Douglas Groothuis review of Duane Litfin, Conceiving the Christian College
Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Philosophy, Denver Seminary.
[This review first appeared in Christian Scholar's Review, Volume XXXIV, Number 4 (Summer 2005).]
Readers of this journal have found in its pages a wealth of discussion on the nature of Christian education, the integration of faith and learning, and the philosophy and theology of the Christian college. Duane Litfin, an accomplished scholar and president of Wheaton College, has enriched this ongoing discussion greatly with this erudite, passionate, deeply biblical, and timely treatise on how to “conceive the Christian college.” It is heartening to find a president of a major Christian educational institution who has reflected so deeply on the foundational issues of Christian education and how the task of a Christian college relates to the broader educational culture and culture at large. This volume will certainly take its place next to other modern classics on the topic, such as The Idea of a Christian College by Arthur Holmes.
Before summarizing and commenting on the essential themes that Litfin addresses, I must underscore that his book takes one on an intellectual adventure. It will not only inform but will also inspire anyone interested in Christian education. This element of the book is rooted in two salient features of Litfin’s approach: (1) his wonder over the riches of Christ and the profundity of the biblical worldview and (2) his enthusiastic vision for distinctively Christian colleges. Although the book is deeply documented and does not shy away from in-depth analysis of various philosophical, theological, and cultural issues, it never bogs down into the pedantic or the pretentious. The writing is crisp, clear, and compelling from beginning to end. Despite the fact that Litfin is the president of Wheaton College, he does not use the book as a springboard to sell his own school. Even when he defends Wheaton against Alan Wolfe’s charge of ideological narrowness, he addresses the issue in a non-defensive manner that attempts to vindicate all evangelical colleges that require faculty members to sign evangelical statements of faith. And while Litfin is committed to evangelical higher education, he is deeply aware of and respectful toward other Protestant traditions and institutions as well as the Roman Catholic heritage in higher education.
Litfin begins by assessing two models of the Christian college. The “umbrella model” attempts to retain a basic Christian identity while not requiring all faculty members or students to adopt the institution’s religious heritage. These schools attempt to retain a particular religious ethos (serving as an umbrella) while allowing considerable diversity with respect to religious beliefs. While this model has its strengths (such as providing a forum for spirited debate on religious matters), Litfin defends the “systemic model,” which aspires to doctrinal consistency (but not uniformity) among its faculty members. These institutions “seek to make Christian thinking systemic through the institution, root, branch, and leaf” (18). This, of course, includes his own institution and those schools that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Litfin carefully explores the strengths and weakness of each model, and concludes that “Umbrella and Systemic institutions must not allow the critics to divide them. Each must stand in support of the other” (33). Nevertheless, the rest of the book develops a philosophy best suited, it seems, for Systemic institutions of the evangelical sort.
The remaining chapters give careful analysis to key phrases often heard (but not often understood or adequately applied) in Christian educational circles. The first of these, discussed in chapter three, is that education should be “Christ-centered.” Here Litfin takes up the challenge to “see more fully whom we serve,” and develops marvelously a biblical Christology for education. Litfin not only addresses key aspects of the person and work of Christ, but also displays a sense of wonder and praise throughout, which is infectious. While keenly appreciating the scholarship and theological acuity of this chapter, I found myself nearly “lost in wonder and praise” after finishing the chapter. In the next chapter, Litfin explores how Christian colleges must “keep the center at the center,” and argues for a deeply biblical “Christocentrism.” Litfin poignantly writes that “Jesus Christ is the only One who can serve as the centerpiece of an entire curriculum, the One to whom we must relate everything and without whom no fact, no theory, no subject matter can be fully grasped and appreciated. Christocentrism is what renders our thinking distinctively Christian” (84).
Chapter five engages “the well-worn shibboleth” that “All truth is God’s truth” (also the title of an excellent 1977 book by Arthur Holmes). Litfin claims that this punchy and pregnant statement has become a lazy slogan for some. To combat this, he explicates “ten fundamental claims” entailed by this statement. I will list them without comment in hope of enticing the reader to investigate Litfin’s concatenation of these ideas: (1) God exists. (2) Through the agency of his Son, God created the universe and all that is in it. (3) We can therefore entertain an intellectual construct called “reality.” (4) This reality is complex and multi-dimensional. (5) This reality, though complex and multi-dimensional, is also coherent and unified, centered upon the person of Jesus Christ. (6) God has created humans with the capacity to apprehend, however fallibly and incompletely, this reality. (7) Genuine knowledge is therefore feasible for humans. (8) Human knowledge of reality stems from two prime sources: special revelation and discovery. (9) We can therefore maintain a distinction between truth and error. (10) All that is truthful, from whatever source, is unified, and will cohere with whatever else is truthful. After reflecting on Litfin’s astute treatment, few will take the statement “All truth is God’s truth” to be a “well-worn shibboleth” anymore; it will rather be taken as a mini-credo and a call to intellectual arms.
Space forbids even an adequate summary of a host of other insights regarding the integration of faith and learning, the balance of institutional commitments with individual freedom, appreciation of the institutional uniqueness of evangelical colleges, and much more. However, a few comments are pertinent on Litfin’s challenge “to preserve the idea of truth,” set forth in chapter six, “A Balanced Epistemology.” This chapter serves as a kind of hinge to the book, since the very notion of objective and knowable truth has been assailed by various skeptical and postmodern philosophies in recent years. If we are to properly “conceive the Christian college” we must properly conceive the very idea of truth.
While many Christian academics (and popular writers) are embracing postmodernism as a proper vehicle for Christian cognition and conviction, Litfin is not convinced. He notes that postmodernist claims about the perspectival nature of belief and the cognitive limitations placed on humans by nature and culture are nothing new. “The notion that postmodernity represents something novel is…shortsighted. Most of its proposals are as old as the history of ideas. Were the ancient Sophists postmodern? Or are postmodernists merely neo-Sophists? The truth is, throughout the centuries these sophistic ideas have repeatedly seen the light of day, and each time they have been weighed and found wanting by Christian thinkers, as they should be again today” (101). Moreover, Christians can grant that knowing is perspectival without accepting the radical perspectivism that makes objective knowledge impossible. The very possibility of disciplined scholarship—scholarship that represents more than mere propaganda—requires a strong concept of objective truth and the imperative of its diligent pursuit by scholars. The Christian scholar must be humble (because we are limited in our knowledge), hopeful (because there is knowledge available in God’s good world), and disciplined (because truth can be hard to find in a fallen world). Litfin strikes the balance and charts a way forward through the postmodern thicket. For this, and much more in this stellar work, we are in his debt.