Ideas Have Consequences: The Place of the Liberal Arts within a Theological Education, Part 2

This is the second article in a series of two defending the study of the history of ideas as a crucial component in a balanced undergraduate theological education. Our guest author for this article is Ed Gravely, who serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and the History of Ideas at Southeastern Seminary. His teaching responsibilities include courses in New Testament at both the graduate and undergraduate level and courses in the History of Ideas for undergraduate students at The College at Southeastern. Though Ed is a text critic by training, but he is the quintessential “Renaissance Man” with interests in philosophy, intellectual history, economics, political theory, and modern fiction.

I know it isn’t enough to say, “This is the way Christians have always done education,” without also explaining why. This brings us to my second point: a robust liberal arts education is key to any quality Christian ministerial training, because worldviews matter. The term “worldview” has become an almost meaningless buzzword in pop Christian culture, but that term represents a concept that is vital to Christian students. Every person living on this planet looks at the world with a certain set of assumptions upon which their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are situated. Until you understand a person’s worldview, communication with them about spiritual things in a meaningful way is nearly impossible, and communicating with people about spiritual things in a meaningful way is quite important to the life of the Christian. If, for example, you sit on the bus next to a person who grew up in the southern United States and say to him, “God loves you,” he will probably have some idea of what you mean (though it would be foolish to blindly assume that). But if the person sitting next to you on the bus just emigrated here from India, when you say, “God loves you,” he most likely misunderstands what you mean, because he has a radically different understanding of God than you do. Notice that this is not a case of you presenting the Gospel to a Hindu and the Hindu rejecting it. If he doesn’t understand what you mean by “God,” or more likely misunderstands what you mean by “God,” you haven’t accurately communicated the gospel yet at all. No one would think that the phrase “God loves you” would make any sense to a person who didn’t speak English, and Christians seem to have no trouble learning foreign languages to meaningfully communicate the gospel to people. Why then would we also not learn their worldview?

If worldviews really do matter then what is the best way to teach students in general and ministers-in-training in particular to think worldviewishly? The answer is, as you might guess, a robust liberal arts education. The History of Ideas is, in many ways, the history of worldview development. To understand, for example, why Plato reaches some of his more outlandish conclusions in the Republic and yet also seems to be making a very sensible argument for God’s existence in Laws (and both apart from a knowledge of the Bible) is an exercise in worldview thinking. The roots of the thinking of a modern Hindu are found in the ancient worldview of pantheism. And the best way to understand a worldview and to learn to think worldviewishly is to study the development of those worldviews, including our own. The great works of western civilization are the literary, philosophical, and historical record of worldview development, and therefore those famous works are the best material through which to teach worldview thinking, so long as they are taught alongside a rigorous biblical and theological course of study.

Finally, a robust study of the great works of western civilization (i.e. History of Ideas) is important because in many ways the development of ideas in western civilization is the history of the development of those ideas in Christian tradition, and ideas matter. Christianity has been immeasurably influential as the interpreter and influencer of western thought, but it has also been influenced by western thought. Understanding that relationship is vital to the minister-in-training. It is can be misleading, for example, to try to understand Aquinas without first understanding Aristotle, or Calvin without first understanding the Roman Stoics which he quotes so frequently, or Edwards without first understanding Hobbes and the other post-Newtonian mechanists to which he is indebted. And yet Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards stand as some of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, theologians, and Bible interpreters. We today are greatly influenced by them and their view of Scripture, as well we should be. But there is also a danger here. Though Christian theology is derived from God’s word, it isn’t formulated in a vacuum. The way we think about God and his Word is influenced by generations of thinkers in western culture, for good and for ill. It is easier for us to look back at Aquinas and identify where he departs from the Scripture and merely reflects his medieval culture than it is for us to examine our own theology to see where we depart from the Scripture and merely reflect our own largely post-Christian culture. Study in the History of Ideas is essential training for this necessary exercise.

There is a longstanding tradition in Christianity to teach the Bible and theology robustly but to also train Christian students in the liberal arts. Such training better prepares students to take the gospel in a meaningful way to a world that does not even share their basic understanding of God. Such training also prepares Christian students to understand the history of their theological beliefs so as to better spot where modern post-Christian culture has wormed its way into their thinking. Since tradition matters, worldviews matter, and ideas matter, training in the History of Ideas is not just essential preparation for would-be ministers, it is essential preparation for any serious, educated follower of Christ.

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  1. Chris Krycho   •  

    Good points, and I think the one that struck me most profoundly was the reference to language. As I’ve studied both Spanish and Greek, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how deeply our language influences our thoughts, and vice versa. That’s true even on a smaller scale within the context of one’s native language: the vocabulary we use and read will shape our manner of thinking as well as the concepts we’re capable of thinking about. Following that forward a step: it’s very difficult to see the biases of one’s own language without learning all the nuance and complexity and impossibilities of another. It’s only after studying two other languages that I’m starting to really grasp both the power and limitations of English.

    Likewise, I think we can miss both the strengths and weaknesses – blindnesses, even – of our own mental frameworks if we don’t take time to carefully look at others. The ancients were not stupid people, and I fear our “temporal elitism” has done us a great disservice insofar as we think we’re smarter and wiser simply by dint of being later in history. In reality, the world of ideas has changed – but not so much that the debate between Plato and Aristotle isn’t still being echoed in philosophy today. Ideas and worldview have to be analyzed carefully, but like language they’re hard to see without seeing others as well.

  2. A. Battah   •  

    “Though Christian theology is derived from God’s word, it isn’t formulated in a vacuum.”

    Thank you Dr. Gravely.

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  4. Mike   •  

    Dr. Gravely,
    I know this blog is dated, but I hope you have an opportunity to read this post. I am a student at SEBTS and my lovely bride is in the undergrad. She and I LOVE the HOI program she is in. I have previously read many of the HOI books on my own, but most of it was from self-learning and not from my Biblical Studies undergrad. I have found that the majority of seminary students have not read anything close to the HOI material and (sticking with your argument) have difficulty understanding the works of Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards because of it. Therefore, my proposal is, could SEBTS offer some form of HOI classis for master level students that did not receive a classical education? Maybe an overview class or even something over 2 classes that interacts with the first handwritings. I will more than likely have graduated by that point, but if it were offered on-line, I would take it!

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