Reformed Thinkers on Education: Donald Oppewal and Epistemology

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). Most of the people I have looked at thus far are represented in a volume edited by Donald Oppewal, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997). The final article in this volume is by the editor, Oppewal himself, and it is well worth reading.

In “Biblical Knowing and Teaching,” Oppewal discusses how we know and what the practical implications are for how we teach. The theory of knowing is called epistemology and it is our topic for the day.

Though Oppewal has assembled quite a collection of essays in this volume, he begins his own by in some sense minimizing them. Other authors have discussed the covenant and how it relates to education and a lot has been said on human nature. These issue are not irrelevant to education but Oppewal’s argument here is that more than any other subject epistemology is going to point us to how education actually needs to happen.

Oppewal begins by accepting the view propounded by Jaarsma and Wolterstorff that we must view humans holistically and educate the whole child. His view of knowing will be similarly holistic.

Two models of knowing are presented as alternatives. In the first, the spectator model, knowledge-getting is primarily mental. Truths are believed when they are seen to be logically consistent with self-evident truths. The second, the respondent model, is more hands-on. In it knowing is tied with doing. It is the latter for which Oppewal argues.

When it comes to the theory, Oppewal’s foundation is the Scriptures. Though he says that we can only derive principles about knowing from the Bible rather than finding a full epistemological theory there, his arguments actually show that the Bible presents quite a coherent theory of knowing.  Briefly — James tells us that “believing in” is not the same as “believing that” (James 2:14-20; p. 318). Verses like Genesis 4:1 (“Adam knew Eve”) tell is that knowing has quite an intimate connotation. And the book of Proverbs shows us throughout that knowledge needs to have practical applications; it is not just head knowledge but is about how you live your life. Having established what knowing means in the Bible and that knowing God is more than head knowledge, Oppewal makes an assumption — and I think it is a very good one — that we know other things in the same way:

” While . . . the paradigm of knowing is knowing God as a person, it is here offered as a model for all knowing. Thus knowing an idea or an object has the same components.” (p. 319)

Because knowledge is so intimate, Oppewal favors the respondent model described above with requires interaction.

Oppewal then turns to the practical applications for education. He begins by describing two extremes: In Plato’s philosophy one learns through dialogue and knowledge is very much head-knowledge. In John Dewey’s, one learns through problem solving and knowledge is hands-on. Oppewal’s methodology is holistic in that it combines these two — it acknowledges the value of truth while requiring interaction. 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 confronted with new material. He must be confronted in  a way that produces some dissonance or tension so that there is something to be resolved. In the choose stage options and tensions are explored. And in the commit stage there is movement towards action. Because of the nature of this process, he favors an approach which organizes material around topics which cut across traditional disciplines. Topics he suggests include: environmentalism, which includes political and historical issues as well as scientific ones; sexuality; and hunger.

When he is laying our his view of epistemology, I really like what Oppewal has to say. I am less convinced by the practical application in his methodology. I think he is right that more than other questions — though those questions need answered too — our theory of knowing will affect how we educate. I also think that the Bible has quite a lot to tell us about knowing and that he does a good job of explicating the biblical view. I agree with his general conclusion that we ned to account for the existence of absolute truth but also allow for the learner to interact with the materials. I do not see how he of necessity gets from there to his consider/choose/commit paradigm.

This series largely began because I was moving away from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education because she is not reformed and I think she has some things about human nature quite wrong. But as I read some of these reformed thinkers, I am struck by what she did have right, and on this topic of epistemology I think she was on target. She would agree with Oppewal that knowing is more than information gathering and that it requires the learner to respond and to integrate that knowledge. The height of Oppewal’s argument, to my mind, is in the quote above — we know other things as we know God. And how do we know God? We have a relationship with Him. Oppewal gets to this point and then I feel he drops the ball a bit and returns to education-ese. The things studied become things again, For Mason, the things studied are things we can have relationships with and that realtionship is the goal.

Practically speaking, this is what relationship looks like: If I know a person, I know not just what he likes or how he looks or even what he has done, but I have some sense of what he will do. I know his character and I can predict how he will act or think. If I study an artist, say Van Gogh, I may learn facts about him: that he painted a lot of self-portraits, that he had a disturbed personal history, and that he used bright colors. If I can walk into a museum and see a Van Gogh I have never seen before and know it is his, then I know Van Gogh because I have developed a relationship with his work. We can thus “know” even the most mundane, un-life-like objects — a potter knows his clay and a five-year-old boy similarly may know mud in a way that his mother cannot begin to fathom.

The biblical epistemology — and I do think there is a biblical epistemology– leads us to this point: to know is to have a relationship. We can envision what this looks like, how we can thus “know” an author or an artist or a period of history or a branch of science or even a lump of dirt. The next question then is how we educate to this end. Since Charlotte Mason, despite some other flaws in her theory, sets forth this goal well, I think it is reasonable to look again at her methodology and to see if it will serve our purposes. A thorough examination would be the subject for another post. For now, briefly, Oppewal points us to the need for an approach which includes both an acknowledgement that there is absolute truth and that the learner must interact on some level with the material. When he turns to the interacting, he makes it ultimately about external things — what are you going to do or what would you have done? Mason keeps it more internal; she asks how much the student cares. Her approach is analogous to digestion; the child takes in the material and must process it for himself. This I think is where we want to end up. It is not that there will not be practical outcomes; there very much should be. But that is not our primary goal. Our goal is to transform the individual.



7 responses to this post.

  1. […] made some attempt to say what truth is, we must also ask how we learn truth. This, as we saw when we looked at Oppewal, is the science of epistemology. Truth, Gaebelein says, does not come to us through unaided reason […]


  2. […] the Netherlands the Canons of Dordt addressed education. (As we have seen in our study of Donald Oppewal’s book, the Dutch Reformed still have a lot to say on the topic.) The focus of the Canons was still on […]


  3. […] of them separately but man hismelf is a unifed whole and no one aspect is exalted over the other. Donald Oppewal specifically rejects the Platonic view which, following Wolterstorff, he calls “‘an […]


  4. […] book A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011; see also this earlier post on Oppewal). Though no date is given, this article seems to have originally been published around 1960 so it […]


  5. […] book A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011; see also this earlier post on Oppewal) Donald Oppewal shows how some reformed doctrines have specific applications for education. These […]


  6. […] offers his own methodolgy which he calls the discovery method (see this earlier post) which “requires active participation of the learner. He or she is not simply accepting, but […]


  7. […] knowledge is not merely rational but is intimate. (Oppewal on Epistemology; History of […]


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