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.



23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cindi on March 17, 2018 at 10:31 pm

    I think you gave a pretty nice, succinct summary of that book; my husband has all of Van Til’s works on CD-ROM, and I remember reading that specifically. Here is a link for an audio of him on the same subject; it is quite old, and you’re absolutely right that he didn’t go into specific detail — which a lot of us wish he had. But I do think he would heartily have approved of the Charlotte Mason method because it is dependent upon Christ and the Holy Spirit for teaching/understanding. Regarding his emphasis on history, that wouldn’t have been so for youngsters, but older children, and he also would have approved of sciences and math education because we are commanded to subdue the earth, etc., and by studying those higher-level things, too, we learn more of the great and mighty God we serve, as he has created the entire universe, so by studying sciences and different maths, we can learn more about God and how He thinks and is.


    • Thank you, Cindi, and thanks for the video link. I’ll watch it when I get a chance. I agree that studying math and science is godly though I tend to be turned off by the way it is presented today — “the STEM subjects” — which tends to be a very practical, how can we stay ahead of the Chinese approach.


  2. Posted by mks on March 18, 2018 at 10:20 pm

    Sounds like a very interesting read.

    I was struck by this portion of your review: “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. . . In developing his 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).”

    This immediately struck me as something Charlotte Mason was going for as well. Maybe it’s not expressed in this exact way, but it seems to be a fundamental idea in her philosophy. Thoughts?


    • I am struck by it to and I definitely need to return to it. It is a very interesting way of stating the purpose of man and I’d like to know how he supports that view. I have thought for a while that Christianity (and Judaism) values the individual personality in a way other religions don’t. In Buddhism, for example, peace is achieved through emptying and losing oneself. In Christianity we are never called to do that.


  3. […] standard by which all is judged.  Cornelius Van Til (my review of his book on education is here) has made very similar arguments though his book is a bit of a harder slog. If you are a devotee of […]


  4. […] 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 […]


  5. […] 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 […]


  6. […] the various books I have been reading on education, Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) has risen to the top as one I keep coming back to. One […]


  7. […] struck by the fact that both Cornelius Van Til and Rousas Rushdoony (see my reviews of their books here and here respectively) speak of the Christian school as an almost divinely-inspired body […]


  8. […] Van Til, Cornelius. Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974. Van Til is a solid reformed thinker. More than any other, his book on Christian education is one I find myself returning to. See my review here. […]


  9. […] On the theological/theoretical side of things two of my favorites are J.G. Vos and Cornelius Van Til. Vos’s book is very short, more of a pamphlet. Van Til has more to say though is main […]


  10. […] [1] Cornelius Van Til does an excellent job of explaining this in his book  Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974; see my review here). […]


  11. […] Cornelius Van Til Essays on Christian Education […]


  12. […] of my book reviews relating to Christian education are from this period: Dawson (a Catholic), Vos, Van Til, Greg Harris, and Rushdoony. It is no wonder that the modern homeschooling movement has its roots […]


  13. […] for education and for life, the development of the image of God within the person, reminds me of Van Til’s and is not, I think, terribly far from my own though I would not express it the same way. There are […]


  14. […] their students. Zylstra argues that culture more than nature conveys this truth. This is much like Van Til who argued for history as the cornerstone of the curriculum. God reveals Himself through both […]


  15. […] article, “The Man of God Thoroughly Furnished,” Schultze combines some of the ideas of Van Til and Lockerbie, both of whom I rather liked. (He would have been a contemporary of Van Til but came […]


  16. […] is STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math (or perhaps STEAM, with a nod to art). Van Til, as we have seen, argues that history should be the core since it is about man. Zylstra argues for literature which […]


  17. […] idea is not new or unique to Wilson. Van Til also takes quite an antithetical view and Rushdoony even more so. The idea is that there can be no […]


  18. […] will admit at this point that in my study of reformed approaches to education, I was initially quite influneced by Van Til. The uniformity and centralization of doctrine which he advocates and which Fesko here argues […]


  19. […] Christian approaches can be psychological if their main focus is on the building of the individual. Cornelius Van Til, for example, speaks of the goal of education as conformity to the image of God which he defines as […]


  20. […] Fall. By it God’s people are transformed by the renewal of their minds (Rom. 12:2). [1] Yet education had a purpose at Creation as well. That is, if there had not been a Fall, education would still have a role to play as men grew in […]


  21. […] In the life of an unregenerate person, the effect is that of a Call. Either the person will, by grace, respond in faith, or, if he does not, the effect will ultimately be for his condemnation. When we educate non-believing students, those outside the covenant community of God, we are playing a part in the process that will ultimately either lead to their salvation or seal their fate.  In theological language, this is the External Call which goes forth to all humanity. (Common Grace, Part 1 and Part 2; Van Til on Education) […]


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