This may come as a shock to some, but I’ll gladly say it: I’m liberal! But, first, let me clarify what I mean by the term “liberal.” I don’t use it in a political sense, nor do I mean it in a theological sense, something akin to being “unorthodox.”
Rather, when I use the term “liberal” I understand it in the etymological sense: it’s very meaning. The base definition of “liberal” means “generous,” “ample,” “abundant,” and “broad-minded.” Historically, the word “liberal” means “something suitable for a free person.”
First established in the streets of ancient Greece, liberal thought was synonymous with liberty; something a person did to further freedom, whether that was in the political realm, the cultural realm, or the educational realm. The end result was to produce free citizens who would act morally. According to Lisa Richmond, “To these Greeks, the aim of liberal education was the formation of the moral ‘gentleman.’”
During Roman rule, liberal thought became closely associated with education, related to the seven liberal arts: the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (math, geometry, music, and astronomy). Cicero, one of Rome’s great thinkers and poets, deemed the liberal arts as “the academic disciplines for freedom.”
In the early Church, men such as the Apostle Paul used his liberal education (gained from his Roman citizenship) and Jewish worldview to clearly present the case for Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Through the course of his ministry, Paul used logic (in his defense of the Gospel), grammar (his letters), and rhetoric (speaking openly—to both Jews and gentiles).
But a century later, men such as Tertullian (160-225 AD) began to question the aim of a liberal education (though Tertullian was the product of liberal education), stating, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What between the Academy and the Church?” Some scholars have surmised that Tertullian wasn’t against learning in a general sense, but against the influx of non-Christian thought within the Church when he wrote the words above.
But history shows that the Church did incorporate the liberal arts within its life, becoming the portal for scholarship throughout the Middle Ages. As an example, men such as Alcuin of York (735-804 AD) made great progress in establishing schools—with a liberal arts emphasis—throughout medieval Europe. According to a BBC article, Alcuin was “head of the palace school at Aachen, which was attended by members of the royal court and the sons of noble families, and he established a great library there…
“He was responsible for an intellectual movement within the Carolingian empire in which many schools of learning were attached to monasteries and cathedrals, and Latin was restored to a position as a literary language. In 796, Alcuin became abbot of St Martin’s monastery at Tours, where he established a school and library.”
Men like Alcuin set a new tone for the pursuit of freedom through education.
And it is no wonder that he did. Why? Because Christianity and education go-in-hand: being a disciple (learner/student) and a follower of Christ are two sides to the same coin: knowing and doing, awareness and action.
In the book, “Liberal Arts for the Christian Life,” edited by Jeffery Davis and Philip Ryken (Crossway 2012), the liberal arts are discussed in detail, showing their benefit and place within society and the Christian church. It’s a necessary read for anyone interesting in education, the mind, or culture.
In the book, contributor and Wheaton professor, Leland Ryken, defines the liberal arts as “comprehensive education,” part of a students “calling.” Ryken summarizes liberal arts as a pursuit of intellectual inquiry—seeking God as God chooses to reveal himself in nature, reason, and revelation—all leading to worship and wonder. Ryken states, “the Christian liberal arts…continues in the tradition of the faithful learning that emphasizes study as a form of worship, affirming the Creator as the source of all things that are possibly known and recognizing this immanence in all that we examine, all that we know, and all that we do.”
When I graduated from college (Ohlone and Cal State Stanislaus) with my undergraduate degrees in Liberal Studies (an A.A. and a B.A.), I remember some people asking, “What are you going to do with those degrees?” Translation: what kind of job can a liberal studies degree get? To which I would say something like, “It’s a degree for life-long learning, helping me weigh differing options for God’s calling, equipping me for many fields of investigation.” If they didn’t like that answer, I’d say something like, “With this degree, I’m a jack of all trades, a master of none.” Usually, they understood this, though it is an incomplete and lopsided answer.
So, what is the purpose of a Christian liberal education? Leland Ryken helps us here by stating, “Its central focus is the individuals’ relationship to God. Loving and serving God should be the foundation for everything…” To put another way, the purpose of a liberal education is to know, grow, and go in God: To “know” him—through Jesus Christ. To “grow” in our knowledge of his handiwork (including the natural order and the arts) and his will for the world (including the three keystone theological elements: justification, sanctification, and glorification).
And to “go” into the world—telling people what we have discovered, both naturally (the sciences and arts) and spiritually (biblically and theologically).
Later, Ryken quotes the great English writer John Milton, writing, “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”
“Repair.” “Regain.” “Love.” “Imitate.” “Be like”: powerful words, and marvelous reflections on the purpose of a liberal—and generous—education.
Liberal education, then, is a means to help us adore and revere God, a course of action of understanding: of both God and his universe. Liberal education is discovering the works and world God created, and to follow him through life with awe and astonishment at these deeds. In short, Christian liberal education is a process of learning to be free in God. Leland Ryken is correct in his summary quoted above; education is a “form of worship.”
And Christian liberal education—properly pursued—leads to freedom, sought with the thought of seeking God and his truth. Jesus, himself, states, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Paul, in Galatians 5:1 gives us a summary of Christ’s truth when he writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Truth and freedom; they are reflections of God’s person and order, virtues worthy of our undue attention and focus; a confluence of God’s character and his handiwork, all to be discovered and pursued. For with true liberty comes true freedom in God.
So the Greeks and Romans weren’t too far off: a liberal mindset is one that is “suitable for a free person.” As Christians, we are free in Christ. Let us use our brains—and liberal education—to continue that freedom, discovering what God has fashioned and formed, with the understanding that there is ample room for continued innovation, invention, and inspiration—all for God’s glory. And all of this takes a broad, generous, abundant, profuse and, yes, liberal, education.
It sure is great to be “liberal.”
To learn more about the book, “Liberal Arts for the Christian Life,” click here: http://www.crossway.org/books/liberal-arts-for-the-christian-life-tpb/