Results tagged “education” from Reformation21 Blog

I arrived on Faculty at Westminster in the summer of 2001. I had only been on campus for a couple of months before a group of students approached me one lunchtime and tried to recruit me to a most sinister and dangerous cult. `What?', I hear you cry, `Are the Moonies, the Children of God, and the Manson Family alive and well and operating out of a campus in Glenside, PA?' Well, no, not at all as far as I know. The offer I received was far more dangerous than anything such groups might have made to me. The request was simple: would I be willing to meet with a particular group of students every two weeks in a local bar or restaurant to talk theology? My answer was straightforward and immediate: no

I would, I said, be happy to meet for a drink or meal with any student to chat about theology; but I did not want to make it a regular or formal arrangement. My reason? That is how partisan thinking is born. That is how theological groupies emerge. That is how cults of personality are brought into being. I knew exactly where it would lead: I would try to impress students with my intellectual swagger; they would try to mimic me; and round and round it would go. Other professors, students, groups, etc. would be routinely dismissed, lampooned, and denigrated in a manner that made us feel good about ourselves, and Team Trueman would come to consider itself the best thing since sliced bread. I would give them a tidbit of theological gossip, make them feel they had the inside scoop on something or someone; they would reciprocate with suitable acts of obeisance and worship; and so on and on the merry dance would go. 

Well, so sorry, but I was not going to go there. I'd rather be at home with my wife and kids or out on my bike or off for a run, all of which would remind me of mortality and my more than obvious limitations; and which would ultimately be far better for my soul.

The cult of professor worship is perhaps the most dangerous and reprehensible cult in the theological world. It is no respecter of theological position, afflicting the left just as much as the right. It is no respecter of intellectual ability, as the psychology of leader-follower is predicated more on personality and relational qualities than brainpower. And it is no respecter of souls; nothing so destroys a Christian leader, or his followers, than the mutual flattery involved in the uncritical adulation of a fan-base for a professorial rock star (and I use that term advisedly). Hence, while every instinct in me told me that the offer was a great opportunity to start up Team Trueman on campus, I chose to go against my fallen desires and immediately declined the offer.

I had occasion to recall the incident some years later. By then, I had become something of an amateur student of the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and its various institutions. A strange occupation for a Presbyterian; but, when one remembers that the SBC has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last three decades, involving the overturning of a dominant liberal consensus in favour of more traditional evangelical orthodoxy, the story remains inspiring even to those outside the SBC. 

In this context, there are a couple of particularly helpful items in such study. One is the 1995 PBS documentary, "Battle for the Minds," an unremittingly hostile analysis of changes in the SBC, along with a veritable hatchet-job on Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., and the early days of his presidency at Southern Seminary. In order to tug at the viewers' heartstrings, the documentary plays the issue as one of the persecution of women, particularly one specific woman professor; but when interviewed in the film, the Vice Chair of Southern's board makes the point that the controversy was more about whether professors actually believed the Abstract of Principles (Southern's equivalent of a confession of faith) to which they were bound by voluntary vows; and that, as the woman professor featured in the documentary did not do so, she was, in effect, working, and taking money, under false pretences.

The other fascinating item is the memoir by Judge Paul Pressler, A Hill on which to Die (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002). Pressler was a layman and Sunday school teacher who became disturbed by the teaching and publications he saw emanating from SBC seminaries in the early sixties. He then spent the next four decades organizing a movement to reinstate Christian orthodoxy both in the SBC and in its educational institutions. It was a hard road for him to walk: the early years were lonely and frustrating, and he and his family were later the targets not only of national negative media campaigns, but even of death threats. Still, he persevered on the simple grounds that the garbage taught in seminaries today become the garbage preached in pulpits tomorrow.

One paragraph in particular caught my eye as I worked my way through his book. It reads as follows:

In some instances a student has gone to an institution and has been befriended by professors whom the student respected. The professors tell the student how bright he or she is and how the professors are willing to help the student escape the limited background from which he has sprung. In this way, some professors create a circle of students who follow them. They will train the students in what the professors believe. Such groups can be used to glorify the professor rather than the Savior and can become another source of liberalism. (p. 152)

What Pressler offers here is a brilliant insight into the dynamic of the relationship between some professors and students, and the unfortunate results which can then transpire. Indeed, it is worth unpacking in a little more detail.

First, there is the fact that the relationship is built on a mutually beneficial dynamic of basic vanity. The professor tells the students how clever they are, despite the limitations of their educational background so far; and the students reciprocate by allowing the professor, magus-like, to introduce them to the wonderful, liberating world of real thought. Everyone's a winner; everyone's ego gets stroked; everyone feels good about themselves and somewhat superior to those left outside the sacred circle of Gnostic knowledge.

Second, the focus of these groups becomes the professor and then the little group of acolytes, not the Gospel or, indeed, proper thinking, scholarship, or anything else for that matter. If they feature at all, they are merely fuel for driving the larger cult of personality. In fact, the decorum and moderation of style which typically mark careful thought and scholarship, and even normal friendships and associations, are signally absent from these groups. It is often the case that these little cabals become hyper-sensitive about even the slightest perceived criticism of themselves or their chosen leader; but, by way of contrast, they are often extremely free and colourful with the language they use to describe those with whom they disagree. He who is not with them is, by definition, against them. 

This violence of language is symptomatic of deeper issues, indicating that it is often, at root, the emotional connection to the professor which drives the subsequent theological conviction rather than the other way around. This exact point is made with some clarity by James Gordon in his intellectual biography of James Denney, the great Scottish theologian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Denney studied at Free Church College in Glasgow, during the years when the Free Church of Scotland was being torn asunder by the higher critical views of the brilliant young professor of Old Testament, William Robertson Smith. Gordon argues that it was as much the atmosphere surrounding the man, the liking of and sympathy for, his person that helped to shape Denney's own doctrine of scripture, particular in his positive reception of moderate higher critical approaches to the biblical text. [James Denney (1856-1917): An Intellectual and Contextual Biography (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006), 72-74]. Affection for the man as an engaging teacher, perhaps even the fact that he was `a good bloke' as the English would say, as opposed to one of the `grumpy old men' who opposed him, led the younger hot-shots in the Free Church to lend him their loyalty and to pattern their own theology after his. 

Of course, this is no monopoly of the left. I am reminded of the criticism of Francis Schaeffer as made by James Barr: he taught a whole generation of the evangelicals that they didn't have to read or think for themselves. This is not to say that either Robertson Smith or Schaeffer consciously cultivated mindless clones of themselves--or that their followers necessarily acted in the ignorant, immature, and ill-mannered way I have described above--but it is to say that this is a constant temptation and danger for the powerful intellect or alpha personality, one that needs to be guarded against at all costs.

Third, the long-term impact is that the views of the particular leader get transmitted to the spheres of influence in which the students themselves progress. This is where the little classroom cults become much more dangerous, where they start to harm people's lives, where they start to split churches. It is surely one of the most unsettling experiences to see one's own faults replicated in one's children. If I treat my wife with disrespect, lo and behold, my son does the same. And if I have an ounce of decency, I feel the pain and shame of my responsibility straight away. 

This is not simply the way biological children develop; it is the way in which intellectual and spiritual offspring grow as well. The throwaway comment that a professor makes in a lecture or a pastor makes in some context can come back to haunt the Church in unfortunate and unintended ways, as admiring students latch on to the words of the coolest profs in town and, in an attempt to get a little piece of the magic for themselves, repeat them, exaggerate them, and even misquote them out of context. This is bad enough when done unintentionally; how much more dangerous is it when swaggering professors go out of their way to cultivate acolytes, who then go out and do this sort of thing virtually for a living? 

Such fan bases, such personality cults, are nothing new. They afflicted the church in Corinth, and they have been an enduring malady ever since. Psychologists could no doubt have a field day here: 

Transposition of filial affection to a surrogate parent figure... 

A desperate need to belong to a group...

Both of these can offer plausible, second-level explanations for such commitment and surely contain important truths. At root, however, the problem is even more serious: the Christian, biblical perspective has to be that what we see in such relationships is idolatry. The Bible is clear that idol worshipers take on the characteristics of their idols. Worship a dumb statue, and you will become dumb (Ps. 115); we might add that, if you worship a professor or teacher or pastor, you will come to be like them, warts and all, and probably in an exaggerated way. That is why so many professorial disciples sound like cheap, lightweight versions of the original; they are basically idolaters, and what you see in their lives and language is the inevitable result of their idolatry.

What is worse than this, of course, is that such people negate the power of the cross of Christ. Paul makes the point with ruthless effect in 1 Corinthians 1. To indulge in a cult of personality is not simply to miss the point of the cross; it is also to empty the cross of its power. That is why it is not simply incumbent upon students to guard against being sucked in to such idolatry. How much more is it incumbent upon the professors to avoid becoming the objects of such a cult? 

It is often said that you cannot enter into a pulpit and make yourself look like a great preacher and Christ look like a great saviour at one and the same time. So it is in the classroom, on campus, at conferences: the professor, the theologian, cannot point to the power of the cross and simultaneously encourage a cult of personality. These things simply cannot stand together. Indeed, it is surely vital that the professor not only avoid creating such cults, but also actively opposes them as they start to arise around him. To do less than this is, I fear, to empty the cross of its power and to lead others into idol worship.

Carl Trueman is professor of humanities at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Born in Dudley, UK, he has previously been a faculty member at the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen (UK) and Westminster Theological Seminary (PA). He was also formerly Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Ambler, Pa. He enjoys running, listening to rock/classical music, and doing what his wife tells him.

This article was originally published on reformation21 in August of 2008. 

A Christian in the Secular Academy


When many individuals think of the life of a college professor, the general perception they have formed (fueled by articles such as this) is that we only work for a few days a week and have the entire summer "off." Many misunderstand the nature and extent of this profession and are not aware of the various frustrations that are associated with this career. Some of these frustrations are common to all faculty (such as dealing with unmotivated students, extensive university service activities, administrative politics, the 90-100 hour work week, etc.), but there are some challenges and frustrations that seem to be particularly unique for minority faculty members who are also conservative Christians. As I consider my journey over the past decade into the academic life, I thought it would be useful to the reader to provide insight into the life and misconceptions of life within the academy.

As I entered academia with the aspirations of being a Black scientist, I was warned by other Black scientists that my peers will assume that I'm intellectually inferior and that many will be more interested in hearing my views on race rather than science (for those who are interested, consider this article). For this reason, I've made it my aim not to be another educated Black man who spends all of his time talking about race. Contrary to the expectations of many, I've experienced very little discrimination within academia as a Black man because of these convictions.

From Christians outside of the academy, I was warned that the academy has become so dogmatically secularized across all academic disciplines that Christians are usually seen as unwelcomed. Throughout my matriculation in academia, I have heard a few of my peers ask me privately: "Why would an intelligent man like you associate yourself with ignorant Christians?" After articulating the reasons for my faith and confidence in Christ, usually I receive a condescending nod from the hearer, viewing my religious convictions as a form of folk religion. In spite of these rare experiences, I've found numerous believers within the physical sciences. Furthermore, based upon my conversations with academics in other fields, it appears that you are actually more likely to find Christians and those who are sympathetic to the Christian worldview within the physical sciences than what you will find today in the social sciences and humanities. In other words, the physical sciences are not the bastion of atheism as many believe.

When I entered graduate school about a decade ago, it was God's providence that my research group was probably the most ethnically and religiously diverse group within my institution. Contrary to popular belief, we don't have to look to the 19th century to read about scientists who were devout, orthodox Christians. There are still many today who agree with James Joule that "to engage in science, far from being contrary, is compatible with our seeking after God." In contrast, I have often said that the social sciences and humanities are the last bastions of ideological dogmatism within America. This is no longer considered speculation, but there is now empirical social science research to support this. George Yancey, a black evangelical sociologist who teaches at the University of North Texas, conducted a survey in which 59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical. Within the academy, there are strong biases against evangelicals as well as those who are politically conservative.

The condescension towards evangelicals echoes the patronizing attitude towards racial minorities. During off-the-record conversations, the same arguments that I hear humanities professors make about evangelicals sound remarkably familiar to the ways which some people describe Blacks - politically unsophisticated, ignorant, lacking education, intellectual inferior, angry, bitter, emotional, poor, etc. This attitude is easy to enforce within fields in which a Christian worldview shapes the content of one's research, such as the social sciences and humanities. For this reason, young conservative scholars are encouraged to "stay in the closet" until they have obtained tenure. However, since I'm not politically conservative and since I'm a researcher on hurricanes and severe convective storms, this attitude has a much smaller bearing on my academic future.

However, the true challenges associated with being a Christian professor in a secular institution are twofold. First, one of my tasks as a Christian scientist is to de-mythologize science. I've found that many have a superstitious reverence towards physical science research. The ethos of our current age is to hold all external authorities in suspicion; however, when scientific authorities and science evangelists make their proclamations, college students (as well as society in general) tend to nod and agree. It is usually my job to remove the veil from the eyes of many so that they become aware of the limitations and boundaries of physical science.

The primary error that is repeated throughout society is to regard science as a method for discovering truth. This was the common belief among scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries, but very few reputable practicing scientists would today assert that science discovers truth. However, this mythological idea continues to be perpetuated and many are intimidated by the modern equivalent of "Thus saith the Lord"--namely, "it has been scientifically proved!" The modern trends in science education has produced a generation that believes that nothing should be publicly accepted unless it has been scientifically proved and nothing has any claim to be called true unless science acknowledges that claim. To de-mythologize science is to teach others of the inherent uncertainty of scientific conclusions and to learn how to make proper inferences from this uncertainty.

The second challenge of being a Christian professor is to be aware of what some have called "the vulgar arrogance of intellectuals." This means that being a Christian professor is no more virtuous a calling than any other. This is a perpetual temptation because there are many academics and intellectuals who use their career as an opportunity to seem greater, better, or smarter than others. As a Christian professor, my calling should be viewed as one that enables me to serve my students more, not to lord it over them. Connected to this temptation is the belief that our calling is more important than others. There are many within the academy who believe that their primary responsibility is to shape the future of the current generation of students. This concept has evolved to the extent that many professors have taken it upon themselves to transmit their own intellectual biases and dogmatism to the next generation (since all other authorities are considered ignorant). This temptation calls me to true humility - not to think of myself more highly than I ought and not to speak confidently about matters in which I am ignorant.

The task of being a Christian professor is marked with numerous difficulties and challenges, but none are insurmountable. The basic disciplines of the Christian life (i.e. such as attending church, reading scripture, prayer, etc.) are incredibly important and useful in avoiding these various pitfalls.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

I've been preparing a talk on Luther and education for a conference this summer, and so have been reviewing Luther's 1524 "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools." In examining this work, I've been especially struck by Luther's plea for a stronger dose of history in the curriculum of Germany's schools. "Among the chief books [needed for the education of German youth]," the reformer writes, "[are] chronicles and histories, in whatever language they may be had; for they are of wondrous value for understanding and controlling the course of this world, and especially for noting the wonderful works of God."

Luther particularly notes the need for national history in the school curriculum, and laments the lack of reliable German histories extant for that purpose. "How many fine tales and maxims we should have today of things that took place and were current in German lands, not one of which is known to us, simply because there was no one to write them down, and no one to preserve the books had they been written." Luther compared Germany rather unfavorably to ancient peoples in this regard, noting that "the Greeks and Romans and even the Hebrews recorded their history so accurately and diligently that if but a woman or a child did or said anything unusual, all the world must read and know it."

As intimated above, Luther viewed a knowledge and understanding of history as fodder for praise. God is sovereign over human history. Knowledge of history, then, equals knowledge of God's past doings. But Luther also demonstrated rather profound insight into a truth that philosophers of history have only recently made much noise about: the truth that history -- or more specifically, national history -- plays a crucial role in shaping national identity, and so too national mores. Indeed, history owns at least as much, if not more, power to shape national identity as shared language, ethnicity, and/or rituals. Luther, in other words, intuitively grasped the reality that--as Carter Lindberg puts it--"history is the thread of community identity" in much the same way that "memory is the thread of personal identity."

Most of us, I suspect, have known someone who has lost his or her memory (whether suddenly or gradually), and so have witnessed the loss of personal identity that follows from the dissolution of one's own story in life. Uncharacteristic (and sometimes rather unethical) behavior often follows from such a loss of memory and identity. But, as Luther keenly observes, communities that lose the thread of their identity -- i.e., their (hi)story -- are equally prone to unethical behaviors that communities with a stronger sense of their own narrative might resist. In Luther's words: "That [namely, a lack of national German histories] is why nothing is known... about us Germans, and we must be content to have all the world call us German beasts, who know only how to war, gorge, and guzzle." Warring, gorging, and guzzling, it seems, are the obvious activities of a story-less people.

Such insight into the connection between history, national identity, and public mores is, as noted, rather profound for a person writing in 1524. It sets Luther well ahead of the pack of popular historians in our day who typically discover nothing in history but material to mine for moral examples -- the historians who, for instance, seem bent on commodifying the Reformation this year as thoroughly as the constituencies who support them have commodified the Gospel in the rather dire course of American evangelicalism.

Of course, most things Luther thought and said are rather profound. In any case, Luther's grasp of the connection between history and public mores deserves recognition in any account of the role he played as educational reformer. This seems a fitting year to give him that recognition.

Striving to Escape the Fall

Marathons, mud runs, CrossFit, Yoga, diets, non-GMO and gluten-free foods, Christian financial programs, anti-vaccination and homeschooling have--each in their own way--taken over the driver's seat of the lives of so many in the church. While all of these things, in and of themselves, may be good things and have their proper place in a believer's life, they often hold too prominent a place. It is fairly easily to gauge whether we have given these things too prominent a place in our hearts and lives; we can be sure that we have when they become the overwhelming subject of conversation we have at church, when we get together with others and in what we spend out time reading or writing on social media. After all, Jesus taught us that we speak most what our hearts value most (Luke 6:45). So, what do these things--that seem so completely unassociated with one another--have in common? They can all be ways that we try to control our lives in order to escape the misery that is the effect of the fall.

"The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery." So wrote the members of the Westminster Assembly in Q. 17 of the Shorter Catechism. Everything negative in this life falls into one of these two categories--namely, sin and misery. The catechism goes on to explain the estate of misery when it says, "All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever." Sin and misery are the all-encompassing and inescapable realities of this life in this fallen world. Christ came into the world to redeem us from our sin and the misery of this fallen world, and to give us eternal holiness and happiness. While Jesus bore the curse in our place, took the guilt and power of our sin upon Himself at Calvary and reconciled us to God (thereby, definitively dealing with our sin), the misery that came into the world on account of the fall remains until the resurrection. We are all subject--no matter what physical, dietary, monetary, medical and educational decisions that we make--to "all miseries in this life, to death itself."

The Scriptures actually have quite a lot to say about the things that we foolishly trust in order to escape the misery of life. For instance, the Apostle Paul explained to Timothy that "bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (1 Tim. 4:8). All forms of exercise may "profit a little;" however, they are not paramount in the life of the believer. The pursuit of "godliness" in light of "the world to come" must be of chief importance.

Concerning foods, Jesus Himself made the audacious statement (i.e. audacious in light of the temporary dietary restrictions of the Old Covenant era), "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man" (Matt. 15:11). The Apostle Paul followed this with a warning about the danger of falling into the false religion of dietary asceticism when he wrote, "If you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations--'Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,' which all concern things which perish with the using--according to the commandments and doctrines of men" (Co. 2:20-22)? The danger of being susceptible to these things is that they "have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, humility, and neglect of the body." However, when considered spiritually, "they are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. 2:23).

The Apostle also warned the members of the church against loving money when he wrote, "those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition" (1 Tim. 6:9). By way of contrast, he commanded "those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17). For ever one verse in Scripture about God's desire for believers to be financially responsible there are two words about the ever present danger of greed. Often only the Lord knows whether we are being "financial responsible" or hiding greed behind the idea of "financial responsibility." Money is one of the greatest ways that men and women try to escape the fall, because in our minds money can purchase safety and satisfaction--happiness and health. 

No matter how health conscious men and women may choose to be, the Scriptures make it clear that no one can escape the reality of sickness and disease in this fallen world. We read that King Asa, "in the time of his old age was diseased in his feet"..."his malady was severe; yet in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but the physicians" (1 Kings 15:23; 2 Chron. 16:12). This isn't teaching us that we should avoid medicine or homeopathic treatment. Neither is it teaching us that "if we just have enough faith God will heal us." Rather, it is teaching that the use of secondary means for healing is in vain if we are not trusting the Lord. No amount of sensitivity to the intricacies of medicinal or homeopathic practices can ever give what the Lord alone can give. For many in the church, a preoccupation with health practices is nothing less than an attempt to seek to avoid the effects of the fall--for themselves and their children--by natural means and measures.

In the same way, (and, I write this as someone who homeschools) many who chose to homeschool have (perhaps unknowingly) convinced themselves that this is how we are to protect our children from the world. While we should be absolutely committed to the Christian theistic education of our children, no environmental or situational form of education was ever instituted by God to safeguard our children from the world or to change our children's hearts. I have known plenty of children who were homeschooled by competent and godly parents who are now "off the spiritual reservation."
Education should never be embraced as a way to escape the effects of the fall. Education (even Christian education) is a good servant but a bad Savior.

We learn from the book of Job that the wisest and godliest of men and women is still subject to the most severe suffering and the greatest of miseries in this life--even when they have not done anything foolish or sinful to deserve that suffering. When we trust in exercise, diet, financial programs, medical practices and educational reforms to escape the fall, we will ultimately find ourselves to be frustrated with the outcome. God has promised to deliver believers from the guilt and power sin and the miseries of this life and the life to come only through the last man, Jesus Christ. 

In so many ways, we are all striving to escape the fall; yet finding it to be a futile enterprise. There is a day coming when everything that men inconsequentially strive after in this fallen world will become the confident possession of the believer; but, only in the resurrection. So, while "physical exercise profits," it profits little. While caring about what we eat matters, it matters little. While seeking to be fiscally responsible matters, greed is always lurking at our door. While pursuing wise medical choices matters, it is no sure safeguard against sickness; and, while wanting to give our children the best form of education we can give them matters, it cannot ultimately protect them from the evils of their own hearts. Only Christ can give what we are so often foolishly seek after in these things. Only Jesus will deliver us from the effects of the fall in the resurrection on the last day. So, "it's better to trust in the Lord" than in any of these fleeting and fading things (Ps. 118:8-9).