Reformed Thinkers on Education: Louis Berkhof, Or the Covenant in Education

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).

I was excited to read Louis Berkhof’s thoughts on education. I have made use of his systematic theology and respect his work. Though the essays I read by him are, as most of the ones I have reviewed so far, included in Donald Oppewal’s volume Voices from the Past (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997), he is an older writer (1930s) and was not, as the others were, employed by Calvin College (though he did live in Michigan, having emigrated from the Netherlands).

The two essays by Berkhof are primarily calls for reformed people to use and support Christian schools. He begins by assuming that schools are the modern method of education. Of course, in his time this was perhaps understandable. Homeschooling as such seems to have been unknown. In our current environment, I think we need to go beyond this. I have said before and will say again — family and church are institutions established in the Bible and given specific authority; schools are not. Which is not to say schools are wrong. We can point to other institutions which are non-biblical but serve us well — hospitals, for instance. But given that Scripture does give explicit authority and responsibility for various activities to the parents and church, we need to be sure to lay out a role for the school that does not contradict or undermine them.

In “Being Reformed in Our Attitude Toward the Christian School,” Berkhof presents and rejects two common justifications for schooling: one based on national self-interest and one based on evolutionary presuppositions. He actually makes quite a strong case for parents as the proper and biblical educators of their children and further argues that this education should be a religious one. Like Jaarsma and others, he argues for a unified view of the child. We cannot separate the mind from the heart or the soul so we cannot educate just to the mind. Because this is so, there is no secular or neutral education apart from one’s religious view: “We should never forget that the education which the child receives in the school, though divorced from religion, is nevertheless an education of the entire child and is bound to make a deep impression on the heart.”  His conclusion then is that “[i]n view of the fact that the influence of the Christian home is waning” (!) we must have reformed schools to educate our children (p. 240).

Berkhof second article,”The Covenant of Grace and Its Significance for Education,” seeks to demonstrate that Christian schools are a necessary outgrowth of covenant theology. Again, his stance is very pro-school and his aim is to argue for Christian, and specifically reformed, schools as opposed to public schools; homeschooling is not within his purview. The connection between the covenant and schooling he says has often been maintained but never explained. He begins with a brief introduction to the concept of covenants and the content of the covenant of grace in particular. I have some interests in the idea of covenant and how it plays out but those are beyond the scope of this series so I will not indulge myself in analyzing Berkhof’s thought on this topic. As regards education, his main argument is that at their children’s baptisms Christian parents promise that by the strength of God they will “utilize the means which God has ordained for the realization of the covenant life in their children” (p. 256). Covenant children are heirs to God’s promises and His blessings. “These bounties naturally call for gratitude” (p. 259) and so it is incumbent upon their parents to teach them the fullness of God’s work so that they can be appropriately grateful. Note that as they are covenant children, Berkhof does not say that we are educating them unto salvation in any way. The promises are assumed as is their membership in the covenant community. We are educating them to be able to fulfill their covenant responsibilities (if they were not to do so, they would be covenant-breakers; p. 256). Though he does not use this language exactly, Berkhof essentially says that Christian education is the ordinary means by which God brings faith and sanctification in the lives of covenant children (p. 262).

I am a little disappointed to find that, as Berkhof assumes the school as the means of education, that his work here is of limited usefulness. I do like what he has to say about covenant children. This is a concept I find often inadequately explained. My overall goal, however, is not to provide a philosophy of education for covenant children only but one that covers all chidlren. As most other Christian writers I have read, Berkhof does not consider how we could educate those from non-Christian homes who might come under our care. My own thoughts, as I have said before, are that there is one way to educate though there mat be different effects depending on whether the child is in or out of the covenant.



One response to this post.

  1. […] Education is part of God’s ordinary means. This is particularly true in the lives of covenant children for whom education is a means God uses to fulfill their baptismal promises. (Louis Berkhof) […]


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