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Christian Higher Education in a Changing Cultural Landscape: Tradition as a Source of Renewal

By David S. Dockery - May 30th, 2017

An understanding of Christian higher education and the route it should take moving forward.


The year was 1955: I was a mere two years old. The White House had become home to the American war hero, General Dwight David Eisenhower; Winston Churchill concluded his terms as the British Prime Minister and Richard Daley had just started his powerful reign as Chicago’s 48th mayor. Yet, it was the groundbreaking work of philosopher Will Herberg that best captured the essence of American culture during that period with the publication of his classic work, Protestant-Catholic-Jew.1

1. Religious Identity: The 1950s

            Herberg described an America with an overarching sense of unity and a common shared religion. He suggested that each religious tradition—Protestant, Catholic, Jew—possessed the same spiritual values of North American life, a soft-hearted democracy. With much insight, contrary to many other observers at that time, Herberg proposed that the popular religious revivals were more superficial than many recognized.2 Herberg identified America as a “triple melting pot” with each tradition, for the most part sharing and shaping life within their self-contained communities.3 As evidence of the importance given to Herberg’s work, it should be noted that Reinhold Niebuhr, the most influential public religious intellectual of the day, provided a prominent and praiseworthy review of the publication shortly after the volume had been released in the September 25th edition of The New York Times.4

2. Cultural Trends: 1960—2016

            As thoughtful and insightful as Herberg’s book was at the time, the reality is that even he did not anticipate the rapid and radical changes forthcoming in the 1960s. By the 1960s, the many who identified with a church or synagogue were quick to leave them once their children were grown, once Vatican II opened the doors for changes in Catholic liturgy, once the civil rights movement put on display the outright racism and bigotry of many in the churches, and once the sexual revolution raised doubts about the theological teachings and moral practices of both church and synagogue.

            University of Illinois professor Kevin Schultz, author of the Oxford publication Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Post War America to Its Protestant Promise, has observed that during the 1960s a cultural revolution arose that attempted a comprehensive transformation of American cultural values.5 These societal shifts appeared in almost any direction one looked, largely fueled by a backlash against the Vietnam War, but also energized by racial unrest and sexual experimentation, whether the “sit-ins” and “love-ins” on college campuses or protests in major cities. The pragmatic religion of the 1950s left most religious observers ill-prepared to respond to the changes.6

            The revolution of the 1960s took place on multiple fronts, aimed at several targets, but one of its primary focuses was religion, which was understood to be the bastion of traditional values. Religion stood for everything that the Revolution opposed, including such things as the elevation of virtue over self-actualization, the individual’s submission to a higher authority and moral judgment, self-restraint, and the very notion of sin itself. Instead of functioning as a primary marker of social identity, religion began to be seen as a perpetrator of repression and injustice. The cultural trends of the 1960s and 70s introduced new social identifiers to replace the religious identity of the 1950s.7 During this time people began to see the breakdown of denominational identity, the rise of parachurch groups, major and observable divisions between progressives and evangelicals resulting in what Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow would describe as the very “Restructuring of American Religion” that has continued into the current decade.8

            Now, according to Boston University scholar Peter Berger, that coherent religious world of the 1950s no longer exists. Instead, the world is more disconnected with what Berger pictures as the removal of “The Sacred Canopy,” the growing influence of secularization, the expansion of pluralization, the aloneness of privatization, and the confusion triggered by cognitive contamination, resulting in the loss and breakdown of plausibility structures,9 opening the door in this current decade for 23% of the American adult population to now identify without a religious identity and creating the expanding category of “Nones.”10

            The most important recent work in this regard, demonstrating the implications for the radical changes of the past six decades, however, has come from the brilliant cultural analysis of Mary Eberstadt in her extremely well-researched 2016 volume with the alarming title It’s Dangerous to Believe. This new HarperCollins publication proposes that the revolution of the 1960s has resulted in a new secularized religion, with abortion as its primary sacrament.11

3. The Role of Christian Higher Education: Tradition as a Source for Renewal

            How, then, shall those of us who serve in the world of Christian higher education respond to these things? In our various roles across the spectrum of Christian higher education, we must first seek to affirm a convictional confession, augmented by a sense of civility in our living, in our learning, and in our service. We do so with an unflinching commitment to a truthful and authoritative Bible and with heartfelt gratitude for a gospel message that has been entrusted to us. I believe it is time for those of us who serve in the world of Christian higher education to reconsider the importance of tradition as a means of clarifying our mission as we seek to navigate many of the challenges in the changing cultural landscape of the 21st century.

As we have observed, religious, cultural, and societal challenges abound in this world we are called to serve. In light of these things we want to propose a future for Christian higher education that seeks more intentionally to connect teaching, learning, research, and scholarship with the Christian heritage and tradition. Our invitation is to look to the past in order to navigate the future.12

            Personal faith and genuine piety are certainly essential for the life of Christ followers, for the church, and for the work of evangelical higher education. Helping students recognize the importance of serious thinking about God, Scripture, the church, tradition, and the world needs a renewed emphasis at this time in order for the truth claims of the Christian faith to be passed along to the next generation.13

            The world in which we live, with its emphasis on diversity and plurality, may well be a creative setting where we can ground our unity not only in the biblical confession that “Jesus is Lord,” but in the great confessional tradition flowing from the early church councils. The current educational emphasis on the interrelationships of all things allows us to speak intelligently of the Christian message historically and globally. Such historical confessions, though neither infallible nor completely sufficient for all contemporary challenges, can provide wisdom and guidance when seeking to balance the mandates for right Christian thinking, right Christian believing, and right Christian living.14

            At the heart of this calling is the need to prepare a generation to think Christianly, to engage the academy and the culture, to serve society, and to renew the connection with the church and its mission. To do so, the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition will need to be reclaimed, renewed, revitalized, and revived for the good of our shared work. One important place for us to begin is with the key commitments found in the Nicene tradition.

            The Creed of Nicea was drafted to refute the claim that Jesus was the highest creation of God and thus different in essence from the Father. What we refer to today as the Nicene Creed was most likely approved not at Nicea in 325, but at Constantinople in 381. While articulating the importance of the unity of the Holy Trinity, the authors insisted that Christ was begotten from the Father before all time, declaring that Christ is of the same essence as the Father.15

            When we contend that Christian higher education must be distinctive, Christ-centered education, we are in effect confessing that Jesus Christ, who was eternally the second person of the Trinitarian God, sharing all the divine attributes, became fully human. Thus, to think of Christ-centeredness only in terms of personal piety or activism resulting from following select teachings of Jesus, while important, will be quite inadequate. A healthy future for our shared work must return to the past with the full affirmation that when we point to Jesus, we see the whole man Jesus and say, “That is God.” This is the great mystery of godliness, God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16).

            It is necessary that Christ should be fully God and fully human. Only as a human could he be the redeemer for humanity; only as God could his life, ministry, and redeeming death have infinite value and satisfy the demands of God so as to deliver others from death. Any attempt to envision a faithful Christian higher education for the days ahead that is not tightly tethered to the great confessional tradition of the church will most likely result in an educational model lacking a compass. The most clear way to counter the secular assumptions that shape so many sectors of higher education, indeed of the larger culture, is with the confession that the exalted Christ, who spoke this world into being by his powerful word, is the providential sustainer of all things (Col. 1:15-17; Heb. 1:2).

            It is this understanding of Christ-centeredness that we seek to bring to bear upon the learning process in the work of faithful Christian higher education. In doing so, we will seek to adjust the cultural assumptions of our post—Christian context in light of God’s eternal truth. We therefore want to call for the work of higher education in the days ahead to take place through the lense of the Nicene tradition that recognizes not only the unity of the Holy Trinity, but the transcendent, creating, sustaining, and self-disclosing Trinitarian God who has made humans in his own image.

            We envision a future for Christian higher education that seeks to engage all subject matter and the issues of our day in the various areas of learning, while recognizing that the Trinitarian God, the source of all truth, is central to the study of every discipline. This aspiration involves not only the study itself, but also the motivation for both teaching and learning, providing a distinctive shape for the work of Christian higher education. This is the call for this day and for tomorrow, for the present and the future, a call where all teaching and learning are carried out with a view toward reality found only in the self-revealing God.16

We appeal for an apostolic oneness, a faithful confession, founded on what Kevin Vanhoozer refers to as “anchored sets,” grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ and the common salvation we share in him.17 We will need to understand the value of Christian tradition that can both inform and shape an intergenerational, intercultural, transdenominational, and transcontinental approach to our work18 Particularly, new opportunities for partnership and collaboration need to pull us out of our inward-focused insularity where we can serve together in cultural engagement.

We need to trust God to bring a fresh wind of his Spirit, to bring renewal to our confessional convictions, to strengthen our commitments to distinctive Christ-centered education, and to revitalize our connections with and service to the church.19 Let us pray that we can relate to one another in love and humility, bringing new life to our shared efforts.


1. Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (New York: Doubleday, 1955).

2. Ibid., 13-17; 85-112.

3. Ibid., 8-39.

4. Reinhold Niebuhr, America’s Three Melting Pots, New York Times, September 25, 1955.

5. Kevin M. Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 178-93; also Kevin Schultz, “Protestant-Catholic-Jew, Then and Now” First Things, January 2006, accessed October 11, 2016,  

6. See Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelicals at the Brink of Crisis (Waco: Word, 1967); also, Helen Lee Turner, “Fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention: The Crystallization of a Millennialist Vision” (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1990).

7. See Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, rev ed. (New York: Harper, 1991).

8. See Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); Wuthnow, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

9. See the essays in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). Also, see Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967); Berger, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age (Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014).

10. James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014); White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post—Christian World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).

11. Mary Eberstadt, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (New York: HarperCollins, 2016); Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2014).

12. See Thomas C. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 2003).

13. See David S. Dockery, Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society in Christian Higher Education, rev ed. (Nashville: B&H Publications, 2008).

14. See D.H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005); Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).

15. See Timothy George, ed., Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).

16. See David S. Dockery and Timothy George, The Great Tradition of Christian Thinking (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

17. Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016) 51-53.

18. See David S. Dockery, “Denominationalism: Historical Developments, Contemporary Challenges, and Global Opportunities,” in Why We Belong, ed. Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 209-31.

19. See David S. Dockery, “Toward A Future For Christian Higher Education: Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future,” Christian Higher Education 15, no. 1-2 (January 2016), 115-119.