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What are Christian colleges for?

Amid great challenges, past principles can guide evangelical higher education

An entrance to the Trinity International University campus in Deerfield, Ill. Associated Press/Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast

What are Christian colleges for?
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It is not an easy time to be a Christian college. Many face threats from anti-discrimination laws for holding to orthodox beliefs on human sexuality. Even more suffer severe financial challenges due to dropping enrollment, diminished donations, and rising costs. The difficulties at schools like The King’s College in New York City and Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill., demonstrate these challenges.

The upheaval only will continue. Thus, Christian colleges are asking tough questions about how to stay open. But as so many Christian educational institutions face upheaval, even extinction, we must ask anew: What are Christian colleges for?

Answering this question requires a vision of education through the lens of Scripture and in relationship to the church. In America, one churchman who had such a vision was George Washington Doane, who served as the second bishop of New Jersey in the Protestant Episcopal Church from 1832 to 1859. Alongside his pastoral duties, Doane taught at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., as well as helping to found both Burlington College and Doane Academy in New Jersey.

In a series of addresses for Burlington, Doane gave a comprehensive and cohesive description of Christian collegiate education, one that can inform us in today’s crisis.

First, Doane said Christian colleges must see the centrality of God in all learning. “Education is a divine thing,” he argued. God bestows the authority for education, through Him we receive the means to education, and in Him we find the ultimate object of education. We must not turn aside toward trends that entice by promising to draw students or donors in conformity with social or cultural developments.

Instead, Christian education must always act in a posture of dependent humility on God, since, Doane noted, “All human means are ineffectual” in themselves for “God, alone … can bestow the increase.” Along these lines, Doane emphasized the centrality of God’s means of grace in Christian learning, that “Its rule is God's most holy Word. Its fountains, for the spiritual life, are the holy Sacraments. Its atmosphere is holy prayer.”

Doane envisioned an education that at once was spiritual, scholastic, and practical.

Second, Christian colleges can and must see their education as comprehensive. Doane envisioned an education that at once was spiritual, scholastic, and practical. As spiritual, it sought first to serve the Church in its mission of proclaiming the gospel. Christian colleges thus must teach students to understand man’s fall and make known God’s redemption in Christ, sanctification by the Holy Spirit, and final reunion with God in eternity. This point means education cannot merely inform the mind but must facilitate holy habits and dispositions.

As an academic enterprise, a Christian college’s curriculum, according to Doane, “sweeps the circle of sound learning.” God is the God of the mind and the heart because he is the object of all learning. So, we must study all academic disciplines, seeing all knowledge displaying God’s character, will, and majesty. This sweep, this completeness recognized the diversity God bestowed on human capacities, seeing each one’s particular capacity for the good works to which God has called us. Finally, as practical, Christian colleges must educate to prepare students for lives as workers and members of a community. Doane declared that humans were made for action, to put their minds to deeds. Together, the practical applied the scholastic even as it served the spiritual in growing and strengthening the Church.

George Washington Doane

George Washington Doane Wikimedia Commons

Thirdly, Doane declared that Christian education includes a political obligation. He criticized those who would make “civil government confined to this life, and for men; a thing apart from God!”—thereby saying Scripture said nothing to the political sphere and thus the church had no role in relation to it. By contrast, he referred to Burlington as “a nursery, for young Americans.” It would inculcate a love of liberty wed to duty as understood by God’s Word and in nature. Incorporating these purposes into Christian colleges was not “selling out” to the world or “immanentizing the eschaton.” It simply recognized God’s provision of government, the blessings received from Him through our own Constitution, and the need to perpetuate those goods as much as God permits.

Fourth and finally, Doane also argued that Christian schools must show practical wisdom in how they operate. Faithful intentions, even a good curriculum, aren’t enough. He acknowledged that schools like Burlington “need pecuniary aid” and that “it requires efficient men” to run it. Christian colleges are not wrong to consider the financial requirements to operate. They must. A good mission isn’t enough in itself. But it is vital to a healthy Christian college spiritually, academically, and financially.

The rough times will not end soon for Christian colleges. But Bishop Doane gives us a foundation for defending their present and future. In light of his principles, let us pray for these schools’ renewal. Let us strive for that renewal. And let it be for the glory of God, the maker of minds and hearts, the ultimate fount of wisdom.

Adam M. Carrington

Adam M. Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published by Lexington Books in 2017. In addition to scholarly publications, his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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