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Spring 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 1 · pp. 119–121 

Book Review

Building the Christian Academy

Arthur F. Holmes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001. 127 pages.

Reviewed by Bruce Anthony

If I were the King of the Realm of Christian Education, I would decree that the faculty of all Christian schools, elementary through college, prior to the next faculty retreat, read Arthur Holmes’ Building the Christian Academy. While many Christian schools consider themselves committed to fighting the postmodern malaise through advancing the polemics of a Christian worldview, there is an undeniable erosion of the roots and heritage of truly excellent liberal arts education. Holmes’ approach provides the basis for an antidote to what many believe is a secular “dumbing down” of Christian schools, beginning in the primary grades and continuing through the university.

His book serves as both a primer and a review of the essential mission of today’s Christian liberal arts educator: to recapture the heart and {120} soul of Christian education through these four historic emphases: preparation for service to church and society, the unity of truth, doxological learning, and care of the soul (moral/spiritual formation). Holmes builds his case by starting with the Alexandrians and moving through history to John Henry Newman. He carefully selects other representatives of seven historic periods in discussing the philosophy of Christian education: Plato, Isocrates, Clement and Origen, Abelard, Hugh of St. Victor, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Erasmus, Bacon, and Milton.

For example, in his call for holistic Christian liberal arts education, Holmes cites Augustine’s work, On the Teacher: “The real teacher is the one who teaches within the soul, namely the divine Logos.” The Augustinian call to be ruled, “not by what we know but by what we love,” clearly integrates intellectual and spiritual pursuits, an assimilation that needs to be revisited in our era of specialization and fragmentation. Holmes moves through his seven periods with a speed and passion that sometimes makes the reader wish he would slow down. He also has a tendency to make sweeping statements that minimize the contributions of some major educators, such as Princeton’s John Witherspoon (102). This isn’t all bad, because it engenders in the reader a desire to revisit the cited original works.

He has included some wonderful nuggets of gold that cause today’s Christian educator to wistfully dream again, “What if . . . ?” What if the professors in all disciplines would have the passion of a Bonaventure who saw truth and beauty as analogous to experiencing God in the sacrament? What if every college had a “common room” where students selected for intelligence and originality met with teachers for dialogue, similar to that of Oriel College in 1822? What if independent minds, sans professors, just roamed the libraries at random for three or four years, meeting with other students and teachers for consultation, a la J. H. Newman?

In less than 120 pages Holmes has made an admirable case for reclaiming the heart and soul of liberal arts in Christian education. Surprisingly, he avoids the temptation to rant and rave about the many ills facing the Christian liberal arts colleges. Instead, he stresses positive solutions. His climactic final chapter nine, The Christian Academy in the Twentieth Century, is worth owning the book to obtain, as it contains summative insight and a powerful vision of what Christian liberal arts education can be:

If the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork, or if we wonder that God so gifts his {121} creatures, then liberal learning can still become a call to worship. It will be a holistic kind of spirituality—not a compartmentalized piety, peripheral or even opposed to rigorous academics, but one that heartily embraces all of learning and life and delights in every indication of God’s wisdom, goodness, and power. (116)

Bruce Anthony
Assistant Prof. of Secondary Education
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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