Zylstra on Frameworks and How We Know What’s True

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 am currently reading Henry Zylstra’s Testament of Vision (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958). This volume contains four sections: essays on literature, education, and doctrine, and letters. I have written a bit on Zylstra’s take on literature and now I am ready to tackle education which is my main interest. Of the seven essays on this volume on education, three have been republished by Donald Oppewal in his Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997), and I have previously read and commented on them here. Today I’d like to look at the remaining essays on education and in particular the final one which is entitled “Thoughts for Teachers.”

Despite its unassuming title and the fact that it is only seven pages long, this little essay contains a lot of deep thoughts. Zylstra begins with a quote from Seneca the younger (trasmitted via Macaulay) which reads in part:

“ ‘. . . philosophy lies deeper. It is not her office to teach men how to use their hands. The object of her lessons is to form the soul.’” (p. 172)

As philosophy, so education also acts upon the soul. The modern conception is of man as an animal that uses tools or language. When we find animals that do these things, man’s distinctiveness fades. Calvin’s definition was of man as a “God-knowing creature” (p. 172). This definition both sets us apart from the animals and gives us purpose.

We have seen that a number of writers — Gaebelein, Lockerbie, and Schultze — use the term integration when speaking of the purpose of education. Zylstra introduces but then rejects this term in favor of orientation. To be oriented is to be pointed towards something. “We have to get squared around towards God if the universe is to make sense,” Zylstra tells us. “Life is bewildering and meaningless without the fixed reference point” (p. 173).

When we as Christians educate, we are not presenting  material which is not available to the rest of the world; the facts are the same. What is different is the framework. Zylstra speaks of the patterns we discern which bind the bits of information together and give them meaning. Quoting Koestler, he gives the analogy of a pciture which looks abstract until viewed through a certain color filter. Anyone can see the image, but only those who use the right lens see the picture, the pattern that is there.

Zylstra goes on to talk about how we know what is true. Modern man has come to rely upon science to such an extent that he knows no other way. If we cannot examine something scientifically, we consider it untrue or at least unknowable. This is so much our mindset that we are not even aware of it. David Hicks, in Norms and Nobility, presents much the same critique. He advocates a return to the classical model in which experimention is devalued and the process of questioning and answering known as dialectic in which dogmas (beliefs) are tested and either accepted or rejected based on logic. I am not sure that this classical model is the correct one either, but the basic point, that the modern reliance on the scientific method as the only way to know truth and as applicable to all areas of knowledge, is a good one. It is not clear to me in this brief essay what model of knowing Zylstra himself is advocating.

Zylstra was writing in the 1950s and there are aspects of his thought which are quite dated. In our own day I think we are seeing a new approach to knowing. Beginning around the time of Darwin in the late 1800s we began rejecting the older religious, Christian model in favor of the scientific approach. Now we see people beginning to feel that this model does not provide all the answers they would like. There is a return to a religious model, but it is not a Christian one. Without a touchstone, a fixed source of truth, they latch onto any “knowledge” without discernment as to whether what they believe is true or good. In my own life, I have seen many friends and acquaintances who are turning to various “spiritual” practices, tarot and mediums and the like. They have a deep-seated craving for the spiritual but absolutely no discernment. They accept everything that comes to them as good and beneficial and do not realize that in the spiritual world as well as in the physical there can be both good and evil forces. If you ask them how they know these things to be true and real, they have little answer and, honestly, don’t seem to care. They reject both experimentation and logic and accept what makes them feel good.

If he had lived longer, it would have been interesting to see how Zylstra evaluated more modern trends. I am afraid he was a bit optimistic, thinking he saw a return to a more Christian mindset which never, unfortunately, took hold.



One response to this post.

  1. […] and transformative. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth and On Frameworks and How We Know What’sTrue; Lockerbie on […]


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