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Theology of Integration

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The “integration of faith and learning” is a phrase that expresses the desires of Christian colleges and universities to have the Christian faith permeate every aspect of the curriculum. Integrating faith and learning resists a common tendency to compartmentalize religious faith. It rejects a Christian faith limited to “religious” activities such as worship or evangelism. Instead, it demands a faith which is “integrated” into the entirety of human life.

Regarding integration…
Integration brings together things which are found apart. It assumes that these things which were found apart actually belong together. Therefore, when they are brought into proper relationship with one another, they will be better understood, more likely to fulfill to their real purpose, and presumably more useful if they are artifacts or more healthy if they are living entities. Integration creates order and health out of disorder and chaos. It makes the world a better place.

Integration is often associated with racial integration. Though very different from faith and learning, racial integration actually serves as a good illustration of the meaning of integration. It is common for ethnic groups to be found separately, living in isolation from one another even if they are in the same city. Social ills like prejudice and injustice breed in such conditions. The assumption of racial integration was that different races and ethnicities really belong together as part of a common humanity. The hope was that if different ethnicities were brought together people would ultimately live better. Prejudice would fade away, injustice would diminish, and society would be one step closer to what it was meant to be.

And this example also illustrates the fact that integration does not always work as smoothly as we would like. We bring things together, but they do not always integrate very well. And sometimes the process of integration is resisted. Still other times, integration may happen, but not produce the desired result, perhaps race riots instead of racial harmony. In a fallen world, none of these outcomes are very surprising. Very few things work the way they are supposed to work, but that does not mean we discard the vision.

Regarding the integration of faith and learning…
When integrating “faith and learning,” the two things that are found apart but belong together are, obviously, faith and learning. One might question why these two things were ever split apart—is faith somehow incompatible with learning? Are they opposed to each other? Are they always found apart? These are very appropriate questions, and indeed, some have advocated the abandoning of this terminology because they feel these questions are all answered in the negative. Therefore, integration should not be required because faith and learning should not be separated in the first place.

Indeed, I believe this is largely correct. So why use this terminology?

The simplest answer is that it is entrenched and unavoidable. Not unlike the term “missionary,” which many people want to discard because all Christians are supposed to be missionaries, one may agree with the argument but find the term almost unavoidable nonetheless. We have to have some term for people who cross cultural boundaries in order to share the Gospel. The word we use for this, for better or for worse, is “missionary.”  Similarly, in the case of Christian thought on the created order, one finds it difficult to avoid the phrase “integration of faith and learning.”

There is also a more positive reason for using this terminology. The history of the discussion of the relationship between faith and learning stretches back for almost 2000 years. During that time, a wide variety of rubrics have been used. In fact, in preparing for a lecture on this topic, I quickly identified over a dozen “varieties of integration”—faith and reason, reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, nature and grace, science and Scripture, culture and Christianity, to name just a few. It is helpful to have some umbrella terms available when entering into a conversation which has had such a diversity of terms. At the top of the list of possible umbrella terms seems to be “faith and learning.”

Properly dividing faith and learning…
For all the unity between faith and learning, there is still a proper sense in which they are divided. It is not that they do not belong together, or that one is properly part of religious faith and the other is not. Rather, it seems that they have different sources. To borrow language that was very common in the 17th and 18th centuries, there are “two books” we must study to fully understand University libraryour world: the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Both books are authored by God—God’s world and God’s Word, to put it another way. Obviously since these two books are both authored by God, they ultimately serve a single purpose. They belong together, but they are found apart. And this returns us to our original definition of integration—bringing together things that are found apart. So despite sharing the conviction that the Christian faith should not be compartmentalized, I do not feel that entails the rejection of a term like “integration.” In fact, it seems extremely appropriate given the fact that God has chosen to grant human beings knowledge from two sources, not just one.

Jesus, Lord of All
Before concluding this discussion, it is important to connect it with distinctively Christian theology by makings explicit the “common purpose” of nature and Scripture and the connection to the person of Christ. Perhaps the best passage of Scripture to draw this from is Colossians 1:15-20. The passage very clearly identifies Christ as the creator of all things. It also identifies Him as the purpose of all things: all things were created by Him and for Him. It is important to realize how distinctive this theology is. It constitutes an absolute rejection of Gnosticism, a Greek mystery religion which grew up in the immediate post-New Testament world and has been a heretical counterpoint to Christian orthodoxy ever since. Gnosticism puts a wedge between the God of creation and the God of redemption. Colossians 1 rejects this wedge not by means of an argument but by means of a person: Jesus Christ, who in His very person unites the God of creation and the God of redemption. He not only called the created order into existence, but the created order finds its purpose in Him. It is made for Him. Jesus does not just have “spiritual” purposes, He has purposes for the physical world as well. The created order is not merely a necessary evil, or a temporary necessity, but rather it is a good creation with a divine purpose and an eternal future.

The implications of this for the integration of faith and learning should be obvious: Christ belongs in the created order. He called it into being and entered it personally through incarnation. He is twice over at home in creation. He is also the proper owner of every inch of the created world. Furthermore, He is the proper end of the created world. It is a world that was made for Him. But despite all of this, creation was followed by fall and therefore certain aspects of creation are in rebellion against their King. Creation, for all of its goodness at inception and goodness of intention, is currently a place of conflict and rebellion. Christ’s response to this rebellion is not to abandon the created order, but to redeem it. Not just to redeem human beings, but to redeem all things. The scope of redemption is co-extensive with the scope of creation. Salvation history is the story of how God restores all the things that were made by Him back into a condition of being used for Him. Human life is about joining in process of bringing all things back into submission to Christ, the rightful King. It can be argued that the meaning of every individual human life is found by finding its place in this story. We have been conscripted into the War of the Prepositions: we fight that all that was made by Him might once again be used for Him. And so we come again to the purpose of integration. Integration is simply one way of framing great battle of the ages. The task of theological integration is the enthroning of Christ as King in every sphere of human endeavor and every aspect of the created order.

This is part two of a five-part series on the perils and pitfalls of integrative thinking. A previous post considered “Hermit Crab Integration,” which uncritically adopts existing social structures and cultural artifacts. A related, but slightly different problem concerns this post. We call it “Christmas Tree Integration.”

Christmas Tree Integration

Not only does the secular academy define the structure of an academic discipline, it also loads that discipline with content. When a Christian pursues higher education, that content becomes the measure of competence and its mastery is the right of passageinto the academy. To achieve competency, a course of graduate study must be followed which is deep, demanding, and detailed. When it comes time to teach this same discipline to others, the starting point will almost certainly be the content that was learned in graduate study.

But if one is teaching at a Christian institution, the stated goal is not merely that one delivers the core content of an academic discipline, but that it is “integrated” with a Christian worldview. The most common solution to this is to search the core content for points of contact with the Christian faith and attach these to specific biblical texts that address or seem to address the topic in question. The verses are often listed parenthetically in the syllabus as if it is from these texts that the content is derived. But the fact of the matter is that the content preceded biblical study, it did not follow from it. There was no systematic study of the Scripture or of Christian theology or of Christian reflection upon the subject matter. The biblical references are hung upon the content as ornaments upon a Christmas tree. The result is something that is biblical in appearance and secular in essence.

A distinctive danger of Christmas Tree integration unfolds for those who take the time to look up the parenthetical Scriptural citations. One often discovers that: 1) a relevant word is mentioned in the passage but it is used in a way that is incidental or unrelated to the topic of the academic discussion, or 2) the topic is merely mentioned but it is not subject of the biblical teaching, or 3) the topic is the subject of the biblical teaching, but the biblical teaching is distinctively different from or even contrary to the teaching offered in the syllabus.  These fallacies are all by-products of biblical study done after the essential content is already determined. The pressure to force passages to fit the pre-determined content is enormous and multiplies hermeneutical errors that are common enough without the pressure of an already filled-in syllabus.

 

Cultivating an integrated faith is easier said than done. In the hopes of improving our skills, I have identified several failed models of integrating faith and learning. If you see yourself reflected in any of these failed models, don’t feel bad. Many of these have come to mind by reflecting on things I have said in lectures or sermons which later struck me as problematic. These are not so much intentionally formed models of integration as they are gutters into which we easily drift. But regardless whether they are models or gutters, some careful reflection may help us avoid them!

Hermit Crab Integration

Hermit crabs do not growth their own shell, they move into someone else’s. Christians scholars sometimes work as intellectual hermit crabs. They find an intellectual theory or cultural construct that they like, and then they move in and try to pack it full of Christian content.

To draw an example from a less than intellectual practice, consider internet dating services. eHarmony.com developed an internet dating service which seemed to meet a need for single adults having a hard time finding a spouse. Some Christians decided it would be great to adopt this shell, so to speak, and cram it full of Christian content, and thus Christian Mingle was born. The shell of internet dating is the same, the contents packed inside are just tweaked to include Christian vocabulary, answer uniquely Christian questions about prospective partners, and adorned with graphic images that appeal to the Christian sensitivities.

Notice the cultural artifact of internet dating is never examined, it is simply overtaken and employed for Christian purposes or packaged for a Christian audience. This does not mean the product of hermit crab integration is necessarily bad. Perhaps Christian Mingle is good, or perhaps simply neutral. But the important thing to understand is that whether good, bad or indifferent, it has been left unexamined. In hermit crab integration, cultural artifacts are unreflectively employed and never brought under theological scrutiny.

In the case of internet dating services, this is may not be a big deal. But the same principle applies in cases that are far more troubling. For example, when it comes to politics, Christians often ask whether they should vote Democratic or Republican. But notice that these two categories are taken as givens—facts of the created or cultural order. No one asks if we should form a third party, or if we should abolish parties, or if monarchies are more biblical than democracies. Or even more problematic, consider preaching in ante-bellum churches that instructed masters in the proper way to treat their slaves but never questioned the institution of slavery itself.

In both cases, cultural structures are taken for granted and the only question is how to load them up with Christian content or deploy them for Christian usage.

It is an obligation of Christians to probe the givens of our culture and ask whether they are best accounted for by the creative hand of God, or the deleterious effects of the fall, or if they are simply crystalized into our institutions by habituated sins. Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised this issue when reflecting on the troubles of the church under the Nazi regime. He was appalled and what was condoned by arguing that it was a given—part of the “orders of creation.” As he put it:

the danger of the argument [from “orders of creation”] lies in the fact that just about everything can be defended by it. One need only hold out something to be God-willed and God-created for it to be vindicated for ever, the division of man into nations, national struggles, war, class struggle, the exploitation of the weak by the strong, the cut-throat competition of economics. Nothing simpler than to describe all this—because it is there—as God-willed and therefore to sanction it. It is not realized in all seriousness that the world is fallen and that now sin prevails and that creation and sin are so bound up together that no human eye can any longer separate the one from the other.

Bonhoeffer’s caution for his time and place should be taken up by Christians in every time and place. We need to take every thought captive lest we tacitly endorse and employ structures that are inherently opposed to the Gospel. A similar problem arises in a second pitfall for those who are trying to think integratively: Christmas tree integration.

The church and the academy share jointly in the responsibility of equipping Christians to live an integrated faith.

Christian universities have a special calling to the life of the mind. They seek out truth wherever it may be found and makes full use of both the book of Nature and the book of Scripture as they seek to do this task. The Christian university thinks broadly—concerning itself with all of human culture and all of the created order. The university also thinks deeply, peeling back layers of mere appearance to discern what lies underneath. The university also retains the wisdom of the past and brings it forward into the needs of the present.

If the university has a special focus on the mind, the church has a special focus on the heart and the hands.


It is a community knit together in love and committed to serve the world. The church is the place where Christians live together in community as they seek to fulfill their callings.

One might compare the university to a nursery which grows plants and trees for planting in other places. The church is the landscape architect that makes use of those plants—planting its members into the field of human culture, nourishing both their souls and their Christian vision for their callings.

Of course these tasks are not tightly compartmentalized. One can never nurture a mind except by means of engaging the body. And of course, the church cannot be all action and no thought. They share in both—but they each have a slightly different focus. Church and university.

An integrated faith is a faith that is at home in every aspect of human life. It is not confined to a Sunday morning timeslot, nor is it confined to a church building. It is not restricted to “spiritual” activities like bible study, prayer, and preaching, but also includes our work, our leisure, and our relationships. It includes business and the arts as well as technology and the hard sciences. It transforms not just individuals, but also cultures. An integrated faith is a faith for all of life.

An integrated faith rests on the firm conviction that Jesus is both maker and master of all of creation. No created thing is fully understood until it is understood as an object of his crafting; no artifact of human culture is well-formed until it is formed to serve His purposes; no human soul is at rest until it finds its rest in Him.

An integrated faith emerges from an ongoing conversation between theology and the best of human learning. The mind of God is revealed in two books—the book of nature and the book of Scripture. The Christian who hopes to know the mind of God must read and study both books, and then integrate the knowledge from these two sources into a single holistic view of the world and a comprehensive vision for human culture.

An integrated faith is the calling of every disciple of Christ. It is not merely the task of the university or the calling of a scholar.


Every person is appointed a calling which engages the world for the love of neighbor and the glory of God. Theology must not just be believed, it must be lived.

The task of an integrated faith is not complete until Christ is honored as King in every sphere of human endeavor and every aspect of the created order. It is to this task that this website is dedicated.

Working Toward a Consistent Model of Theological Integration at Biola

What are we hoping to model regarding theological integration at Biola?  We desire an approach to biblical integration that is:

1)    Authentically biblical—our integration assumes the uniqueness (in the sense that it is not just one more religious book among many) and authority of Scripture (that its teaching is binding for Christians and ultimately decisive for this world).

2)    Authentically bi-directional—both general and special revelation count (when we talk of doing integration, one good way to formulate this is simply to integrate these two sources of truth that come to us from different perspectives. Some complain that we shouldn’t use the term integration because that implies a distinction that shouldn’t be there in the first place. But this is far more true if we are integrating “faith and learning” than “general and special revelation.” There is certainly a question as to whether faith and learning should be separated; the separation of general and special revelation is simply a reflection of two authentically separate streams of revelation that spring from a single source in God).

3)    Authentically dialogical (goal of the bi-directional interaction is learning and not always or necessarily resolution—dialog means neither mutual accommodation (shying away from all difference and embracing a mealy-mouthed compatibilism where “we are all really saying the same thing”) nor conquest of the stronger (allowing only one message to be said)).

4)    Positive, not merely critical. We acknowledge the goodness of creation and the value of human culture (for all of the fallenness of the world, we believe the creation is good, and we need to have a vision for using it well for its God intended purposes).  God has given us every good thing for enjoyment. We seek to redeem dysfunctional aspects of human life and culture, not simply shun them.

5)    Critical, not merely positive. The reality of the fall, the pervasiveness of the fall, the gravity of the fall—these all combine to clothe the goodness of creation in the agony of this present world. Since this makes us look with a critical eye on what issues from our own heart at our best moments, we must also look with a critical eye at what issues from human culture.