September 4, 2016

Overcoming the Tension in Adventist Education

How do we relate to faith and reason as we look at our world?

John M. Fowler

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has always been mindful and unapologetic about three facets of its mission and destiny: (1) its self-definition as history’s remnant church, with the Bible as foundational authority for belief and behavior; (2) its global vision and mission to prepare people everywhere for Christ’s second coming, who “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17);1 and (3) its structure and ministry to address its diverse spiritual, doctrinal, and practical needs. Concerns for such ministry imply the significant task of educating its youth.

Preparing Adventist youth to be in the world but not of it is basic to the church’s philosophy of education, defined as “the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.”2 The work of redemption and of true education is the same.

The dawn of the modern age has generated much dispute about the inclusion of spiritual development in educational process. Theology once reigned as the queen of studies, until, with the age of reason, science dethroned her. Then, more and more, the issue of faith and reason, faith and science, became increasingly contentious. In the heat of some debates the harmony of faith and the coolness of reason were well-nigh lost. Faith cries out, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”3And science simply dismisses faith as the occupation of wanderers in the desert of an irrelevant utopia.

This article considers three issues: (1) the relationship between faith and reason; (2) the role of reason and faith in the Christian life; and (3) the pursuit of balance in Christian education.4

Four Myths

Popular—and negative—myths concerning the relationship between faith and reason, include the following four:

1. Faith and reason are incompatible: Faith and reason being both God’s gifts to humans, they cannot be incompatible, per se. The power to think and to create is part of God’s image in which He created human beings. Depriving humans of their rational capacity or opposing it to faith immediately undermines a significant distinction between humans and other earthly creatures, and raises questions as to reason being part of the image of God. That image is still latent in humans,5 and Christian education embraces the sacred responsibility “to restore in man the image of his Maker, . . . [and] to promote the development of body, mind, and soul.”6

Such restoration is a twofold task: faith grasps and believes in God’s existence and appreciates His saving work in Christ; reason, informing that faith, stands up to the rigorous pressures of skepticism. True Christian education aims for full mental development. Sanctification includes growth in knowledge (2 Peter 1:5-7). God calls for mental transformation (Rom. 12:1-3) and invites sinners to “come now, and let us reason together” (Isa. 1:8).

Some in the camps of faith and reason categorically deny the need for the other in the process of education. But can faith be taught without the tools of logic and reasoning? And can scientists work without some hypothesis that calls for a certain amount of “faith” that data exists and exists in a particular way? Axioms, basic to geometry and mathematics, require acceptance without a provable basis. Their unprovable nature does not falsify their claim. If such faith is acceptable in the world of reason, why should it be denied in the world of faith when the heart provides meaning for which the mind yet gropes?

2. Rational growth undermines Christian faith: Far from it. Consider the Bible’s intellectual giants—Moses and Paul, for example— who employed reason, logic, poetry, drama, and law to convey to their time and to generations to come the imperatives of faith as well as the compulsions of life. Yet believing scholars face sustained hostility against faith in the world of the secular intellect. Facing this danger means, not attacking the role of reason, but thoroughly preparing in, and committing to, one’s faith, even when it involves seeing through a mirror somewhat dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). Rather than denounce reason and science, Christian education points out their limitations by using the very tools they employ. While ignorance is no proof of higher Christianity, true education enables us to use our God-given powers “in such a manner as will best represent the religion of the Bible and promote the glory of God.”7

3. Faith and reason, being incompatible, must be separated: Such a dissection is impermissible to Christian education. The fundamental philosophy of Adventist education is the harmonious development—not the disharmony of division—of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. While the mind soars to the heights of knowledge, the heart ponders and wonders at the depths of faith’s miracle and mystery. The Christian cannot subscribe to a dichotomy in which faith, deemed sacred, must exist in absolute separation from reason, deemed secular: “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart” is theologically incomplete without the affirmation that the God of my heart is also the captain of my thoughts and the transformer of my dreams into concrete reality. Faith is not bereft of certainty. Nor can reason claim absolute certitude.

The Christian’s God rules both pulpit and laboratory. Christians must neither be apologetic of the former nor overwhelmed by the latter. For they thus enjoy the integrated privilege of both affirming the gospel as the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16) and joining with Einstein in the quest of probing the unknown in nature. Both have mysteries. And mystery is an invitation to study. Secular attempts to control the educational process and restrict faith claims to the arena of the personal either deny God’s existence or seek to confine Him to some little, extracurricular world of dreams and fantasies. Such views ultimately establish their own god (e.g., Marxism), even elevating self to that divine status of having the final say.

4. Reason cannot weaken or shake a strong faith: Believers need to beware of the subtleties of this myth. The enemy of faith is capable of subtly and slowly undermining the very foundations of our faith life. Rational knowledge can distract us from Christian life and priority, when seen as an end in itself, rather than as a means juduciously applied to an end. Studiousness, even theological analysis, that neglects Christian communion and commitment can eventually assume idolatrous stature. Knowledge obtained or practiced apart from the purposes of God can lead to the arrogance of intellectualism or to the indifference of religious ceremonialism. But true education esteems power above information, goodness above power, and character above intellectual acquirements: “The world does not so much need [persons] of great intellect as of noble character. It needs [people] in whom ability is controlled by steadfast principle.”8

Faith, Reason, and Christian Life

Christian students must be aware of the myths that surround faith and reason. They must also understand the role faith and reason play in both living and living responsibly.

Living: A life defined by Plato’s reason and logic will differ from one that is contoured by the claims of Micah or John. Even when they employ similar rhetoric, both foundation and fruits will be different. The logos of philosophy is not the same as the logos of John, and educational systems based on such divergent points of departure will not be the same.

One educational option focuses exclusively on the logos of the Greeks. Its yield is a rational product—with skills in reasoning, with aims that are humanistically laudable, with a life perhaps fit enough for this earth. Another option takes the logos of John (John 1:1-3, 14) as its point of departure, and discovers that education’s first and foremost objective must be to know God and His revelation through Jesus Christ. In this absolutely different definition for life we are not a cosmic accident—rational or otherwise—in this world. We are created by the eternal logos, God. “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Rather than simply rejecting the logos of Plato, this option insists on the need to know the logos of John, and to differentiate and prioritize between the two.

Thus, in Adventist education’s dual advantage, it first knows Plato and brings him under the critique of divine revelation; then, knowing the world, it communicates to the world of reason the privileges of the world of faith: a Christian mathematician, even as she practices calculus, will not fail to practice her Christianity—its grace, its compassion, its hope. Her Christian knowing and living are not separate from each other; the latter informs the former, exhibiting the unity of faith and reason within the citadel of God’s eschaton. Such is integration of faith and learning.

Living responsibly:Education in a world dominated by reason and disallowing faith, places several major responsibilities on the Christian. There is judgment. The Christian must always ask whether his field of study is in harmony with his Christian worldview. Such a judgment does not assert intellectual superiority. Rather, it brings to bear upon all studies the critique of a faith commitment. And truth, springing from faith or reason, can afford such scrutiny.

There is acceptance. “All truth is God’s truth.”9 Frank Gaebelein’s famous dictum should keep Christian students humble and teachable. Christian education rests on the foundation of God as Creator of all things and source of all truth. Wherever truth is found, the Christian mind should grasp it, and develop it for God’s glory. “Every gleam of thought, every flash of the intellect, is from the Light of the world.”10

There is firmness. Christian educators, accessing knowledge from diverse sources, cannot compromise their faith/value system when the world confronts them with one that is contradictory. They will balance the human lostness that the Bible describes, over against the knowledge that God’s image is still latent in the human.

And there is witness. Adventist education needs to be true to its faith calling even while interacting with the world of reason. The two are not competitive. But there exists the constant possibility of being overwhelmed by the latter to the loss of the former. Adventist educators see in this predicament the responsibility and privilege of witness. The privilege consists of mediating to others the divine pattern of truth that faith discloses. Such witness will be marked by the spirit of dialogue and exploration Paul modeled on Mars Hill—moving from the known to the unknown, journeying from grace that meets the deepest needs of the heart, to knowledge that challenges the loftiest of human intelligence.

The End of the Matter

Here, then, in three steps, is the Adventist choice:

First, think “whole”:Adventism’s wholistic philosophy of education is a result of inspiration, not accident. God expects us to be faithful to its every demand. Life’s spiritual, physical, social, and relational dimensions are all integrated parts of true education. Their integration is the serious and honest duty of every Adventist educator.

Second, think “God-centered”: The primary responsibility of the Christian teacher is an intellectual growth that will grasp the meaning of existence within the context of God. “In the beginning, God . . .” (Gen. 1:1). So in creation. So in education.

Third, think “redemption”:The Christian teacher should go home every day knowing that her students have found a fresh glimpse of God, the Alpha and Omega of all knowledge. Rational secularism strives to exist without such an agenda. The world of faith cannot. Christian teachers are ever reaching out to touch their students’ souls even as they challenge their minds. Redemption provides an arena in which the heart can be saved and the mind transformed, making of the student an educated, redeemed, and integrated whole.

If such is not the first priority of Adventist education, then why have an Adventist school system at all?

  1. All Scripture passages, unless otherwise stated, are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 13.
  3. See Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, chap. 7.
  4. The author previously published some of this material in “Philosophy and Christian Education,” The Journal of Adventist Education, December-January 2007.
  5. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 194.
  6. E. G. White, Education, pp. 15, 16.
  7. Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 45.
  8. E. G. White, Education, p. 225.
  9. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Pattern of God’s Truth (Winona Lake, Ind.: BMH Books, 1985), p. 28.
  10. E. G. White, Education, p. 14.

John M. Fowler is an editor-at-large of the Adventist Review; he served as associate education director of the General Conference, 1995-2011.