Christianity, the Liberal Arts and the Humanities


The Liberal Arts

In ancient Greece and Rome, a liberal arts education was for men who were not slaves. It taught free men to be good citizens, that is, to live freely and responsibly, so that they could remain free all of their lives.1 The premise of the liberal arts is that education will aid human being in living good lives, both for themselves and the common good, the good of society.2 The two-fold purpose of the liberal arts, then, is to “seek knowledge for its own sake,” for truth is good in itself, and the application of knowledge to enrich one’s own life, as well as the lives of others.3

Originating from the Human Mind

The liberal arts are different from the material arts, which are formed out of matter and, thus, from human hands.4 Liberal arts are free from matter, that is, they are formed from the human mind. For example, a speech is made or composed by the human mind, even if it is written on paper. Other examples are literature, music and logic, all of which originate, first, from the mind and may later be written on material data.5

Disciplines within the Liberal Arts

Today, the liberal arts include a broad range of disciplines, such as the study of rhetoric (public speaking), writing, literature, mathematics, history, political science, education, philosophy, theology, religion, science, psychology, sociology, culture, anthropology, the arts, theater, music and physical education. The purpose of such studies is to give students a well-rounded education, allowing them to become generalists in knowledge, while at the same time, focusing on a specific discipline for their degree, allowing them to become specialists in knowledge.6

Not a Vocational Education

The liberal arts should not be confused with vocational education, which prepares a person for an occupation, such as becoming a carpenter, plumber or an electrician. The primary focus of vocational education is “What can I do with my training?” However, the main focus of a liberal arts education is the shaping of “a person’s understanding and values.”7

The question about studying the liberal arts is not “What can I do with it?” That reduces knowledge to an instrumental value or a useful art. Rather, the right question about the liberal arts is “What can it do to me?” That supposes the intrinsic or innate value of knowledge. In other words, it is good in itself, needing no practical justification.8

The Humanities

Situated in the liberal arts, and virtually equivalent to them, is the studia humanitatis, “studies of humanity” or the humanities. They represent the human person’s concern with human beings and their human world.9 The humanities, then, are the products of human creativity.10 In short, they are from humans and for them. The humanities teach about human beings – morally, economically, artistically, politically, religiously and in countless other ways – at their best and worst.

For Christians, the humanities are due to the imago Dei, the “image of God” in the human person. God is the Creator, and thus, the author of creativity. Because human persons are made in his image, they reflect, in a finite way, the creativity of their Creator.11 They can create, because they are made in the image of their Creator.

The humanities have a special meaning for Christians. As philosopher Arthur Holmes says, “We are to image [reflect] God in all our creaturely activities, our cultural existence and every phase of our humanity. To image God in the fulness of our humanity is our highest calling.”12 In short, Christianity rejects nothing that is genuinely human. Sin, however, is not genuinely human. Rather, it is a distortion of the human will, a human aberration or abnormality.

The Fragmentation of Knowledge

Today, colleges and universities suffer from the fragmentation of truth. They are producing specialists. In the words of Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer,

“In our modern forms of specialized education there is a tendency to lose the whole in the parts, and in this sense we can say that our generation produces few truly educated people. True education means thinking by associating across the various disciplines, and not just being highly qualified in one field, as a technician might be.”13

Knowledge is interrelated. But it is up to the student to integrate or see the connection between different areas of study. Schaeffer continues,

“Today we have a weakness in our educational process in failing to understand the natural associations between the disciplines. We tend to study all our disciplines in unrelated parallel lines. This tends to be true in both Christian and secular education. … We have studied our exegesis as exegesis, our theology as theology, our philosophy as philosophy; we study something about art as art; we study music as music, without understanding that these are things of man, and the things of man are never unrelated parallel lines.”14

Today’s Multiversity

Unlike the Christian concept of a medieval university, today’s university is really a multiversity. It has no unifying world view or point of integration.15 It is literally disintegrated, with fragmented departments of knowledge. According to theologian R. C. Sproul,

“The students’ schedules are filled with liberal arts courses which expose them to wide variety of academic disciplines. But these disciplines have no apparent cohesion with each other. Students move from lecture to lecture, absorbing differing and often mutually exclusive views. The information they glean about their own humanity incites … confusion. In psychology, one view; in biology, another; in philosophy … [still another].”16

In short, in many modern universities, there is incoherence, diversity without a source of unity.

University: Diversity within Unity

A Christian university is patterned after the concept of the medieval university. Like a universe, a university, in Sproul’s words,

“[was] a place where the many (diversity) come together into the unified whole (unity). The working assumption was that all diverse particulars of knowledge discovered and analyzed in the specialized academic disciplines, found their coherence in God. It was the unifying power of theology that elevated her to the queen of sciences, being assisted by her metaphysical handmaiden philosophy.”17

A Christian university, then, consists of diversity in unity and is structured “on the premise that all knowledge is ultimately coherent and unified.”18 Such a university “retains a unifying Christian world-view and brings it to bear in understanding and participating in the various arts and sciences, as well as in non-academic aspects of campus life.”19 For a Christian university or college, the source of integration is the Christian concept of God.

God the Creator is the author of sacred (spiritual) and secular (natural or pertaining to the world and human beings) truth, whether already discovered or yet to be discovered by humans. That is to say, all truth is God’s truth, no matter where or by whom it may be found.20 The humanities, then, Christianly understood, discover the truth of God’s world, especially the truth about human beings.

Christian Humanism

However, Christian universities do not teach that human beings possess the highest value of all that exists. That is reserved for God, the Supreme Being, the only One who is worthy of worship (from the Old English words worth ship). In other words, humans do not have ultimate value, because only an Ultimate Being, God, does. However, out of all the creatures of the world, the cosmos, God gives humans the highest intrinsic value, making them highest in being.21 That is why they are worth studying, understanding and loving.


1Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), p. 35.

2Anon. 2019. Liberal Arts: What is Liberal Education? Christendom College. [Web:] [Date of access: 7 September 2012].

3Peter Kreeft, The Best Things in Life (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1984), p. 31.

4Mortimer J. Adler, The Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization, ed. Max Weismann (Chicago and La Salle, IL.: Open Court Publishing Company, 2000, 5th printing 2002), pp. 242-243, 245.

5Ibid. 246. In antiquity, the liberal arts were divided into two parts, namely, the trivium and quadrivium, consisting of seven areas of study. The trivium consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric. The quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

6Anon. 2003-2012. What is the Difference between Liberal Arts and Liberal Sciences? [Web:] [Date of access: 17 September 2019].

7Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, op. cit., p. 36.

8Ibid., p. 37.

9Mortimer J. Adler. 2008-2009. The Mortimer J. Adler Archive: Aristotle’s Ethics — The Theory of Happiness, Part I. The Radical Academy. [Web:] [Date of access: 17 September 2019].

10Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Worldview, Vol. 5: A Christian View of the West, 2nd ed. (Westchester, IL.: Crossway Books,1982), p. 427.


12Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, p. 35.

13Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Worldview, Vol. 1: A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture, 2nd ed. (Westchester, IL.: Crossway Books,1982), p. 12.

14Ibid., p. 211.

15Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, p. 19.

16R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner and Art Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI.: Academie Books/Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), p. 10.

17Ibid., pp. 9-10.

18Ibid., p. 9.

19Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, p. 19.

20Ibid., pp. 24-25.

21Norman L. Geisler, Is Man the Measure?  An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 123.

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