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The Flattery of the Heathen vs. Christian "Smarts"

By R. C. Sproul, Jr.
September 01, 2001

What if, in the great battle to build Christ's kingdom, we could capture the very center of higher learning? Wouldn't it be grand if we were the ones training the next generation of lawyers and doctors and pastors and civil magistrates? What if our academics were so good, our graduates so well equipped, that the heathen came to us for education? What if our monopoly on truth were so apparent that we were the only game in town? We don't need to imagine such a circumstance of glory; we need only to remember. Such a circumstance isn't a dream of the future, but a remembrance from the past. As we aspire to reconstruct higher education, we need to remember that we are the ones who allowed the deconstruction of higher education in the first place. It was our spiritual fathers who birthed and grew Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. And it was our fathers who let them slip through their fingers.

Institutional Entropy
We who are optimistic about the future must recognize the reality of institutional entropy. All institutions tend toward apostasy. They always have. While we are indeed spiraling toward the consummation of Christ's kingdom, the journey is made through cycles. We begin the cycle with God's blessing, whether we start in Eden, or with Noah, or with Abraham, or with Moses, or with the Reformers, or with the Puritans. God does a great work, sanctifies His people, and they enjoy the blessings of covenant obedience. We find we prefer the blessings, the gift more than the Giver, and we forget. As we grow fat and happy, God grows in His wrath, and so sends judgment. As we feel His chastening hand, we remember what we forgot, and cry out for deliverance, and the whole process begins again.

This process has happened time and again in our institutions of higher learning. Harvard began out of an attempt to flee the wickedness of England. And there was great rejoicing. Soon Harvard began to slip, and once more the people of God fled, this time to Yale. Hot on our trail though was the same apostasy and so was born Princeton. Next up, Westminster. Our failure each time, however, was not quite as simple as a failure to offer up prayers of thanksgiving. Our forgetfulness goes deeper. We forget the antithesis.

Our forgetfulness begins at the beginning. Our response to the grace of God too often is relief from our suffering, and not enough zeal for further reformation. The children of Israel were content with a practical victory after taking the land (Jud. 1). They failed to obey God and fully execute the harem. But what was the point? They held the power; why not leave a few of the heathen around to tote the water? We do much the same with our institutions of higher learning. If we hold the strategic positions, we feel no need to worry if we allow the pagans to stick around, say, to teach math, or administrate. As with the heathen in the Promised Land, however, soon the tables are turned. Those over whom we held power soon hold power over us.

The High Cost of Heathen Flattery
That shift in power begins when we listen to the flattery of the heathen. We forget the grace of God, and pat ourselves on our collective back for our wisdom in constructing such a shining monument to learning. We become wise in our own eyes, and seek to be found wise in the eyes of those around us. We seek the favor of those we once merely tolerated. We want the approval of men and, as with the evangelicals, we negotiate a peace: We will call the liberals brother, if they will but call us scholars.

Here we could learn from the fundamentalists. While their eschatology creates a retreatism that fails to build the kingdom, it at least serves as a greater protection against syncretism. While our institutions of higher learning have built bridges to the world, these folks have built walls. And while our bridges have been overrun by the heathen, their walls have stood firm.

The tool of the devil has been accreditation. We do not actually believe that our institutions are creating scholars until the outside world tells us that they are doing so. And so we go hat in hand to the devil and ask him if we are smart. The devil, being more crafty than the other beasts, begins his assault slowly. Soon we are on the outside looking in.

If we turn our back on accreditation, how can we prove we're smart? By being smart. How do we measure smartness? With the Word of God. Our home schoolers run circles around their peers academically. They're smart, but nobody knows it. We can be and do the same with our institutions of higher learning.

I'm regularly asked to commend colleges to parents and young people. I commend only three. None of them are accredited. None of them have stockpiled Ph.Ds on their faculties. None of them offer a dozen different majors. None of them are listed by Barron's, or U. S. News. None of them have a student body of even a hundred students. (And so none of them have football teams, tailgate parties, or fraternities.) Fortune 500 companies do not send recruiters to these schools. Each of them, when I name them for these prospective parents and students elicit the same response, "I've never heard of it." What each has is this: a faculty in which each member has a zeal for the Reformed faith and for the Word of God. None of them are eager to "expose students to a broad range of Christian thought." None of them can boast a long and cherished history of illustrious graduates.

There will no doubt come a time when these three colleges too will succumb to the spirit of the age, to the pull of institutional entropy. No doubt with age and the accumulation of buildings will come a weariness that results in weakness. But there will no doubt be more little colleges then that nobody has heard of, that have no reputation, that have no endowment. For while all institutions tend toward apostasy, the Kingdom of God advances at all times. To secure higher education to the glory of God, we must let go of our own glory, and be willing to be thought fools by the foolish world around us. We must sacrifice reputation for the sake of knowing better, of fearing better, the Font of all truth.


Topics: Culture , Dominion, Education

R. C. Sproul, Jr.

Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr. is the director of the Highlands Study Center, www.highlandsstudycenter.org, editor of Tabletalk magazine, and author of Tearing Down Strongholds, and Eternity in Our Hearts. Most important, he is the husband of Denise, and father of six, with one on the way.

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