September 25, 2020

The Virtues of Education

jaroslav-pelikan.jpgSometimes when I am interacting with other Christians, I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that I’m exchanging ideas with someone very, very different from myself in significant ways. I don’t insist that people be like me, and I don’t want to hold myself hostage for being different from other people. There is one difference, however, that’s becoming increasingly more obvious: a lot of Christians in my circles don’t see the virtues of education.

I started noticing this….right here among my fellow educators. It almost seems that, for some of my fellow teachers, the whole educational enterprise contains a giant contradiction. Scripture is sufficient, they say, and the Christian with a scriptural truth is sufficient to answer anyone, a la Christian Davids felling academic Goliaths with a single verse.

I see this constantly in the realm of science, particularly with theories of origins. Most of my friends are creationists, and they are almost wholeheartedly opposed to the study of evolution. I didn’t say “opposed to evolution.” I said the “STUDY of evolution.”

The idea that we should see a value in the study of scientific origins, Darwinian and otherwise, doesn’t fit in very well in my friends’ ideas of Christian truth. It’s ironic, of course, that these are folks who want SOMEONE to know all about the evolutionary theories of origins, but the idea that a Christian school should try for excellence and mastery in teaching every student theories of origins seems unnecessary, even dangerous.

There’s an obvious inferiority complex (or naive triumphalism) here, but what fascinates me is the loss of the virtue of education itself. I’m not surprised that there are Christians dismissing particular kinds of content, but what happened to the idea of educational excellence as a demonstration of the value of education itself? What happened to the idea of an Augustine or a Luther being an example of educational excellence- outside of expertise in Christian doctrine- simply as a virtuous, important, interesting pursuit that is valuable on its own.

Literature? Math? Sociology? Philosophy? Grammar? Languages? Why aren’t Christians pursuing these things as worthwhile endeavors in excellence? Is the problem the content of those disciplines, or is it education itself? Are Christians failing to study because they believe study is a waste of time?

When was the last time most Christians heard a vigorous defense of the virtues of education? When was the last time a young Christian choose to go to a liberal arts school because they understood what the “liberal” approach to education meant?

In thinking about this, I drew up a short list of what I believe are the virtues of education. It’s an incomplete and overlapping list, if you haven’t thought about it lately, maybe this will help you remember that education ITSELF- no matter the subject- contains virtues, values and benefits that all of us should desire.

1) The virtue of seeing other points of view

2) The virtue of considering other sources of information

3) The virtue of evaluation conclusions, both our own and those of other people

4) The virtue of seeing connections between related areas of knowledge or experience. (Much education is the pursuit of those connections, and much opposition to education comes from fear of those connections.)

5) The virtue of revising and correcting my own conclusions. (A mark of opposition to education itself is the demeaning of persons who change their minds upon examination or further study. It’s almost a hallmark of fundamentalism to vilify this virtue.)

6) The virtue of becoming aware of our own (and others) presuppositions, biases and filters.

7) The virtue of becoming aware of context, particularly historical, sociological and cultural contexts.

8) The virtue of intellectual humility.

9) The virtue of the habit of intellectual curiosity.

10) The virtue of acquiring skill in research and presentation.

Is anyone else amazed that, in order to be an expert on the emerging church, you need to nothing more than read couple of books by Brian Mclaren? In order to trump the expertise of scholars, you only need a smattering of reading and a confidence in your reading of your English Bible as you currently understand it? In order to talk with authority about history, events, psychology or matters of deepest mystery, all you need is words from your favorite radio preachers?

Right or wrong- and frequently, the ordinary fellow is right- there are virtues in the process of education that are lost in this kind of shallow remake of academic confidence. It’s a regular sport in conservative evangelicalism to make fun of academia, and much of that is deserved. But what if some of it is a cheapening, a diluting of the real value of education so that any preacher with Google considers himself a scholar, and anyone with a blog is able to fake intellectual, educational competence?

I’m not praising the pagan intellectuals for being pagan, but for being studied, qualified scholars who paid the price to talk about literature or philosophy. I’m not praising secularist academics for their secularism, but for seeing the virtues of education.

When I left for college, one of our deacons warned me that college would ruin me by taking away my simple faith in scripture. He wasn’t delusional, but he was missing the possibility that college could make me better. Unfortunately, by the time I learned that, I had already imbibed deeply of the prejudice against academics and education that blights evangelicalism today. (Where is our great evangelical university?)

Consider doing a talk to your college students on the virtues of education, then report back in. I can already anticipate where some of this discussion is going, but we can hope it’s not too late for an awakening.

The world recently lost a great scholar of the Christian faith in Jaroslav Pelikan. Pelikan was the kind of scholar that everyone had to respect. Deeply devoted to languages, ever learning, devoted to his disciplines, humble, encyclopedic, authoritative because he KNEW. He KNEW. Pelikan’s kind is rare in evangelicalism, and part of the reason is our ambiguous relationship with the entire educational adventure. We’re not sure if it’s ground that we can stand on, or if it is the shifting sand that Jesus warned about.

We don’t stand on education for our hope in God, but our hope in God should be greater if our endeavors to know the world, its history and ourselves is seriously rooted in study. Our confidence in truth doesn’t result in fear, but in the confidence to believe that Jesus has, among his followers, scholars that should take no shame in their efforts and contributions.

That starts with the attitude toward education we convey to everyone in our classes, to those who read our blogs and those who hear us preach and teach.


  1. Another nail smacked firmly on the head. It is astonishing that the church of Christ – the church that has seen the likes of Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Chemnitz, Calvin, Edwards, etc etc etc – should even contemplate the possibility of being anti-education or anti-intellectual.

    My copy of Pelikan’s “Whose Bible is it?” arrived today, and I was struck by the comment on the back from Harold Bloom: “Vastly informative, benign, and spiritually fortifying”. It was the word “benign” that caught my eye. Of course, it’s possible to be “benign” in quite the wrong way, but I’m sure what Bloom is detecting in Pelikan is intellectual *meekness*, something that is sometimes sorely lacking in the blogosphere. How sad that a Christian writer being “benign” in this sense should be so worthy of special comment!

    As an aside, I’m sure it would be useful exercise to investigate evidence for the educational background of Jesus and key NT figures. For example, I’ve heard it suggested that Jesus’ references to (eg) “hypocrites” showed a familiarity with the theatre, that the Lord may have gained at the Roman theatre in Capernaum. And of course Paul’s references to pagan literature are well-known.

  2. Histrion (Jay H) says

    So-Called Reasons why modern Christians often devalue (or, if you like, de-virtue) education:

    1. Education separates people from their families (an attitude you yourself explained in detail in your series on the Gospel and Appalachia), and as we all know (snicker), the Gospel is all about family and keeping families together.

    2. Education leads people to believing they can change their fate in life.

    3. People who get a college degree are more likely to forsake God. Since the Bible clearly teaches us to flee from sin, we should not risk our standing with God by exposing ourselves to such temptations.

    4. “Seeing other points of view” is not a virtue: I wish only to see God’s point of view, and I don’t need an education for that, because I have the Holy Spirit.

    5. “Considering other sources of information” is not a virtue: there is only one source of information I need.

    6. “Revising and correcting my own conclusions” is not a virtue: Paul tells me that I “have the mind of Christ,” who was never in error. If I am wrong, God will convict me of it because I am in His will. Therefore, study is not needed, except maybe for Bible study.

    7. “Becoming aware of our own (and others) presuppositions, biases and filters” is not a virtue: see the previous point, with an extra warning thrown in that considering biases and filters is the hallmark of postmodernism (if my pastor has explained in 20 words or less what postmodernism is).

    8. “Intellectual humility” is not a virtue: in Christ I am a victor.

    9. “Research and presentation” are the pastor’s job.

    Be seeing you. (Sorry, been watching old reruns of /The Prisoner/ lately. “Questions are a burden to others; answers are a prison for oneself!”)

  3. Hello, Michael. I think Virtue #5 is the sticking point. I have been on the receiving end of some flack lately; that if you realize your previous hard-line attitude might be unbecoming to a Christian, and you tentatively suggest you might have been wrong – well, the mildest thing they called me was wishy-washy. The lake of fire and the fiery pit of hell were mentioned. You are not going to get very far espousing the virtues of education in these circles, as they see it as a tool of the devil to ruin the young people.

    I’m new to your site & am enjoying catching up on your articles.

  4. As John H saiys the church “…should even contemplate the possibility of being anti-education or anti-intellectual.” The Church has largely left being “educated” or intellectually curious to the rugged souls who attend seminary. Gone are the days of the 18th century where one could be considered well-educated in classical languages, classic literature, modern languages, music, art, dance, philosophy, mathematics, rudiments of science, and -most importantly- be fully Bible-conversant with brain cells to spare.

    Thank you, IM, for helping me feel justified in attending a southern-ivy league liberal arts college when I could have easily chosen Liberty University(!). Yes, it was not Christian. Yes, it was “challenging to my faith”. I graduated more confident in my faith and not less. I actually made friends with pagans. They liked having me as a friend.

    As to the “practicality” of a liberal arts education: One history professor put it like this: “Liberal Arts colleges teach you how to think. The outside world recognizes that if you can think, you can be trained to do just about any job quickly.”

  5. Just wanted to chime in and say I’ve encountered my fair share of this over the years. Obviously it takes different forms and is expressed to lesser or greater degrees, but it’s shameful, I think, that in the politicized world of today Christians reject a commitment to education and turn insular. Nice post.

  6. Michael:

    I originally found your site because a link to it was given from the Mark Heard message board on Yahoo.

    In your most recent post, I found that your experience was identical to mine regarding being discouraged from getting an education. I have to say that I have come to the same conclusion as you have in this area.

    I am going to link this article to my blog:

  7. Great thoughts; I first became aware of this discussion (and how valuable this discussion is) as a college student and through a book by one of our professors. The book is by Mark Noll and it is entitled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995).

    While, my purpose is not to simply advocate this book, it is to encourage others to learn more about the topic which you have raised.

    Good on’ya!

  8. Paul Timotheos says

    Wow Monk, this post and the previous one on reducing Christianity really tie together.

    re: Reduced to Jesus

    I believe that Jesus is for all people in all places for all time.

    We have to be able to reduce our understanding of what Jesus taught to simple terms so that we can grasp onto it in our weakest, most tired, most frustrated momements. We need to be able to reduce it for our children and all people in all conditions of life, whether or not we all have the mental horsepower to ponder infinite God. “God is love” is all that will fit in my head sometimes.

    At the same time, we should be able to allow ourselves to dive in and roll around in the depth of his revelation. All of Christ’s words are treasures, his simple words about the greatest commandment and his hard saying about eating his body and drinking his blood. All of scripture points to Jesus, including the old testament that Jesus himself broke open for his disciples. All of nature is part of his revelation too.

    re: the relationship between scholarship and faith:

    As much as the Christian faith is a new covenant faith, it is also a fulfillment of the old covenants. How much of the new testament gospels and epistles consist of stories that have quotations from or comentary on the old testament or passages with strong parallels to passages in the old testament? Our best understanding of the gospels can’t omit an understanding of the torah, the prophets and the historical books of the Hebrew people.

    Having a personal theology of the Lord’s Supper might work for some but I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I shouldn’t have to and I’m not certain of my own ability to do that. I just want to do and believe what Jesus meant for us to do and believe. I want a faith that is consistent with and doesn’t contradict the faith of the
    apostles and their disciples. I’m happy with a better wheel, a wheel with a deeper understanding of God’s revelation. I just don’t want my faith to deviate or mutate from the faith that Jesus gave to the apostles.

    To understand what that faith is, we may have to consider and learn from sources outside the new testament, with scripture as the overriding source. It is worth our efforts to attempt to understand the mind, cultures, languages and writings of the early generations of Christians, even when it requires scholarship and patience. I am grateful that there are people willing to do that work.

    Thank God for people like Mr. Pelikan.

  9. One of the greatest heavyweights in the theological world still living today is T. F. Torrance, who emphasizes the need of theology to engage with the sciences. He thoroughly believes that new connections must be made between all fields of knowledge and the church. thus spoke churchpundit!

  10. These are excellent thoughts. I, too, become extremely frustrated when I encounter a Christian who is not even remotely interested in examining an argument opposed to their own. You can almost see their jaws clench. “I don’t believe in evolution.” End of story.

    I had the chance to interview Dr. Noll when I was a student (at Wheaton, where I met lots of intellectually curious believers), but unfortunately didn’t finish his book…I should probably pick it up again.

  11. I don’t think what you describe is a uniquely Christian problem. I highly recommend the books of John Taylor Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year (and another educated son of Appalachia) who has written several very interesting books on the topic of American education. Dumbing Us Down and The Underground History of American Education are excellent and very enlightening reads. I think what you are describing is simply the Christian rationalization for what is an American cultural disease. While the secular world may continue to extol the virtues of educaton–what they are really peddling is consumerism. What passes for education, today, for the most part, is simply training for getting a job to earn money to spend, consume and maintain the economy.

  12. Thank you for saying what I only knew intuitively.

    Following Debra’s line of thought, I’ve seen serious dumbing down in several areas. Chemistry- later edition of same book much weaker than earlier one, same with an introductory systematic theology. (Though not same book, but both for first year students.)

  13. As an educator at a Christian school, I am surrounded by this issue daily. Perhaps the best gauge of our effectiveness at educating the next generation is the percentage of students who attend classes in order to engage the material and LEARN as opposed to simply doing what is required to make a good grade. As Debra says, far too many students pursue higher education for the sole purpose of getting a good job, making money, blah blah blah. Using this bench mark, we are failing miserably.

    I also agree that the root problem is not simply Christian opposition to education, but the failure of Christians to be different from American culture. I don’t place the blame solely on our own shoulders. I believe that the Prince of this world has managed to fit us into this mold using the educational institution itself. Follow me here. Students are prepared their whole school career, it seems, to be able to do well on their college entrance exams. These exams do not properly address critical thinking skills, one’s attitude toward learning, or one’s ability to make connections across disciplines. Since all humans tend to take the path of least resistance, students do just enough to qualify–that is to say, they learn how to do the basic skills required and little else. How can we expect to produce top-quality scholars if this is all we require of them?

    I foresee that if we are to clear this hurdle and develop strong, vigorous minds full of truth, we must establish a new standard of excellence, one that requires that students can 1) think clearly in an organized fashion, 2) form original ideas, 3) evaluate arguments, 4) identify biases and cultural backgrounds, and 5)connect all subjects in an unified way that allows them to see the world more like God sees it.

    A great evangelical university? It can be done. Who will do it? Who has the courage to break out of the current environment and set a new standard for entry into such a university? We can’t win this game if we allow the world to make the rules…

  14. I must confess that the anti-education argument as encountered in church circles has long had the power to leave me flabbergasted. Not just because of the argument itself, but that it’s often made by people who you would have assumed would know better.

    To that extent I agree with everything Paul says above about the simplicity of the gospel *and* the value of deeper understanding of scripture.

    I would put it this way; The gospel is simplicity itself, it can be understood and followed by a child and in being saved that is how we are asked to approach it. No one would criticise scripture reading based on the Bible not being available to large number of Christians down the centuries – and it might be that certain christians placed by God in this highly literate era need a deeper understanding of scripture solely to keep their faith alive. Additionally, to serve the purposes of God in a given era requires the resources of a generation, all gifts and blessings are given to be stewarded wisely and used – that includes the intellectual.

    “God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure” — Eric Liddell

  15. Christians have always been accused of being anti-intellectual because they esteem biblical truth over supposed empirical truth; such is the discussion concerning origins; there are a plethora of resources out there to expunge the pernicious doctrines of evolution from “christian circles” and while I agree we should know the subject well enough to refute it; it seems of little consequence (educationally speaking) to me if evolutionists persist in their error since they are “ever learning but never coming to the knowledge of the truth”

    we must be careful not to become too enamored with man’s wisdom; it is no sin to be ignorant of science or math etc…(I dont advocate that though); it is of the utmost eternal importance however that we know, understand, approriate and are able to export the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ; that is knowledge; that is wisdom; the errors of the unsave “intelligencia” should have only a superficial attraction for the christian; I recieved my degree from a very liberal Univesity (Rutgers) and it was a struggle throughout to live and speak as a christian since lost professors dismiss any opinion one might voice in opposition to the humanistic idealogy that completely pervades most liberal arts course work;

    I think a great deal of the resistance to academics by bible believers comes from a lack of trust and an unwillingness to argue uphill all the time; (that’s how I felt); christian parents have a resposibility to prepare their kids to function in the world but I dont think that our Liberal educators are the ones to do it.


  16. sorry
    one more thing
    one’s knowledge is based on one’s epistemology
    Christians have a biblical worldview
    evolution is antithetical to biblical truth (no first adam/no second adam)
    so I can understand the “clenched jaw” of the anti-evolutionist christian when confronting the stonehearted liberal scholar;

    evolution is not science it is (a complex) philosophy (since no one was present at creation) and one’s epistemology will determine how they interpret the evidence


  17. This reminds me of an interview with Karl Barth, in which he was asked about what the most important thing was that he had learned in all his years of study. His response was “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

    A lot of evangelicals look at something like that and say that this is all you need to know, and you don’t need to know anything else. For some reason, stories of preachers who read nothing but the Bible and learn all that they know from that (John Bunyan and Smith Wigglesworth come to mind), hold tremendous fascination among evangelicals in our day and age. Don’t ask me why this is; I don’t know.

  18. How about “The virtue of knowing how to build a building, perform surgery, create an airplane, or dig a mine”? If students can be inspired to tackle more difficult subjects, education also has extremely practical results that benefit the whole world as well as provide a family with security and the ability to give.

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