Theological Vision Guides

Introduction to 7 Key Biblical Themes

A difficulty for Christian students

Students can find it hard to know how to connect their Christian faith with their academic work. Some undergraduates might be wondering if they should do only the bare minimum required to pass their degree, and spend the rest of their time on church and organising evangelistic events with their local Christian student group? Or should they really commit themselves to their studies? But if so, where does evangelism fit in? Other students might easily feel discouraged by the difficulty of their academic work. How should we encourage a doctoral student who struggles with feeling their research is futile? Does their work have any value or significance in the context of God’s wider purpose for the world?

We may know intuitively that both academic work and sharing the gospel are important to God, but why is this, and how can we explain the relationship between them to students?

When it goes wrong

Evangelism and academic work can sometimes be positioned as wholly separate endeavours, which simply compete for time. This leads to a range of problems. On the one hand, an approach to evangelism which takes no account of what it means to be human (including our culture-shaping vocation, which chiefly, for students, is the work of the university) is likely to come across as irrelevant and unpersuasive, making claims and providing answers which seem not to be grounded in our shared reality with our fellow-humans. Conversely, a view of academic work which is not considered to be part of our service to God, under his authority, is likely to be pursued in a way that is shaped primarily by secular assumptions rather than by a Christian worldview. 

Some may respond to this sense of polarisation by seeking to fold one activity into the other. So we may feel that it is by doing good work, shaped by the Christian intellectual tradition, that we fully discharge our responsibility to God within the university, allowing this to be our witness to Christ, with no need to intentionally share the gospel. Conversely, others, especially undergraduates, may somehow believe that the best way to do God’s work at  university is to do as much evangelism as possible, and to sacrifice ‘worldly’ things like academic excellence.

Rejecting these extremes, we might seek to hold a both/and approach – seeking to affirm both good scholarship from a Christian worldview, and a clear evangelistic witness at university. But we may still find ourselves lacking the categories or language to keep these appropriately integrated in practice. Ironically, in the world of Christian ministry among academics, the word ‘integration’ has sometimes been used as a shorthand to refer to the practice of pursuing one’s academic work from a Christian worldview, without integrating a clear account of how this activity relates to our responsibility for evangelism.

Where we want to get to

We want to pursue terminology and practices which reject the language of ‘either/or’ and speak of ‘both/and’. We want to do it in such a way that enables our evangelism and our academic work to enrich one another while remaining clearly distinct. One way of summarising this aspiration is found in the earlier part of this booklet, under the statement of our ‘shared mission’:

“Serving God in the context of our work, we pursue a twofold mission, moving: 

  • From Christ to our work. The gospel shapes our academic work, so in the light of Scripture we contribute to the university for the common good in this age; and 
  • From our work to Christ. Our work can help us share the gospel: we trace the way reality points to God, bringing both its praises and our colleagues from our fields of study to the Lord Jesus who is in the age to come.” 

But some problems run much deeper than the simple need for a mission statement.

A deeper problem

The problem we have outlined is symptomatic of a deeper challenge – applying not only to Christian students but, ultimately to all those in the workplace, whether they are Christians or not. What is the purpose, value and significance of our work under the sun? Those of us who are Christians may not have received much teaching on the subject. Many of us still live with the hangover of modernity’s impact on the church, where we have too often allowed our lives and teaching to be divided between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’, as if God has nothing to say about our work from Monday to Friday. Indeed our difficulty might be compounded by the awareness of our ‘sacred’ duty to share the gospel with colleagues: how does this duty relate to our work itself?

Given the universal character of the problem we have outlined, our service to students must begin with a broader and deeper conversation about work and evangelism, and in a way that speaks the theological language of the evangelical churches that our students attend.

Plotting the co-ordinates of a biblical response

Our conviction is that the whole counsel of Scripture is relevant to the questions raised here – from the doctrine of God through to the role of the local church. This is not a time for one text of Scripture taken in isolation from the whole teaching of the Bible, or from the history of the church’s organised reflections on it. But we are also confident that nothing ‘new’ needs to be said. Our task consists in laying out what is already familiar from faithful Bible teaching but arranging it in a way that shows its relevance to the problem at hand. 

The outline that follows does not address students themselves but seeks to help the theologically-educated around them navigate the problem using seven familiar evangelical teaching as co-ordinates of a roadmap. Space is limited: the aim is not to teach theological points but to relate them, and to provide a conceptual overview to help us structure and clarify our thinking – within which it may be valuable for individuals to be helped through specific biblical passages on work, wisdom and witness. Its mode is not pastoral but it provides a broad systematic overview in order to integrate the wide sweep of the Bible’s teaching. But this does make it especially relevant to those working in the university institution, which by definition seeks to relate and arrange material across the whole scope of human research and experience. While this material draws on the riches of the Christian theological tradition we have chosen not to add quotations or cite individual theologians to illustrate the material as it would have been difficult to know when to stop!

This is a consultation exercise. Our aim is to serve the unity of the church by laying out the way seven essential theological categories fit together underneath our ‘shared mission’. In short, it could be seen as an extended reflection of what it means for Jesus as Son of God and promised Christ to be both Alpha and Omega to those who study the alphabets of this world.  As we review the seven familiar categories we find that three themes make a particular contribution in our context: (i) the meaningful character of God’s creation, (ii) the way humanity’s role within it flows from our position between God and creation, and (iii) how we think biblically about our weekly working cycle as move between our local church and our workplace.


Consultation Exercise

GAP is an ongoing project. For the sake of evangelical unity and clarity, this article has already been enriched by a broad consultation process and now that it is posted here we hope it will benefit from wider input from our readers. We would invite you to bring your constructive feedback by clicking the button below. We can’t promise to reply to every comment, but we will keep updating the text as the project progresses.

Theology and Philosophy

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