How Specific Calvinistic Beliefs Impact 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.

I have been making the argument throughout this series that what we believe has implications for our approach to education.  Who man is, what his nature is and his purpose, these among many other questions will shape a philosophy of education.

In his 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 are broader principles, derived ultimately from the Scriptures and held to by at least some significant segment of the reformed world.

The Sovereignty of God

If there is a principle that undergirds all of what we call Calvinism, it is this: that God has authority in all areas, that He is involved in His Creation at all levels and that He is able to accomplish what He wills.

For Oppewal, the implication of God’s sovereignty for education is that “schools are the instruments of social transformation in all areas of life” (p. 86). I will admit I am a bit mystified by this statement. It seems to assume a lot. Why are schools specifically the instrument? Where does “social transformation” come into it? I think the idea he is trying to get at is that God is involved not just in the sacred but the so-called secular areas of life.  Since Oppewal assumes schools as an almost God-given institution for education (a point on which he and I would disagree) and since by educating the next generation one presumably affects society, he places the justification for the mission of the school in the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.

I think Oppewal has a right instinct here but assumes too much in terms of specific modes of application.  God is sovereign over all areas. There is in reality no sacred and secular because there is no area from which He is excluded. The implication for education is that we study not just Bible but all areas of knowledge from biology to Chinese history, from grammar to trigonometry. That God is sovereign also affects how we view each of these areas of study. This is seen most easily perhaps in history. Events are not random, nor are they merely due to human choice or economic forces. All that has happened has been willed by God for reasons we may or may not be able to discern. Thus the doctrine of God’s sovereignty gives us a reason to study seeming “secular” subjects and also a new perspective from which to study them.

Sphere Sovereignty

I was not familiar with this term before reading Oppewal though the concept is one I have heard before. The basic idea is that all authority belongs to God and that He has delegated some to various institutions. They thus have spheres over which they exert sovereignty and for which they answer to Him. This view is as much about where one’s authority ends as about where it begins. Thus the State has authority to for instance punish criminals while the Church has authority to decide who takes communion. On my end of the reformed spectrum, this idea would come under the heading the Messianic Kingship of Christ [1].

The next logical question is: Who then has authority over education? Oppewal gives two answers (in one paragraph):

“Academics or schools constitute one of the spheres, having its own sovereignty . . . This doctrine underlies the Calvinist educational belief that the locus of educational authority is neither the church nor the state, but the parent community.” (p. 87)

There are four possible answers to this question:

  1. The State — As far as I have read, no modern reformed thinkers seem to argue that the State has or should have authority in education. Luther did argue for State involvement, if not control, but this was in a particular historical circumstance in which 1) the Church that had had control was the Catholic Church and 2) the State meant smaller Geraminc states which were turning to Protestantism as a State religion. They were not modern secular states.
  2. The Church — Later in this same volume, Oppewal discusses the history of education among the Dutch Reformed in America. Here he shows that the Church versus parent issue in education remained active for some time. The argument for Church control rested on 1) a certain take on covenant theology and 2) a desire to control the theological underpinnings of the schools and, as a corollary, a distrust of anyone but Church officers to do keep the schools on the right doctrinal track.
  3. The parents — Many, many reformed thinkers we have looked at mention at least in passing that the Scriptures give authority over the education of children to their parents. My own opinion is that they move on pretty quickly from this idea to that of institutional schooling without really explaining  how the two will function and relate to one another. You will notice that in the quote above Oppewal refers to the “parent collective.” While I don’t think there is anything wrong with parents working together and helping one another, there are always practical concerns and compromises that need to be made when people work together and I think Oppewal moves too quickly from individual familes to the “collective.”
  4. The schools — Oppewal initally implies that schools are an institution on their own right but back tracks a little towards the “parent collective.” Others go where he does not and seem to put the school as an institution on par with the Chruch and State. This I am just not comfortable with. Church, State, and Family are all God-ordained, biblical institutions. This does not mean the school is evil but neither can we justify putting it on their level.

The concept of Sphere Sovereignty clearly has implications for education. There is not a lot of unanimity on what those implications are. My own view is that the Scriptures clearly give authority for education to the family and that, however a given family chooses to educate, that responsibility cannot be abrogated. It is the parents who will ultimately answer to God for how their children were educated.

Covenant Theology

It is hard to imagine that an idea like Covenant Theology is not going to have implications for education, yet there is some disagreement as to what those implications are. Here is what Oppewal says:

” . . . God uses the institution of the family to carry forward the Kingdom of God. “Family” in this setting refers not simply to the biological family but to the total spiritual community of adults who provide funds and support for children — theirs and the children of others of like mind.” (p. 87)

While I agree that there sould be community involvement in raising children — in my denomination the congregation vows to support the parents when a new covenant child is baptised — I again think Oppewal goes too quickly from “family” to “community.”  As we saw above, he is trying to justify institutional schools by basically extending the definition of family from its logical, literal meaning. I just don’t think this is merited.

Churches have also used the convenant concept to justify their role in education, the idea being that as children are members of the Church it has a ministry to them and that that ministry includes schooling (p. 170). This is an argument Oppewal rejects and I would agree with him that it stretches too far and claims too much for the Church.

Another implication of covenant theology which is often assumed but rarely directly addressed is how it affects the ability of the child to be educated and how then should be educated in Christian schools. The question is actually more about those outside the covenant than those in it. Simply put, we have to ask: Are those outisde the covenant educable? And should we then include them in our (Christian) schools or not? A surprising number of reformed thinkers seem to assume that all the children on their schools will be covenant children (Gaebelein is an exception. He argues for the inclusion of children from all backgrounds). My own desire is for a philosophy of education which applies to both covenant and non-covenant children. I have discussed this issue previously here.

The Two Books of Revelation

A related topic has to do with the sources of knowledge.  On this there is much more agreement. The standard reformed position is that God reveals Himself to mankind in two ways, through the Scriptures and through His Creation.  This really is the justification for education; it is the reason why we bother to study anything other than the Bible. Another implication is that these two sources of God’s revelation cannot ultimately contradict one another, though we may be mistaken in our interpretation of either one. This also justifies the use of non-Christian sources, as I discussed here.

The Cultural Mandate

The cultural mandate refers to the command given by God to man before the Fall to rule over the earth and to subdue it (Gen. 1:28). There are a couple of ways this doctrine is applied to education. It is used to argue once again for the study of a broad field of knowledge. If we are to rule over Creation, we must know about it so we should study geology and botany and zoology among many other subjects. The cultural mandate thus gives a justification for education. Sometimes it is also said to give the goal of education. That is, we educate so that we may fulfill this command. This leads to a more directed kind of education since the goal is ultimately practical. Knowledge is not so much for its own sake as to enable us to affect the created world.

Some take the “cultural” part of cultural mandate further and argue that it is our duty as Christians to engage and even reclaim human culture in all areas. It is fairly easy to see how a study of animal husbandry will help one rule over and subdue Creation. It is less clear how studying Renaissance sculpture will do so. Those who take this broader view argue that all areas of human endeavor fall under the cultural mandate so that the arts in particular are included in our study. As we have seen, the reformed approach has always been to engage and partcipate in culutral endeavors in contarst to anabaptist or fundamentalist traditions which have chosen to withdraw from culture.

While each of these doctrines has implications for education, there is not always consensus on what those implications are.


[1] Messianic Kingship, in my lay person’s understanding, says that Christ is King of nations as well as of the Church. Both are independent institutions which answer to Him.

One response to this post.

  1. […] of education and all are under the sovereignty of God. There is no “sacred” and “secular.” (Calvinist Beliefs and Education; CM and the Puritans on […]


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