Van Til on Education

Dear Reader,

Since I began this series, I have gotten a few recommendations from you, my readers. One of these was for Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974). Though I don’t believe I have read anything of Van Til’s before, the name is well-known to me so I shelled out the $$ for a used copy (there are about two reasonably priced copies on Amazon as we speak; get yours now) and have been reading away.

This is a dense book and is not going to be for everyone. I have to admit I didn’t understand it all, but I did get a fair amount out of it. If you really want to tackle this subject (reformed Christian education) with me, it is probably a must-read. If you are happy to have me distill it down for you, you can probably skip reading it yourself.

Van Til begins with a discussion of culture, Christian culture and non-Christian culture and why they are completely incompatible. He begins with culture because, like Dawson whose book I also reviewed recently, Van Til sees education as a means of transmitting culture. To the extent that the cultures are irreconcilable, the systems of education are also.

This touches again on a topic I have discussed once and will probably keep circling around to — why not classical Christian education? Van Til is quite clear that Greek culture, because is was not Christian, is no less fallen than any other non-Christian culture and no better than modern secular culture (pp. 4, 14).  He is opposed to any sort of syncretization to combine Christianity with classical Greek culture, attributing such efforts to “Roman Catholics” and “Arminians” (pp. 10ff, 115-16).

After dealing with the classical model, Van Til addresses some modern (in 1974) approaches to education. These tended to be the parts where he lost me, especially when he discusses the ideas current in Christian higher ed. My confusion is often due to me not understanding the ideas he is arguing against. The long and the short of Van Til’s argument, for every theory he addresses, is that there are only two ways to approach education because there are only two worldviews, the reformed one which is based on God’s absolute sovereignty and everything else. He is quite intolerant of any approach which relies on man’s understanding, reason or judgment to any degree. So, while I don’t understand everything he says, it all boils down to — there can be no standard other than God; if we rely on man, even in part, we have entered the realm of subjectivity and God is not truly sovereign.

In the final analysis, Van Til sees no difference in the end between the modern approach to education, as exemplified by John Dewey (see this post for a little on him), and the classical approach found in Plato among others. He compares the two to Assyria and Egypt, the two political powers that Old Testament Israel wavered between when they should have been relying upon God (p. 137).  Nor are many of the so-called Christian approaches any better.  The Roman Catholics are too syncretistic as are the Lutherans (p. 144). Even the Fundamentalists, because they rely to some degree on man’s acceptance of God’s grace, end up preaching a different gospel and therefore a different way of education:

“According to American Fundamentalism . . . Man is not altogether viewed in the light of Scripture. The Bible does not teach that God controls whatsoever comes to pass for that would be out of accord with the autonomy of man. Scripture does not teach that Christ died for His people only; that would be out of accord with the autonomy of man . . . As a result education cannot be God-centered, Christ-centered and Spirit-centered.” (pp. 76-77)

As he moves to describing what Christian education should be, Van Til raises a number of points/questions that are worth considering–

  • What is the purpose of Christian education and where, or really when, does it originate? Van Til sees the purpose of education in Creation (pp. 79-80, 125, 167). I find this very intriguing as I know realize I had, without knowing it, assumed that the purpose arose form the Fall. As he puts it, the Fall delayed the ultimate goal of Creation but did not fundamentally change it. Thus education is not merely a reversal of damage done by the Fall but it a fulfilment of man’s creation mandate, albeit one that has been delayed and must now be reached perhaps more circuitously.
  • To the above, Van Til adds an idea about what the goal of man is, namely to become more and more a distinct personality (pp. 152ff). This is done  by developing the powers God has given him. I am intrigued by this idea, but I would like to hear more about it, particularly how it derives from the Scriptures. In developing hos personality man fulfills another goal: more fully displaying the image of God and thereby giving glory to Him (p. 79). The end is at once individualistic, as the personality is developed, and more communal, as such development contributes to the overall building the kingdom of God as He intended it (p. 45).
  • The idea of the child as a person (as Charlotte Mason would say) or a personality, as Van Til does, is central. Children are not, cannot be, empty vessels or blank slates (p. 158; see also this post on the nature of children in the Bible).
  • But this view Van Til applies to covenant children, the children of believers. It is they who are educable in his view and he goes so far as to say there can be no education apart from Christianity (p. 202).
  • What about non-Christians then? Are they at all able to discern truth? Is there anything we can learn from non-Christian scholars and thinkers?  Van Til’s argument, if I am understanding it, is that God is redeeming human culture and that non-Christians benefit from it and contribute to it as a kind of side effect. Likewise, non-Christian education, to that extent that it is effective, is so because of Christian principles which is relies upon unbeknownst to itself (pp. 89ff).
  • But what about common grace? Van Til mentions common grace in a few places (pp. 89ff; 191-92). I have to admit I am confused by how he uses the term as it does not seem to be how I have usually been made to think of it. His common grace is not much of a grace at all. Our pastor has said that to believers even God’s curses (not that they fall on us) are a blessing but to non-believers even his blessings become as curses. This seems to touch on the idea that Van Til is getting at. I think I need to understand this much better. 
  • Van Til seems at time to all but say we should abandon non-Christians as their systems of education are not true education and as they themselves are uneducable. But he also says this: “We do not expect men to be reasonable unless God has once more made them so. But this does not vitiate the usefulness of reasoning with unreasonable men. Such reasoning strengthens our faith, and who knows, may be used by the Spirit to make men reasonable” (p. 138). This begins to touch on an idea I have in the back of my mind and which I will have to return to: Education as call (Matt. 22:14).
  • Van Til argues for a completely distinct and separate system of Christian education which differs from worldy education in all ways — not just why we teach but what and even how (p. 188). He argues quite fervently that we must not adopt non-Christian methods without transforming them (p. 199).
  • What does this mean practically speaking? How do we then educate? I wish he gave more specifics than he does. Van Til uses the example of a simple math problem, 2 times 2, to argue that we must see all facts as not just bare facts but as part of the laws that God has set up in our universe. Nothing is to be seen apart from Him (pp. 199ff).
  • But math, for Van Til, is not a core subject. He compares the subjects to a body, all are members and are included but some are more vital. The most vital for him is history because it is about man (pp. 204, 206). Nature is less important and math perhaps still more peripheral. All, of course, are to viewed in their relation to God. Religion, he says, need not take a lot of time to teach as a separate subject because it is in all the other subjects.
  • Van Til (sadly) stops short of explaining what this all looks like. In discussing teaching Christian math he does say that it is not about opening class with a prayer but that it starts with the attitude of the teacher who understands that all facts fit into the God-ordained law (p. 203).
  • The battle for Christian education is a spiritual one. Satan battles for hearts and minds and so we must also. There are not areas of subjects which we can leave “neutral” (pp. 25-26). The idea that all areas of study are included is not new or unique to Van Til but his framing it as a spiritual battle adds force to the argument.

There is a lot in this book, though at times it drags and seems overly dense and theoretical. I wish there were more practical details, more of how this all plays out in the day to day. For anyone who is serious about considering what it means to have reformed Christian education, this is a must read, but it is not an easy read. Still, Van Til has given us a good starting place and there are many ideas here to which we will have to return.




Children in the Bible

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education.

The two fundamental questions anyone must answer in creating a philosophy of education are: What is the nature of the child? and What is the goal of education? We are working through the first of these. Today’s question is: What does the Bible does tell us about children? What follows is largely a reworking of this earlier post.

While I want to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, I think it is helpful to have some idea of the range of beliefs out there regarding children. When we look at the many philosophies of education available to us, we see many ways of characterizing children. They are blank slates (Rousseau). They are lumps of clay. They are empty vases. They are hot house plants (Froebel). They are (gasp!) persons (Charlotte Mason). Many philosophies, classical among them, also speak of stages through which the child develops. 

Words for “Child” in the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible uses four main designations for children of various ages: there are babes and infants (from the Hebrew root ‘ll), little ones (Hebrew taph), children (Hebrew yeled), and youths (Hebrew na’ar). The various terms are not always clearly distinguished, but we can make some general observations about each.

Youths are teens and young adults, as in Isaiah 40:8-9 where “youths” and “young men” are used in parallel.  They are capable of real work as servants (Gen. 22:19; Ruth 2:15) and armor-bearers (Judg. 9:54; I Sam. 14:1). Joshua is a “young man” when he begins to serve as Moses’ assistant (Exod. 33:11). Those who spy out the land are “young men” as well (Josh. 6:23). David is a “youth” when he battles Goliath (I Sam. 17:33) and evinces a strong show of faith. One in youth is capable both of sin (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 25:7) and of faith (Ps. 71:5), though youth is also still a time of tenderness and inexperience (I Chr. 22:5, 29:1; II Chr. 13:7). The Bible does not give us a clear line at which this stage of life begins (they are not so concerned as we are to label teens, tweens, etc.) but I think it is significant that Jesus at age 12 stays in the Temple and argues with the teachers, showing His intellectual maturity at that age (Luke 12:41ff).

Moving down the scale, yeled “child” seems to be used fairly loosely, referring at times to a weaned child (Gen. 21:8; I Kgs. 17:21) and at others to what is clearly a baby (Exod. 2:6; 2 Sam. 12:16).  They are included in both the mourning (Ezra 10:1) and the rejoicing of the community (Neh. 12:43). A child is the object of training and discipline (Prov. 22:6; 23:13; 29:15) and is called to holiness:

“Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” (Prov. 20:11)

“Little ones,” from the Hebrew taph, seem to refer to those who need care. The root seems to mean “to trip” or “to take tiny steps” so “toddler” could be a good translation of this term. It often overlaps with yeled. “Little ones” are paired often with women and the elderly, and even with cattle, all presumably falling into the “needing care” category (Gen. 34:29; 43:8; 45:19; 46:5; 47:24; 50:8, 21; Num. 32:24, 26; Judg. 18:21). Like women, they are not counted (Exod. 12:37). Even they, however, are included in the assembly of the people (Josh. 8:35; II Chr. 20:13) and are required to keep the Law (Deut. 31:12). The New Testament also indicates that children are included in the covenant community (Acts 2:39).

The Hebrew root ‘ll gives us a collection of words translated variously as “babes,” “infants,” and “sucklings.” What is clear of these children is that they are still nursing (which may have gone on for quite some time in that culture).

The Bible makes it clear that God’s involvement with children is from birth and even before (Ps. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5-7). Children are said to have faith from the womb, but also to be sinful at that very early age. John the Baptist shows some evidence of faith in utero (Luke 1:41a). Timothy too is said to have known the Scriptures “from infancy” (2 Tim. 3:14-15). On the flip side, the Psalms speak of sinfulness being from before birth (Psa. 51:5; 58:3)

Psalm 8 is a well-known passage which seems to speak of infants giving praise to God:

“From the mouths of babies and infants you ordained strength.” (Psalm 8:2; my translation)

When Jesus quotes this Psalm, it is praise which comes from the babies’ mouths:

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?“” (Matt. 21:16)

My own interpretation of this Psalm would be that, whether it refers to praise or to strength, that it is using the infants somewhat ironically. Just as Jesus would say that God could raise up sons of Abraham even from the stones — rocks being nothing like living sons– the psalmist here says that strength could come even from infants, those known to be least strong; if we understand the term to be “praise” the idea is the same for infants do not speak much less give praise.

Children in the Gospel of Matthew

Turning to the New Testament, we find a few passages which seem to speak of the faith of children (I have discussed these passages in more detail here):

“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matt. 19:14)

In its context, this verse is quite literal; the disciples were physically preventing children from approaching.

Another well-known passage is found in the previous chapter:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:1-6)

In its context — the disciples are disputing over who of them is the greatest — Jesus praises the humility of children. Though I do not think it is the main purpose of the passage, I do think this passage tells us that children are capable faith. The second paragraph tells us something interesting too — children can sin. We don’t immediately think of the negative, but to have a relationship with God can be good or bad; we may be in relationship with Him or we may offend Him.

Matthew 11 seems to imply that children are capable of understanding the things of God:

“At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.’” (Matt.11:25; cf. Luke 10:21)

In Matthew’s gospel, this prayer of Jesus comes right after His condemnation of the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida; in Luke there is an intervening passage in which the 72 return rejoicing that they have cast out devils and Jesus tells them to rejoice instead that their names are written in the Book of Life. The context seems to indicate that these are not literal children but that those who are like children — the uneducated and perhaps the not-too-bright — will understand. As in Psalm 8, the use is ironic; God allows children to understand what those who should know more and better do not. Similarly, in Romans 2:20, Paul uses children in parallel to the blind and foolish who are in need of instruction and guidance. In other words, children are used in these passages not because of their knowledge but because of their habitual lack of knowledge.


What conclusions can we draw from all these Bible verses about children? Here’s what I see:

  • The Bible does not give us an age at which one goes from being a child to an adult but it does seem to distinguish between children — including children, babes and little ones– and youths. The latter, while inexperienced, are essentially adults. Teens and young adults would likely be called youths.
  • Children (all those below teens) seem to be lumped together; the terms used for them are not clearly distinguished.
  • Children are characterized as ignorant or foolish. They are in need of instruction and discipline.
  • Nonetheless, they are counted among God’s people and at important points (such as covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.
  • Children are called to follow the Law and to holiness. They can sin but they can also exhibit faith. There is no indication of any minimum age for faith.

What are the implications of all this for education? I certainly don’t think we have all the answers yet, but we can make some preliminary conclusions. Children are not presented in the Bible as something other than adults. What we have seen thus far does not give us a lot of insight into children’s mental or intellectual capacity but their spiritual capacity is equivalent to that of adults in that they can both sin and have faith. I think this excludes the blank slate, empty vase ideas which depict children as empty and therefore neutral substances. [Children are lumps of clay — but then again, so are adults  (Rom. 9:20ff).] Children are in need of training which would seem to preclude the more laissez-faire approaches to education such as unschooling. We will talk more about education in the Bible; for the moment I see no clear stages of development such as classical education posits but neither have I seen that the Scriptures preclude such a view.

Until next time,



JG Vos on Education

Dear Reader,

I have my first book recommendation for you: What is Christian Education? by J.G. Vos (Pittsburgh: RPCNA Board of Education and Publication).** “Book” is actually an overstatement; this is a small 16 page pamphlet but it has a lot in it for all that.

Though he does not clearly state it, Vos seems to be arguing for Christian education at the college or university level. This is, of course, not our main concern, but he still advances principles which we can apply.

Needless to say, Vos comes to education from a thoroughly reformed perspective:

“By Christian education is meant education of which the basis and unifying principle is the historic Christian view of God, man and the universe in their mutual relations. This historic Christian philosophy finds its most comprehensive and consistent expression in Calvinism, or the Reformed Faith; therefore the most comprehensive and consistent Christian education must be based on, and unified by, the Reformed or Calvinistic view of God, man and the universe in their mutual relations.” (p. 1)

We have not yet gotten to discussing the biblical purpose of education but Vos points us to Matthew 22:37: “‘Thou shalt love the Lord they God . . .with all thy mind'” (p.2). The problem, of course, is that man is fallen so we must ask to what extent and in what ways this affects education. Again, this is a topic we will return to in more depth, but Vos argues that man’s mind or intellect, as well as his moral and spiritual nature, is fallen (p. 2) and that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to regenerate it (p. 3).

“Nor will education which originates from society as such assent to the truth of the damage done by sin to the human intellect, and the resultant need for regeneration, the recognition of which is absolutely basic to any truly Christian view of education.” (pp. 8-9)

True Christian education, Vos concludes, must: (a) come from Christian people (p. 9); (b)have a single unifying principle, “that the God of the Bible is the sovereign, active Lord over all reality” (p. 11); and (c) have as its goal “the glory of God, and the true welfare of man in subordination to the glory of God” (p. 12).

This is a wonderful little pamphlet and I recommend reading it if you can get your hands on it. Because of its brevity and its (presumed) focus on higher education it does not answer all the questions we have but it does point us in the right direction with regards to the two big questions which we have said any philosophy theology of education must answer, namely, What is the nature of man? and What is the goal of education?


**Sadly, I am not sure if this book is still available. I bought one recently from Crown and Covenant’s clearance section and I can no longer find it on their website. . . but perhaps we can inspire them to reprint it . . .  hint hint?



Are Children Made in the Image of God?

Dear Reader,

DISCLAIMER-TO-BE: I have received some feedback on this post and plan to write  a follow up which explains and clarifies some things. Stay tuned.

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Up until this point we have been addressing the why, i.e. Why do we even need a theology of education (see this post and this one) and why isn’t what we already have good enough (see these posts on public schooling, the Charlotte Mason method, and Christian classical education)? We have also discussed the how, i.e. How will we know what God has to say about education (this post)?

What I hope you have seen thus far is that education is not, can not, be neutral. It is inherently about human nature. Every approach to education has something to say about the goodness of the child and the purpose of his life. Having laid the foundation, we now need to delve into the issues. In the coming weeks, I am going to go back and forth between looking at the Scriptures and looking at what others have said. Today’s topic is The Child as the Image of God — or Not. This is a rehashing of an earlier post (originally published here).

One of my theological pet peeves is when Christians use biblical and/or theological terms in ways the Bible never does (“grace” is a prime offender). My contention, and really the basis of this post, is: When using loaded theological terms, we need to use them as the Bible does. “Image of God” is one of those loaded terms. We confuse ourselves and misunderstand what God is telling us when we use terms like this in different ways without understanding what the Scriptures mean by them.

What I am going to say is probably not going to be popular — I do not think children are born in the image of God. I realize this can seem to raise a lot of problems because we use the argument that they are to defend certain positions, the right to life being the huge one. Let me reassure you I am completely 100% anti-abortion, more than most people in fact. But my argument against it would not be based on the phrase “image of God.”

But let’s back up. What does it mean to be “made in the image of God”? What is “the image of God” and how do the Scriptures use the phrase?

The Image of God in the Bible

Genesis 1 tells us that the first humans, both the male and female, were in the image of God:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

(Gen. 1:26-27; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

Genesis 5 gives us the added information that Seth was in the image of Adam:

“This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” (Gen. 5:1-3)

Genesis 9 refers to the image once more:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:6)

These three verses are the entire contribution of the Old Testament to the issue. Other verses uses the words “image” and “likeness” but not in the same context; by and large they refer to idols.

In the New Testament we find that Christ is the image of God:

“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:4; cf. Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3)

There are a handful of verses which refer to man as being transformed into or conformed to the image of God:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Rom. 8:29)

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Cor. 15:49)

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. Col. 3:10)

I Corinthians 11, in a notoriously tricky passage, makes a distinction between men and women:

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” (1 Cor. 11:7)

Lastly, there are two NT verses whose use of the word “likeness” is worth noting:

“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin . . .” (Rom. 8:3)

“But emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:7)

Christian Understandings of “the Image of God”

Though our goal is to see what the Scriptures themselves have to say, taking a brief detour into Christian history can help us clarify the issues at stake —

Irenaeus, writing in the 2nd century AD, gives some of the earliest and deepest Christian thought on what it means to be made in the image of God. “As human beings we possess the foundational elements of being in the image and likeness of God—a free will, an intellect, a body” (Thomas G.Weinandy, “St.Irenaeus and the Imago Dei,” 24). To be made in the divine image, according to Irenaeus, is also inherently bound up in relationship with God: “Not to live in union with God is not to live in his likeness” (Weinandy, p. 20).

Augustine, who lived from 354-430AD, adds to the discussion. He sees what we do as a reflection  of what God himself does, emphasizing will and reason but also love:

“Augustine teaches that the Trinity and the image of man are based off of the mind, knowledge, and love of God. These three being the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The mind, love, and knowledge in man are imperfect where with God, they are perfect and equal.” (James Richardson, “Quotes from the Early Church Fathers: Man in God’s image and the Trinity,” from, 2005)

The image of God that is seen is us derives from the relationships within the Trinity and is demonstrated in our very creation:

“In other words, God Loves (desires or wills), then He reasons from His mind (Thinks about what He desires), and then speaks His Word (communicates His knowledge.) In this way God created man and woman in His image. That, we desire, think, and speak; All of which is unique to man.” (Ibid.)

Though Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) follows Augustine, he seems to place a greater emphasis on the intellect as that which best reflects the image of God:

“Such an image of God, even as imperfect, only exists in rational creatures. Thomas quotes Augustine from Gen. ad lit. vi. 12: “Man’s excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul which raises him above the beasts of the field.” In article 6, Thomas asks whether the image of God is in man as regards the mind only, and he answers affirmatively. All creatures possess some likeness to God, which Thomas calls a trace, for all things come from God; but only the human being is said to represent God by way of image. Therefore, it must be that what makes us in the image of God is what we have that the other animals do not have—a mind.” (Montague Brown, “Imago Dei in Thomas Aquinas,” The Saint Anselm Journal 10.1 (Fall 2014), p. 2)

The Roman Catholic view is derived largely from these three; it equates the image of God in man with man’s “natural gifts” including his “personality, intellect, will, etc.” (Angus Stewart, “The Image of God in Man: A Reformed Reassessment,” at Covenant Protestant Reformed Church). Whereas Irenaeus, who has Gnostics to argue with, was quite insistent that the image of God includes body, soul and spirit, Aquinas places greatest emphasis on the soul as that which reflects the divine nature. [The Eastern Orthodox position is similar; as I am less versed on it and as I suspect I have fewer Orthodox readers, I will not take the time to go into any details here.]

The Catholic Church distinguishes between the image and likeness of God. This distinction is how it deals with a seeming paradox: how can man be at once made in the image of God and sinful? The Catholic answer is to divide man’s “natural” qualities of reason, will, etc. from his spiritual gifts, righteousness and holiness. These latter are what constitute the likeness. The image is common to all men; the likeness is something into which men may, or may not, grow. In Catholic thought, when man fell, he lost the likeness, that is his natural righteousness, but those qualities which constitute the image side — his reason and will, etc. — are not inherently fallen.

The seeming discrepancy which the Catholic Church tried to mend by dividing the image from the likeness also posed a problem for Protestant thinkers, but they tried to solve the problem in different ways. Martin Luther is among those who say the image of God has been lost through the Fall:

“Reformer Martin Luther believed that the ‘image of God’ was an original righteousness that was lost completely. He thus proclaimed: ‘I am afraid that since the loss of this image through sin we cannot understand it to any extent.’” (Eric Lyons, “Was the ‘Image of God’ Destroyed by Sin?Apologetic Press, 2001)

John Calvin agrees with Luther that the image has been lost. He connects this image not just with man’s original righteousness but also with his wisdom and indeed all his faculties. Thus in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin says:

“‘That he made this image to consist in righteousness and true holiness, is by the figure synecdoche; for though this is the chief part, it is not the whole of God’s image. Therefore by this word the perfection of our whole nature is designated, as it appeared when Adam was endued with a right judgment, had affections in harmony with reason, had all his senses sound and well-regulated, and truly excelled in everything good. Thus the chief seat of the Divine image was in his mind and heart, where it was eminent: yet was there no part of him in which some scintillations of it did not shine forth.’” (“John Calvin on the Image of God,” from Siris, July 7, 2005)

This image of God in us is regained through the regeneration and sanctification of the believer. Yet, acknowledging Genesis 9:6, there is some aspect in which the image is always on man:

“‘Men are indeed unworthy of God’s care, if respect be had only to themselves. but since they bear the image of God engraven on them, He deems himself violated in their person . . . Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity; and, secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of his original creation.’” (“John Calvin on the Image of God“)

The Dutch Reformed came to speak of the image in broader and narrower views:

“The imago dei in the narrower sense, consisting of knowledge, righteousness and true holiness, was wholly lost at the fall, but the imago dei in the wider sense, which includes man’s ‘intellectual power, natural affections and moral freedom,’ was retained.” (Agnus Stewart, “The Image of God in Man: A Reformed Reassessment,” from Covenant Protestant Reformed Church)

Assessing the Biblical Evidence

Let’s begin with what all Christians hold in common: Adam and Eve were created in the image of God and Christ is the image of God. It’s what happens in between that causes problems. Specifically, what is the effect of the Fall?

I’d like to approach the biblical evidence more or less in order, beginning with Genesis and then turning to the New Testament.

The foundational verses are Genesis 1:26-27. Here they are once again:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.”

It is striking that in these two verses we are told three times that God made man in His image. The Hebrew word is tselem. It is used here in Genesis 1 as well as in Genesis 5 and 9. It is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as we might use the word image to refer to an idol, i.e. an image of a false god, or model, as to the golden tumors made to remove a plague, and it is used twice in Psalms to refer to fleeting thing — a dream or a vanity. [This last may be an extension of its use to refer to idols or false gods — they are things with no real substance in which a man should not trust.] All of which is to say the Hebrew Bible gives us little added information as to the meaning of the word “image” in this context. It is used as we would use the word in English; it can refer to the “image of God” but also to other images or representations.

Genesis 1:26 includes the phrase “after our likeness” (as the ESV translates it) which is not repeated in verse 27. The relationship between these two prepositional phrases is worth considering. I have written many times on parallelism, a Hebrew literary device which we often, mistakenly, take as mere repetition of ideas (see this post or this one). This is not what we have in this verse, however. It is not the more poetic account in verse 27 which employs this term nor do we have any other sets of parallel terms in verse 26. In Hebrew each of these words (and they are just one word each in Hebrew), are not connected in any way (as by a conjunction) nor do they seem to be used in the same way. The prepositions are different; man is made “in” the image of God but only “according to” or “like” His likeness. In other words, these are not two ways in which man is made nor are they two words expressing a unit as we might say in English “down and out” or “meat and potatoes.” I think that the most plausible relationship between these two words is that “according to our likeness” is added information to clarify what “in our image” means. If I were doing textual criticism, I would say that the second word was added by a later editor or scribe to explain the first. Now this may or may not be true, but as believers what we have before us is a text with both words in it so, however it came to be, I have to believe that they are both part of the Word of God.

If “likeness” explains “image,” the next logical question is how “likeness,” Hebrew dmut, is used in the Old Testament. The answer is that “likeness” means just what we think it would. The base root dmh means “to be like.” The nominal form dmut is found in Isaiah:

“To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isa. 40:18)

And Ezekiel:

“And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness . . .” (Ezek. 1:5)

When, in the verse form Ezekiel quoted above, the prophet sees four creatures in “human likeness,” we understand this to be a physical description; they are not human but to some extent they look like humans. Dmut may also be used as tselem can to refer to idols. What can we conclude from all this? To be created “in the image” of God is to be “according to His likeness” which is in some way to be like Him, as an image is like the thing it represents.

Interestingly, Genesis 5 reverses the order. It says first that God created man “in the likeness (dmut) of God” (v.1) and then that Adam bore a son, Seth, “in his likeness (dmut) according to his image (tselem)” (v.3). Verse 1 seems to show that the words can be used interchangeably. Though the switch in verse 5 is intriguing, it is hard to know what to make of it.

Genesis is as significant for what it does not say as for what it does. Seth is not said to be in the image or likeness of God but only in that of his father Adam. Nor is this statement made of others — neither Cain nor Abel is said to be “in the image.”

Nonetheless, Genesis 9 reiterates that “in the image (tselem) of God He made Man” (Gen. 9:6). Those who deny that all men since the Fall bear the image of God (as I do) understand this to mean that man was created in the image of God; that is, that he was made in God’s image at Creation and that this is the reason God will call murderers to account, but that it does not say that men are still in the image of God. The verb in Genesis 9:6 does not add to the argument — it says “made” and not “created” — but neither does it exclude this interpretation.

The New Testament makes clear that Christ is the image of God. Note that he is not “in the image of God” but “is.” Second Corinthians links the image with glory (2 Cor. 4:4).  Colossians and Hebrews both make the connection to Creation, taking pains to show that Christ was present at Creation and was not Himself created. Hebrews again makes the link to glory:

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Heb. 1:3)

None of these verses, however, does much to define what the image actually is though the language of Hebrews — “the exact imprint of his nature” — suggests that the image has much to do with reflecting or expressing the nature of God.

While Christ is the image of God, He is in the likeness of men (Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7). This refers to His physical form which He adopts at His incarnation. The New Testament, thus discerns between the likeness and the image. In the case of Christ, one expresses each part of His dual nature, divine and human.

The majority of the New Testament verses which address the image of God in man speak of it as something into which believers must grow. Romans tells is that those whom God has chosen will be  “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Second Corinthians again makes the connection to glory and says that we are being “transformed” into “the same image” (2 Cor. 3:18). Colossians says believers have a “new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). The connection to knowledge is an interesting one and suggests another definition for the image, that it is our rationality which reflects our Creator.

First Corinthians strengthens the argument that the image is not currently in every man but that it is something believers will resume, having lost it at the Fall:

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Cor. 15:49)

This would seem to argue that while Adam bore the image in Genesis 1, his descendants, as Seth in Genesis 5, inherited not the divine image but only Adam’s fleshly post-Fall image. The word “also” is this verse is huge; when believers take on the image of “the man of heaven,” i.e. Christ, the second Adam, they do not lose the image of Adam in them but the two images dwell in them side-by-side just as Christ also embodies the image of God in the likeness of man.

Lastly, though we may like to, we cannot ignore First Corinthians 11:

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” (1 Cor. 11:7)

The connection between image and glory is seen again. Note that the man is the image and glory of God but the woman is said only to be the glory of man. Genesis makes quite clear that both male and female were in the image of God. It is hard to know what to make of this verse in the context of the “image of God” discussion. This is the only place I can find where man is said to be “the image of God” rather than “in the image of God.” To say man is “the glory of God” is also problematic and raises questions beyond the scope of this post.


Taking all the biblical evidence together, here is what I see:

  • Man, both male and female, were created “in the image of God.”
  • Christ is the image of God.
  • The best evidence that the image continues in men in from Genesis 9 but this passage may be understood otherwise as arguing only that man was created in the image, not that he is still in the image.
  • The OT does not seem to treat the image and likeness as two distinct things. The one may explain the other or the two may be used interchangeably.
  • The NT plays around with the image/likeness pairing saying that Christ is the image of God but at His incarnation became in the likeness of man. (I do not think, however, that we can read this distinction back into the OT passages.)
  • A number of NT verses speak of the image as something believers must be conformed to, not something they inherently possess.
  • An argument from absence: There is no indication from the NT that non-believers in any way possess or are in the image of God.
  • The NT verse which does most to support the idea that we still bear the image of God is I Cor. 11:7. This verse also causes problems, however, as it only says man and not woman is the image. Note that this verse occurs 4 chapters before I Corinthians 15 . . .
  • First Corinthians 15 presents the best NT argument that man, apart from the saving work of Christ, is in the image of Adam (the man of dust) but that, through Christ, he can also bear the divine image.

I am struck in all this by how the language used for the image of God in the Bible reflects the gospel message. We could get the whole gospel just from studying this phrase. Man was created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-2). Whatever happens, he still retains value because of this creation (Gen. 9:6). After the Fall, man bears the image of his earthly father (Gen. 5:3). In the course of time, Christ, God the Son, takes on the likeness of man (Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7). He is not created, but was present at Creation. He is not made “in the image of God” but is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). To His divine nature He adds human likeness. He adds Adam’s fleshly image to His divine one so that believers may do the opposite — we  are born in the likeness of Adam (Gen. 5:3 again) but through Christ receive again the image of God which the original Adam lost. The one does not replace the other but both dwell in believers (1 Cor. 15:49) as Christ also maintains his human and divine natures. This is salvation. There is a sense, however, in which we must be conformed or transformed into Christ’s image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10)  — as our salvation comes through Christ, we may now speak of the image of God and the image of Christ interchangeably. This is sanctification.

Implications for Education

There is not actually a lot to say here; the implication for education is that there is none. Many approaches to education are built upon the assumption, perhaps not explicitly stated, that children are made in the image of God. This is taken to mean that they are not just inherently valuable but that they have some degree of innate goodness and ability. It should perhaps not surprise us that (almost?) every philosophy of education begins with one, almost too simple to state, assumption — that children are educable. And not just that they are capable of learning facts but that they are capable of “progress,” that is, of moving towards their intended goal, however that may be defined.

I have spent this time on trying to discern what the “image of God” because it is a phrase that one will often see used in the greater context of education. But the big question for us as reformed Christians is what it means that man is fallen. What parts of his nature have been corrupted and to what extent? And, as far as he is fallen, is he educable? Can he progress toward his intended goal? Very few if any programs of education are focused solely on facts; most have some moral or ethical good they are trying to impart. To extent that this may be our object in education, can we even expect our children to be able to absorb this standard? How, in short, can we who believe in total depravity even begin to educate?

We will wind out way around to get back to these questions. The next big question I would like to tackle is: What does the Bible say about the nature of children?


Book Review: The Crisis of Western Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961). This was a decent book and I am glad I read it as it gave me some new things to think about and new avenues to pursue on my current venture. I am not calling it a must read but if you have some spare time, it is not a bad book.

As the title suggests, Dawson is responding to what he sees as the flaws in the current educational system in America (at least current in 1961 when he wrote it, though I don’t think much has changed).  While he raises some interesting points, I am not willing to climb aboard his particular bandwagon for two reasons. First and foremost, Dawson is a Catholic and ultimately the purpose of his book is to call for a definitively Catholic education. Christian culture, to Dawson, means a unified Catholic (big “C”) culture under one Catholic church (p. 124). He is not unkind and his criticisms of Protestantism are sometimes merited, but he is clearly not a big fan [especially of Luther (p. 28), though he is a little kinder to Calvin (p. 29)].

The other issue I have is in some ways even more fundamental to Dawson’s argument. He starts the book by defining education, and while I love that he does so (I am a big believer in defining terms), his definition is purely anthropological —

” . . . education . . . is what the anthropologists term ‘enculturation,’ i.e. the process by which culture is handed on by the society and acquired by the individual.” (p. 3)

The problem I have with this is that it states what education does in a society but it does not ask what education should be. I am willing to acknowledge that education does produce a common culture but as Christians I think we need to be asking what God’s purpose for education is. This touches on what will be one of our big topics — whether the primary purpose of education is to benefit the individual or the society — and so we will have to come back to it more in depth in another post. For today, I’d like to spend time on some of the other points that Dawson raises–

The first part of Dawson’s book is a history of Christian education. This is the most valuable section of the book (though it is not unbiased). Dawson raises concerns about the classical tradition, some of which he knows are concerns, some of which would concern me though he glosses over them. He mentions, for instance, the strong and long-lasting educational traditions of China but fails to address what seems the obvious question — why did we adopt and adapt the Greek system and not the Chinese? Obviously, there is a historical reason for this as Christianity arose in the west, but we must still ask if there is some inherent value in the Greek way over and above other approaches to education. Dawson suggests that the Greeks and Romans prepared the West for Christianity (p. 9) but if that is the case I would like to see more of an elaboration of this idea. Van Til, whose book I will be reviewing in the coming weeks, argues that Greek culture, not being Christian, is fallen, as all non-Christian culture is, and that we should not look to it for more wisdom than modern secular culture (Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974, p.14). If we were to look to any culture for an educational and intellectual foundation, the obvious choice should be the Hebrew tradition. So, we continue to ask: Why the Greeks? There may be a legitimate answer to this question. Dawson raises the point, but I have yet to read a sufficiently convincing answer.

As he moves into describing the current state of education, Dawson raises (again, some purposefully and some not) some interesting questions and makes some good points which I will only list here briefly:

  • Each educational system seems to have a core subject, or collection of subjects. We might choose history and natural theology or grammar and rhetoric or mathematics (pp. 12, 40). Is there a natural or right choice?
  • Education fits the society which it serves (p. 23). But to what extent should we fit education to out society and to what extent should we use it to transform our society into what it should be?
  • State control of education leads to state-ordained goals and a lack of religion in education (pp. 52, 61ff, 82). What are the roles of church and state in education? Can there be any role for the state without de-Christianizing education?
  • “If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary” (p. 132). I love this quote. An excellent argument for viewing Sunday as the Lord’s Day — a day belonging to the Lord and not to us. If it is once ours, we are free to do with it what we will and begin to resent any intrusions into it, even the intrusion of worship.
  • ” . . .the more science a culture has, the more religion it needs” (p. 153). I am not sure I understand what he means by this but I want to know more.

The latter part of Dawson’s book is a call for a Christian education which teaches Christian culture:

“It is vital to the survival of the West that we should recover some sense of our moral values and some knowledge of the spiritual tradition of Western Christian culture. The way to do this is by education, and specifically by making the study of Christian culture an integral part of our educational system, which is theoretically directed to this very end.” (p. 117)

For Dawson, as I said earlier, this Christian education and Christian culture are inherently Catholic and he is dismissive of Protestant efforts  and contributions (pp. 75, 124, 134).

While The Crisis in Western Education comes from a different tradition, and quite passionately so, Dawson writes an interesting and thought-provoking book. This is not a must-read but, if read critically, I think it is a worthwhile book.


Why Not Christian Classical?

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I explore a reformed Christian philosophy of education. Thus far, we are still on the whys. Last time I looked at the Charlotte Mason approach to education. Today I’d like to look at Christian classical. My goal in these couple of posts is to show you why we need something overtly reformed and can’t just take what is out there and spiff it up a bit.

I am much better versed in Charlotte Mason’s method than I am in classical so my approach this time will be a little different. I am going to ask questions and perhaps express concerns more than I am going to make definitive statements.

One difficulty in discussing Christian classical is that there is more than one interpretation of it. I will try to address some of the bigger proponents but what I say may not be true of all sources. My subject today is Christian classical and it is (oxymoron of the day:) modern Christian classical. As homeschoolers, parents, and teachers, this is what is on the table before us so it will be my focus.

Foundations: The Article and The Book

wtm spine

The modern fascination with classical education began in the 1930s. Amajor inspiration was a fairly brief article by Dorothy Sayers entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” (LTL; originally published in 1948).  I have previously discussed this article in greater detail here. Sayers, as with most educational reformers, was reacting to the problems she saw in her own day. Her solution was to return to the Middle Ages for inspiration. The key to her approach is the Trivium (followed in later years by the Quadrivium) which divides  learning into three stages: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. These stages are sequential. In the first, Grammar, the child learns much through rote memorization. The second, Dialectic, “is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums.” Rhetoric, the third stage, “is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others” (Kindle Loc. 169). To me, these are harsh words (and there are more besides which I quote in that earlier post). As I read her article, my impression of Sayers was that she was not someone who liked children very much. Beyond this, I am uncomfortable with saying, for example, that all tweens are argumentative. Such statements take what is basically a sinful behavior and turn it into a stage which tends to excuse and allow the behavior. In addition, I find Sayers too academically minded in her goals and approach. She relies heavily on fallen human reason, and her approach does not encompass the whole person.

Though Sayers is perhaps the modern impetus, she is not the whole of the movement. The handbook of classical Christian homeschoolers is The Well-Trained Mind (WTM) by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer (originally published 1999; I have not reviewed this book at length but do discuss it in this post on classical education). While Sayers’ article was quite slim, this is a hefty book with lots of practical details. It uses the same Trivium approach which is typical of modern classical education.  The title — The Well-Trained Mind— gives us some clue as to the authors’ goals. The intellect– the mind — is in view and the method of education is one of training (in contrast to unschooling or Charlotte Mason which see education as self-education). Specifically, the mind is trained how to think.  The Well-Trained Mind does not have as clear a statement of purpose as I would like (at least not that I found). But I did find this:

“Remember, classical education teaches a child how to learn. The child who knows how to learn will grow into a well-rounded –and well-equipped –adult . . . ”  (p. 55)

The purpose of education is one area with which WTM rubs me the wrong way. Another is in its view of the child. The authors say that:

“The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument. The critical and logical faculty simply doesn’t develop until later on . . . Children like  lists at this age. They like rattling off rote information, even if they don’t understand it . . . Don’t make K-4 students dig for information. ”  (p. 54)

The view of the child here seems to be that, at least for younger children, they are less than adults. Now, we will look at what the Bible has to say about children in another post so this point is still open to question. But I think we need to ask: How are children different than adults? Are they, or their faculties, lacking in some way that needs to be developed? [I will note that I teach the littlest kids Sabbath School class, ages 2-6, and my observation is that they can and do make some very good, even theological, points at times.]

So How to We Make it Christian?

My concerns about the modern Christian version of classical education fall under two headings: goals and methods.

The Christian adoption of the classical model is characterized as a re-adoption. The various Christian classical sources often point not back to Greece (and later Rome) but to the Middle Ages as the precedent for their version of modern classical education:

“Historically, the Christian church assumed the mantle of classical education, modified it, calibrated it to serve the Christian gospel and then greatly extended it. Thus a great deal of what we know as ‘classical education’ has been ‘Christian’ as well.” (Christopher Perrin, “Classical Education: Christian and Secular,” from Inside Classical Education, Sept. 9, 2014)

This merely shifts the burden of proof; rather than asking why do we now use classical methods, we must ask why did the church in the Middle Ages adopt classical methods?

Concerning the very beginnings of Christian education, Christopher Dawson says:

“The new Christian culture was therefore built from the beginning on a double foundation. The old classical education in the liberal arts was maintained without any interruption . . . But alongside of — and above — all this, there was now a specifically Christian learning which was biblical and theological and which produced its own prolific literature.” (Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, pp. 7-8)

This synthesis of the classical model with Christian thought and literature persisted through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.** As Dawson, a Catholic, tells it the biggest threat to this mode of learning was the German Reformation under Martin Luther with his crazy emphasis on sola scriptura:

“This revolutionary change [i.e., that of the German Reformation] was even more serious than we can realize today, owing to its destructive effects on the minds of the masses and the education of the common people. In the Middle Ages that education had never been a matter of book learning. The main channels of Christian culture were, liturgical and artistic. The life of the community centered in the Church, in the performance of the liturgy and the cult of the Saints.” (Dawson, pp. 27-28)

Despite what Dawson sees as Luther’s destructive influence, later reformers, including Calvin, continued to incorporate classical learning, at least to some degree:

“Calvin himself fully appreciated the importance of education and study. Wherever the Calvinists went, from Transylvania to Massachusetts, they brought with them not only the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes, but the Latin grammar and the study of the classics.” (p. 29)

What is not clear to me — the first question I would like to see answered– is: Why the classical model at all? Its adoption seems to have been initially a matter of convenience and familiarity. Its lifespan has no doubt been long but that alone is not an adequate justification.  Some modern proponents do argue that this way of educating is God-given:

“The best reason for choosing a classical style of schooling is simply because this is the natural model and method for education – which God wrote into reality. So what if the Greeks and Romans used it to serve their ungodly purposes? We simply take it back, clean it up, and use it to serve God in the way which He originally designed. The classical style of education has been successful for thousands of years because it conforms to the created order of things. It works well because it matches reality. If we ever learned anything, then we learned it by the Trivium method – whether we knew it or not.” (Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit)

However, I have yet to see a good, coherent argument for why it is biblical, or, if not biblical per se, in line with biblical thought and principles (by the way, see this post on how we decide what is good and acceptable). A related set of questions I would like to see addressed: What would the Old Testament/Hebrew/Jewish model of education be, how does it compare to the classical model, and, to the extent that they may differ, why then prefer the classical?

But method is only half the battle; goals are also important. I said above that I was not enamored of the goal of classical education as defined by LTL and WTM. The modern Christian versions of classical do much to rectify this situation. Though their statements of the goal of education vary somewhat, there is no denying that they sound very orthodox. A sampling:

“Classical Christian education’s objective, then, is to shape the virtues and reason so that they will be in line with God’s will. In other words, our objective is to cultivate a Christian paideia in students.” (“What Does It Mean to be a ‘Classical Christian’ School in the ACCS?”)

“The goal of education is to fully prepare a child for adult life. . . A complete education should prepare a child for mature adult life. All elements of education should work toward preparing sons to make a livelihood and to be husbands and fathers, and toward preparing daughters to be wives and mothers and to manage their households. True education will build a genuine family-oriented culture upon the foundation of God’s word. . . . The ultimate goal of education is holiness – to teach separation to God in order to serve Him.” (Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit)

“Classical Christian education is not designed to fit the student for our times. It is designed to transform the student to God’s times (Romans 12:2). It is designed to produce an student with the mental discipline and ability to read an in-depth book (even one with more than one hundred pages), write discerning, thoughtful essays on the book, present lectures or debates on the contents of the book, and evaluate its contents in light of the Christian worldview . . . It can and has produced workmen who can rightly divide the Word of God and who do not need to be ashamed to confront and unmask the idols of our age.” (Ben House, “Classical Christian Education,” from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics)

“The purpose of Classical Education is to cultivate virtue and wisdom. The classical Christian does not ask, ‘What can I do with this learning?’ but ‘What will this learning do to me?’ The ultimate end of Classical Christian education is to enable the student (disciple) to better know, glorify, and enjoy God. Since we are able to know things with which we have a common nature, the more we are like God the better we can know Him. A student gives glory to God when he is like Him. Our enjoyment of God is derived from our ability to see Him and to see His handiwork.” (“Principles of Classical Education,” from The Circe Institute)

While these goals all sound pretty good, they are not identical. What I would like to see is a goal that starts with the Scriptures, asks how they define education, and works from there.

I also have some concerns about how the method and the goal work together. Christian classical — whether in medieval times or modern — seems to accept the method of the Greeks and to add to it Christian goals like holiness and glorifying God without ever asking if this method can be used to achieve these ends. Perhaps we will find in the end that the methods and the goals are not intimately connected but I think it is at least worth asking how the two work together (or don’t).

So Why Not Classical?

Ironically, my main complaint against the Charlotte Mason method was that it follows too closely on its (faulty) principles whereas Christian classical does not tie its principles to its method enough. In truth, I want something that is like the Charlotte Mason method in that the practical details flow from the initial assumptions. But the modern version of Christian classical — and in truth its early Christian version as well– does not begin with Christian principles but takes a non-Christian method of education and adds Christian purposes on top of them without questioning the methods themselves or their suitability to their goals. It is my conviction that in order to build a truly biblical and reformed philosophy of education that we must begin with goals. We must first decide what the purpose of education is and then ask how we are to go about achieving those ends.

This post wraps up the whys of this enterprise. In the coming weeks, we must begin to look at the evidence and to answer the questions.


**Note: Looking for more? I have posts coming out soon reviewing books by Dawson and Van Til; both will revisit this issue. I also recently ran across a podcast from Charlotte Mason Poetry in which Art Middlekauff mentions that the Christian tradition was not as unified as it is often portrayed. I have not had a chance (yet) to listen to it myself. You can find the podcast and related video here.


Association of Classical Christian Schools. “What Does It Mean to be a ‘Classical Christian’ School in the ACCS?” from Classical Moscow, ID: ACCS.

Bauer, Susan Wise and Jessie Wise. The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. ??: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Bluedorn, Harvey and Laurie. “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit, 2001.

Circe Institute. “Principles of Classical Education,” from Circe Institute. org.

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010 (originally published 1961).

House, Ben. “Classical Christian Education: A Look at Some History,” from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.

Perrin, Christopher. “Classical Education: Christian and Secular,” from Inside Classical Education, Sept. 9, 2014.

Sayers, Dorothy. The Lost Tools of Learning. Amazon Digital Services, 2011 (originally published 1947).

Van Til, Cornelius. Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971.



Some of the Leading Thinkers on Education and What They Really Believed

Dear Reader,

We have been discussing why we need a truly reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. On that topic, I thought it could be interesting to look at some of the minds behind the modern approach to education and what they really believed.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778):

  • Who he was: A French philosopher who also wrote on education; a major influence on Pestalozzi and Froebel
  • Educational ideas: education should be natural — preferably in the country, away from society; learning is through direct experience and the child will have a natural inclination to learn; downplays books (except Robinson Crusoe); the goal is to enable natural man to be able to live in society without being corrupted by its influences; one is educated to be a man, not towards a profession; no education for females; environment is an important part of education
  • What he believed: man is naturally good and it is society that corrupts him and makes him evil; children are different from adults and develop through stages; organized religion is unnecessary; females only role is to please men

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827):

  • Who he was: Swiss educational reformer who ran a number of schools in his lifetime. His main concern was for the poor and he saw education as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. “The Father of Modern Education”
  • Educational ideas: The goal of education is the development of the individual, not meeting society’s needs. Education is not the imposing of knowledge but the development of potential. All human activity must be self-generated, not imposed from the outside. The focus of education should be the child with his individual needs. Education should not be teaching facts but teaching one to think. The best model for education is the first — that is, the family and especially the mother-child relationship.
  • What he believed: the sacredness of personality and the potential of the child; education can create responsible citizens who know right from wrong and ultimately lead to the happiness of humanity; the child is basically good and will naturally develop in good lines with negative outside influences

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852; discussed previously in this post):

  • Who he was: the founder of the modern kindergarten movement
  • Educational ideas: importance of the early years; children are compared to hothouse flowers (hence the garten of kindergarten); children learn through games
  • What he believed: Froebel denied the existence of original sin but believed man in his natural state is uncorrupted. If there is bad that enters into the child, then it comes from the adults in his life interfering in what is naturally good. All is Unity (big “U”) which is identified with God; this Unity is the goal of education. The child goes through an evolution which mirrors that of humanity.

Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841):

  • Who he was: devised a method of teaching called Herbartianism which was influential in America in the 19th century; the first to connect psychology and education; he is also credited with introducing the science of pedagogy
  • Educational ideas: He developed a five step pedagogy in which teachers select a topic, connect it to what the students already know, encourage their interest and perception of it, coalesce that they have learned and apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose is found in being a good citizen.  Education (which at the time meant moral training) is done through teaching (which is the conveying of knowledge).
  • What he believed: Pluralistic realism. He saw children born as something like blank slates with no innate ideas or categories of thought and not inherently good or evil. Moral character (the goal of education) is a gradual acquisition. Ethics is subsumed under aesthetics. Morality can be taught.

Horace Mann (1796-1859):

  • Who he was: credited with introducing universal public education to America beginning in Massachusetts; politician; father of the Common School movement
  • Educational ideas: goal of education is to turn unruly children into disciplined, judicial citizens; education should be public and non-sectarian and administered by trained teachers; common schools with all classes of society to equalize men’s conditions; moral education was also the domain of the school; though his schools were to be religiously neutral they did include Christian morals and Bible teaching, though at essentially the lowest common denominator
  • What he believed: humanitarian optimism, the gradual advancement of the human race in dignity and happiness; Unitarian

Lester Ward (1841-1913):

  • Who he was: applied the science of sociology to education
  • Educational ideas: goal is an equal distribution of the human knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, needed for democracy; higher education for all classes; education manufactures correct opinions and cannot be left to the individual (or the family); favored one curriculum for the whole country, controlled by educational experts; not child-centered
  • What he believed: society can be controlled through science; mankind is not at the mercy of evolution but can control its own progress (Telesis); rejected social Darwinism in favor of government intervention; man’s mind places his above evolution and allows him to control his own fate; he had some idea of a good that society is aiming for beyond just what the majority says

John Dewey (1859-1952):

  • Who he was: arguably the most influential American educationalist; contributed greatly to the professionalization of the teaching profession
  • Educational ideas: purpose is not to convey knowledge but to share a social experience and integrate the child into democratic ideas; higher education for all social classes; education serves democracy which is almost a spiritual community; children participate in their own learning, but he is not entirely child-led; material should be presented in a way that allows the student to relate it to previous knowledge; education should not be a one-way street from teacher to pupils
  • What he believed: morals are social and pragmatic; secular idealism; democracy is almost a religion with him; no transcendence, i.e. there is no super-natural



Cremin, Lawrence. “Horace Mann: American Educator,” in Encyclopedia Britannica.

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis in Western Education. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010 (first published 1961).

Doyle, Michele Erina and Mark K. Smith. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education.” the encyclopaedia of informal education, Last update: January 07, 2013.

Froebel, Friedrich. The Education of Man.  Translated by W.N. Hailmann. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908.

Hilgenheger, Norbert. “Johann Friedrich Herbart,” from Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education vol. 23, no. 3/4, 1993, pp. 649-664.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi,” from

Johnson, Paul. “Horace Mann on Religion and Education,” in The History of the American People. 2004.

Kim, Alan. “Johann Friedrich Herbart,” from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015.

Monteiro, Ternan. “Rousseau’s Concept of Education,” from snphilosophers.

The Roots of Educational Theory: Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778),” from Educational Roots.

Ruddy, Michael. Pestalozzi and the Oswego Movement. Buffalo, NY: University of Buffalo, 2000.

Smith, Mark K. “Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: pedagogy, education and social justice,” from

___________ “John Dewey on education, experience and community,” from

Sniegoski, Stephen J. “State Schools versus Parental Rights: The Legacy of Lester Frank Ward,” from Entitled to an Opinion, 2012 (originally published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Summer 1985, pp. 215-228).

Van Til, Cornelius. Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971. (See especially pages 49-55 on John Dewey.)

Wylie, G. Lorraine. “Educational Theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau,” from New Foundations, 2011.

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool


my musings, wise or otherwise

Festival Fete

locally grown art, food, and merriment


A Literary Homestead


Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

The Common Room

....Blogging about cabbages and kings since 2005.

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more


Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Handwoven Textiles

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more


Blogging about education, theology, and more

Leah's Bookshelf

Book Reviews You Can Trust

Duxbury Art Boosters

Supporting the visual arts in Duxbury Public Schools

Just Right Porridge

... you'll lick your bowl clean...