Magazines 2021 May - Jun Evangelical higher education in a secular age

Evangelical higher education in a secular age

17 May 2021 By Kevin Flatt

How Canada adapted and innovated for evangelical education

By attracting gifted scholars such as the theologian J. I. Packer, Regent College became a major influence on the study centre movement.

The university was created as an explicitly Christian institution and remained that way for centuries. But by the early 20th century a biblical worldview had been pushed to the margins of university life nearly everywhere in the Western world.

In Canada, between 1900 and 1960 most universities adopted a fully secular identity. Most of the mainline Protestant theological colleges, partly because of this shift, were likewise embracing a theological liberalism that put human reason, emotion and experience in the place of Scripture as the arbiter of truth.

For the predecessors of today’s Canadian Evangelicals, this was a problem. Was there a way to provide their young people headed for pastoral ministry an education where the Bible would be the foundation of their training rather than a target of attack?

Ministry training was only part of it. In the decades after the Second World War, more and more Canadians were going to university to enter professional and white collar jobs. Would Evangelicals get a university education completely divorced from their deepest beliefs?

Canadian Evangelicals adopted three main strategies in response to the secularization of universities and the liberalization of university-based theological education that accompanied it. The first, popular especially in the 1920s to the 1940s, was to found separate Bible colleges and institutes. These trained future pastors, missionaries and Sunday school teachers through a Bible-centred curriculum.

The second strategy, which gained ground in the era of increased university enrollment from the 1960s onward, was to create independent Christian universities to teach a wide variety of disciplines from a biblical standpoint. Some of these grew out of existing Bible colleges, while others, like Trinity Western University (est. 1962) and Redeemer University (est. 1982), were started from scratch.

A third strategy, documented by Charles E. Cotherman in his recent book To Think Christianly (IVP Academic, 2020), was to create study centres on or near secular university campuses to equip Christian students there.

One of the earliest of these was Regent College in Vancouver. It started with the vision of a group of Plymouth Brethren leaders, including the shoe merchant Marshall Sheppard, to provide graduate-level theological training for Evangelical young people who had completed a university degree. When the group behind the idea wrote an article about it for a Brethren publication, it caught the attention of James Houston, a geographer at Oxford University who was a Brethren leader in Britain.

Houston had been thinking along similar lines and drafted a letter to the group. He didn’t send it, however, because he believed God would make clear when the timing was right. Apparently it was. The next year the committee working on the idea for the college contacted Houston on their own initiative and asked him to become principal of the school.

The Plymouth Brethren emphasis on lay leadership rather than a professional clergy dovetailed naturally with Houston’s desire to train "men and women who learn to think Christianly in all their professions." So when Regent College opened in 1968 in rented facilities on the University of British Columbia campus, its flagship program was a one-year diploma designed to help evangelical university graduates think Christianly about the nonpastoral careers they were entering or already in.

By attracting gifted scholars such as the theologian J. I. Packer, the college became a major influence on the study centre movement throughout North America, helping inspire similar efforts from New College Berkeley in California, to the Ligonier Valley Study Center in rural Pennsylvania, to the C. S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C.

Evangelicals have not redirected the mainstream of Canadian university education, which is as secular today as it has ever been. And evangelical institutions of higher education are themselves vulnerable to powerful secularizing pressures emanating from the rest of the university sector. Nevertheless, because of the vision of local Evangelicals deeply committed to both biblical faith and the importance of serving God with your mind, Christian students in Canada today have several ways to pursue higher education without leaving their faith behind.

Kevin Flatt is professor of history at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ont. Read more at

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