liberal arts

Bradley G. Green

“One ought not grow old in the study of the arts.”[1]

I think any true recovery of the liberal arts will be very difficult, at least any recovery on a grand scale. Having taught in elementary, middle school, high school, college, and seminary settings, I am pessimistic that we will see any meaningful recovery of the liberal arts in our day.[2]  But at the risk of causing the reader to move on to other essays on this site, let me say that it is not impossible. The recovery of the liberal arts will necessitate—quite literally—a miracle. But before arriving at the hope of the recovery of the liberal arts, let us turn our attention to our current dire straits.

I have taught in a Christian college setting for the last thirteen years. And for some time I have been struck by an unsettling reality: the liberal arts seem to have little or no home in the contemporary university. That is, while one often hears the language and talk of “liberal arts,” it has become increasingly obvious that the liberal arts—at least in any sense that is meaningfully connected to those words—have no real place in the contemporary college or university. Thus, at present the duty of those who believe in the value of the liberal arts is not simply to try and improve upon the practice of the liberal arts; rather, our duty is to work to recover the liberal arts. It is not overstating the case to assert that the liberal arts—on the whole—have disappeared from the contemporary college or university.

If one wanted to push things a bit, it is almost like some sort of odd science-fiction movie. The various characters are all using a certain lingo (i.e., they speak of the “liberal arts”), but none of the characters actually know what they are talking about. The various characters may have some vague notion of “learning” or of reading certain books. But the characters certainly do not mean “liberal arts” in any way which is meaningfully connected to the historical and traditional (i.e., the actual) meaning of “liberal arts.”

One of the tragedies of the loss of the liberal arts itself is that we Christians are—on the whole—not versed in the ways in which the classical/Graeco-Roman world was disrupted by the Christian understanding and vision of the world which emerged in the first century and the centuries following. This transformation entailed, at times, the rejection of certain practices (say, human sacrifice or homosexuality). This transformation entailed, at other times the co-opting and Christianization of other practices—and this is probably the category in which we have to understand Christianity’s transformation of educational practices. Traditions such as teaching grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric (the trivium—or the first three liberal arts) certainly precede the Christian era. The really interesting questions are those that ask how the reality of the Christian movement led to a reworking of the things like grammar, dialectic and rhetoric in light of the fundamental realities of the gospel.

When we think of recovering or rehabilitating the liberal arts it is essential to go back and ask the most basic and fundamental of questions. In particular, we must ask (1) what really are the liberal arts?; (2) are they really worth recovering?;(3) and how might the liberal arts be recovered? We need especially to think through what a Christian brings to all of these questions. In particular we must ask at least two key questions: (1) in what way does the Christian movement re-shape and reconfigure educational practice (i.e., the liberal arts) in light of distinctively Christian commitments and convictions?; and (2) what are the ways in which key Christian commitments and convictions serve as the springboard or intellectual and principial bases for the liberal arts?[3]

When we speak of the “liberal arts” we are speaking about the traditional seven arts usually grouped into the trivium and the quadrivium. While in the history of Western culture there have been different ways of construing and organizing these arts, we will work with what has become the “received” construal: the trivium (“three ways”), what we often think of as “language” arts, of grammar, dialectic or logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium (“four ways), what we often think of as “mathematical” arts of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Sister Miriam Joseph could write: “The liberal arts denote the seven branches of knowledge that initiate the young into a life of learning. The concept is classical, but the term liberal arts and the division of the arts into the trivium and the quadrivium date from the Middle Ages.”[4]  While these arts have been grouped differently at different times by different persons, for our purposes here we will take the seven arts as grouped under the trivium and quadrivium as “the tradition” in this essay.[5]

Thomas Aquinas is a good example of how the liberal arts flourished and developed in Western Christendom, and of the way in which the liberal arts were brought into a coherent Christian educational tradition.  Thomas consistently speaks of a certain sequence of learning—although this could vary:

(1) logic (“which transmits the method of the sciences”)

(2) mathematics (“of which even boys are capable”)

(3) natural philosophy (“which, because of the need of experience, requires time”)

(4) moral philosophy (“of which a young man cannot be a suitable student”)

(5) divine science (“which considers the first causes of beings.”).[6]

Let us tweak Thomas slightly, simply using language that is a tad more familiar (and using the traditional language of trivium and quadrivium):

(1) Trivium—or, the traditional “language arts” of grammar, logic/dialectic, rhetoric

(2) Quadrivium—or, the traditional “mathematical arts” of arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy

(3) Science—or, here, the study of nature

(4) Moral Philosophy—or, ethics

(5) Theology

With Thomas’ schema (and my slightly edited version of the schema) before us, we can see that the liberal arts (and here we take Thomas as an exemplar of the broader perspective of Christendom), were part of a larger educational vision and its attendant set of practices. And once this larger educational vision began to crumble—as it most certainly has—it became virtually impossible coherently to make any sort of meaningful case for the  necessity of the liberal arts. Thus, the liberal arts must be recovered, not simply attended to or refurbished. And central to the recovery of the liberal arts is the recovery of a certain understanding of what it means to be human and the place of man in history. The liberal arts flourished in a cultural and theological framework where education was seen first and foremost as the formation of a certain type of person. More important than this or that detail on exactly how one construes the nature/order/organization of the liberal arts is the larger issue of the cultural and theological backdrop against which the liberal arts make any sense at all. This would include, but not be limited to, such basic affirmations as: the created order is real, good, and able to be explored; man is a being able to grasp—to some degree—the “nature of things”; there are such things as truth, goodness, and beauty—and that it is a right, proper, and worthy goal to want to form persons in accord with such transcendentals (i.e., truth, goodness, and beauty).

But as Christians—and perhaps Evangelicals in particular—we have more that we bring to this discussion.  Given that it has often proven difficult to hold together (1) essential Christian convictions and (2) the nature, purpose, and practice of education, Evangelicals should be particularly intentional about exploring and retrieving what there is in our own tradition which can help us both (1) to articulate and construe a full-orbed Christian understanding of the educational endeavor, and (2) to practice truly Christian education. If we are Evangelicals, what would be better than to ask what the evangel—the gospel itself—has to do with the construal and practice of truly Christian education which takes seriously the recovery and practice of the liberal arts?

Briefly, I would argue along the following lines. The liberal arts developed and blossomed over time as part of an educational goal of forming a certain kind of person.  In short, the liberal arts really only make sense against such a goal. And as that goal—the goal of forming a certain kind of person—began to lose hold or prominence in Western culture, the necessity or coherence or legitimacy of the liberal arts began to be hard to affirm. But as Christians hammered out their understanding of the liberal arts, the goal was not simply “Theology” (or in Thomas’ word “Divine Science”) in the sense of grasping basic theological axioms (although such “grasping” would be important). Rather, in the best Christian construals of the liberal arts, the goal was the face-to-face vision of God. Augustine and the medieval tradition could speak of the “beatific vision,” and Paul could write: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Let me be explicit. The liberal arts—at their best—were part of an educational program and vision whereby persons were being formed into the persons they ought to be, and this forming was often articulated in terms like wisdom, virtue, and eloquence. But, while persons were being formed so that they might live wise and virtuous lives in the present, the ultimate goal of education was the formation of persons for their ultimate destiny—to one day see God face-to-face. Thus, the liberal arts were part of an educational program whereby persons were being formed for both (1) wise and virtuous and eloquent lives in the present, and for (2) their future face-to-face vision of God—a vision which would still include the use of our minds.

But, as Augustine properly asked, how can it be that we poor sinners can expect one day to see God face-to-face? Is it not the height of hubris to think that we could attain to such a grand vision? Augustine’s conclusion, worked out in some detail in De Trinitate, is that a person will see God face-to-face if they have been properly “fitted” and prepared for such a vision. But the only way that one can be properly fitted and prepared is for one to be changed (and indeed, cleansed) by the blood of Christ. That is, the key to human transformation—being changed, cleansed, shaped, and formed into the persons we ought to become—is the gospel itself. Indeed, the only way we can become the persons we are called to become, to become “true men” (in C.S. Lewis’ terms), is through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. And so, if the liberal arts are about the forming of a certain kind of person, on a Christian understanding of things, the gospel is a necessary and essential part of reaching such a goal—i.e., of becoming the kind of person we are called to become. Paul could write in his letter to the church at Ephesus (Eph. 5:25-27) that Christ had died for sinners, and that this death leads to the ultimate transformation of God’s people. Paul writes: “25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Christ has died for sinners, and this death not only means that (1) one can enter a saving relationship with the God of the universe, but that (2) our ultimate transformation into a bride that is “holy and without blemish” is a transformation rooted in a past-tense event—the gospel—which is the key to our transformation in the present and future.

The liberal arts are good and proper tools which, when understood in relationship to our ultimate destiny (the face-to-face vision of God), can well serve such a grand aim and goal. If philosophy has been at times called the ancilla theologiae (“the handmaiden of theology”), the liberal arts might be seen as the proper “handmaiden” of human transformation. And my thesis is that the kind of human transformation God desires—transformation by which persons are transformed and prepared to one day see God face-to-face, and to know and adore Him throughout all eternity—is a transformation in which the liberal arts can serve a good and right and meaningful part, while the power needed for this transformation is one which is rooted in and dependent upon the gospel itself. In short, through the gospel God is preparing a bride to be presented to the Son. This bride will enjoy being in the presence of God, and seeing the Triune God face-to-face. For Christians education—in its best construals—prepared persons for wise and virtuous lives in the present, and for one’s ultimate destiny—seeing God and knowing Him forever.  And it is through the death, burial, and resurrection that persons are “fitted” and prepared for such a vision—and the liberal arts can function as an important gospel-fueled means to prepare persons for their ultimate destiny of seeing God face-to-face (without neglecting the importance of the liberal arts to help persons live wise and virtuous lives in the present).

To the extent that Christians have forgotten, lost, or (most sadly) abandoned this larger theological backdrop and grounding of the liberal arts, the liberal arts have been lost.  Ironically, while Christians have in the modern age been accused (rightly, at times) of anti-intellectualism, it just may be the case that the only real and meaningfully hope of the recovery of the liberal arts lies in the recovery of the gospel itself, and in the recovery of a Christian understanding of God, man, and the world—including a recovery of what education truly is.  The Christian invention of the university in the middle ages was not a historical accident, but was surely a flowering—at least in part—of the manifold insights of a Christian understanding of things. While many institutions cannot at present coherently account for traditional liberal arts learning, the Christian is particularly well-positioned to do so. Whenever the gospel has taken hold of a culture, it has been the impetus for learning and the development of educational institutions. As the gospel changed the face of Western culture this included a type of transformation and development of the liberal arts, such that the liberal arts were pressed into the service of ultimate Christian purposes—namely, the preparation of persons for both wise and virtuous lives in the present, and for one’s ultimate encounter with God. While other handmaidens may emerge, we would do wise to rescue the one handmaiden—the liberal arts—which has proved so useful and enduring. It is always unwise to spurn good gifts, and when a good gift-giver bestows good gifts, we are wise to attend to them.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in The City and is published here by permission of the author.


1. Quoted at the beginning of Ralph McInerny, “The Seven Liberal Arts in the Middle Ages,” in David L. Wagner, ed., The Seven Liberal Arts in the Middle Ages (Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press, 1983), 249.  The Latin is: “Non est consenescendum in artibus.”

2. This essay borrows some themes from my book The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Publishers, 2010). But on the whole this essay is an extension and development of themes from that volume.

3. There is another underlying issue lurking not far from the surface. Namely, what do Protestants or Evangelicals bring to this constellation of questions and issues?  I broach this question knowing I cannot do full justice to the question in this essay.  I have worked out some of these issues in The Gospel and the Mind.  Given the shared tradition of Protestants with other Christians, there is no need for Protestants to have a completely “unique” slant on these questions. That is, Protestants of course will approach these issues at times in ways just like or very similar to the other key Christian traditions. At the same time, if the liberal arts are going to be recovered in Protestant colleges and universities, then it will be necessary for Protestants to work through the ways in which the Protestant tradition speaks to educational practices which put a premium on the liberal arts. I deal, albeit quite briefly, with the way in which Protestants should be engaged in real sustained study and recovery of the larger Christian tradition in the Introduction to my (edited) volume Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians (IVP-UK:  Nottingham, 2010; IVP-US:  Downers Grove, 2010).

4. Sister Miriam Joseph, The Trivium—The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric: Understand the Nature and Function of Language (Philadelphia:  Paul Dry Books, 2002), 3.

5. Thomas Aquinas works with the basic trivium/quadrivium grouping but consistently speaks of the trivium as “logic,” and of the quadrivium as “mathematics”. See Pierre Conway Pierre and Benedict Ashley, “The Liberal Arts in St. Thomas Aquinas,” The Thomist 22, no. 4 (1959):  465ff.

6. This sequence is common in Thomas. I here am relying on Super Librum de Causis Expositio, Prooemium, no. 8, translated by H.D. Saffrey (Vrin, 2002).

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