Under the authority of God’s inerrant word, Bethlehem College exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ by equipping men and women. How did Bethlehem College arrive at this mission statement and what model of education do we, Bethlehem College, use to accomplish this mission? In what follows, I will give the biblical foundation for the mission of Bethlehem College and then explain how this mission aligns with a model of education known as classical education. I will also explain how this model differs from other models of education that are more dominant today.
Bethlehem College is built upon the foundation of Colossians 1:15–17. The apostle Paul writes there that 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 for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” As Bethlehem’s founder John Piper comments, this “is the deepest foundation stone of Bethlehem College. All things not only belong to Christ, but all things display Christ.” Since Bethlehem College confidently believes that everything displays Christ and his glory, we thus believe that “human beings exist to magnify his worth in the world. Our worth consists of our capacity to consciously make much of his worth.”So, Bethlehem College believes that the goal of a college education is to make much of Christ — to clearly see his glory and to make it known to the world. But how does Bethlehem seek to accomplish this goal? This is where the model of classical education comes in.
What is “classical education”? One scholar defines the goal of classical education as seeking to “educate whole persons through the accumulated wisdom of the ages for a lifetime of flourishing regardless of their profession or place of employment.” This model synchronizes with Bethlehem’s mission in two important ways, both of which highlight important components of how the classical model differs from more contemporary and dominant models of education: (1) The goal of classical education is broader and (2) the means of classical education are thus different. Let’s look at each component in turn.
First, the goal of classical education is, broadly, to educate the whole person. This goal was assumed in schools for centuries. But beginning in the nineteenth century, models of education arose that sought to narrow this traditional classical goal. The most dominant of these models is sometimes called the “industrial” model for it sought to reduce education to merely training for gainful employment. This has clearly become the most influential model since most students, and parents, typically only see college in this way. “What sort of job can I get with this degree?” is a pertinent question but not the primary goal of classical education since vocation is only one facet of an entire life. Jesus said the greatest command was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37) — not just where those apply to one’s job. Every area of life should be trained to love and glorify God.
Unfortunately, the industrial model has even come to dominate schools for Christian ministry where classes are primarily championed as being “relevant” or only about “addressing needs.” Such approaches to education are similar to the industrial model since both only seek to provide skills to help a person flourish in one particular area — namely, the realm of employment. But classical education seeks to form a certain kind of person that can flourish in all avenues of life, including one’s place of employment.
Bethlehem College’s goal in education fits perfectly with the goal of classical education in that we seek to form within students a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. We seek to shape the whole person by helping them to treasure Christ foremost, to grow in wisdom and knowledge over a lifetime, and to glorify God in every sphere of life. Bethlehem College agrees with the following claim from one classical educator: we “do not merely prepare students to pass the next exam, progress to the next grade, earn a diploma, access higher education, or secure gainful employment, but to live well and die well alongside their teachers who are endeavoring to do the same.”
Since classical education differs in its goal from the industrial model of education, it also differs in its educational means of achieving that goal. As noted above, classical education uses the “accumulated wisdom of the ages.” At Bethlehem College, we believe there is no greater wisdom than what is contained within God’s self-revelation. But Christians have historically believed that God has “two books” of revelation: the book of special revelation (i.e., the Bible) and the book of natural revelation (i.e., the world), which Piper notes is “the whole organic complex of nature and history and human culture.” But isn’t the Bible sufficient for education? Why look at nature, history, and human culture? Bethlehem College upholds that the Bible is authoritative, while the world is not. But the Bible itself points us toward the world. For example, Psalm 19:1 tells us to look at “the heavens” for they “declare the glory of God,” and “the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Jesus tells us to consider the lilies and the birds (Matt 6:26, 28) in order to understand the depth of God’s care for us, and the writer of Proverbs (Prov 6:6) tells us to consider things like ants as an example of the importance of preparation. In other words, the Bible exhorts us to look at a host of things outside of the Bible — things in nature, in history, and in human culture. This is the way John Piper puts it:
[T]hink 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.
So, like other classical education schools, Bethlehem College students study other sources, other books, in addition to the Bible. This is why some classical education programs call themselves “Great Books” programs. Some schools think of the “Great Books” as a canonical list of almost sacred books that any well-educated Westerner should read. Understood this way, the great books are those texts that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture. But that is not how Bethlehem College understands the so-called “Great Books.” We mark various non-biblical books as worthwhile of study because they encourage certain habits of mind and heart. And when certain books have a certain history, a proven track record of being good at that, we recognize such books as “Great Books.” Therefore, it is no surprise that classical education often studies older books.
But at Bethlehem College, studying older books — like the Bible — is not simply about filling heads with knowledge. “Our aim,” to quote John Piper again, “is to build into the student habits of mind and heart that will never leave them and 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.” We seek to cultivate specific habits of mind and heart by enabling and motivating the student to observe accurately and thoroughly, to understand clearly what has been observed, to evaluate fairly what has been understood, to feel intensely according to the value of what has been evaluated, to apply wisely, and then be able to express clearly and vibrantly.
But the means of the classical model of education is more than just studying the Bible and “Great Books.” It also acknowledges its formative role as one community among others, such as families, churches, and local, regional, national and international cultures. As one scholar notes, since “classical education regards education as formation for life rather than simply preparation for employment, it recognizes that schools are micro-cultures and moral eco-systems that shape the minds, hearts, and hands of those deeply immersed within them over many years, especially when those years transpire during the most impressionable season of life.” At Bethlehem College, a student’s mind-and-heart-forming education includes more than just what goes on in classes. It also includes being involved in the local church, interacting with roommates at home, interacting with fellow students in non-academic settings, and interacting with others in one’s job. All of these relationships “disciple” and form us to be a certain kind of person.
When looking at colleges today, including Christian ones, we see that the industrial model is dominant. Some of these schools still attempt to capture a classical core by requiring certain “humanities” or “liberal arts” courses. These schools can still be a good educational fit for some students. But if you sense the desire and need to flourish in all of life, including in your future profession or place of employment, Bethlehem College may be the place for you.
James C. McGlothlin, Ph.D.
Associate Director of College Programs & Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology
- Pray for the students who attended Preview Day today, that God would guide their next educational steps.
- Pray for the Engaging Truth conference tonight and tomorrow and for the high schoolers attending.
- Pray for our students as they finish their final papers and ready themselves for finals.
- Pray for our first graduating cohort in Cameroon and the group traveling to celebrate with them.
- Praise the Lord with us for his continued faithfulness and pray that he would provide the remaining funds for our On The Double match.