Can There Be a Christian University? -- By: D. A. Carson
SBJT 1:3 (Fall 1997) p. 20
Can There Be a Christian University?1
D. A. Carson is Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of numerous commentaries and monographs, and is one of the country’s foremost New Testament scholars.
At a pragmatic level, we all know what universities are: institutions of various sizes that deliver tertiary level education. In the same way that we have Christian primary schools and Christian secondary schools, so also we have a few Christian tertiary schools, i.e. Christian universities. Why ask if there “can be” something that we already have?
Yet there has long been a complex literature on what a university is. Any serious answer to the question posed in the title of this essay will not be merely pragmatic; it will take on something of the definitional, even of the prescriptive.
History and Definition
At the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries, Western universities were born. They began either as Cathedral Schools (e.g. the University of Paris, which grew out of the Cathedral of Notre Dame; Oxford University) or at least as small colleges where all the teaching was undertaken by one religious order or another (e.g. Cambridge University). Theology was the queen of the sciences. The curriculum was essentially twofold: Scripture (and its interpretation) and nature. The theocentric assumptions held the educational vision together: this was the beginning of the university. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages and well into the Enlightenment period, the centrality of the Bible and of theology as that which held together the vision of intellectual endeavor was amply attested by two things: the ordering principles of the libraries and the shape of the curriculum. The libraries were ordered to give Scripture and theology the central place.2 As for the curriculum, the study of the Bible was early augmented by the study of profane texts, but still within a theological faculty. The theological faculty was soon augmented by faculties of law and of medicine. To this was added philosophy, as the handmaiden of theology. Philosophy soon expanded from the lower trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the higher quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) to include virtually whatever knowledge people wanted to subsume under its aegis. At least the lower trivium had to be mastered before one was thought ready for detailed study of theology; ideally, both the trivium and the quadrivium were studied before theology. Thus theology was the queen, the apex of study, the culminating unifier. Over the centu...
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