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As Christian educators and their institutions feel increasingly overwhelmed by unprecedented challenges yet champion ideal concepts, Daniel J. Treier highlights the neglect of human finitude in theological approaches to education. He briefly maps out the major approaches and sketches the theological history of finitude before exploring the concept in Ecclesiastes. In light of this biblical realism, he suggests teleological, systemic, and pedagogical implications of celebrating human limitations as relational gifts from God.

Christian educators and their institutions have gained various strengths over the past generation, but they now face unprecedented challenges. Many students feel overwhelmed by social injustice and vocational anxiety. Many teachers feel overwhelmed by demanding and distracted students as well as institutional vulnerability. Many institutions feel overwhelmed by technological competition, cultural change, and financial pressure. Facing such challenges along with the perennial need for marketing, stakeholders in Christian education are tempted to inflate ideal concepts into heroic aspirations, which can intensify pragmatic despair. In response to that temptation, this essay begins to remedy the neglect of human finitude—the goodness of creaturely limitations, even as we encounter them after the fall—in theologies of education.1

As this essay will show, both education and finitude have received relatively modest theological treatment. The contemporary need to address overwhelmed students, teachers, and institutions provides an opportunity for exploring the affinity between these neglected concepts: Our educational need for others to lead us onto a healthy path toward shalom indicates that limitations can be relational gifts from our Creator. To highlight their neglect, the first section of this essay briefly maps existing theological approaches to education, and the second section sketches a theological history of finitude. Then the third section examines Ecclesiastes as an important biblical site for understanding human limitations. Read within a canonical context that anticipates bodily resurrection, Ecclesiastes portrays human finitude in terms of God-given relational realms—more hopefully than modern “existential” treatments of the theme.

Finally, the essay’s fourth section suggests some educational implications of this biblical realism. First, teleologically, acknowledging human finitude prioritizes wisdom as the guiding theological concept for educational endeavors. Wisdom is biblically fundamental and also dynamically helpful for handling relevant tensions in holistic ways. Second, systemically, acknowledging human finitude is important as Christian educational institutions identify their missions, both internally and externally. Third, pedagogically, acknowledging human finitude is necessary as teachers pursue wisdom for themselves and their students, given its focus upon communication—both humble listening and truthful speech. Ultimately, in light of Christ’s resurrection, the goodness of human finitude is an “evangelical” theme, promoting devotion to our Creator and dependence upon divine grace along with delight in God’s good gifts.

Christian Theologies of Education

To establish, first, that finitude has been neglected in theologies of educa- tion requires a high-level map of the area’s broad contours. Few “theologians,” in the narrow sense of the term, have written extensively about education. Some Orthodox and Catholic thinkers have addressed the liberal arts from a Christian perspective.2 The Catholic natural law tradition has educational implications that the magisterium and university leaders periodically address.3 The Anglican Mike Higton has written an excellent theology of higher education, albeit primarily oriented around the British university.4 A few others have contributed essays on the university, including Stanley Hauerwas, who has provided a typically provocative but hard-to-characterize collection.5 American Protestants, especially “evangelicals,” have generated extensive literature concerning Christian colleges, often appealing to biblical themes or broader doctrines.6 Yet most of this material does not come from professional theologians; symposia representing various church traditions usually involve historians or philosophers, or even theologians speaking in a historical voice.7 So, narrowly speaking, theologians do not decisively shape the three perspectives that dominate the Protestant landscape, which is the focus of this essay. By focusing upon the recent discussion concerning systemically Christian higher education, we can explore implications of human finitude at multiple levels—for institutions and not just teachers or students.8

The first influential Protestant perspective, belonging initially to Arthur Holmes of Wheaton College, reflects the influence of the Reformed tradition.9 Its crucial concept is the integration of faith and learning through a worldview framework; ideas are the special interest. A worldview is pre-theoretical, dealing with how people perceive the world in light of what they value.10 But the formation of a biblical worldview involves beliefs that reflect Scripture’s history of salvation, while genuinely Christian scholarship evaluates ideas in the light of the two “books” of divine revelation. After Holmes construed the Christian college in terms of integrating faith and learning, others extended his trajectory in distinctly Christological ways.11

A second Protestant perspective reflects the influence of Pietism, recently championed by Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen of Messiah College and Christopher Gehrz of Bethel University.12 Its crucial concept is the orientation of learning toward faith formation; affections and vocations are the special interests. Holmes’s seminal perspective on Christian higher education gradually faced a pietist backlash for focusing upon the head rather than the heart or the hands. Concern- ing scholarship, then, contemporary pietist perspectives deemphasize possible conflict between Christian and other ideas, promoting a more optimistic model of conversation instead.13

A third Protestant perspective has arisen from James K. A. Smith of Calvin College. Its crucial concept is the orientation of learning toward habit-forming practices that reform human loves; “liturgies” are the special interest. Smith’s twin theological background as Pentecostal and now Reformed manifests itself in heavily qualify- ing, rather than flatly rejecting, attention to worldviews. His philosophical background is more Continental than Holmes’s; correspondingly, he is more attuned to “postmodern” emphases upon the body, ritual, community, and the like. Smith shares the pietist emphasis upon the heart’s affections and the hands’ enactment of those loves, but he is more attuned to philosophical inquiry concerning how these are shaped.14

The purpose of mapping these perspectives is not to adjudicate between 375 them or address specific critiques, but rather to assess their attention to human finitude. Integrationists never mention that concept directly; their Reformed background, though, underscores the fundamental goodness of all creation and celebrates cultural aspects of ordinary life. Pietists, again, never mention human finitude directly; instead, their theological background traditionally underscores the need for personal redemption. Smith’s “liturgical” perspective, likewise, does not mention human finitude explicitly. In the background, however, lies the Reformed emphasis upon creation’s goodness, while in the foreground Smith highlights important aspects of finitude such as embodiment. Moreover, in earlier work Smith explicitly championed human finitude as a God-created source of legitimate hermeneutical variety.15 Thus, he has provided one of the few direct appeals to human finitude from a broadly evangelical standpoint.

Both within and beyond these three perspectives at the map’s center, not only do book indexes almost never mention human limits; even aspects of finitude such as embodiment receive meager treatment.16 Instead of acknowledging human limits, Protestant educational discussions typically focus upon ideal concepts, calling students and teachers toward high aspirations.17 Those aspirations may involve intellectual integration, personal devotion, and missional vocations, which have coexisted in some tension among both integrationist- and pietist-oriented institutions. Neither integrationist nor pietist perspectives contain extensive treatment of malformation, or even the myriad challenges that ordinary students face upon graduation. Perhaps it is no accident that Smith, who addresses finitude more directly, has the most realistic treatment of those challenges. Still, a biblical account of finitude might enhance his “liturgical” perspective in other ways, as we shall see. In short, the contextually limited character of human life deserves greater educational attention all around.

Indeed, moving to our second background sketch, human finitude is relatively rare as an explicit concept in theological history. Implicit Christian understandings of mundane life, however, unfold across three basic eras.

The Classical Perspective: Transcendent Spirituality

First, classical Christianity emphasized transcendent spirituality. The surrounding Greco-Roman philosophical context associated human bodies with suffering and change. In any hierarchy of values, God should be greatest, being infinite, eternal, and immaterial. Human beings reflect the divine likeness when their souls undergo spiritual renewal in Christ. Insofar as perfection involves the body, the focus rests upon discipline.

Thus, human limitations focus on bodily corruption. A common Eastern approach treats finitude as the occasion for fallenness, at least in the wake of Adam’s sin. Facing mortality, humans have bodily passions that worry us about scarcity and mislead us into satisfying them sinfully. If we are to realize our true end in contemplating God, then the key limitation to overcome is the inconstancy of our hearts.

This perspective should not be glibly dismissed as “gnostic.” Classical Chris- tians courageously affirmed the resurrection of the body.18 They labored over scandalous philosophical questions about the continuity of bodily identity and its implications for eschatological life. They recognized how integral bodies are to human lives, not least in the very care they took to discipline them.

Biblical Reform: Wisdom in Ordinary Life

Eventually, though, Protestant Reformers criticized this classical perspective, championing “ordinary” life.19 The classical perspective reflected a hierarchy of values that these Reformers took to be dualistic: sharply opposing spiritual and material entities, sacred and secular realms, and thus monks, clergy, and laity.

Early Protestants championed Jesus Christ as the unique divine–human Mediator; all baptized believers are, accordingly, members of his priesthood. Rather than implying that some Christians—monks—should pray without ceasing on behalf of everyone else who would if they could, the Reformers sanctified the ordinary callings of all believer-priests. Notably, in principle, married sexuality was not spiritually inferior to clerical and monastic celibacy.

However stereotypical this chronicle may sound, its shape corresponds to the history of interpreting Ecclesiastes.20 For over one thousand years, Jerome’s reading of that book—the so-called contemptus mundi or contempt for the world, celebrating the monastic life—was the dominant if not exclusive approach. Along came Martin Luther, who directly attacked Jerome’s approach and—loosely speak- ing—replaced it with an appeal to carpe diem, seizing the day by celebrating the legitimacy of earthly joys. Protestant spirituality would become democratic and earthly more than transcendent in the classical sense.

Modern Values: Empirical Existence

Explicit theological attention to finitude largely awaited the modern era, though, once the so-called “Enlightenment” cast its shadow. The “Copernican revolution” of Immanuel Kant focused on epistemic limits, forever reshaping Western approaches to human knowledge. While critiquing metaphysics, Kant and others still valorized the Greek tradition’s cerebral elements—even doing so in explicitly racist ways, denigrating the Jewishness of the earth, embodiment, and the law as they celebrated the human mind and spirit.21 Modern values included intellectual asceticism, but without orienting human life toward contemplation of a personal God.

Modern knowers became obsessed with pursuing freedom in the face of cultural surroundings, as well as mastering the physical environment. Epistemic limits became formidable regarding theological and philosophical questions, but the limits of scientific inquiry seemed much less formidable. Correspondingly, the limits upon human and social progress were seen as diminishing.

Yet one limit remained stubborn as ever: death. At best, science could forestall it but not prevent it. With the God of a transcendent spiritual hierarchy now dead, the inevitability of death became more limiting than ever to human happiness. Thus, by the middle of the twentieth century, Continental theologians paid particular attention to finite human existence. They were downstream not only from Kant’s revolution but also from Søren Kierkegaard’s so-called “existentialist” turn against Hegel’s intellectual colossus. Roughly contemporary with the Catholic- seminarian-turned-atheist philosopher Martin Heidegger, Paul Tillich became known for a systematic theology of finite human existence, Rudolf Bultmann for a Heideggerian account of New Testament theology.22 A relatively extensive treatment of human finitude also emerged from Karl Barth, and the theme appeared periodically in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.23

Until recently, such figures fell under evangelical suspicion. Modernist or liberal theologies became oriented toward universal reason and therefore creation rather than redemption. Focusing on ordinary existence to the neglect of human sinfulness, they blended into, rather than challenging, modern university culture. Conservative theologies, by contrast, underscored human sinfulness; finitude fell victim to conceptual guilt by association. Evangelical suspicions were understandable, even frequently legitimate, regarding the fundamental shift in play. Yet Barth and Bonhoeffer, at least, acknowledged the modern theological significance of finitude without demythologizing the biblical history of salvation in the way that others did.

Twentieth-century German thinkers faced an extraordinary technological and geopolitical moment, responding within the context of late European Christendom. They appropriated a particular philosophical heritage, and they may not have properly addressed all of the relevant biblical material. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer has prompted many conservative Protestants to reengage the earthiness of the Old Testament, specifically Wisdom literature, partly in response to Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Christian faith. Hence, for Protestant theologies today, contemplating human finitude should involve both interpreting the Scriptures themselves—especially, here, Ecclesiastes—and incorporating philosophical insights wherever they may already be found.

Finitude in Biblical Theology

This third task, developing a scriptural theology of finitude, is complicated since biblical texts do not theorize concerning the concept or use related vocabulary very directly. Still, Scripture does offer parameters for contemplating this aspect of theological anthropology. Initial parameters should involve biblical narrative(s)—the drama of creation, fall, and redemption begun in Genesis 1–3, plus subsequent depictions of human lives unfolding within that drama. Second, scriptural parameters should involve the climax of salvation history, Jesus Christ, with the Incarnation and the resurrection reaffirming the dignity of ordinary human life while anticipating its transformation.24 Third, scriptural parameters should involve passages that acknowledge particular human limits in other words.25 A notable example is Acts 17:16–34, where Paul confronts the Athenians with a Christologically-inflected account of divine sovereignty over human times, places, tribes, and so on. Fourth, scriptural parameters should involve passages that address ordinary human life, which are especially prominent in the Wisdom literature.26

For the present sketch, Ecclesiastes offers a primary biblical point at which these parameters converge. For that text’s primary metaphors immediately limit human life: The book’s first half (1:1–6:9, with 6:10–12 as transitional) locates us “under the sun”; a repeated refrain has us “chasing after the wind” (and unable to catch it); behind its most famous word, “vanity,” is the metaphor of vapor, an ungraspable entity that is here today and gone before tomorrow.27 The book’s second half (7:1–12:14) reiterates that human beings usually do not know and can- not find. Overall, Ecclesiastes is saturated with allusions to creation from Genesis 1–3. Like other scriptural texts, Ecclesiastes depicts the limitations that arise from the various relational realms in which God has placed human existence. Ecclesiastes then explores these limiting relational realms in a more courageous and concentrated form. Even so, situating human limits in divinely-intended relational contexts already places finitude in a more positive light than the Heideggerian or broader “existentialist” tendencies to fixate upon social alienation, personal inauthenticity, and looming death.28

Relational Realms: Human Limits in Ecclesiastes

Immediately, then, Ecclesiastes contemplates the reality that human lives unfold “in” (1) the context of the created cosmos. As 1:3–11 ponders, the sheer regularity of creation’s order often seems monotonous. But, as 2:24–26 and other key refrains later remind us, all things are from God’s hand. Wisdom lies in remembering our sovereign Creator (5:1–7; 8:12–13; 9:1–2; 12:1–14) without wrongly pursuing righteousness (7:15–29) by rejecting earthly goods and limits.29 The order of creation—or, after the fall, God’s preserving grace—involves different types of limits, including kinds and ends.30

Eventually ontological kinds, however fluid many claim that their evolution may be, present absolute limits. Ends introduce a second kind of limits by connecting God-given ontology with human teleology, which involves freedom. Ethical limits, a third kind, address not only final causes but also particular actions: behavioral events that bring intentions to fruition. Like kinds and ends, ethical boundaries may be absolute; for instance, it is never permissible to “kill” someone in the sense prohibited by the Decalogue. But such limits are not absolute in terms of ontological impossibility, or else the prohibitions would not be given. Nor are such ethical limits always administered absolutely throughout salvation history; for instance, God tolerated and regulated divorce in the Old Covenant due to human hardness of heart. Furthermore, the application of ethical boundaries is not always absolutely clear, since the contexts and patterns of human life influence what “counts as” a particular action; for instance, whether a “killing” violates the Decalogue’s prohibition may involve contingencies like wartime or police action. Or, for a different case, whether not attending church on a given Sunday violates the exhortation of Hebrews 10:24–25 may depend upon patterns developed over months or years. The implications of such ethical complexity and contingency have frequently been underdeveloped in Protestant moral education.

Within this cosmic context, human life unfolds “in” (2) the context of a body. Qoheleth, the sage teacher in Ecclesiastes, is a searching protagonist who undertakes a series of tests. Since the eye and the ear never have enough (1:8), and humans are creatures who can put their hands to cultural work (2:1–11), he tests whether pleasure or toil will grant lasting satisfaction. In the face of death, not even strategic projects will last, for the next generation will ruin or squander the fruit of our sleepless nights (2:12–23). If the best use of our bodies is to eat, drink, and be merry with those we love (2:24–26), then are we nothing more than animals (3:18–22), toiling to fill our mouths (6:7–9)? Sometimes it may feel that way. But wisdom can make the face shine (8:1), helping us to enjoy our lives as the fleeting gifts that they are (9:7–10; 10:19; 11:7) rather than trying to conquer them through sheer swiftness or strength (9:11). Hence Ecclesiastes’ references to the body are not disposable ornaments; they reflect the fundamental integration of human existence with the created order. Bodies enmesh us in creaturely desire that can be misdirected toward human mastery, or temporarily satisfied by God’s provision for us and our neighbors.

Human life unfolds further “in” (3) the context of family, whose members are God’s initial agents for giving and sustaining earthly life and personal identity. The initial despair of Ecclesiastes 1 and the tests of chapter 2 reflect Solomonic family tragedy. He proudly boasts of greater wisdom than any royal predecessors in 1:16, and then of greater wealth in 2:7–9—measured, not least, in slaves. Yet he concedes that he found no way to control his family’s legacy in 2:18–23, and of course Rehoboam’s failures provide Exhibit A of that point. While Ecclesiastes poignantly confronts the fundamental limitation concerning wealth, that “you can’t take it with you” and you can’t even buy lasting earthly happiness, it still manifests the broader desirability in the wisdom traditions concerning inheritance (5:14–15; 6:3). Family is a limited and limiting good, but an inevitable necessity too.

The next link in Ecclesiastes’ chain of relational realms again follows natu- rally. Human life unfolds “in” (4) the context of time, whose passage gives each of us an earthly history, providing opportunities to develop personal identity into enduring character. The passage of time appears throughout the book,31 but most famously in the poem of 3:1–8.

“To every thing … there is a season …”: Does this poem promote passive resignation before the inevitable or openness to opportunity? Are the enduring acts of God, mentioned later in 3:14–15, a life-giving blessing or a heavy-handed curse? If we read the poem in light of the second half of the book, then it promotes realistic wisdom. Such wisdom is better than folly, generally keeping us safer (7:17) and often promoting courageous action (11:1) rather than passive resignation. But human wisdom is not foolproof, being unable to guarantee specific outcomes that we might seek.32

Along with time, human life unfolds “in” (5) the context of places, or meaningful spaces, whose location shapes personal identities and opportunities through the love of particular neighbors and friends, both human and non-human. Qoheleth’s royal tests of pleasure and cultural production involved houses and vineyards (2:4–9). Time’s passage involves activities in particular places, such as planting and uprooting, tearing down and building (3:2–3, 5–6). Places may be characterized by justice or else wickedness, bureaucracy, and oppression (3:16; 5:8–9). The wicked are still buried, whether they were lauded or loathed in their communities (8:10). Places are more than big or small; they may be more or less powerful due to the wisdom of their leaders (9:13–18; 10:16–20). Yet, however much humans seek to act wisely wherever they are, they remain subject to the historical vicissitudes of their geography (11:2–4). People and place interweave enough that the famous allegory of Ecclesiastes 12:1–7 may operate at multiple levels: a person’s decline and death are depicted with physical images that could simultaneously typify a community’s demise. These relational realms limit human lives partly by orienting us to intentional action—“at” (6) work, “at” (7) play, and/or “at” (8) rest.

Ecclesiastes drowns in the vocabulary of work. Quite often we toil without profit, a worry introduced as early as 1:3, acknowledged as the test result of 2:4–11, 18–23, and again faced in 3:9–10 after the poem about proper timing. Much human work springs from envy (4:4), and the resulting wealth may be hoarded but it is easily lost (5:13–16). At bottom, we work to put food in our mouths, but we are never satisfied for long (6:7). Work is a sphere in which to exercise wisdom, as the images of 10:1–15 suggest—albeit with modesty about what wisdom accomplishes. Despite these concerns about toil, however, Ecclesiastes still acknowledges work as God’s gift (3:22). Work can be an occasion for human community rather than miserly envy (4:7–12). Once we are dead, we will wish we could work (9:10), and if we are lazy we will suffer the consequences (10:18).

Humans are unique among earth’s embodied creatures in having responsible agency—being able to contemplate our longing for self-transcendence along with embodiment, families, times, and places.33 In Genesis, distinctions are established between work and rest, and between two ways of experiencing work. God rests on the seventh day, establishing the pattern for Israel to follow. Work has proper limits, not least from a day’s light and darkness, on which Bonhoeffer’s reflections, soon after the invention of the electric light bulb, are striking.34 After the fall, though, work is encountered no longer as a thoroughly creational good but frequently as frustrated toil. In Ecclesiastes, human attempts to master work fail: limited in knowing what to do, when and how to do it, how to gain influence or status, how to derive profit or establish a legacy, how to enjoy labor’s fruits without anxiety, and so on. For laborers to sleep well is a modest but meaningful gift (5:12), a gift that many of us elites, who make too much of our work, often lack (4:5–6).

Thus, “play” honors biblical limits upon purposeful activity. Old Testament texts variously reflect God’s love of beauty, with gifts of artistic creativity enhancing the covenant people’s worship via eyes and ears, smells and tastes. God loves creaturely things that have no obvious function, as in Job’s catalogue of weird animals. The carpe diem passages in Ecclesiastes treat ordinary delights as appropriate, even necessary, responses to humans’ lack of mastery. Play has its limits due to the goodness of work and the necessity of redeeming the time, while the definitions of work and rest vis-à-vis play and worship are complex. Yet play is a legitimate and necessary reflection of human limitations.

Ecclesiastes opposes the vexation that may stem from trying to think or act above our human station (1:18; 2:23; 5:17; 11:10). The sage collects and presents wisdom to promote remembering the Creator, not seeking a God’s-eye view. In Ecclesiastes, then, fruitful work and rest depend upon embracing our limits—limits upon satisfying bodily desires, controlling family legacies, guaranteeing timely action, transcending particular places, profiting from labor, or making delight last. We are made for constant dependence upon God as the necessary context for moments of genuine delight.

Resurrection Faith: The Limits of Death

Patterns of human action reflect one of two fundamental orientations in response to these limits. The Old Testament construes this response in terms of whom or what humans fear: God, or something else? Ecclesiastes promotes remembering our Creator without clearly seeing when or how that fear of God will be worthwhile. We need to face death head on (7:2; 9:1–6), but under the sun we cannot see what happens to us afterward (3:21). Read entirely by itself, then, Ecclesiastes remains ambiguous about both the origins of human death and the outcomes of divine judgment that promote fearing God.35 According to 2 Timothy 1:10, Christ “has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,” so the ambiguities of Ecclesiastes before the Incarnation should neither surprise us nor obscure the truth that it still teaches in proper canonical context. Hence the New Testament reflects a slight conceptual shift, focusing the fear of God upon faith: Faith is the form that remembering our Creator takes once Jesus has been raised from the dead—once the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises has begun. The relational spheres of human life need not threaten our very existence; instead their limits can liberate us from the aspiration to live like gods.

The perspective of Ecclesiastes is “secular,” but not in the widespread contemporary connotation of that word. Qoheleth’s gritty realism about life under the sun is not simply the opposite of sacred, leaving God out of the picture or even opposing God for much of the time. To the contrary, this gritty realism is a true but limited reflection of life as we now know it, which enmeshes us in the broken relationships and seemingly tragic history of a fundamentally good creation. Defined by a biblical and traditionally Christian perspective, the secular age did not begin with modernity and it is not defined by the absence of God. The secular age is defined by the anticipation, rather than the full enjoyment, of God’s reign over creation through the resurrected Lord.36

Since that glorious kingdom will rectify present fleshly suffering, we may embody compassion in understanding and reconciling with our neighbors. We may exercise courage in engaging the created order, rather than individually isolating or protecting ourselves out of fear. We may enjoy the confidence to express our current confusions and frustrations over earthly limits as we experience them after the fall, looking ahead in the resurrection’s light to a day when the relationships that limit human life will no longer bear any curse.

Finitude and Education

In light of this biblically “secular” perspective to which Ecclesiastes contributes, human finitude is a vital aspect of both remembering our Creator while we are young and seeing the world under the sun as it really is.37 Of course, this essay can only begin to undertake its fourth and final task: suggesting some of finitude’s implications for education.

Teleologically: Wisdom

To begin with our end(s) in view, acknowledging human finitude prioritizes wisdom as the guiding theological concept for educational endeavors. Several contributions establish wisdom’s conceptual primacy, which its connection with finitude confirms. First, wisdom contributes the most basic scriptural category for epistemology and education.38 Biblical wisdom embraces knowing God, growing in virtue, and exploring the world. The primacy of wisdom aligns with complementary trends such as the recovery of tradition, holistic anthropology, and virtue epistemology. Hence this affinity between human finitude and biblical “wisdom literature” only reinforces the scriptural primacy that has already been established.

Second, wisdom navigates apparent tensions between creational delight and missional sacrifice. Loving God and neighbor both fulfills what we were originally made for and calls human beings out of merely ordinary life as we now experience it after the fall. Here Christian educators easily fall into false dichotomies. On one hand, we celebrate creation’s ordinary goodness; in so doing, we risk educating students for complacency in comfortable living that easily descends into idolatry, like Israel did once she was established in the promised land (Deut. 31:20–21; 32:13–18). On the other hand, we champion God’s redemptive kingdom; in so doing, we risk educating students for spiritual heroism that despises ordinary life or denies human weakness.39 Instead, wisdom relates creation and redemption in a way that helps educators to address both general character formation for everyone and discernment of specific callings for each.

Third, wisdom dynamically connects creation order (the knowledge of kinds and ends) with the possibilities faced by finite humans. Creation’s ordered relational realms are the occasion for encountering historical limits, in addition to the ontological, teleological, and ethical limits that surfaced earlier. Contingency shapes particular decisions as the form of our God-given freedom, and after all freedom is a central concern of liberal education. When we encounter external resistance from the created cosmos or cultural circumstances, or internal resistance from weakness after the fall, careful discernment is necessary. When is an apparent limit absolute versus merely historical? When may historical limits be transcended, or when should they be overcome? The eternity in human hearts (Eccl. 3:11) opens up space for pursuing self-transcendence, for resisting apparent limits until we encounter what is absolute. Of course, many efforts at overcoming human limits express worldly rather than Christian wisdom—a profound fear of death and lack of faith in resurrection. By contrast, God offers the redeeming wisdom that Jesus Christ is for us (1 Cor. 1:30) and the sanctifying wisdom that his Spirit develops in us (1 Cor. 2:6–16). Such Christian wisdom enables us to face historical limits in self-giving faith rather than power-grabbing fear.

Fourth, biblical wisdom includes epistemic limits within faith’s proper confidence.40 Epistemology is a major aspect of Ecclesiastes, although space limitations prevent exploring this better-known territory in any detail here. The sage continually shares his internal dialogue (speaking in his heart is the idiom) while finding little about which to draw firm conclusions. Correspondingly, Ecclesiastes resonates with both modernity and postmodernity, since they have alternately resisted, overemphasized, and misconstrued the limits upon human knowledge, tempting some Christians to claim certainty and to deny epistemic limits in the light of faith. But a frequent cloud of unknowing, our inability even to master the present world under the sun by prediction, is ingredient in biblical finitude—and thus in the wisdom celebrated by Ecclesiastes. Worldly wisdom may use historical limits as an excuse for deferring to cultural fashion and denying claims about transcendent truth. Christian wisdom, however, seeks a theologically-defined humility that can walk hand in hand with the courage of biblical conviction—because the history of salvation includes divine revelation.

Accordingly, fifth, wisdom integrates human knowledge, skill, and virtue, as they are encompassed by the need for God’s gracious revelation. In Ecclesiastes Solomon, wisdom’s human paragon, highlights our need for God’s redeeming wisdom in Jesus Christ by foolishly failing to respect proper limits and falling into idolatry. Between redeeming wisdom and worldly wisdom, though, stand many penultimate aspects of human wisdom that we should carefully appropriate: disciplines, theories, procedures, proverbs, skills, and pagan virtues that relate us to creation’s goodness even if they require vigilance against Solomonic folly. By enhancing students’ penultimate wisdom, education can enhance their pursuit of Jesus Christ and service in God’s kingdom. Indeed, biblical wisdom literature can often sound like Protestant educational aspirations, incorporating authoritative guides within a morally-focused pedagogy, fostering virtuous leaders’ skillful service to God and other people.

The cultural powers conferred by education, however, can likewise foster worldly wisdom that opposes the Creator and damages shalom. Wisdom offers a biblical concept for tempering the pursuit of ideals with realism, recognizing the essential influence of ideals alongside the impossibility of finite and fallen humans attaining them fully. Wisdom can designate skillful walking on either of the two paths that humans constantly face, while calling us to take the path that begins with fearing the Lord. Hence wisdom offers a framework for celebrating education’s life-transforming character, while acknowledging that many who lack such opportunities may still love God and neighbor more excellently than their privileged counterparts.

Because wisdom offers an encompassing framework that integrates many aspects, the concept has a long and winding history.41 Yet this diverse conceptual history can be a feature rather than a bug: Wisdom makes it possible both to name some common aspirations of Christian educators and to identify their theological differences over certain priorities. In identifying those differences, wisdom challenges everyone to evaluate educational priorities in the light of Scripture while creating space for particular people or institutions to direct their finite freedom toward specific vocations.

Systemically: Institutional Missions

Turning to the systemic realm, then, acknowledging human finitude is important as Christian educational institutions identify their missions. For starters, this systemic implication applies externally—among or between such institutions. Each has a host of particular limitations that help to identify their proper contributions within a larger educational ecology. Each has a physical environment, a historical legacy, a spiritual and intellectual identity, and so forth; these shape existing strengths and future possibilities. Do educational institutions account for these limiting relational realms, or do they seek to become all things for all people and needlessly compete with each other?

This systemic implication further applies internally—to or within educational institutions, especially given their relationships with the church(es). Schools are formative contexts, yet focusing on intellectual integration can undergird rather than undermine the vices of consumerism.42 Hence the recent literature that champions holistic formation contributes vital insight. This literature, however—even from Smith and not just from thoroughly pietist sources—refers far more frequently to practices and/or virtues than to wisdom. The sparsity of references to wisdom reflects a conceptual imbalance that can too easily isolate knowledge from praxis. Furthermore, acknowledging the limitations of human institutions requires identifying the particular mission that schools are designed and equipped to fulfill. That mission has an inescapably cognitive focus, even if Christian educational institutions can be ambiguous “extensions” of the church.43

Pedagogically: Humble Listening and Truthful Speech

Finally, in the pedagogical realm, acknowledging human finitude is necessary as teachers pursue wisdom for themselves and their students, with a special focus upon communication. Given the relational realms of human life, major aspects of Chris- tian wisdom—along with the penultimate forms of wisdom in our academic disciplines—are caught as much as taught. At the same time, no matter how much students learn from our character and via their bodily actions, wisdom is oriented toward personal meaning and communal sharing. Biblical wisdom surrounds action with explanatory and memorable speech, with an integrated emphasis upon the ear, the heart, and the tongue.44 In this way, biblical wisdom appeals to authoritative guides who are close in proximity—as parents, neighbors, and so forth—to their apprentices. Ultimately, Christian wisdom champions the seemingly foolish proclamation of the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.45

Given these ways in which speech surrounds formative action, biblical wisdom emphasizes listening. This emphasis upon listening highlights the mystery of human freedom, lest the pedagogical importance of either students’ apprenticeship or teachers’ speech become an intolerable burden. The heart and the tongue have their counterpart in the ear; authoritative guides are certainly prized by biblical wisdom. But teachers dare not ignore student freedom as a limitation affecting their vocational aims and self-assessments. All of us—students and teachers—must learn the dispositions and skills of listening, which reflect the relational realms in which wisdom grows.

Given the mysterious freedom that is exercised in listening, neither a syllabus nor a set of teaching methods nor skill at deploying them can guarantee desired student outcomes. The sage of Ecclesiastes admittedly searched for just the right words to promote what is upright and true, but this exhausting study can be ambiguous as to whether it will harm or help (12:9–12). Solomon himself personifies the fragile legacy of human wisdom. Teaching and learning honor our Creator and help fellow creatures only when we acknowledge the limits upon our mastery. While eternity leaves human hearts hoping to change the world, it also leaves us unable to fathom God’s work or master our own (2:23–26; 3:9–14).

Given biblical wisdom’s embrace of human finitude, listening must be humble and speaking must be truthful. Humility and truthfulness appear in Ecclesiastes’ invitation of human inquiry rather than mere indoctrination. It is biblically appropriate to raise questions about the created world’s ambiguities, cultural history’s injustices, and particular human anxieties. Raising questions in a way that acknowledges our finite perspective need not isolate us from others or limit our perspective entirely to this present world. Sometimes, to be sure, Qoheleth personifies unhealthy introspection under the pre-resurrection sun. When we read Ecclesiastes in its proper canonical context, though, education has a modest but meaningful place among the “nothing better than” activities that God has given to humans.46 Education can help us to eat, drink, and enjoy life with those whom God has given us to love—partly by helping us to celebrate and develop God’s gifts; partly by helping us to acknowledge and contemplate our limits. Again, the very idea of education—that we need others to lead us onto a healthy path toward shalom—reflects both personal finitude and the relational character of our freedom.


To weave the final threads of this essay together: As the first section briefly mapped out, the dominant theological approaches to education neglect human finitude. As the second section sketched, finitude per se has a modest theological history. As the third section explored, Ecclesiastes’ celebration of finitude surfaces several types of limits that are germane to education. God has oriented various kinds of creatures to the pursuit of various ends. Ontological and teleological limits can be absolute, like some ethical standards. The created order undergirds human freedom for contingent possibilities, though, introducing historical limitations. These historical limitations undergird epistemic limits as well, for any human correspondence to God’s knowledge is contextually realized, dependent upon divine grace, and hard-won after the fall. Thus, celebrating finitude means contemplating how God’s strength is realized in human weakness. Divine grace is necessary in new ways after the fall, but depending upon God is the form of self-transcending strength for which humans were made.

Therefore, finitude is a properly “evangelical” theme, promoting devotion to the Creator and dependence upon divine grace along with delight in good gifts. Biblical finitude offers no mere excuse for spiritual weakness—particularly, in the present context, no platform for simply wallowing in bodily luxury, social media distraction, or other forms of self-absorption. Instead, biblical finitude promotes gospel devotion by highlighting that bodily comforts are temporary and their satisfactions are partial; that family members, warts and all, should provide for the body and enjoy creation’s goodness together; that time limits human mastery but allows for courageous action; that the places of our earthly pilgrimage offer neighbors to love along with injustices to resist; that work and play and rest mutually condition each other.

Ultimately, as the fourth section suggested, Christian educational efforts ought to pursue wisdom in realistic institutional contexts that provide communicative space for teachers and students to listen humbly and speak truthfully. As we learn to engage the limiting relational realms of human life with the hope of resurrection, we become less vulnerable to sleepless nights in pursuit of the money and status that almost inversely correlate with happiness. We also become less vulnerable to sleepless nights in despair over a world that we cannot substantially change.

Biblical wisdom celebrates finitude as the gracious occasion for self-transcendence as we study the Creator’s world and serve its Redeemer. Through the Spirit’s empowering presence, the resurrected Christ reassures us that our labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Yet the Lord knows that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). So we must learn to pray, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

Cite this article
Daniel J. Treier, “The Gift of Finitude: Wisdom from Ecclesiastes for a Theology of Education”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:4 , 371–390


  1. The initial version of this essay was my inaugural lecture as the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. Thanks to the peer reviewers, Marc Cortez, and Timothy Larsen, for helpful comments. I dedicate this revised version to Mark Bowald, a dear friend who has helped me to engage this essay’s subject matter both professionally and personally. It is a privilege to publish in this journal during his tenure as editor.
  2. For a famous analogy between appropriating true statements from pagan philosophy and Israel “plundering the Egyptians,” see De Doctrina Christiana II.61, in St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 64–65. Yet, from a similar standpoint, see the cautions in “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” in St. Basil, The Letters; Address to Young Men on Reading Greek Literature, trans. Roy Joseph Deferrari and Martin R. P. McGuire, Reprint, vol. 270, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 378–435. Also classic, of course, is John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Frank M. Turner, Rethink- ing the Western Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). More recently, see for example Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake: The Re-Enchantment of Education (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009); and George Dennis O’Brien, The Idea of a Catholic University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  3. See especially Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial address “Faith, Reason and the Univer- sity—Memories and Reflections,” in James V. Schall, ed., The Regensburg Lecture (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007). Earlier, Pope John Paul II, On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason: Fides et Ratio (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1998).
  4. Three core themes animate the account of Mike Higton, A Theology of Higher Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012): training in intellectual virtue; inherent sociality; and proper orientation toward the common good. Central to the virtues of reasoning as a discipline are willingness to judge and openness to being judged. Higton suggests, contra Newman, that education has no natural ends but it can echo the community-forming work of the Holy Spirit in the church (albeit without the Word and sacrament; see especially pp. 105, 211–212). Education promotes creation’s wisdom (or, as necessary, repair) and delight (or, as necessary, lament; pp. 6, 161–165).
  5. Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007). A few other collections of essays on the university feature theologians: Jeff Astley et al., eds., The Idea of a Christian University: Essays on Theology and Higher Education (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2004); Christopher Craig Brittain and Francesca Aran Murphy, eds., Theology, University, Humanities: Initium Sapientiae Timor Domini (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011); Michael L. Budde and John Wesley Wright, eds., Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004). A recent evangelical treatment orients a chapter on theology around the concept of wisdom: Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream, eds., Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 225–243.
  6. “Evangelical” is a contested term, but for current purposes it can be sufficiently oriented by criteria presented in Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  7. Without citing them due to space limitations, this statement characterizes approximately twenty additional works beyond those cited elsewhere in this essay.
  8. This theological inquiry encompasses education generally, not just higher education, even if undergraduate education is the primary context for most of the literature engaged here. Graduate theological education has specific literature of its own, while neither primary nor secondary education has garnered extensive theological attention. The category of sys- temically Christian institutions is distinct from public universities (at least in the West) and institutions with an overarching Christian umbrella, as noted in Duane Litfin, Conceiving the Christian College (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). For a slightly different typology, see Stephen R. Haynes, “A Typology of Church-Related Colleges and Universities,” in Profess- ing in the Postmodern Academy: Faculty and the Future of Church-Related Colleges, ed. Stephen R. Haynes (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2002), 297–302. Mainline Protestant thought has typically addressed universities or Christian umbrella institutions.
  9. Famously, Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975). More recently, Arthur F. Holmes, Building the Christian Academy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). But the integrationist model spread beyond Reformed contexts; see, for example, its influence in the memoir of Wesleyan David L. McKenna, Christ-Centered Higher Education: Memory, Meaning, and Momentum for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012). From the Baptist world, see David S. Dockery, ed., Faith and Learning: A Handbook for Christian Higher Education (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012).
  10. For a widely used history, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
  11. See, for example, Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerd- mans, 2011).
  12. Douglas G. Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarg- ing the Conversation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  13. This claim about a different emphasis appears variously in Christopher Gehrz, ed., The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015). Jenell Paris (“Love and Learning: A Model for Pietist Scholar- ship in the Disciplines,” 67–84) critiques the integrationist model in light of this emphasis, while Raymond J. VanArragon (“Intellectual Virtue and the Adventurous Christ Follower,” 167–178) warns against the possibility that pietists could be insufficiently concerned about truth. Some strands of classical Pietism might not have promoted such open conversation.
  14. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, vol. 1, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, vol. 2, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). Responding to critics, Smith underscores that he does not deny the importance of rationality, and indeed his philosophical resources reflect deep intellectual engagement. In his own words, though, for Smith “education is primarily formation—and more specifically, the formation of our desires … [which] isn’t the sort of thing that stays neatly within the walls of the school or college or university” (Desiring the Kingdom, 19).
  15. 5James K. A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Her- meneutic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).
  16. There are modest exceptions. Mentioning human finitude as a limit upon searching for truth is David Claerbaut, Faith and Learning on the Edge: A Bold New Look at Religion in Higher Education (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 118–119. Mentioning wisdom and limit questions is Douglas V. Henry and Michael D. Beaty, eds., Christianity and the Soul of the University: Faith as a Foundation for Intellectual Community (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). Mentioning finite existence is Norman Klassen and Jens Zimmermann, The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 104. Mentioning mortality in a sermon on Psalm 90 is Charles W. Pollard, May It Always Be True: Educating Students in Faith (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2011), 210–219. See also the resonant but short meditations of Richard J. Mouw, Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).
  17. Noting the occasional triumphalism of religious colleges is Samuel Schuman, Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in Twenty-First Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 223.
  18. Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
  19. This affirmation is influentially chronicled in Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
  20. On Ecclesiastes’s history of interpretation, see Eric S. Christianson, Ecclesiastes through the Centuries (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007). For this aspect specifically, as well as engagement with Heidegger and Bonhoeffer, see Daniel J. Treier, “Ecclesiastes in Dialogue with Modernity: A Matter of Life and Death,” in Reading Ecclesiastes Intertextually, ed. Katharine Dell and Will Kynes, Library of Biblical Studies (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2014), 295–308.
  21. See especially J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 114–121. More broadly, see also chap. 6 of Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
  22. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY, 1996); Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951–1963); Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007).
  23. See especially §56, “Freedom in Limitation,” in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III.4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961). More generally, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Isabel Best and John W. de Gruchy, vol. 8, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).
  24. Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
  25. An important contemporary treatment is Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016). Radner develops neglected aspects of mortality that appear across the biblical canon—in the Pentateuch and beyond, not just Wisdom literature. His comments on the relational aspects of wisdom and its integration with work resonate with the final section of this essay.
  26. Emphasis upon “quotidian” realities, and corresponding attention to Wisdom literature, is a defining feature of David H. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, 2 vols. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
  27. For commentaries reflecting more “skeptical” readings of Qoheleth, see Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes, Two Horizons OT Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Developing more positive readings of the hebel theme are Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); Daniel J. Treier, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011). Even if the original “Qoheleth” were more skeptical, the present reading of finitude could stand once Ecclesiastes is placed in the scriptural canon. For a classically pietist account of education with echoes of Ecclesiastes concerning worldly “vanity,” see Johann Amos Comenius, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (New York: Paulist, 1998).
  28. The following relational realms of human finitude are initially outlined, without the discussion of Ecclesiastes, in Daniel J. Treier, “Finitude,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, eds. Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 317–319. That outline is used here by permission from Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2017.
  29. For this interpretation of Ecclesiastes 7, see Treier, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, 189–197.
  30. For the distinction between kinds and ends, see O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order. Although he later considered replacing it (in one of his Ethics manuscripts), emphasis on preservation appeared in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, ed. Martin Rueter and Ilse Todt, trans. Douglas S. Bax, vol. 3, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 135–140. On “mandates” as an alternative to orders of preservation, see “The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Douglas W. Stott, and Charles C. West, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 388–408.
  31. Richard L. Schultz, “A Sense of Timing: A Neglected Aspect of Qoheleth’s Wisdom,” in Seeking Out the Wisdom of the Ancients: Essays Offered to Honor Michael V. Fox on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Ronald L. Troxel, Kelvin G. Friebel, and Dennis R. Magary (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 257–267.
  32. Thus, even long life is no guarantee of wisdom (4:13–16), or of enjoyment (6:6), and there are no guarantees of long life (6:12); time and chance happen to everyone (9:11–12). Youth has its particular opportunities (11:8–9), and age should be an occasion for developing patience rather than nostalgically living in the past (7:8–10). The mere passage of earthly time can delay justice and encourage unrighteousness (8:10–11) if we do not remember our Creator.
  33. Such unique contemplative agency is broadly consistent with the account in Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between “Someone” and “Something,” trans. Oliver O’Donovan, Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  34. Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 48–55.
  35. Regarding the ambiguity within Ecclesiastes between finitude and fallenness, see Treier, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, 196–197, 236. Regarding how deeply human life is steeped in birth- ing and dying, see Radner, A Time to Keep.
  36. See the brief summary of this Augustinian notion vis-à-vis Ecclesiastes in Treier, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, 235. Such a theological definition does not preclude the descriptive account of modern secularity in sources like Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007).
  37. For comments on how everyone is addressed as young enough to remember the Creator, see Søren Kierkegaard, “Remember Now Thy Creator in the Days of Thy Youth,” in Edifying Discourses, trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1945), 71–93.
  38. See Stephen Barton, ed., Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Wisdom in the Bible, the Church, and the Contemporary World (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999); Daniel J. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006); David F. Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love, Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Paul S. Fiddes, Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  39. Either way, it is easy to orient ethical and spiritual formation around momentous decisions, for which students expect clearly right or wrong answers and otherwise feel unprepared or unlimited in their options. On this ethical tendency after the modern advent of Kantianism, see especially “History and Good [2],” in Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 246–298.
  40. The phrase “proper confidence” stems from Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
  41. On four different emphases in defining wisdom, see David H. Kelsey, To Understand God Truly: What’s Theological about a Theological School (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 34–50.
  42. A significant theme of Hauerwas, The State of the University.
  43. In a lengthy footnote, Smith insists on “the centrality of Christian formation to the task of the Christian university”; he goes on to say that “if Christian colleges are not about Christian formation, there’s really no reason for them to exist,” suggesting that critics of this perspective are committed to liberal autonomy (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 219n6.). Still, one wonders whether this claim adequately distinguishes Christian colleges from the churches that they should serve, and whether Smith’s account adequately focuses upon the judgment and openness to judgment—the cognitive skills along with particular virtues—that (Higton suggests) are the appropriate focus for educational institutions. While Smith ad- dresses worries about unguarded pietism and violation of sphere sovereignty, the church’s formative priority along with biblical wisdom’s emphasis upon speech and discernment arguably needs more attention. In other words, there might be a subtle theological concern over the philosophical impetus of Smith’s argument: It is possible to embrace its general shift— toward embodied perception and away from rational judgment as the fundamental dynamic of human being in the world—yet maintain that the Bible construes wisdom with greater emphasis upon the practices and content of speaking than secular philosophical descriptions or educational prescriptions do. Wisdom’s formation in Christ by the Spirit then intensifies the powerful “foolishness” of proclaiming the Word.
  44. Treier, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, 101–105. James 3:1–4:17 reinforces this emphasis. So does the recent epistemological emphasis concerning human knowers’ reliance upon testimony, as discussed in chap. 2 of Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account, Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015).
  45. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God, 47–61.
  46. Here Smith offers the provocative but lovely terminology of “the pedagogy of insignificance” in Imagining the Kingdom, 98–100.

Daniel J. Treier

Wheaton College
Daniel Treier is Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Theology at Wheaton College.