The Image of God, Revisited

Dear Reader,

I have had some feedback on my recent post on the image of God so I wanted to expand/give clarification. You  can read that post (which was itself a reworking of an earlier post) here.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to explain a little bit about where this post came from. I think as I write and to some extent each post builds a little on what has come before. If you haven’t read much here previously and/or don’t know me, you are probably not going to have a lot of context. It is very easy as a writer to think that your audience knows and understands what is in your head, but someone who doesn’t know me and hasn’t followed my convoluted train of thought can easily misunderstand where I am coming from.

Until fairly recently I was a Charlotte Mason (CM) style homeschooler and I blogged on her philosophy of education a lot. Over time, I became aware that her theology — upon which her approach to education is directly based — did not line up with mine as well as I thought it did. I ended last year with a series in which I asked the question “Is CM’s philosophy biblical?” My goal at the time was not to judge her by my own standards or those that a reformed person might ordinarily turn to (read: Calvin), but to hold her ideas up to the light of Scripture and also to place her within the scope of orthodox Christian thought. I tell you this now to try to explain how the very first version of this post came about. I looked at the image of God in Scripture specifically (as opposed to looking at what other Christians writers had to say) because my goal was to see how her ideas fit with Scripture. I included a section on Christian ideas about the image of God, not to give a thorough review of the history of thought on this huge topic, but just to give a sense of the range of thought and where she and I fit in.

A lot of Christians have said a lot of things about the “image of God.” Two thousand plus years after the birth of Christ (and many thousand more after the writing of Genesis 1), there is still no one clear definition of what this phrase means. Even within the smaller world of reformed theology, it is not a settled point. Here is what Meredith Kline said in 1999:

“When defining the imago Dei, dogmatic theology has traditionally tended to engage in an analysis of what constitutes humanness. But to answer the general question “What is man?” is not the same thing as answering the precise question “What is the image of God?”. If our objective is to discern what the biblical idea of the image of God is, it would appear necessary to abandon the traditional dogmatic wineskins, go back to the beginning of Genesis, and start afresh.” [Meredith Kline, “Creation in the Image of the Glory Spirit,” from Meredith, 2006 (1)]

Note that Kline calls for us to abandon old concepts, to start afresh and to use the “biblical idea” as our starting place. I had not read Kline when I wrote my post, but this is essentially what I was trying to do.

The big problem with the phrase “image of God” is that we use it to convey two different ideas. Sometimes when we say “man is in the image of God,” we mean that he has inherent dignity and worth. This often comes up in conversations about abortion which makes it quite a heated, emotional topic. At other times when we say “man is in the image of God,” we are saying something about his character or characteristics. This can take different forms. To some the image of God equals a certain faculty or set of faculties such as reason or creativity. To others it means that we are spiritual and/or relational creatures. Or it may be associated with original holiness or righteousness or goodness. It may mean that we were given dominion. Or it may be some combination of these things and more besides. Simply put, it’s confusing because we use the same words to mean very different things.

I said that children are not in the image of God. That was poorly phrased not so much because of the image of God bit as the children bit. First of all it probably put you all in mind of the whole abortion issue which was not what I had in mind (I did make clear at the time that I am anti-abortion).  I said “children” because my overall topic on this blog is education. But in truth what I meant to mean was “unsaved people” or perhaps “man in his post-Fall, pre-saved state” is not in the image of God (I know, I know, you are still bothered but bear with me for a minute; I’m getting back to what bothers you in a few paragraphs). I want to be clear that I do believe in the concept of covenant children, that the children of believers are considered holy. I believe that God can save children at any age, even before birth. So in truth I never meant that all  children are not in the image of God but only those who are unsaved as well as adults who are unsaved.

Returning to the image of God — you remember I said there are two main ways we use the phrase? One has to do with man’s inherent value and one has to do with certain characteristics (however we identify them). My intent was to make a statement about the latter but I was in no way intending to deny the former.

There is an inherent tension between these two ideas. They are linked ideas because they are both tied to this phrase, “image of God,” but they are distinctive. That is largely what I was trying to show when I quoted random Christian theologians — that they all struggled with this tension and that they came up with different ways of trying to address it (again, this was just a general survey intended to give the range of Christian thought). We want to say at one and the same time that:

  • individual people, all people, have value because they are made in the image of God but–
  • people are fallen and something — which we may also equate with the image of God — has been lost or corrupted in them.

The Catholic Church eliminates the tension by distinguishing between the image and the likeness. As I said in my earlier post, I don’t think the biblical text supports this interpretation. The Dutch Reformed speak of the image in a greater and a narrower sense. The narrower was lost; the wider is still present in all people. To some degree they, like the Catholics, are just coming up with two ideas to replace one that seems to contradict itself. “Common grace” is often cited as an explanation (2). The argument goes something along the lines of “yes, man is fallen and no longer has his original righteousness which made him like God, but common grace means that even unregenerate people are still valuable enough that we recognize they mean more than the animals and we shouldn’t kill them.” A similar argument is “corrupted but not lost” which is pretty much what it sounds like — the image of God in man was severely damaged at the Fall but there is enough of his Creator still reflected in man to keep us from killing each other willy-nilly.

If I have been dissatisfied with how Augustine and the Dutch Reformed and others have dealt with the tension, some of you have been dissatisfied with what are apparently my own theological calisthenics. Essentially, what I argued was that the image of God, as the phrase is used in the Bible, refers to some quality or characteristic that was lost at the Fall. I did not mean by this to deny the inherent value of all people but to divorce the two issues. I am not the first by any means to do so. But I understand that it is still a dissatisfying answer because (a) it seems to throw the value of people, particularly the most vulnerable people, to the wind and (b) it seems to ignore the biblical connection between the image of God and the injunction against spilling human blood.

With regard to (a) I will say again that I never doubted the value of each human. Personally, when I think about abortion and other hot-button issues, I have always thought that killing a person is wrong not so much because he is in the image of God as because I have no authority over him.  Compare my child to my pet. One I can kill if I like — I have authority over him because God has given him to me. The other I cannot kill because he does not belong to me. I don’t have that kind of authority over him (3). Nor do I have authority over myself in that way. That’s why suicide is wrong. It’s why I can’t do whatever I like with my body (because it is not mine) and why you can’t do whatever you like with my body. It is an argument from Genesis 1:28, not Genesis 1:26. It also explains why the government can put to death certain kinds of criminals — because God has given it specific authority to do so.

With regard to (b) — the connection the Bible makes between the image of God and not killing each other– I’ll concede maybe I downplayed this a bit too much. But on the other hand, when I read verses like 2 Corinthians 4:4 in which Christ is called the image of God and 1 Corinthians 15:49 which says believers shall bear the image of God, it is hard for me to say that the image is something that all men bear. How can an unregenerate person bear the image of God when the image is Christ and Christ is something believers put on? I suspect that you will say I am being too narrow in my interpretation and that may be the case. But I am willing to say this: It is wrong to kill other people (or do lots of other random bad things to them) because we were all in Adam created in the image of God. However we also all in Adam lost the image of God. The elect regain it in Christ though in an imperfect form in this life.  This is a very corporate view of the image of God which sees us all as being in Adam at Creation and at the Fall. I think it actually fits kind of nicely with the creation account in which God says “let us make man, male and female, in our image” in Genesis 1 but in which Eve is not actually created until Genesis 2. Eve was made in the image of God because she came from Adam. Male and female were both in Adam in Genesis 1:26 though only a male had been created as a stand-alone sort of human being. It is the same for us — we were all in Adam at creation and in that sense we were all created in the image of God.

But perhaps I am still doing too many theological calisthenics — Why, you ask, not just say “corrupted but not lost”? I have been told that my earlier post didn’t seem very reformed, but, honestly, there is something that rubs me the wrong way about “corrupted but not lost.” I don’t want to put words in others’ mouths, but to me “corrupted but not lost” feels less reformed. If what was in us is only tarnished, one might argue, then maybe we don’t need quite as much of a Savior. One need not go down every slippery slope, of course, but it seems we could easily slip into “well, if it’s only corrupted, we can clean it up a bit ourselves” or maybe “we can at least help God out by dusting up a bit around the edges.” Lost makes me feel a lot more comfortable because what is lost we cannot get back on our own.

Summing up then, for absolute clarity (hah!)– Adam was created in the image of God in Genesis 1. Eve and all the rest of us were in Adam at this point and were thus also created in the image of God. It is wrong to spill human blood because we were created in the image in this way and also because we do not have that kind of authority over one another or even over ourselves (governments, however, have been given such authority). Adam, and the rest of humanity in him, lost the image of God at the Fall. Christ is the image of God. Believers put on Christ. We once again bear the image of God and are being transformed more and more into His image.

I’ll end with this — I think as I write but I am not a politician; I have absolutely no problem with changing my mind. I certainly don’t have all of Christian theology worked out. I am happy to have friendly discussions on this or any other topic as long as you approach me directly and respectfully. I raised the issue of what the image of God is and what it means because it relates to the nature of children which relates to education. I do not think, however, that all the fine details here are going to be important to my overall approach to education (which is still being worked out). To me this is somewhat of a subsidiary issue so while I am always happy to discuss theological issues, I don’t intend to spend a lot more time on it.



(1) I am citing an article from because it is what I have access to but the text seems to be identical to the beginning of his book Images of the Spirit (1999).

(2) Because just having one footnote looks bad, I’ll add that in reading Van Til’s book on education recently I was struck by his use of “common grace.” It made me think that I don’t really understand this phrase and that we need a lot more good teaching on it.

(3) Look, a third footnote! Just to clear — I know parents have authority over their children, but they don’t have the kind of authority that allows them to kill their children or to maim them or to do whatever they want with them in a million other ways.


Living Books on Ancient Rome

Dear Reader,

We wrapped up the school year by reading about ancient Rome. Each child (2 middle schoolers and 2 high schoolers) read a historical account and a book of historical fiction. We read some myth, science and art together and also Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on Ancient Rome


The Roman Way by Edith Hamilton — My 11th grader read this book and the similar one on Greece. Hamilton talks more about culture than history and shows the impact ad influence of the Romans.

The Roman Empire Assimov — My senior enjoys Assimov’s histories.  He is not Christian so I would take the bits that touch on Christianity with a grain of salt. He also has one on the Roman republic.

The Story of the Romans by Eva Marie Tappan — I prefer Tappan to the all-popular Guerber. My 7th grader read this one.

The Book of the Ancient Romans by Dorothy Mills — I didn’t like her book on the ancient near east but her volumes on Greece and roe are more meaty. My 8th grader read this one.

Historical Fiction:

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sinkiwicz — One of three long fictional books that were read in the house. This one is set after the time of Christ. My 11th grader read it and seemed okay with it.

Ben Hur by Lew Wallace– A classic. I had my 12th grader read it.

The Robe by Lloyd Douglas — I assigned this one  to myself, and honestly couldn’t get through it all. The writing is okay, though not stellar. At time sit was engaging. But it is set at the very end and just after Christ’s time and says a lot about Him and His disciples and I found that it plays with the biblical story too much.

Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare — My 7th grader read this book by a well-known author of historical fiction.

Tiger Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks — Historical fiction from the author of the Indian in the Cupboard.

White Isle by Caroline Dale Snedeker — I had heard about Snedeker in homeschooling circles but we had never sued one of her books. I had my 8th grader read this one. It is set in Roman Britain.

Other Subjects:

Aeneid for Boys and Girls by Alfred Church — Having just tacked the full Odyssey I didn’t want to read the original book but Church’s retelling is fun and exciting.

Child’s History of Art by V.M. Hillyer — We read the sections on Rome from all three books within a book: painting, sculpture and architecture. This is elementary level but one can still get quite a bit out of it.

Science in Ancient Rome  by Jacqueline Harris — Also elementary level.

Happy reading!


Psalm Study: Psalm 67

Dear Reader,

[I apologize again this week for the weird fonts; WordPress seems to be holding a grudge against me.]

Since it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on the Psalms, a bit of an introduction is probably in order –


Who I am and why I’m doing this — Mostly just your average Christian in the pew, but I did study biblical Hebrew in college and grad school [1]. I also belong to a psalm-singing church and homeschool my kids. I have more often than not followed the Charlotte Mason approach to education which calls for hymn study. This made no sense for us so we began to do “Psalm Study” instead.

The theory behind Psalm Study — My thesis is this: The structure of the Psalms contributes to their meaning and beauty. This sounds pretty basic but it actually rather controversial in academic circles. Whereas English poetry relies on rhyme and meter as its primary structural devices, Hebrew poetry is usually said to rely on parallelism. But there is no agreement as to whether parallelism as such actually exists and, if it does, how and why it operates [2].

Things I believe

  • I do not believe that my way of reading the Psalms is the only way.  God’s Word is a living Word and part of what that means is that we can come to it time and again and get different things from it each time. I am offering one way to approach the Psalms, but it is by no means the only way. 
  • I do believe that the Psalms are God’s inspired Word. The words they contain are deliberate and significant and their structure is as well [3]. The more we delve into the Word of God, the greater is our appreciation of its beauty and intricacy. I hope that as you come along with me in these Psalm Studies that you too will be in awe of just how much God has to tell us and of how sophisticated  — and yet how simple — is the language of the Psalms. 
  • I do not believe every person in the pew needs to learn Hebrew to appreciate the Psalms. It would be nice, of course, but it is not and should not be necessary. You can learn to appreciate the structure of the Psalms and to understand them better without learning Hebrew. My goal is to help you to do so. 
  • I believe that our worship will be more meaningful the better we understand and appreciate the Psalms. Even if you don’t regularly sing Psalms in worship (though you should; see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), you will be delving deeper into the Word of God and that is always good.

Psalm 67 and Analysis

All of which is a long introduction to a short Psalm. Here, without further ado, is my translation of Psalm 67 [4]:


To the leader, upon neginot, a psalm, a song [5]

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us.

2 May he shine his face upon us,  Selah.

3 To know in the earth your way,

4 In all nations your salvation.

5 May the peoples praise you, God;

6 May the people praise you, all of them.

7 May the nations rejoice and be glad

8 For you will judge peoples rightly.

9 And nations in the earth you will lead them, Selah.

10 May the peoples praise you, God;

11 May the peoples praise you, all of them.

12 Earth gives its harvest.

13 May God, our God, bless us.

14 May God bless us,

15 And may they fear him, all the ends of the earth [6]

This relatively short Psalm is a wonderful introduction to parallelism. Simply put, Hebrew poetry repeats concepts. It rarely uses exact repetition (though this Psalm has some) but repeats ideas. Before you read any further, I want you to ask yourself two questions:

  1. What one word or idea stands out to you from this Psalm?
  2. Can you find and mark pairs of adjacent lines that seem to express the same idea? (Seriously, print out this page and get out your pencil and actually mark them.)

I hope you saw pretty easily that lines 1 and 2 go together and then lines 3 and 4. “May God be gracious to us and bless us” expresses a very similar idea to “May God shine his face upon us.” Likewise, “to know in the earth your way” parallels “in all nations your salvation.” We can see one of the basic principles of parallelism here: not every element need be repeated. The verb from line 3 is omitted but assumed in line 4.

Continuing on, lines 5 and 6 go together as do lines 10 and 11. These two pairs are actually identical which is unusual in Hebrew poetry. It likes parallelism but exact repetition is not the norm. We have at this point identified a structural device, but we are never done until we ask why? Why does the psalmist use this device and what does it contribute to the meaning of the Psalm?

The psalmist draws our attention to lines 7 through 9 in not one but two ways: those lines break the structure which up until this point has consisted of pairs of very closely parallel lines, and they are outlined in some sense by the repeated lines on either side of them. We might say lines 5/6 and 10/11 function like bookends, or perhaps even like spotlights to shine attention on what is in between them. As I have structured it, these three lines come exactly in the middle of the Psalm with 3 pairs of parallel lines on either side of them. (Lines 12/13 and 14/15 also form pairs though their meaning is not so closely parallel.)

Let’s pause for a second and return to the first question I asked you – What words or ideas stood out to you in this Psalm? There are two big ones that occurred to me: blessing and praising. “God” and “peoples/nations” also occur frequently. God blesses and the peoples praise. Those lines in the middle, the triad that breaks the pattern, tell us how God blesses us and why He is to be praised. God judges rightly and guides nations. There are a lot of reasons for people to praise God but this is not a generic praise Psalm (if there is such a thing). Psalm 67 is a psalm in praise of God’s just rule of the nations.

Wrapping it up

Psalm 67 is a short psalm and perhaps, on the surface, not a very interesting one. It repeats the same words – bless, God, praise, nations – and doesn’t give us many exciting details about enemies taunting and festering wounds and the like. But I hope you have seen that a close examination of the Psalm adds to its meaning. When we focus in on how a Psalm is structured, we see the artistry of how the psalmist puts it together and we come to a greater appreciation of its beauty and a deeper understanding of its meaning. Even a little Psalm like this one has secrets to reveal when we take the time to sit with it and let it speak to us.



[1] I left grad school ABD – “all but dissertation” – to raise my kids. That was a long time ago.

[2] When I was in grad school, the two big thinkers on the Psalms were Robert Alter and James Kugel (for full disclosure: Kugel was my advisor in grad school). Wilfred G.E. Watson offers a more technical book on Hebrew poetry.

In Classical Hebrew Poetry (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1986), Watson names parallelism as the chief structural device (p. 114). He gives extensive examples and discusses the uses of parallelism in terms of composition and presentation. He does not tie parallelism to meaning. I do not know what his individual beliefs were, but as an academic writer, he does not discuss Hebrew poetry from the point of view of faith. This is one way in which I hope my own approach will be different from what has come before.

Kugel is often accused of rejecting the idea of biblical poetry altogether. This is perhaps an extreme take on his position, but he does ultimately argue that parallelism as such has been imposed by scholars on the biblical text. He prefers to talk of “seconding” [The Idea of Biblical Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) p. 51]. This seconding he identifies not just in biblical poetry but in passages we usually label as prose as well, thus the accusation that he denies the existence of poetry.

Alter counters Kugel’s argument and makes the case for poetry [The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books, 1985)]. Like Watson, he covers a number of the forms parallelism can take. He also acknowledges that biblical poetry is part of a religious tradition (p. 205) and that it is through language that we communicate with God (p. 135). Still, with sentences like these, his book stops short of providing a clear understanding of the structure of biblical poetry and its importance for people of faith:

“There is a certain affinity, let me suggest, between the formal properties of a given prosodic system or poetic genre and the kinds of meaning most readily expressed through that system or genre.” (p. 62)

“In the case of biblical poetry, the two basic operations of specification and heightening within the parallelistic line lead to an incipiently narrative structure of minute concatenations, on the one hand, and to a climactic structure of thematic intensifications, on the other hand.” (p. 63; I am a Hebrew scholar, albeit a lapsed one, and I had to look up “concatenations.”)

[3] The Old Testament comes down to us through the centuries in a number of different manuscripts. Volumes could, and have been, written on which particular texts or readings are the “original” ones. Such a discussion is one I am happy to have but is beyond the scope of my present enterprise. I have a high degree of confidence that what we have today is what God wants us to have and that is ultimately enough for me. Unless I say otherwise, I always rely on the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) version of the Hebrew text.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, I use my own translations of the Hebrew text for Psalm Study. I do so because I want the translation that as nearly as possible approximates the Hebrew while still making sense in English. My two biggest goals in translating are to (1) preserve the structure of the Hebrew so you can see it and (2) to be consistent in my word choice. If the Hebrew always uses one word for “salvation” (as an example), I always translate that word the same way. If the Hebrew varies the words it uses, I aim to do likewise. Line numbers are not verse numbers but are given for the purposes of discussion. Every translation is to some degree and interpretation. I try to stay as close to the text as possible and to insert my own ideas as little as possible but you are allowed to disagree with my translations and with my division of lines. That’s part of the fun.

[5] A superscription. The neginot are probably some musical instrument. The Hebrew word is plural.

[6] Notes on the translation: Hebrew does not use different verbal forms for “may he” and “he will.” I made an executive decision to use “may” in this Psalm and tried to stick with it throughout the Psalm for consistency. “Selah” is probably some sort of musical term or direction; its meaning is unknown. The switch from third to second person (as from line 2 to line 3)  no doubt would bother your English teacher; it did not bother the Hebrew writers or audiences. They do that sort of thing a lot.


Book Review: Teaching and Christian Imagination

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education, I recently read Teaching and Christian Imagination by David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016). The book is a series of essays, grouped by image, on Christian education. The intended audience is the burnt-out Christian school teacher. The idea behind it is that by exploring various images related to education, that one will rediscover one’s purpose in teaching and be reinvigorated.

“This is not a ‘how-to’ manual or a collection of tips. This book offers lenses, not recipes, opening possibilities rather than laying out instructions. It is an opportunity to refresh your imagination, to step back and see differently. It invites you to explore how your faith and your imagination can dance together in ways that bring grace and truth into your daily service to your students and your school.” (p. 2)

Images are really the guiding principle here, and I agree with the authors that images are important. They help shape our thoughts. But — and this is where my problem with this book lies — because they are important and because they do shape our thoughts, we need to be discriminating in which images we chose and in how we apply them. It matters, for instance, whether we view children as blank slates, lumps of clay, or hot-house flowers.

Teaching groups its essays around three fairly standard sets of Christian images: journeys and pilgrimages; gardens and wildernesses; buildings and walls. But it shows little discrimination in what images it uses or how it uses them. There is no clear standard here for how we know what it true or what to accept. There are certainly many biblical references, but the writers also quote Rousseau (pp. 90-91) whose influence on modern education was disastrous and analyze paintings of the Christ child with saints and angels (pp. 101-02). Nor is there any sort of clear philosophy of education. The classical approach is described in one section (pp. 169ff), but there is little that provides a theological or philosophical framework for the book as a whole.

The authors have shied away from providing strong and definite ideas but in doing so they have not provided enough of a basis for their work. Teaching and Christian Imagination sees a need: Christian schools with burnt-out teachers. Its solution is to throw a handful of poorly vetted images at that need which may inspire in the short term, but I think they would have been better served by a back-to-basics questioning of the underlying framework, something which asks what are we doing and is it the right thing and how do we even know, what is our standard?

One of my biggest underlying principles in this blog is that ideas matter. Images convey ideas and so I agree with the book’s authors that images too matter. My problem with Teaching and Christian Imagination is actually that they don’t take their own images seriously enough; they don’t curate them well. A book which really looks at the images the Bible gives us regarding education and which draws from Scripture to apply those images would be most welcome. I am afraid a book which applies images indiscriminately as this one does may give some a temporary emotional boost but will do more long-term damage.


The Purpose of Education, Part 2

Dear Reader,

We don’t need no education; 
We don’t need no thought control.”

(Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”)

We are narrowing in on the purpose of education. Last time we talked about the “when” and I made the case that education must be for the long term. Today I’d like to look at the “who” — or perhaps I should say the “for whom?” Specifically we are going to ask: Are we educating primarily for the individual or for the larger society?  Of course, the two are not wholly unrelated; societies are composed of individuals and to change one is to change the other. The question before us is not so much who benefits as where our primary focus lies.

In anthropological terms, education transmits — and  in the process creates– a common culture. As Christians, we limit ourselves if we stop there. The definition tells us one aspect of what education does but it does not tell us what education should do.

What I’d like to propose today is this: While acknowledging that education affects both the individual and the society, we as parents and educators need to keep our primary focus on the individual. This is not something I am going to be able to prove per se, but if you’ll indulge me, I’ll try to convince you that this is the best approach.

Last time I made the case for long-term goals. Education, I argued, is not about equipping children to become part of God’s plan; it is about fulfilling that plan, however we may define it.

If this is the case, then we have to look at the divine plan in order to understand the goal of education. Our question today is: Is it for the individual or for the society? [I am using “society” loosely here. Depending on one’s view of education it might be variously defined. In a Christian context, “society” equals Church. For others, the society might be the state, the nation, the world.]

The answer is really both. God is building His church. In many ways the people of God are a unit. We are the bride — not brides — of Christ (Rev. 21:2; 22:17).  We are both a building and a body (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Cor. 12:12ff). The gospel is often seen to spread community by community as nations (Matt. 28:19) and households (Acts 16:15) are transformed. And yet our God works in such a way that He never overrides the individual. While Jesus and later Paul and the other apostles often preached to large crowds, they never scorned the individual. God speaks to each one (Acts 2:6). Nor is our religion one that calls us to transcend the individual personality. Van Til goes so far as to argue that the goal of education — and of life — is the development of the individual personality:

“In covenant education we seek not to extract the human begin from his natural milieu as a creature of God, but rather seek to restore the creature with his milieu to God . . . A Christian is a true human being once more.” [Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974), p. 143; cf. p. 152]

Personhood is vital to Christianity. There is a corporate goal, yes, but never at the expense of the individual.

In some sense the individual versus corporate tension does not even make sense from a biblical perspective because God orchestrates the small events of one person’s life and the large events of His greater plan in such a way that there is never a conflict or contradiction (Rom. 8:28).

Nonetheless, I am making the case that our goal needs to be primarily individual. The problem is that we are not God. It is much harder for us to balance competing concerns.  If we begin with a societal goal, we end up fitting the individual to that overarching end, cutting or stretching them as need be to suit the greater good. But if we start with the individual, that one person’s good becomes one more brick in the edifice that is the greater good without having to lose its individuality. From God’s perspective, and in His perfect plan, there is no conflict between the individual and the society. But we are not God, and if we set ourselves to shape the society we will tend to run over the individual in the process. If we set ourselves to educate the individual, the benefit to the larger society will naturally follow. As Van Til says:

“It is all summed up in the expression that man must live his life to the glory of God. In seeking the glory of God, man the individual and mankind as a whole will also be enriched.” (Van Til, p. 45)

I am intentionally stopping short of saying what our goal is. Thus far I have argued that:

  • We need a long-term goal that places education within God’s greater plan. Education is not about equipping youth to be able to become part of that plan; they are already bang-splat in the middle of it, as we all are. 
  • On one level, there is no inherent contradiction between the needs of the individual and that of the society because God is able to orchestrate the two perfectly.
  • But we are not perfect, nor do we see the whole picture. Because the tendency if we have societal goals is to override the individual or to try to manipulate him to fit the ends, our goal in education should be primarily focused on the individual.


Book Review: Rushdoony’s Philosophy of Christian Curriculum

Dear Reader,

[I apologize if there are weird font things going on in this post. WordPress and I are not on the best of terms this week.]

As a part of my ongoing quest for a reformed Christian theology of education, I recently read Rousas John Rushdoony’s The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2001; originally pub. 1981). 

This is now the third or fourth book on Christian education which I have reviewed. They were all written some 30-40 years ago, are all quite critical of modern American public schools, and all advocate Christian education as the only way to go, some quite vociferously. Rushdoony’s book falls in line with the others and makes a lot of the same arguments (he quotes Van Til extensively). I do think it is worth adding to your reading list, however. Philosophy covers a lot of ground, and while there are some foundational ideas I disagree with, there are also a number of good points made along the way.


Two advantages of Rushdoony’s work are that it deals with the education of children – not just college-level education – and that it begins to delve into specifics. By comparison, Vos and Van Til were much closer to where I am theologically, but they are both concerned with education at the university level. Wiker, though Catholic, makes some great arguments but again seems to focus mostly on the renewal of the Christian university. Dawson, another Catholic writer, is focused on the education of children but (besides being virulently pro-Catholic and anti-protestant) offers little in the way of specifics. Ultimately, what I want is something that provides not just the theory but gives guidance on how we actually teach day to day. (None of these books, including this one, mentions or even considers homeschooling as an option though I am told that Rushdoony was big in the early days of the modern homeschooling movement.)


I am not going to be able to cover everything Rushdoony has to say in this one post, though I am sure I will come back to his ideas in the future one. For today, I’d like to focus on his foundational ideas. Before diving in, a few words about the man himself and his thought — Rousas Rushdoony was a pastor and philosopher who seems to have been most active from 1960-1980. On first glance he has a lot to recommend him in my eyes — Calvinist, Presbyterian, pro-homeschooling. He was apparently a big fan of Van Til whose work I find myself quoting a lot. In fact, as I read his book, I wondered what he thought he had to add to Van Til’s work as he quoted him so often. While he wrote on and advocated for Christian education, Rushdoony is known more for his association with the Christian Reconstructionism, a political movement advocating theonomy, i.e.  applying Old Testament law to modern society. Van Til distanced himself from Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism in 1972. [1]

I bring this all up to show where Rushdoony stands in the scope of things. If I could sum up his thought and my own reaction to it in one sentence it would be this: “Yes, he makes a lot of points which sound good on the surface but he just seems to go too far.”  The Wikipedia article on him says:

“Rushdoony developed his philosophy as an extension of the work of Calvinist philosopher Cornelius Van Til. Van Til critiqued human knowledge in light of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. He argued that sin affected a person’s ability to reason . . . Rushdoony attended to the implications – where Van Til held true knowledge came from God, Rushdoony asserted that ‘all non-Christian knowledge is sinful, invalid nonsense. The only valid knowledge that non-Christians possess is ‘stolen’ from ‘Christian-theistic’ sources.’ ” (“Rousas Rushdoony,” from; April 20, 2018).

In other words, Rushdoony took Van Til’s ideas to an extreme. In the end, this led him to say that there is no true knowledge can come through non-Christians. While Van Til makes similar statements, he also acknowledges that non-Christians make real contributions to both science and the arts. [2]

Rushdoony’s approach reminds me very much of the Biblical Principle Approach (I have no idea what if any his connection to that approach actually is). It seeks to find the justification for every subject in the Bible and the end of every effort in the service of God, which sounds good, but it defines both these things too narrowly. Certainly the Scriptures are God’s special revelation and tell us the things we need to know for salvation. But they are not God’s only source of revelation. The Bible also tells us quite clearly that God can be known through what He has made. And while the Scriptures are more special, general revelation is more abundant. We do ourselves a disservice when we neglect that knowledge that comes to us through it [3]. I think Van Til would agree with this assessment as he places education within the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14) which Scripture in turn places in Creation (Rom. 1:20) [4]. My first disagreement with Rushdoony, then, is this: He defines education too narrowly by tying it so closely to special revelation at the expense of general revelation. [5]

My second major disagreement is perhaps tied to the first — Rushdoony undervalues knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Though undeniably Christian, his goals for education are overly practical. His concern is with results — How will we use this or that subject to further the spread of the gospel? How can we use it to witness to others? A couple of examples will show his attitude:

“Mathematics should be geared more to management, accounting, and a variety of practical needs of the modern world.” (Kindle loc. 243)

“Latin was once the language of scholarship and an international language; its only value now is to historians and classical scholarship. Green and Hebrew are important to a Christian society, but basically only to the biblical scholarship of that society.” (Kindle loc. 243)

I would argue that if all these things — science and history and language — are part of God’s creation and, as Scripture tells us, reveal His character, then they are worth studying in and of themselves. Our God is a God of truth and to the extent that we learn more of that truth, we become more like Him and bring glory to Him. This is apart from any value that this knowledge may have in our witness to non-believers. I would add that it is not just truth in terms of true facts but the beauty and poetry of creation which merit our attention and study (Phil. 4:8). Rushdoony, in contrast, calls knowledge for knowledge’s sake and art for art’s sake humanistic ideas (Kindle loc. 484).

These, then, are my two major disagreements with Rushdoony: he undervalues general revelation and he undervalues knowledge and beauty for their own sake. I feel less equipped to critique what Rushdoony has to say o n Christian schools since we have never used them, but, as his stance is so forceful, a review of his book would seem incomplete without at least alluding to it.

All of the authors I have looked at this far have advocated for exclusively Christian education and denigrated public education. Rushdoony is among the most extreme in his rejection of public education:

“Hence, for Christians to tolerate statist education, or to allow their children to be trained thereby, means to renounce power in society, to renounce their children, and to deny Christ’s lordship over all life.” (Kindle loc. 2343)

He even argues against Christian schools seeking accreditation (Kindle loc. 1609) and has very particular ideas about how a Christian school should operate.  I find some of what he says disturbing, for example:

“‘Scientific’ tests have indicated that there are racial and sexual differences.” (Kindle loc. 2023)

A brief statement but one that raises my hackles. Rushdoony does not expand upon the racial differences. He does argue for separate education for boys and girls. Some of this may come from considerations of how children learn best, but he also claims that girls are not as capable of abstract thought (Kindle loc. 2032). He stops short of saying that girls need not have higher education but given his overall practical stance, it would not surprise me if he ultimately came to this conclusion. This line of reasoning — a girl’s place is in the home therefore girls don’t need higher education — stems from the same sort of thought Rushdoony does evidence, that knowledge is only valuable for what we can do with it outside of ourselves and not in its own right. 

One of my goals in formulating a philosophy of education is to have something that can be applied to both Christian and non-Christian pupils. A number of the other writers I have read seem to assume Christian children in their schools. Rushdoony does not, but what he has to say about the discipline of children in his (proposed) schools also leaves me with concerns.  I am all for discipline of children and agree with Rushdoony that it should fall under the heading of discipleship. When it comes to practical matters, however, he seems to go too far–

“St. Paul is here describing the necessity under God to purge out delinquents, the sinners. His words apply to every Christian institution, the school as well as the church.” (Kindle loc. 1844)

I will probably write another whole post on the idea of a Christian school. Rushdoony is not the only writer that speaks of the school as a separate, almost divinely-inspired, Christian institution. Whether it is or not (and I expect to argue it is not), I don’t see any reason to apply the passage in question (which is 1 Cor. 5:6-7) to anything but the Church. Then there is the practical question of how such discipline would be applied which Rushdoony does not fully answer. I am left after reading the book with the idea that his school would be rather strict and that its teachers would be a bit distant and not necessarily caring (Kindle loc. 1865).

Despite my differences with Rushdoony, there is still a lot in his book to make it worth reading. He begins with a history of education which provides a nice background. He provides some good criticisms of both classical and modern education, both of which he deems statist, humanistic and secular.  As he gets into specific subjects, he provides us with a starting place for evaluating how to teach them, and he has a number of intriguing statements that I’d like to return to in future posts. So while I have some very fundamental differences, I do think Rushdoony’s Philosophy of Christian Curriculum is one to add to your reading list.


[1] Since it is not my main subject, I hope you will forgive me for admitting that most of this background information is from the Wikipedia articles on “Rushdoony,” “Theonomy,” and “Christian Reconstructionism” (all as of 4/20/2018).

[2] Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) pp. 89-91.

[3]  I would include under general revelation not just what we can observe casually but also what we can know of God through more in-depth investigations into science and history and culture.

[4] Van Til, p. 91.

[5] Re history, Rushdoony says: ” . . .for the Christian historian and teacher, the basic textbook is the Bible” (Kindle loc. 685). And even grammar is tied to the Bible: “Our ideas of grammar, of tense, syntax, and structure, of thought and meaning, bear a Christian imprint. Very clearly, our language and grammar are relative, but relative to a heritage of biblical faith” (Kindle loc. 809). And a general statement: “If the Bible is what it declares itself to be, then it is the most basic book in education” (Kindle loc. 1223) and again: “The sovereignty of God means that our educational standards must be derived from Scripture, not man” (Kindle loc. 2402) and “. . . the Bible must establish, govern, and condition the curriculum, or else we do not have Christian education” (Kindle loc. 2451).

The Purpose of Education, Part 1

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. Read the intro post here.

In recent weeks I have been throwing a lot of evidence at you, some from the Bible and some from books I have read. I’d like to take a step back today and look at one of our big picture issues: the goal of education.

When we begin to educate children, we are making two assumptions that are so basic we don’t even think of them as such: that we should educate and that we can educate. Today we are going to look at the first of these and ask: Why education? While I hope we can ultimately state the purpose of education, we are going to begin by simply looking at what kind of goal we should have.

Depending on our view of the child, we might be educating for the short term or the long term. Depending on our view of humanity, we might be educating for the individual or for society. These two axes  — short vs. long, individual vs. corporate — define what we do and I’d like to use them as a kind of scaffolding as we begin to define the purpose of education.

Some approaches to education lend themselves more to a short-term goals. The Waldorf method is an extreme example in that it does not even view the child as being the same sort of thing as an adult. Rather, the child evolves into an adult. Education serves a role in this evolutionary process: it helps the child become what he is meant to be. Though the philosophy behind Waldorf may seem ridiculous to us as Christians, it highlights an important point: education is only necessary is we desire change. If the child were both perfect and complete, we would not need to educate him. We educate because we are not at the end of the process, whatever that end might be.

Any approach that sees the child as not fully formed or as lacking certain faculties is going to tend to result in short-term thinking. Modern classical education fits into this category. While it may embody some longer-term goals, it also defines stages along the way. In the early years the child memorizes facts and in the middle years learns to relate subjects and finally to form arguments. Only when these stages are successfully passed through is one fully functioning. While such an approach stops short of actually saying the child is not fully human, it suggests that he is not yet equipped to deal with the world in its fullness and posits shorter-term, intermediate goals.

The more we divide up life into stages, the more short-term our thinking will tend to be. We can see this in our public schools. We prepare high school kids for college and middle schoolers for high school, and so on down the line. The end-game is no further than the next milestone.  To a large degree this mindset is inherent to a system which separates schooling from the rest of society. There is no natural continuum between school and what comes after. We use words like “prepare” and “real world” to suggest that what goes on in our schools is not in itself “real life” but only the stepping-stone to it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Cornelius Van Til (see this post on his book Essays on Christian Education). In his view, the range of education is  no less than that of time itself. Education begins in Creation and is not complete until Christ comes again:

“We mean by that that our constructive program is nothing else but carrying through, as far as we can, in this world of sin the program that God gave man to do in paradise.” [Essays on Christian Education, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974) p. 167]

The ideas behind such a position are worth ferreting out. Perhaps the most obvious is that there is some grand (divine) plan which is being worked out. Education, placed within such a plan, serves a much larger purpose. A purpose as sweeping as Van Til’s is impossible without a belief in something beyond this life. It presupposes both a Divine Being to give meaning to human existence and a spiritual nature which will continue beyond this life.

Because the benefits of education go even beyond this world, it is not limited to the young but becomes a life-long enterprise. The education of children is not fundamentally different than the education of adults. This is not to say that some extra equipping does not go on in childhood, but that childhood itself is not a separate stage (or series of separate stages) one goes through in order to become fully human.

The Scriptures speak of youth as the time for education and training. One’s younger years are the time to get off to a good start and to firmly cement one’s relationship with the Creator. It is the young who most need learning and who are best able to absorb it.

Short-term thinking often comes from wrong ideas about the nature of children. Children are included in God’s covenant people. They are able to have a relationship with their Creator from earliest years, are called to follow His Law, are capable of faith and culpable for sin. In the most fundamental ways, children are no different from adults. (For a fuller explanation of all these principles, with references, see this post on children in the Bible.)

I think often as Christian parents we fall into the trap of thinking that we are preparing our children for what God will call them to, forgetting that He is already at work in their lives. So, while education may be much more of a full-time task for the young, it is not because their (spiritual) life is yet to come.

Nor is education only for the young. While our children may spend much more time on it, learning is not exclusive to children. Sanctification continues and the command to let our minds be transformed is for all of us (Rom. 12:1-2). Our perspective, for young and old, should be a long-term one, with our eyes always on our ultimate goal (Heb. 12:1-2).

The take-away for today is simply this: We need a long-term goal that takes into account God’s providential plan for humanity and our eternal spiritual nature.

Next time we will look at the other axis and ask: Should the goal of education be individual or societal?







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