Every Christian graduate a Bible student: David Booth

Every Christian graduate a Bible student (1)

David Booth


Since Gutenberg and Wyclif, the international system of universities has matured into a key field of Christian mission.  Education of the UK public and of the churches' staff in Christian theology now needs a national concordat by the Church's membership with the Universities, cp. roles in other school subjects, graduate disciplines and masters or doctoral professions.

Critical realist Universities and the Gospel of Christ's Kingdom (2)

The idea that university education in the Christian faith should be carried out by Christian foundations seems to me to be a denial of the Great Commission. 

The risen Christ Jesus told his followers to take the Gospel into their neighbourhood, to the disparate culture across the border and out to the most distant parts of the known world (3), and to accept and to make followers of all who believe from among every group of people.  Are not the diverse academic disciplines and the graduate and doctoral professions that we now have also ‘people-groups'? 

This call to live the Gospel everywhere, including now within academia, was no innovation following the resurrection.  From his early ministry, Jesus called his hearers to open their ears and to repent.  One of my university's latest slogans uses exactly the same word: "Think. Re-think"!   If a leading 21st century university can't support its undergraduates in a thoroughgoing review of their lives before they graduate in literature or law, or in business or biology, then its operations are a scam.

The Call of course goes much farther back: Jesus was singing from the same hymnsheet as the psalmist (96:3): "Declare the Lord's glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples."  The message to Christians on our production lines for Graduateness goes right back to the start of the history of salvation: "God created humanity in his own image ... male and female he created them.  God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it'" (Genesis 1:27-28).  Surely this is not just a biological mandate - now close to being delivered, albeit in much corrupted forms, for some of which Christians cannot be excused.  It is also a cultural or political mandate - more widely attained now too than is sometimes acknowledged, while highly corrupted in ways for which biblically undereducated believers are again partly responsible. Yet the wheat must grow among the weeds until the harvest - the final judgement which is as close as only God knows (4).

Critical realism, i.e. disciplined research

As I see it, Christ's call makes the concept of a "Christian University" a contradiction in terms.  However I'm precluded from stating my view in those words (and it would be wrong to quote that clause of mine in isolation).  This is because I am not at all referring to the usual critique of the idea as contradictory, namely that commitment of an institution to a faith is incompatible with academic freedom - or, less ambiguously phrased, a broadly ‘critical realist' approach to truth (5). To the contrary, I see biblical Christian faith as entirely compatible with open criticism and (theistically neutral) naturalistic realism.  More than that, the spread of the Christian gospel depends on just this openness to reasoned argument and observable evidence.

The contradiction that I see within any attempt to found or to run a Christian university is very different.  It is between two notions of Christianity - crudely speaking, between a ghetto and a harbinger of Christ's final kingdom. 

Quite contrary to the presuppositions of arguments for a Christian university, the Gospel requires, everywhere that can accommodate them, organisations that are led by scholars who are full participants in an open research community around the world.  Furthermore, such academically led institutions should be providing the highest levels of education to all who can benefit of the general populace (cp. the New Testament's ‘Gentiles') and of members of the Church (i.e., in NT times, the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and all others who followed his Way).

The ‘critical' epistemology is that any position can be evaluated, not only from within but also from any other position that is relevant.  Positivist and rationalist foundationalisms and postmodern irrationalism all self-destruct as soon as they become fully open to critique. That is, human reasoning itself as well as human tradition is subject to this critical evaluation. This is also to acknowledge that any use of the Bible is human interpretation, including the identification of the canon of Scripture by an historic group of officials of the church.  It precludes the quoting of a text without regard to the rest of scripture and to what the human race has learnt of the material and social creation.  This does not put Christians on the back foot - the opposite: it provides them initiative.  We are to give a reason for the hope that is within us.  In NT times, that opportunity often occurred in the courts of imperial law.  Nowadays, for the academics who are Christians, the opportunities are in the court of human scholarship.

            The ‘realist'ontology is the position that what exist in the empirical world are the entities invoked as basic in our best-tested theories, e.g. the fundamental forces of physics, the biochemical and eco-organismic systems of biology, the mental processes of psychology and the social mechanisms of culture (e.g. language).  This is a type of naturalism but it is not the anti-theistic naturalism that recognises only the creation we live in, not the Creator of this nature and society, nor is it the reductive materialism (physicalism) currently dominant in philosophy and in neuroscience.

University autonomy

            Critical realism is thus a highly disciplined communal activity among highly competent individuals who participate entirely voluntarily.  The word "freedom" has misleading connotations.  "Autonomy" is a better word for the personal and organisational context which critical realism requires. 

The market for critical realism is limited.  There have always been and there continue to be rich sponsors for talented individuals who do nothing but advance the frontiers of high culture (the humanities, the sciences and the fine arts for their own sake).  Such scholars and artists are generally keen to cultivate younger talent and most of their sponsors have supported such apprenticeship as well: today, both state and private funders of university research also support research studentships.  Nevertheless this postgraduate education and professional training are part of a sustainable way of supporting creative scholarship or ‘purely academic' research.  Yet there will never be enough money from private donors and governmental priorities on the public tax yield to pay for everybody who would like to be employed solely on original scholarship with free access to every facility to draw on and contribute to national and international expertise.

A quite different market for the time and effort of original scholars has always been the transmission of the culture from the frontiers at which they operate to those willing to learn what has been achieved so far.  The general public has always included those who valued such research-based education for its own sake, while not wishing to become original scholars themselves. In addition, public administrators, private entrepreneurs and technical experts have always needed new recruits and sought them among graduates from research-led education, just because they had to be bright at the start and they emerge with inimitable mental skills.  Since scholarship has become technical and/or specialised, some employers seek graduates with particular knowledge and skills - although it is more realistic to seek those with the intellectual equipment for keeping up with the latest additions to knowledge and technology in the employers' area.

None of this needs threaten the autonomy of critical realism.  The problems come if employers or government presume to tell the academics where the critical realism must take the research community or the undergraduate courses that they teach.  Among the comments on the recent report of the UK Government's (university teaching) Quality Assurance Agency are important articles (THES, 12 August 2005) by Alan Ryan (head of New College, Oxford) and Geoffrey Alderman (no. 2 at the American Inter-Continental University in London).  Both in effect argue the complete fallaciousness of the notion that the accountability of Universities in their teaching (and, I'm arguing, also their scholarship, research, enterprise and public service) rests on any externally applied criteria.  Ryan claims the only achievement of governmental intervention through the QAA has been to reduce the very small amount of "really spectacular incompetence in the management of teaching" in British universities.

"Higher Education" and the idea of a University

            Consideration of the role of original scholarship (i.e. academic research) in the Gospel and the Kingdom is disappointingly hard to find in the recent collection of essays about education in theology within the universities (6).

            Maybe the closest to recognition of the research basis of university teaching comes in Professor John Sullivan's passage with the subtitle, "University as context for mediating Christian faith" (page 27 ff.).  However, he assumes that this "mediator" must be a ‘Christian university', not the Christians in a genuine university.

There is no need for a campus runs by theologians or by educators in order that individual Christians who are original scholars in their own disciplines may play a leading part in "critiquing the surrounding culture" (what else is original research?), "creative reappropriations of Christianity in a changing cultural context" (what else are scholars to do with the research-relevant parts of their own faith traditions?), "entering into dialogue with [those who believe the same, differently or not at all]" (what else is a productive academic discussion?).  Sullivan acknowledges that this is "a task that is shared out across the various disciplines" but nevertheless seems to share the view of other authors in this book that educators in theology have a primary role in bringing it all together (7). 

Sullivan approvingly quotes the term "engaged pluralism" for this open discussion of different positions.  Yet he seems to fear that the pluralism will destroy the engagement (p28).  This is a strange view of scholarly debate.  An attempt to shift ground or to accommodate inconsistently is as likely to be spotted by an academically strong opponent as by an ally!  Many of us have found some of the greatest gains in understanding of our own position from expounding it to an insightful critic (8).

            The problem for these authors appears to be the difficulty of sustaining the "living tradition" of the Christian faith within the university.  Why try?  We don't ask to run churches within commercial companies, government departments or public service institutions, or to use even the faith schools to replace church activities for children and young people. Nor should Christians ask for the whole life of the church to be accommodated by the academic workplace. This includes the Theology Department of a British University or of its Faculty of Education. Indeed, it also includes a Training College for inland pastors or overseas missionaries.  Such a college may have the time and space for devotions and other practice of religion - but so may the believers working in a university department of any discipline.  Yet should one not be very uneasy if they try to take over functions of a local church?   If the churches are not supporting their members adequately in their workplaces, then it is the churches that should be reformed, not the workplaces.  Just as institutions dedicated to critical realism and the scholars employed to carry out such duties have to take a larger view of pure research, so also the churches must do more than own buildings, recruit members and employ ministers to run meetings on Sundays.

Higher Education and the Christian Church (in the UK)

As well as the title The Idea of a Christian University being self-contradictory, the subtitle Essays on Theology and Higher Education is incorrect.  In the UK, the term "Higher Education" is tightly defined to include only institutions that do enough original research to be competent to award research degrees across a sufficiently wide range of disciplines (= uni[fied-di]versity) or are colleges affiliated to universities for the purpose of awarding bachelors and masters degrees.  A College of Higher Education or a University College only gains University status when the institution meets the criterion of a multidisciplinary research environment for all its activities.  Thus a British university is not a finishing school, a community college or a college that teaches solely to the level of what in the UK is called "Further Education."   Indeed, these latter facilities will also be available in the best (and largest) institutions of Secondary Education, i.e. schools that teach up to at least 16 years of age.  These essays appear to be about the Tertiary Education sector in the UK, i.e. studies after the age of 16 (including Advanced Level, often examined at 18).

            From the Introduction it appears that the genesis of this book lay in teacher-training colleges of education where there is a commitment to religious education and/or research into religion. The authors of the chapters of this book are frank about their parochial and instrumentalist approach to university education.  Yet this means that the book has not only a misleading main title but also the wrong subtitle.  A more accurate name for the book is Problems of Educationists interested in Theology

There is undoubtedly a serious problem for the churches about Christianity in school teaching.  Also there are tensions between the university theology department and the denominational church college model of the training of clergy, ministers and pastors.  Training of local church staff in the UK (at least) and of school teachers responsible for the religious knowledge curriculum has long been a problem within undergraduate and postgraduate university education - probably more than other professions.  Training of both professions is of legitimate interest to academic departments of Theology - and this an ancient university discipline in Christendom and Islam, albeit problematised over the last two centuries by diverse movements in Europe and North America for separating public institutions and religion.  Yet the university disciplines of chemistry, maths and English are ill suited either to industry, accountancy and the writing of novels and plays or to the teaching of those ‘subjects' in primary or secondary school.  Academic theology and biblical research are no less unsuited to the training of most local church pastors and school RK teachers.

However, there are even more fundamental and pervasive issues about the relationships between the University (system) and the Church (across denominations) in this countryThe Church of England and the Non-Conformist denominations seem to be caught in a time-warp, not even of "one-man ministry" (where the key word is one, not man) but of pre-Wyclif times when only the pastor of the local congregation could read the Bible. Congregations have been literate for centuries but the minister has remained the only graduate (unless the local doctor was a member).  That started to change 50 years ago as the universities in Britain began to expand.  Soon if not already, in a majority of families in British churches, probably both the parents are graduates.  So the education leadership of a church should now be a team.  This has two complementing requirements.  (i) All graduates who are Christians should have ‘graduateness' in Bible as well as in their bachelor's degree discipline.  (ii) All pastoral staff of the churches should be supporting their fellow-professionals in their biblical ministry in their workplaces (‘7/5/46' or more out of the 24/7/52).

Christians of the future

Primary and secondary teachers should be educated in the scholarly disciplines crucial to the understanding of human development - child, adolescent, adult and the old.  Arguably the process of teaching does not constitute an academic discipline, as distinct from the discipline of what is being taught, even though training of school-teachers has been the basis for setting up academic Departments or Faculties of Education. The reading and writing of scholarly books and ‘lectures' (nowadays TV programmes) has always been part of an original scholar's stock in trade for passing on the culture to all ages. It not clear that the training even of primary school teachers should be hived off from the undergraduate study of child development, including growth in understanding of maths, language, science, the arts, religion or whatever.  Indeed, several UK university psychology departments started in a Faculty of Education, and child psychology has been dominant where that Faculty has concerned itself with the learning processes rather than management of the school system.

Each church member a Bible user

            In the century before there was universal elementary education and general literacy, the churches ran Sunday Schools to teach reading, writing and arithmetic alongside biblical thinking and living.  In the 21st century, university undergraduate education is available to all who can benefit from it (and believe that they will be able to afford the expense then and later).  So the churches should now be running anytime classes (with full support over the internet) to bring all who want up to FE standard (e.g., A-Level) in educated reading of the Bible for use in their working and domestic life, whether or not they expect to go into (or already have been in) Post-16 education (FE or HE), or left school some decades ago.

Each Christian graduate a Bible student

The desire for a Christian university shows a lack of trust in Christian parents and their vows at the dedication or baptism of their infants.  It presupposes that children in Christian families and members of Christian youth groups reach adulthood uneducated in the faith.  Those from Christian families and young people's activities who spend their late teens and early twenties supposedly protected from the dangers of exploration of the frontiers of human thinking can only become parents and youth leaders who further infantilise the next generation of church members.

Rather, the churches should run courses wherever suitable (also with internet support), or supervise teaching by academic scholars of the Christian scriptures, to bring anyone who wants to the level of a bachelors graduate in study of the Bible and application to all of their own lives.

Each church Pastor a partner to mission by members

Church leaders as a whole in the UK should recognise that the longstanding small minority is now changing to a majority of members who are graduates and professionals.  These are, or should be, in full-time Christian ministry outside the churches and other Christian organisations.  They are serving the Lord on the mission field at work, in the home and among the sports clubs and other leisure groups.  Their primary vocation is not personal evangelism, nor even explicit witness to their faith in Christ.  The purpose of a Christian in employment is certainly not mainly to earn money to keep Sunday services and other meetings going in buildings confined to religious uses.  Jesus has called them to be light and salt, healers and disciplers with no less authority to teach the Bible to any age or either gender than those who have studied academic theology and been licensed to preach.

Since the pastors employed by the churches of all types - from C of E clergy and Non-Conformist ministers to senior elders of the Brethren and the new churches -  have so many members who are fellow graduates in Christian service outside the church organisation, a minister now needs undergraduate education and placement training in some of those other areas of working life, just as schoolteachers need academic and professional graduateness in the subjects that they teach to children (9).

UCCF (IVP) has worked hard and with considerable success to produce books for undergraduates that take a Christian approach to the discipline of their studies.  However there is a dearth of literature for Christian graduates in what a movement for evangelising students must regard as something of an ‘afterlife'.  The exception is

books produced by ordained and lay theologians (e.g. Apollos).  Yet this is quite insufficient because only ordained ministers and teachers of religious knowledge in schools have a professional commitment that requires a theological education.  The other professions need postgraduate education and training in their own areas, with graduateness in Bible being sufficient.  Evangelicals are failing to lift up their eyes and see the fields white ready for harvest in the 21st century.

David Booth

David Booth’s university personal page is at http://psychology-people.bham.ac.uk/people/david.booth which includes an email contact address

C-A-N- do

            The thesis of this paper of course goes to the nub of the Christian Academic Network. All the above applies to the Christian staff in their diverse roles within our universities and colleges.  In particular it bears on those in the academic profession(s) of creating innovative research, sound scholarship, inspirational teaching, effective training, successful enterprise and good public service, within the traditional disciplines and increasingly across them.  On this analysis, the workers over C-A-N- have two primary duties.

(i)                 Cultivate the scholarly practical bases for professional training of graduate Christians to spread the Gospel around all people-groups, particularly in the types of work into which British and overseas graduates currently mostly go.  This means publishing original research in peer reviewed single-discipline or multidisciplinary journals and books, showing the relevance to that area of research, professional thinking and undergraduate education to the academic's individual faith basis, be it atheistic humanism, liberal unitarianism, biblical Christianity, scholarly Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.

(ii)               Run the best university or college Staff Christian Group in the UK and/or run the best research group with Christian leadership in the world in microbiology, Persian literature or whatever.  In the workwise magazine for July 2005, Mark Greene of LICC writes of "the best law firm in Birmingham" created by Anthony Collins "who broke all the rules ... with a ‘pray and serve' ethos."  To facilitate local activities by campus staff, the CAN LT is considering a proposal that C-A-N-‘s support of ‘local groups' function within the Forum for Christian Workplace Associations as a CWA for HE.


(1) This title is inspired by the name of a little book by Joe Church that was well known in evangelical circles in the mid-20th century.  It is a guide to serious study of the Bible written by a charismatic leader of the East Africa (‘Ruanda') Revival of that era.  Dipping into it provoked me to start on the series of lengthier guides of that era in Britain, Search the Scriptures, and to move on to consulting professional commentaries (conservative and modernist), learning some NT Greek and using Hebrew and Greek transliterations to dip into theologians' discussions of Old and New Testament text.  That amateur coursework before and after my first undergraduate studies (in the sciences) shapes my understanding and use of the Bible in public and private to this day. 

(2) This paper is a comment on The idea of a Christian University. Essays on Theology and Higher Education, edited by Jeff Astley, Leslie Francis, John Sullivan and Andrew Walker (Paternoster Press, 2004).  However it is far from accidental that these remarks also provide a personal ‘take' on the Christian Academic Network, based in the UK and its universities (HE) and colleges (FE & HE). 

(3) As it happens, the Romans' Ultima Thule may have been (northern) Britain (or beyond): clearly this included Lancaster even if not the barbarians north of Hadrian's Wall. { :-))

(4) The biblical bases for Christians operating in the research, enterprise and teaching of the universities are of course far wider than just the call to mission.

First, the people of God have no territory; nevertheless, Christ is King of all. Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a city on a hill that lights up the countryside at night.  By day in normal times, the ‘city' is not a fortress under siege but a bustling market of goods and ideas, open to all who act civilly. Paul exploited the city (and even its prison) for meetings where he could get his oral publications peer-reviewed and widely cited. He probed soft spots like an altar to the unknown god, used academic jokes like the Cretan's paradoxical claim to be lying and plunged into hot religio-scientific controversy about whether the dead rise or not. The monastic tradition out of which the first universities grew, while open to corruption, was a house of prayer but also a base for service to God among local people, providing employment, nutritious food, safe drink and spiritual comfort - while being largely independent of the hierarchy of the church.  Jesus taught his followers to be salt permeating the dough.  He urged them to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves - right in the thick of this wicked world, while not of it.

            Secondly, any notion of a Supreme Being carries the implication that this God is truth.  Yet no human being possesses God and so we must listen out for God to speak if we are to have any chance of approaching truth.  The most likely media for the voice of God tell us that God spoke and everything came into being.  This is a religious basis for the realist ontology: there is one reality sustained by God, including all the many types of causal process through which God operates. 

Truth is not part of this creation, except as the Word made flesh.  That happened only in one place and time and we have only the writings of witnesses the life, death and resurrection of the Jews' Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (in Galilee of the Gentiles), and the diverse groups of people who claim to be his followers - indeed to be the community which is his continuing embodiment in this mortal life.  There were few writings left three centuries after Jesus Christ on earth but 27 of them, with the Jewish scriptures, were recognised to be sufficient of God's word to guide humanity through time by leaders of the Church convened by the converted Roman emperor.  Thus our access to truth is through a literal book about the Incarnation and Resurrection and the metaphorical book of the Creation.  Neither is God; they are what God speaks through human mediators; we have to listen and to use all the resources to hand to try to understand what God is saying.  This is the critical epistemology of the universities.

(5) This critique is often formulated in terms of the secularity of the contemporary universities.  In my view, the term "secular university" must be resisted, on two main counts.  First, the distinction between religious and secular is a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Secondly, contemporary understanding of the term "secular" is riddled with the errors of the humanistic foundationalism of the Enlightenment and of Modernism and the self-stultifying relativism of Post-Modernist reactions that arise from ignoring the achievements of the critical realist epistemology and ontology emerging from the thinking of the later Wittgenstein, Lakatos and others, with expositors such as WW Bartley and Bakhsar.

(6) The search for a specific idea, such as that of research, is not eased by an unscholarly lack of an index to the book.  The word ‘research' does occur on page 68, but merely as a passing acknowledgement of another function of a university besides (undergraduate) teaching - a somehow Christian pedagogy at the university level being the chapter's topic (which, by the way, the authors themselves at one point call a "phantasy" (?phantasm ?fantasy)).

(7) To the best of my information, this is not how Liverpool Hope University operates.

(8) It might be noted that there is an analogous truism about personal evangelism.

(9) We seem to need a National Commission on Church Staff Qualifications & CPD.  It is far from self-evident in principle that the clergy who are academic theologians should run education and training for the ordained ministry.  Other graduate professions now train their practitioners by coordination between national professional societies (in this case it would need to be across denominations) and the mainstream university departments of the relevant academic disciplines.  If holy orders or, more broadly, the Christian pastorate is to become a senior profession again, then like medics and psychologists, for example, ordination to such ministry within the church should require a Professional Doctorate in Christian mission or qualifying as a Fellow of a national College of Christian Ministers, in either case including education and training (or prior experience) in the support of graduates in two or three other professions in their calling to that mission field, not just education in theology and training in pastoral ministries.  From what has happened in other professions, the training colleges run by clergy and/or theologians are unlikely to move rapidly or far enough in this direction without church members, trainers in other professions and academics in other disciplines that are directly applicable to work within the churches exerting an influence that cannot be resisted.  The usual model is the emergence of a national validation body, which includes doctoral leaders in other relevant professions and accredits the standards and range (not content) of academic curricula, the professional quality of practitioner training and the scholarly basis of career-long learning ("continuous professional development").  Since such a process would have to be interdenominational, representatives of the most important extradenominational Christian groups should consult with prominent laity in each part of the church and with the councils of theological colleges.  The chair of such a National Commission could perhaps be a former VC or a senior professor of Philosophy. 

Revised on 9 & 13 September 2005