Why Knowledge of the Humanities is Important…and Why Christians Should Care

Imagine waking up every morning without any memory of who you are or any perspective of your past. Every day begins without any self-awareness, any understanding of the skills needed to navigate the day, or any orientation to guide you through what the day holds. Even deciding what priorities should guide your day, informing your decisions, and defining what is good or bad, friend or foe, obstacle or opportunity, would be little more than speculation.


Though it sounds like the plot of a mediocre science fiction movie, unfortunately, it is not. It is arguably the plight of this generation of students whose educational experience has been marked by a similar absence. To make matters more lamentable, many who are charged with shepherding students are either willing participants or well-intended proponents of the loss.


What has precipitated such a loss? The ever-increasing crisis in modern humanities. The crisis is not a new tale. The humanities have been in crisis since the late nineteenth century. The academic bifurcation of the natural sciences from the humanities created a riff in the modern university and, one might argue, in the fabric of reality—the nature and unity of the cosmos. The crisis has only been deepened by the corrosive effects of critical theory. The inherently negative perspective on tradition…any tradition has left students with a disorienting sense of transience, a loss of perspectives on life and of what T.S. Eliot calls permanent things.


To support traditional approaches to education seems to some to require opposition to the humanities—this is the willing participation of the demise of the humanities by well-intentioned supporters of traditional education. It seems a fair question to ask: why are the humanities important and why should Christians care about its demise? If I could offer an answer adapted from ideas present in Augustine and C.S. Lewis, it would be that good humanities must exist if for no other reason than bad humanities need to be answered.[1]


The humanities, simply enough, are the study of human things. It is the disciplined reflection on human nature and the relations and products of human nature. Thus, the traditional disciplines within the humanities incorporate the classical liberal arts—grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy—and broadly include philosophy, history, philology, literature, art, and theology. The latter discipline was seen as the source, order, and goal of a traditional approach to humanities. It was the sum and substance of education from classical antiquity and still present today in the classical education movement. Commonly associated with the liberal arts, the phrase studia humanitatis was coined by Cicero to describe the education that formed students intellectually and morally, that equipped them for the flourishing life. This is the tradition from which comes our modern humanities.


For Christians, the humanities do not cover neutral terrain. Christ changes everything! From the incarnation to the resurrection, reality has been redeemed, and learning has been forever transformed—see Colossians 1:15-23. Inherited from classical antiquity, the studia humanitatis were seen as confirmation of God’s good creation. The “creational truths” found in the great thinkers of antiquity—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero—is exactly what we would expect to find given passages like Psalm 19 and Romans 1. Further, through Christ, all reality is transformed, and, for Christians, our approach to learning is re-framed in relation to the one by whom, through whom, and in whom all things were created and held together.


The early church and Christian antiquity saw in the humanities of classical antiquity truths that confirmed and illustrated Scripture. Thus, the humanities, in the service of Scripture, prepared students for life in God’s world. This continued thereafter and was the dominant form of education through the Medieval and Renaissance eras. In the Enlightenment and beyond, the inherently theistic view of the universe and the unified picture of reality began to fray. Though by no means inevitable, the bifurcation of the natural sciences from humanities has anticipated the current educational crisis that the humanities face.

Despite the current difficulties with the humanities and with education more broadly—much of which is self-inflicted—the humanities should still matter to Christians. Given the impact Christ-centered humanities have had on the Church and the Christian intellectual tradition, contemporary Christians would be wise to consider what such luminaries as Justin Martyr, Clement, Athanasius, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Melancthon found so instructive in the humanities.


Though historically influential, here are a few contemporary reasons why Christians should care about and work for the redemption of the humanities.


First, there is intrinsic goodness to the study of God’s good creation, which includes humans as image bearers.

As the disciplined study of things human and because Christians understand humans to be created in the image of God, the humanities are inescapably theological in substance and orientation. Further, Christians understand that all created reality manifests God’s glory—displaying his wisdom, knowledge, goodness, and beauty. Creation, then, serves as the domain in which humans exist, act, and relate. As such, the humanities bear witness to the wonder of God either intentionally as in the Christian intellectual tradition, or unintentionally in the inescapable manifestations of truth in current humanities.


Second, Christians with the skills to contribute to the disciplines within the humanities are involved in a redemptive task. Colossians tells us that all things—things created through and for Christ—are also reconciled by Christ. Christians at work in particular areas of creation bring to reality the reconciliation accomplished in Christ and are to do so as far as the curse is found. This includes the humanities. The need for thoughtful Christians with the suitable skills to work in the disciplines within the humanities is not diminished, but only increased by the current crisis—”good humanities” are needed to answer “bad humanities.”


Third, as an opportunity to bear witness to the wisdom of God as one engages the misdirected versions of the disciplines within the humanities. What is alluded to in “bad humanities” is the result of the corruption of sin in the world. For those who understand the reconciliation of all things in Christ, the good sought after in the misdirected versions of the humanities can be rightly understood and reoriented to the good found only in relation to God. Take the current quest for a just society. The impulse toward justice is a good God given creational truth to love one’s neighbor, but because of sin, there will always be corruption in human understanding, application, and implementation of justice. Humans, even redeemed humans, struggle with sin in principle and in practice. This should not frustrate efforts toward justice, but rightly orient our hope for justice. Our task is dually focused. We work toward justice today but understand we will not experience it until the just Judge establishes it upon his return.


Christianity is the source for thriving humanities. While other sources are on offer, they yield only a diminished picture of humanity and perpetuate the inevitable crisis we are experiencing. As creatures bearing the image of our God, the humanities should call forth our most disciplined reflection.

[1] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 4.2.4-5, and in C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War Time,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 28.


Dr. Bates serves as Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Texas Baptist College. Prior to his role at Texas Baptist College, Dr. Bates served in several institutions of Christian Higher Education in both administrative and teaching roles. His research interests include Augustine, patristic engagement with Greco-Roman philosophy, the intersection between Christianity and culture, the integration of theology and psychology, and apologetics from the early church to contemporary culture.

Dr. Bates has published journal articles in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity and the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice. He has articles and chapters in the Evangelical Dictionary of World Religions (Baker, 2018), The Psychology of World Religions and Spiritualties (Templeton, 2020), and Christian Psychotherapy in Context (Routledge, 2018). He is also the author of “The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture for the Humanities” in The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture, edited by Adam W. Greenway and David S. Dockery (Seminary Hill Press, 2022).

Dr. Bates has three adult children living across the U.S., literally from the coast of California to the coast of Florida. He loves all things football, and he and his wife are members of First Baptist Benbrook.