The earliest universities generally had four different parts. Every student first attended what was called a liberal arts college. In this part, one would learn a wide range of skills with what today are associated with the liberal arts (e.g., mathematics, music, grammar, rhetoric). The other three parts were advanced education in medicine, law and theology, what today we would usually consider graduate school. All four parts made up the university. This is why even today when will hear about Harvard College (the liberal arts portion for undergraduates) and Harvard University (the undergraduate colleges and the graduate schools).
This arrangement is what made the medieval university unique and allowed it to integrate theological education, liberal arts education, and professional education into one whole. It also explains why their approach to the integration of theological and other forms of knowledge helps explain why universities emerged in Western Europe and not in other parts of the world. Marcia Colish, a noted historian of medieval Europe, writes of this time:
The fact that scientists and philosophers studied in faculties adjacent to theologians trained to raise questions about ultimate values, and that theologians interacted with colleagues in fields not informed by religious criteria, forced all involved to take account of the perspectives and ground rules of other disciplines as well as the disagreements within their own. The scholastics who created this heady educational environment rapidly outpaced monastic scholars as speculative thinkers.1
The University of Bologna (established at the end of the 12th century) and the University of Paris (established at the beginning of the 13th century) are commonly considered the two earliest universities that eventually became models for other European universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.2
While Europeans created universities with many different schools or faculties (e.g., theology, law, medicine, liberal arts), American higher education for the first two hundred and forty years started only with the liberal arts college. To live and be educated in a college was to live together in the place of study instead of in private houses as was the practices of some students at certain European universities. Harvard, William and Mary (1693) and Yale (1701) all started as colleges that educated students in the liberal arts. Later, in the mid to late 18th century, the First Great Awakening stimulated the establishment of a host of Christian colleges (Princeton, 1746; Columbia, 1754; Brown, 1765; Rutgers, 1766; and Dartmouth, 1769). The Second Great Awakening proved instrumental in giving birth to even more Christian colleges when the number of institutions grew from merely 29 in 1830 to 133 before the Civil War.3
Almost all of these colleges were controlled and funded by Christian groups, required a standard liberal arts curriculum and residential living, and focused more on the teaching of past knowledge than the discovery of new knowledge.4 In the late 1800s, however, a new form of institution arose in America that displaced the Christian liberal arts college – the research university. Research universities in America were by and large funded by wealthy entrepreneurs and state governments and would eventually take on a largely secular ethos.5 In addition to the transfer of knowledge to new students, they also focused on the discovery of new knowledge. Whereas evangelical leaders and thinkers dominated the early liberal arts colleges, in the new research universities liberal Protestants and later secularists dominated the leadership and scholarship. As a consequence, Christian higher education “was widely regarded as strictly an undergraduate concern.”6 During this era, many of the mainline Protestant Christian colleges also turned in a secular direction.
Only in a smaller group of largely evangelical Christian colleges did Protestant higher education survive. Out of this group emerged a small group that sought to maintain and cultivate the creative and active integration of faith and learning. Since these institutions were involved more in the transmission of knowledge instead of its creation, the integration of faith and learning often involved taking the learning produced in secular research universities and integrating faith into previously created forms of knowledge.
Today, something new is occurring. Christian research universities are developing from the few remaining Christian universities and many Christian colleges are now renaming themselves universities in the light of the fact that they offer a number of graduate programs and degrees. Professors at Christian colleges are also now engaged in the creation of knowledge and are thus inviting their students to join them in those pursuits. We should also recognize the limits of separating the two. One recent writer claimed:
…a college and a university have—or should have—different purposes. The former is about transmitting knowledge of and from the past to undergraduate students so they may draw upon it as a living resource for the future. The latter is mainly an array of research activities conducted by faculty and graduate students with the aim of creating new knowledge in order to supersede the past.7
In contrast, we suggest that a Christian university will engage in both the transmission and creation of knowledge or learning.
To emphasize these points, we suggest that loving God and others requires Christian universities to focus upon the creation and redemption of learners and learning. This mission rests upon the belief, grounded in Genesis 1:27-28, that the Christian’s calling entails imitating the model and actions of the triune God in whose image we are made. Theologically speaking, God does not go about integrating faith and learning. Our need to integrate faith and learning stems not from our imitation of God’s actions in the Word, but our human limitations – our lack of omniscience and our fallenness. Biblically speaking, however, God is in the business of creating and also redeeming his fallen creation. By understanding their task as creating and redeeming learners and learning, Christian universities undertake the noblest of tasks – imitating and joining in the actions of the triune God.
Christ accomplished this work for us by redeeming the world, reconciling “in himself all things, whether things on earth or things on heaven” (Colossians 1:20) and restoring God’s reign (the Kingdom of God). We are also asked to join in that work and the Christian university, following the Church’s lead, plays a critical role in that process. This redemption involves not only human souls, but the rest of God and human creation. When it comes to learning, since our learning faculties and created products are fallen, the redemption of learners and learning entails freeing it from the effects of sin.
This proves particularly important when it comes to learning. Unlike God who created ex nihilo or out of nothing, when scholars engage in creational work, they draw not only upon the use of God’s natural creation and their own created capacities, but also upon a whole set of past creations. In other words, we use terminology, apparatuses, assumptions, data, arguments, resources, languages, etc. provided by others. Scholars build incrementally in reliance on past work. Ideally, such creations would reflect God’s plan and purposes. According to this ideal, creating scholarship is not the exact same thing as making or doing scholarship. The creation of scholarship we have in mind discovers and draws upon God’s good created order. Yet, we also know that the fall penetrates, fragments, and distorts all aspects of this work. Therefore, the twin themes of creation and redemption must always be emphasized together.
What makes the Christian university unique is that its faculty members focus not merely upon the creation and redemption of students but that they also engage in the creation and redemption of culture as a whole.8 They seek to add to our knowledge of history, politics, medicine, engineering, nursing, music, and art. Students, in turn, represent the Church’s next wave of leaders in that process. What better way to help learners understand the creation of culture than to mentor them in the process? What better way to engage in the redemption of academia and academic life?
N. T. Wright, a highly regarded New Testament scholar, received this message as an undergraduate. While at Oxford, he helped organize talks featuring a respected Greek scholar, John Wenham, to address the Christian Union of which he was president. Wright told an interviewer how the talk opened his eyes to the need for Christian scholars:
In one of those seminars, [Wehnham] said, of course you realize what we desperately need are people who love the Lord and Love Scripture, and have got the academic background to do the Biblical research. He said it’s no good waiting for people who don’t have that love in their hearts to write silly things about the Bible, and then put Christian scholars to work refuting them. What we need are people out there making contributions and feeding the stuff in to the stream higher up. I guess actually that is the reason I’m doing my work. It struck a chord in me.9
Today, Christians increasingly recognize that God created us as image bearers and thus to be co-creators and co-redeemers of culture as well. Faculty member and administrators at Christian universities must endeavor to create learning, learners, and learning communities that enrich God’s creation. We need them to nurture Christian professors who can not only engage students in the classroom, but who can also produce scholarship that can influence students outside their own Christian institutions. It was this scholarship that provided tremendous help to us as we sorted through our own intellectual struggles in secular educational contexts. We also need educational institutions where scholars model the creation and redemption of learning to students and do not merely teach students how to integrate faith into learning produced by the secular academy. The Christian university should be designed to play just that role.
- Marcia Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 266.
- Rüegg, “Themes,” in A History of the University in Europe: Vol. 1, 6-8.
- Donald G. Tewksbury, The Founding of American Colleges and Universities before the Civil War: With Particular Reference to the Religious Influences Bearing upon the College Movement (New York: Teachers College, 1932).
- William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 42.
- See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford, 1994); and Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 110-145.
- Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 23.
- Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, 2.
- See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford, 2010); and Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2008).
- Tim Stafford, “N.T. Wright: Making Scholarship a Tool for the Church,” Christianity Today (February 8, 1999): 43.