Monday, September 8, 2014

Christianity and Education, 5 Caveats

I was listening to a John Piper sermon recently that really made me think.  He was pondering the difficultness (to start out this post on education, why don't we use a word that's not really a word?) of a section of Romans.  And that led him to reflect on the history of education.  In Piper's worldview, authentic Christianity is an extremely powerful force for education in the world.  He gave several examples.  One of them (and I didn't know this) was that Wycliffe is the most educated organization in the world (at least at the time of him preaching that sermon).  And if you look at the general pattern of where Christianity has been and where education is today in the world, they do seem to match up.

(Dark green is super-educated; source = wikipedia; image has an open copyright.)

But here are some important caveats:

(1) Education is God's gift to mankind - not God's gift to Christians.  We can't just ignore the major advances that have happened in history completely independent of the Christian worldview. Ancient Greece.  Ancient Egypt.  These were all without the light of biblical Christianity.

(2) What about Medieval Christianity?  Not the most educated society... Many "forms" of Christianity are not biblical Christianity.  Medieval Christianity was mostly not authentic Christianity.  Our "religion of the book" didn't do too well until Gutenburg and Erasmus came along and put it in everyone's hands.  Hence, education in the middle ages only flourished as much as did the copies of Bible.  So when people point at the lull of educational advancement when Christianity "took over Europe", just tell them to define their terms.  "Which kind of Christianity are you talking about?  Biblical Christianity or the knock-off version a bunch of monks and kings made up in the fourth through the fifteenth century?"

(2) What about the Global South?  Not the most educated society... Again, many "forms" of Christianity are not biblical Christianity.  I think a lot of people don't realize the extent of the negative impact that some forms of Pentecostal Christianity could have on the world a few centuries from now.  Any time you elevate the work of the Spirit to the extent that intense study of the Bible is no longer necessary for vitality of Christian fellowship, you're straying from biblical Christianity. [1]  And this lack of urgency about biblical study isn't just dangerous doctrine, it's a bad witness.  Right now, we have it nice because the map above pretty much shows that where Christianity has gone, so has education.  But in a hundred years, that may no longer be the case.  Our atheist friends may be wondering, "Um, Christianity has been in the global south for a couple centuries and, well, look - there's still little to no education there.  So what was that point you were telling me about Christianity being a positive force for education?"

But what if, instead, they were converted by true biblical Christianity?  What if in a hundred to two hundred years from now, the global south was where some of the best universities are?  I realize poverty and lack of centuries worth of tradition may make that impossible, but I would like to see the world's educational trend basically follow the path of where Christianity has gone.  It would be a sad thing if, through a false dichotomy between biblical study and religious experience, we not longer see the spread of education follow the spread of Christianity.

(4) What about early Islam?  This is an interesting question to me.  I don't know much about early Islam, but what I do know is that last year, Anna and I got to visit Al Azhar - the oldest university in the world (founded 975 A.D.)  And I also know that they had the best of the educational institutions in the world during their time.  The Christians, sadly, didn't hold a candle.  Now - I have three thoughts on this one, and I'm not completely solid on any one of them.  Here they go: (1) is that "good for them", they should be allowed to have good education.  Education is for everyone, not just Christians.  (2) They inherited the education of the Greco-Roman world when the conquered the Mediterranean lands.  So isn't this just what you'd expect?  (3) They had a stable society.  This is actually my next point.

(5) Education flourishes best in stable societies.  An interesting counter argument to this is to ask why Greece was able to have such a rich culture in the midst of the crazy wars between Sparta and Athens.  So I think there may be exceptions to the rules, but in general, I think you have to see that where there has been peace, there has been the resting of books and the space for pen and paper.  This is actually the primary cause church historians attribute to the proliferate heresy of the patristic period of the church (70 A.D.-300 A.D.)  There have been some amazing Systematic Theologies produced down through the ages.  I don't know any of them who wrote them while being hunted down.  I truly doubt Calvin could have produced his Institutes had he actually been living in France.  It takes a certain amount of peace for academic theology to flourish.  I'm not saying the Spirit doesn't preserve during those times.  And persecution is God's means of cleansing us and helping us identify with Christ.  Still, the record of history shows that it usually has a negative impact on the fruition of orthodox culture.

[1] I need to emphasize that this is only some parts of the Pentecostal movement.  There are many good traditions within the Pentecostal movement that place a strong emphasis on education, especially in the scriptures.  This has especially been true in the last fifty years.


  1. As further examples of what you're saying, famed scholars like Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo believed at least "some form" of Christianity, and they definitely contributed to education with their scientific and mathematical advances! In fact, I've read that a lot of early scientists performed their research because they believed they could learn more about their Creator by gaining a better understanding of His Creation.

    And as an addendum to your comments about education and monks during the Middle Ages, it was usually the monasteries that preserved literacy and education. Granted, monasteries may not have provided the best education, but that was where the young men who could afford it went to gain "higher" education. -Natalie

    1. Very well-said, Natalie. I couldn't agree more. With both points.