A Biblical Critique of the Liberal Arts, Part III by Rachel Wierenga

In this, the final installment of my three-part article series, I will continue to argue that the Bible should correct the habits of thinking that Hillsdale’s liberal arts education inculcates in its students. In part two, I argued that the liberal arts principle that human action can limit sin contradicts the Bible’s teaching on this matter. In part three, I will argue that the liberal arts instill a problematic assumption about the nature of man and the ends for which he was created that affects how students view their relationship with God. The liberal arts teach that the nature of man is primarily rational; the student who accepts this idea will believe that he is most pleasing to God when he lives rationally.
The liberal arts assume that man’s defining characteristic is his reason, that he is primarily rational. In The Republic, for example, Plato holds that the goal of life is to order the soul so that the rational part rules over the spirited and erotic parts. Some Christians assert that before the Fall in Genesis, man’s soul was perfectly ordered and working in harmony, but after the Fall the soul became disordered so that reason no longer ruled over passion. A primary goal of Hillsdale is to develop and train the soul so reason can rule over passion for the good of society.
The biblical account holds that man relates to God through spirit, not the intellect. God did not create man to be strong, powerful, and independent. Man was made to be in a relationship with Him–dependent, faithful, and obedient. According to the Bible, man is a spiritual being. The spirit is so important, in fact, that without it man cannot understand or relate to God. Jesus insists that man must be reborn of the spirit: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, ‘Ye must be born again’” (John 3:5-6). He says in John 6:63 that his words are spirit and life: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are sons of God”; humans have a spirit and, through faith, receive the Holy Spirit, which is “the mind of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:16)—the Holy Spirit is Christ’s very thoughts and self within us.
Further, in John 16:13-14, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as a counselor who leads people to truth and reveals the Word: “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” Christ is “the Word made flesh,” which means that the Spirit will guide Christians into the truth of the Word “with unveiled eyes”. Similarly, Isaiah 30:20-21 anticipate the new covenant, which will allow faithful believers to receive the Holy Spirit as their ultimate teacher: “Yet your teachers will not be moved into a corner anymore, but your eyes shall see your teachers. Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ whenever you turn to the right hand or whenever you turn to the left.” The Holy Spirit is the only way to “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God”. This power comes not by our powers of discernment and reason but by the Spirit’s work to “transform us through the renewing of our minds,” freely and directly revealing God’s will. These passages reveal the spirit as the critical, intimate connection between man and God; it is man’s defining characteristic.

The liberal arts tell students to exercise their intellect because the Creator gave man reason to use intelligently. God did not give humans reason only to turn them loose to strive after their own ideas, hoping to compile a big, old truth compendium. The idea that one can study hard, improve one’s mind, and then quest after truth is pretentious and self-aggrandizing. The biblical account grounds the liberal arts in a manner disagreeable to the pride and narcissism lodged in the human heart. In Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, there are multiple cases in which those who “prophecy out of their own heart,” who say God has spoken where he has not, and “who follow their own spirit” are reprimanded for committing a grave offence that leads others astray (e.g., see Ezekiel 13). When man relies on his intellect to find truth instead of conforming to the truth God has revealed, he ends up with an utterly backward, false account. To truly strive after truth, one must read the Bible. 
God does not want man to set out on a lifelong quest to find all sources of truth. Philosophers write that wisdom begins with a sense of wonder that spurs one on to learn. The Bible, however, says that wisdom begins with the fear of God and leads one to conform to His Word, the account he has given of the Truth that we may know it. The Holy Spirit does not empower man to reason out new truths about the will of God, it guides the believer into the Word that is already there. The “obedience of faith” discussed in Romans is not a man-glorifying endeavor. Philippians chapter two points to Christ as the one who exercised the ultimate obedience of faith, which lead to an agonizing and humiliating death on a cross, not personal glory before men. 
The traditional respect for reason and intellect in the liberal arts causes students to believe that pursuing truth is the best way to live one’s life. In reality, this view is spiritual narcissism: it is sin working in the flesh to inflame a pride that makes one desire to win self-glory through actions; this way of living is pleasing to man’s pride and the sin within him. The quest for truth begins and ends at the Bible, with Jesus the Word of God. 
The Biblical account should counterbalance the liberal arts education’s view of the ends for which man was created. The liberal arts lauds rationality, strength, independence, and virtue through action, but the Bible values weakness, imperfection, dependence, and virtue through faith in Christ. A liberal arts education fans the flames of one’s desire for self-aggrandizement, and it is easy to twist Christianity into compatibility with such a pretense. In truth, it works the other way around: one must conform to God’s word, even as He cuts down man’s glory. 
One must realize one’s sin and weakness, submit to it, and ask Christ to be strong and work in one – instead of trying to continue to achieve and strive and overcome of one’s own effort.  I close with an admonition from William Newell, to beware of fallen- flesh-remedying messages. At its base, the liberal arts is this kind of message, and the person trained to accept  its premises about human wisdom, human effort, and the ends for which man was created without criticism is likely to miss the true Gospel for a watered-down moralism that promises to fix fallen flesh and make one more godlike. I challenge students to come to the God of the Bible in humility. He will start you on the true lifelong quest for truth in his Word, which has the riches of truth in the knowledge of Jesus Christ that will take you a lifetime to discover in deeper ways and will continue to expand your understanding of truth. 

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