The Examined Life–With Some Help

Why do people still read Plato?  Aristotle?  The Bible?  Augustine?  Thomas Aquinas?  John Locke?  Immanuel Kant (well, maybe not so much)?  What unifies them?  It isn’t religion.  Plato and Aristotle were most certainly not Christians.  Augustine and Aquinas would have disagreed on the extent of man’s capacity to know and to will the good.  The Bible seems so different from the more philosophical treatises of those mentioned along with it above.

The common element is that they all addressed the most important questions of life, and continue to do so to those who read them.  They weren’t technicians, though that kind of vocation is as God-given as any other.  But technicians don’t make us think deeply, as a rule, though they may be very proficient at fixing many things.  The individuals and works I listed above ranged far and wide with their reflections and teaching on those most important issues that face anyone—is there a God?  What is He like?  What is right and wrong?  How do I know anything?  What is reality like?  What is beauty?  What is justice? What does it mean to be human?  What is human nature?  These questions and their answers don’t fix sinks in the short run, nor make cars run, not airplanes fly, nor prepare our food, nor design and build our technological devices.  What good are they then?

Some people, all too many don’t think reading and thinking on these people’s works is of much use.  They want immediate utilitarian value.  I understand that.  It wouldn’t do much good to sit and read Plato while I had no food, shelter, clothing, or any conveniences that make life bearable and even enjoyable.  I can’t live on Augustine—unless I ate his City of God out of desperate hunger, since it would make a pretty filling meal (1500 pages in one edition).  But in another sense, we need these people as much or more than our daily sustenance.  They help us, if properly used, become more authentically human, and, ultimately, if properly balanced, better Christians.

What I am also trying to say is that these and others that continue to resonate down through the centuries are part of the liberal arts.  They form the body of what we need to think on to be real Christian humans.  But as I have implied, they are themselves not nearly so good without God in them, which is why I included the Bible in liberal arts and not just theology.

As a Christian faculty at an evangelical university, I must add that the Bible is at the core of the liberal arts, and that the liberal arts cannot be studied with nearly so much benefit without it.  On the other hand, with the Bible at the core, the liberal arts can make for a much richer and purposeful life than one can imagine.  I argue that the two go inseparably together.  Let me here quote Gene Fant from First Things, July 2011:

“Contemporary liberal arts education tends to harvest the fruit of the classical liberal arts and ferment it into an intoxicating, and even deadly, elixir, even as it tries to dig out the roots of the tradition and burn them, making a future harvest impossible. Or nearly so, for the roots have a habit of spreading out and popping up as fresh shoots in all sorts of locations.  Augustine’s famous declaration is instructive in this matter:
‘Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee’ (Confessions, Book One).”

 

Without the Bible—without God that is—the world is insufferably worse than it might be.  In fact it might be downright bad.  I am reminded of Thomas Hobbes’ picture of the world without order (in his case, only political order): “Nasty, short and brutish.”  And more ignorant of truth and good and beauty and right.  As Fant puts it, without God, and the Bible, Augustine’s dictum above is chopped to, “Our hearts are restless.”  But we don’t know what we need.

So as important and as valuable the liberal arts are, they must be studied within the context of the Christian way of thinking that derives from the Bible, from which we in turn know who God is and what He wishes.  But still, the liberal arts must be studied, or else we tend to be truncated versions of human.

In the end, I am making a pitch that at any Christian institution the liberal arts are absolutely necessary.  Not to get more students in a major, but in themselves and always in connection with the ultimate source of truth, the Scriptures.

21 thoughts on “The Examined Life–With Some Help”

  1. I think one of the hangups we often get stuck on is thinking that the Bible is the only source of truth. I was conversing with an atheist, and he mentioned that he had heard Christians declare that only the Bible contains truth, which is just a sad commentary on those particular Christians. Is the Bible true? Yes, it is entirely true, and it serves as the basis of our worldview. But, is it the only source of truth? No, there are others. It is about time we realize this.

  2. I agree. Without God and the Bible everything is so much worse. Liberal arts needs to be taught with the Bible so we can make the world better, be encouraged, and know truth.

  3. I think that the most important thing here is that learning comes from more than just the Bible. Sure, it is the cornerstone to our understanding of the world, but God didn’t inspire the Bible with the intent of it being the only textbook you would ever need.

      1. I know you didn’t ask me, but I thought I’d give it my best.

        2 Timothy 3:16 answers your first question: The Bible is God’s divine product meant to guide us in all things pertaining to life and godliness. Our English word “inspired” doesn’t quite capture the force of this verse: The Bible is the product of Divine breath, not some fallible human construction subsequently breathed into by the divine.

        2 Peter 1:21 answers your second question by positively stating God’s intention in the process of inspiration; namely, fallible men were nevertheless “carried along” by the divine will with the intention that it was the will of God that was ultimately communicated through them.

        B.B. Warfield is really skilled at this topic. I can’t recommend him to you enough.

  4. One thing to understand here is that no matter what our alleged or purported knowledge or truth is, it must be validated by Scripture, not be the details necessarily (unless there is a direct conflict) but be the broad principles deduced from Scripture which “limit” the reach of autonomous knowledge. So yes, “all truth is God’s truth,” but how do we know something is truth until we are first sure it is consistent with special revelation?

    1. “So yes, “all truth is God’s truth,” but how do we know something is truth until we are first sure it is consistent with special revelation?”

      The problem here is that “special revelation” cannot interpret itself. It must be processed and filtered through our own fallible human processes.

      How can we be sure we are properly understanding what “special revelation” is revealing to us?

      Answer–we don’t!

      As a result, we end up elevating our own human perspective of “special revelation” as akin to “special revelation.”

  5. As a student at a Christian university, I know the importance of seeing that the bible is the source of ultimate truth. However it is essential to understand that learning comes from all around us because God created our surroundings. To acknowledge that the bible is the only source of truth and learning is to miss a lot of important lessons and understanding. To understand the truth of the bible, one has to be aware of what surrounds them and where they sit in relation to these things and people. Great post.

    1. Sadly, some Christians change the Bible into something it is not. It is not a science textbook. It is not an economics textbook. It is not a history textbook.

      Jesus did not come to teach science, economics, or history. He came to prepare for the coming Kingdom and to encourage if not warn people of the imminent end of this world.

      He is the Saviour, not the Professor!

      1. Jeff:
        To answer your questions, let me say that I did not address the issue of interpretation, but I did address implicitly the issue of what is called the comprehensiveness of Scripture. Let me take the last first.

        True, the Bible was not written AS a textbook in some particular subject, but if it is inspired, it is inerrant (for reasons I won’t go into now) and when it speaks to subjects outside its central purpose, it does so truthfully, though in language that may not be scientific (no jargon or concepts and sometimes anthropomorphically) or specific. It does have something by way of general principles to say that governs economics, science, history, etc. as a limiting condition, a boundary beyond which the Christian scholar can only go with great danger in accepting as truth what lies outside those boundaries. So of course, the Bible does not tell us how to get the answer 2+2= 4, or the gravitational theory, or other aspects of knowledge, but the assumptions we begin with and the conclusions we draw ought to be bounded by its principles derived from itself.

        As to interpretation, yes, it is a sticky problem. But the vast majority of issues can be overcome simply by virtue the the perspicuity of Scripture. Those left may be difficult, but hardly impossible to reach a virtual consensus on at least a narrow range of possible meanings, foreclosing the obviously wrong ones. Methods long used can help here, and even, yes, an attitude of faith going into the endeavor. It is not just the human rational mind but also God’s grace together with the human work of interpretation. True, unbelievers can also “get it right” (Bultmann), which I take to be due to both the mind as God designed it to work on language and common grace.

        So as long as we are waiting for the consummation of the Kingdom, we are called to work to make our world more as God would want it to be.

      2. While I agree that the Bible is not a science textbook or an economics textbook as such, I must disagree about the history aspect. Large segments of 14 OT books and certain excerpts from others provide a fairly comprehensive history of the ancient Jewish nation from its beginning with Abraham until the Babylonian captivity.

        My pastor put it very well recently that history is His story. I would add to that, since the Bible is His story, it is most certainly history.

    2. You are absolutely right, the central and vital theme of the Bible is our failure, God’s salvation plan, and how Christ fulfilled it so we can live with him in eternity. There is nothing as important. However, we can learn about Science, History, Government, Economics, etc. from the Bible as well. We can learn from the people in the Bible through the choices, good and bad, they made and the consequences from those choices. We learn about civilizations and world history during times recorded in the Bible. It gives principles for leaders and rulers to govern by, and how citizens should respond to their government. It tells us how God created the earth and humanity and how sin makes creation flawed until His restoration. And all in the Bible is infallible and profitable for us to learn from. Nothing is as important as God’s grace to us, but we can learn alot from the Bible in many areas.

  6. “True, the Bible was not written AS a textbook in some particular subject, but if it is inspired, it is inerrant (for reasons I won’t go into now) and when it speaks to subjects outside its central purpose, it does so truthfully, though in language that may not be scientific (no jargon or concepts and sometimes anthropomorphically) or specific.”

    You are free to believe this, but I must point out that is a MAN-MADE point of view. God did not say this. The Bible does not say this.

    You do. And that is fine.

  7. “While I agree that the Bible is not a science textbook or an economics textbook as such, I must disagree about the history aspect. Large segments of 14 OT books and certain excerpts from others provide a fairly comprehensive history of the ancient Jewish nation from its beginning with Abraham until the Babylonian captivity.”

    There is historical information in those books, yes. But there is no historical or scientific evidence that Adam and Eve were historical persons and that Noah’s flood was a real event as described.

    The truth in Genesis cannot be found in a literal interpretation. It resides somewhere else.

    1. I do thank you for your agreement that the Bible contains historical information but aside from demonstrating that you remember from past conversations that I believe Adam, Eve, Noah, and the Flood are historical, I fail to see the point of this reply since I never specifically singled them out in this particular post.

      “The truth in Genesis cannot be found in a literal interpretation. It resides somewhere else.”

      Of course I know you realize I do not accept this, but for the sake of curiosity… How do you know it cannot? You operate under a system of “we can’t know, we can only think we know”. You grind this point into the ground all the time. So I assume what you mean is that “I (Jeff Adams) THINK I know the truth of Genesis cannot be found in a literal interpretation…”. Is this correct or do you contradict yourself and insist absolutely? Also, where exactly do you think the “somewhere else” where the “truth in Genesis” can be found is? Do you know?

  8. T. Detrick said, “2 Timothy 3:16 answers your first question: The Bible is God’s divine product meant to guide us in all things pertaining to life and godliness.”

    This is unpersuasive. Much of the New Testament was not written when 2 Timothy was composed, and it was not until several centuries later that one could even speak of a “Bible.”

    You are taking a verse completely out of context in order to support an a priori point. You are welcome to do so, but it is bad scholarship.

    Please do not elevate human points of view to any higher status. They are what they are: merely human interpretations. Other humans might have some better, more accurate views that are more consistent with many contexts.

    1. I think you do injustice to the literary character of the books and letters we now call “The Bible” when you separate them from their redemptive historical context. Contextually, when Paul references “all Scripture,” he means the Jewish Old Testament and other writings which announce the new covenant in terms consistent with the gospel taught by the apostles. Whether you accept an early or later date for the pastoral epistles (like you say, why should we give much weight to human points of view), if we are to take Paul at his word, we must accept a corpus that reaches beyond his letter. And he calls this corpus (“all Scripture”) “God-breathed:” the direct product of divine activity.

      I wonder why you prefer the naturalistic explanations of critical scholarship over a view of the Scriptures that sees their origin and preservation in the infallible mind of God himself. Are you open to the possibility that you are embracing Pete Enns and the like, while I am embracing Warfield and we both need to go back to the text to discover what is actually being said?

  9. We are not robots. A deep desire to know the answer to life’s big questions is written on our hearts. I was saved at a young age, so it’s hard for me to remember a life-change after accepting salvation. Sometimes I wonder what goes on in the heads of people who claim to know truth apart fromm the Bible. How can they honestly feel at peace within their soul?

  10. I enjoyed reading this article a lot and the fact that is different than most articles. The one thing that does tie all these readings together is the fact that they answer the questions of life. It is important to realize that liberal arts are important however, it is very important to make sure it is in a christian context. It is one thing to be educated on all these books and authors but if you do not know the scriptures than you are missing the biggest truth of all time.

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