Reformed Christian Education: Drawing Some Conclusions

Dear Reader,

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

I began this series in January by arguing that we need a distinctively reformed Christian approach to education.   It is now July and we have looked at a number of different issues. I would like to try and draw some of these strands together and to propose some conclusions. Thus far most of what I have said has been on a fairly theoretical level — it is about the why of education more than the day-to-day hows. I can’t promise there won’t be more theory in the future but my goal moving forward is to look more at the practical details and to begin to show how we can implement the theory in real life.

Early on, I tried to show that every philosophy of education makes some assumptions, whether acknowledged or not, about who the child is and why we educate. As such education is a very theological enterprise. If our theology is distinctive — and as reformed people we do tend to be pretty picky about theology — we should expect those distinctives to show up in our philosophy of education.

My goal today is not to say something new but to combine everything in one place so we can see how it all fits together. If you want more depth on any point and/or to see where I got these ideas, click on the links provided (or, again, all the posts in this series can be found here). First we will look at  who we are educating by reviewing the nature of the child. Then we we will look at what we are teaching. Finally we will look at what happens when you bring the two together, what is the desired outcome and how does it come about.

The Nature of the Child

Every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the child, his nature and abilities. We looked at the child in both the Old and New Testaments and saw that:

  • Children are not a separate category of being. That is to say, they are at a most basic level the same sort of creature as adults.
  • All people, including children, consist of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. Though the Bible speaks of the mind, heart, soul and strength, it does not divide up a person in such a way that one of these parts can be addressed or can operate in isolation from the others.
  • Children are included in the body of God’s people and are called to obey God’s law.
  • Children are capable both of sin and of faith (through grace, of course).
  • Though they are in all these ways the same as adults, children are nonetheless ignorant and foolish. They are in particular need of education and discipline and the Bible says one’s youth is the best time for these activities.

Anyone who educates assumes that his pupil is in some way incomplete or imperfect. If he were both perfect and complete, there would be no need for education. The child’s lack of certain abilities, what we might call his immaturity, is generally not in dispute. An infant cannot eat steak or talk or walk or write his ABCs or do calculus. There are both physical and intellectual milestones which he has not acheived and cannot acheive in his current state.

One big question any philosophy of education needs to answer is how the child begins to be able to do these things. Will he pick up reading and calculus as naturally as he does walking and talking? Does he need input from adults to master these skills and if so, how much input?

How we answer these questions about the child’s physical and intellectual development is often tied closely to our view of his moral development. Those who view the child as inherently good tend to want to leave him to his own devices on the intellectual plane as well, trusting that he will aquire what is needful to him. This is the approach known as  unschooling.  Radical Unschoolers do not discipline because they trust the child to grow in correct ways on his own, not just physically and intellectually but morally and emotionally as well.

Most professing Christians would not go quite so far. Though all major branches of Christianity have some understanding of man’s fallen nature, how this is interpreted and what it means varies widely (see this post or this one).  The Roman Catholic Church, and many Protestants as well, accept the idea of Original Sin but stop short of the reformed doctrine of Total Depravity. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) lays out,  we believe that all the parts of human nature as being affected by sin (WCF IV). To the extent that the mind in particular is affected, this is going to alter how we educate and how successful we can be in education.

To sum up, as we look at who we are educating, we need to see that the child is fully human with all the aspects of a person, mind, soul, heart, and body. On the spiritual place, he is called to obey God’s law, but, like his parents, has a sin nature which makes him incapable of doing so. Nonethless, he also, again like his parents, is capable — by God’s grace alone — of true saving faith. His other aspects are not independent of his spiritual nature or of each other. They too have been affected by the Fall. His body, heart, and mind are not just immature due to his age and abilities but are corrupted.

The Fodder of Education

Before going too far, I want to reiterate a point that I made last time: when I speak of education I am defining it fairly narrowly as an intellectual activity. Because we are all made up of parts, the mind cannot be separated entirely from the other aspects of a person. This is easy to see on a practical level: we cannot easily educate a hungry child or one in the midst of emotional truama. So too education is also closely tied to discipline, but it is not discipline (see this post of biblical discipline). Nonetheless, education, as I am definfing it (and this is largely a matter of definition), is an affair of the mind.

If we want our children’s bodies to grow as they ought, we give them good food and exercise. If we want their minds to grow, we must also nourish and work them. Most of us already have some idea of what we want our children to learn — they must read and write and do at least basic math.  They should have some knowledge of history and science and maybe learn a foreign langauge. When we get into the specifics later this year, I will address each of these subjects and talk about why teach them and how. For now I hope that we can at least all see that there is some body of knowledge that comprises education whatever that may be.

All this stuff we teach, the fodder of education if you will, falls under the heading of Natural or General Revelation.  The Scriptures are God’s Supernatural Revelation to us in that they come not through the laws of Creation which God has ordained but directly from God Himself. They are also termed Special Revelation because they give specific knowledge to man about salvation and redemption. In contrast, God’s Natural or General Revelation comes to us through His Creation and teaches us about God in a more broad way.

Too often, I think, we limit General Revelation. We may take a brief walk in the woods and say some things about beauty and order and then we move on. But there is a lot more to General Revelation than we can get from a quick surface observation. The testimony of scientists, both believers and non-believers, is that the more we delve into the universe and look at how it works, the more wonder we find. Nor is General Revelation limited to the physical universe. God also reveals Himself through events  and through people:

“General revelation does not come to man in the form of direct verbal communications. It consists in an embodiment of the divine thought in the phenomena of nature, in the general constitution of the human mind, and in the facts of experience or history.” Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1981 (originally published 1933)] pp. 26-27

Of course, believing parents will also teach their children the Scriptures, but the bulk of what we teach falls under the heading of God’s General Revelation. For a glimpse into how many of the traditional school subjects reveal the Creator, see this post.

What Happens in Education

Imagine yourself in front of a class of children. Some are from Christian homes. They are what we call covenant children. By God’s gracious decree, we assume them to be part of His covenant people. They are redeemed and, while still sin lives in them, they are capable of choosing and doing good. Others in your class are not from Christian homes. As yet we see no evidence of salvation in them, though of course we hope and pray that they will be saved. These children are not (yet) capable of choosing and doing good. When you teach a lesson to these children, they hear the same words and read the same books, but what is happening in them is fundamentally different because they are fundamentally different.  While there is one thing we do when we educate, there are two fundamentally different purposes, one for the believing covenant child and one for the (as yet) unsaved child.

Thus far we have looked at who the child is and at what we are teaching him. Now it is time to see what happens when we take the fodder of education and present it to our pupil. In education, we present to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has given is in His General Revelation. How this is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is actually a little easier to discern what is happening with the non-believer. Paul tells us in Romans what the purpose of General Revelation is in the life of the non-believer:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom. 1:20-21; ESV)

General Revelation is a revealing of the Creator God. To the extent that men fail to see the Creator behind the creation, it serves to condemn them. Of course, if we are educators, we hope — and pray — that this will not be the case for our students. We desire that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they will recognize their Creator in the things He has made and done.

Perhaps your student has seen a tree (I hope!) but maybe he has never appreciated the intricate process by which sunlight becomes food for the plant and ultimately for us. When we bring these things before our 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 (see this post). [1]

A covenant child or one who has made a profession of faith is in a bit of a different situation (for my previous discussion of this point, incuding a lot more verse references, see this post).  The base condition of man is to be unable to choose or do good. As discussed above, all aspects of his being are affected and are fallen or corrupted.  But once the Holy Spirit has begun to dwell in a person this is no longer the case. We are still pretty sinful people, but we are no longer ruled by our sin natures. We are in the midst of a process called sanctification which will last throughout this life. Sanctification means that we are gradually being made more holy. The image of God in us is being perfected as we are made more like Christ who is Himself the perfect Image of God (Col. 1:15).

As reformed people, we believe that the Fall affected all aspects of our natures. So too sanctification affects all aspects — body, mind, heart and soul (WCF XIII:II). In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. What happens when God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done? They are transformed (cf. Phil. 4:8-9) —

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:1-2; ESV)

This renewal of the mind is one piece of sanctification and should be something we desire and actively seek for ourselves and our children.

We are often tempted to concentarte exclusively on the moral aspect of sanctification. We focus on whether we have sinned today and how much and is it any less than yesterday. Fighting specific sins on our lives is essential, but it is not the whole of sanctification. There is a lot to be said also for immersing ourselves in the world God has made not because it will make us better — though it will – but simply because He has made it. As I argued in this post, the pursuit of knowledge and beauty for their own sakes is valuable because all true knowledge and beauty come from and belong to God. Nonetheless, because all the aspects of our beings work together, we should expect that as we actively participate in the sanctification of our minds by feeding them the things of God that we will become better people as well. As I discussed in this post there is an intimate connection between faith and knowledge.

Conclusion and the Most Important Point

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7; ESV; cf. Prov. 1:29; 2:5; 9:10)

You can’t go far in the book of Proverbs without seeing that faith and knowledge go hand in hand. True knowledge comes from God (James 1:5). When we educate we bring before people — no matter their age — the things of God. We show them what He has made and how it works and what He has done in history and how He has made us. These are things we should all spend more time contemplating.

What happens when we bring these thinsg before a particular pesrons depends not on us but entirely on the eternal plan of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in that person’s life. Let me say that again because it really is the most important point I can make today: We don’t “teach” anyone anything. We bring to them the things of God and whether they receive those things or not is dependent upon the work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives. If the student before us is not a believer, we hope and pray that they see God in what we show them and that it will be the beginning of faith. If they already have faith, we expect that they will grow in that faith and in their understanding of God as they  contemplate what He has done.

Nebby

[1] A side bar: You may be asking yourself: Why not just present Special Revelation, i.e. the message of the Scriptures, to the unbelieving child? Of course in the end we all need to understand the particulars of the gospel message. If you are teaching unbelieving children in a Christian school or in your home, you should certainly make the Bible part of their shcool day. But you might be teaching in a setting in which you cannot do that (a public or non-Christian school) or it may be that your student is not ready for the meat of the gospel yet. Special Revelation is essential to salvation in a way that General revelation is not, yet General Revelation is one of the ordinary means God uses to prepare hearts for the work of His Spirit.

9 responses to this post.

  1. […] « Reformed Christian Education: Drawing Some Conclusions […]

    Reply

  2. […] work of the Holy Spirit and God’s eternal purpose (all this is explained in more detail in this post). Last time we said that, as the outcome is ultimately dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit, […]

    Reply

  3. […] Thus far I have tried to demonstrate that when we educate we place before children the things of God. Our expectation as teachers is that the Holy Spirit will use these things in their lives, for their salvation if they are not (yet) regenerate and for their sanctification, specifically for the transforming of their minds, if they are. Our attitude should be one of joy and delight as we also revel in God’s truth. We should view ourselves as those who, while perhaps a little further along, are also being thus sanctified.  With this under our belts, we are now ready to jump head-long into the practical details of education. […]

    Reply

  4. […] have argued that when we educate we are placing before our students the things of God as revealed in general revelat…. It is God’s truth, goodness, and beauty that we are putting before them. These things have […]

    Reply

  5. […] that education. Thus far, we have spent a good deal of time on the theoretical side of things (see this summary post). On the practical side, we have discussed the need for a broad education and for an approach that […]

    Reply

  6. […] Again, I agree largely with what Middlekauff has to say, but I do have two concerns. I believe that it is the Holy Spirit that is working even if our students are unregenerate. If there is any good to be done in and for them, it is He that does it. Charlotte Mason’s philsophy of education relies upon the student being able to choose the good and I would not say that the unregenerate (children or adults) have any power to do so. I think then that more needs to be said about how this philosophy can work for such children. (I do have my own theories about the purpose of education in the lives of both regenerate and unregenerate children; you can read them here.) […]

    Reply

  7. […] 6:6-7; 11:9). To the extent that the other subjects we teach also reveal the Creator – and I have argued that this is exactly what they do and why we study them – it is reasonable to conclude that they are also, if not required, at least very profitable and […]

    Reply

  8. […] reproducing what is learned can benefit the student.  This is often missed in our society, but is, as I have argued, education is for the child, for his sanctification, then we must be careful that what we do is truly beneficial to him. I don’t generally like […]

    Reply

  9. […] My goal in this part of the series has been to lay out some principles to help you evaluate books, materials, and curricula. For a summary of the big ideas behind it all, see this summary post. […]

    Reply

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