Christian Academic Relativism

“We are not here to teach you what to believe, but how to think.”

I’ve heard this maxim repeatedly during my time in higher education. At face value, this may seem like a noble philosophy. Indeed, many educators who hold to this are well-meaning. The lesson to be learned is that educators exist to give you the tools to think for yourself, rather than simply telling you what to believe. In short, it’s not the educator’s responsibility to do the work for you. The purpose of education is to provide a foundation for learning; equipping learners with the means of charting out their own theological courses. I believe this philosophy is right and good, to an extent.

It’s foolish to pit “how to think” vs. “what to believe” against each other. Everyone recognizes this. It’s impossible to think without a learned presupposition, just as it is impossible to believe something without thinking. The “how to think” teaching philosophy errs by over-emphasizing the importance of individual exploration (personal thoughts, beliefs and ideas) to the extent that established belief systems are not even covered. In many cases, they are simply assumed. Sometimes learners aren’t even warned against dangerous or potentially dangerous belief patterns.

For example, many Christian educators fail to teach the dangers of heretical or contra-confessional doctrine, simply because they do not wish to impose existing belief patterns onto their learners. They attempt to create a learning atmosphere that is effectively neutral, as not to influence their students in a particular theological direction. This is a tragedy, especially considering the sheer amount of biblical illiteracy and false religion within society. But not only that, it’s impossible. It’s impossible for any communicator to withhold internal bias, and yet many educators combat this by being overly critical of their own theological traditions. This leaves learners feeling lost, confused, and searching for something different.

Everyone approaches learning with a vulnerable and fragile mind. God has created us to be impressionable. Education is meant to inform, broaden, and challenge the mind. However, it’s also the educator’s duty to protect. It would be unloving for an educator to allow a student to pursue erroneous, unsound or dangerous belief systems without a gentle nudge or loving rebuke. For example, if one of my daughters decided that communism was a viable economic ideology, I would do my best to convince her otherwise. I would not take a “hands off” approach, refusing to impose my beliefs on her. I am not implying that every teacher is responsible for the beliefs and ideas of their students, but I am suggesting that teachers take up the responsibility of protecting their learners.

Relativistic Academic Posture

Non-assertive teaching philosophies fit nicely within our relativistic age. Our postmodern world abhors truth claims, doctrinal/dogmatic statements of faith, and especially their imposition. Our culture places a premium on openness, and the last thing anyone wants to be accused of is intolerance. This is especially true within the academy. The “proper” academic standpoint is to hesitate when making assertions and suspend judgement on the most erroneous of beliefs. For example, I once sat in a class with a professor who refused to call modalism heresy. He certainly believed it was heresy, but he had an allergy against making such judgments. Another professor of mine refused to use the term “inerrancy”, simply because it was frowned upon by intellectual elites. Dogmatic assertions are not fashionable within the tolerant academic sphere.

G.K. Chesterton once famously quipped, “Do not be so open-minded that your brain falls out.” For many colleges and universities, Chesterton’s words were prophetic. Unfortunately, Christian education has not been immune to this academic posture. “Enlightened” theological professors led the way in liberalizing the mainline church and their universities. To be honest, I often wonder if this drift is inevitable for Christian schools seeking to maintain their reputations within the academic sector.

Bridle

In his introduction to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Thomas Manton wrote  

“how careful should ministers and parents be to train up young ones whilst they are yet pliable, and, like wax, capable of any form and impression, in the knowledge and fear of God; and betimes to instill the principles of our most holy faith, as they are drawn into a short sum in Catechisms, and so altogether laid in the view of conscience! Surely these seeds of truth planted in the field of memory, if they work nothing else, will at least be a great check and bridle to them, and, as the casting in of cold water doth stay the boiling of the pot, somewhat allay the fervors of youthful lusts and passions.”

Manton brings up a long forgotten aspect of education: to bridle. Reformed Christians catechize their children in order that they may know and fear God, and understand the principles of the Christian faith. Catechisms serve as a safeguard against doctrinal error; error which would be detrimental to their faith. In the same way, educators should seek to broaden the minds of their learners, while remaining within established biblical and theological grounds. It is good that many Christian colleges require their faculty to “sign on” to particular confessions of faith, but do they require faculty to actually teach these confessions? It’s entirely possible for an educator to agree with a particular statement of faith, while teaching outside confessional bounds. Sometimes educators will do this in order to promote a neutral approach, kowtowing to the relativistic academic milieu. But not only is that impossible, it’s simply not practical. The single-greatest determining factor for students seeking graduate education is “What will they teach me?”

In short, Christian educators shouldn’t take a laissez-faire approach when instructing their students. Millennials are starving for rich biblical and theological content, rooted in history and tradition. Why am I writing this? Because I have seen too many colleagues abandon the ministry and even the faith due seeds of doubt sown during their graduate education. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our theological traditions, and we should seek to pass them on!

Charles Stover is a seminary student and pastoral care intern at Kirk of the Hills, St. Louis MO. Before transitioning to the PCA, Charles served as an ordained minister within the Southern Baptist Convention.

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