This is the transcript of Tim Laurence’s address at the inaugural conference of the Association of Christian Postgraduate Groups within IFES Europe’s Postgraduate Initiative, ‘Good News for the University’, delivered from Cambridge by Zoom on Saturday 22 May 2021.
Our gathering today represents a strange and exciting paradox.
Why? On the one hand we could say that this is an historic moment. This is the first time there has been a pan-European initiative for Christian postgraduate student groups. We're meeting within IFES, the International Fellowship for Christian Evangelical Students, formalised in 1947. In Europe, until now, IFES has focussed primarily on undergraduate groups and high school work. There has only been limited and occasional activity organised at some national levels for postgraduate or doctoral students: but only in a handful of places on a small scale. So, you could say that this is an historic moment.
But, on the other hand, from another perspective, this isn't a ‘first’ at all. Instead, it could be seen as a small return to something which was once bigger, as the whole of the global university movement emerged from European Christianity in the mediaeval period. Whether Bologna, Paris, Oxford or Cambridge, all these universities arose from cathedral or monastic schools. Before long the popes granted status to different institutions so that a Master’s degree (for us that's the beginning of postgraduate studies) earned you the right to teach in any other university in Christian Europe.
So we have this paradox. We are self-consciously coming together across Europe and yet by their origin, postgraduate degrees in Europe since the 13th century have existed as a Christian association.
Rejection and Recovery
How do we explain this paradox? Well of course the problem is that in between now and the mediaeval period there has been a rationalistic European enlightenment which led to a period of secularization in which Christianity often became considered as the enemy to intellectual progress rather than as the foundation of it.
So that gives a more particular significance to what we're doing. It means that as communities of Christian Master’s and doctoral students associating across Europe - around a Christian intellectual foundation - we are in effect reclaiming the university tradition.
There’s also a biblical precedent for this motif: where something very important is rejected, but then gets recovered. In biblical terms we can think of Psalm 118:22 (quoted in Matt. 21:42, Acts 4:11, 1 Pet 2:7): ‘the stone that builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone'. Consider the way that Jewish leaders rejected their Messiah who turned out to have been the very Person on whom their whole nation was built, and whose death and resurrection would prove to be the foundation of the church.
There’s also another precedent for this motif in the western tradition, one which strongly influenced mediaeval Christianity itself: Augustine’s ‘The City of God’. It stands at over 1000 pages and is one of the most significant achievements of western intellectual history. Why was it written? It looks back to the fall of Rome and it stands as a reply from Augustine to the contemporary pagans who felt that the softness of Christianity was to blame for the fall of the Roman Empire. But Augustine says, no, on the contrary. It was the political and moral tradition of the Roman Empire which was bankrupt, and Christianity should not be the villain of the story but it actually provides the superior intellectual vision and a superior comprehensive account of human culture within this world.
Do you see the parallel with late modernity? The question is, do we follow European secularism and say that Christianity is a hindrance to the academic community - that Christianity is the problem? Or do we follow earlier European history and Augustine's own example and say that Christianity actually provides the better foundation for a strong academic community?
Clearly it's possible that the emergence and the flourishing of our own Christian postgraduate groups can now provide one visible embodiment of the way that Christianity can inspire a renaissance of true academic flourishing. This is a possible vision, isn't it?
But what substantive reason do we have to think that this could be the case? Why is it that all Christian postgraduate groups could in fact offer a small embodiment of the strength of Christianity for the academic community?
I. Our Main Idea: The Glory of Christ
Our big idea is the glory of Christ: Christ who is over creation and over redemption. This is why we think that Christianity can provide a total intellectual system and can provide a foundation for Western culture.
Look at this text from Colossians 1, introduced by Paul, as referring to the beloved Son of the Father:
What an amazing passage this is! I'm sure it's a favourite of many of us. The colour scheme here highlights some of the connections.
Who is this great and glorious Christ? We have four ‘he is’ in blue at the beginning of various phrases. He is ‘the image of the invisible God’, he is ‘before all things’, he is ‘the head of the body’, he is ‘the beginning’.
We can summarise this passage as concerning the comprehensive supremacy of Christ.
Christ as comprehensive
The passage concerns ‘all’ things, to which it refers eight times in the original. All things in creation and redemption, whether heaven on earth, or visible or invisible. All of these categories are there in the text to show that all of them are connected in Christ. Look at how even the structuring of the literary phrasing works, so that the centre of the hymn or the poetic stanzas is this phrase ‘in him all things hold together’. The form matches the content of this piece.
This is fitting for the concept of the university from the Latin ‘universitas’, which has come to mean ‘the whole’, not just the guilds of teachers or students together, but also the whole of human knowledge and all its branches coming together in one totality. All of which holds together in Christ, which is why in Colossians 2:3 Christ is the one ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’.
This makes sense if he is the one ‘from whom’, ‘through whom’, and ‘to whom’ are all things. The pattern of the Greek prepositions are highlighted in red. ‘In him’ can also be translated ‘from him’ or ‘by him’, while ‘for him’ can also be translated as ‘to him’. So we're thinking that the ultimate origin, and the ultimate goal are both Christ.
Christ as supreme
So, the comprehensiveness of Christ speaks to his supremacy. Look at that phrase: ‘so that in everything he might have the supremacy’ or more literally: ‘in all things he might be first’.
So, what is the purpose of reality? What is the purpose of your academic discipline? What is the purpose of our Association? That Christ be recognised as number one. God the Father gave the Son the critical roles of being the agent of creation and the goal of the universe’s redemption because he's the beloved Son of God. Everything exists so that Christ should be recognised as supreme. This is so profound. Remember that in dealing here with a biblical text, we're dealing with theology, and that means that we're dealing ultimately with the grounding of metaphysics, and therefore of all philosophy and epistemology, and therefore the foundations of who we are as creatures and how we know things. This is the ultimate context for the university. And what the text is saying is that the ultimate currency of reality is the glory of Christ. So whatever else our university studies say about reality, when you peel back the layers to the basic stuff, what you have isn't just prime matter, if that's where you want to go, or just energy and material of some kind. What we have is God’s demonstration of his goodness and glory through his Son in his creation, so that everything exists from him and points us back to him.
This is why, taken on its own terms, Christianity is in the running as a candidate to provide a total intellectual vision. Secularism would have us interpret Christianity according to its own definition, that it is one merely narrow religious viewpoint among others, and not a matter of public truth, and not a matter of public reason. But taken on its own terms, Scripture says that Christ is not a marginal religious figure but as our creator he is the foundation of our reality and of our rationality, and that his being recognised as such is not merely an optional extra but it's the very reason that our reality exists. So, in claiming that everything is about God’s glory, Scripture gives us a very helpful diagnostic tool for the way we can appreciate the supremacy of Christianity as an intellectual foundation over any other cultural vision.
‘The City of God’ and the university
This takes us right back to where Augustine was going with his ‘City of God’, where he defends Christianity as a public vision for late antiquity.
The way Augustine’s argument proceeds is not to critique the Roman Empire itself, but to place that within a wider context. He is saying that throughout world history, since the fall, there's been a contrast between what he calls the ‘earthly city’ and the ‘heavenly city’. He doesn't mean two visible institutions such as church and state but rather two ways in which humanity can operate, either in the spirit of the earthly city or the spirit of the heavenly city.
Before exploring the implications for our own context, it will be helpful to make two brief clarifications. For our post-enlightenment ears, we need to stress that Augustine’s contrast is not a contrast between the ‘material’, as if that's bad, and that going to some ‘ethereal’ heavenly place is better, as if we could escape the good materiality of God’s creation. No, this is rather a contrast drawn from the New Testament and Paul’s eschatological contrast between the flesh and the spirit, between doing things our own way for our own glory, or doing things God's way for his glory - and clearly this challenge applies to churches just as much as to politics or the university. Second, Augustine uses the word ‘city’ as an ongoing contrast because it captures the collective complexity of all human interactions within God's creation: the total expression of human activity. Ultimately, in the book of Revelation, the city of Babylon is contrasted representatively with the New Jerusalem.
So how does Augustine's vision, his contrast between the earthly city and the heavenly approach to human culture, help us develop an alternative fresh Christian vision for engagement within the university?
The university is like a city within a city. Certainly that's the case physically in Cambridge where I'm living, and for many of us our campus is like a city within the city in which we’re based. But also in a deeper sense, the university is like a microcosm of the city in that, in the university, the complexity and the totality of human culture is under the microscope.
So is there an earthly approach to the university, and a heavenly one? Is there a Christian approach to being in the university?
A question of glory
Augustine summarises the difference between the earthly and the heavenly approaches. He says:
We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the heavenly city by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God. … In the former, the lust for domination lords it over princes as over the nations it subjugates; in the other based those put in authority and those subject to them serve one another in love, the rulers by their counsel, the subjects by obedience. The one city loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders’ the other says to its God: “I will love you, my Lord, my strength.” [Augustine, City of God, 14.28].
Isn’t that a powerful statement? Augustine is pulling together the themes that we've seen so far.
Whether it is contemporary European secularism, or late Roman paganism, what we're seeing is that there is an approach to human culture built around its own strength: its own powerful leaders, a principle of self-love and gaining glory from men. Isn’t that a good description of the contemporary secular university?
But by contrast, a truly Christian approach to engaging in academia is going to be like the heavenly city, for which Augustine gives us a gospel-shaped paradox. The heavenly city seems weaker because in humility it's not concerned with self-promotion and putting on a great show of itself and investing in human strength, but it turns out to be stronger because its strength is in God.
God’s glory: in Christ, in the gospel
This paradox of Augustine’s heavenly city - and the way it glories in God - leads us to ask: where is the glory of Christ seen most clearly? So before we start working out some of the practical implications of our main idea, we're going to look just briefly at this wonderful text of 2 Corinthians 4:4-6. By way of context, Paul is talking about his gospel ministry and how, because of the fall, people are not able to recognise the glory of God.
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
What themes do we see here? In these three brief verses we see creation, fall and redemption. But first, note the phrase ‘the image of God’ in reference to Christ, which we also saw in Colossians 1, ‘he is the image of the invisible God’. The ‘image of God’ is about glory. Whose glory? To be clear, ‘what we proclaim is not ourselves’. So, we're not part of the earthly city, it's not about our own glory. ‘But we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord’ – there it is again, the supremacy of Christ in all things – ‘with ourselves as your servants for Jesus sake’. That’s Augustine’s own key contrast: it was a biblical one.
So in the context of the fall, and the glory of God, a comparison and contrast is made between God’s glory in creation and God’s glory in the gospel. Verse 6 refers to the doctrine of creation from Genesis: ‘For God, who said, “let light shine out of darkness”...’ God communicated his glory in all that he made (cf. Ps. 19:1, Ps. 8:1 etc.). But now that same creator God “has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Look at the parallel between those two underlined sections – we have “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God”, and then “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In short, Paul is saying that within a pattern of creation, fall and redemption, God has shown his glory to us most powerfully and most clearly in the gospel, in the revelation of his Son the Lord Jesus Christ.
From this base we can summarise all of the threads that we've seen so far today. The big idea is that we are having the opportunity here, in our own little ways and our own little groups, in our own small weak Association, to start living out and embodying the total vision of the glory of Christ in creation and redemption - and we're doing it especially by digging deeply into the implications of the gospel.
Here the Greek word for gospel is evangel and that means, as the technical theologians would say, that this is an evangelical vision. Perhaps some of us struggle to say that now because, sadly, the word ‘evangelical’ has taken on a double meaning, often making us think of American party politics. But theologically, and historically, the technical word evangelical just means ‘to do with the gospel’. In our context this is critically important for our reclaiming of Augustine’s heritage. Everything is about the glory of God, and Scripture is saying that the glory of God is shown most of all in the face of Christ in the gospel. So that means it makes total sense for us to be pursuing this vision within what is an evangelical theological context - using the term technically.
Note, owing to time constraints, Tim’s actual delivery presented a short-form version of the final two sections relating to ‘common ethos’ and ‘common confession’, but this script retains his full notes for those sections.