When Jonathan Edwards was turning thirteen and ready to go off to college, his father had a difficult decision to make. Jonathan’s father, Timothy Edwards, was an alumnus of Harvard. But, his alma mater was already showing signs of drifting away from its original commitment to orthodoxy. In those days they called it “latitudinarianism,” as in professors were granted "latitude" in their commitment to the Westminster Standards. No, Harvard would not do for young Jonathan.
Instead, Timothy chose the up-start college then known simply as the College of Connecticut. It would soon be renamed Yale University.
Yale was born in 1701, two years prior to the birth of Jonathan Edwards. Its original charter declared:
WHEREAS several well disposed, and Publick spirited Persons of their sincere Regard to & Zeal for upholding & Propagating of the Christian Protestant Religion by a succession of Learned & Orthodox men have expressed by Petition their earnest desires that fully Liberty and Priveledge be granted unto Certain Undertakers for the founding, suitably endowing & ordering a Collegiate School within his Majesty’s Colony of Connecticut wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts & Sciences who thorough the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in church & Civil State.
There are a number of significant phrases in this opening charge. One of them is the phrase of having “a succession of learned and orthodox” students. Another is the mention of the curriculum encompassing the arts and the sciences. Yet another still is the acknowledgement that this entire educational endeavor is through—and by and for—Almighty God.
Learned & Orthodox
History is riddled with examples of how the quest for academic respectability led scholars and their schools away from orthodoxy. Yale itself is such evidence. Sadly, too many mistake responsible scholarship with respectable scholarship. There really is a difference. As Christians we should pursue truth and justice and beauty—and we must pursue these with excellence. That's responsible scholarship. That is a high and holy calling.
Seeking the respect of the academy too often means in a modern or a postmodern world that one has to check any religious commitment, especially a commitment to a religious text, at the door. As Christians we cannot do that. We cannot suspend our commitment—or our submission—to Scripture as we engage in our pursuits. Our unwavering commitment to Scripture grounds and governs all that we do.
We can be learned and orthodox. Given the complexities of the challenges the church faces today and will face tomorrow we need to be. We need to have that succession of learned and orthodox students coming out of our homes, out of our churches, and out of our colleges and seminaries.
A Curriculum of Two Books
And then there is the curriculum. It was a given that students would study theology. Edwards's theology textbooks were written by Geneva's Francis Turretin and by the Puritan William Ames. On the very first page, Ames tells us that theological study is the art of living toward God. Edwards took him seriously and went on to live a life of full-throttled devotion to God. They would have had to have already learned Greek and they would have studied Hebrew. They would have known their Bibles, but after college they would know them far more deeply.
Puritans were people of the Book, the Bible. Actually, they were people of two books, as they also believed that God revealed Himself in His world. So they looked to the arts and the sciences as well as to biblical studies and theology. They had a curriculum of two books, the book of Scripture and the book of nature.
In a letter home to his parents, young Jonathan asks for money (nothing ever changes) and a compass and a set of scales—absolutely essential, he assured them. Edwards was required to read and to write poetry. He would have been conversant in the classics. He knew his history. He had to study philosophy, the crowning jewel of which then went by the name moral science. We call it ethics.
What good is all this learning if one is not instructed in the way of virtue? Learning ends in loving God and loving neighbor, not at the transcript. Education entails both knowledge and character. In classical terms they spoke of scientia (knowledge) and formatio (character or ethics). Take a look at 1 Thessalonians 2:13 and Paul's observation of how the Word of God takes root in us and is "at work" within us. So it is with all our learning of God's word and God's world. It shapes us; it forms us.
Through & By & For Almighty God
Scholars engage in their pursuits, students hustle to keep up, parents pray, churches rally to support, trustees oversee the goings on, donors keep the doors open—all these things come into play. Behind them, however, is what matters most. Or, should we say, who matters most.
The Yale charter makes it clear that these well-disposed and spirited persons undertaking this endeavor are entirely dependent upon the blessing of Almighty God. So we are back to William Ames and the pursuit of the Godward life. All that we do, including all that we do in college, is through, by, and ultimately for God.
All that we do, including all that we do in college, is through, by, and ultimately for God
Rather than lament the theological drift of institutions like Yale, we should instead focus our energies on the pressing matter of picking up the torch. Every generation has an obligation to the next generation. And in our day and age that entails an obligation to provide higher education through the blessing of Almighty God. We have an obligation to provide a "succession of learned and orthodox" men and women ready to serve their families, their churches, and their communities.