Reformed Thinkers on Education: Nicholas Beversluis on Man’s Nature and Purpose

Dear Reader,

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

I have been slowly working my way through the essays in Donald Oppewal’s  Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997) looking at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education. Today’s thinker is another Calvin College professor (perhaps they all are in this volume; I haven’t skipped to the end to find out yet). Nicholas Beversluis was a professor of education in the 1970s. In the introduction to him, Oppewal tells us that he bridged the gap between Jellema and Jaarsma. The former, whom we have already looked at here, represents the intellectualistic side of the spectrum, and the latter (coming soon) the more active side.

Beversluis has two essays in this volume, both excerpts from a longer book. The first, “Major Learning Goals in Christian Education,” outlines three areas which the author believes should form the basis of any Christian educational program. He begins with some questions: “Who is man? What is he like? What are his needs?  . . . What ought man to be like? Why is man here? What is he called to do in the world?  . . . What is it that God wants for him and of him?” (p.123). As I have said many times,  behind any philosophy of education are presuppositions about who man is and what his ultimate purpose is so I was pleased Beversluis begins his discussion with these questions.

Beversluis then goes on to give his answers. Looking first at who man is, he begins with man as the image of God. For him this means that (1) man is both physical and spiritual; (2) man has “unique endowments for thinking, for choosing, for creating”; (3) man is called to live socially and to do the world’s work; (4) man is called to stewardship of his person and endowments (p. 124). He then goes on to mention that sin has corrupted man but that “forgiveness and renewal through Jesus Christ restored man” so that man is again as the image of God in all its fullness (p. 125). While I probably would not have chosen a list just like Beversluis’s, I am willing to reserve judgment for a while. I am more disconcerted by his statement about sin. He seems to be saying that the effects of sin are negated in Christ though we know that we still suffer them in this life. I would like to see a more on how education is affected by sin since we are not yet fully sanctified people.

Based on his definition of what it means to be made in the image of God, Beversluis delineates three educational goals in three areas. The areas are the intellectual, moral, and creative. As we educate to these areas we enable the student to know, to choose, and to participate respectively. Beversluis makes clear that these three areas and their associated goals are interrelated. Unlike the classical tradition (see here and here),  these do not represent different stages in learning. Even the youngest child engages in all three. The aim of the three working together is religious growth.

Here Beversluis returns to one of his initial questions, man’s purpose. He speaks of “the creation mandate and the gospel mandate.” The former, given in Genesis 1, calls us to care for the world and the latter to evangelize it by “declaring and exhibiting the reconciling love of God” (p. 127).

Here we run into another issue. To the outside world “reformed Christian” may seem pretty specific, but we know there can be a lot of variety within the reformed tradition. I am writing this series because I do not think it is at all obvious what “reformed education” means. We need to discuss it and we need to begin to draw some conclusions. But if we are to begin be saying something along the lines of “well, it’s an education based on a reformed worldview,” we also need to define that reformed worldview. All of which is to say that I do not disagree with Beversluis that we are given mandates in Genesis and in the gospel but I am not at all sure that these two sum up our purpose. I appeal for my position to the catechism which when asking “What is the chief end of man?” do not answer by saying “to take care of the world and evangelize it” but instead: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 1). Beversluis’ answer is not untrue, but it focuses on the jobs man has been given which is not necessarily the same as his purpose. Henry Zylstra, as we saw, defines the purpose of man in knowing God. He takes this from Calvin who, he says, answered the question of man’s chief end with “to know God and enjoy him forever” (Zylstra, “The Contemplative Life,” in Oppewal, p. 87).  I rather like Zylstra’s, and Calvin’s, formulation, but the point remains that if our philosophy of education is to be based on assumptions about man’s end then we must know what that end is and there is clearly still disagreement even within the relatively narrow circles of reformed thought.

To return to Beversluis —  he had laid out three goals for education, intellectual, moral, and creative. As Oppewal said, he bridges a gap here between to ends of the spectrum. He emphasizes the intellectual but he does not see it apart from action. Nor do facts and memorization satisfy his requirements for intellectual growth. Thought and understanding are his goals.

This knowledge then allows us to make choices and this is where the moral component comes in. The morality schools foster must go beyond simple lists of rules. Students must be taught to wrestle with complex moral problems. His emphasis is on moral growth, on gradually delving more and more into the complexity of the world around us and the choices it presents. His goals here actually seem rather large for a curriculum, and I wonder too if they are perhaps too willing to acknowledge moral complexity. I concede his point that morality is not a list of do’s and don’ts but at the same time, there is black and white even if we can’t always discern it. Things either conform to God’s will or they don’t. It may perhaps be that I am just living is a much more subjective time than he was, but I fear that he opens the door too much to a fluid view of morality.

Lastly, creativity is the action that we take based on the knowledge we gain and the choices we make, though again it should be emphasized that Beversluis always makes clear that these are not distinct stages but that all three areas work simultaneously. One’s individuality comes out in this area. We may all take in the same knowledge (though not necessarily so) but our response to it is more individual. Here Beversluis says, “A school would not be a good Christian school if it did not promote the growth of self-accepting and self-expressing free persons” (p. 137). I am again uncomfortable with his langauge and again it may be partly that our times have conditioned us to respond in different ways. I see that years of parenting towards self-acceptance has led to generations of pretty messed up kids. I don’t see that the Bible ever calls us to self-acceptance. If anything, it calls us to view ourselves rightly before God, and, when we do look at Him and at ourselves, the proper response is not self-acceptance but abject humility.

Though we have already seen that Beversluis tried to bridge the gap between the intellectual and the active, in his second essay in this volume, “The Two Sides of Christian Education,” he does so much more explicitly. He presents the debate as one between learning goals and curriculum patterns. Any Christian model, he suggests needs to account for both the subject matter as a fixed thing and for the individuality of the student in his responses to it. [I believe, actually, that Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education,which has largely influenced my own, does this quite well (see here but also some of my objections to it here.]

Beversluis goes on to delineate subject areas which should be included within the curriculum, listing “general developmental studies” which include the three R’s plus music and physical education and the like; natural sciences and mathematics; social sciences; history; and literature and the arts. In addition to these there is religious studies which in some sense overarches them all.

So while I am pleased that Beversluis begins by asking deep questions, I am not entirely convinced of the answers he gives. One other area of concern which I alluded to briefly above is the extent of his curriculum. He presents a very thorough program in terms of the training he gives in thinking about moral issues particularly. My concern is not unique to Beversluis’s writing but has arisen from a number of the thinkers we have looked at. Briefly put, I am not sure how the role they envision for the school relates to that of the church and the parents. Some, like Zylstra, are careful to say that the church and school should be distinct institutions. Peter Ton expressed concern that the school not take over the role of the parents. But as yet I have read few specifics on just how the school is to function in relation to the family in particular. The fact if (as I have discussed in this previous post) that church and family are biblical institutions and school is not. This is not to say that schools are inherently bad. They may serve a very real need. But to my mind the God-ordained institutions should take precedence and the man-made one should bow to them. So I get very concerned again when I see such a broad role outlined for the schools.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] many educational philosophies combine two or more of these approaches. The last thinker we studied, Nicholas Beversluis, delineated three goals of education: intellectual, moral, and creative. The first and last of […]


  2. […] He distinguishes three phases which he calls considering, choosing, and committing. (You may recall Nicholas Beversluis also had a three-stage process which seems roughly similar.) In the consider stage, the learner is […]


  3. […] The purpose of education is to be found in the purpose of man’s life. To the extent that man’s purpose is to “know God and enjoy Him forever,” this also is the purpose of education.  (Henry Zylstra; Nicholas Beversluis) […]


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