Development of a Philosophy of Christian Higher Education

At the SharperIron website, there are a number of Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries represented by contributing authors, forum administrators, members, and visitors. Now that a new academic year has just begun, it might be a useful exercise for us to reflect on our postsecondary institutions and consider why they do what they do. To get started, perhaps we should ask, “What is [insert the name of a given institution]’s ultimate goal, or mission?” The purpose of this article is to generate discussion on the development of a philosophy of Christian higher education. A philosophy statement serves as a general framework for guiding how and why a college operates. In particular, this author is interested in focusing on undergraduate education, although there is relevance to seminary/graduate level education as well. This draft is a work in progress about my own views and does not represent the position of any particular college or seminary.

For administrators of colleges and universities, the linking of a college’s activities and efforts to its mission is of utmost importance. Not only do accreditors expect institutions to show evidences of the connection between units’ strategic plans to the institutional mission, but the effective operating of any kind of organization relies on everyone moving together in the same direction toward a shared overarching goal. This may naturally lead us to ask, “What is the purpose of Christ-centered higher education?” It seems to many of us that the ultimate aim of Christian higher education should be to lead the student to a greater level of Christlikeness. Thus, if we really believe that this is the standard measurement, then we may conclude that a Christian college is successful if it has helped the student to become more mature in all areas of his life, but specifically in his personal relationship with the Lord.

What are the ingredients for this spiritual transformation of college students at a Christian college or university? One way to approach this question is to examine the college experience as seen in the inputs, the environment, and the outputs. Researchers of higher education often view student development through the input-environment-output (I-E-O) model developed by Alexander Astin (1993). The philosophy statement elaborated here generally follows the I-E-O approach, specifying the preliminaries (inputs), the process (environment), and the product (outputs). To begin with, however one must understand the context in which Christian institutions exist.

Context

During the second half of the 20th century, external influences may have had a greater impact on Christian institutions than any other factor. First, societal forces have had an immeasurable affect on the perceived image of church-related higher education. The movement toward secularization by many colleges previously identified as Christian has muffled the voice of church-related institutions which, at one time, served a leading role in this country’s intellectual arena (Van Horn, 1992). Second, federal and state governments and other external agencies place requirements, generally in the name of academic quality, on devoutly religious institutions which sometimes results in discomfort on the part of the Christian institution. Third, the influence of supporting churches and their respective leaders is certainly an influence on Christian colleges and universities. Van Horn notes that the powerful dichotomy of the academic and ecclesiastic worlds in which church-related institutions exist causes ongoing tension. Fourth, the alumni serve as an important external influence that institutions rely on for direction. In order for the institution to remain true to its mission, it must lean on the outside, objective perspective of those former students who desire to keep the institution on course.

Internal forces such as the faculty, staff, and administration add to the multiple influences affecting a college. Because education at any level relies on the expertise and commitment of the teacher, it is no wonder that the collective package of the professor’s background, preparation, experience, credentials, personality, etc., plays a large role in the undergraduate experience. To begin with, the church-related graduate institution must identify and recruit qualified, experienced faculties who not only hold but also promote the doctrinal values of the institution. While faculty provide meaning to the Christian college’s identity, their potential lack of commitment could undermine the institutional mission. Therefore, it is vital that colleges and universities recruit and reward academic servants who hold to the doctrinal core of the institution.

The Preliminaries

The Bible makes it clear that education begins at home. It is the parents’ responsibility to see that they provide an environment of continual scriptural education in their own home for their own children (Deut. 6:4-9). Further, with the advent of the New Testament church, it has become the local assembly’s responsibility to equip the believers to serve (Eph. 4:7-16), and it is within the local church that believers fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples. All other Christian agencies must aid local churches, not replace them.

The student at a Christian college is a creation of God. Originally, this creation was a perfect image of the Creator. But because of Adam’s sin, every human today has a marred image and, thus, all are born as sinners. Ideally, every college student will, by the time he graduates, have accepted God’s gift of eternal through faith in Jesus Christ. There are a few prerequisites on the student’s part before the college can have the greatest opportunity to lead the student to Christlikeness in every area of his life. Assuming that the student is a child of God, there must be a willingness on his part to obey the Lord and serve Him. Although we live in a sinful world filled with imperfections, Christian institutions can help to mold his life to the place that he is qualified, from a human perspective, for a career, and usable, from God’s perspective, for a lifetime of service.

The Process

How can a college design purposeful experiences to transform a recent high school graduate into a mature, Christlike adult? The process of higher education on a Christian campus has many parts to it. As a caveat, however, it is very important to keep in mind that life must not be compartmentalized even though it is easy to view it in different categories. Above all else, Christian educators must emphasize that everything in a student’s life is encircled by the control of God, not separated into separate boxes that we can open and close whenever we want to.

The first and foremost aspect of the college process is the spiritual. By scheduling daily chapels, room prayer groups, and Bible classes, the student will be exposed to a sufficient number of intentional biblical learning experiences. The second realm is the academic. By offering majors covering various areas of study, the college can equip the student for his vocation. A third area is social. Greek societies, language clubs, student activities, and organizations all provide opportunities for students to develop socially. The fourth category is physical. Both intramural and intercollegiate sporting events, along with physical fitness classes, are ways to take responsible care of the bodies God has given us. These are just several ways that the process of college helps students develop greater maturity of the whole person.

Focusing now on the spiritual and academic, it must be emphasized that at the heart of a Christ-centered education is the integration of faith with learning. At the convocation ceremony of Princeton Theological Seminary’s one hundred first academic year on September 20, 1912, J. Gresham Machen delivered what is considered to be a classic discourse on faith-learning integration. Consider his opening comments:

One of the greatest of the problems that have agitated the Church is the problem of the relation between knowledge and piety, between culture and Christianity. This problem has appeared first of all in the presence of two tendencies in the Church – the scientific or academic tendency, and what may be called the practical tendency… . Our whole system of school and college education is so constituted as to keep religion and culture as far apart as possible and ignore the question of the relationship between them (1913, pp. 1-2).

The undergraduate academic experience should be a merging of biblical truth with disciplinary knowledge, because “all truth is God’s truth” (Holmes, 1977). Gangel (1978) suggests six steps for this conjunction of belief and discipline. First, the teacher must constantly involve theological sieve-building. That is, the professor must view the student’s mind as a funnel through which knowledge passes, and provide the appropriate filters relevant to the institution’s doctrinal system. Second, the teacher should have the skills of at least an amateur theologian. The professor must have a minimum level of understanding to relate faith values to the discipline. Third, the teacher must assist the student in realizing the big picture with a Christian worldview. This view of reality is seen through the lens of a Christ-centered perspective. Fourth, the teacher must not assume that integration is the same as sermonizing. The integration of faith with disciplinary knowledge is not simply teaching Christian beliefs in the classroom without any connection to the subject matter. Fifth, the teacher must balance academic open-mindedness and the college’s doctrinal beliefs. There may be a tendency to lean toward one of the extremes by either embracing a position just for the sake of advancing knowledge or by stubbornly refusing to consider anything not explicitly spelled out in Scripture. Sixth, the teacher must handle the process with reverence and relevance. The college professor must carefully, and intentionally, engage the students in and outside the classroom to make the connection between the theoretical and the practical.

We must remind ourselves, though, that it is by God’s grace and through His progressive work in our lives that we are transformed. While the Lord often uses people and events to bring about change in our hearts, it is not the college professor, the chapel services, or the curriculum themselves causing spiritual transformation. Rather, it is God’s working through the faculty, programs, and other parts of the undergraduate experience that changes students’ hearts.

The Product

When a student walks off campus with his diploma, what will he look like? That is, in what ways will a college graduate be different from an incoming freshman?

Perhaps the following characteristics describe how this would appear in graduates. First, the student will be spiritually mature. His walk with the Lord will be intimate. He will delight in serving God and doing His will, thereby glorifying the Lord in his attitudes and actions. Second, the graduate will be a person of moral integrity. His strong foundation of a close relationship with the Lord will guide him in making ethical decisions. Third, he will be intellectually astute. He will be able to think critically and creatively on any topic, and he will know how to approach a problem to seek the best solution. Not only will he be proficient in his own vocation, but he will also be knowledgeable on current issues that today’s culture is facing. Fourth, he will be able to communicate relevantly. The Christian college graduate will be able to share his beliefs and knowledge with others in a way that are easily understood and applied. Fifth, he will possess a character that is noteworthy. He will be self-disciplined in life, humble in attitude, conscientious in work, and genuine in relationships. Finally, the graduate of a Christian college will know himself. He will understand his place in the “big picture,” and will do his best to use his individual skills and abilities as a team member, whether at work, at home, in the community, or in the local church. He will continue to develop his strengths and improve on his weaknesses.

To sum up, the Christian college’s reason for being is not only to produce qualified graduates who fill a specialized niche and serve as responsible citizens of society, but most importantly to help students to love and obey God more than when they entered college, thus becoming more like Christ.

References

Adrian, Jr, William B. (1996). The Christian University: Maintaining Distinctions in a Pluralistic Culture. In Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian (Eds.), Models for Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Astin, A. W. (1993). Assessment for Excellence: The Philosophy and Practice of Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. Phoenix: The Oryx Press.

De Jong, Arthur J. (1992). Making Sense of Church-Related Higher Education. Agendas for Church-Related Colleges and Universities. New Directions for Higher Education, 10, 19-28.

Gangel, Kenneth O. (1978). Integrating Faith and Learning: Principles and Process. Bibliotheca Sacra, 135, 99-108.

Holmes, Arthur. (1977). All Truth is God’s Truth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Kingsley, James Gordon. (1992). The Challenge of Leadership in the Church-Related College. Agendas for Church-Related Colleges and Universities. New Directions for Higher Education, 10, 65-74.

Machen, J. Gresham. (1913). Christianity and Culture. The Princeton Theological Review, 9, 1-15.>

Sandin, Robert T. (1992). To Those Who Teach at Christian Colleges. Agendas for Church-Related Colleges and Universities. New Directions for Higher Education, 10, 43-54.

Shipps, Kenneth W. (1992) Church-Related Colleges and Academics. Agendas for Church-Related Colleges and Universities. New Directions for Higher Education, 10, 29-42.

Van Horn, Gordon L. (1992). Keeping Faith with One Another. Agendas for Church-Related Colleges and Universities. New Directions for Higher Education, 10, 75-84.

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Eric Lovik is the director of institutional research at Clearwater Christian College and a doctoral candidate in higher education at Penn State University. He and his wife, Glory, enjoy traveling, landscaping, and playing with their two daughters at McDonald’s.

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