Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Are Education and Christian Faith Compatible?

In a comment over at Kiki Cherry's blog, a reader named Cathy asked me about "seminaries that try to insulate their students from different views of scripture." Since this wasn't the topic of that particular post, I gave a brief response. I also stated that the issue of Christian higher education is one I have thought about for a long time and that I intended to do a blog post on the subject sometime. Actually, I'm going to address this issue in a couple of posts. In this post, I will lay out some of my views on the how education and Christian faith relate to one another. My next post on the subject will focus specifically on the purpose of Christian higher education, especially in regard to whether Christian colleges and seminaries should expose students to a broad range of ideas, promote a particular view, or a combination of the two.

I have spent much of my adult life around higher education as a student, research assistant, instructor, and even working in a university bookstore. All of my involvement in the world of higher education has taken place at public universities. In my 10 years as a student (4 undergraduate, 6 graduate) I never encountered any professors who really challenged Christian beliefs. So I didn't really think much about the relationship between education and faith. My first attempt to organize my thoughts on the subject was in 1998 when I applied for a part-time position as a history instructor at Carson-Newman College, which is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. (I didn't get the position.) As part of the application process I had to provide a statement of my views regarding the relationship between education and faith. The following is the text of the statement I submitted:

As a Christian and a scholar, I believe that knowledge and education are compatible with faith in God. Education provides people with the tools to seek truth. Since God is the source of all truth, it would seem that education would bring people closer to Him. However, this is often not the case. In today’s world it is common for many highly educated people to deny either the existence of God or the validity of His Word. This is largely due to the arrogance that is part of our sinful human nature. God has chosen to use people to bring about His will in the world, but those who do not know Him do not see His hand in the course of history and progress. Because such people have dominated the academic world for many years, most people are taught that humanity is the supreme force in shaping the world. The Christian scholar should fight against this trend. By initially establishing a frame of reference in which history, knowledge, and progress are defined as part of the will of God, Christian scholars can impart to their students that people are God’s tools for achieving His will and not the masters of the universe. As people gain more knowledge of the world within this frame of reference, they will view new discoveries as being another piece of God’s plan. In this way, then, education will bring them closer to God.

Because God is the source of all truth, I see no reason for Christians to fear being exposed to ideas that on the surface appear to contradict Scripture. Instead of trying to suppress the expression of such ideas, Christians should examine them to determine if they really do contradict God’s Word. If that is the case, Christians should point out factual and logical flaws in those ideas and declare what God says about the subject through His Word and the Holy Spirit. By trying to suppress the expression of ideas, Christians give the impression that our beliefs and God’s Word cannot withstand challenges, when in reality the ideas of the world cannot stand up to God’s truth when it is fully revealed.

Both my understanding of Christianity and my belief in academic freedom lead me to oppose any efforts to force people to believe a certain way. While I am convinced that absolute truth as expressed by God exists, I believe that He gives people the right to accept or reject His truth. As Christians, we are called to tell others about God’s truth, but we are never authorized to force them to accept it. In the same way that we should not coerce others into accepting God’s truth, we should not try to force them to adopt our ideas concerning human knowledge. Instead, free and open discussion of issues should be encouraged, and all opinions should be tolerated. This does not mean that we do not point out errors or flaws, but it means that we do not ridicule others for what they believe.

While all Christians long for Heaven, God has a purpose for each of us while we are on Earth. Education is an important tool for us in carrying out His purpose. A sound education allows us to communicate clearly, think critically, better understand others, and have a more realistic perspective of our place in the larger world. Education also enables Christians to enter the corporate, political, and academic fields, where we can exert a Godly influence on society. Because education in a secular environment does not emphasize Christian values and beliefs, God’s purposes are best served when His people are educated in a Christian environment.

My views are largely the same today as they were when I wrote this. The one statement that I may not fully agree with today is the very last one. Over the past year or so I have come to question the wisdom of Christians insulating ourselves from views that are contrary to what the Bible teaches. I now believe that it can be healthy for Christians to have our beliefs challenged. This forces us to evaluate what we believe and why we believe it, which can solidify our beliefs. It also provides an opportunity for us to share our views with and explain them to others (respectfully, of course).


Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Tim,

Hear, hear! I heartily agree that God's purposes are best served when His people undertake for themselves and provide for their children a distinctively Christian education.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and consideration of academic subjects without discussion of God's role in ordaining and governing those subjects is prone to error.

Knowing the Lord, what He is like and what He has done, should be the primary purpose of education for the Christian. Therefore it makes little sense to educate oneself or one's children with any other primary goal.

Thanks for the great post.

Love in Christ,


cks said...


I agree completely with your reassessment of your former conviction that Christians should insulate themselves from the world's ideas.

I took that same quiz and scored as a Karl Barth! (Which, by the bye, is definitely not where I'd class myself, as I'm an inerrantist, seven-point Calvinist...! Anyhoo...)

Bible-believing Christians have no reason to hide from the world. The truth can stand in the light of day. What we need is conviction, not cowardice. So, I think you're on target.

Villa Rica said...

Brother Tim,

May you know the power of the resurrection Sunday.

Villa Rica

GuyMuse said...

Just out of curiosity, what is the area you feel strongest in teaching? Do you have a particular area of higher education that you favor? I ask because there is always a need overseas for visiting professors to come down and teach in the seminary and other Bible institutes on key areas of theological education.

Tim Sweatman said...


Most of my academic background is in history. In fact, I was three years into a Ph.D. in history when I sensed God calling me to preach. I don't have any academic background in theology or practical ministry.

Doug said...

If the non-Christian ideas are flawed, then a Christian will see through them. Perhaps I'm naive, but I was not educated in a Christian environment except for seminary. I found that my greatest growth was in non-Christian environments because I had to really think. I also was close to the undergraduates in an IV program at a major secular university and those students were incredible. I was a TA for an OT course taught by a secular Jew, and the Christian students were some of the best students even though the views taught were contrary to traditional Christianity. I think they were better off because of it. My wife was educated at a well known Christian university, and I believe that her biblical studies courses hindered her ability to really think about the Bible because of the single perspective that was taught.