Don’t Get the Answers Wrong on Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

Today at our Annual Session of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, I gave a seminar on how to keep our denomination thriving. One of the things I mentioned in my talk was how important it is for us not to get the answers wrong on why young people are leaving the church. If we get this wrong, we’ll jump to conclusions and fail to realize the reasons all the credible research says young people are actually leaving the church, and we’ll be spinning our wheels on mistaken solutions to the problem.

I mentioned the research by sociologists like Christian Smith, Melinda Lundquist Denton, and others, as well as other writers like Thom Rainer, Ken Ham, Kenda Creasy Dean, and the Barna Group’s David Kinnaman. These studies all show that young people are leaving all sorts of churches of all cultural and stylistic types, at the same rate—traditional to contemporary, rural to urban, liturgical to charismatic, small to mega.

Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

This comment struck a chord in many of the people in the audience in conversations after my presentation. Many of them had always heard that stylistic issues were the reason young people are leaving the church. There was specifically concern about students who have left the Christian faith altogether, becoming “nones” (who list no religious affiliation on religious surveys), given the fact that young people who become nones tend to explain that they left Christianity because they had little intergenerational mentoring; little depth, substance, and transcendence in the worship, preaching, teaching, and other practices of the church; and did not get answers to the tough intellectual questions they were asking in high school and college.

In conversations after the session, I mentioned some things David Kinnaman, CEO of the Barna Group, has said recently about this issue. He has discovered that Millennials are harder to figure out than we sometimes think—that making Christianity “cool” is not the answer to attracting Millennials to church, or keeping them from leaving. One study he and the Barna Group did, for example shows that 2/3 of Millennials in a major church architecture study preferred a traditional worship space to a contemporary one and preferred the word “classic” over “trendy” to describe their preferred church experience.

I quoted a statement Kinnaman made that our youth and family ministry teacher at Welch College, Chris Talbot, tweeted recently:


“After countless interviews and conversations, I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs.”

—David Kinnaman, CEO, Barna Group

Kinnaman refers people to Rachel Held Evans’s recent article in the Washington Post, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” I thought some of the readers of this blog would find this article interesting, and I have reprinted some quotes from it below.

Of course, we conservative evangelical Baptists will disagree with Evans on some important points she makes in the article. But what she says represents a growing number of Millennials, and studies show that the generation following them (currently school-age students) known as Generation Z are even harder to peg in terms of the assumption that getting a corner on “cool” will help us attract Millennials.

These excerpts from Held’s article will give us more insight into this complex generation and how that our simple assumptions about what will be the silver bullet to get them in church (or keep them from leaving) are often dead wrong.

“Many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. . . . These are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

“For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of ‘inauthentic’ is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him. Millennials ‘are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,’ argues David Kinnaman.”

“My friend and blogger Amy Peterson put it this way:

‘I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.’”

“Millennial blogger Ben Irwin wrote: ‘When a church tells me how I should feel (‘Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!’), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion—not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.’”

“While no two faith stories are exactly the same, I’m not the only millennial whose faith couldn’t be saved by lacquering on a hipper veneer. According to Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date,’ undercutting the notion that all churches need to do for Millennials is to make worship ‘cooler.’” Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think. . . . Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.”

These quotations from Kinnaman and Evans reaffirm my hunch, which I shared in my seminar, that we need to be careful not to rely on anecdotal data and think we’ve easily got it figured out that the reason young people are leaving church and becoming “nones” is because of church style. The real reasons they’re leaving, and not coming to, our churches are much deeper, much more profound, and get much closer to the heart of the sorts of things the Bible talks about when it discusses basic human need.

Phillip Jensen on Apologetics and Evangelism

The Commission for Theological Integrity of the National Association of Free Will Baptists (of which I serve as chairman) sponsors a blog, fwbtheology.com. From time to time, I post a theologically oriented blog post on that website and place a link to it on this blog. This week, I posted a blog entitled “Phillip Jensen on Apologetics and Evangelism.” You can gain access to it by clicking here.

Abraham Kuyper, Bruce Ashford, and the Relationship of Christianity and Culture          

Bruce Ashford has provided one of the best summaries (below) of the relationship of Christianity and Culture that I have read in a while. (Sometime back, I blogged about his excellent book Every Square Inch. My colleague Eddie Moody has also interviewed him here.)

Recently, Canon and Culture, published online by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention, carried an essay by Ashford entitled “Lessons from Father Abraham (Kuyper): Christianity, Politics, and the Public Square.” In it, Ashford uses the categories of Nature and Grace to discuss three major ideas of how Christianity and Culture interact:

  • Grace against Nature
  • Grace above Nature
  • Grace alongside Nature

Then he recommends the view of Abraham Kuyper:

  • Grace Renews and Restores Nature

Ashford presents what we might call a “chastened transformationalism.” He believes that Christians need to be involved in the work of cultural transformation in their various spheres of influence. So he would support the common expression “engaging the culture.”

How has Christianity Influenced Culture

He believes that we need to engage culture, to transform culture, because cultural transformation is an outgrowth of the transformation God is working in our lives. “God’s redemption and restoration transforms us in the totality of our being, across the entire fabric of our lives.”

However, unlike many whose cultural engagement leads them to accommodate the culture or just baptize the culture (or as Leroy Forlines likes to say, be transformed by the culture rather than transforming the culture), Ashford points to Kuyper’s notion of “antithesis.”

Ashford explains: “The antithesis is any word spoken against God’s word. It misdirects the human mind and affections by pointing them toward idols rather than toward the one true and living God. So this world is corrupted. . . .” In our eagerness to engage culture, Ashford believes, we shouldn’t forget that culture, since it is a human creation, is sinful and depraved, just as human nature is, and therefore is in need of transformation.

In other words, as I sometimes say, we have to have some “Christ against culture” in order to be “Christ transforming culture” (to use Richard Niebuhr’s terms). If we’re not “against” a particular culture expression to some extent, there’s no need to transform it.

Back to the “chastened” part of transformationalism: Ashford is very clear about the limits of transformationalism: “Any cultural transformation we see will be neither comprehensive nor enduring, until the day when Christ Jesus transforms the world. In other words, we are not in this to “win” a culture war. Only Christ wins. We do these things out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of witness and obedience, and in the hopes that we as a Christian community can provide a preview of Christ’s coming kingdom.”

Here’s how I often put it: In our Christian lives, we’re being transformed by the Spirit. But we’re not perfectionists. We don’t believe the spiritual transformation will be complete this side of glory.

The same goes for any aspect of culture. We know that cultures and cultural expressions will never be completely transformed this side of glory. But, as in our Christian lives, we still believe in and work for transformation.

Bruce Ashford is a wonderful guide on these matters. I commend his article to my readers and have reprinted it below.

Lessons from Father Abraham (Kuyper): Christianity, Politics, & the Public Square

By Bruce Ashford

Russian winters are not known for affording one a cornucopia of options for how to spend one’s evenings. When the temperature regularly drops to 10 or 20 below zero for months at a time, there is little to do. So when I found myself in Russia during the winters of 1998-99, I had a lot of time on my hands. But that is how I first learned about Abraham Kuyper.

I certainly didn’t enjoy the brutal cold at the time, but in retrospect, I am grateful for those long Russian winters. Without them, I would not have encountered Kuyper’s writings, and thus would have received neither the theological framework I needed for understanding a Christian’s relationship to society and culture nor the theological underpinnings he provided for a healthy view of church and state.

Those years in Russia provided the perfect context for reflecting on these issues, as evangelical Christian influence in Russia had been restricted severely during the Soviet era. I worked as an adjunctive professor at several universities in the city of Kazan. Most of my students were deeply skeptical about whether God existed, whether life had any meaning, and whether there were any moral absolutes. Russia’s cultural institutions—including its government, businesses, marriages, and schools—reflected this deep sense of loss.

During this time, I began to read books by Christian thinkers such as Richard John Neuhaus, Lesslie Newbigin, and Francis Schaeffer. They hinted at an aspect of Christian thought that I seemed to be lacking. But it is Kuyper who caused me to reconstruct my way of thinking from the ground up.

Kuyper lived in nineteenth-century Holland, served as prime minister of the Netherlands, founded a Christian university, started a newspaper, and wrote influential books on theology, politics, and other topics. His deepest convictions might be summed up in one sentence: Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and because of that fact, our allegiance to him should shape not only the private but also the public aspects of our lives. If Christ is Lord, he is not just the Lord over private spirituality or obviously “religious” things, but also Lord over public things like art, science, business, politics, economics, and education. Reading Kuyper got me started on the path toward viewing Christ’s Lordship as directly relevant to public life.

The Fundamental Issue: Nature and Grace

But the reconstruction didn’t happen quickly or easily. Although Kuyper’s theological vision was appealing in many ways, I was unable to embrace it until I laid aside some components of my theological framework with which Kuyper’s vision conflicted. More to the point, Kuyper envisioned a certain relationship between nature and grace, and I had a hard time buying into Kuyper’s vision because I had been influenced by certain competing visions.

Looking back, I now realize that I was just discovering the nature-grace relationship as a fundamental component of any theological framework or theological vision. The question about how nature and grace relate is fundamental, logically prior to discussing the relationships between theology and culture, Christianity and politics, or church and state.

The relationship between “nature” and “grace” is one that can be answered only by looking at the overarching biblical narrative, discerning the meaning of creation, fall, and redemption, and the relation between those three plot movements. How one conceives of the relationship between these various plot movements shapes one’s worldview, theology, and spirituality. It determines one’s view of theology and culture, Christianity and politics, and church and state.[1]

The four views I present here each have proponents that represent the view well and others that represent it poorly. The healthiest members of any category will, in many ways, look more like one another than the other members of the category I have created for them. Thus while adjudicating between these views, it is helpful to see those of other views as fellow travelers toward right belief and practice rather than dismissing them as opponents.

Grace against Nature?

During my earliest years as a Christian, I held a view which can be called “grace against nature.” Although I would not have known to use the phrase, that was my view. The core conviction of this view is that the Fall has corrupted nature ontologically. Sin destroyed the goodness of God’s creation such that it cannot be redeemed. So God will one day destroy it and start over again. Instead of making all things new, he will make all new things.

This vision promotes a distinctive way of life. Since the world is corrupted in its very being, it is not our home. A good Christian should, therefore, withdraw from the evil world and seek a salvation separate from it. A good Christian citizen should speak prophetically against the evil powers in the political realm. And a good Christian scholar should teach and write prophetically against the evil operative in the world’s social structures and cultural institutions. But—and this is paramount—a good Christian has no business trying to “transform” culture. His cultural activities should never be considered redemptive and should not be given labels such as “kingdom work” or “Christian mission.”

This vision has significant strengths, the greatest of which is that it takes sin seriously. Proponents of this view recognize the twisting and corrupting power of sin, and speak prophetically against its manifestations in society and culture.

Of course, it is not without weaknesses. The most prominent is related to its chief strength: this view gives sin too much credit. It believes that sin has corrupted God’s creation to the very core. But Satan has no power to make evil what God has made good. Additionally, this view does not work out fully enough the implications of Christ’s universal lordship. Because proponents of this view give sin too much credit, they tend to try to escape God’s good world, and have difficulty coming to grips with its good aspects, and with the way in which the Christian life is inherently cultural and contextual.

Grace above Nature?

I was always a little bit uncomfortable with the grace against nature vision, even when I was a proponent of it. What made me uncomfortable? I didn’t have a cohesive way of comprehending or articulating Christ’s Lordship over anything other than the institutional church, my own private spirituality, and certain other obviously religious dimensions of life. But I wanted a way to make sense of art, science, politics, and other parts of life that were not so obviously religious. I could see both the good and bad present in those dimensions of culture, and wanted to understand how Christians could bring the Christian faith to bear on them. After all, these dimensions—rather than church attendance and private devotions—tend to take up the majority of a person’s waking hours. It was during those years that I began to read books written by Christian thinkers whose vision could be characterized as one of “grace above nature.”

This vision relates grace and nature hierarchically. In this vision, nature is the lower story of God’s world. It is relatively autonomous, and unaffected by the fall in any way that would necessitate grace or redemption. The top floor is more important, but it’s also more damaged by sin.

The “grace above nature” vision relates general revelation to the lower realm of nature and special revelation to the upper realm of grace. In other words, when Christians participate in lower realm activities they draw upon God’s general revelation for guidance, and when they participate in upper realm activities they draw upon God’s special revelation.

This vision has a distinctive view of the way a Christian should live in the world. Broadly speaking, the Christian divides his time between the upper and lower realms. In the lower realm (nature), he has a family, a workplace, a community, and certain leisure activities. In the upper realm (grace), he has personal devotions, church attendance, and theology. Grace, redemption, and special revelation are for the upper realm—where they are desperately needed. But they do not need to be brought into the lower realm.

Similarly, this vision has a distinctive view of how a Christian does scholarship. The university is two-realmed. One realm includes natural things such as philosophy, political science, or history. The other realm has the religion department and divinity school. The natural realm operates via general revelation and reason; the realm of grace adds special revelation to the mix. A Christian scholar in the lower realm does not need special revelation because there is no specifically Christian criterion by which a Christian scholar would judge what suits the realm of nature best. Subsequently, Christian scholars who operate in natural disciplines such as history or political science can easily accommodate insights of non-Christian scholars as long as their views are based on general revelation and reason rather than an overpowering ideology or false religion.

This view has significant strengths. Unlike the “grace against nature” vision, it does not give sin too much credit. It rightly recognizes that sin cannot ontologically corrupt what God has made inherently good. However, as with the first vision, this strength also becomes a weakness. The grace above nature vision does not sufficiently recognize the twisting power of sin in the natural realm, nor the necessity of bringing grace and special revelation to bear on activities in that realm. After all, if the roof is leaking, the whole house will have water damage, not just the upper story. In short, this view does not sufficiently recognize the implication of Christ’s redemption and of special revelation for the here-and-now activities of our everyday lives.

Grace alongside of Nature?

A third theological framework is one we can call the “grace alongside of nature” vision. In this way of viewing things, God’s world is divided into two kingdoms—a natural kingdom and a spiritual kingdom.[2] God rules the natural kingdom as creator and sustainer, and does so through common grace and general revelation. He rules the spiritual kingdom as redeemer, and does so through saving grace and special revelation. This kingdom is already manifested in the life and ministry of the church.

Proponents of this vision conceive of the two kingdoms as running on parallel tracks. They may be held in tension with one another, but should never be conflated. A Christian operating in the natural realm should not, as Luther once put it, “drag [Christ’s] words into the law books or into the secular government…With the secular area [Christ] has nothing to do.”[3] The natural realm (kingdom) has its own integrity. The church has its own integrity. The two exist side by side.

Proponents of the grace alongside of nature vision have a distinctive view of how a Christian lives in the world. They encourage us not to “spiritualize” the natural realm by pursuing cultural activities in the hope that we can transform this world, change the culture, create a distinctively Christian civilization, or bring “healing” to the natural realm. Although our work in the natural realm does have real value, it does not count as “kingdom work” or “Christian mission.”

Proponents of this vision also have a distinctive view of how a Christian should do scholarship. They argue that believers should take the task of scholarship seriously in the natural realm, and can do so by utilizing general revelation and relying on common grace. For them, biblical revelation is not necessary for shaping non-religious scholarship in the natural realm. In relation to politics and the public square, they rightly recognize the danger of the state coercively imposing religion on its citizens, but tend not to bring special revelation into their interactions unless opposing views are being carried on the back of overpowering ideology or false religion. As in the grace above nature vision, this view seeks to draw appropriate boundaries between nature and grace. Jesus belongs in the church; he doesn’t belong in the laboratory or the public square, per se.

This vision has great strengths. It grapples with how best to take both nature and grace seriously, and how best to live Christianly in the various spheres without confusing the differences between them. However, in my opinion, this vision does not sufficiently recognize the misdirecting power of sin in the natural realm, nor the implications of Christ’s redemption in the here-and-now activities of our everyday lives. It does not recognize fully enough the epistemological insufficiency of general revelation for natural realm activities, or the breadth of the Bible’s relevance to our cultural activities. Finally, and as a result of the insufficiencies just mentioned, this view can foster an unhealthy social and cultural passivism.[4]

Grace Renews and Restores Nature

In Kuyper’s theological vision, grace renews and restores nature. In this vision, God covenanted creation (“nature”) into existence and ordered it by means of his word. His covenant word still holds for all of our creational life. In fact, we can speak of God’s word as his thesis for the world, and of sin as the antithesis to it. This sort of language requires some unpacking.

At creation, God instructed his imagers to be fruitful and multiply (a social command), till the soil (a cultural command), and have dominion (a regal command). His imagers would glorify him by multiplying worshipers, bringing out the hidden potentials of creation, and lovingly managing his world. However, Adam and Eve were seduced by the word that the serpent spoke against God’s word. Since the first couple’s sin, all of humanity has been under the sway of this antithesis.

The antithesis is any word spoken against God’s word. It misdirects the human mind and affections by pointing them toward idols rather than toward the one true and living God. So this world is corrupted, but not in its structures. Instead, it is corrupted in direction.

Sin and evil were not able to corrupt God’s created order structurally or ontologically. Satan and sin are not as powerful as God’s word and therefore cannot destroy creation. They cannot make purely bad what God created originally good. All they can do is misdirect. Thus creation remains good structurally (in its existence and basic order) but has been made bad directionally (as humanity brings out the hidden potentials of creation by building society and culture, but does so in an errant manner, directing it toward idols rather than God).[5]

In the aftermath of the Fall, God sent his Son to make right what had gone wrong. The salvation provided by the Son is offered to God’s imagers, but extends beyond them to the whole created realm. We are told that Christ will liberate creation from the bondage it is now experiencing because of the Fall (Rom 8:19-22). One day he will return to renew and restore his good creation (Rev 21:1), purifying it of corruption and misdirection, and placing in its midst a majestic city, the New Jerusalem. The Bible’s description of the New Jerusalem is thoroughly cultural, characterized by architecture, art, and song.

At least two aspects of this cosmic redemption are significant for our present discussion. First, the fact that God will liberate creation from its bondage—rather than annihilating it—affirms that sin did not have the power to corrupt creation ontologically. The created order, even though it has been misdirected, remains God’s good creation. He will renew it instead of replacing it.

Second, the fact that our eternity plays out in a physical and material universe affirms the enduring goodness of the physical and material (i.e. cultural) aspects of our lives.

So God’s grace is not against nature. Neither does it float above nature. And it does not merely exist alongside of it. God’s grace renews and restores nature, making it what he always intended it to be. Kuyper writes:

For if grace exclusively concerned atonement for sin and salvation of souls, one could view grace as something located and operating outside of nature….But if it is true that Christ our Savior has to do not only with our soul but also with our body…then of course everything is different. We see immediately that grace is inseparably connected withnature, that grace and nature belong together.[6]

This vision has a distinctive view of the way a Christian should live in the world. As believers, we are called to be redirective in our social and cultural activities. In whatever realm of society or culture we find ourselves—art, science, politics, business, or education—we want God’s incarnate and written word to shape our words and activities. We inquire about God’s creational design for a certain activity or realm, then discern the manifold ways it has been misdirected by sin, and finally find ways to redirect that activity or realm towards Christ.

We do so out of love for Christ and our neighbor. We do so as a matter of obedience: Christ’s lordship is as wide as creation and therefore as wide as culture. We do so as a matter of witness: Christ’s saving Lordship should be conveyed not only by our words but by our cultural deeds. And we do so as a preview of Christ’s coming Kingdom, when he will renew this heavens and earth.

If we are able to transform culture, then so be it. But that is not the ultimate goal. Any cultural transformation we see will be neither comprehensive nor enduring, until the day when Christ Jesus transforms the world. In other words, we are not in this to “win” a culture war. Only Christ wins. We do these things out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of witness and obedience, and in the hopes that we as a Christian community can provide a preview of Christ’s coming kingdom.

God’s redemption and restoration transforms us in the totality of our being, across the entire fabric of our lives. Kuyper writes, “In short, everything is his. His kingdom is over everything….His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, of all spheres, of all creatures.”[7]Christ’s redemption redirects our lives comprehensively. Thus every act of obedience—whether in prayer or in politics, in evangelism or in economics—is a part of Christian mission, a manifestation of kingdom work. Because the antithesis is operative as a misdirecting agent in every nook and cranny of creation and culture, we should draw upon God’s thesis to redirect our activities in every nook and cranny.

This vision has a distinctive view of how a Christian should do scholarship. It views every academic discipline as an opportunity to view God’s world through the lens of his Word. Kuyper writes, “He who lives from, and consistently within, the orbit of Revelation confesses that all Sovereignty rests in God and can therefore proceed only from Him; that the Sovereignty of God has been conferred absolute and undivided upon the man-Messiah; and that…every…sphere of life recognizes an authority derived from him.”[8] A Christian scholar who believes that grace restores nature will recognize that his field of study, whether avowedly religious or not, has an authority derived from Christ. His discipline operates within a sphere that has a unique God-given principle at its core, shaping the discipline’s goal as well as its appropriate parameters.[9]

Christianity, Politics, & the Public Square

This vision, unsurprisingly, has a distinctive view of how the Christian should act and interact in politics and in the public square. If God’s sovereign authority holds for every sphere of life and if his word is relevant to every sphere, then politics and the public square are no exception. Kuyper exemplified this conviction in his own life. His early years were spent fruitfully as a pastor, until he became increasingly cognizant of the need to shape Dutch politics. So he started a national newspaper, let a political party, was elected to the Dutch parliament, and even served as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Along the way, he drew upon the “grace restores nature” framework in order to shape his understanding of politics and the public square. Kuyper’s “grace restores nature” paradigm is particularly helpful in thinking through politics and public square interaction, and for several reasons.

First, and as a very broad principle, this vision encourages citizens to approach any aspect of public life by discerning God’s creational design for that aspect (thesis), discerning the various ways in which these aspects have been corrupted and misdirected by sin (antithesis), and working to redirect them toward Christ. This work of redirection cannot and should not be done in reliance upon general revelation alone. General revelation has never been enough to guide our lives; even before the Fall, God spoke to man and woman in the Garden. We should allow our specifically Christian beliefs and commitments toinform our views on social, cultural, and political issues, even if we do not alwaysarticulate our views in the public square with explicitly Christian language.

Second, this vision promotes a “principled pluralism” in the public square. We live in a time between the times, in a fallen world that awaits its renewal. Until that time of renewal and restoration, public life will always and necessarily be to some extent plural. There will be no ultimate or comprehensive consensus on the nature of justice, the good life, or other issues of significant public import. We want to gain consensus in the public square whenever and wherever we can, but we don’t want to coerce or impose a Christian lifestyle on others. We should employ our Christian beliefs to work for justice and peace, to alleviate injustice and suffering, to gain consensus on significant public issues when we can, and to promote the overall flourishing of society. In other words, we should not seek a theocracy. We should promote the type of religious liberty that our Baptist forebears championed to the point of death.

Third, and related to the previous point, we want to avoid an improperly coercive relationship between church and state. Kuyper’s answer to the church-state relationship was “sphere sovereignty.” He argued that God ordered creation in such a way that there are multiple “spheres” of culture, such as art, science, religion, and politics. God is sovereign over the spheres. Each sphere exists directly under God’s authority (rather than under the church’s), and in fact possesses a unique God-given principle which forms its center and outlines its circumference. What governs economics may not be appropriate in governing the family, or vice versa.

No sphere should be sovereign over the others, which is to say that each sphere has its own autonomy in relation to the other spheres. For example, the institutional church should not control the government or the arts or science. Conversely, the government should not seek to usurp that which belongs to the church. Each sphere should respect the integrity of the other spheres, and no sphere should encroach upon the territory of the others. Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty is a system of checks and balances, only at the ontological rather than political level.[10]

There is, however, one important caveat. Kuyper’s paradigm allows the government alimited jurisdiction over the other spheres—a sort of tie-breaking vote. In Kuyper’s view, as Richard Mouw notes, government should interfere with the spheres in order to help adjudicate disputes, defend the weak versus the strong, and cause citizens to support the state personally and financially.[11] Nonetheless, government should not claim sovereign authority over the other spheres and should use its power to help the other spheres flourish. In this respect, Kuyperian sphere sovereignty works well in tandem with Peter Berger’s “mediating structures.” Kuyper’s spheres form the deeper structure underlying Berger’s mediating structures.

Fourth, this vision makes a distinction between the institutional church and the organic church, and applies that distinction to public square activities. The church is an institution, the work of human hands. It gathers weekly to preach the word, administer the ordinances, sing, pray, read Scripture, and fellowship. But the church is also an organism, a body of covenanted people who are alive in Christ, and who scatter throughout society and culture during the week. While the institutional church may have indirect influence on politics and the public square by shaping its members into Christian disciples, it should not exert direct influence. However, the organic church—the covenanted members of the church—may exercise direct influence in politics and the public square, by applying their discipleship to public matters when opportunity arises and expertise allows.

Much more could be said in Kuyper’s favor. Suffice it to say that I find Kuyper’s grace restores nature framework and his application of it to politics enormously fruitful. It could (and, I wager, should) be adapted to help American Christians carve out a faithful presence in our twenty-first century context. Kuyper’s political theology could help us avoid the dichotomies that press themselves upon us—either statism or ecclesiasticism, secularism or theocracy, liberationism or libertarianism.

Drawing upon Kuyper’s thought will not be easy, and it is not a panacea for our American ills. It has deficiencies all its own, and even its strengths must be kept in context, as Kuyper’s ideology was crafted in a different era and country. But serious engagement with Kuyper’s thought cannot but help as we forge a path of faithful Christian commitment in the twenty first century.


I am grateful for what I have learned from Abraham Kuyper. First and foremost, his grace restores nature vision serves as the healthiest framework for understanding life in God’s world. Although the other grace/nature visions have their own strengths, the grace restores nature vision best captures the biblical teaching and best prepares us for Christian living.

Second, Kuyper applied this vision in a very helpful way to politics and the public square. He emphasized God’s sovereignty over ever sphere of culture, including church and state. He provided a way for church and state to relate to one another properly, without one domineering the other. He sought to avoid the twin extremes of a naked square on the one hand, or a theocracy on the other.

Kuyper grasped one great truth—that Christ’s lordship is universal—and sought to apply it wisely and consistently to life on this earth. And from that we can all benefit.

[1] For introductions to these competing theological visions, see Al Wolters, Creation Regained, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) or Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 51-66.

[2] There is no single set of labels for the two kingdoms. For example, Luther referred to left-handed and right-handed kingdoms. Other proponents speak of a common kingdom and an eschatological kingdom. Yet others refer to a natural kingdom and a spiritual kingdom.

[3] Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Mount,” in Jaroslav Pelikan, trans., Luther’s Works 21 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), 90.

[4] Karl Barth famously argued that the “two kingdoms” theology operative in 20thcentury Germany paved the way for a dangerous social passivism that actually served to strengthen natural paganism instead of restricting it.

[5] The terms “structural” and “directional” are terms contemporary theologians use to describe Kuyper’s views. See Wolters, Creation Regained, 87-114.

[6] Abraham Kuyper, “Common Grace,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 173. Emphasis original.

[7] Abraham Kuyper, E Voto Dordraceno. Toelichting op den Heidelbergschen Catechismus, vol. 4., 465-66. Cited by Timothy P. Palmer, “The Two-Kingdom Doctrine: A Comparative Study,” in Steve Bishop and John H. Kok, On Kuyper (Sioux City, Iowa: Dordt, 2013), 147-148.

[8] Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 468.

[9] For a concise argument in favor of this view, see Alvin Plantinga, “The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship,” in Seeking Understanding: The Stob Lectures 1986-1998 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 121-161.

[10] James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 132-35.

[11] Richard Mouw, “Some Reflections on Sphere Sovereignty,” in Luis E. Lugo, ed.,Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 89.

Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently released “One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics” (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.

Reeder and Barna on Evangelical Political Behavior

This week in his Today InPerspective podcast, Dr. Harry Reeder, pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Birmingham, Alabama, discussed the recent report from the Barna Research Group on the political behavior of evangelicals as compared to that of people from other religious perspectives. The report revealed that evangelicals seem to be the religious group least engaged in political activity in the current election cycle.

The Barna report notes the irony of the relative lack of involvement of evangelicals when they are more likely than other groups to think this year’s election is very important to the country’s future. “What makes the indifference of evangelicals even more surprising,” the Barna website states, “is the fact that they are the religious segment most likely to characterize the outcome of this year’s presidential election as ‘extremely important to the future of the United States.’ More than three-quarters (78%) classified the election in this way, compared to about half of the other faith groups.”

Dr. Reeder discusses how ironic it is that evangelicals say this, but they are the least informed of all religious (and non-religious) groups regarding the presidential candidates’ background, character, and policy positions. Evangelicals’ lack of involvement in the current presidential election cycle is notable when compared with that of other groups. For example, the percentage of evangelicals closely following the news about the 2016 presidential election is much lower than that of other groups. Evangelicals came in at 20%, “non-Christians” at 41%, “skeptics” at 36%, and Roman Catholics at 38%.

Dr. Reeder notes that it is naïve to believe, as some evangelicals have tended to do, that there are strictly political solutions to the deep spiritual and cultural problems facing America. Yet at the same time, many evangelicals are succumbing to a quietist mentality which holds that politics is “not all that important. If I am a serious Christian, what I do is just hand out tracts [which Dr. Reeder says he does and is not belittling]. Government doesn’t really matter. God’s going to use whoever’s there. . . . It really doesn’t matter. And we consign our children to a future of neo-Paganism because we’re not engaged in the way we ought to be engaged.”

He goes on to say, “As a pastor, I want to equip my people: How do you live in your family? How do you live in the state? How do you live in the church? How do you live in these three spheres?” But too many evangelicals are thinking, “It really doesn’t matter who’s in place; God will do what he wants to do. So I don’t really need to be responsible as a Christian in terms of the government.”

Dr. Reeder notes that the reason for this is a flawed view of government and the Christian’s role in it. He notes that God ordained the family, the state, and the church, and while these are separate institutions, Christians play a vital role in speaking the truth to the state and bringing a Christian worldview to bear on public life. A Christian worldview drives us to ask the question how we are to be involved in each of these spheres in the stewardship of the good gifts God has given us.

Dr. Reeder refers to this as public theology. He emphasizes the importance of Christian ministers and laity engaging in public theology. The church needs to be preaching the gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission, which is its ministry of God’s redemptive grace. But it also has a role in common grace—those spheres of life that are not specifically religious.

One of the main reasons Dr. Reeder believes evangelicals are not having an impact on public life (and I know from conversations that he is not only referring to political life, but also other professions and callings in the arts and sciences and culture) is the lack of seriousness about the Christian faith, Christian theology, and the Christian worldview. The lack of public theology and the lack of a sustained evangelical witness regarding public ethics, he states,

“. . . will never be addressed as long as we think the goal of the church is to get as many people in the worship service on Sunday through what is no longer worship but . . . an entertainment moment of self-absorption. And we think that people are then going to walk out of that service with a self-sacrificing life. No. We have perverted the message. We have perverted worship. We have done all these things that I believe undermine the Christian living a life of worship with wisdom and grace and strength and truth and compassion in their family and the church and in relationship to the state.”

His answer is “the pulpit,” which he says “has to give forth the river of redeeming grace, and equip God’s people to share the gospel, evangelize, and disciple. And we have to give forth the river of common grace,” teaching God’s people to be engaged in culture and public life.

Dr. Reeder laments the too-prevalent view among many evangelicals that “engagement in the matters of public policy and the issues of government and politics is something that is beneath the church. . . . What I try to say to people is, ‘Understand that there’s a Christian world and life view of how you’re to be engaged.’”

I encourage you to listen to this podcast. Dr. Reeder presents a helpful and practical approach to these issues. And if you want to go a little deeper, listen to Dr. Reeder’s address “The Pulpit Ministry and Public Theology in the Public Square” at last month’s Forum16 conference at Welch College, which can be found here.

A Christian College Curriculum: The Welch College Core, Part 4

I have been discussing the foundation and rationale for the new Welch College Core. In this concluding post, I’ll list the members of the General Education Curricular Revision Committee, and then reproduce the preface, objectives, and course list for the core as found in the college’s Academic Catalog.

Committee Members:

Matthew Pinson, Chairman
John Carter
Rebecca Deel
Darrell Holley
Greg Ketteman
Matthew McAffee
Thurman Pate
Barry Raper
Linda Shipley

The Welch College Core

The Welch College Core is a general education core curriculum designed by the faculty to integrate the Christian worldview across the curriculum. The striving for a unified worldview extends back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks believed that there was some basic knowledge that all people should know if they were going to become “philosophers” (“lovers of wisdom”). They called this  knowledge enkuklios paideia or “the rounded education” (the origin of our term “encyclopedia”). This “rounded knowledge” included language, literature, and the arts, as well as mathematics and the sciences. Later, the Romans called these subjects the artes liberales (“the liberal arts”), perhaps implying that such knowledge is appropriate for a liber, a free man or citizen who could take part in the debate in the public square. With the spread of the Christian Gospel, theology and the study of Scripture became part of the liberal arts and sciences as well. The schools that arose in Europe in the late Middle Ages were called “universities” precisely because they aimed to expose their students to the universitas or “the whole” of Christian learning. Welch College follows in this noble Christian tradition of higher education. We want to help our students see the whole of life from a Christian perspective, what we often call the Christian worldview. The Welch College Core is our version of those basic studies that our students will need in order to think deeply and Christianly about life and culture.

Objectives for the Welch College Core are as follows:

Critical Thinking and Communication

1. All students will develop a capacity for critical thinking and the ability to communicate their ideas effectively to others. Students will demonstrate success in developing such competencies by:

a. Expressing ideas effectively in writing and speaking, utilizing traditional principles of grammar, rhetoric and logic, in communication to people across cultures;

b. Exercising critical judgment in listening and reading, employing discernment, critical thinking, and interpretive skills in the acquisition of knowledge from diverse and interdisciplinary perspectives; and

c. Utilizing analysis and synthesis, planning and action, and assessment and evaluation to engage in problem-solving.

The Great Tradition

2. All students will develop an appreciation for and understanding of the foundational intellectual and literary traditions of the Western and Christian traditions. Students will demonstrate success in developing such competencies by:

a. Having a broad knowledge of the intellectual and cultural inheritance of Western civilization and articulate its relationship with the Christian tradition toward a biblical philosophy of life and history;

b. Understanding Christian tradition essentials, integrating a basic knowledge of the Free Will Baptist tradition, and relating both to contemporary faith, practice, and culture; as well as comprehending the importance of heritage and the value of intergenerational faithfulness in the home, church, and culture;

c. Understanding the great ideas of human history as seen in the Western literary and philosophical traditions in light of the principles of Scripture and the Judeo-Christian tradition, ascertaining their importance for interpreting the contemporary world and demonstrating the rationality of Christian faith; and

d. Understanding the basic principles of American government, political and religious liberty, and economy, as exemplified in the founding era and its foundational texts.

The Arts and Culture

3. All students will develop an appreciation of and Christian perspective on the arts and culture. Students will demonstrate success in developing such competencies by:

a. Gaining exposure to broad aesthetic experiences by means of the masterpieces of literature, the arts, and drama; learning basic principles for evaluating these experiences by Christian standards of truth, goodness, and beauty; and grappling with the ideas embodied in the arts and applying Christian analysis and discernment to culture, including popular culture; and

b. Gaining exposure to the great tradition of music, understanding its role in culture, society, and Christian worship, and developing rudimentary musical knowledge and skill so as to be able to participate in community and church music programs.

Humanity and the Human Environment

4. All students will develop a broad, holistic view of humanity and the human environment that is understood by scientific perspectives as informed by the Christian worldview. Students will demonstrate success in developing such competencies by:

a. Being able to justify Christian moral and ethical decisions shaped by the commands and principles of Scripture and informed by the wisdom of the classical, Hebrew, and Christian traditions;

b. Understanding the forces that shape global society and being able to form meaningful conclusions regarding the application of Christian ethics to the human family as divine image-bearers, in both private and public spheres;

c. Understanding the principles of physical and mental health, and exercising Christian regard for a healthy mind and body;

d. Understanding and using basic mathematical and scientific principles, especially as they relate directly to the human environment, obtaining a Christian perspective on the benefits and limits of science and technology;

e. Gaining a broad comprehension of how to understand and relate ethically and constructively to oneself and other people through the lenses of the Bible, the Christian tradition, and the behavioral sciences; and

f. Understanding the principles of the Bible, the Christian tradition, and the behavioral sciences regarding dynamics that produce a healthy Christian marriage and home life, including the rearing of psychologically and spiritually healthy children.


5. All graduates will learn basic theoretical principles of leadership and develop the practical ability to implement such principles in their own lives and communities. Students will demonstrate success in developing such competencies by:

a. Comprehending the principles of sound personal management of time, abilities, and finances and relating them to effective Christian leadership and stewardship;

b. Supporting and defending effective, basic principles of servant-leadership, including a commitment to continual spiritual, social, and intellectual development in the context of the family, the church, and the world; and

c. Manifesting Christian personal and professional cultural sensibilities in refinement and social skills.

Courses in the Welch College Core 

Systems in Biological Science and Lab
English Grammar, Usage, and Composition I, II
Masterpieces of World Literature I, II
History of Western Civilization I, II
Leadership and Calling: Personal Development
Leadership and Calling: Leadership Principles
Christianity, Culture, and Worldview: Introduction
Christianity, Culture, and Worldview: Intermediate
Christianity, Culture, and Worldview: Capstone
Foreign Language (12) (for B.A. only)
College Algebra
Music Introduction and Appreciation
Lifetime Fitness and P.E. Activity Course
Christian Philosophy
Fundamentals of Speech
Marriage and Family

A Christian Core Curriculum For The Twenty-First Century: The Welch College Core, Part 3

Trends Toward Renewal of the Core Curriculum

Recently there have been trends in the other direction, back toward a very specific and prescribed core curriculum. These moves have come from opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum.

On the Left

Remember earlier I said that the educational modernists wanted to move away from an emphasis on teaching a body of knowledge designed to transmit truth to students. Well, ironically, some of the call for a more prescribed core curriculum has come from the left. After succeeding in destroying the last vestiges of the old Western canon and traditional core curriculum, many on the extreme left have called for a return to a more prescribed core curriculum. Now of course, their desire is not to transmit a body of knowledge to students in order to inculcate ancient wisdom and virtue and truth in them. Quite the contrary—they want to be intentional about displacing the vestiges of the older thinking in their students and replacing them with the ideology of modernity and postmodernity.

This makes sense. If you are deeply committed to radical leftist ideology, if you have dedicated your life to Marxist or feminist ideals, and the reason you went into education to begin with was to fight for a woman’s right to choose, same-sex marriage, radical environmental ideology, and the redistribution of wealth, then it makes sense that you would want to transmit to and inculcate in your students these ideas and ideals.

Conservative Movement toward the Core Curriculum

However, the main impetus for renewing the general education core curriculum has been from conservative thinkers on higher education, both within and outside the evangelical community. It’s helpful to use a term often employed by Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School:

Renewal through Retrieval

Leading conservatives argue that we must renew general, liberal arts education in the American college by retrieving time-tested educational models of the past. And this is in both the form and the content of those historical models. The form involves how the curriculum is put together, that is, being largely prescribed rather than a series of electives. The content involves the transmission of ancient wisdom, virtue, and truth.

This renewal of the core curriculum started back in the 1980s and 1990s. Educational leaders in the political sphere wrote reports criticizing leading universities for their lack of the form or content of a traditional core curriculum. Examples of this include William Bennett’s To Reclaim a Legacy and Lynne Cheney’s 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students. These voices were joined by scholars and authors such as Allan Bloom, who wrote The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, heavily influencing the conservative conversation on higher education, and other thinkers such as New Criterion editor Roger Kimball. The mantle was taken up by conservative think tanks and professional societies like the National Association of Scholars and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and by higher education public interest groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

During this time, scores of colleges have undergone curricular revision, and other colleges have been started to reflect these conservative ideals for higher education. The majority of these institutions have been conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic institutions, but have also included Eastern Orthodox and Jewish colleges. Some of these schools have stripped the entire curriculum down to a reading list of great books, while most have simply prescribed a curriculum that their faculty believe will produce an educated person to whom has been transmitted a body of knowledge that reflects time-tested eternal verities, produces breadth of knowledge and introduction to diverse ideas and modes of inquiry, and produces competent citizen-leaders who are good critical thinkers.

Almost all of these schools have seen themselves as being motivated by their conservative Christian worldview, which reasserts the unity of knowledge under God and the duty of teachers as wise men and women who bequeath their students with a body of knowledge that they, in their professional judgment, believe will produce in them an educated mind rooted in the Christian view of the world and life.

The Vision for Welch College 

This approach to the general education curriculum is what I long for at Welch College. We have always argued strongly for the unity of knowledge rooted and grounded in the Christian world-and-life-view. We have held to theology as the queen of the sciences. We have continued to believe that we’re engaged in something more life-transforming than mere technical or career training, and this involves a broad generalist approach rather than an emphasis on specialization.

We have valued faculty-directed learning that is mentorship-driven and student-sensitive. This is seen in the new conceptual model for Teacher Education that Dr. Thurman Pate and Dr. Etta Patterson have produced, which counters Deweyan and constructivist models of education, advocating more traditional approaches to teaching and learning.

We are a community of faith and learning that holds conservative, classical, and broadly traditional learning in high esteem, while most of us would not define this as narrowly as some, as limited to the great books and classical languages and literature. This approach arises from our time-honored commitment to traditional values in private and public life that we believe receive their motivation from Holy Scripture and from the consensual wisdom of the Christian tradition.

What we have put forward is a truly core curriculum, a prescribed course of study for every student that enters Welch College as a freshman and graduates from a baccalaureate degree program.* I see this as more consistently, creatively, and carefully putting into curricular form the academic values we already espouse.

By embodying our academic values in a core curriculum for all our students, we will be enabled more effectively and fruitfully to fulfill the mission to which God has called us: to educate leaders to serve Christ, His Church, and His world through biblical thought and life, as we move forward for the future of Welch College, the glory of God, and the extension of Christ’s kingdom.


*This will not be the case with students who transfer in from other institutions.

A Christian Core Curriculum For The Twenty-First Century: The Welch College Core, Part 2

The Erosion of the Core Curriculum

American higher education in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed a growing lack of commitment to the unity of knowledge and a resultant emphasis on academic specialization. These trends, together with modern student-centered theories of learning and knowledge, eroded the classic core curriculum. The more modernity took hold, the more knowledge became fragmented, and the more knowledge became fragmented, the more the curriculum that transmitted that knowledge became fragmented. And the pace of this erosion was only quickened as students were more and more given the reins over the best way to be educated. Furthermore, the sheer number of courses required in general education gradually dwindled, with specialization and career training now the order of the day.

So the twentieth-century general education curriculum is the story of gradual erosion in colleges and universities. The more secularized schools were the first to innovate, especially schools more dominated by technical and technological training. Colleges that retained their Christian moorings gradually followed.

Distribution Requirements

The first step in this erosion was a move toward what was called distribution requirements, with careful qualifications. Under this system, students were required, for example, to take two three-hour courses of history. But both courses had to be in the same course sequence. For example, if  you took Western Civilization I, you had to take Western Civilization II. You could choose to take say, American History or Ancient History, but you had to take both the first and second semesters of whichever sequence you chose. Or, in the case of literature, you were required to take two courses in literature, and you could choose between Western Literary Masterpieces, American Literature, or British Literature. But you had to take both your literature courses in either Western, American, or British Literature. This was the more conservative distribution requirement system.

This eventually gave way to a freer distribution requirement system. So, to use history and literature as examples again, you had to take six hours in history, but you could choose any two history courses you wanted to take. You might choose to take a course in Readings in the Diplomatic History of Nineteenth-Century Russia or a course in the History of Rock Music since 1975. But you simply had to register for two courses in history. Or, in the case of literature, you could take one course in Greek Drama and another in Race, Sex, and Gender in the Works of Mark Twain. Student choice became more and more commonplace, especially after the student revolution movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Move Away from the Western Canon

The move away from a more traditional curriculum was also helped along by the move away from a traditional literary canon. This new mentality held, for example, that Guatemalan peasant history and literature was on par with the history of the Renaissance and the writings of Shakespeare.

This “politically correct” trend was simply a delayed result in the 1980s and 1990s of the change that really took place in the students that led the student revolution movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While the student protesters in the 60s and 70s were preoccupied with anti-war and economic justice, the student protesters of the 80s and 90s were preoccupied with race, sex, and gender, shouting “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Western Civ has got to go!”

The freer distribution requirement system over time began to be traded in for more of a general education elective system that would maximize student choice. So, rather than being able to choose two courses among a panoply of history courses, and another two courses among myriad literature courses, students in many colleges and universities were now required simply to choose, say, fifteen semester hours in the humanities, twelve semester hours in the social sciences, and so on.

Christian Higher Education’s Response

So how did Christian colleges react during this gradual evolution of the general education curriculum in American higher education during the twentieth century? Most—while emphasizing the Christian worldview throughout the curriculum and while often requiring specific courses in Christian worldview thinking and religion—became simply a warmed-over Christianized version of the general education trends of the twentieth century, but usually about twenty years behind the secular trends.

I’m not suggesting that Christian colleges didn’t know what they were doing or were not concerned about Christian higher education and the Christian worldview. They did and were. What I’m saying is that they weren’t as concerned as they should have been about the traditional aims of the college general education curriculum. And because of this concern, they unwittingly let something slip away that was an important expression of their uniquely Judeo-Christian view of higher education.

Dr. Kevin Hester teaching Theology at the Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee

A Christian Core Curriculum For The Twenty-First Century: The Welch College Core, Part 1

The New Welch College Core

Last year Welch College unveiled its new “Welch College Core.” The Welch College Core is a completely revised general education curriculum that every student who comes to Welch as a freshman and graduates with a bachelor’s degree will take.* Over the next few posts, I will be discussing the new Welch College Core. I’ll start with a discussion of the rationale for a core curriculum and then talk about what the core actually looks like.

“The Discipline and Furniture of the Mind”

Traditionally, colleges and universities had core curricula for general education. These curricula carefully outlined a series of prescribed courses that would carry out the institution’s goals for a breadth of knowledge to provide what the Yale Report of 1828 called “the discipline and furniture of the mind” and thus produce a truly educated person.

By “discipline of the mind,” the report meant what we today would call logical thinking or critical thinking. The “furniture of the mind” referred to passing on content—knowledge and wisdom and virtue—to students. The traditional core curriculum was embodied in what historians of American higher education call “the old-time college.”

The Unity of Knowledge

This notion of a core curriculum was based on the unity of knowledge. Most of the old time-colleges were founded by Protestant denominations. But even most of the state universities in nineteenth-century America had required chapel and required religion courses, and the way they approached education was from the vantage point of the traditional Protestant worldview. Even the Unitarian schools, for most of the nineteenth-century, believed in a basic theistic and Judeo-Christian view of knowledge.

The basic implication of this Judeo-Christian approach to knowledge in American higher education for the core curriculum is that this worldview presupposed the unity of knowledge. It made sense to have a unified core curriculum that embodied the best of classical and Judeo-Christian liberal arts and sciences. That is because these Christian scholars believed that the Judeo-Christian worldview, and the classical wisdom that overlapped with it, embodied the good, the true, and the beautiful.

The Fragmentation of Knowledge

Beginning in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, however, the unity of knowledge broke down, giving way to the fragmentation of knowledge. And this breakdown of the unity of knowledge was the direct accompaniment to the secularization of the academy in America, a story so well, and sadly, told by James Burtchaell in his classic book, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of College and Universities from their Christian Denominations. As leading American intellectuals began to doubt the truth claims of Holy Scripture, they had to latch onto something in the place of biblical Christianity. This tended to be empirical knowledge, knowledge that could be substantiated by evidence from the five senses.

This development displaced theology as the queen of the sciences, replacing it with empirical science. One result of this process was that the emphasis in education gradually moved from the educated person—the broad, generalistic schooling of the classically trained mind—to the scientist. The shift was from generalist to specialist.

Traditional education in the Western world valued broad interdisciplinary learning that made connections between the different disciplines. And it valued this sort of learning because of its convictions about the unity of knowledge. On the contrary, modern education, because it devalued the unity of knowledge, moved away from an emphasis on broad, interdisciplinary learning and increasingly emphasized specialization and specialized fields of study.

Education as Career Training

A factor that accompanied the move toward specialization was that college education became more and more identified with career training. Before the twentieth century, the public mission of the baccalaureate degree was to provide broad general education that would produce truly educated leaders who had classically trained minds and knew how to be exemplary citizens and leaders in society. If at all, preparation for specific careers was seen as only a secondary or tertiary mission of undergraduate degree programs. Colleges and universities were not technical training centers. They were educational institutions. Their aim was to produce, not technicians, but well-educated leaders. This all changed in the twentieth century.

Student-Centered Theories

Another way that modernity was affecting education at this time was the student-centered learning approaches that educational theorists such as John Dewey were promoting. Traditionally, the faculty saw curriculum as its prerogative, indeed as its territory. Students did not have the knowledge to decide which courses to piece together for a good general education. The faculty did. The faculty had not only the knowledge but also the wisdom and experience and understanding of the world, past and present, that gave them the ability to decide for young adults how best the latter could become educated persons.

However, in the twentieth century, educational theorists began to question this received wisdom of the Western intellectual tradition. The new student-centered theories demanded that colleges give students more choice in putting together their own personalized general education curriculum. Indeed, such modern theories held (and hold) that knowledge is about the individual creating meaning and knowledge subjectively, rather than about the transmission of objective knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. If this is true, they concluded, of course students should be in the driver’s seat in deciding how they are to be appropriately educated.

The Shrinking of Content

Another effect of the new educational philosophy was that content became less important in general education. Technical skill and critical thinking are really the goals of education in a modern democratic society, it was thought. So the earlier idea of a faculty committed to transmitting ancient wisdom to its students, inculcating truth in them, with that faculty prescribing a curriculum that would best accomplish that goal, was dispensed with.

Remember the Yale Report of 1828 that I mentioned earlier? That document had said that higher education was about the discipline and furniture of the mind. One could say that modernity placed almost all the emphasis on the discipline of the mind—intellectual skills and breadth—but almost none on the furniture of the mind—teaching a body of knowledge designed to transfer truth to students. Obviously, this approach would demand a move away from the core curriculum of the past.

Thus the lack of commitment to the unity of knowledge and the resultant specialization, together with modern student-centered theories of learning and knowledge, eroded the classic core curriculum. The more modernity took hold, the more knowledge became fragmented, and the more knowledge became fragmented, the more the curriculum that transmitted that knowledge became fragmented. And the pace of this erosion was only quickened as students were more and more given the reins over the best way to be educated. Furthermore, the sheer number of courses required in general education gradually dwindled, with specialization and career training now the order of the day.

*This will not be the case with students who transfer in from other institutions.

Questions about Christians and involvement in cultural transformation

Reposted from an article at erlc.com/article/questions-about-christians-and-involvement-in-cultural-transformation

I recently listened to a podcast of the White Horse Inn in which Michael Horton featured the ongoing transformation of Mackenzie University, a prestigious private university in Brazil with more than 40,000 students, into a Christian university.

Let me say at the outset that, even though I have serious questions, which I’m going to express in this piece, about Michael Horton’s two-kingdoms approach to the relation of Christianity and culture, I count him a gift to the church. When it comes to what goes on inside the church (except for obvious denominational differences), I tend to agree with him. But when it comes to how the church should relate to the secular culture, I disagree with his two-kingdoms approach, rather espousing a more positive transformational approach to cultural engagement more like that of a Wesley or a Kuyper. So don’t let these friendly critiques of Horton’s views on culture be taken as a lack of excitement about his views on other things.

His account of Mackenzie University was a very compelling story. Essentially, it is a story of reformation. The president of this historically Presbyterian university, now its chancellor, received his Ph.D. at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and he desired to reform the university and attempt slowly to return it to its Christian roots. Now the university’s divinity school has moved away from its formerly Protestant Liberal theology, and every faculty member now embraces conservative Presbyterian theology.

One of the reasons I found this story compelling is that I wondered to myself, “Is it even theoretically possible that Yale, my own alma mater, which was once committed to theological orthodoxy, could be reformed in this way?”

The reason I was so intrigued by this question is that Horton and others from the two-kingdoms approach to Christianity and culture demur from the view that Christians should be trying to transform culture. Yet here was a two-kingdoms advocate rejoicing in the ongoing, gradual reformation of Mackenzie University—a secularized university in a modern, secularized Western nation—back toward its Christian moorings.

A lot of questions came to my mind:

What’s the difference between reforming an institution or field of study or cultural system and transforming it?*

If the theological seminary of a secularized Western university can be reformed, would it be possible for the whole university to be reformed?

If the theological seminary of a secularized Brazilian university can be reformed, would it be possible for a theological seminary at a secularized American university to be reformed?

If the theological seminary of a secularized American university could be reformed, would it be possible for the whole university to be reformed?

It seemed to me that two-kingdoms advocates who would rejoice about the divinity school of a secularized Western university being reformed would think that it was, at least theoretically, possible for a whole university to be reformed. It would also seem that such two-kingdoms advocates would think such a reformation would be a good thing, a positively good goal—that they would laud the president’s attempts at reforming Mackenzie University.

More questions flooded my mind, like the following: If it’s a good thing for a prestigious university in a secularized nation to be reformed back to its original Christian roots, and that’s something we would laud a university president for attempting to do, then why would we not laud a government leader for attempting to reform a nation-state back to its more theistic roots?

Many conservative theologians have been invited to Mackenzie University to speak at the theological school. No doubt, while they are down there, they encourage the president in his work of reformation, even if they are two-kingdoms advocates. I asked myself:

What would a two-kingdoms advocate do at some point in the future if he were called in to a small nation-state in Africa—let’s imagine for a moment—whose prime minister and the majority of whose parliament was made up of conservative Anglican, Baptist, and Assemblies of God laypeople? What would his advice to them be regarding legislation about, say, abortion or same-sex marriage or sex-trafficking? How would he advise them? Would he say, “Don’t try to bring about change—transformation—to the culture based on the beliefs of the Christian church”?

And then I thought of so many of my good, faithful, evangelical friends who really want to engage the culture from a Christian perspective just as I do but shy away from the word transformation. In some cases, I think, this is because they think it must mean a total transformation—such that, if you want to see cultural change and transformation in the direction of Christian values, you’re necessarily talking about a complete Christianization of everything, in this life (but surely that’s not what most so-called transformationalists are aiming at).

Shortly before listening to the story about Mackenzie University, I had read an article at the Huffington Post about a new art conference, the TRAC conference, which is trying to bring representational art, or classical realism, back into prominence in the arts community. The convener of the conference, artist and professor Michael Pearce, said, “All of us, the people in this room, are slowly changing the direction of the cultural ocean liner. I want to thank you for participating in that. We really, really need to do that. We need to change the direction of the ship.”

What I wonder is, is an artist who wants slowly to change the direction of the “cultural ocean liner” in the art world attempting to bring transformation to the art world? I would think so. And let’s say that, after 20 years, the percentage of his kind of art sold at auction goes from 20 percent to 40 percent of the total art sold, as a result of such efforts for change. Does that count as transformation, even though the transformation is not total?

Another question that came to mind regards personal spiritual transformation: Those of us who don’t believe in entire sanctification or Christian perfection think that we are gradually being transformed spiritually, even though we will never be totally transformed in this life. Why then should we shy away from thinking we should be attempting to bring slow, gradual transformation to a given sphere of culture, whether educational, artistic, scientific, political, etc.?

These are questions that I think are worth asking, as more and more evangelical young people are considering the “Benedict Option” (which I briefly discussed in a recent post). Is it possible to have a broadly Augustinian approach to cultural influence and change—call it “transformationalism,” call it something else—from the vantage point of Christian teaching that is not triumphalistic or unduly negative (in the way that too much political rhetoric from the religious right has been)? And is it possible to embody that mentality in a way that respects the institutional separation of church and state and religious liberty, for which Baptists have been on the leading edge since the early seventeenth century? And is it possible to do that from an eschatological perspective that doesn’t necessarily see complete transformation as occurring this side of eternity?

I like to think it is.

*My guess is that two-kingdoms advocates would say that churchly things such as a school of theology can be reformed, which of course involves their (at least partial) transformation, but that something in the secular sphere cannot be. But would this rule out, say, the business or physics or political science departments at Mackenzie University? Could they be considered churchly and thus reformable / transformable?


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