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The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga& Thomas M. Crisp

Wolterstorff on Christian Scholarship

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
May 17, 2012

Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff offers his opinion on the role of the Christian university. He comments at length on the dual responsibility that Christians have, both to educate in terms of academic excellence and to produce healthy persons who can be effective citizens.

Let me start with you Nick, I wanna ask you about your thinking about the connection between Christian Universities, Christian Scholarship and Shalom and you’ve written in various places that the job of a Christian University, a Christian College should be more than just to help its students learn to appreciate High Culture. Learn to appreciate the beauty of Art, Poetry and so forth. But that it should be to train students to be responsible citizens in society and in particular, to be agents of Shalom in society. And you suggested too, I know that Christian Scholarship can play a similar role, that Christian writing and researching can play a role in helping to bring healing to a world of suffering, and so I wondered if you could talk us some about that. How can Christian Scholarship play that kind of role?

Sure, happy to, Tom. Though maybe before I do I should, because people sometimes misunderstood what I wanted to say here. Before I do that I should maybe emphasize that I am in fact a defender of the Liberal Arts. In fact years ago when I was a Professor at Calvin College I was a chair of a committee on Liberal Arts Education in the Christian College. In retrospect I didn’t know very well what Liberal Arts was. I struggled to find a definition for it. I read what other people had said and so-forth but then one day I was reading around, almost accidentally, in reading in some essays by Talcott Parsons of the Prominent Sociologist at Harvard in the 30’s and early 40’s. Parsons said almost as a throw-away line, something like this, that a feature of modern societies, is that we have an enormous inheritance of culture which did not originate within our society and consequently does not have direct, for the most part, does not have direct functional use. And that just struck me as perfectly obvious once it’s said but it hadn’t occurred to me that we really are inheritors of vast tracts of philosophy and theology and poetry and literature and art and so forth which originated back in the ancient Greeks or medievals or whatever. And I do think it’s enormously important for human beings in general and Christians in particular, to be introduced to that enormously rich and diverse and profound whatever, don’t like the term stream very well, but anyway, inheritance, inheritance of culture. So I do want to affirm that. But then comes the but…

Comes the what?

The but.

The but, okay. Right.

So I hear lament from, I am retired now, but I used to hear lament from many of my colleagues about the introduction of “Professional Education into the Christian Colleges and Universities.” And a lot of my colleagues represented that as, “Oh here it goes again!” The administration is giving into pressure, they think they need it for financial purposes and all that. I always thought that it was less manipulative than that. Seems to me that business in the modern world has become a knowledge intensive profession. And there’re good reasons why Colleges have programs in Business nowadays. Whereas 50 years ago, it seemed perfectly okay to have a High School Degree and go into your fathers business. So I never thought it was just cynical manipulation on the part of Administration. I thought that there was a social rationale behind it. So I’m also a defender of appropriate introduction of professional programs. However, I think that there’s, and this is what you’re referring to, I think there’s something, as it where, in between those two that should be an important component of Christian Higher Education, Colleges and Universities. And yes, I think that our calling as Christians in the world can be put in various ways. But one way is to put it like this, that our calling is to be agents and witnesses of God’s Shalom, of human flourishing and all dimensions, with respect to each other, respect to ourselves, with respect to God, with respect to nature.

And I think the Christian College is called to to advance that, to equip students to play that role of citizen in God’s kingdom and citizen in our civil societies. And it does this then by engaging, let’s face it, in social analysis and the requisite, providing the requisite information. So I’ve seen part of, a big part of my career as a Philosopher basically shaped by that. I had some confrontational experiences with injustice, gross injustice, in South Africa and in Palestine and those energized me to think hard about Justice. Sometimes practical applications, in an earlier book of mine, more or less practical applications, and more recently more theoretical enquiry into what constitutes justice. And I think that’s just an important part of the calling of the Christian College to enable us to be agents of Shalom. Let me give two more examples. So a year, a year and a half ago, I was invited by a group of young fellows at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to give some talks about Justice in Medicine. At first I was powerfully inclined to say no, I hadn’t thought about that, but they said, I mean they used some flattery. They said that they’d been reading my book about Justice and they’d found it very provocative and they really did want me to come and talk about it. So I did, but I felt inadequate. Yes I’d talked, I’d thought about the theory, but what we really need here is a combination of theory with, well, let me just call it social analysis. The second example, about two weeks ago I gave a talk on Just Punishment. That invitation came nine months ago, and again I was inclined to beg out of it, because, though I’ve written about Justice, it’s mainly Primary Justice and not Corrective Justice. But here it went again, they said they’d been reading my book on Justice, and so they wanted me to talk about it, so I said okay, and I did. And I think I had some decent things to say about it, but again I felt inadequate. I didn’t know the hands-on stuff the way a lot of people in that room did. And so once again I was persuaded that a really important part, I think, of the Christian College Curriculum is in-between pure Liberal Arts and in-between Professional Education, to give us an analysis of the dynamics of Punishment in Society, Medicine in Society, from a Christian standpoint, with a Christian understanding of Justice, Charity, and so-forth. You see what I mean, that sorta in-between project.

Al, have you thought about these issues?

Um, no I haven’t thought about ’em nearly as much as Nick has, but I certainly agree with Nick that it’s the, it’s the part of the Christian to be an agent of Shalom, of God’s Shalom. This is what’s involved in loving ones neighbor as oneself. And it’s part of the intellectual community, intellectual Christian community, to do whatever needs to be done with respect to figuring out how to do that. As you say, that knowledge is involved here in very many respects, so it’s important that Christian be working at this, produce this kind of knowledge. I’m not, it doesn’t follow from that, that this ought to be part of, I mean here I want to be partly just a Devils Advocate, it doesn’t follow from that, that it’s part of the job of a Christian college, just as a college, to…

I mean it’s a little like the difference between what goes on in a college on the one hand and what goes on in a university on the other, where you have, where you specialize much more deeply in certain things, I mean… I not sure how much we disagree, and I’m not sure we disagree at all, cause like I said I’m being a Devil’s Advocate.

Yeah, yeah, do your best, yeah. [laughs]

I’d like to know why you think it follows that this should be part of a Christian college…

Oh I see, so I’ve got no special views to whether it should be part of under… What parts of which should be undergrad and what part grad and so forth. It’s just that when I look back at your and my teachers college teachers, I think they basically had the attitude, I hope this isn’t unfair to them, that if they taught us the basic principles of Christian thought, we could apply them. I now think that that’s really inadequate. One has to work hard at those, at that, at the intervening steps. It’s is not enough that I had thought about justice. I was basically, well not completely, I didn’t know as much as I wanted to about the health system in the U.S. to talk with any kind of authority to these young guys at Mayo. And I just wished I’d known more, could analyze it and so forth. Now maybe that should be university level, I don’t know, but it’s not enough to say we’ll give you the principals and then you just go and apply them.

No, because there’s, right—but when we were undergraduates, you know, the question of learning a great deal about the health system probably wouldn’t been very appropriate, it wouldn’t very, I mean maybe if one wanted to take a certain kind of course in socieolgy, it would be. But it’s one thing to talk about the responsibilities of the Christian academic or intellectual community, as a whole, and it’s quite a different thing to think about what ought to go into an undergraduate curriculum. And I guess we probably don’t disagree on that.

I suppose, but it seems to me if, if this undergraduate college has a pre-med program as it did in our day, then it seems me an important component to that is to invite these students to think about, about, I don’t like the word very well, but the ethic, the ethical, the ethical issues involved in the medical profession.

Yes, I think that’s right.

Instead of giving them the biology and the chemistry and so forth and saying okay now, now go do it.

Narrator: Biola University offers a variety of biblically centered degree programs, ranging from business to ministry, to the arts and sciences. Visit to find out how Biola could make a difference in your life.