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The Christian University Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 30 September 2011


Adapted from remarks given on September 23, 2011 at the installation of Myron Steeves as the new Dean of Trinity Law School.

As is evident by where and how we mark this event – in a church, accompanied by prayer and song – Trinity Law School, and the university of which it is a part, is Christian. “Christian” may seem a mere adjective that modifies “university” or “law school” in the same way that “regional” or “California” might.  This temptation arises from a belief – widely held, though rarely challenged, in contemporary culture – that a Christian school is just a secular school except with idiosyncratic accouterments, such as mandatory chapel, rules about personal moral conduct, and a commitment to a list of religious dogmas to which its faculty must subscribe. Although these differences are of no small consequence, they are not, or ought not to be, at the heart of an institution that considers itself seriously Christian.  

Let me offer for your consideration the following thesis: A Christian school regards theology as a legitimate academic discipline that informs and illuminates, and is organically connected to, all the other disciplines of the university in the same ways that those other disciplines are connected to each other.

My point is the same one offered by John Henry Cardinal Newman in his masterly Idea of a University (1852). Newman argued that if theology is knowledge, then a Christian university should treat theology no differently than it treats other disciplines, such as chemistry, physics, law, medicine, English Literature, or social work. To think of theology as merely personal and private – rising only slightly higher than matters of taste – excludes theology from the realm of “knowledge,” and thus renders it less serious than other academic disciplines.

A Christian school is not simply a secular school with activities and traditions gratuitous to the project of learning. Rather, the Christian school brings to bear the resources of its theological tradition in ways that a secular institution cannot do. For this reason, a secular university is not a neutral institution, but one that deliberately excludes from consideration the deliverances of theological reflection. It is driven by a different, though partly overlapping, cluster of assumptions about the universe, human beings, the life of virtue, and our highest good.

Consider, for example, the legal question that was faced by the 9th circuit of appeals in a 2002 case, Newdow v. Elk Grove Unified School District. The court ruled that the district’s requirement that each day students recite the Pledge of Allegiance violates the Establishment Clause because the pledge includes the phrase, “under God,” even though any student may opt out. The court’s inability to see the important philosophical questions that lurk behind this phrase is quite curious. Secularism constrained its vision.


           Trinity Law School

Congress added the phrase “under God” to the pledge in 1954 to distinguish the American view of rights from the Soviets’:

[T]he principles underlying our American Government and the American way of life are under attack by a system whose philosophy is at direct odds with our own. Our American Government is founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being. Underlying this concept is the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp. The inclusion of God in our pledge therefore would further acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon the moral directions of the Creator. At the same time it would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism with its attendant subservience of the individual.

At a Christian law school, these points would not be dismissed as mere religious assertions by Congress for which the believer cannot offer reasonable arguments, which is how the Newdow court saw them. Rather, these points would be viewed as tethered to live questions that are both serious and intriguing, no different in kind to other jurisprudential questions that are addressed in both secular and Christian institutions. The Christian sees the notion that God is the ground of our rights as no less rationally defensible than substantive due process, Richard Posner’s economic theory of torts, or H. L. A. Hart’s legal positivism. 

Because a Christian school is part of an identifiable intellectual tradition that consists of settled, partially-settled as well as open questions, its understanding of academic freedom will have different contours than in the secular academy. In the latter, there is an initial appearance of unfettered liberty, until one examines the institution’s intellectual infrastructure – and how that places restraints on the community by informing its members as to what questions are settled, partially-settled, or open as well as the punitive consequences for transgressing these boundaries.

For example, in 2010 at the University of Illinois a religion professor was initially terminated on the grounds that he had the temerity to present to his students the Catholic understanding of human sexuality in a class that covers Catholic moral theology. In another case that same year, an accomplished astronomer was denied employment at the University of Kentucky because some at the university believed that he had publicly entertained doubts about certain aspects of neo-Darwinianism in lectures on the relationship between science and theology. This Evangelical Christian professor, who eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement, was punished for engaging theology with academic seriousness, precisely the sort of activity that is welcomed and encouraged at a Christian institution committed to a different and, dare I say, richer and more expansive intellectual tradition. Thus, these sorts of disputes are not really about academic freedom. They are about what counts as an open question and what sorts of intellectual resources one may plumb in exploring such questions.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
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written by Manfred, September 30, 2011
Thank you for an interesting article, Prof. Beckwith. If I am correct, Trinity Law School is an Evangelical Christian Law School which I am not sure was made clear. The matter becomes cloudy when you cite, perhaps innocently, John Henry Cardinal Newman and his Idea of a University. Was he writing of a Catholic University or a generic Christian University? I believe it was the former. The quote I prefer from Newman is "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." Many of the problems the true Church faces today began with the Reformation. As a result,the secular world looks upon religion as problematic and we all live with the result.
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written by Marie, October 01, 2011
I don't think Prof. Beckwith's presentation was cloudy at all. His point, if I am understanding him correctly, is that while secular universities often portray themselves as bastions of academic freedom, the truth is that secular education is impoverished. It is impoverished due to the refusal to engage with theological insight. Rather than a "neutral" position, the secular university "deliberately excludes" a worldview grounded in the legitimate academic tradition of theology. This fact can be established regardless of whether one is speaking of an Evangelical or Catholic school, as the problem is really one of atheism and scientific elitism.
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, October 01, 2011
Marie is correct. Thank you!
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written by Manfred, October 02, 2011
Thank you Marie and Prof. Beckwith. Let us take this logic to the next step. If it doesn't matter whether the school is Evangelical or Catholic, would a Yeshiva suffice as well? After all, the teaching would not be "neutral" and the teaching would be grounded in a theology. Of course, this theology excludes the Trinity and does not agree that Christ was/is the Messiah, but the teaching would not be secular. I thought the purpose of a religious education was to teach and learn the Truth.
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written by Martinkus, October 03, 2011
Wouldn't Newman amend Professor Beckwith's thesis to: A Christian school regards theology as a legitimate academic discipline that COMPLETES AND PERFECTS the other academic disciplines? A truly Christian university would teach not only history, but also the theology of history; not only physics, but also the theology of physics; etc. While having every member of every department so competent and committed might be too idealistic, surely every Christian university could have at least one member in each department who is competent and committed enough to synthesize Faith and Reason as Reason is expressed in that particular discipline.
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written by Paul, October 08, 2011
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a "seriously Christian" educational institution. I challenge you to find such an institution proclaimed as such in the Holy Bible. Theology, under any auspices, is a man made exercise to exegete Biblical principles. A man's seriousness has nothing to do with the truth of his relationship to God through Jesus Christ. It therefore follows that a serious Christian institution of higher learning is no more hallowed than a secular academia, despite the romantic notions to the contrary. Christian courses in civil engineering are not superior to secular civil engineering. There is only one kind of Christian knowledge and that is knowledge of Christ. "None can come to the Father..." says it all. Supremacy is in Christ Jesus. He alone is the "academia" we seek. Much of the error and sin of modern man is tied to the institutionalization, and may I say, the fetishization of Christian identity. Learning is a human activity. It does not serve us to get into the game of judging one institution more serious about Christ than another. This is divisive and self-defeating, because it is sinful and counter to Christ's teachings. neither Christian nor secular educational institutions are appropriate places for Christianity to flourish. Christianity is not academic knowledge. It is identity with Christ. It is achieved, once and for all, by complete surrender to Jesus, the only "serious" activity that He requires.

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