By Dr. Randy L. Hatchett
Academic Excellence in a Christian University
I bless the many diverse efforts to train Christians. There are cultures without a written language where ministry training requires future pastors to master a faithful and effective retelling of 150 biblical stories. Closer to home, I bless the many Bible studies which instruct and encourage community. Also, I bless Bible Colleges. They typically give less emphasis to general education. But their students learn well-crafted short answers to threatening challenges from Marx to Nietzsche and beyond. Bible Colleges offer a ‘boot camp” review of Bible content and teach a method used to extract the content for teaching and preaching. I bless this God-honoring endeavor.
I, however, wish to address the necessity of a Christian university (I am aware universities vary greatly). The very name “university” requires students engage important texts and ideas; we explore and tease out meanings; we assess cogency; we ponder the practical consequences and character genuine truth commands; we inquire how every field of study connects to the profound truth of the Christian message. Without this, we are neither Christian nor a university.
Universities train for careers and professions and nurture a meaningful and rich student life. But no amount of institutional and student achievement makes a university Christian without the love (and diligent pursuit) of wisdom and the wisdom of love (centered in the Lordship of Jesus). The vision and goal of excellence in Christian education require but is not achieved solely by turning out students who do well in the arenas of management, education or sociology.
Neither is it attained by extending Christian kindness, praying in class or sharing the gospel with unbelieving students, though I cherish the liberty that HBU has provided for me to live out my faith for the last 30 years. Crudely put, a bunch of Christian people operating a university does not make it a Christian university. Excellence in Christian education requires learners recover the neglected Christian teaching. We must then seek to integrate these convictions coherently (think Christian worldview) and embody them in our living and churchmanship. Finally, we must apply and integrate his Lordship into whatever practice, work, career and service we take up. Our Christianity must theoretically and conceptually inform how we practice law, count money, advertise, make films and manage human resources. Without this connection between faith and learning Christian academic excellence is still unachieved.
Christian Teachings Matter, Creation for Example
We live in an ironic and tragic circumstance: the critics of Christianity are unaware that their sentiments to care, share, seek justice and protect the dignity of persons are legacies of the Christianity they rejected; today Christians are unaware of the doctrines that generated these values. Sadly, both Christians and their critics have forgotten how radical Christian teaching appeared alongside its pagan environment.
We forget convictions have consequences. Christians traditionally believed that a good and generous God made us and the world we inhabit. Christians taught that He purposed to know and enjoy communion with us. He did not abandon creation when the human family shared in a rebellion of betrayal. This God kept up with the human family and keeps or sustains the world today. We are not only indebted to God for restoring us through his Son, but we are also in debt to God for our very lives. Every intelligence, initiative, and good instinct we have ever known is the gift of His Holy Spirit. Christians should see life as a gift and worship with great gratitude.
On the political right, we ignore creation when we declare our achievements as “self-made” men and women. Sloppy Marxist lingo may wrongly claim every achievement and possession is the result of injustice, but this does not excuse us from failing to honor God as the giver and sustainer of life. On the political left, every instinct and behavior is justified if it is self-chosen. People are coached to create themselves and fashion their own image and story. Young people are collapsing, perhaps even dying, under the pressure to curate their Facebook pages. Sadly, young people are told they should create their own sexual identities and choose their own sexual rules. The creator God is missing from our minds and hearts.
Academic Excellence Is Necessary, Not an Optional Luxury
Quality academics face many obstacles. We live in a hostile culture that is increasingly dismissive of faith. Long-held Christian standards are seen as signs of moral impairment. University education proves expensive; poorly prepared students require remediation; often students come without any hint of history (not knowing who Ulysses S. Grant is) or any sense that they are missing anything important; they need no working memory beyond the news cycle. We compete against state-supported schools and for-profit ventures. Some schools are extremely easy and in effect sell college credit rather than requiring students to earn it.
Our churches face grave challenges as well. Churches that struggle to survive, conclude they cannot require converts to train in any meaningful way. Even church-going students know few stories; some students are unable to locate Moses as preceding David; it is simply no longer their story.
Christian identity and mission need the church and the university to step forward and face the challenge. We must circle the wagons and teach. We must rediscover and relearn our distinct teaching and embody them in community. As we regain our bearings, we will remember that we hold a different message and destiny that we are obligated to share. We need bible studies of every sort. But the way forward will not only need boot camps but something like the Naval Academy (lofty, I know). We do not need to know lines about Marx. We need to learn Marx. We need to measure this pseudo eschatology by seeing its deficiency in light of the true destiny of the world found in Christ. This higher learning is essential. When you see it, celebrate it, support it, recruit students and stay involved.
In 30 years at HBU, I have been inspired by those who have embodied excellence. I briefly mention several reflections. I met Robert Sloan before he was a big shot. As a young scholar, he treated me like my work was important. His ministry is defined by his pursuit of excellence in integrating faith and learning. I am grateful for his stewardship of this noble vision. I came to HBU in the fall of 1990 with David Capes, now director of Lanier Theological Library. David and I worked hard at scholarship, family and church service. His scholarship and friendship are gifts and much of my writing is attributed to his encouragement. My friend Chris Hammons displays excellence across many venues; he is the University’s best lecturer (in political science, no less); he excels in scholarship and administration. Finally, I shared in the search to replace Gene Wofford (another treasure) and the Lord was good to bring Ben Blackwell. He has already distinguished himself as an important scholar. We have co-authored a book about teaching doctrine. Ben’s working title for the book was Orthodoxy (right teaching) So What? The tag captures my theme: the truth and truths of the gospel matter greatly; they are essential for Christian academics.
About Dr. Randy Hatchett
Dr. Randy Hatchett is a Professor of Theology in HBU’s School of Christian Thought. He also serves as program coordinator for Theological Studies (BA) and Christianity (BA). He earned his BA in Religion from Dallas Baptist College in 1978 and went on to earn an MDiv in Theology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1982 and a PhD in Philosophy of Religion in 1989. Dr. Hatchett has taught in the areas of areas of philosophy and theology; Biblical hermeneutics is an ongoing interest. His writing interests include: hermeneutics, church history, and theology. He received the Opal Goolsby Outstanding Faculty Award (1999- 2000). He revised Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Thomas Nelson, 2013) and coauthored with Ben Blackwell, Engaging Theology: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Introduction, (Zondervan, 2019).