Reviews

“The Idea of a Christian College” by Arthur F. Holmes — A Book Review

Arthur Holmes, in The Idea of a Christian College, argues for the role and importance of a Christian liberal arts education.

Holmes, Arthur F. The Idea of a Christian College. Rev ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987

Synopsis

In chapter 1, Holmes argues that the purpose of a Christian college is to cultivate a liberal arts education that is distinctively Christian. Since all truth is God’s truth, education is a Christian calling. Chapter 2 provides the theological foundations for a Christian liberal arts education, revolving around four concepts: creation, humanity, truth, and the cultural mandate (p. 13). Man—equipped with rational, moral, and artistic abilities—must study God’s creation and probe its mysteries in literature, philosophy, history, science, and art, being a steward of resources as part of his responsibility to culture. Chapter 3 argues that liberal arts education is about transforming a new person. The goal is not to create a narrow specialist, but one who can read, write, think independently, and make sound judgments. Holmes demonstrates in chapter 4 that while higher education is not necessarily for job training, having a liberal arts education is the ideal preparation for a life-long career in any vocation.

In chapter 6, Holmes clarifies that the goal of Christian education is for the integration of faith and education to affect the whole person through one’s attitude in learning, ethics, theological foundation, and Christian worldview. Chapter 6 discusses the relationship between academic freedom and Christian loyalty. For Holmes, having openness and freedom of thinking is required for academic advancement. Chapter 7 raises the importance of scholarship in a community. People gather in a Christian college not to be a church, but to be unified on education. In chapter 8, Holmes argues that experience alone is not education, but it can be educational in rational activity and making reasonable value judgments. Finally, chapter 9 discusses the marks of an educational person, having moral virtues and intellectual virtues, such as love, integrity, honesty about various views, analytical and critical skills, breadth of understanding, and ability to say the right thing the right way at the right time in all areas of life.

Analysis

In The Idea of a Christian College, Holmes has provided a compelling philosophy for the purpose and significance of a Christian college. Holmes’ arguments must be heard by all professors, administrators, students, and parents of students involved in a Christian college. Holmes adequately demonstrated the usefulness of a liberal arts education as the ideal preparation for any vocation.

Three Questions and Objections

While much good can be said regarding Holmes’ philosophy of a Christian college, several questions or objections need to be answered. First, is Holmes painting culture too positively? For Holmes, since God created the world and its culture, man as a steward of creation has a responsibility to learn and understand culture.

Furthermore, Holmes argues that even being counter-cultural becomes a culture in itself (p. 20). While Holmes acknowledges that sin affects culture, he emphasizes that God’s goodness is also found in culture. Certainly, goodness in culture does exist as part of God’s creation. What Holmes failed to provide here is a criterion to distinguish what parts of culture are deemed good and which are affected by sin. Understandably, such a task may be too difficult or broad to be addressed in a 100-page monograph, but the significance of it must not be overshadowed. Warning about the sinful tendencies of the world culture and creating a new culture by being counter-cultural are clearer biblical mandates than learning the culture.

Second, while I agree with most of Holmes’ arguments regarding academic freedom (ch. 6), I wonder if Holmes is taking his conclusions too far. He argues that since truth is not fully known,

every academic discipline is subject to change, correction, and expansion—even theology.”

P. 66

It seems that Holmes’ statements here need to be more nuanced. Certainly, theology as an academic discipline is always evolving—new methods of learning rise up, new biblical discoveries, new understanding of linguistics, etc.—but some areas of theology also remain constant. While the illumination of Scripture is progressive, the revelation of Scripture has always been constant. Thus, theology changes only so far as the interpretation of Scripture was previously misunderstood.

More importantly, Holmes seems to leave out an important factor when discussing the paradox of faith and academic freedom, namely, the nature of presuppositions. No one is truly “open” in the absolute sense. All academes learn with certain presuppositions. Academic neutrality cannot be ultimately achieved. Thus, it must be valid for Christians to enter into academic scholarship with theological presuppositions and remain excellent scholars. 

Lastly, is liberal arts education ideal for everyone? Chapter 3 seems to oversell Christian liberal arts as the goal of the Christian life. While this may not be the author’s intent, it seems to be implied in his argument by referencing liberal arts as “the cultural mandate.” Furthermore, he states that

Liberal education is an open invitation to join the human race and become more fully human…. Liberal education provides an opportunity to steward life more effectively by becoming more fully a human person in the image of God, by seeing life whole rather than fragmented.”

pp. 35-36

Certainly, benefits of a liberal arts education abound, but it does not make someone fully human. Such an elitist perspective contradicts his description of an educated person in chapter 9. For many, contributing to society, reflecting the image of God in man, and being fully human can be achieved apart from undergraduate education.

Three Helpful Contributions

Holmes has provided several important contributions to the understanding of a Christian college.

First, he demonstrates the importance of integrating faith and learning. For the Christian, his faith encompasses all of life and should impact his learning, and his learning should also affect his faith.

Second, while caution must be exercised in taking Holmes’ ideas on academic freedom too far, is it possible that many do not take it far enough, which threatens the advancement of learning? Holmes’ arguments on academic freedom and openness brought up significant points that need to be talked about in Christian education. Some theological viewpoints, traditional models from historic faith, and biblical interpretations need to be reexamined. Critical thinking is not opposed to biblical faith when done with restraint and care.

Lastly, one appreciates Holmes’ idea of the benefits of a liberal arts education. It is more than just job training; it is about becoming a well-rounded individual who is productive in society and glorifies his creator with the work of his hands, tongue, and mind.

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