About a year ago, Joseph Epstein, one of (all about) my favorite writers, produced a piece on the value of liberal learning. It is smart and clever, as Epstein’s essays always are, and this one helps me try to convince freshmen in Western Heritage of the value of Greek philosophy (during a wee peek at the Epicureans and Stoics; truth be told, it also allows the philosophically challenged like me to find a network time killer in the third week of classes).
But it occurred to me this morning while preparing for class that Epstein is also useful for exposing the posturing of transformationalists as either theonomists, fundamentalists, or both.
Epstein talks about the value of a liberal education in ways that seem impermissible to many neo-Calvinists who employ the language of w-w:
The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.
Notice that Epstein makes these assertions without any reference to God, special revelation, or regeneration. (Why would he? He is not pretending to be a Christian.) He is thinking entirely as a human being. Some might say he is doing so — gasp — autonomously. But can anyone who is serious about literature and learning (Christian or no) really take issue with Epstein’s notion of a liberal education and its value? Someone like Bill Smith has questioned the idea of Christian math or Christian pedagogy with all the sense that common sense yields. But when it comes to a liberal education, are Calvinists really supposed to say that Christians know a liberal education better than non-Christians? Even though the liberal arts and their derivation from classical languages and letters by Christians predated Reformed Protestantism, we are now supposed to conclude that only faculty with a biblical or Reformed w-w will be the ones to yield a genuinely liberal education?
This is complete nonsense and amazingly smug, as if regeneration somehow gives Christians insights into tragedy, epistemology, or historical contingency. I have been around lots of Christians where those awarenesses have never shown the slightest signs of presence. And that’s because an education comes through lots of long hours of reading and reflection, and even then doesn’t necessarily take hold. You need a certain natural acumen for such things; regeneration cannot make a Christian intelligent (only God can and he does it through nature, not supernature).
And yet, transformationalists continue to opine that 2kers are the ones who are rocking the boat and upsetting the consensus of Reformed churches, as if a hyper-antithesis is not far more radical than anything 2k advocates are saying. Just yesterday I heard a podcast which described the Christian scholar’s task as one of bringing secular universities into conformity with biblical truth. The reason is that secular learning is illegitimate since it denies the fountain of all truth. Well, if secular universities are illegitimate, then what of secular governments? And if secular governments are illegitimate, what of secular persons? Is there a place in this world between the advents of Christ for non-Christian learning, non-Christian governments, and non-Christian persons (like Joseph Epstein)? If Epstein is wrong about sound learning and informed aesthetic judgments, if persons can only know good from bad literature by reading the Bible first, or can only form valid political arrangements by having Christians perform the political founding, or persons are not worthy of reading or hearing unless they are first regenerate, then Christians are in the same position as some forms of political Islam.
But Reformed Protestantism has never insisted on such a construction of the antithesis because it never questioned the legitimacy of contributions from non-Christians. Once you accept that people who do not know Christ, along with the institutions they found, are legitimate and reflect in some measure of the image of God in man along with the truths of general revelation, then you can aspire to be learned the way that Epstein is, or try to follow constitutional republicanism the way the founders of the U.S. did, or even read Plato and Thucydides for profit the way most college students in the West for centuries have (if you were rich and smart enough). If you appeal to common grace to free you from the polarities of such hyper-antithesis, by all means, go right ahead. That means you have to stop bellyaching about secular learning, secular governments, and secular persons because common grace is a way of affirming that all of those institutions and people have a legitimate role in God’s gracious ends. It also means giving up transformationalism because common grace has already done what you seemed to think transforming the culture would do.
But if you draw a line between the regenerate and unregenerate and extend it to intellectual life, or institutions, whether political or educational, you have removed yourself from the history of the West and taken a harder line than even some popes were prepared to go. You have not gone to the Land of Chocolatebut to the Twilight Zone.