Reformed Thinkers on Education: Cornelius Jaarsma, Psychology and Relationship

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Last time we began to look at Cornelius Jaarsma, focusing in the four approaches to education which he lays out in “The Christian View of the School Curriculum” [in Voices from the Past, ed. Donald Oppewal (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc, 1997)]. Today I would like to look more specifically at Jaarsma’s thought as it is presented in the Oppewal volume.

In his first essay in this volume, “A Christian Theory of the Person,” Jaarsma, as the title suggests, lays out his view of what it means to be human. I like that he begins with the Bible. His basic idea, most simply put, is that man combines the physical and spiritual into one inseparable whole. He speaks of man as soul (psyche), spirit (pneuma), and body (soma). The image of God in man he associates with the spirit. He rejects the Roman Catholic view which sees the image as something added to and not essential to man. “The Reformed view,” he says “holds that the image of God is essential to man’s humanity” (p. 161). In a position which is new to me (which says nothing; I am by no means a theologian), he says that “[i]n the primary sense, man is the image of God collectively” (p. 161). Nonetheless individuals participate in the image because they have the qualities of their race. Among these qualities are tendencies to unity and freedom. Man’s purpose is to fulfill, express, and realize the image of God in him.

All of this Jaarsma seems to get from the first chapters of Genesis. He then goes on to look at the word “heart” in the Bible. His synopsis in this essay is fairly brief and it may be that a deeper study lies behind it. If so, I would like to see it, because I am not wholly convinced that he is identifying the heart correctly. It is no doubt true, however, that “heart” is used many ways and conveys a variety of things within the Scriptures. Jaarsma’s conclusion is that there is “a kernel or essence that is new in each person” which he identifies with “the life principle in man, the directive center of his total being” (p. 163). He rejects the Greek view that man’s intellect is his highest faculty. Because man is a unity, no one aspect of his being is either above the others nor is any one the seat of evil within him.

At this point Jaarsma advances a theory of personality which at first glance does not sit well with me. He begins by saying that ” infants . . . can hardly be said to have personality” (p. 165), a statement which to my observation seems blatantly untrue. If we allow him to define what he means by personality, we find that it is for him mainly an affect. Personality is how we affect others. Man is in constant tension with his environment. It is in his interactions with it and his adjustments to it, that we find his personality. “When a person communicates in the dimensions of life according to consciously accepted ends, he is a personality . . .  An infant, comparatively speaking, is without personality” (p. 167).

I will admit that I don’t fully understand this. It maybe that I am missing his point entirely. As a mother, I have to say that we can see distinct personalities (in the very ordinary use of that term) in even the youngest children, and I think most mothers will say that they could perceive unique differences in their children soon after birth and sometimes even before birth. The child that kicks a lot in the womb tends to come out kicking. Which is to say that from earliest days, the child is a person and has an environment and is able to react to it in ways that another individual does not. Think of John the Baptist leaping within his mother’s womb. And even if we were not there to perceive the personality of a small child, would that mean it didn’t exist as a unique thing? Would he not still have a personality in the eyes of his Creator?

Summing up this first article, I would say that I like that Jaarsma turns to the Bible, but he seems to combine it with modern educational and psychological ideas and I feel these need more justification.

In the second article, “How to View Learning,” Jaarsma gives the example of a teacher trying to educate poor, urban children about where milk comes from. His argument basically boils down to: the children need to make a real connection to the material they are learning. They need not facts but a story that they can participate in, if not in real life then vicariously through narrative. The process he describes for true learning is much like Charlotte Mason’s approach. He essentially describes what it is to engage with a living book and he stresses the need for the child to appropriate the truth for himself. Again like Mason, he stresses the role of relationship in learning. His synopsis of his view is: “Learning . . .is the activity of a person as he focuses his attention upon an object for understanding and acceptance of it in its true nature” (p. 178). The article ends with a brief discussion of goals. As he indicated previously, Jaarsma sees the end goal as the expression of the image of God within the individual. Because this is a very large goal, one must establish “directional process goals” along the way as intermediate stages (p. 181).

Jaarsma’s third and final essay within this volume is “The Christian View of the School Curriculum.” In it he lays out the four approaches to education which we discussed previously. As I said in that earlier post, Jaarsma favors a combined methodology which takes from each of the four. This fits well with his emphasis on the whole child. Indeed, one could argue that we can’t use one approach without incorporating at least something of the others. As Jaarsma says: “Never can we seek his mental development without affecting him spiritually” (p. 186).

Again Jaarsma lays forth his goal for education and for life: the fulfillment of the image of God within us. He acknowledges in this essay that that image has been corrupted by sin, but man “can again be formed, patterned after the excellencies of his Creator . . .Education to be true must now be redemptive” (pp. 187-88). He goes on to lay out a few expectations for such an education: It must meet the child’s primary need for “the truth about himself and about his world” (p. 188). It must prepare him to be in the world but not of it, and it must prepare him for his calling in life.

There is a lot I like about Jaarsma’s thought. I found his delineation of the four approaches to education quite helpful. I was struck in the second essay,  “How to View Learning,” by how much his thought coincides with that of Charlotte Mason, who while not perfect herself is quite influential in my own thought. His goal 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 portions of his thought, however, which I found either hard to understand or difficult to swallow. Though he makes an effort to be biblical and to think of education in a Scriptural way, I did find that Jaarsma combines biblical ideas with psychological and educational ones more than I would like.




4 responses to this post.

  1. […] « Reformed Thinkers on Education: Cornelius Jaarsma […]


  2. […] begins by accepting the view propounded by Jaarsma and Wolterstorff that we must view humans holistically and educate the whole child. His view of […]


  3. […] now I have run across a brief article by Cornelius Jaarsma (whom I covered once before in this post) in which he at least begins to present arguments for schools and so I have a pretext to vent a […]


  4. […] Fundamentals in Christian Education  (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953). Though we have discussed Jaarsma previously, I wanted to revisit his thought to bring out one more […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s