Christianity and Education

In light of a recent discussion on this blog, and perhaps all discussions on this blog and everything I’ve done with my life for the past twenty years or so, I’m inclined to ask the question: What is the relationship between Christian faith and education?

The question arises for a number of reasons. First, Christianity has as a core (if not the core) component being a disciple of Jesus, and disciple is just an antiquated term for student. Second, if what the historical figure of Jesus has some importance in one’s faith (as presumably it should, since otherwise one might as well give the made-up person one follows a different name), then it is hard to see how that can be the case without one at least educating oneself about historical study. Third, if the Bible is important, then how can one make sense of this translated collection of ancient texts without information (a key part of education) about history, culture, and other relevant issues that provide the context and background to these texts? Fourth, can one really do anything more than repeat words such as “Trinity” without some theological education, even if acquired informally?
Are Christianity and education therefore inextricably intertwined? If one asserts (as is perhaps appropriate) that none of the aforementioned forms of education is required to be a Christian, then does this imply that most Christians will inevitably be dependent on Christians educated in Biblical studies, theology, history, ethics and other relevant disciplines? Or does it mean that Christianity is something today that has nothing to do with the historical figure of Jesus, the probable meaning of the Biblical writings in their original context, theology or anything else of that sort?

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  • Ah, the Achilles heel of Evangelicalism. In fact, I find Evangelical intellectuals to be well educated on theology, and they are no slouches when it comes to biblical studies either. However, when it comes to other fields, such as history (especially Christian history), there is a certain lacuna.You may also enjoy seeing the Pew survey on educational levels of different religious groups in the US. It speaks far more eloquently than I ever could on this topic.

  • Why would education have a special relationship with the Christian faith? How could these two not be “inextricably intertwined”? (Just like any other belief system, let me hasten to add!) For if I take education to be the transmission of information (be it factual, experiential or otherwise) from one person to another (and please correct me if you consider my understanding of education lacking), then *any* system of thoughts (be it a scientific theory, a religion, a worldview etc) depends on education. (Says the educator in me 😉

  • james–i started thinking about scripture and instruction/education here, if it is of interest. about half way through the essay.alan dershowitz tells in ‘america declares independence,’ that in a harvard law class he asks students, if the historical basis for their faith didn’t happen (no moses on mt sinai, no jesus’ resurrection, no mohammed taken up on a horse), if it would shake or destroy their faith, and more than half said yes (pp. 46-48). presumably, this was a group of thinkers who saw value in critical thinking, yet half responded with changed faith.i can remember an ongoing discussion in my parish as a teenager, about if jesus didn’t exist historically, how would this change what we do in our parish? beliefs would change, but much of the moral/ethical fabric, and social justice responses, would stay much the same.peace–scott

  • On second thoughts, the historical Jesus seems to have preferred to hang out with the more uneducated of his time. So, does that mean that those groups of his followers who consist of more uneducated members than other groups (thanks, iyov for the Pew survey link) are closer to their historical model?

  • dave

    In Europe, education was closely involved with Christianity for a long time. Medieval schooling was organised by the church, though the universities of Oxford and later Cambridge apparently began with tutors meeting secular demand for lawyers and other educated laymen. Universal free schooling, the origin of public schools in the American sense, was pioneered in Scotland. In 1561 John Knox and a few others set out a programme for a schoolmaster to be appointed to every church. The idea seems to have been to bring Bible reading to everyone (and by using an English translation they influenced the demise of Scots as a separate language).Implementation was slow, but in 1633 local taxes were introduced to pay for schools, and the 18th century saw the fruits of this education – with the Scottish Enlightenment bringing fame to luminaries such as David Hume…. eminent as an atheist and philosopher, who demolished the argument from design, That argument was developed and reinstated by William Paley, fell from grace with Darwin’s successes, then was resurrected around 1990 as intelligent design…..more at

  • Oliver, would that mean that one has to be among those furthest from the model in Jesus’ time to realize who is closest? 🙂

  • As I noted here on Rashi and psalm 2, there is an answer in verse 11 in the LXX to your recent question – Seize upon instruction or the Lord may become angry!

  • That Pew survey seems a bit skewed – 48% of American Hindus have post-graduate degrees? If that’s even close to correct, it’s dang impressive…

  • James – of course, an outside view is sometimes helpful ;-)Now seriously, I question whether education as modern-day academics understand it was equally important to the historical Jesus. I mean, granted he knew his Scriptures, yet didn’t seem to demand or expect any theological training or even general education to speak of in his followers. His instructions (admittedly still requiring some form of education in order to be passed on to the next generation) were more on social skills, relationship building, turning the other cheek and suchlike. (Oh how hard this is for introvert intellectuals like me! ;-)So, education / instruction in its broadest sense is still needed (but as I said before, that’s true of any worldview), the question is what the content of such instruction is. Which brings me to my main criticism of the Pew survey, viz that it elicited information on formal education. One can have a PhD and still be a social misfit, and a school dropout can still be morally upright and a pillar of trust and respect in their community.In short: I’m simply not sure that the more theological / philosophical side of my academic research is all that relevant to the everyday life of my fellow believers.[Which is why I dropped theology, and even theoretical linguistics, and am now focusing on applied linguistics – but that’s just a personal aside.]

  • Hi James, Doesn’t disciple mean follower as well as student? Ie. It is much more than just an intellectual grounding? I agree that the learning is important (a prerequisite) but I think a disciple implies both learning and the application of that learning. Not that your post implies otherwise, I just wanted to add that for clarity.

  • Tom

    “then does this imply that most Christians will inevitably be dependent on Christians educated in Biblical studies, theology, history, ethics and other relevant disciplines?”I think this is the case. all christians should understand the apologetic for all of these disciplines, but I don’t think all christians are called to intensive study in these areas. Obviously there’s certain pieces of knowledge that are necessary for belief, but I think they are few. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” doesn’t seem to imply a great deal of education or knowledge. Things that are necessary for belief and things that are virtuous for believers aren’t the same list of things. christians should have an appreciation of the disciplines, understand how each area of study is relevant to their faith, but I don’t think everyone is called to study as you do. My personal example is this. I’m a nontraditional student trying to get into med school, work full time night shifts as an EMT, and have very little time for anything else. I really do believe I’m doing what I’ve been called to do. I’d love to be able to dive into all sorts of areas of study, but this isn’t a reality for me. I’m glad there are believers out there doing the dirty work in all of these areas so I can pick up bits and pieces in books and blogs and such. I’m also fortunate to attend a church that doesn’t neglect these things. it seems to be the norm for experts in any area of study to just assume that everyone else appreciates how important their area of study is, so they don’t spend a whole lot of time working on a good apologetic that is reasonable and will help the layperson develop an appreciation of that discipline. dialogue needs to improve. the layperson needs to accept their lack of knowledge in a given area and let those with the knowledge share it with them. the knowledgeable need to find a way to do this in a humble way that doesn’t put off the little guy. As far as being a disciple, I’ve always understood this to mean a whole lot more than getting the facts down. This seems to be a heart issue as much as anything. My sinful heart that doesn’t want to love and forgive is what keeps me from being like jesus far more than any lack of knowledge does. I already “know” many things about jesus that I regularly fail to apply in my own life.

  • Just a quick reply in relation to several comments. I don’t think of education as simply learning facts. Some subjects may be more practical than others, and some may seem less practical than they actually are. The Greek term used for disciples/students of Socrates isn’t different from the one used in the New Testament. My main point was, at any rate, that Christians regularly understand their faith to involve believing certain things about history, science, the Bible, and other subjects. What I really hoped we’d end up discussing is whether one can make claims about such areas without significant education (whether formal or informal), and if not, then what that means for Christianity. Should Christians who haven’t studied history learn to defer questions of history to others who have, rather than each Christian trying to provide an answer to every question and objection, and in the process often unnecessarily making their faith an object of ridicule among the well-informed?

  • Ken –The high rate of Hindus with high amounts of education is very credible to me — South Asians are by far the most successful ethnic group in the US, and large numbers of South Asians come to the US each year for post-graduate study, often staying.

  • I think education is important for religion in that, and this might be my bias as an Intellectual Historian, I see religions as intellectual traditions. Being part of a religion means living your life within the context of a given religious tradition; this could even be the active rejection of a a religious tradition. To be a Jew means to live in the context of the rabbinic tradition and to be a Christian means to live within the tradition of the Church fathers and Scholasticism. A person who cannot hold down a conversation about Rashi, Tosfot and Maimonides can not call themselves a Jew and a person who cannot hold down a conversation about Augustine and Aquinas cannot call themselves a Christian.