Review: The Idea of a Christian College

Holmes, Arthur F. The Idea of a Christian College. Revised edition. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987. 106pp. $10.00.

Arthur F. Holmes’ The Idea of a Christian College offers a proposal for how a liberal, Christian education should be defined and practiced. This revised edition comes more than ten years after the first edition was published in 1975. The revision contains Holmes’ response to the many students and teachers who had read the earlier edition and had urged Holmes’ to clarify and expand his initial ideas (back cover). In this edition, “The author has extensively revised several chapters, has eliminated one-gender language, and has included two new chapters: ‘Liberal Arts as Career Preparation’ and ‘The Marks of an Educated Person’” (back cover). As Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Wheaton College, Holmes brings the perspective of an experienced educator to this work. The following review will summarize Holmes’ argument and critically evaluate some of his more salient points.

Holmes’ basic contention is that a Christian College should endeavor to be both liberal and Christian in its approach to higher education. The burden of the book is to set forth a vision of what a liberal, Christian education is and how it should be realized in Christian institutions of higher learning. Holmes’ writes, “we must explore what ‘liberal education’ means and how it is affected by the Christian’s task” (6). So in Chapter 1, Holmes attempts to ask and answer the question, “Why a Christian College?” (3-12). In Chapter 2, Holmes sets forth what he sees as the “Theological Foundations” (13-22) under girding the idea of a Christian college, “I want in this chapter to unfold the biblical and theological mandate for Christian involvement in higher education in general, as well as for the Christian liberal arts college in particular” (13). In Chapter 3 (23-36), Holmes gives a definition of liberal education, “Liberal learning concerns itself with truth and beauty and goodness, which have intrinsic worth to people considered as persons rather than as workers or in whatever function alone” (28). Thus Holmes asserts, “The question to ask about education, then, is not ‘What can I do with all this stuff anyway?’ . . . but rather ‘What will all this stuff do to me?’” In Chapter 4 (37-44), the author contends that although “purely vocational training” is an insufficient basis for forming an educational philosophy (37), liberal education can provide students excellent training for a career after college (38). In Chapter 5, Holmes expounds how faith and learning should be integrated in the Christian liberal arts college (45-60). In Chapter 6, the author contends that “Academic Freedom” must be preserved even within a confessional context (61-76). In Chapter 7, Holmes asserts the fundamental importance of community in the experience of higher education (77-86). In Chapter 8 (87-98), the author rejects the pragmatism of educational theorist John Dewey and argues that “raw experience is not enough” to produce an educated person (97). And finally in Chapter 9, Holmes describes what he thinks are “The Marks of an Educated Person” (99-104).

Evaluation & Critique
Holmes has produced a work worthy of contemplation by any person wishing to work in Christian Higher education. His section on “Avoiding Pitfalls” in Chapter 1 will be helpful to any person seriously considering the topic of Christian education. In it he disabuses the reader of erroneously held assumptions about the purpose of Christian education (4-7). Separatistic evangelicals will do well to heed Holmes’ call to leave behind the “fortress” mentality of early fundamentalists, “The mistake in cloistering young people to keep them from sin and heresy, as evangelicals—of all people—should realize, is that these things come ultimately not from the environment but out of the heart” (5). Thus Holmes’ is correct to argue that “to offer a good education plus biblical studies in an atmosphere of piety” (5) falls prey to the secular impulse to compartmentalize religion and treat it as “peripheral or even irrelevant to large areas of life and thought” (9). Holmes presents a compelling case that Christian education rightly conceived does not disintegrate into the “heterogeneity” of viewpoints that substitutes a “multiversity” for a “university” (9). For Christians, “the integration of faith and learning remains the distinctive task of the Christian liberal arts college” (10). This argument, which is made in various ways throughout the book, is the most valuable feature of this short work.

Probably the most glaring weakness of the work is the numerous times in which Holmes makes significant assertions without providing biblical, philosophical, or theological warrant. This problem emerges perhaps most clearly in Chapter 7 where Holmes asserts what the basis of community is. In his discussion, he defines Christian love as “a moral virtue, not just, and sometimes not at all, a warm quality to one’s feelings. It is the sort of moral concern for others’ well-being that motivates hard and sacrificial work . . . Love, then, is not community-feeling but an inner moral attitude and commitment” (80). This series of assertions is certainly disputable, but the casual reader may not realize how debatable these statements are when he finds absolutely no biblical and theological support. These lines are set forth as declarations, as if every Christian reader would certainly agree with the anthropological assumptions under girding the statements. These unsupported remarks provide the grounds for Holmes’ point about the basis for community, “It is not feelings of love that create community, but community that creates feelings of love” (80). Holmes supposes that love arises as an act of the will in disjunction from the “emotion” of the heart. This is a philosophical/theological/anthropological construct that could use some support from Scripture before it is set forth as the basis of Christian community.

In Chapter 9 is another example of an unsubstantiated assertion. Holmes writes, “Intense pleasure may be the excellence appropriate to lower animals. But in humans excellence is found by moral and intellectual development that guides my decisions and actions” (101). First of all, it is not at all clear what Holmes means by terms like “pleasure” and “excellence.” Second of all, it looks once again as if Holmes assumes an anthropological disjunction between what Jonathan Edwards called the “affections” and the human will. If the author proposes to set forth “the purpose of education,” then one would hope that the author would not make unsupported anthropological assumptions that may not be shared by his readers.

Overall, this revised edition of The Idea of a Christian College is an excellent book. Although the author at times makes important theological assertions without adequate support, the bulk of the work is carefully argued. The central thesis concerning liberal, Christian education deserves the attention of anyone seeking to work in Christian education.


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