WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN LIBERAL EDUCATION? One of the clearest and earliest calls to reinvigorate the idea of a liberal education has come from Francis Schaeffer, who began reminding us in the sixties that God is the Lord of all areas of study. He taught us not to cower in defensive fear but to think clearly about what was being said by those around us, especially by identifying their presuppositions. He showed us that Christians can and must be broadly educated so that we can clearly perceive the truth from amidst the garbage.
Ironically, Schaeffer himself was clearly a product of the Enlightenment and modern thinking. In The God Who Is There, his best known and most influential book, he argues that America began to lose its convictions about truth during the first half of the 20th century when it lost its consensus about the basic presuppositions.
What were those presuppositions? The basic one was that there really are such things as absolutes. They accepted the possibility of an absolute in the area of Being (or knowledge), and in the area of morals. Therefore, because they accepted the possibility of absolutes, though people might have disagreed as to what these were, nevertheless they could reason together on the classical basis of antithesis. They took it for granted that if anything was true, the opposite was false. In morality, if one thing was right, its opposite was wrong. This little formula, “A is A” and “If you have A it is not no-A,” is the first move in classical logic. If you understand the extent to which this no longer holds sway, you will understand our present situation.
What do we notice in this paragraph? His use of classical thought patterns to measure truth. Classical thought patterns? What does he mean? He means classical logic. Logic as laid out for us by Moses? No. David or Isaiah? No. Jesus or Paul? No. Aristotle? Yes! Schaeffer, like many strong Calvinists, has a strong sense of the value of logic in developing the ideas given us by revelation from God. This is an admirable strength, one from which we must learn.
Yet, there is also an inherent problem in Schaeffer’s use of classical thought forms to evaluate claims to truth. Logic derives ideas from ideas but leaves persons unnoticed, while biblical revelation is first and foremost personal. If, like Confucius, Jesus had said, “I teach you the truth,” then logic would be our most important tool. Instead, Jesus taught, “I am the truth,” and that makes all the difference. Certainly we are taught truths, ideas about God and therefore logic is important to us. But our central commitment is to the person of God as we know him in Jesus Christ, not to the biblical ideas about God.
What has all this to do with the idea of a liberal education? First, by looking at Schaeffer critically we can affirm both that he has made a substantial contribution to the health of the church in our day and that he himself showed some limitations. A liberal education helps us to perceive the meaning of ideas such as Schaeffer’s by providing us with a range of “cultural hooks” to help is put each idea into its proper perspective.
But only a liberal education centered in biblical revelation of the person of Jesus Christ will help us recognize the truth and value of various ideas. Without that centering in God’s revelation of himself in Christ, a liberal education leads inevitably to the sense of all ideas being equally valid and valuable or, the other side of the same coin, equally invalid and valueless.