Protagoras, Harvard, and 21st Century Evangelicalism


Harvard_Wreath_Logo_1.svgIn 1636, the academic doors of the first university in America (of course, then being the British ruled colony) opened out of a recognized need to train men for ministry. Naturally then, it has a very specific scope and a serious commitment, so when the first formal “Rules and Precepts” were adopted just ten years later, the founding members wrote that every student should “be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (Jn 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let everyone seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of Him (Prov 2:3).”

A few years after that, the university formulated its official motto in 1692:

veritas christo et ecclesia

Meaning, “Truth for Christ and the Church.”

Of course, the university didn’t stand by that principle very long, and because Harvard became more enamored with the European liberal scholasticism that undermined the integrity of the Scriptures than being faithful to the Word of God, by 1701, yale university sealYale was started in an attempt to provide sound, biblical training for their students. Their seal was written in Hebrew (all freshman were required to learn the biblical languages), which allegorically means, “doctrine and truth.” Hence their Latin banner, lux et veritas (light and truth). But Yale also departed from their foundation, and for that reason Princeton was started, and Westminster in Philadelphia after that.

Getting back to Harvard though, if you were to walk on campus today, you will find a modified version of their university seal. Rather than saying, “veritas christo et ecclesia,” it simply says, “veritas.” So, while it was originally understood that truth could not exist apart from the Person of Christ, and faithfulness in the church could not exist without the sound training of those who taught the truth in Christ, truth is now understood as an abstract, autonomous ideology.

But even so, today this is a reminder of what the university originally stood for, in what seems to be a proclamation of self-condemnation. Above the doors to the Emerson Hall of Philosophy, opened in 1906, these words are inscribed in stone, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” That is not what was supposed to be inscribed, but evidently, the president at the time intervened.

What was supposed to be there, per the submission of the philosophy department faculty, was a quote from the 5th century BC Greek philosopher, Protagoras.

Man is the measure of all things.

In other words, the individual human being, rather than God, or a god, or any unchanging, fixed moral law, is the ultimate source of value.emerson hallIt is the contemporary doctrine of “self-esteem” and the narcissistic worship of self. It is the ideology that truth is relative, and what determines right from wrong is whatever “feels right” or “feels wrong.” We see its poison most tangibly in a society that seems to virtually enjoy being offended, and looks to be offended, because, frankly, it is so easily offended – it matters very little as to whether or not there was any wrongdoing that actually occurred.

Of course, we would expect that from a society that knows nothing of grace or forgiveness, but in the church?

And yet, there it is, even though “love does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provokeddoes not take into account a wrong suffered… [but] believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7), and “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).

Of course, we all fail in that from time to time. We don’t love perfectly, but we’re instead like Paul, waging war against the flesh (cf. Rom. 7:15-25). The problem is that this seems to be characteristic in the lives of many, rather than being un-characteristic. Such a person lacks grace, and the person that lacks grace leads me to believe that they do not know grace.

i'm offendedThey are easily offended because it’s really all about them. They’ll never say that of course, but their behavior demonstrates that they think that. They carry themselves with narcissistic egotism that is indicative of an unbeliever. They demand admiration, jockey for authority and prestige. They are consumed with their own name, they demand to have attention, and they demand positions of prominence.

They carry a sense of entitlement (there’s a hard word for Millennials), and they’re often exploitive and manipulative. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

The point is, we have an over-inflated view of ourselves and our own self-importance. Do we have worth as human beings? Do we have value as human beings?


But it isn’t because of who we are. It’s because of who God is. That was the heart of David when he asked in Psalm 8:4, “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” Given all the greatness of the creative order, which pails to utter insignificance compared to the supremacy of God, how much more minute is the significance of man? Nevertheless, God has made us to rule over all His creative order as His representatives. That, I think, is what it means to bear the image of God as we exercise dominion (Gen. 1:26-28). That’s why we’re valuable.

But believing that cultivates a heart of humility.

Believing the self-worshiping philosophy of Protagoras, Harvard, and the world only advances pride.

But the danger I see is that many churches, many 21st century Evangelical churches, only give lip-service to the Source of our worth, but they don’t actually believe it. After all, actions speak louder than words, don’t they?

So when I see a church that says, “It’s not about you,” but then develops their entire philosophy of ministry to appeal to you, my left eye-brow goes up. What are pastors teaching their churches when they cry, “It’s not about you!” like a cheer-leader at a pep rally, but then rather than cultivate a service around what God wants (which is, I assume, the One whom it is for), they seem far more concerned with what the culture wants?not confused

Ultimately, man is the measure of all things. We might as well chisel that in stone above our doorway. What would be even better though, would be if we stemmed the tide and affirmed with David, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”


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About Matt Tarr

Matt currently serves as pastor-teacher at High Point Baptist Church, Larksville, PA. Prior to his ministry at High Point, Matt also served in the counseling department at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, and as a chaplain at the Scranton-Wyoming Valley Rescue Mission. He enjoys spending time with his wife Melody and his two children, Jonathan and Timothy.