Evangelical Christians must rediscover the Reformation truth that God can be glorified through a life of scholarship.

“You are invited,” the invitation read, “to attend a banquet for the 48 American Jews who have won a Nobel Prize in science.” I have trouble thinking of one evangelical Christian who has won a Nobel Prize, I thought, after reading the invitation. Jews number about 8 million in the United States; some evangelicals have claimed their number to be 40 million. Why this comparative lack of scientific accomplishment by evangelical Christians?

A partial answer is that not many evangelical Christians have academic appointments in the science departments of the universities where the majority of the Nobel Prizes are won. Neither are evangelicals represented in proportion to their numbers among the graduate students who will become the university professors of the future.

And while evangelical Christians do graduate from college, of course, often it is not with the expectation of pursuing careers in university teaching and research. Even before they come to college, few have been challenged by their church leaders to consider scholarly science as a career that can glorify God. In many cases, such a career is even discouraged before the student arrives at college. Potential scholars are thereby lost to the academic pipeline before reaching the college gates.

Little is done during the college years to change this situation. For 40 years, parachurch groups such as InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, and the Navigators have ministered to students on the university campus. That generation of students now occupies the faculty positions in our universities. Yet, the university faculties are as secular as ever. Where are the Christians?

The question then becomes: “What causes evangelical Christians to turn away from a life of teaching and scholarship?”And the answer is: “Teaching and scholarship are not on the list of activities given the ‘seal of approval’ by much of the evangelical Christian community.”

Approved Activities

A few months ago, a missionary spoke to our church and told about his family problems. Two of his daughters had been on drugs but, providentially, everything ended well: One daughter married a man studying for the ministry, the other married a missionary. But I cannot recall any evangelical Christian father who was proud and relieved that his daughter married a graduate student. While this lack of respect or appreciation for scholarship certainly does not afflict all quarters of evangelical life, it is pervasive enough to cause us concern.

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If one talks to a staff member for a Christian group ministering to students on a university campus, one might well hear, “We had a good year; three of our graduating seniors are going on staff.” I have yet to hear: “We had a good year; three of our seniors are going to graduate school.”

And, of course, there is that Christian expression that summarizes the whole problem: “full-time Christian service.” It would be difficult to find a phrase that better implies that Christians in certain “unapproved” activities are not full-time Christians.

Despite the efforts of several vocal leaders to set this matter right, students continue to hear the refrain that certain vocations are more “Christian” than others. This attitude of our evangelical culture inevitably deflects these young people from choosing a life devoted to teaching and scholarship.

True, there are factors—economic, for example—that may discourage the prospective student. But economic hardship has traditionally been part of the mission call, and just as we make no apology for asking people to live with economic stringencies in order to serve on the mission field, so we should make that part of the challenge to those who have a vocation to scholarship.

We see a contrasting attitude among Jews. Their admiration for scholarship is the source of their scholarly accomplishments. For more than two millennia, the rabbi, or teacher, has occupied the pre-eminent position in Jewish society. Consequently, today the best of their youth strive to attain a university position where they can devote their lives to study and research.

Evangelicals’ acceptance of the “approved activities” list even cripples the few evangelical Christians who manage to trickle from the academic pipeline. Consider, as an example, this perspective once voiced by a Christian faculty member: “I am being paid by the university to work 40 hours a week, and I will conscientiously fulfill that obligation. But the rest of my time is for my family and for my church.”

What a contrast this is to the attitude illustrated by the delightful story of the Nobel Prize winner Wolfgang Pauli. A friend met him one beautiful spring weekend in Copenhagen. The friend asked, “Why do you look so glum on such a beautiful day?” Pauli replied, “How can anybody be happy when we don’t understand the anomalous Zee-man Effect?” Nobel Prize winners don’t punch time clocks.

I am by no means suggesting that Nobel Prizes should come before families. According to Scripture, husband and wife become “one flesh,” one body. But God will not be pleased on the day of judgment if our sole accomplishment has been to care for our bodies, for our families. That would be too much like the servant who was given one talent and did not use it. Our families are given to us as a home base from which we sally forth into the world to glorify God. They are not an end in themselves.

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As for his relationship to the church, the academic Christian gives of his first fruits just as any other Christian. Very likely, he teaches in the church. And the quality of his teaching will be enhanced by his academic experience. Nineteenth-century physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, for example, who discovered the law for generating electricity, preached every Sunday in his little church in London. Yet, he worked so hard on his research that he suffered a nervous breakdown (which I am certainly not advocating).

Evangelical Christians, however, should take care that in their haste to leave the campus and serve the church, they are not neglecting a fertile mission field in which they work every day. As those of us on secular campuses have found, opportunities abound for speaking to student groups, for discussing one’s faith with both individual faculty members and students, and for sponsoring Christian student organizations for the university administration.

A caution is in order, however. When some academic Christians recognize these opportunities, they may be tempted to say, “I will teach in a university so that I can have a Christian influence on young people.” Of course, no Nobel Prize work will be done when this is the only motivation for the work of scholarship.

One can excel in intellectual endeavors only by immersing oneself in his work as Pauli did. I am immersed in physics because I am fascinated by the insights that physics has obtained about God’s world. I find in physics an aesthetic appeal that enriches human existence and gives the same kind of satisfaction that is experienced by hearing great music or viewing unspoiled nature. My fascination with the physicist’s description of nature led to my seeing the same aesthetically satisfying patterns in Scripture; on this basis I became a Christian.

There is an even graver criticism of the Christian who joins a university faculty solely to wield a “Christian influence.” Such a motivation, by itself, not only cripples the scholar, it leads her to join a community of scholars under false pretenses. Instead of joining other scholars to explore the frontiers of knowledge, the real purpose is found somewhere else.

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We have no respect for Communists when they infiltrate an organization for their own purposes. Non-Christians also have no respect for Christians who do the same thing. The opportunities for a Christian influence on a university campus are interwoven into the life of teaching and scholarship; they are not an end in themselves.

Paying The Price

What price has the church paid for restricting its vision of “approved” activities and vocations?

First, Christian influence has largely departed from the universities. And, with this departure from the universities, Christian influence has inevitably declined in our culture as well. Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television knows how the culture of our country has changed.

However, the early church flourished in a non-Christian culture, and one can contend, properly, that the church can do so again. After all, the purpose of the church is to make disciples of all nations, and we should pray to that end. For countries such as China, our prayers should have special urgency.

But God does not always answer prayers as we expect. In their wilderness wanderings, the early Israelites prayed for meat, and God buried them in meat. The church in our day has prayed for the Chinese, and God has buried us in Chinese—40,000 of them, in our universities. These are not the Chinese peasants for which we have been preparing our missionaries with long years of language study (a field that we need to continue to cultivate). Rather, these are the elite of the next generation; they know our language and already admire our culture. These are the leaders of China’s next generation. What an opportunity we now have to reach China with the gospel! I know, from my own experience, how surprised the Chinese are to meet Christian university professors. They have been taught that science has exposed religion as only a superstition. They have not heard that science developed in a Christian culture and that it is reasonable for scientists to be Christians.

As evangelical Christians, then, we have not only stopped influencing our own culture, we have missed an opportunity to reach another culture. Because our promising young Christians have been sent to the mission field, not to university faculties, we have missed taking advantage of a mission field placed on our very doorsteps.

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The Cure For What Ails Us

If some evangelical Christians have fallen into the belief that certain “works” are better than others, the cure lies in a return to the insights of the Protestant Reformation. In pre-Reformation Europe there were two classes of Christians, the clergy and the laity. This division was aggravated by the belief that salvation was by “works.” Common lay people despaired of having the time or opportunity to withdraw from the world and devote themselves properly to good works.

Lord of Creation and Academy

What does a calling to the academy mean for the Christian?

Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, written almost four decades ago and still relevant, was one Christian’s analysis of the ways Christians have interpreted their obligations to the societies in which they live. At one extreme, he observed, are the separationists, seeing culture and scholarship as evil, or at least dangerous to faith. At the other extreme are the accommodators, who reduce biblical faith to the best that human culture and learning have attained. In between are the “churches of the center,” whose members neither reject culture and scholarship nor embrace them uncritically. Instead, such Christians affirm three important themes: (1) God in Christ is Lord over the entire universe. (2) All persons are called to obey God in their cultural activities, which include everything from language, art, science, and philosophy to government, technology, education, and recreation. Finally, (3) all of us are sinners and thus will fulfill God’s “cultural mandate” incompletely. Nevertheless, part of our grateful response to God’s grace is to embrace that cultural mandate, using our minds and skills in the transformation of culture so that it conforms more and more to God’s norms.

I myself was raised in an “accommodationist” church that saw little if any tension between Christianity and the entire world of scholarship. I was first evangelized by “separationists” who catered wonderfully to my needs for salvation and fellowship but also gave me the distinct impression that the price to be paid for becoming a Christian was putting my mind into cold storage for life. (I simply put off becoming a Christian instead.) By God’s grace, when on the verge of completing my doctorate in psychology, I finally became a Christian through the witness of believers who understood that the Lord of salvation is also the Lord of creation, and the One who sends us back to the world of culture and scholarship to reclaim it for him.

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The Calvinist tradition of which I am now a part has always maintained that “all of life is religious,” by which is meant that whatever one does to the glory of God, be it building a business, changing a diaper, inventing a microscope, or analyzing a literary text, is, in fact, “full-time Christian service.” This is a tradition in which most adherents are as pleased with their daughters who marry graduate students as they are with those who marry missionaries. They are even learning—somewhat more slowly—to be pleased when the daughters themselves want to be graduate students.

Indeed, Calvinists have been called “the Jews of Protestantism”—intellectual, clannish, and highly achievement oriented. For this reason their churches, schools, and colleges have attracted not a few bright, young evangelicals looking for ways to build a life of faith that does not disparage the life of the mind. But if Calvinists are similar to Jews in this way, why have they not garnered a similar proportion of academic accolades, such as Nobel Prizes?

Part of the answer, I suspect, has to do with the question of whether Christian scholarship is best done in Christian or secular institutions. As a Christian, I have worked in both settings and can see advantages and disadvantages to both. The large university often offers better pay, smaller teaching loads, and more sophisticated facilities—especially for natural scientists. But for an interdisciplinary scholar like myself, with overlapping interests in psychology, theology, and philosophy of social science, the atomized, overspecialized university setting was often a drawback. So was its “selective secularism,” which welcomed faith-based, “world-viewish” scholarship when coming from Marxists, but scorned it as “partisan” and “subjective” when coming from Christians. It was only when I settled into my present, Christian liberal arts college that my particular scholarly interests were able to flourish optimally.

Evangelicals will continue to give different answers to the question as to how Christian scholarship can best be nurtured, both individually and communally. But we need to agree that it should be nurtured, and be prepared to commit the necessary resources. Whether our universities are re-Christianized as a result is not the point. Our God demands obedience, not temporal success, and part of that obedience means using the minds he has given us to bring every thought captive to Christ.

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By Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, professor of interdisciplinary studies at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

All this was changed with Martin Luther’s rediscovery of salvation by faith. No longer were certain “works” required for salvation. Consecrated Christians were free to devote their lives to any lawful pursuit. Luther’s shoemaker could glorify God by making good shoes.

Science, in particular, benefited from this new Christian freedom. One could glorify God by studying his creation. Johannes Kepler, one of the first scientists of the Reformation, devoted 20 years to discovering the motion of the planets around the sun. Describing his work, he said that he was thinking the Creator’s thoughts after him.

Commenting on the study of astronomy, Calvin wrote: “For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise.”

This kind of interest in science among Christians extended through several centuries. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, evangelical Christians largely disappeared from the scientific scene. They had turned to “Christian works” and had become isolated from science and the universities. The Reformation’s insight on Christian vocation was forgotten.

Until evangelical Christians rediscover the Reformation truth that God can be glorified through a life of scholarship, the universities—and not the church—will continue to be the source of nourishment for the secular culture of our day.

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