciplinary boundaries, theologians sowed the seeds of autonomy that continue to take hold today. The purpose of the second volume is thus to try “to encourage a conversation that is absolutely essential for the future of Christianity and its intellectual standing in culture between theology and the disciplines.”12

Following an insightful chapter by Mervyn Davies concerning how John Henry Newman might respond to the fragmented state of the contemporary university, Davies and his fellow editors go on to organize the remaining chapters along the lines of three generalized blocks of sciences: the natural and life sciences; the human and social sciences; and the humanities. For example, the second section contains chapters pertaining to disciplinary domains often labeled as sociology, psychology, and economics, as well as applied domains such as law, international relations, and psychotherapy. Likely recognizing academe is no longer defined simply by the arts and sciences, what emerges in this second volume is a well-cultivated range of conversations designed to penetrate disciplines thought to be both theoretical and practical.

One of the strongest chapters is Nicholas Rengger’s “Politics and International Relations.” Religion as a whole is growing as a domain of expertise. In addition, diplomats are being called to summon with greater frequency knowledge of a variety of traditions than previous generations who, particularly in the West, often thought of religion as a privatized dimension of life irrelevant to the workings of the larger public sphere. Like many of the other contributors (and as was the case with the first volume), Rengger is a well-established scholar in the fields of political theory and international relations. His chapter is both thematic and chronological and includes explorations of voices from the past, such as Thomas Hobbes, as well as contemporary voices, such as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. For example, drawing upon John Milbank’s exploration of insights stemming from the Dominican Middle Ages (extending once again that shadow effect), Rengger offers that “only the Church has the theoretical and practical power to challenge the hegemony of capital and to create a viable politico-economic alternative.”13 A full answer to that challenge, unfortunately, does not emerge in the remaining pages of that chapter. However, Rengger and several other contributors successfully started the conversation.

With chapters of the quality of the one contributed by Nicholas Rengger, Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson are able to assert that “we believe this is one of the first volumes to consider seriously the different types of sciences … and run this question [a question concerning theology’s impact on both methods and scholarly outcomes] across the entire spectrum.”14 While not taking away from the vision behind this volume as a whole and chapters like Nicholas Rengger’s in particular, I was surprised to read such an assertion. In North America, these kinds of conversations have taken place in some Catholic circles as well as some evangelical circles for several decades. On one level, what is needed is for a volume such as this one to draw voices from Europe into a trans-Atlantic dialogue with these voices from North America. In one sense, that brand of conversation would likely reflect the brand of ecclesiology Rengger along with Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson have in mind. One another level, these groups could learn from one another’s successes and failures.

The Creation of a Trans-Atlantic Dialogue

One conversation already occurring across the Atlantic has taken place amongst evangelicals and Catholics (and between the two groups). It concerns what kinds of relationship faith commitments and scholarly practices should share. Leading evangelical voices, many of whom share a Reformed theological perspective, often refer to their efforts as the integration of faith and learning. In contrast, many leading Catholic scholars often refer to their efforts in sacramental language or talk about the relationship between faith and reason. Historians such as Mark Noll and James Turner (respectively an evangelical and a Catholic) have both told the stories pertaining to their particular religious traditions and the challenges and opportunities scholars have faced.15 Evidence of the changing nature of the conversations happening between these two groups is demonstrated by the fact that they are now both colleagues at the University of Notre Dame. They also joined together with Thomas Albert Howard to produce The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008). Publishers such as HarperOne and Baker Academic have published series of books dedicated to the integration of faith and learning across the disciplines. The University of Notre Dame Press has also published a number of books pertaining to Catholic higher education and scholarly practices that reflect that particular faith tradition.

Just as evangelicals and Catholic scholars in North America are learning from one another, perhaps another important component of these conversations would come through the forging of a trans-Atlantic dialogue. The seeds of such an effort are already present in these two volumes edited by Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson. While the majority of the contributors they assembled are from the United Kingdom, some contributors are from North America – for example, William T. Cavanaugh who serves at DePaul University in Chicago and the previously mentioned Merold Westphal who recently retired from Fordham University in New York City.

The benefits that have come from the conversations in North America between evangelicals and Catholics have opened both groups to some of the weaknesses inherent in their respective approaches to the relationship faith commitments can share with scholarly practices. For example, inherent in the evangelical understanding of the integration of faith and learning is the legacy of a Kantian divide initially forged under the guise of pure theoretical and pure practical forms of reason. While evangelical scholars struggle valiantly to overcome this divide, they often start with the assumption that this divide is in place. The sacramental approach practiced by a number of Catholic scholars often avoids the pitfalls of the Kantian divide due to its deeper historical roots. However, the promise of the sacramental can often lure some scholars to overlook the depravity present in the created order that evangelical scholars, particularly of the Reformed persuasion, see with considerable clarity.

By extending this dialogue in a trans-Atlantic manner, these types of lessons would not only continue but also expand. An additional benefit that can come extends from the fact that the structural nature of universities often possesses certain regional qualities. For example, universities in the United States are often identified as public or private. If an institution is public in nature, the Establishment Clause present in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution often leaves scholars with the perception that they cannot speak of religious convictions in a confessional sense. While some religious studies departments in place at public universities (such as the one at the University of Virginia) have begun to challenge these common perceptions, theology, if taught, is thus only taught at private universities.

Universities in the United Kingdom are not defined by these same perceptions. In many ways, public and private are a much more complicated manner and are made all the more knotty by the state-support for the Anglican Church. As a result, Americans could ask what could public (and perhaps even private) universities in the United States learn from universities in the United Kingdom about how theology is taught. In addition, those in the UK could consider what their universities could learn from private universities in the United States whose very survival is often determined by the health of the religious fabric of their communities.

While scholarly work is taking place on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the relationship religious commitments should share with scholarly practices, one place Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson may be correct pertains to the limited scope of formal conversations taking place concerning the nature of theology and, in particular, its place amongst other academic disciplines. For example, a search of recent titles dealing with this particular topic yielded only a handful.16 A diversity of perspectives could be drawn into such a trans-Atlantic dialogue. Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson have gone to admirable lengths and their efforts have considerable promise.

Go Further Back in Time

In terms of sheer influence upon the shape of theology in the West, who beyond Augustine could rightfully compare to the legacy left by Thomas Aquinas? Such an influence has benefited Catholic scholars for centuries, prompting Pope Pius V to confer upon to Thomas Aquinas the title of a “Doctor of the Church.” An additional outgrowth of the changing nature of the relationship shared by Catholics and evangelicals has prompted a surge of interest in Aquinas’ work by evangelicals. While this towering form of influence has yielded treasures beyond measure, it has also produced what I previously labeled as a shadow effect. In essence, the treasures left behind by other scholars, particularly scholars who lived during the early medieval period, fail to receive their full consideration due to the interest focused upon Aquinas’ work.

In order to support this risky argument on my part, I will contend that a more full consideration of Hugh of Saint Victor would contribute to the collective wisdom assembled by Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson. For example, Hugh’s work is mentioned at one point in volume one by G. R. Evans in his essay concerning the Roman tradition. However, no direct mention is made in the second volume. Although such a near omission is not surprising, Aquinas had considerable respect for Hugh’s work and would only disagree with him after practically apologizing for doing so. While Hugh’s legacy may prove to be unfortunately rather thin in our age, his scholarly efforts left an indelible mark not only on how we think of the university but also on how the Church worships.

Born in Saxony in 1096, Hugh became an Augustinian monk and moved to the Abbey of Saint Victor near Paris. He would not only complete his education at Saint Victor but would eventually emerge as its educational leader. The University of Paris was still in the future at this time, but at Saint Victor the seeds of what would become the intellectual home of Thomas Aquinas were being sown. In Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris, Ian P. Wei reminds us: “Crucially, he [Hugh] found a place for study in the ascent to God, requiring those who moved beyond study to continue to practise scholarship on its own terms, an approach that was to underpin the ideology of the new university.”17

A record of these contributions can be found Hugh’s Didascalion. Facing pressing needs to define in formal terms the nature and content of an emerging array of disciplines, Hugh wrestled with not only the formal content of an education but perhaps more importantly the telos defining that content. For example, from the very beginning, Hugh contends: “Of all things to be sought, the first is that Wisdom in which the Form of the Perfect Good stands fixed.”18 In his commentary on the Didascalion, Ivan Illich offers: “The wisdom Hugh seeks is Christ himself.”19 The very end of education is to make the student more like Christ in all ways possible. Reinforcing this point, Hugh argues that no other motivation for study proves sufficient in comparison.

Once the telos of study is in place, the “arts and sciences [are able to] derive their dignity from the fact that they share in being remedies for the same purpose.”20 The disciplines are ordered according to their ability to address the depravity plaguing humanity and thus their potential to cultivate the redemptive wisdom synonymous with the Trinity. As a result, wisdom and the disciplines arranged with its cultivation in mind become the means by which the intellect takes root and flourishes.

For example, discussions concerning the relationship shared by faith and learning often exclude disciplines such as mathematics (fortunately, Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson’s second volume does not make this mistake and includes a commendable essay by Michael Heller). The underlying rationale, at least by scholars who formally work beyond the discipline, is that mathematics is pre-determined to the point of being irrelevant to the course of such wider conversations. For Hugh, mathematics was an indispensible component of a larger effort to cultivate wisdom. In particular, he offers that “because through the sense organs spirit or soul descend in different ways to the apprehension of physical objects and draws into itself a likeness of them through its imagination, it deserts its simplicity somehow by admitting a type of composition.”21 Seeing the divine wisdom in the universe requires a host of vantage points. The place of mathematics in the cultivation of the imperial intellect is thus vested in its ability to abandon simplistic notions that grant us comfort but rob the Creator of his majesty. In its absence, we see less of God than we would otherwise see. In addition, the rest of the disciplines with which it intersects also lose a comparable measure of their respective capabilities to do the same.


Oliver Crisp, Gavin D’Costa Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson may just yet yield a revival of transcendent wisdom. By reasserting its rightful place as the Queen of the Sciences, theology’s presence in the university has the possibility of making the university just that – the university. Embedded in the potential yielded by trans-Atlantic conversations and in the legacy of scholars such as Hugh of Saint Victor, these efforts will not only continue but will grow stronger. Crisp, D’Costa, Davies, and Hampson have reminded us that when it comes to this challenge, God has given us what we need.

Cite this article
Todd C. Ream, “Reviving Sophia: The Search for Transcendent Wisdom— A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 279-288


  1. Clark Kerr, The Uses of The University—Fourth Edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
  2. Oliver D. Crisp, Gavin D’Costa, Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson, “Untitled Series Description,” in Oliver D. Crisp, Gavin D’Costa, Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson (eds.), Theology and Philosophy – Faith and Reason (New York: T&T Clark, 2012), page opposite title page.
  3. ”Theology in Search of a Handmaiden: Reason and Philosophy,” in Theology and Philosophy, 4.
  4. Ibid., 2.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Merold Westphal, “The Kantian Tradition: The Danger of Philosophical Hegemony,” in Ibid., 123.
  7. Oliver D. Crisp, Gavin D’Costa, Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson, “Theology in Search of a Handmaiden: Reason and Philosophy,” 5.
  8. Paul Avis, “Reason and Philosophy in the Anglican Tradition,” 71.
  9. Rowan Williams, “Foreword,” in Oliver D. Crisp, Gavin D’Costa, Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson (eds.), Christianity and the Disciplines: The Transformation of the University (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2012), vii.
  10. Oliver D. Crisp, Gavin D’Costa, Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson, “Theology and the Disciplines: Building a ̒Christian Culture,” in Crisp et al., (eds.), Christianity and the Disciplines, 1.
  11. Ibid., 2.
  12. Ibid., 3.
  13. Nicholas Rengger, “Politics and International Relations,” 175.
  14. Oliver D. Crisp, Gavin D’Costa, Mervyn Davies, and Peter Hampson, “Theology and the Disciplines: Building a Christian Culture,” 4.
  15. For example, please see Mark A. Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994) and James C. Turner’s Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).
  16. Examples include the following: David Ray Griffin and Joseph C. Hough’s (eds.) Theology and the University: Essays in Honor of John B. Cobb, Jr. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991), David F. Ford, Ben Quash, and Janet Martin Soskice’s (eds.) Fields of Faith: Theology and Religious Studies for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Darlene Bird and Simon G. Smith’s (eds.) Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives (New York: Continuum, 2009), Christopher Craig Brittain and Francesca Aran Murphy’s (eds.) Theology, University, Humanities: Intium Sapientiae Timor Domini (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011) and Brian W. Hughes’ Saving Wisdom: Theology and the Christian University (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).
  17. Ian P. Wei, Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c.1100–1330 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 3.
  18. Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalion, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 46.
  19. Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 10.
  20. Ibid., 11.
  21. Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalion, 63.

Todd C. Ream

Taylor University
Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University and a distinguished fellow with the Lumen Research Institute. He is the co-author and co-editor of many books, including, most recently, Restoring the Soul of the University, and contributes to a wide va- riety of publications including About Campus, Christianity Today, First Things, Gastronomica, Inside Higher Ed, Modern Theology, New Blackfriars, Notre Dame Magazine, The Review of Higher Education, and Teachers College Record.