The Earth is the Lord’s: The Supremacy of Christ in Christian Learning
First a few comments about the spirit from which this vision of Bethlehem College and Seminary1 flows. There is no sense of triumphalism here. There is no sense of having the last word in education, or easy answers to the challenges of our times, or the ideal philosophy of college and seminary training.
Instead, there is a trembling sense that pride and poverty (and many other things!) make this a dangerous undertaking. A word about each of these.
The Danger of Pride
One of the most fertile fields of pride is academic higher education. I spent sixteen years of my life in it and have felt its dangers. And I read this morning in Ezekiel 16 how God took Israel from her misery and made her beautiful and renowned. Then the dreadful verse 15 said, “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown” (Ezekiel 16:15).
And I thought, God has blessed Bethlehem and The Bethlehem Institute and Desiring God and me personally. And the greatest danger of all right now is that we trust in our blessed condition and our renown. Pride lurks at every door. So we tremble and ask, Is this our motive—to flaunt power, to get praise, to make a name for ourselves? If so, O God, may we fail, and fail quickly without harming others.
But pride has other forms, and one is cowardice—the fear of being criticized. And criticism there will be aplenty, because this school will affirm biblical truths that are unpopular, even with many Christians, as beautiful as we think they are—I will mention ten of them later on. That is the risk we believe we are called to take. And may the Lord do whatever it takes to keep us humble and make us servants, not lords, as we move forward with Bethlehem College and Seminary.
The Danger of Poverty
Another reality that makes a college and seminary a dangerous undertaking is that, as we read our books and listen to our lectures and write our papers and have our discussions, we are aware that our urban centers are broken and generations languish unable to escape the tangles of addiction and dysfunction and poverty and crime. And beyond these shores are millions of people who live with no clean water, insufficient food, no medical care, and could only dream of such an education. This vast discrepancy gives us a sense of uneasiness in the affluent halls of learning.
But then we ask, Is the answer to the miseries of the world a generation of young people who do not know how to observe accurately, or think carefully, or know history, or understand culture, or comprehend the Bible, or plan strategically? So again we take the risk, and pray that Bethlehem College and Seminary will not be part of the problem of poverty but part of the solution because students have developed habits of mind and heart move toward need creatively, not toward comfort fearfully.
We turn now to the biblical foundations of Bethlehem College and Seminary. In 1 Corinthians 10:25-26, the apostle Paul said, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’” This implies Jesus Christ owns the world and everything in it. It also implies that we who are his loyal subjects may make use of any of it freely for his glory. Education is about how we do that.
Abraham Kuyper, who founded the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880, said in one of his most famous sentences, “No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and 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!’”1 This was the foundation of his educational dream for the Free University.
That truth is absolutely biblical and true and foundational to Bethlehem College and Seminary, but it is not the most ultimate or defining truth. Christ not only made and owns the world; he not only holds everything together by the word of his power, but he also created it and sustains it to display his beauty and his worth and greatness so that those whom he created in his image will know him and treasure him above all things, and in that treasuring of him above all that he has made, manifest his supreme value in the universe. That’s the ultimately defining truth for Bethlehem College and Seminary.
The decisive text in this regard is Colossians 1:15-17:
[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
So we learn that Christ made all things and holds all things together “for himself.” “All things were created through him and for him.” “For him” does not mean that Christ had deficiencies that he had to create the world to supply. It means that his complete self-sufficiency overflowed in the creation of the world so that the world would display the greatness of Christ.
That is the deepest foundation stone of Bethlehem College and Seminary. All things not only belong to Christ, but all things display Christ. Human beings exist to magnify his worth in the world. Our worth consists of our capacity to consciously make much of his worth. The goal of Bethlehem College and Seminary cannot be expressed with man as the end point. Christ is the endpoint. All things are from him and through him and to him (Romans 11:36). Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory (Psalm 115:1).
No paragraph outside the Bible is more foundational to this school than one from the notebooks of Jonathan Edwards. It not only sums up the ultimate purpose of God to glorify himself in creation, but also shows how God accomplishes that self-exaltation in such a way that it becomes love and not megalomania. Here is how Edwards says it. And with this he opens the door for Bethlehem College and Seminary to be unshakably joyful and radically God-exalting in the very same act.
God glorifies Himself toward the creatures also in two ways: 1. By appearing to . . . their understanding. 2. In communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself. . . . God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. . . . He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.2
Essential to the foundation of Bethlehem College and Seminary is the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. God’s self-exaltation and our everlasting joy are not at odds. They happen together. His worth is magnified when we treasure him above all things. Our joy in him reflects his glory. The great quest of Bethlehem College and Seminary is for minds and hearts that see and savor the glory of Christ in all things, and spread that experience to the world.3
Everywhere you turn in the history of redemption, from beginning to end, God’s design is the same: that his glory—supremely the glory of his grace in the person and work of Christ—be seen and savored and spread. God is manifestly exuberant about making himself and his Son supreme in the thoughts and affections of his people, and making himself known as Lord in the world.
That is the ultimate foundation of why Christ is supreme in Christian learning and in Bethlehem College and Seminary. We are simply joining God himself in his exuberant commitment to magnify his greatness and the glory of his Son.
What Do We Study?
The question arises: Where do we see his glory? That is, what is the focus of our education? What do we study? If God’s aim in creating and governing the world is the display of his glory that we might see it and delight in it and reflect it, where will we focus our attention? Where will we see it? How does this happen?
The answer is that God has two books: the Word and the world. The Bible, on the one hand, and the whole organic complex of nature and history and human culture, on the other hand. The Bible is inspired and authoritative. The world is not. But this doesn’t mean that all we focus on is the Bible. The Bible gives the decisive meaning of all things. But the Bible itself sends us over and over again to the world for learning.
Consider the lilies; consider the birds (Matthew 6:26, 28). “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalms 19:1). “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?” (Isaiah 40:26).
In fact, think about the way the prophets and apostles and Jesus himself used language. They used analogies and figures and metaphors and similes and illustrations and parables. They constantly assume that we have looked at the world and learned about vineyards, wine, weddings, lions, bears, horses, dogs, pigs, grasshoppers, constellations, businesses, wages, banks, fountains, springs, rivers, fig trees, olive trees, mulberry trees, thorns, wind, thunderstorms, bread, baking, armies, swords, shields, sheep, shepherds, cattle, camels, fire, green wood, dry wood, hay, stubble, jewels, gold, silver, law courts, judges, and advocates.
In other words, the Bible both commands and assumes that we will know the world, and not just the Word. We will study the general book of God called nature and history and culture. And we will study the special book of God called the Bible. And the reason is that God has revealed his glory in both—and means for us to see him in both.
The two books of God are not on the same level. The Bible has supreme authority, because God gave the Bible as the key to unlock the meaning of all things. Without the truth of the Bible, the most brilliant scholars may learn amazing things about nature. And we may read their books and learn from them. But they miss the main point without the special revelation of God—that everything exists to glorify Christ, that they are blinded by sin, that they need a Savior, that Christ came into the world to save sinners, and that the whole universe gets its ultimate meaning in relationship to him. When they miss the main thing, everything is skewed.
So the entire curriculum of Bethlehem College and Seminary is permeated by the study of the Bible. The Bible gives the key that unlocks the deepest meaning of everything else.
What Do We Do With God’s Books?
So if Bethlehem College and Seminary is going to focus on these two books—the Word that God inspired and the world that God made—because this is where God has revealed his glory, then what should we do with these two books? What does this education try to impart to the students?
Our aim is not to impart degrees. The BA and MDiv degrees are almost entirely incidental to the aims of education.
Our aim is not mainly to impart facts because these will be soon forgotten, but the aims of education should last.
Our aim is not mainly to impart skills for a trade or a profession, since these change with the trades and technologies.
Our aim is to build into the student habits of mind and heart that will never leave them and will fit them for a lifetime of ongoing growth. The well-educated person is the person who has the habits of mind and heart to go on learning what he needs to learn to live in a Christ-exalting way for the rest of his life—and that would apply to whatever sphere of life he pursues.
These habits of mind apply to all objects in the world, but most importantly the Bible. We can sum them up like this:
We aim to enable and to motivate the student to observe his subject matter accurately and thoroughly, to understand clearly what he has observed, to evaluate fairly what he has understood by deciding what is true and valuable, to feel intensely according to the value of what he has evaluated, to apply wisely and helpfully in life what he understands and feels, and to express in speech and writing and deeds what he has seen, understood, felt and applied in such a way that its accuracy, clarity, truth, value, and helpfulness can be known and enjoyed by others.
So the habits of mind and heart are:
Whether you are looking at a passage in the Bible, or at the U. S. Constitution, or a mysterious pattern of scratches on your car, the habits of mind and heart are the same.
We aim to enable and to motivate the student to observe his subject matter accurately and thoroughly. We must see what is really there. Our teaching is designed to force students to see for themselves. They must keep looking until they see things they did not see at first—in the Word and in the world.
We must learn to read slowly and observe rigorously and minutely and comprehensively. The observing must be accurate and thorough. Otherwise, our understanding and evaluation will be flawed. Quickly reading many books ordinarily begets bad habits of mind. We will not encourage students to read for the sake of quantity but to read with rigorous observation and reflection.
We aim to enable and to motivate the student to understand clearly what he has observed thoroughly and accurately. Understanding involves the severe discipline of thinking. The mind wrestles with the traits and features of what it has observed. The aim when reading the Bible is that we discern what the author intended us to understand. This understanding comes through the language conventions on the page. We observe them and we think about them until we can say, “I understand what he meant.” We want his, not ours. We aim to think the author’s thoughts after him. Otherwise, education simply becomes a reflection of my own ignorance.
We aim to enable and to motivate the student to evaluate fairly, but not to shrink back from the judgments that must be made about truth and value on the basis of careful observation and accurate understanding. Here is where our worldview will make all the difference. We believe there is such a thing as truth, and that with the compass of the Scriptures and the help of the Spirit, we can know it.
We aim to enable and to motivate the student to feel properly in response to what he has observed and understood and evaluated. His feeling should be in accord with the truth and worth of what he has observed and understood. If he has observed and understood a terrible reality like hell, his feeling should be fear and horror and compassion. If he has observed and understood a wonderful reality like heaven, then his feelings should be joy and hope and longing.
Since God is glorified in our emotional response to his glory and not just by seeing it and understanding it and evaluating it, we cannot be indifferent to the emotional life of the students. This means that prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit become essential in the life of Bethlehem College and Seminary.
We aim to enable and to motivate the student to apply wisely and helpfully what he has observed and understood and evaluated and felt. It takes wisdom, not just factual knowledge, to know how to wisely and helpfully apply what they understand and feel.
If they observed and understood and felt the truth that they should “redeem the time” (from Ephesians 5:16), a wise application might be go to bed earlier and get up earlier so that there is time for devotions without being exhausted. Or it might be to get a job as an intern at an inner-city emergency service center. A well-educated person is growing in the wise application to life of all he learns.
We aim to enable and to motivate the student to express in speech and writing and deeds what he has seen, understood, evaluated, felt, and applied. And the goal is that he do it in such a way that its accuracy, clarity, truthfulness, preciousness, and helpfulness can be known and enjoyed by others. We want the students to have a growing ability to communicate and demonstrate compellingly to others what they have seen and understood and evaluated and felt and applied.
This brings us back to our original reason for being. God created the world and inspired the Word to display his glory. A well-educated person sees the glory of God in the Word that God inspired and the world that God made and understands it and evaluates it and feels it and applies it and expresses it for others to see and enjoy.
Where We Stand
We do not assume that the process of deciding what is true and valuable starts over with every generation of students. And it didn’t start with us. Therefore, we are a confessional institution. The Bethlehem Elder Affirmation of Faith defines what we believe and teach in Bethlehem College and Seminary.
We do not aim to force students into this mold. That would not be education, not an honor to Christ. We aim to come alongside them in the processes of observation, understanding, evaluation, feeling, application, and expression and show them why we land where we do. The faculty will advocate and seek to persuade. We will not coerce or deceive or hide difficult problems. In this way, we believe truth will be honored, and the integrity of careful thinking will be encouraged.
We believe that this way of doing education with a view to seeing and savoring and spreading the glory of Christ, while making his Word our supreme rule in all our thinking about his world, with these rigorous habits of mind and heart—we believe that this way of doing education leads to humble, courageous convictions in a fallen world where Christ urges us to live peaceably as far as it lies in us (Romans 12:18), but not to shrink back from telling the truth that is often controversial (Matthew 10:27-28; Acts 20:20, 27).
Therefore, I pray that Bethlehem College and Seminary will be marked by unashamed courage and openness in the stands we take. We feel the force of Martin Luther’s words as they relate to the controversies of our day:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the solider is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.4
It will be helpful in closing to position Bethlehem College and Seminary in such battles. Here are a few with the battleground in parentheses and our position following.
1) (Historical Criticism) The Bible teaches only what is true. It is coherent and non-contradictory in the progress of revelation.
The Bible is inspired and inerrant so that what it teaches is true and stands in judgment on all tradition and all science and all culture and all human opinion. It is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey. It is worthy of a lifetime of assiduous reflection, heart-felt meditation, and joyful obedience.
2) (Roman Catholicism) Justification involves the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith alone.
Justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone for the glory of God alone is at the heart of the biblical gospel. It includes the imputation, not the impartation, of the righteousness of Christ to us and on the basis of Christ’s perfect obedience to all that the Father commanded him to do.
3) (Relativism and Pluralism) Jesus is the only way to God.
In order to be saved from eternal damnation all peoples—Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and animist and secularist—must know and believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior who died for them and rose again. World missions is a priority for all who love people, know Christ, and see the world of unreached peoples.
4) (Universalism and Annihilationism) Hell is real and terrible.
Hell, as Jesus taught more than anyone else, is real. It is a conscious, eternal experience of torment pictured in part as weeping and gnashing of teeth, outer darkness, unquenchable fire, eternal punishment, divine vengeance, and the lake of fire. People should be warned with tears and urgency.
5) (Abortion) The unfettered abortion license is abominable.
Abortion is morally monstrous. Unborn human life should be protected for the same reasons that all human life should be protected.
6) (Feminism and Egalitarianism) The complementary differences of manhood and womanhood are beautiful, practical, and important.
Concerning biblical manhood and womanhood we believe that God’s merciful purpose for our great good is that humble, Christ-like, servant-hearted men bear the burden of leadership as elders and pastors in the church, and that such men function as the caring, providing, protecting, leaders of their homes; and that women come alongside these men with their manifold gifts and help them carry through the mission of the church and the home.
7) (Divorce and Homosexuality) Marriage is a life-long covenant between a man and a woman.
No kind of relationship between two men or two women is marriage. Whatever two men do or say to each other, or whatever two women do or say to each other it is not now, never has been, and never will be marriage in God’s eyes. Marriage is the life-long covenant relationship between a man and a woman as husband and wife on the analogy of Christ and the church.
8) (Racism and Ethnocentrism) Delighting in and desiring racial and ethnic diversity is crucial.
Indifference to active love across ethnic lines is an assault on the purpose of the cross of Christ who ransomed people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Happy, unified ethnic diversity in Christ is our destiny in the age to come and should be loved, longed for, and sought after here and now.
9) (Consumerism and Materialism) Desiring riches is deadly, and wartime simplicity is good.
Desiring to be rich is suicidal, and commending that desire as part of the Christian life is therefore worse than murderous because not just this life but the next is at stake. Followers of Jesus should feel a magnetic pull on their lives toward wartime simplicity so that they may be lavish in giving and alleviate as much suffering as we can—especially eternal suffering.
10) (Arminianism and Open Theism) God is absolutely sovereign.
God is sovereign over all things including natural calamity and human sin. To quote the Bethlehem Elder Affirmation of Faith: “God, from all eternity, in order to display the full extent of His glory for the eternal and ever-increasing enjoyment of all who love Him, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His will, freely and unchangeably ordain and foreknow whatever comes to pass. God upholds and governs all things—from galaxies to subatomic particles, from the forces of nature to the movements of nations, and from the public plans of politicians to the secret acts of solitary persons—all in accord with His eternal, all-wise purposes to glorify Himself, yet in such a way that He never sins, nor ever condemns a person unjustly; but that His ordaining and governing all things is compatible with the moral accountability of all persons created in His image.”
For Our Joy, To His Glory
For those who have been around Bethlehem Baptist Church for some time, you will know that our overwhelming spirit of worship and ministry and missions is aggressively proactive and positive. We do not define ourselves mainly by what we respond to or disagree with. But neither do we shrink back out of fear that others will define us this way.
The spirit of the church and the spirit of the school is the spirit of Christian Hedonism—in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God is 100% for us and not against us. “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And in bringing us to God, He brought us to our greatest Treasure and highest joy. To know him and enjoy him and show him in every way we can from his Word and his world is our passion, because we know that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. When we rest in him as our supreme Treasure, especially in times of suffering, and continue to love others for his sake, we display the glory of Christ.
May God prosper this vision for the joy of all peoples and the glory of his Son.
1 What do we mean by the terms college and seminary? We simply mean that as soon as feasible, we will offer an accredited Bachelor of Arts and Master of Divinity. The words college and seminary do not signify hundreds of students, or multiple academic departments, or large faculties, or athletic teams. Instead, in the seminary, think of a group of a dozen students or so (nowadays called a cohort) linked with pastoral mentors, moving together through the unified course sequence based on the Greek and Hebrew Bible.
And in the college, think similarly of a cohort of students moving together through an integrated and unified curriculum of humanities and sciences built into a historical framework from creation to the present. Think Bethlehem faculty mentors and many guest professors.
Think of both of these programs as church-based where all the students are expected to be involved in the life and ministry of the church. Our aim is that the limited scope of the programs, and the connection with the church, and the wider funding of the vision will bring down costs to the place where students will not be burdened with debt when they are finished. The present financial crisis in higher education is one of the reasons for starting Bethlehem College and Seminary, but not the main one.
2 Abraham Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
3 Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies,” ed. by Thomas Schafer, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p, 495. Miscellany #448.
4 I have laid out the biblical foundation for this more fully in several places. See for example, Let the Nations Be Glad, Second Edition (2003), pp. 21-28, and The Pleasures of God (2000), chapters 1 and 4. The ultimate biblical foundation for the truth that we glorify God by joining him joyfully in his goal to glorify himself in all things is that God does indeed make himself the supreme goal of all that he does in the world from beginning to end. We are not the main point of the universe. God is.
- He created us for his glory: “Bring My sons from afar And My daughters from the ends of the earth, . . . whom I have created for My glory, Whom I have formed, even whom I have made” (Isaiah 43:6-7).
- Christ will come again at the end of the age for his glory: “He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
- Romans 9:23 says that all his mercy, all his wrath, and all his power are aiming “to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.”
- In 1 Corinthians 10:31, God makes himself the aim of every human endeavor from the smallest to the largest: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
- In Romans 3:23, God defines the very essence of sin as failing to make him supreme: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is sin because it belittles the glory of God.
- And when God’s act of redemption reaches its climactic moment in the death of Christ for sinners, the aim of God is that the glory of his grace be seen and praised above all things: “He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6). And he defined the gospel in 2 Corinthians 4:4 as “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
5 Quoted in Parker T. Williamson, Standing Firm: Reclaiming Christian Faith in Times of Controversy (Springfield, PA: PLC Publications, 1996), p. 5. Luther’s Works, Weimar Edition, Letters, vol. 3, 1883, pp. 81-82.