Faith and learning should interact, by all means

By President J. Bradley Creed

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and this past June, faculty from several schools across the university met to read and discuss the seminal writings of Martin Luther. The Reformation of the 16th Century was a religious movement with social, political, and cultural consequences remaining to the present.

It was a complex and multifaceted historical era that witnessed the splintering of Catholic Europe and set in place the structures and beliefs that set the stage for the modern era. Reformers such as Luther directed their concerns towards the church, but the Reformation was born in the university. 

Luther’s first teaching post was at the University of Erfurt as professor of theology where he had completed his doctoral studies, but in 1508, his superior in the Augustinian monastery dispatched him to a relatively new, fledging university in Wittenberg. Wittenberg was one of about a dozen German universities developed between the latter part of the 15th and early 16th centuries. These advanced institutions of higher education providing training in theology, law, medicine and the liberal arts, and were impacted by the intellectual and cultural developments of Renaissance humanism in northern Europe. Ten years after Luther came to Wittenberg, a bright young scholar named Philip Melanchthon joined the faculty as a professor of Greek. Teaming up together, Luther became the visionary and Melanchthon became the architect of educational reform in Germany.

Luther called for reform of the universities in his earliest manifestos. In his 1520 “Address to the German Nobility,” he appealed to the leaders of the country to change the universities, and in a letter written in 1524, he made a similar appeal to the councilmen of all the cities in Germany.  In “The Freedom of the Christian,” Luther expounded the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the authority of Scripture, and divine calling of all people to vocations of service, not just priests and members of religious orders, and probed the implications of these teachings for education.

The growing availability of Scripture, due to the new information technology created by the Gutenberg printing press, required a literate populace who could not only read but also thoroughly study the Bible. Churches needed educated pastors, and schools needed trained teachers. Magistrates needed jurists, lawyers, clerks, and counselors to staff civil agencies and replace canon lawyers. Universities like Wittenberg rose to meet these challenges.

Luther envisioned universities as engines of personal and social reform which would improve society. For all the dust he stirred up, Luther didn’t want to change society; he only wanted to make it better. Properly ordered, universities would aid in the moral development of leaders who would influence the people and institutions they served. An educated, virtuous, and skilled class of professionals would be in the vanguard of these reforms. The study of classical texts and ancient writers served the purpose of exposing students to the best ideas in the domain of moral philosophy, which fostered critical thinking and the powers of persuasion, and the study of Scripture provided guidance for a virtuous life.

Luther and Melanchthon both emphasized the importance of the liberal arts in the curriculum without compromising the cardinal evangelical teachings on faith and grace. Their hope was that students receiving this kind of education — an education in intellectual rigor and character formation — would become skilled professionals with the competencies and capacities for serving the public, contributing to the common good, and fulfilling their calling from God.

Isn’t this what we hope for our students? Our aim, indicated by our mission statement, is to graduate students “with exemplary academic and professional skills who are prepared for purposeful lives and meaningful service.” We want them to live good lives, become good people, and add to and not subtract from the common good. We want them to make a life, make a living, and make a difference, and in whatever field or profession they choose, to lead with purpose with a conviction that what they are called to do is beneficial to their neighbor and pleasing to God — not so different from what Luther desired for his students.

Though Wittenberg and Campbell universities are half a world apart in distance and separated by half a millennium of time, they share the same institutional mission of faith interacting with learning so that faith informs the educational process and critical thinking develops faith. Faith should never impede learning, and learning should not foil faith. In some sectors of the modern academy, faith is seen as inimical to learning. Religious convictions and faith commitments are treated like outer garments one hangs on a peg outside the classroom before entering. 

This is where Campbell is different.

Our mission statement affirms that “learning is appointed and conserved by God as essential to the fulfillment of human destiny,” and that Campbell “embraces the conviction that there is no conflict between the life of faith and the life of inquiry.” The two domains of faith and learning are distinct, yet when the two interact through creative connections and an earnest search for truth, there is an enormous capacity for educational development and personal growth within the dynamic tension.  

Martin Luther believed that each person, no matter the background or station in life, is accountable to God and gifted by God for a unique destiny. Education is a means for cultivating and calling out this destiny. The root of the word vocation is vocare which means “to call.” The students under our charge are traveling one of the most formative and significant segments of their journey of life while in college. 

We are guides to help them hear the call by teaching them habits of mind and heart along with skills and competencies needed to pursue their calling. I believe a Campbell education offers us and our students an opportunity to make a living, to make a life, and to make a difference, now and evermore, until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.