A Biblical Critique of the Liberal Arts by Rachael Wierenga

Many Christians on Hillsdale’s campus say that their studies here have deepened their faith and their understanding of God. Such a statement implies that a liberal arts education and the Christian faith fit together neatly and work together for common ends. Unfortunately, this complementary relationship between the liberal arts and Christianity is too readily assumed.

Three years of reflection on my Hillsdale experience has convinced me that the biblical account should ground, counterbalance, inform, and correct the habits of thinking acquire during their education at Hillsdale. Students should temper their studies with the Bible’s account of the differences between human wisdom and that of God. Indeed, human wisdom can be hostile to, inferior to, or dangerously heretical to God’s wisdom.

First Corinthians suggests that human wisdom is hostile to or opposes God’s wisdom. In the first three chapters, Paul says that Christ is God’s wisdom and righteousness, and the message of the cross is the wisdom and power of God. Yet the world crucified Christ when He came; the world rejected the message of the cross. The antagonistic relationship between divine and human wisdom is clear. Christ, the wisdom and power of God, was rejected and crucified by men, and  the message of the cross, the power and wisdom of God, is rejected by men.

Corinthians 1-3 shows the hostile relationship between divine and human wisdom in many ways. For example, Paul argues that society calls wise are not truly so, nor are the things the world esteems truly wise. He makes a shocking statement: “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God…therefore let no one boast in men” (3:18-23).

These chapters also reveal that God does not like the pride and glory of human wisdom: he intentionally chose a way for man to reconcile with him that brings wise, mighty men to nothing and despised, foolish men to glory. Paul clearly emphasizes the irrational nature of belief in the word of the cross: “For it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1:21). God wants belief, not rational, prudent acceptance; the foolish message will save those who believe.

Liberal arts education develops a habit of reverence for human wisdom and the things of the world. The habit of weighing good and evil, seeking the good life,  and examining moral principles creates a life of reason, not faith. Veneration of the mind over the Word of God is problematic in light of Corinthians’ depiction of the incompatible relationship between divine and human wisdom. A liberal arts education is the study of things of the world, seeking wisdom from the record of human thought and history. 1 John 2:15 and James 4:4 suggest that there is a fundamental difference between the things of the world and the things of God, so one cannot simultaneously love them both. Is it not possible that seeking the world’s wisdom could make one more likely to reject God? If God dislikes the pride in human wisdom and chooses things that man does not so no one glories in men, should that not inform the study of human wisdom and society’s opinion thereof?

While Corinthians portrayed a relationship of hostility, the book of Colossians describes the inferiority of human wisdom. In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul calls all philosophies and human doctrines that do not center on Christ “empty deceit,” and “persuasive words” that are “of no value,” inferior to “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” that alone are found in knowing God and Christ. He does not argue that human philosophies are wicked or hostile to truth; Rather, he says that they are imperfect in that they are less than Christ. They cannot yield the same understanding as Christ and the gospel.

Colossians 2:2-10 is a critical. Paul writes, “Beware lest anyone take you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (2:8-10). Paul rejects any doctrine and knowledge that does not center on Christ. Persuasive words, philosophy, and empty deceit are “not according to Christ”; rather, they are “according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world.”

Paul’s critique of human wisdom elucidates the difference between the lesser and the greater. Accordingly, he exposes two main types of human wisdom as less and imperfect. Because power and principality, rule and authority, life and death are all beneath Christ, any philosophy founded on the world’s basic principles is less, is weak. In his death and resurrection, Christ triumphed over all worldly power, so study of anything less than Christ is inessential. Paul also rejects philosophy based on the tradition of men. This type of study only produces “regulations… [that] have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and asceticism, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (2:20- 23). The regulations have no value; they can only limit or contain the indulgence of the flesh. Christ puts such indulgence to death.

Paul then contrasts these lesser, imperfect species of human wisdom with the wisdom is knowledge of Christ. He preaches Christ and “teaches every man in all wisdom” that every man can be presented “perfect in Christ Jesus” (1:28). Perfect accords with the other words Paul uses to describe Christ and the message of the gospel: “full, complete, and all.” When he contrasts the gospel with philosophy, it is a comparison of shadow to body, abstract imaginings within the mind to physical Head, appearance to reality. Everything that Christ is, philosophy is not. Philosophies based upon commandments of men or the basic principles of the world are not full, all, or complete. They are, in fact, the exact opposite: “empty deceit” and “of no value”.

The liberal arts centers on the study of the same philosophies and human doctrines that Colossians describes as inferior. Paul does not revere the philosophic enterprise: philosophy puffs up one’s fleshly mind with supposedly profound imaginings that are, in reality, centered on rudimentary, immature principles that Christ has triumphed over and put to shame. Philosophy produces ascetic regulations limiting the indulgence of the flesh that are actually ineffective and useless. Much principles studied at Hillsdale fit this description: rule, authority, and ascetic-regulations doctrines designed to promote virtue and limit vice.  This is not to say that there is no value to studying human wisdom. However, the knowledge that all human wisdom and philosophy is imperfect and that something greater, higher, better, and more perfect exists ought to ground the studies of Hillsdale students. Believers should “seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.”

If Colossians merely calls human wisdom inferior to Christ, many other passages in the New Testament warn that it is outright dangerous to believers. First, John 5:19 claims that Satan has charge of the whole world and non-believers are under his sway. Ephesians 2:2-3 and 6:12 remind believers that “the prince of the power of the air” and “the spirit who works in the sons of disobedience” rules “the course of this world”: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The New Testament abounds with warnings about false teachers and their secret, destructive heresies. Many of Paul’s letters are written to churches that had adopted the heresies of false teachers.

A liberal arts education does not consider the danger of false doctrines and philosophy; rather, it calls deep study of these subjects good. Can we really assume that it is not problematic or dangerous to read the words of unregenerate pagans who, according to 1 John, are under the sway of the devil? Heresies are doctrines that contain half-truths. They may be perversions of truth, not obvious lies. Indeed, most untruths are subtle: Satan himself is a beautiful angel of light. Spiritual forces and the false teachers they manipulate often pull men away from belief in God by offering a subtly wrong idea of Him. Study of human ideas of justice, goodness, and truth can result in mistaken acceptance and perpetuation of clever untruths. Heretical human notions of justice may well cause one to reject God’s justice and choose Hell, God’s ultimate mercy.

Hillsdale is devoted to the liberal arts; critiques of the liberal arts are almost entirely absent. Most students implicitly accept that there are no serious downsides to a liberal arts education. If students are not aware that human wisdom can be less than, heretical to, or in contradiction with God’s wisdom, they may not realize the need for the higher and more perfect truth that exists in the Bible’s account of the person and work of Jesus Christ. They might mistake the good for the best. While we should not completely discount the study of human wisdom, it is only the good, not the best.

Rachael Wierenga is a senior studying English. 

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