Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

In Defense of Truth and Beauty

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.

In recent weeks, we have talked about the purpose of education. I argued the case that education, for the Christian, is part and parcel of sanctification (see this post). Our minds, like all our other faculties, were corrupted in the Fall and are in need of redemption. There are many good things that can result from this sanctification of the mind, both for the individual and for the larger society (under which heading I would include the Church, the state and really any group to which that individual belongs). A saved person will begin to pray for his family and society. He will witness to his friends and neighbors. He will bring truth and goodness and beauty into the discussion. As he continues to grow in wisdom and knowledge, he will feed and encourage his brothers in Christ. As his sanctification increases, he becomes more and more able to bear fruit for Christ and to fulfill the particular calling God has on his life. All these things are good and I don’t want to diminish them but they can also tend to lead to a very results-oriented view of education.

What I’d like to propose today is that truth, beauty and goodness have inherent merit and that therefore it is good for us to immerse ourselves in them even when there is no particular practical outcome. Consider the following quotes:

“Similarly, in mathematics. much of the curriculum is important to future mathematicians, not to the overwhelming majority of peoples. Mathematics should be geared more to management, accounting, and a variety of practical needs of the modern world.” [Rousas Rushdoony, Philosophy of Christian Curriculum, () Kindle loc. 243; see my review here]

“Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”  —Galileo Galilei

There are two very different ideas about mathematics presented here. I am very much inclined to agree with Galileo.

The more we study the works of God, the more we understand Him (or perhaps the more we understand how little we can understand).  The works of God are all around us — they are Creation and history and language and art.

We should not be afraid to delve into any area of knowledge and beauty. They are the things of God and as such we can and should expect them to reveal His character. We should, in fact, desire these things. Calculus may not be for everyone. One person may delve more into history and another science and another language. But it is a sad life which has no interest in any of these areas or which only sees them as a means to an end.

Some quotes to demonstrate what I am getting at, starting with the Scriptures–

That God may be known through His works, especially His Creation:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps. 19:1; cf. Ps. 50:6)

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” (Prov. 6:6)

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;  the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;  and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7-9)

That our God is a God of language:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light . . .” (Gen. 1:3)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (Jn. 1:1; cf. Heb. 4:12)

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:4)

That God controls and reveals Himself through human history:

He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; . . .” (Dan. 2:21)

“[The LORD] who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose.’” (Isa. 44:28; God uses the Persian king Cyrus to fulfill His purpose)

God is the God of Beauty:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Eccl. 3:11; cf. Gen. 1:31)

For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty.” (Exod. 18:40)

Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.” (Ps. 96:6)

For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!” (Zech. 9:17a)

God is the God of Truth:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14:6)

Let God be true though every one were a liar . . .” (Rom. 3:4a)

“. . . God, who never lies . . .” (Tit. 1:2b; cf. Heb. 6:18)

God is Good:

And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.'” (Mk. 10:18; cf. Matt. 19:17; Lk. 18:19)

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Ps. 100:5)

That we should devote ourselves to the good and true and beautiful:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

And some quotes from others–

From Frank Boreham, a early 20th century pastor:

“We are living in a universe that is constantly trying to talk . . .’The air,’ says Emerson, ‘is full of sounds, the sky of tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object is covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent.’ The stars above my head are signaling; the astronomer maters the code and reads the secrets of the universe. The stones that I tread beneath my feet are signalling; the geologist unravels the code and interprets the romance of the ages.” [Frank Boreham, The Uttermost Star (Pioneer Library, 2015; originally published 1919) Kindle loc. 89]

From Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and as far as I know, not a Christian:

“Mathematical analysis and computer modeling are revealing to us that the shapes and processes we encounter in nature — the way that plants grow, the way that mountains erode or rivers flow, the way that snowflakes or islands achieve their shapes, the way that light plays on a surface, the way the milk folds and spins into your coffee as yo stir it, the way that laughter sweeps through a crowd of people — all these things in their seemingly magical complexity can be described by the interaction of mathematical processes that are, if anything, even more magical in their simplicity.

….

“The things by which our emotions can be moved — the shape of a flower or a Grecian urn, the way a baby grows, the way the wind brushes across your face, the way clouds move, their shapes, the way light dances on water, or daffodils flutter in the breeze, the way in which the person you love moves their head, the way their hair follows that movement, the curve described by the dying fall of the last chord of a piece of music — all these things can be described by the complex flow of numbers.

“That’s not a reduction of it, that’s the beauty of it.” [Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (New York: Pocket Books, 1988) pp. 182, 184]

If I could at this point I would quote the entirety of Benjamin Wiker’s A Meaningful World in which he explains how Shakespeare, astrophysics, mathematics, and genetics point to the existence of God. Since I cannot, some select quotes–

” . . .the universe is meaning-full.” [Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, A Meaningful World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006) p. 15]

“Pandas as comic relief, as divine whimsy? . . .Why should not the designer’s world entertain, amuse and fascinate as well as ‘work’?” (p. 53)

“The truth about human nature is that humans take immense joy in knowing for its own sake.” (p. 87)

“The chemistry of life is like an unknown alphabet and language rapidly spoken to us.” (p. 113)

“Thus, as important as our desire for self-preservation is, there would be no periodic table without our very human love of beauty. Elaborating on this point, the great mathematician Henri Poincare said, ‘The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living.'” (p. 115)

Nebby

 

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Common Grace, Part 1

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

One of the big questions we have to wrestle with as we seek to build a Christian philosophy of education is how much good, if any, is there in non-believers? This comes up for two reasons–

1) I want an approach to education that works not just for believing children and the children of believers but for all children. If we are going to educate such children, we need to know if they are even capable of recognizing and accepting what is good and true.

2) A lot of what passes for human knowledge comes to us through non-Christians. Can we accept such knowledge and if so, how? How are we to view things that seem good and true but come to us through fallen, unredeemed minds?

The underlying question behind both of these is: How do we reconcile that good that unredeemed men seem to do with the doctrine of total depravity? The answers which are usually given involve the phrase “common grace.”

I came to faith some 25 years ago and to a more reformed understanding maybe 5 to 7 years after that. Along the way I acquired some notion of “common grace” though I honestly can’t ever remember having specific teaching on the topic.  If you’d asked me anytime in the last 20 or so years, the first thing that would have come to mind is “rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous” (my half-remembered recollection of Matthew 5:45). Reformed theology always seemed to say: “Man is fallen and, apart from the saving faith which comes through grace, is incapable of choosing or doing good but common grace means that it is not really quite so.”  This is not a very satisfying explanation but somehow in those 20 or so years I never had cause to push farther and sort it all out. This is me pushing farther.

Among the various books I have been reading on education, Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) has risen to the top as one I keep coming back to. One of the many things I realized reading Van Til’s work is that there is probably a lot more to common grace than I realized:

“Common grace does not overlook ultimate differences  . . .  On the contrary, common grace helps to point out that things which look alike are not ultimately alike.” (Van Til, p. 191)

For Van Til, the goal of education is no less than the fulfilment of God’s original design for Creation (see this post on the goal of education). All things, he seems to say, work towards the end that their Creator originally intended. Education works within that plan. Common grace also works within that plan.

“If God’s gifts of common grace such as ‘rain and sunshine,’ are thus seen as being part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their ‘testimony’ to unbelievers . . . God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ.” (Van Til, p.91)

There are two aspects here to common grace: It is part of the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14; Rom. 1:20) and it is the outworking of God’s design for all creation. He uses the unsaved in this plan as He used Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:20), Pharaoh (Exod. 7:3), and Cyrus king of Persians (2 Chr. 36:22-23).

Philip Ryken makes a similar argument:

” . . .God accomplishes his gracious purpose in the world even through non-Christians. Their work, their science, and their artistry being some glory to God, even if that is not their explicit intention.” Philip Graham Ryken, What is the Christian Worldview? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006) p. 36

If this understanding of common grace is correct (and I will revisit it in part 2; these are somewhat provisional answers for now), how would this affect our answers to the two questions above? With regard to the latter — how we are to understand the truth and beauty which seem to come to us through non-Christians — the answer seems to be that they, like Cyrus, are capable of doing “good” insofar as God uses them within the larger framework of His plan. Like Joseph’s brothers, their intentions may not be good, and we know that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebr. 11:6), but to the extent that their works are part of the divine plan they are good because they work to that end. Van Til acknowledges that in both the arts and sciences non-Christians can make real contributions.

The first question was: How can we educate the unredeemed? Is education effective without saving faith? The (again, provisional) answer seems to be that education, as it contributes to God’s overarching plan, is part of that call which goes out to the whole world. By itself, it cannot save, but, like the sower casting his seeds (Matt. 13:1-9), we are to spread it abroad and it is up to God where it shall take root.

I like both these answers. They feel true. But there are some ifs involved — if I am understanding Van Til correctly and if he is giving a reliable picture of mainstream reformed thought. So my next step in this — and what we will cover in part 2 — is to look at some other writers and to see if their take on common grace, and their answers to these questions, follow the same lines.

Until then,

Nebby

The Image of God, Revisited

Dear Reader,

I have had some feedback on my recent post on the image of God so I wanted to expand/give clarification. You  can read that post (which was itself a reworking of an earlier post) here.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to explain a little bit about where this post came from. I think as I write and to some extent each post builds a little on what has come before. If you haven’t read much here previously and/or don’t know me, you are probably not going to have a lot of context. It is very easy as a writer to think that your audience knows and understands what is in your head, but someone who doesn’t know me and hasn’t followed my convoluted train of thought can easily misunderstand where I am coming from.

Until fairly recently I was a Charlotte Mason (CM) style homeschooler and I blogged on her philosophy of education a lot. Over time, I became aware that her theology — upon which her approach to education is directly based — did not line up with mine as well as I thought it did. I ended last year with a series in which I asked the question “Is CM’s philosophy biblical?” My goal at the time was not to judge her by my own standards or those that a reformed person might ordinarily turn to (read: Calvin), but to hold her ideas up to the light of Scripture and also to place her within the scope of orthodox Christian thought. I tell you this now to try to explain how the very first version of this post came about. I looked at the image of God in Scripture specifically (as opposed to looking at what other Christians writers had to say) because my goal was to see how her ideas fit with Scripture. I included a section on Christian ideas about the image of God, not to give a thorough review of the history of thought on this huge topic, but just to give a sense of the range of thought and where she and I fit in.

A lot of Christians have said a lot of things about the “image of God.” Two thousand plus years after the birth of Christ (and many thousand more after the writing of Genesis 1), there is still no one clear definition of what this phrase means. Even within the smaller world of reformed theology, it is not a settled point. Here is what Meredith Kline said in 1999:

“When defining the imago Dei, dogmatic theology has traditionally tended to engage in an analysis of what constitutes humanness. But to answer the general question “What is man?” is not the same thing as answering the precise question “What is the image of God?”. If our objective is to discern what the biblical idea of the image of God is, it would appear necessary to abandon the traditional dogmatic wineskins, go back to the beginning of Genesis, and start afresh.” [Meredith Kline, “Creation in the Image of the Glory Spirit,” from Meredith Kline.com, 2006 (1)]

Note that Kline calls for us to abandon old concepts, to start afresh and to use the “biblical idea” as our starting place. I had not read Kline when I wrote my post, but this is essentially what I was trying to do.

The big problem with the phrase “image of God” is that we use it to convey two different ideas. Sometimes when we say “man is in the image of God,” we mean that he has inherent dignity and worth. This often comes up in conversations about abortion which makes it quite a heated, emotional topic. At other times when we say “man is in the image of God,” we are saying something about his character or characteristics. This can take different forms. To some the image of God equals a certain faculty or set of faculties such as reason or creativity. To others it means that we are spiritual and/or relational creatures. Or it may be associated with original holiness or righteousness or goodness. It may mean that we were given dominion. Or it may be some combination of these things and more besides. Simply put, it’s confusing because we use the same words to mean very different things.

I said that children are not in the image of God. That was poorly phrased not so much because of the image of God bit as the children bit. First of all it probably put you all in mind of the whole abortion issue which was not what I had in mind (I did make clear at the time that I am anti-abortion).  I said “children” because my overall topic on this blog is education. But in truth what I meant to mean was “unsaved people” or perhaps “man in his post-Fall, pre-saved state” is not in the image of God (I know, I know, you are still bothered but bear with me for a minute; I’m getting back to what bothers you in a few paragraphs). I want to be clear that I do believe in the concept of covenant children, that the children of believers are considered holy. I believe that God can save children at any age, even before birth. So in truth I never meant that all  children are not in the image of God but only those who are unsaved as well as adults who are unsaved.

Returning to the image of God — you remember I said there are two main ways we use the phrase? One has to do with man’s inherent value and one has to do with certain characteristics (however we identify them). My intent was to make a statement about the latter but I was in no way intending to deny the former.

There is an inherent tension between these two ideas. They are linked ideas because they are both tied to this phrase, “image of God,” but they are distinctive. That is largely what I was trying to show when I quoted random Christian theologians — that they all struggled with this tension and that they came up with different ways of trying to address it (again, this was just a general survey intended to give the range of Christian thought). We want to say at one and the same time that:

  • individual people, all people, have value because they are made in the image of God but–
  • people are fallen and something — which we may also equate with the image of God — has been lost or corrupted in them.

The Catholic Church eliminates the tension by distinguishing between the image and the likeness. As I said in my earlier post, I don’t think the biblical text supports this interpretation. The Dutch Reformed speak of the image in a greater and a narrower sense. The narrower was lost; the wider is still present in all people. To some degree they, like the Catholics, are just coming up with two ideas to replace one that seems to contradict itself. “Common grace” is often cited as an explanation (2). The argument goes something along the lines of “yes, man is fallen and no longer has his original righteousness which made him like God, but common grace means that even unregenerate people are still valuable enough that we recognize they mean more than the animals and we shouldn’t kill them.” A similar argument is “corrupted but not lost” which is pretty much what it sounds like — the image of God in man was severely damaged at the Fall but there is enough of his Creator still reflected in man to keep us from killing each other willy-nilly.

If I have been dissatisfied with how Augustine and the Dutch Reformed and others have dealt with the tension, some of you have been dissatisfied with what are apparently my own theological calisthenics. Essentially, what I argued was that the image of God, as the phrase is used in the Bible, refers to some quality or characteristic that was lost at the Fall. I did not mean by this to deny the inherent value of all people but to divorce the two issues. I am not the first by any means to do so. But I understand that it is still a dissatisfying answer because (a) it seems to throw the value of people, particularly the most vulnerable people, to the wind and (b) it seems to ignore the biblical connection between the image of God and the injunction against spilling human blood.

With regard to (a) I will say again that I never doubted the value of each human. Personally, when I think about abortion and other hot-button issues, I have always thought that killing a person is wrong not so much because he is in the image of God as because I have no authority over him.  Compare my child to my pet. One I can kill if I like — I have authority over him because God has given him to me. The other I cannot kill because he does not belong to me. I don’t have that kind of authority over him (3). Nor do I have authority over myself in that way. That’s why suicide is wrong. It’s why I can’t do whatever I like with my body (because it is not mine) and why you can’t do whatever you like with my body. It is an argument from Genesis 1:28, not Genesis 1:26. It also explains why the government can put to death certain kinds of criminals — because God has given it specific authority to do so.

With regard to (b) — the connection the Bible makes between the image of God and not killing each other– I’ll concede maybe I downplayed this a bit too much. But on the other hand, when I read verses like 2 Corinthians 4:4 in which Christ is called the image of God and 1 Corinthians 15:49 which says believers shall bear the image of God, it is hard for me to say that the image is something that all men bear. How can an unregenerate person bear the image of God when the image is Christ and Christ is something believers put on? I suspect that you will say I am being too narrow in my interpretation and that may be the case. But I am willing to say this: It is wrong to kill other people (or do lots of other random bad things to them) because we were all in Adam created in the image of God. However we also all in Adam lost the image of God. The elect regain it in Christ though in an imperfect form in this life.  This is a very corporate view of the image of God which sees us all as being in Adam at Creation and at the Fall. I think it actually fits kind of nicely with the creation account in which God says “let us make man, male and female, in our image” in Genesis 1 but in which Eve is not actually created until Genesis 2. Eve was made in the image of God because she came from Adam. Male and female were both in Adam in Genesis 1:26 though only a male had been created as a stand-alone sort of human being. It is the same for us — we were all in Adam at creation and in that sense we were all created in the image of God.

But perhaps I am still doing too many theological calisthenics — Why, you ask, not just say “corrupted but not lost”? I have been told that my earlier post didn’t seem very reformed, but, honestly, there is something that rubs me the wrong way about “corrupted but not lost.” I don’t want to put words in others’ mouths, but to me “corrupted but not lost” feels less reformed. If what was in us is only tarnished, one might argue, then maybe we don’t need quite as much of a Savior. One need not go down every slippery slope, of course, but it seems we could easily slip into “well, if it’s only corrupted, we can clean it up a bit ourselves” or maybe “we can at least help God out by dusting up a bit around the edges.” Lost makes me feel a lot more comfortable because what is lost we cannot get back on our own.

Summing up then, for absolute clarity (hah!)– Adam was created in the image of God in Genesis 1. Eve and all the rest of us were in Adam at this point and were thus also created in the image of God. It is wrong to spill human blood because we were created in the image in this way and also because we do not have that kind of authority over one another or even over ourselves (governments, however, have been given such authority). Adam, and the rest of humanity in him, lost the image of God at the Fall. Christ is the image of God. Believers put on Christ. We once again bear the image of God and are being transformed more and more into His image.

I’ll end with this — I think as I write but I am not a politician; I have absolutely no problem with changing my mind. I certainly don’t have all of Christian theology worked out. I am happy to have friendly discussions on this or any other topic as long as you approach me directly and respectfully. I raised the issue of what the image of God is and what it means because it relates to the nature of children which relates to education. I do not think, however, that all the fine details here are going to be important to my overall approach to education (which is still being worked out). To me this is somewhat of a subsidiary issue so while I am always happy to discuss theological issues, I don’t intend to spend a lot more time on it.

Nebby

Notes:

(1) I am citing an article from MeredithKline.com because it is what I have access to but the text seems to be identical to the beginning of his book Images of the Spirit (1999).

(2) Because just having one footnote looks bad, I’ll add that in reading Van Til’s book on education recently I was struck by his use of “common grace.” It made me think that I don’t really understand this phrase and that we need a lot more good teaching on it.

(3) Look, a third footnote! Just to clear — I know parents have authority over their children, but they don’t have the kind of authority that allows them to kill their children or to maim them or to do whatever they want with them in a million other ways.

Psalm Study: Psalm 67

Dear Reader,

[I apologize again this week for the weird fonts; WordPress seems to be holding a grudge against me.]

Since it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on the Psalms, a bit of an introduction is probably in order –

Background

Who I am and why I’m doing this — Mostly just your average Christian in the pew, but I did study biblical Hebrew in college and grad school [1]. I also belong to a psalm-singing church and homeschool my kids. I have more often than not followed the Charlotte Mason approach to education which calls for hymn study. This made no sense for us so we began to do “Psalm Study” instead.

The theory behind Psalm Study — My thesis is this: The structure of the Psalms contributes to their meaning and beauty. This sounds pretty basic but it actually rather controversial in academic circles. Whereas English poetry relies on rhyme and meter as its primary structural devices, Hebrew poetry is usually said to rely on parallelism. But there is no agreement as to whether parallelism as such actually exists and, if it does, how and why it operates [2].

Things I believe

  • I do not believe that my way of reading the Psalms is the only way.  God’s Word is a living Word and part of what that means is that we can come to it time and again and get different things from it each time. I am offering one way to approach the Psalms, but it is by no means the only way. 
  • I do believe that the Psalms are God’s inspired Word. The words they contain are deliberate and significant and their structure is as well [3]. The more we delve into the Word of God, the greater is our appreciation of its beauty and intricacy. I hope that as you come along with me in these Psalm Studies that you too will be in awe of just how much God has to tell us and of how sophisticated  — and yet how simple — is the language of the Psalms. 
  • I do not believe every person in the pew needs to learn Hebrew to appreciate the Psalms. It would be nice, of course, but it is not and should not be necessary. You can learn to appreciate the structure of the Psalms and to understand them better without learning Hebrew. My goal is to help you to do so. 
  • I believe that our worship will be more meaningful the better we understand and appreciate the Psalms. Even if you don’t regularly sing Psalms in worship (though you should; see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), you will be delving deeper into the Word of God and that is always good.

Psalm 67 and Analysis

All of which is a long introduction to a short Psalm. Here, without further ado, is my translation of Psalm 67 [4]:

 

To the leader, upon neginot, a psalm, a song [5]

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us.

2 May he shine his face upon us,  Selah.

3 To know in the earth your way,

4 In all nations your salvation.

5 May the peoples praise you, God;

6 May the people praise you, all of them.

7 May the nations rejoice and be glad

8 For you will judge peoples rightly.

9 And nations in the earth you will lead them, Selah.

10 May the peoples praise you, God;

11 May the peoples praise you, all of them.

12 Earth gives its harvest.

13 May God, our God, bless us.

14 May God bless us,

15 And may they fear him, all the ends of the earth [6]

This relatively short Psalm is a wonderful introduction to parallelism. Simply put, Hebrew poetry repeats concepts. It rarely uses exact repetition (though this Psalm has some) but repeats ideas. Before you read any further, I want you to ask yourself two questions:

  1. What one word or idea stands out to you from this Psalm?
  2. Can you find and mark pairs of adjacent lines that seem to express the same idea? (Seriously, print out this page and get out your pencil and actually mark them.)

I hope you saw pretty easily that lines 1 and 2 go together and then lines 3 and 4. “May God be gracious to us and bless us” expresses a very similar idea to “May God shine his face upon us.” Likewise, “to know in the earth your way” parallels “in all nations your salvation.” We can see one of the basic principles of parallelism here: not every element need be repeated. The verb from line 3 is omitted but assumed in line 4.

Continuing on, lines 5 and 6 go together as do lines 10 and 11. These two pairs are actually identical which is unusual in Hebrew poetry. It likes parallelism but exact repetition is not the norm. We have at this point identified a structural device, but we are never done until we ask why? Why does the psalmist use this device and what does it contribute to the meaning of the Psalm?

The psalmist draws our attention to lines 7 through 9 in not one but two ways: those lines break the structure which up until this point has consisted of pairs of very closely parallel lines, and they are outlined in some sense by the repeated lines on either side of them. We might say lines 5/6 and 10/11 function like bookends, or perhaps even like spotlights to shine attention on what is in between them. As I have structured it, these three lines come exactly in the middle of the Psalm with 3 pairs of parallel lines on either side of them. (Lines 12/13 and 14/15 also form pairs though their meaning is not so closely parallel.)

Let’s pause for a second and return to the first question I asked you – What words or ideas stood out to you in this Psalm? There are two big ones that occurred to me: blessing and praising. “God” and “peoples/nations” also occur frequently. God blesses and the peoples praise. Those lines in the middle, the triad that breaks the pattern, tell us how God blesses us and why He is to be praised. God judges rightly and guides nations. There are a lot of reasons for people to praise God but this is not a generic praise Psalm (if there is such a thing). Psalm 67 is a psalm in praise of God’s just rule of the nations.

Wrapping it up

Psalm 67 is a short psalm and perhaps, on the surface, not a very interesting one. It repeats the same words – bless, God, praise, nations – and doesn’t give us many exciting details about enemies taunting and festering wounds and the like. But I hope you have seen that a close examination of the Psalm adds to its meaning. When we focus in on how a Psalm is structured, we see the artistry of how the psalmist puts it together and we come to a greater appreciation of its beauty and a deeper understanding of its meaning. Even a little Psalm like this one has secrets to reveal when we take the time to sit with it and let it speak to us.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] I left grad school ABD – “all but dissertation” – to raise my kids. That was a long time ago.

[2] When I was in grad school, the two big thinkers on the Psalms were Robert Alter and James Kugel (for full disclosure: Kugel was my advisor in grad school). Wilfred G.E. Watson offers a more technical book on Hebrew poetry.

In Classical Hebrew Poetry (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1986), Watson names parallelism as the chief structural device (p. 114). He gives extensive examples and discusses the uses of parallelism in terms of composition and presentation. He does not tie parallelism to meaning. I do not know what his individual beliefs were, but as an academic writer, he does not discuss Hebrew poetry from the point of view of faith. This is one way in which I hope my own approach will be different from what has come before.

Kugel is often accused of rejecting the idea of biblical poetry altogether. This is perhaps an extreme take on his position, but he does ultimately argue that parallelism as such has been imposed by scholars on the biblical text. He prefers to talk of “seconding” [The Idea of Biblical Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) p. 51]. This seconding he identifies not just in biblical poetry but in passages we usually label as prose as well, thus the accusation that he denies the existence of poetry.

Alter counters Kugel’s argument and makes the case for poetry [The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books, 1985)]. Like Watson, he covers a number of the forms parallelism can take. He also acknowledges that biblical poetry is part of a religious tradition (p. 205) and that it is through language that we communicate with God (p. 135). Still, with sentences like these, his book stops short of providing a clear understanding of the structure of biblical poetry and its importance for people of faith:

“There is a certain affinity, let me suggest, between the formal properties of a given prosodic system or poetic genre and the kinds of meaning most readily expressed through that system or genre.” (p. 62)

“In the case of biblical poetry, the two basic operations of specification and heightening within the parallelistic line lead to an incipiently narrative structure of minute concatenations, on the one hand, and to a climactic structure of thematic intensifications, on the other hand.” (p. 63; I am a Hebrew scholar, albeit a lapsed one, and I had to look up “concatenations.”)

[3] The Old Testament comes down to us through the centuries in a number of different manuscripts. Volumes could, and have been, written on which particular texts or readings are the “original” ones. Such a discussion is one I am happy to have but is beyond the scope of my present enterprise. I have a high degree of confidence that what we have today is what God wants us to have and that is ultimately enough for me. Unless I say otherwise, I always rely on the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) version of the Hebrew text.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, I use my own translations of the Hebrew text for Psalm Study. I do so because I want the translation that as nearly as possible approximates the Hebrew while still making sense in English. My two biggest goals in translating are to (1) preserve the structure of the Hebrew so you can see it and (2) to be consistent in my word choice. If the Hebrew always uses one word for “salvation” (as an example), I always translate that word the same way. If the Hebrew varies the words it uses, I aim to do likewise. Line numbers are not verse numbers but are given for the purposes of discussion. Every translation is to some degree and interpretation. I try to stay as close to the text as possible and to insert my own ideas as little as possible but you are allowed to disagree with my translations and with my division of lines. That’s part of the fun.

[5] A superscription. The neginot are probably some musical instrument. The Hebrew word is plural.

[6] Notes on the translation: Hebrew does not use different verbal forms for “may he” and “he will.” I made an executive decision to use “may” in this Psalm and tried to stick with it throughout the Psalm for consistency. “Selah” is probably some sort of musical term or direction; its meaning is unknown. The switch from third to second person (as from line 2 to line 3)  no doubt would bother your English teacher; it did not bother the Hebrew writers or audiences. They do that sort of thing a lot.

 

Teaching in the New Testament

Dear Reader,

We recently looked at words for “teach” in the Old Testament; now it is time to move on to the New. My own training is in biblical Hebrew and, though I have taken some Greek, I am pretty rusty at it, so I will be relying a lot more on my concordance for this post. The point of all this, if you will remember, is ultimately to build a reformed Christian theology of education. We are in the beginning stages now where we are collecting evidence and simply answering the question: What does the Bible have to say about education and teaching? I suggest skimming this post on methodology if you yet.

Teaching in the New Testament

While words for “teach” and “learn” occur many times, there is really nothing directly about educating children in the New Testament. But there are a few passages which are worth looking at —

As we saw in the Old Testament, learning and wisdom come from God. In the New Testament all three persons of the Trinity are associated with learning (the Father: John 8:28; the Son: Matt. 11:29; the Spirit: Jn. 14:26; I Cor. 2:13).

Other sources of learning include the apostles (I Cor. 4:6); prophecy (I Cor.: 14:31); for a woman, her husband (I Cor. 14:35); church officers (I Cor. 12:28-29); and older believers (Tit. 2:3-6); or even non-believers (Acts 7:22; 22:3). Teaching is integral to the Church’s ministry (Matt. 28:19-20). One should be careful, however, — not all learning is good and not all teachers are sound (Tit. 1:11; Rev. 2:14, 20).

Nor does all learning come through people. As in the Old Testament, nature is given to us as a source of learning (Matthew 24:32=Mark 13:28; cf. Prov. 6:6; Rom. 1:20). Experience also may be a teacher (Heb. 5:8). Above all, Scripture teaches us:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:14-17; cf. Rom. 15:4; ESV)

Note that Timothy is said to have learned these things “from childhood” and that learning is not mere head knowledge but is to be practical, resulting in good works (cf. Phil. 4:9).

The majority of occurrences of the word “teach” in the New Testament have to do with Jesus teaching His followers, the crowds, and even His adversaries. These are not prescriptive passages for us; they are not given us as a handbook on how to teach. Nonetheless, we may glean some knowledge from them. In another post we will look at Jewish models of education. We will also look at the whole Bible as God’s instruction to His people and ask how the Creator of men teaches them. But for today, let’s confine ourselves to how Jesus taught.

Jesus’ teaching is oral. He often addresses quite large groups that include all kinds of people, men and women, adults and children. Though His class at times numbered in the thousands, Jesus is a caring teacher (Matt. 15:32; Mk. 6:34). When with a smaller group, He does take questions (Matt. 15:15). His teaching is often in response to questions (Lk. 10:25ff), and  He himself, when a child, asked questions of the teachers (Lk. 2:46).  

Jesus teaches often, though not exclusively, through parables (Mk. 4:2). We modern people with years of biblical scholarship behind us, tend to think: “Oh, Jesus taught in stories to make things simple for His audience.”  The opposite seems to be true. Even His closest disciples rarely understood His parables. They had to ask for interpretations (Mt. 13:18; 15:15) and didn’t really get most of what He had been saying until after His death when their minds were opened (Lk. 24:27). Rather than using stories to make learning simple, Jesus tells us that He teaches through parables to make learning hard and inaccessible (Mt. 13:10-13).

Conclusions

What can we draw from all this? Here’s what I see:

  • The focus in the NT is on teaching the things of God. This is no way argues that we don’t need to know other subjects. (In the OT we saw that the law of God more than any other subject was the focus though more practical skills and subjects were taught as well. )
  • As in the Old Testament, God’s teaching is for all ages.
  • Learning comes through other people, the Word of God, Creation, and experience.
  • Learning comes from God. All three Persons of the Trinity are associated with giving knowledge.
  • At least in the realm of spiritual things, people just don’t get it unless God opens their minds and gives them understanding.
  • Learning is practical; it is not just “book knowledge” but is to produce right behavior.

I’d love to say that Jesus shows us that we should teach through stories, but, as we saw, He uses parables intentionally to obscure His meaning. I am not willing to take this as prescriptive for how we should teach.

I have often heard it said that the Hebrew way of teaching was for a teacher (rabbi) to sit in a circle with his disciples and to teach through questioning. At times, this is the picture we get, both of the boy Jesus in the Temple and of Jesus with His disciples. For now we are going to keep this in the back of our minds as a possible model for how we should teach. While it makes a lot more sense to me to build our model of education on the Hebrew mindset than on the (pagan) Greek one, we also need to keep in mind how much has changed between then and now, starting with the availability of books.

Nebby

 

 

Words for Teach in the Old Testament

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. You can find the intro post here.

I have been approaching this subject from a few different angles, but the most important is to ask what the biblical text itself has to say about education. This is a pretty broad subject so we are going to take it in parts. We are not going to find the word “education” in the biblical text itself but there are a lot of related concepts and subjects to be had.  Today I thought we would begin by looking at words for “teach” in the Old Testament. I am starting with the Old Testament for 3 reasons: 1) My own training is in biblical Hebrew so I am more comfortable with the Old Testament 2) It has more to say about parents and children in general and 3) It comes first. But don’t fear — we will get to the New Testament too.

Before diving in, if you haven’t read this post on biblical interpretation, I suggest at least skimming it so you will know how I deal with the text. Today’s object is to gather evidence. We may make some beginning stabs at drawing conclusions but I want to be rather hesitant with those. Our goal is not to build a philosophy of education on one obscure verse in Job but just to start to see what we can learn about education from the Bible.

One final note before we get to the meat — I have previously posted on discipline in the Bible. This was done in the context of a series on Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but it is still worth reading. Parental discipline and teaching are closely related concepts as we shall see. I am not including in this post the word “train” as in Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child . . .”) but you can find out what it means in Hebrew in that earlier post here.

Words for “Teach” in the Old Testament

Translators have a lot of leeway in how they render words so I can’t promise that this is an exhaustive list, but I have found nine Hebrew roots which may be/can/have been translated as “teach.” I am going to begin by going through them one by one. There are certain passages which have more than others to say about teaching and learning; if you want something more coherent to dig your teeth into, I suggest reading through Deuteronomy 4-6, Psalm 119, and the book of Daniel, particularly chapters 1 and 8-12. Proverbs, of course, all has a lot to say, enough that I think it is probably worth giving it its own post.

Working in order from the least to most used, we have:

Sh-n-n**– The primary meaning of this root is “to sharpen.” It is related to the word for  “tooth” and is used commonly of swords (Deut. 32:41; Ps. 64:3) and arrows (Ps. 45: 5; Prov. 25:18). In one instance, in Deuteronomy 6:7, is may be translated “teach.” The context is shortly after what is called “the Great Shema” (Deut. 6:4; shema in Hebrew means “hear”).  The section reads as follows:

“Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God the LORD (is)*** one. And you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And these words which I am commanding you today will be upon your heart, and you will teach them (sh-n-n) to your sons and you will speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the path and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deut. 6:7; my translation)

We translate “teach” here for lack of a better word. The context tends to make me think something stronger is needed. As I said above, the usual meaning of this word is “to sharpen” as one sharpens a sword. So perhaps “inscribe” would be better, as in “you shall inscribe them on your sons’ (hearts).” Though this is one of our more iffy translations, I think we can note two points: 1) fathers are to make sure their children know God’s words and 2) this is not a casual instruction but is accomplished through regular repetition and much talking throughout daily life.

Moving on, the next root is ‘lp (that’s an aleph for the first letter, Hebrew scholars). This root is identical to that which means “thousands” but I don’t think there is an inherent connection; they may merely be unrelated homophones. It is used with some idea of teaching in three verses in Job and in one in Psalms. In Job 33:33 and 35:11 God is said to teach wisdom to Job or mankind. In Job 15:5 one’s iniquity teaches his mouth and in Psalm 22:25 one is warned not to befriend an angry man lest he learn his ways. None of these have inherently to do with teaching children. If I were to draw any conclusions for our greater enterprise they would be that: 1) it is God who teaches wisdom to mankind and 2) one can learn the wrong things from bad companions.

Root number three is zhr. Though we usually think of this root as having to do with light or shining, it is used in the sense of “to warn” in a number of passages. The book of Ezekiel uses it frequently when Ezekiel is being told to be a watchman to his people. His job is to warn them about their sin lest he bear the punishment due them (Ezek. 3:17ff; 33:3ff). The idea is similar in other passages (Exod. 18:20; 2 Kgs. 6:10; 2 Chr. 19:10; Ps. 19:12). Ecclesiastes seems to imply that such warnings are suited to the young:

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice (zhr).” (Eccl. 4:13; ESV)

But at the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher warns young men against too much study:

My son, beware of (zhr) anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:12; ESV)

Ecclesiastes 12:12 is an interesting verse for forming a theology of education, but we will have to return to it another time.

Next up: s-k-l (that’s a sin as the first letter, Hebrew scholars) is a root meaning “to be prudent” and “to prosper.” It occurs, for example in Proverbs 21:11:

“When a scoffer is punished, the simple is made wise; and when a wise man is instructed (s-k-l) he acquires knowledge.” (my translation)

In Psalm 32:8 God instructs and in Nehemiah 9:20 the Holy Spirit is said to instruct men. In Daniel 9:22 it is the angel Gabriel who instructs Daniel. These verses show again that God is the source of instruction, but none of them inherently has to do with the education of children.

The root b-y-n is a common one meaning “to understand.” In Hebrew there is a conjugation which essentially makes verbs transitive so in this conjugation (the hiphil) to understand becomes “to cause to understand,” i.e. “to teach.” Interestingly, it is also very similar to the preposition “between” so the underlying idea may be of discernment, that is, distinguishing between things. The Levites are often said to cause Israel to understand (2 Chr. 35:3; Neh. 8:7-9). Job tells us again that understanding comes from God:

But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand.” (Job 32:8;ESV)

This idea is repeated in Psalm 119:169. The root itself occurs many times in that famous wisdom Psalm (Ps. 119: 34, 73, 125, 130, 144, 169) and in the book of Daniel (Dan. 1:17; 8:16, 27; 9:22; 10:14; 11:33). At the beginning of the book of Daniel we are told that God gave Daniel and his young friends specific wisdom:

And these four youths God gave them knowledge (root y-d-‘) and skill (s-k-l) in all literature and wisdom (h-k-m), and Daniel He made understand (b-y-n) all visions and dreams.” (Dan. 1:17)

Though the different roots here seem to imply different kinds of knowledge, we would be hard pressed to make clear distinctions between them. In fact, as we shall see when we look at specific passages later, the various words for “wisdom” and the like are often used together. Words for wisdom, and for that matter words for sin or folly, were to the Hebrews like words for snow to the Eskimos, and at the distance we are from them, both culturally and temporily, we would be hard-pressed to grasp all the nuances.

One last observation on b-y-n — it is used of music a few times. We are told, for instance, that Chenaniah, a leader among the Levites “understood” music (I Chr. 15:22; cf. 1 Chr. 25:7-8).

The root y-s-r (that  is a samech) has the primary meaning of “to chasten” or “to discipline.” I discussed this root previously in that earlier post on discipline. As I said at the time, “discipline” is often harsh in the Bible, involving whips and scourges. Still there are passages in which “instruct” seems a better translation of this root (Ps. 16:7). It is something that man gives to his son as God does to His people (Deut. 8:5; cf. Prov. 19:18; 29:17). And in Proverbs 31, it is the mother who gives instruction (Prov. 31:1).

The root y-d-‘ (that glottal stop is an ayin) means “to know” so, in the hiphil (transitive) again, it comes to mean “to make know” or “to cause to know.” In Psalm 90:12 God teaches us to number our days. In Proverbs 9:9 the wise man is taught. But God needs no one to teach Him (Isa. 40:13). As with other roots, one of the main things that it taught is the law of God (Deut. 4:9; Ezra 7:25).

The root y-r-h  means “to throw or shoot” and from there comes to mean “to point out.” Perhaps as an extension of this, it can also mean “to teach” or “direct.” We have been working our way from less common to more common words; y-r-h occurs a few dozen times with the meaning “to teach.” It is used as many of the other roots we have seen for God’s instruction of His people (Ps. 25:8; 32:8; Isa. 30:9; Jer. 8:8; Job 22:22), but there are also others who “instruct.” Not surprisingly, parents, both mother and father, instruct (Prov. 3:1; 4:2, 4, 11; 6:20; 7:2). In Exodus the craftsmen who work on the tabernacle instruct others (Ex. 35:34). In Psalm 78, the psalmist instructs (Ps. 78:1), and a wise man  instructs others (Prov. 13:14).

Our final root, and the one that most nearly means just “to learn” or, in the transitive, “to teach,” is l-m-d. This root is used in many of the same ways and contexts as the others we have seen. God teaches (Ps. 25:9; Jer. 32:33). Fathers are to teach their children the law of God (Deut. 4:9ff). Mothers teach (Songs 8:2); even lion mothers teach their young (Ezek. 19:3, 5). The Levites teach the law of God (2 Chr. 17:7), and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches the people (Eccl. 12:9). A Psalm may teach us (Ps. 60:1).  The law is learned, even by the king (Deut. 17:19). Wisdom can be learned (Prov. 30:3). So too one may learn righteousness (Isa. 26:9-10), to do good (Isa. 1:17), to fear God (Deut. 14:23), and to do His will (Ps. 143:10). People learn laments (2 Sam. 1:18) and they learn the art of war (Judg. 3:2; cf. Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3).  On the flip side, people can learn the wrong things (Deut. 18:9; Ps. 106:35; Jer. 12:16).

Of particular interest are those passages which speak of children — In Psalm 71, the psalmist says that God has taught him from youth and asks that He will continue to do so into old age (Ps. 71:17). In Deuteronomy 31, when the law is taught, the whole congregation, even the smallest children are present to learn it:

Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 31:12-13; ESV)

As I discussed in this post on words for children in the Old Testament, those “little ones” are toddlers and they are included in the assembly of God’s people.

Conclusions

Here is what we have seen so far:

  • Who teaches? Primarily God. All instruction and knowledge is from Him. But also parents and religious leaders (i.e. the Levites and Moses himself). Poets (aka psalmists) teach through their art and craftsmen teach their crafts.
  • What is taught? Above all, the law of God with a host of similar subjects — righteousness, goodness, etc. But practical subjects are also taught, e.g. craftsmanship, war, and music. Wickedness can also be learned from the gentile nations and from bad companions.
  • Who is taught? Even the youngest children learn God’s law. Youths are particularly the subjects of instruction, but learning continues throughout life.

Next time we will look at teaching in the New Testament.

Nebby

**Hebrew words are by and large built on trilateral (i.e. 3 consonant roots). If you know Hebrew, I apologize for my lack of fonts and poor rendering of the Hebrew letters.

***”LORD” translates the divine name sometimes rendered as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” Words in parentheses are not in the Hebrew.

Children in the Bible

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education.

The two fundamental questions anyone must answer in creating a philosophy of education are: What is the nature of the child? and What is the goal of education? We are working through the first of these. Today’s question is: What does the Bible does tell us about children? What follows is largely a reworking of this earlier post.

While I want to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, I think it is helpful to have some idea of the range of beliefs out there regarding children. When we look at the many philosophies of education available to us, we see many ways of characterizing children. They are blank slates (Rousseau). They are lumps of clay. They are empty vases. They are hot house plants (Froebel). They are (gasp!) persons (Charlotte Mason). Many philosophies, classical among them, also speak of stages through which the child develops. 

Words for “Child” in the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible uses four main designations for children of various ages: there are babes and infants (from the Hebrew root ‘ll), little ones (Hebrew taph), children (Hebrew yeled), and youths (Hebrew na’ar). The various terms are not always clearly distinguished, but we can make some general observations about each.

Youths are teens and young adults, as in Isaiah 40:8-9 where “youths” and “young men” are used in parallel.  They are capable of real work as servants (Gen. 22:19; Ruth 2:15) and armor-bearers (Judg. 9:54; I Sam. 14:1). Joshua is a “young man” when he begins to serve as Moses’ assistant (Exod. 33:11). Those who spy out the land are “young men” as well (Josh. 6:23). David is a “youth” when he battles Goliath (I Sam. 17:33) and evinces a strong show of faith. One in youth is capable both of sin (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 25:7) and of faith (Ps. 71:5), though youth is also still a time of tenderness and inexperience (I Chr. 22:5, 29:1; II Chr. 13:7). The Bible does not give us a clear line at which this stage of life begins (they are not so concerned as we are to label teens, tweens, etc.) but I think it is significant that Jesus at age 12 stays in the Temple and argues with the teachers, showing His intellectual maturity at that age (Luke 12:41ff).

Moving down the scale, yeled “child” seems to be used fairly loosely, referring at times to a weaned child (Gen. 21:8; I Kgs. 17:21) and at others to what is clearly a baby (Exod. 2:6; 2 Sam. 12:16).  They are included in both the mourning (Ezra 10:1) and the rejoicing of the community (Neh. 12:43). A child is the object of training and discipline (Prov. 22:6; 23:13; 29:15) and is called to holiness:

“Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” (Prov. 20:11)

“Little ones,” from the Hebrew taph, seem to refer to those who need care. The root seems to mean “to trip” or “to take tiny steps” so “toddler” could be a good translation of this term. It often overlaps with yeled. “Little ones” are paired often with women and the elderly, and even with cattle, all presumably falling into the “needing care” category (Gen. 34:29; 43:8; 45:19; 46:5; 47:24; 50:8, 21; Num. 32:24, 26; Judg. 18:21). Like women, they are not counted (Exod. 12:37). Even they, however, are included in the assembly of the people (Josh. 8:35; II Chr. 20:13) and are required to keep the Law (Deut. 31:12). The New Testament also indicates that children are included in the covenant community (Acts 2:39).

The Hebrew root ‘ll gives us a collection of words translated variously as “babes,” “infants,” and “sucklings.” What is clear of these children is that they are still nursing (which may have gone on for quite some time in that culture).

The Bible makes it clear that God’s involvement with children is from birth and even before (Ps. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5-7). Children are said to have faith from the womb, but also to be sinful at that very early age. John the Baptist shows some evidence of faith in utero (Luke 1:41a). Timothy too is said to have known the Scriptures “from infancy” (2 Tim. 3:14-15). On the flip side, the Psalms speak of sinfulness being from before birth (Psa. 51:5; 58:3)

Psalm 8 is a well-known passage which seems to speak of infants giving praise to God:

“From the mouths of babies and infants you ordained strength.” (Psalm 8:2; my translation)

When Jesus quotes this Psalm, it is praise which comes from the babies’ mouths:

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?“” (Matt. 21:16)

My own interpretation of this Psalm would be that, whether it refers to praise or to strength, that it is using the infants somewhat ironically. Just as Jesus would say that God could raise up sons of Abraham even from the stones — rocks being nothing like living sons– the psalmist here says that strength could come even from infants, those known to be least strong; if we understand the term to be “praise” the idea is the same for infants do not speak much less give praise.

Children in the Gospel of Matthew

Turning to the New Testament, we find a few passages which seem to speak of the faith of children (I have discussed these passages in more detail here):

“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matt. 19:14)

In its context, this verse is quite literal; the disciples were physically preventing children from approaching.

Another well-known passage is found in the previous chapter:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:1-6)

In its context — the disciples are disputing over who of them is the greatest — Jesus praises the humility of children. Though I do not think it is the main purpose of the passage, I do think this passage tells us that children are capable faith. The second paragraph tells us something interesting too — children can sin. We don’t immediately think of the negative, but to have a relationship with God can be good or bad; we may be in relationship with Him or we may offend Him.

Matthew 11 seems to imply that children are capable of understanding the things of God:

“At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.’” (Matt.11:25; cf. Luke 10:21)

In Matthew’s gospel, this prayer of Jesus comes right after His condemnation of the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida; in Luke there is an intervening passage in which the 72 return rejoicing that they have cast out devils and Jesus tells them to rejoice instead that their names are written in the Book of Life. The context seems to indicate that these are not literal children but that those who are like children — the uneducated and perhaps the not-too-bright — will understand. As in Psalm 8, the use is ironic; God allows children to understand what those who should know more and better do not. Similarly, in Romans 2:20, Paul uses children in parallel to the blind and foolish who are in need of instruction and guidance. In other words, children are used in these passages not because of their knowledge but because of their habitual lack of knowledge.

Conclusions

What conclusions can we draw from all these Bible verses about children? Here’s what I see:

  • The Bible does not give us an age at which one goes from being a child to an adult but it does seem to distinguish between children — including children, babes and little ones– and youths. The latter, while inexperienced, are essentially adults. Teens and young adults would likely be called youths.
  • Children (all those below teens) seem to be lumped together; the terms used for them are not clearly distinguished.
  • Children are characterized as ignorant or foolish. They are in need of instruction and discipline.
  • Nonetheless, they are counted among God’s people and at important points (such as covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.
  • Children are called to follow the Law and to holiness. They can sin but they can also exhibit faith. There is no indication of any minimum age for faith.

What are the implications of all this for education? I certainly don’t think we have all the answers yet, but we can make some preliminary conclusions. Children are not presented in the Bible as something other than adults. What we have seen thus far does not give us a lot of insight into children’s mental or intellectual capacity but their spiritual capacity is equivalent to that of adults in that they can both sin and have faith. I think this excludes the blank slate, empty vase ideas which depict children as empty and therefore neutral substances. [Children are lumps of clay — but then again, so are adults  (Rom. 9:20ff).] Children are in need of training which would seem to preclude the more laissez-faire approaches to education such as unschooling. We will talk more about education in the Bible; for the moment I see no clear stages of development such as classical education posits but neither have I seen that the Scriptures preclude such a view.

Until next time,

Nebby

 

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