By Kolby Atchison, Secondary School Principal
Our culture is hungry for truth, or so it claims. From news headlines to commencement addresses to talk show discussions, the concerned demand for truth seems to be as a strong as ever. And yet, at the same time, there seems to be a daunting amount of confusion over what the foundation of truth really is and where it comes from.
As Christians, we can affirm the existence and need for truth, while acknowledging that our access to it is often limited. As fallen human beings, we so easily wander from the true path and become entangled in the thorns of ignorance and error. We fall intro traps, left and right, laid out for us by both the devil and the wickedness of our own hearts. We are like Dante at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, wandering through a dark wood, drugged by our own vices, unaware that we have wandered, and shocked to realize how far we’ve strayed.
How do we emerge from the forest? How do we return to the path of truth? Fortunately, God himself has taken this task on himself and sent his Son to not only show us the way, but help us on the journey. Through the Holy Spirit, God illuminates our hearts and minds to the Truth, which John’s Gospel remind us is not reducible to a philosophical proposition or empirical fact, but, in some transcendent way, originates in the person of Jesus Christ.
Allow me to elaborate on this point as I share with you what the ancients and medievals believed to be the apex, or peak, of education and, therefore, the greatest science worth knowing: theology, that is, knowledge of God.
From a classical perspective, the purpose of education was to cultivate wisdom and virtue through the study of the great books and the liberal arts in order to pass on and preserve western civilization. At an early age, students were invited to hear and aspire to the great stories that characterized and embodied the virtues of their culture. Through singing, memorizing, dramatizing, and story-telling, students grew to love and revere these stories, along with the men and women of old, and the virtues these characters embodied. As the students grew older, their affections for truth, goodness, and beauty developed along with the disciplined care of their physical bodies. With this foundation in place, the young scholars studied and mastered the liberal arts, which prepared them to think freely, critically, and deeply about a variety of subjects, from the natural sciences to the humane letters, culminating in theology, the study of God.
The classical tradition hailed this pursuit of understanding the character and ways of God as “the queen of the sciences.” Anselm of Canterbury, writing in the 11th century, understood his theological contributions as “faith seeking understanding.” Similarly, before him, ,Augustine of Hippo famously reflected, “I believe that I may understand.” Through the life and work of these church fathers, it is evident that knowledge itself is a gift from God, given to those who believe and trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ. John Calvin, writing in the sixteenth century, suggests something similar when he began his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, with this confession: “Our knowledge, if it is to be thought genuine, consists almost entirely of two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Indeed, the Genevan reformer went on to argue that our understanding of the world will forever remain incomplete if we fail to first consider and ponder the transcendent character of the Creator God.
Why should this insight matter for us in 2018 as modern Christians? Because although much has changed in the last two millennia—political regimes, cultural traditions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific paradigms—there is one thing that has not changed: the gracious character of God our Father. The God of heaven remains sovereign over all matters on earth and His merciful will continues to redeem fallen creation from the powers of evil through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Moreover, God continues to reveal Himself through the Bible, the God-breathed scripture given to humanity as a gift of light, illuminating our knowledge of Him and drawing peoples from all across the globe to Himself. As those with poor eyesight can hardly make out the words of a page without the help of reading glasses, so the Bible is, for the people of God, the optical support we need to see God rightly for who He is. This high view of scripture is precisely why the apostle Paul, on his deathbed, gave his apprentice Timothy the immortal charge “to preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2 ESV). Paul understood that ultimately it would fall to scripture to preserve sound teaching of the faith and, in this way, both protect and strengthen Christ’s body, the Church.
What else can we say about theology, “the queen of the sciences,” and how does it inform our approach to education here at Clapham School?
For one thing, biblical theology, affirmed by the Christian tradition, urges us to view reality as God does: as His creation, brought into existence before time and space ever was, in order to glorify Himself. Because all of reality is a result of God’s creative work, we can affirm Abraham Kuyper’s famous words, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’." Indeed, this world belongs to God and therefore every domain of knowledge—grammar, history, literature, math, science, and so on—is ultimately a unified, humble reflection on what God has created and designed.
For another thing, theology, the apex of education, informs proper reverence for God, as well as earthly authorities, thereby instructing the way we interact with both God and neighbor. God, as Lord and Father, is to be both loved and revered. Likewise, we are to treat our families, friends, co-workers, strangers, and even enemies with the kindness, respect, and humility all image-bearers of God deserve. With the help of the sacred knowledge granted to us through scripture, we can see that education, like every other human endeavor, ought to fulfill the love commands of Christ.
Finally, theology reinforces our understanding that the goal of education is manifested through disciplined training in virtue, as we seek to inculcate in students habits of excellence and maturity. Whether it be speaking respectfully to an adult, mastering a particular footwork drill in P.E., proving various geometric theorems, or painting a beautiful seascape, this holistic education aims at cultivating fully-integrated human beings as God created them to be: persons with bodies, hearts, and minds, trained, disciplined, and strengthened for the glory of God.
To wrap up, returning to our culture’s yearning for the truth, I propose to you that genuine knowledge of this world, and therefore truth about reality, must begin and end with our knowledge of God. God is our Creator and Sustainer. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. He is immortal, invisible, all-powerful, and all-wise. He is the eternal source of goodness and mercy and reigns as our sovereign King. May our students come to know Him personally and use the talent, time, and treasure He grants them to serve and glorify Him.
*This content was originally delivered at Recognition Night, May 2018.