The Bible and the Liberal Arts, Part II by Rachel Wierenga

The over-arching theme of this three-part series is that the biblical account should counterbalance and correct the habits of thinking encouraged by Hillsdale’s liberal arts education. Part one noted the between human wisdom and God’s wisdom. Part two observes a similar tension between the classical humanism of the liberal arts and the Bible’s account of human sinfulness. Central to classical humanism is the belief that man can do good through his own action –an idea that impedes the full understanding of sin. Without a full awareness of sin, one cannot fully comprehend one’s need for a Savior, let alone the proper relationship between man and God.

The liberal arts conflict with the biblical account of man because they are founded on the idea that man can limit his own sin. The premise behind a liberal arts education is that the soul has faculties that need to be developed and improved for one to live the good life, reaching the ends for which he was created. Education is the method by which one develops the soul. The liberal arts teach what it is to be fully human because they are intertwined with the improvement of the soul. An article in a past issue of The Hillsdale Forum commended Sir Phillip Sydney’s conception of education (“the end of all earthly learning [is] virtuous action.”), writing that “Unless we learn…that success lies not only in the soul’s enlightenment but in its mending, we will have fallen short of the goal [of a liberal arts education].” Classical humanism claims that education can mend the soul.

The liberal arts also claim to limit sin, not just improve the soul. Hillsdale’s honor code best phrases this argument: “Through education the student rises to self-government.” The liberal arts are a method of developing and training the soul so that reason rules over passion. This idea appears throughout Hillsdale’s courses of study. For example, one fundamental facet of American government is the system of checks and balances that limit the harmful effects of man’s imperfection.

Tracy Lee Simmons occasionally teaches a class about “The Classical Humanism of Thomas Jefferson”. Classical Humanism is a philosophy that studies history to understand man’s place within it. The classical humanist sees all of the high things that humans have done, sees sparks of goodness and greatness in man, and concludes that man is not corrupted and sinful. Instead, the classical humanist argues that education can help fan those sparks into flames. Jefferson, the quintessential classical humanist, rejected Christ as the Son of God and interpreted the Bible as a system of moral rules designed to promote good behavior. The liberal arts, then, say that action—studying, doing noble things, developing one’s reason—can help man limit sinful actions and tendencies.

The Bible, on the other hand, says that no action can attain the perfection that God expects from humans. Limiting sin is not enough; one must be completely free from it. The basic doctrine of the Christian gospel is that man is a sinner who cannot achieve righteousness without putting his faith in a Savior who has worked to bring about righteousness on his behalf. Four fundamental facts revealed in the Bible contradict the liberal arts conception of sin.

First: man is sinful. Man brought sin into the good world God created, and sin removes man from his proper relationship with God. In the Garden, Adam and Eve recognized that God was superior to them—the Creator had knowingly made them weak and dependent on Him. When Satan said Adam and Eve would be like gods, this tempted them, because they wanted to be more like God and less like weak humans. Their action destroyed the natural relationship between man and God: weakness and strength, need and sufficiency, asking and receiving. The liberal arts further strain this relationship because they act on the belief that man can improve himself of his own will.

Second, God’s standard for humans is perfection. Christians are supposed to “be perfect as [their] heavenly Father is perfect,” not merely limit their sin. In Matthew 5, Jesus expounds upon the standard of perfection. He says the person who has looked at a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery, the person who feels hate for his brother in his heart has committed murder, and the person who loves only those people who please him does not love at all. God’s standard of perfection is crushing: no amount of human effort can achieve it.

Third, God is God and man is not. Perfection can only be realized when man achieves the end for which he was created: to be in a relationship with God. As Deuteronomy 18:13 says, “You shall be perfect with the Lord your God.” Without God’s life in us, we can neither be good nor do good – “without faith it is impossible to please him.” I Corinthians 13 says any action committed without God’s love at its root is a dead work. In John 15:5 Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing.”

Fourth, the gospel—belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God whose death and resurrection freed man from sin—is God’s way of making man perfect and righteous on the principle of faith and grace. Only when one realizes, through the Mosaic Law, that man cannot achieve perfection through human action, can one be led to Christ. Paul says in Galatians 3 that the Law is a tutor meant to bring man to Christ. The Old Testament is a lesson in man’s inability to achieve the Law’s standard of perfection. Christ promises that His work on one’s behalf will yield perfect righteousness if one has faith – as opposed to striving to fulfill the Law through our will alone. To understand the Old Testament one must interpret it as an account of Israel’s repeated failure under the law-principle and God’s promise to bring them to righteousness by the strength of his own arm (Isaiah 59:15-16). The tutor that is the Old Testament guides people to Christ by showing the failure of the Israelites to attain perfection –one cannot become perfect without faith in God. Those who come to Christ without the Law as a tutor often try to mix the two covenants (law and faith). Paul writes in Galatians that if one adds law to faith, one never understood the gospel in the first place. One cannot know Christ fully without understanding how He fulfills the law system outlined in the Old Testament; one cannot fully depend on Him if one ignores the tutor of the Mosaic Law. One must be crushed by the standard of perfection, understanding that works do not please God.

A student who embraces the liberal arts without critically interacting with them will come to believe that human action can limit sin. Thus, a liberally-educated person will be less likely to abandon the law-principle of doing to be good for the faith- principle of dependence on another’s work to be good. It is impossible to come to Christ as a sinner in need of a Savior while believing that human action can limit and contain sin. God wants to free us from sin completely, not help us be good, pure people who choose good actions and abstain from bad ones. Our Savior does not want us to act—he wants us to rest that he may work.

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