Students in nursing classroom

By Tommy Smith, President

As a Great Commission university, Johnson educates students for Christian ministries and other strategic vocations through a three-dimensional curriculum that we summarize as Word (the equivalent of a major in Bible and theology), World (a significant Arts and Sciences core) and Work (professional courses in preparation for a specific vocation).

The founders of Johnson University understood that to be fully prepared to communicate the Gospel to the world, students must understand that world. The curriculum from the very beginning valued the liberal arts, and students took significant coursework in the humanities, arts, and sciences along with their biblical instruction. This included courses in science and mathematics. The earliest curriculum we have available (1897) listed courses in Geography, Physiology, Arithmetic, and Algebra. Five years later, the courses expanded to Physics, Botany, Algebra, and Geometry. Other science and math courses during the presidencies of Ashley and Emma Johnson included Zoology, Astronomy, Chemistry, and Trigonometry. The Tabor Chemistry Laboratory was constructed in 1924 and served as a science lab into the 1960s. The curriculum remained very stable throughout the Brown years and into the first decade of Dr. Bell’s presidency.

The decades from the 1950s to 1970s, however, saw a reduction in the number of courses in science and math. The 1956-1957 curriculum listed two science courses (students could take Physical Science or Biology) and no mathematics. This remained the case through the 1979-1980 curriculum. There were three main reasons for this reduction in science and math courses. First, Johnson increasingly mirrored the educational philosophy of its sister Restoration Movement Bible colleges, which contained an aversion to science. This reflected the origin of the Bible college movement in the era of the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy. The study of the sciences was considered “liberal” (in the theological sense) and this perspective gave birth to an anti-intellectualism that saw the sciences as inimical to a sound Christian education. This is well-documented in historian George Marsden’s work on fundamentalism and evangelicalism and Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

The second and third factors were more practical. In the 1950s-1970s, the vast majority of Johnson students were preparing for vocational Christian ministry. Even those who did not plan on pulpit or other church leadership ministry completed a ministerial degree. Science and math were not considered a high priority in preparation for a ministry vocation—thus, only minimal attention was given to the subjects. This led to the third factor—economics. With limited financial resources, faculty salaries were invested in the areas of Bible, ministry, and the humanities.

Several factors emerged, however, in the late 20th and early 21st century that began to slowly change this culture. The criteria for accreditation with the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) in 1979 established minimum requirements for the general education curriculum, including science and math courses. The establishment of the teacher education program included new requirements for science and math to meet State of Tennessee licensure requirements. This did not affect all students, but it did lay a foundation for further development of the sciences in the curriculum.

The major factor in the change of science/math culture came with the new mission statement in 2011. The Third Way, Great Commission mandate requires not only a solid foundation in the Scriptures, but also understanding of human communities and the natural world. A scientific perspective pervades contemporary culture and effective servants of Christ must be conversant with that perspective. The Johnson graduate must understand scientific approaches and concepts in order to evaluate claims made by science, comprehend complex social and philosophical issues, and communicate meaningfully with others, especially those in need of the gospel. In addition (and perhaps more importantly), science is the study of God’s great handiwork, and is a pathway not only to knowledge but also to worship and praise of the Creator. I believe that a healthy perspective on the value of science and mathematics is a key component of a Christian, biblical worldview. (A very helpful resource is the CCCU Christian Coalition “Through the Eyes of Faith” series of books, including Biology Through the Eyes of Faith and Mathematics Through the Eyes of Faith).

In addition to a strong biblical and philosophical rationale for the teaching of the sciences at Johnson, we have increasing, practical demand for higher levels of science to meet the requirements of a number of strategic vocations. These academic programs in business, social sciences, health sciences (pre-nursing), and sport and fitness require a solid foundation in science and math. We now offer a B.S. in Life Sciences and B.S. in Mathematics, as well as an A.S. in Health Science. We must also continue to expand the STEM (Science Technology Engineering, and Mathematics) track of preparation for our teacher education programs. Because of this change in the science/math culture, we have additional opportunities for new programs in, for example, computer science, information systems, and accounting. With additional laboratory space, we can add programs in biology and chemistry, which would open pathways to several strategic vocations.

When I became the dean of the School of Arts & Sciences in 2011 (with the reorganization of the college into a university structure), improving the sciences at Johnson was one of my strategic priorities. When Sarah Cathey was hired as a full-time science professor, I challenged her to help change the science culture at Johnson, an endeavor that has been quite successful thanks to her tireless work. When I assumed the presidency in 2018, one of my announced “Presidential Priorities” was the expansion of academic offerings in science and mathematics. Johnson University now has a very robust science program led by Dr. Sarah Cathey, Dr. Emily Christensen, and Dr. Keri Merritt. Dr. Monica Nelson leads our associate degree in health science and pre-nursing program. We initiated our first math major two years ago under the leadership of Dr. Jason Bintz. Even our Bible and theology curriculum is reflecting this new culture; Dr. Joe Gordon recently received a Course Development Grant from the John Templeton Foundation for his ”Creaturely Theology” course, which he taught for the first time this past semester.

There are exciting days ahead for the teaching of the sciences at Johnson University, and they are days of challenge as well. We are in desperate need of laboratory space—all of these programs are sharing one small science lab and, therefore, lab space is a priority for our current strategic planning and is under strong consideration as a major facet of our upcoming capital campaign.