Skip to main content

For well over twenty years, Christian scholars and educators of various disciplines have been engaged in an examination of the nature of Christian and secular higher education. Much of that reflection with regard to the North American context in particular has turned on one of two types of examinations. The first type is comprised of a positive assessment of Christian higher education and its specific goals and achievements as these are embodied and witnessed in self-identified Christian colleges and universities. The second and perhaps more dominant type is marked by a sober appraisal of the loss of Christian influence and identity in the sphere of higher education in general over the past two centuries. The argument offered here differs from both of these types of contributions and is, instead, a theological account of the university, and specifically of the Christian rather than the secular one, though that task has its own place and integrity.1

Mike Higton, in his recent book, A Theology of Higher Education, attempts to mediate between explicitly Christian aims and ends as embodied in the church’s doctrinal, moral, and liturgical life and those aims and ends of the secular university. He seeks to draw lines of coordination between a specifically Christian theology of the university and the secular university’s own self-understanding, practices, and activities.2 Other projects attempt to display the inherent appropriateness of including theology as a discipline within the secular university context. Such studies often are particularly European in flavor due to the historic placement of ecclesial centers of training and divinity schools within national research universities, but James McClendon has made a related case for including a department of theology comprised of various religious traditions within secular American universities.3 The task I undertake here differs from these in that it is a theological description of the Christian university itself, attempting to render its unique position within the economy of God’s work in creation and redemption and its placement in relation to the church and the world.

To begin, we might articulate how such a theological account will differ from the two types of examinations of Christian faith and the university earlier noted. On one side, much reflection upon Christian higher education has been rooted in a celebration of its distinctive goals and achievements. Such reflection has been primarily historical, genealogical, and ethnographic in its description of the rise and flourishing of Christian colleges and universities and their future prospects.4 Alternatively, other such works have focused upon the distinctive virtues, habits, and practices that Christian scholarship and education embody and strive to display and instill, while still others entail theoretical, disciplinary, and pedagogical discussions of how such confluences of faith and learning can be understood and achieved.5 While such studies are numerous and significant, perhaps the most well known investigations of the relation of Christian faith and higher education have been of a different second type, ones quite pessimistic in tone. James Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches and George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief reveal their dark conclusions in their very titles.6 These two may be the classic texts of this genre, but they do not stand alone. Numerous theologians, philosophers, and educators have decried the wilting phenomenon of Christian scholarship and the demise of the moral coherence of the modern research university as two sides of an unforgiving narrative.7 My purpose here is not to add another pessimistic account of the future of Christian higher education or decry the current state of the modern secular university. Nor is it my intent to provide an alternative optimism, but rather to ask a prior question: What is a Christian university, and how might it be theologically understood? Moreover, where is its location within the field of God’s activity of redemption and creation, or more sharply, within the economy of God’s salvific, sanctifying, and sustaining work?8

It should be noted from the outset that the very idea of a Christian university has been questioned even by those one might expect to be sympathetic to its cause. McClendon has stated that the secular university simply is the university as it currently exists as a social institution and that one cannot even provide a meaningful definition of what a Christian university would be.9 McClendon’s point should not be lightly dismissed, for it gestures to a larger, more general question of what makes something outside of the church itself “Christian” at all. Karl Barth designated his constructive dogmatics the Christliche Dogmatik (Christian Dogmatics), but he rethought this title when making a new start at writing it in view of his own self-perceived false starts. When he began again to compose what would become his definitive work of systematic theology, and one that would occupy him for the next three decades of his life, he renamed it the Kirchliche Dogmatik, or Church Dogmatics. Barth stated that he had become wary of the overuse of the title “Christian,” and this concern pertained not only to his own constructive theology.10 Barth rejected the attachment of the adjective Christian to other projects as well, and especially, to the state or any political organizations within it – he renounced all talk of a “Christian” nation and frowned upon the establishment of “Christian” political parties. He moreover criticized the attachment of the label to other social and political causes by which the church defends its own rights and furthers its own ends in ways that can only appear to the world as self-serving and even indulgent.11 In short, Barth’s rejection of the adjective “Christian” for such descriptions was a perceptive judgment of the danger of domesticating the Gospel for other ends while claiming their legitimation by christening institutions, movements, and programs that serve such ends as “Christian.”

In light of such a warning, it might be responsibly questioned whether the adjective “Christian” should be attached to any university (or college) at all.12 My tentative and provisional conclusion is that this may in fact be done, but only because the university, like the hospital of today, was in fact a gift of the church to culture at large, and thus it grows out of, and at best exists in conformity with, rather than in contradiction to, the unique task of the church.13 It is to this relation of church and university that we now turn.

The relation of the church and the Christian university is one of a particular complementarity, never one of identity. The university does not and should not seek to replicate the church or its distinctive witness. Yet it is nevertheless the case that as the ancient church advanced in history and geography, schools were formed, culminating in the rise of the medieval universities, and such schools were seen as institutional implications of the spread of the Gospel, rather than intrinsically inimical to it. While such history provides an initial justification for considering the coherence of the notion of a Christian university, I also want to explicate why the adjective “Christian” cannot and should not cease to be a contentious one when attached to a university. This is so precisely because of the unique and perpetually precarious place that Christian universities inhabit between what Barth designated the Christian community (that is, the church) and the civil community (that is, the state – or in the usage of this essay, society more broadly conceived as comprised of its political, social, economic, and cultural realities).

Much will thereby turn upon what it means to designate a university “Christian.” This designation cannot be fully captured in categories of ethics or even doctrine. It is not enough to say that a university is Christian because it has a Christian heritage or even a doctrinal statement (since such a statement might be ignored or quietly set aside as years pass, or even marginalized in times when lip service is paid to it). Nor is it enough to say that a university is Christian because it focuses upon certain forms of moral or even spiritual formation, since such forms might remain in a later pluralistic environment when the specifically Christian content, convictions, and practices of a university have been left behind – consider, for example, moral leadership programs and resident chaplaincies and religious studies departments that are included within the university but peripheral to its heart and life and devoid of any specifically Christian commitments. It is also not enough to see the Christian character of a university as captured in its endeavors to instill intellectual or moral virtues within its constituent members by means of the emulation of mentors or exposure to classic texts. Even such worthy things might be constructed along the lines of purely classical (Aristotelian?) models, and even if more specifically Christian ones are in view, such a focus upon the character of the subjects of teaching and learning can lead to an abstraction of such personal goals from the other disciplinary and institutional ones that mark the university’s intrinsic ends. In other words, the Christian university is rightly seen as not less than a school of virtue, and truly a school of virtue, but it is nevertheless more than a school of virtue (and even such a claim requires some careful attention in light of problematic conceptions of virtue themselves, though these difficulties exceed the immediate purview of this essay).14 To designate a university as Christian therefore cannot be equated with specifying the components of its institutional life, whether academic, moral, or even spiritual, even though these are necessary for its historical embodiment and Christian identity. So a Christian university may incorporate an office of spiritual life and a chaplaincy, but their presence in themselves do not make a university Christian in the full sense here considered. Nor is it Christian, obviously, by the mere fact that classes are opened with prayer, though this may be a good start to what I will argue.

In the end, there must be a more substantive meaning to the adjective “Christian” when placed before the noun “university” to render it coherent and significant. To designate a university Christian comprises the recognition that a university is marked by a confessional task, and one indeed larger than a commitment to the intellectual and moral and even spiritual formation of its individual members. The confessional task of the Christian university is to see itself in relation to God’s act of creative, sustaining, and salvific activity in Jesus Christ through the Spirit heralded by the church for the sake of the world, to see all aspects of the created and social order in this light, and to see the university’s own existence as set within the realm of human obedience and in correspondence to, though not as a replication of, its ecclesial parentage.15 This realm of human obedience and vocation takes its rise from and is comprised by the creature’s all- embracing response to the Creator’s gracious divine prevenience and salvation. The form this obedience takes with specific regard to the vocation of learning and investigation embodied in the institution of the university is a dedication to see all areas of exploration in light of that divine activity and as a response to it, setting not only such central practices of the university but all peripheral ones—artistic, athletic, and administrative—into a rightful ordering in light of that vision and for its furtherance. Such requires a discipline and an obedience of the intellect as well as the will, and thus of the entire person and of the entire community of scholarship in which such persons finds themselves.

It is the perennial struggle to bring these complex practices into alignment with that confession that leads to the knife edge on which the Christian university balances, a struggle that cannot be underestimated in light of the particular pressures placed upon this task by the number, variety, strength, and seductiveness of the temptations that press against the university. The Christian university is not the church, but neither is it simply the world in the Johannine sense of ignorance or opposition to God’s will and activity.16 Augustine’s binary distinction between the City of God and the Earthly City, however brilliant in its execution, will not serve adequately as a typology for the understanding and placement of the Christian university which stands, in the order of its being, between the church and the world.17

Such is an intrinsically paradoxical and precarious placement. On one side, the Christian university does not seek to embody in its life a commitment to a confession that rivals or duplicates the church’s own in either its distinctive commission or task. The Christian university is not, it must be adamantly re-stated, the church, and it stands as an entity distinct from it.18 But from the vantage of the other side, and in taking up its particular confessional task in correspondence and analogy to the confessional task of the church in its proclamation of God’s action for the salvation of the created order, the Christian university stands over against the world, and specifically the secular university, as a place committed to present in an intentional way a parable and indeed embodiment of the life of obedience to the Gospel in the distinct vocation of intellectual endeavor.19 In this time of Christ’s ascension between the times of his first and second advents, its goal is not, however, so much the achievement of a synoptic vision of all things, but the disposition to embrace by faith that such a united vision is to be had, even should it in the end be beyond our comprehension in light of its infinite mystery and our fallen confusion. In this sense, the Christian university confesses, in analogy to the church’s confession of the unity of the Scriptural canon amid all of its diversity, the unity of the created world as a uni-verse despite all of its wondrous and rich plurality.20 It seeks something the achievement of which it knows is always ahead of it, and which will not be completed in the course of history but only at its end, and even then perhaps never comprehensible to us in its full grandeur. Yet its very name as a university displays the nature of its confession to a singular truth that lies behind all truths, to a sovereign Creator that stands behind the disparity of all the manifold witnesses in creation and the inscrutable contingencies of history.

So in analogy to the church’s confession that one Lord stands behind the diversity of the canon, the Christian university confesses in both its words and deeds that the universe comprised of both its natural and social history stands under the sovereignty of a single Lord who has called the world into existence “from that which was not” (Heb. 11:3) for the purpose of establishing a covenant of fellowship with it “before the foundation of the world.”21 This Lord has acted salvifically “in the fullness of time” to bring such to completion.22 The Christian university makes this confession despite the necessary plurality of the constitutive disciplines within it that, as John Henry Cardinal Newman knew, were indispensible intensifications and restrictions in the scope of an examination of creation and history in order to focus upon an aspect of a larger reality that none of them alone could fully perceive or comprehend.23 The Christian university thereby embraces a task to bring every thought under the rubric of God’s activity in creation and redemption even in the midst of its diverse departments, disciplines, and practices, but to do so with no pretensions of achieving an ultimate conceptual or philosophical synthesis or sacrifice of disciplinary integrity.24 It dedicates itself to seeing the world as a created and good reality that, despite its complexity and even fallen disorder, stands under the sovereign care of a good and wise God who has acted to reconcile it to himself through the cross of Christ and whose end is not dissolution into non-existence but a promised hope of redemption by the Holy Spirit.25

This singular and distinctive placement of the Christian university between the church and society at large, a placement set forth and indeed established in its unique confession, requires constant vigilance by such a university against the perversion of its own identity. The reason that the Christian university as an institution rarely endures as a distinctly Christian project is in large part due precisely to its peculiar and vertiginous placement. The force of the world’s gravity upon the Christian university cannot be overestimated. Its unchecked result is that the Christian university is pulled entirely into the world’s orbit such that its identity is compromised in reality if not in name. Moreover, the greatest temptation of the Christian university is, ironically, to see itself as intrinsically and essentially Christian, namely, to take its adjectival description as designating the possession of a state of sanctification rather than an intentional act of confession that is never completed but unending, and one that is a confession not only of God’s reign over all creation and human endeavors, but also a confession of the university’s failure to live up to its own aspirations to embody that prior profession in all of its life. The self-delusion of the moniker Christian comes when we think of this as an adjective signifying a permanent and settled state of affairs such that the “lordless powers” (in the language of Barth) are understood as purely external rather than also internal to the university, a threat outside rather than within the university itself.26 Such delusion comes not so much by forgetting that the university is not the church, but that it is placed so firmly in the world.

Intrinsic to a Christian university therefore must be the recognition of an eschatological reservation and corresponding humility regarding its own achievements. To treat its adjectival identity as one of essence rather than as lived existence, as being rather than as act, is in turn the very source for the means of self-deception by which it underestimates its real temptations and overlooks the real failures of its own practice. To think of its description as Christian as an achievement rather than an aspiration, as a possession rather than an orientation toward obedient action, is precisely the construction of the canopy under which it willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, justifies its less than sanctified ideals rather than confesses its own need for justification and forgiveness. In this construction, a Christian worldview becomes an ideology itself, a cloak of invisibility hiding other ideological commitments, a mantle shielding them from critical examination. The result is a university’s particular failure of receiving and exercising critical examination and discernment. It is in the end the confusion of the result with the ground of the university’s existence, so that the university esteems that what makes it Christian is best captured by its intrinsic character rather than its witness to a Gospel external to its own life that calls it in every new generation to a perpetual and unfinished task of obedience and witness in the specific realm of human intellectual effort.

To note as much is not a naïve call for moral perfectionism nor the misapplication of the personal to the institutional – just the opposite, in fact – though it is a call for intellectual and moral vigilance and intensive ongoing theological reflection that cannot be limited to a specific and necessary department under that name in practice or effect. A Christian university recognizes the need for grace and repentance in order to resist the commodification and indeed idolatry of knowledge that arises when the production of knowledge is valued above wisdom and the Gospel. Such an admonition is not a call to sloth, but to a particular form of diligence that guards against the singular temptations that not only are brought by numerical or financial success, but that see these as the primary indicators of a mission fulfilled. The Christian university, by means of its own confession, can never confuse the ultimate execution of its mission with these quantitative indicators of success, however important or necessary they may be. In short, a Christian university cannot be Christian by abstracting its identity from the larger economy of God’s action and correspondent realm of human obedience without succumbing to thinking of its own success in purely immanent terms, such as quantities of research produced, moneys secured, students enrolled, or even wins accumulated. Such things take on disproportionate or even singular importance when the intrinsic confessional identity of the university is marginalized from the center of the university’s own self-reflection and mission.27 For this reason, the most important ongoing task of the Christian university must be to remember and discover anew the nature of the adjective that describes it.28 A Christian university is as such not a permanent and enduring achievement but a command heard and task embodied afresh by Christians in every new generation. Such is not a denial of historical continuity and existence, nor the rejection of rightful forms of tradition and authority, but the recognition that a university cannot live simply off the faith of its founders or consider past obedience as a loan that can be redeemed and cashed in the present.

The primary task of the Christian university as a whole is therefore the testing of its practice and speech against its own confessional identity. No small part of this is, as here attempted, the placement of the Christian university within the wider field of God’s activity directed towards the redemption of human life and its unique placement between church and world. An appreciation of this placement is necessary and worthwhile if only because it reveals why the perennially pessimistic understandings of Christian scholarship are not so much to be rued but to be expected. The Christian university, like the Christian hospital, both gifts of Christianity to culture at large, are shaped by a resonance for the Gospel but also predicated upon certain practices that are easily and perhaps unavoidably influenced by the increasing bureaucratic, regulatory, and managerial demands of the state and of consumer wishes. Such demands are in turn shaped by market forces that provide a constant torrent of pressure upon the university’s ends and goals and which in turn begin to affect them, as consumerist and materialistic forces apply unending pressure upon institutional decision-making. Unresisted, such pressure can result in an exchange of bureaucratic efficiency and assessment for a university’s proper ends, in effect reducing the examination of a mission’s goals to the language of numerical indicators and quantifiable data of enrollment and revenue. Added to all of this is the increasing anti-intellectualism and coarseness of a growing segment of the culture at large, one marked by a populism and pragmatism gone to seed. The Christian university cannot retain its soul for long should it gain a solid and peaceful place in such a world. In light of this reality, the Christian university is not an achievement to be celebrated, but the proposal of a perennial argument for an intellectual and indeed moral endeavor and vocation shaped by a very different faith, a communal and institutional life determined by and for Gospel-shaped ends. For a university to embrace the adjective Christian is not so much for the purpose of self-description as for the purpose of adopting an intention and aspiration to discipline all of intellectual endeavor in light of Gospel truth. It is the pronouncement and embrace of a never-ending discipleship of the mind, an intellegentia viatorum, not the celebration of a synoptic vision achieved. It is the vocation and labor of the intellect shaped by, in Luther’s parlance, a theology of the cross rather than one of glory.

In the end, it must be admitted that the existence of Christian universities is not an undisputed good. If such universities exist (and this is not here a given, nor taken for granted), they find their justification finally and only in their service as a witness to learning that is brought under the discipline of the Gospel. They should not be seen as private enclaves but as public visible institutions that in turn display not only their own winsome witness to a form of intellectual and moral life shaped by the good news of God’s salvation, but also in so doing witness to the fact that the secular liberal university is not itself free of its own theological convictions and ideological captivities. The Christian university pronounces that an alternative to such a secular ordering and plural disorder exists. Christian universities therefore can be places of sustained and contested agreement and harmonious disagreement because they live under the aegis of a conviction that it is not the research published, moneys received, or arguments won that provide the intrinsic value to the persons who undertake them.29 Such universities are not to serve first as the location of polemical argumentation against rivals but as a form of corporate lived obedience guarded by a Christian confession that itself opposes the instrumentalization of the world and the loss of its superfluous wonder that exceeds human comprehension or utility. This confession rejects both old and new forms of reductionism that sacrifice the true mystery of the cosmos and of persons as objects of God’s creating and saving action. It also staves off a curiosity that lacks discipline and a form of investigation that lacks a corresponding vocation of service to others and moral character of the self. It opposes captivating ideologies as well as historiographies of both triumph and grievance that make repentance and reconciliation impossible and that deny the tragic yet divinely-sustained nature of human history and its political, cultural, and social arrangements. And it provides alternative models of artistic expression that are clear-sighted yet not narrowly defined by indulgent and nihilistic trends that revel in darkness, license, and indentured degradation. In the end, Christian universities should be places that are the freest in their avenues of possible exploration and the most humanistic of all human institutions. They can be such precisely because truth, rather than power, must ultimately order their ends, and because both freedom and humanism are reconstituted along Gospel lines, and thus redeemed. And they can be such because they are called in their own way to reflect and correspond to the divine beneficence shown to the world. Such service to the world in the area of human learning concretely serves human knowledge, wellness, and flourishing. The university can trust that this service might be given because the Lord of the Christian university is also the Lord of the world. It can likewise be confident that the command to love one’s neighbor holds even in this arena of human life. An honest evaluation of how far Christian universities actually fail to fulfill such a task leads to a sober assessment. It would be easy to give in to cynicism in light of such a reality. Christian universities stand every moment between the line of correspondence to the confessional task of the church and the movement of slipping into a post-confessional and thus post-Christian identity. We are seemingly left again with a quite pessimistic prognostication. Indeed, we may wonder if Christian universities as here described exist. But in conclusion we might remember two things.

First, such real failures should not be equated with the fate of the university and a loss of its identity – the Christian university, like the Christian, is always a paradox of sin and obedience. Such an observation does entail, however, that it might be impossible fully to designate whether a university is actually faithful and obedient in a specific point in time – here is the tension between a formal identity and a material reality, and a tension that perhaps points to a judgment, and justification, that cannot be determined ultimately from the human side. It is not certain, in fact, if the question of a university’s Christian identity can truly be humanly answered. Its appropriateness may be reserved not only to the judgment of future generations, but to the One who stands beyond such generations themselves.

And this leads to the second and final point – perhaps if it is remembered that the Christian university is not so much an achievement but a task it will also be recognized that it is not so much a gift self-produced but itself dependent upon the good grace of God, for all human forms of devotion and obedience have their divine prerequisite. Certainly the university cannot overreach and claim promises that Christ has made not to it but to the church. Nevertheless, God’s faithfulness to the church is that same faithfulness that calls forth a response on the part of the Christian as reconciled creature in all areas of creaturely vocation. Even here, the creature is not left alone to his or her own devices and vices. Indeed, insofar as divine faithfulness remains, as the divine light still shines, there may yet be hope that the light of the Christian university may not die or be extinguished.

“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” –Psalm 36:9

Cite this article
Kimlyn J. Bender, “The Confessional Task of the Christian University”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:1 , 3-16

Kimlyn J. Bender

Baylor University
Kimlyn J. Bender is a professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University.