Book Review: “Christian Higher Education” edited by David Dockery

Christian Higher Education: Faith, Teaching, and Learning in the Evangelical Tradition, edited by David Dockery and Christopher Morgan, in some ways has all the strengths and weaknesses of any large, edited, volume. It probably goes without saying that in a volume like this, some of the essays are well-written and useful while others are much less so. It also covers a lot of territory.  The first part (chapters 1-6) gives a historical, theological, and philosophical overview of the place of “higher education in the Evangelical tradition.” The second part (chapters 7-18) explores the relationship between faith and teaching both in general and in specific fields. These fields include the humanities, sciences, math, social science, philosophy, the arts, education, and adult/professional learning. The final part (chapters 19-27) is a sort-of catch-all section, covering faith, learning, and:

  • catechesis,
  • worship,
  • service,
  • living,
  • leadership,
  • the world,
  • ethics,
  • culture,
  • the church,
  • intercultural approaches,
  • missions,
  • the global church.

Like I said, it covers a lot of ground.

Christian Higher Education clearly falls in with the growing number of calls for the revival of higher education, whether from Evangelicals (as with Restoring the Soul of the University) or mainstream scholars (as with The University We Need, reviewed here, or Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America). Christian Higher Education fits in well with these other works and is a useful addition that should be read by those interested in the shape of present and future university life. Its wide-ranging coverage means it is all the more important, as it will appeal to Christian educators across the spectrum of disciplines.


With that said, there are some arguments to be had with this book, which largely center around its surprising lack of viewpoint diversity. By that, I don’t mean to complain about a lack of theological diversity—this is a book by and for Evangelicals (and mostly by Evangelicals working at Trinity International University). So the non-inclusion of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and other voices isn’t what I mean.

I do mean, however, to suggest that the authors are all working, explicitly or implicitly, from the same set of assumptions about the nature and role of the university in society and in the Christian life. I am not entirely convinced that these assumptions are necessarily settled answers to agreed-upon questions (see below). That’s not to say the editors were necessarily wrong to approach the topic in this way. The authors’ established agreement on core principles leaves them free to dig deeper into more specific topics and so cover a larger swath of academia. Bringing in people with fundamental disagreements would also have been an interesting book, but it wouldn’t have been this one.

Which isn’t going to stop me from disagreeing with the fundamental assumption of the book. Namely, the position from which the authors are working, stated repeatedly in multiple chapters, is that the function of the university is to shape the whole person according to the image of God.

“A student should expect to grow not only academically and intellectually but also personally, emotionally, and spiritually. Holistic growth and development is the desire outcome. For the college context, when graduates walk across the stage at commencement, the expectation is that they have become more ready than they were when they first arrived not only to embrace the academic and professional challenges that they will face next but also to tackle life challenges that they will encounter as they transition into adulthood.” (409)

Leaving aside the last phrase (which is out-and-out rubbish; if you’re not already an adult you ought not be in college to begin with), beginning with this kind of assumption leads to a number of conclusions which are problematic at best. For example, when considering the job of a faculty member, the argument is made that he is to be

“a wise mentor who lovingly participates in God’s formative work in the lives of students. this mentoring flows out of the faculty member’s own reception of God’s love and includes three practices. First, professors should regularly help students discover who they are as those who are saved by God and dear to God’s purposes. Second, professors should help students love their particular field…. Third, professors should provide soul care, which [is] ‘the wisdom about how to combine multiple identities so that one can live a life of integrity and meaning.'” (157)

Now I’m not sure what kind of touchy-feeley nonsense goes on at some Christian schools, but my job isn’t to help students discover who they are, to help them love whatever field they pick, or to “provide soul care” by teaching them how to be all the people they are in one honest and meaningful person. My job is to teach them about Congress.

Look, I understand that for an administrator, a birds-eye view of the University is going to be broader by definition, and must include things like student life, dining, chapel, activities, etc (most of which are not included in this book, for whatever that’s worth). In that case, it is maybe—maybe—appropriate to talk about the formation of the whole person according to the imago dei as a function of the University.

But I also understand that my function as a professor is far more limited than the authors of this book think it is. If, for example, one of my students were to go and rob a bank over the weekend, I would not necessarily feel the need to do extensive soul-searching and ask myself if I need to think about incorporating a “here’s why we don’t rob banks” section into my courses. I realize that there are administrators educators who do think such things, but I also (uncharitably) suspect that these thoughts are shaped at least as much by liability concerns as they are by the desire to prevent the rise of the next Bonnie and Clyde from within the ranks of Christian college students. This is not to say I particularly want my students to go out and rob a bank. It is just to say that it is not my job in my capacity as a college professor to form or not to form the student in that way.

Related to this is a second objection. Of course in any traditional university setting, the shaping of the whole person is going to happen simply because it four years of an individual’s life are spent in a unique environment.

“A Christian school has the opportunity to deepen a student’s understanding of who God is and the core truths about him. In turn, as students grow in their understanding of who God is, they cannot help but grow in their understanding of who they are… As faculty and staff weave together God’s story with the curriculum, modelling the way to live out their call as Christ followers, students are able to learn and observe what it looks like to take on the form of a servant rather than keep the idol of the self on the throne of their lives.
College is one of the unique times in life when a person is able to live in community with like-minded individuals, grow intellectually in the knowledge of God and the world, and pursue a deepened spiritual walk all at the same time. If students choose, they can embrace this unique time and not just grow intellectually but also seek to grow more fully into who they were created to be. The Christian college offers students a more holistic understanding of who they are and who they are becoming as they are called to further reflect the very one who created them.” (428-429, emphasis added)

Again, I understand that there is an apparent logistical sense in which this is true. Four years in one place with people your own age under the instruction of older, professional Christians does sound like the opportunity for special spiritual instruction.
And yet, I think what has happened here is that the University has tried to seize a role that does not properly belong to it. There is an institution where we should commune together—not just for four years, but for our entire lives after conversion—where we can grow together, be shaped by more mature believers, and submit ourselves to the guidance of Scripture under qualified authorities. I mean, of course, the church. 

And I think this is a deeply important point. If we see the role of a university as that of functionally (even if not explicitly) sanctifying believers and transforming the world, we are going to have a radically different perspective of what it does than if we see the role of the university as being that of service, whether to the church or to society as a whole. As a further example, consider the definition of teaching as

“collaborative investigation leading to practiced wisdom under the triune God’s care for the sake of others.” (151)

I do think there is something good to that definition, but I also think that a different definition would practically lead to a very different institutional approach. For example, what if instead we were to say that in the context of a Christian university:

teaching is collaborative investigation leading to practiced wisdom under the triune God’s care for the Glory of God and the good of His church.

And to anticipate the objection that the two definitions are really just different ways of saying the same thing: I admit there is overlap, but overlap is not equality of identity. I’ll further admit that the second definition leads to a special set of problems for me as a Baptist. What does it mean that a university serves “the church” when the only legitimate church is the local church? Does that restrict the field of the university to languages and the professions? (Fortunately, this isn’t the place to hammer these particular questions out.)

For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily disagree with everything that is said about teaching in Christian Higher Education. My hesitation comes with the trajectory it implies when combined with the other aspects of higher education discussed in the volume.

If it’s not clear from my fragmentary responses above, I need to think all of this through quite a bit more. (Which is another reason that Christian Higher Education is a helpful book, it’s certainly given me much to chew on.) To that end, my sizable gut says that a healthy dose of the Two Kingdoms theology would be useful in these sorts of discussions. In this view, the University is inherently a secular institution, a part of the city of man rather than of the City of God. Even if we slap the name “Christian” (or even “Presbyterian,” “Methodist,” or “Baptist”) on it and staff it with people who are legitimately Christians, and only allow Christian students to join, it will still be a secular institution. This was the mistake the Puritans made in New England, and the mistake those of a transformationist mindset make today (apparently including some of the authors of this volume). What’s more, the material we teach (as most of the authors in this book admit) is likewise solidly a part of the city of man. To stick with my own discipline, there’s nothing inherently “Christian” about either Congress as an institution, about its function in the republic, or about established methods of studying it. I am a Christian who teaches about Congress, and I like to think that to some extent that means that there are ways in which I will be a better teacher (Lord willing I will be harder working and more honest that I would have been had I not been a Christian), but also to some extent it doesn’t matter. [Insert overused Luther statement about making shoes as a Christian here.]

Again, I clearly need to think this through more.


There are a few other points here and there that could have used some tinkering as well. For example, Christian Higher Education is big on “mission.” That term isn’t unique to higher ed, of course. It’s quite trendy these days to be on “mission.” But as with previous trends (remember when “tribal” was a big deal?), I think changing our terms can affect the direction we’re trying to go, whether we intend it to or not.

“When mission operates at the center of a Christian organization, we are often surprised to find profound solidarity among our peers in the midst of hard work. Mission—not the ideals of Christians community—galvanizes people. Common cause—not common interests—brings people together. Mission unites, and in the pursuit of our mission, we discover community.” (392)

I certainly agree that we need something more fundamental than “common interests” to bind us together. But “mission” is a fuzzy word. Defining it does not help either:

“The mission of God represents a holistic sharing with others the human flourishing that Christ makes possible.” (388)

I don’t particularly disagree with either of these statements if taken the right way. But again, I think we find ourselves on a trajectory that does make us a bit nervous. Might it not be better to scale back the use of “mission” and pick up some older (and much more useful) terms like “creed”, “confession,” and “pilgrim”? I don’t know exactly how to do the “holistic sharing” of “human flourishing”, whatever those things mean, but I do know that creeds and confessions are useful ways to equip pilgrims with Biblical truth as we travel together on our way from the city of destruction to the Celestial City. No doubt “mission” should be a part of that (so long as it is carefully and clearly defined), but I suspect that when we let “mission” replace or swallow up “confession,” we open the door for both cultural and theological compromise on the truth and begin to lose the characteristics that make Christian colleges uniquely Christian.

Another point where I’d like to hear a more extended discussion, albeit one that’s slightly less pervasive than some of the other points raised above, is the question of globalism. At least occasionally Christian Higher Education is concerned with international engagement:

“Those who have been taught and trained in Christ-centered colleges and universities will be aware of global movements and trends and bring a Christian ethic and practice to global engagement…. Christian college graduates will practice responsible citizenship both in their own country and as global citizens. This will require an awareness of the political and social realities at home, wherever that may be, and throughout the world.” (492)

I understand this to some extent (and it’s undoubtedly connected with the idea of “mission”—discussed above—being tied to the Great Commission), but I also understand that this is a discussion that individual universities need to have: just what is our function? Should we really be primarily trying to equip people to work in “the world”? Or should we primarily be rooted in the place where we are? To use my school as an example, should we be more concerned with sending people to far off nations, or with entrenching people in Southwest Missouri? Here of course is where our service to the church becomes relevant. One thing Christian universities certainly should be doing is equipping missionaries with tools (usually at least including languages) which churches are often not able to provide. And yet, that is only ever going to be a small portion of the student population of any given university. The bulk of what most Christian universities do is going to involve placing students in professions in the region. So it may be the case that when everyone and their dog is educating for cosmopolitanism, perhaps some institutions ought to step up and be intentionally, robustly, provincial. Connectedness with the world at large and rootedness in a specific, local place are not automatically mutually exclusive, but I’m afraid that the former has swallowed up the latter, at least in the minds of those who are thinking about what universities do.

Finally, at least some of the calls in this book  are… overly optimistic. For example:

“We must equip and support Christian professors who want to enter into public universities, where a Christian-based scholarship will be even more difficult and challenging.” (542)

It’s certainly worth a shot, I guess. But frankly the mainstream academy is less interested than ever in what Christians have to say. No less a scholar than Allen Guelzo writes:

“I had only just earned the PhD and was on the job market when my department’s graduate chairman took me aside, and in the kindliest terms, said, “I wish I didn’t have to say this, but you should know that the slightest hint of religion on your résumé is the kiss of death.”
In the years since I was given that advice, the shadows have only grown longer in the academic world. What we believe is now no longer merely odd, but discriminatory, and therefore fair game to be discriminated against.”

Which isn’t to say Christian academics shouldn’t keep slogging away at the hard work of doing rigorous study. We should just do so with eyes open as to our chances of receiving recognition my mainstream academia.

So, long review short: Christian Higher Education is worthwhile, but it is worthwhile not just for its substantive content but also for the discussion I hope it sets off.

1 thought on “Book Review: “Christian Higher Education” edited by David Dockery

  1. A good, thoroughgoing overview of the book. It certainly focuses on the role of Evangelical colleges in the academic, spiritual, and emotional “training” of traditionally-aged college students, and I would agree that this is not really the “mission” of the university. By way of my own background, I’ve been fortunate enough to have taught at just about every sort of college or university in existence, including two very well-known Christian universities. Please know that I’m not saying that there are not fantastic scholars at those universities, whose academic work is rigorous and well-researched. But – and I realize that this is something that comes out of my own experiences and thoughts – what is missing in the “Christian” university is what other universities deem essential – freedom of inquiry.

    Any college or university that has a Statement of Faith (and just about all such Christian institutions do) has an existential problem. When you take one of the biggest questions in all of human existence and start your inquiry by saying that there is only one valid answer and nobody at the university can question the validity of that answer, you’re placing a hard limit on freedom of inquiry. At its worst, the Statement of Faith functions in a way that leads to “scholarship” that starts with those given “answers” and backfills “facts” to support them. At its worst, it removes anyone who dares to think in different or larger ways about the nature of god and human existence. I reached a point in my spiritual development and in my academic development that I could no longer tolerate being in that type of a system.

    I realize that others’ mileage may vary…it obviously suits others very well, but in the Age of Trump it seems that the “Christian” university (much like Evangelicalism as a whole) has a number of very difficult issues with which it must grapple. When it does not grapple with them (like a few high-profile institutions that seem to have traded their mission for political influence), it becomes something completely other than a “university.”

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