Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

Education and the Covenant Child

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 been discussing common grace as affects our understanding of education (see this post and this one). Specifically, I have spent some time trying to answer the question: How shall we educate non-believing children? Are they capable of true education, of receiving that which is good and true and beautiful?

But I do not want to neglect the children of believers. Most of the children in our homeschools and Christian schools are going to come from professing families. As such, they are what we call covenant children. That is, they are considered from birth (and before) to be part of God’s covenant community.

When speaking of those who are clearly unregenerate, of whom we have no evidence of salvation (yet), I argued that education forms part of the call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14) and presents to them God’s general revelation by which He may be known (Rom. 1:19-20). But what of believers then, those who already have received the call? How does education benefit them?

This is my thesis: Education is a piece of sanctification.

In previous posts, I hope I have shown that children are not a separate category. They are fully persons. Education does not prepare them for a life which they will have later nor does God wait to work in them. Conversely, education is not confined to childhood,  though I do believe children are especially adapted to learn (read all these arguments here.)

We have also discussed what kind of goal we should have for education and argued that we need long-term goals which look not merely to the next stage of life but even beyond this life, goals which serve God’s greater plan.  These goals should focus first and foremost on the individual, not the society (while acknowledging that in God’s economy there is no conflict between the two; see this post and this one).

To these ideas, let me add one more: Man is fallen in all his faculties (WCF IV:II) and needs to be regenerated in all his faculties (WCF XIII:II). We could give various lists of what constitutes the “faculties,” but I like this one: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) or the New Testament version: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk. 12:30). The biblical view is not one which chops man up into pieces. The body is not divorced from the spirit nor the mind from the heart such that one can think one thing and do another or keep one’s soul pristine while sullying one’s body. Still, there is some idea here that we do have different aspects. As reformed people, we believe all the parts of the person are fallen and in need of redemption.

Education is a term that has been used in many ways and our tendency these days is  to think of it broadly. Even secular teachers are expected to shape not just the intellect but the character. For Christian parents as well discipline and education are closely entwined. These are not bad tendencies but what I want to address today particularly is the mind, while acknowledging that it does not function apart from the emotions or the body.

I’d like to get at this topic by looking at the word “mind” as it is used in the New Testament. We have already seen that both Old and New Testaments command us to love God with our minds. Our minds can be either for God or against Him (Matt. 16:23; Rom. 8:5-7). There is ample evidence that they are often against (Matt. 16:23= Mk. 8:33; Tit. 1:15). A fallen mind, one in opposition to its Creator, is a curse and the result of sin (Rom. 1:28). But there is hope — when Jesus comes healing people, it is not just bodies that are restored but minds (Lk. 8:35). It is He who opens men’s minds to receive wisdom (Lk. 24:45; cf. Hebr. 8:10; 10:16) or who hardens them (2 Cor. 3:14;  4:4). There is evidence of some level of restoration in this life as Christians we are called to have changed minds, not minds of futility and sin (Eph. 2:3; 4:17; cf. Col. 1:21). Mind is a characteristic of God Himself (Rom. 11:34) and we are to share His mind and to be of one mind (1 Cor. 1:10; 2:16; Phil. 1:27; 2:2,5).  And above all there is this:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:1-2)

The pattern here should be familiar: We are called to a high standard. Sin corrupts our minds so that we cannot meet the standard set in God’s law. But God Himself restores the minds of His people. As Christians we are called to use these restored minds for the good of the Church (1 Cor. 1:10; 2:16; Phil. 1:27; 2:2,5) and for the furtherance of the things of God (Rom. 12:2) and for worship (1 Cor. 14:15). In other words, the same process of fall and redemption applies to our minds as it does to the rest of our persons.

This then is the goal of education in the life of the believer: the renewal, through the power of the Holy Spirit, of the mind to the end that the Church may be built up and God glorified. That renewal is what we call sanctification. It will not be complete in this life, but, through the power of Christ, it is possible to make real progress.

Nebby

 

 

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Book Review: The Tech-Wise Family

Dear Reader,

This book is a bit of a departure for me but believe it or not I am going to manage to make this be about education too. First a mild disclaimer: I have met the author and his wife though they would not remember, I was a grad student at Harvard when they worked with the undergrad Christian fellowship so our paths did cross.

So it is with pleasure that I recommend The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017). Crouch takes what I found to be a very balanced approach to how to manage technology in your home. There are strict limits but technology is not the enemy and he is honest about where his own family fell short. This is definitely a good book to read as early in your parenting career as you can, but even if your kids are older it is worth a read, though it may be harder to implement.

I am not going to give you a lot of the meat of the book; you can read it for that. I would like to focus in on just a couple of ideas that really struck me.

First a Charlotte Mason connection:

“An increasing body of psychological research suggests that our supply of willpower – the ability to make hard decisions that go against our instincts or preferences- is limited. Nudges help us make some of those right decisions without having to use up that precious limited supply of willpower, leaving it available for the moments when we really need it.” (Kindle loc. 268)

This is exactly Charlotte Mason’s idea of the Way of the Will and Habit Training. We use the term will in some very contradictory ways today but Charlotte spoke of it as exactly this– the ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. Habit training forms in us good habits, like rutted roads in the soul, that keep us in good paths without too much thought. These “nudges,” as Crouch tells us (Kindle loc. 289), are not in themselves good character but to the extent that they keep is from having to think about every little decision, they aid us in doing the right thing. (Of course, bad habits to just the opposite.)

Misunderstanding the relationship between the body and soul has led to a host of heresies. Crouch rightly tells us that there was no real division in Hebrew thought. What was interesting to me in light of our present discussion is how he ties this idea to education:

“But the further we explore into the astonishingly complex nature of human beings, especially the mysterious organ called the ‘brain’ and the even more mysterious reality of personhood called the ‘mind,’ the more the Hebrew perspective seems fundamentally sound. And nowhere is it more evident that we are body and soul together than in studies of how we learn.

“The best and richest experiences of learning, it turns out, are embodied ones.” (Kindle loc. 1157)

Crouch goes on to talk about how we learn language by physically speaking it – by moving our tongues – and how we learn more when we read physical books and when we use a pencil to take notes. I know I always found this to be true — I remembered what I took notes on in class without needing to ever look back at those notes; the process of writing the information incised it in my brain (oh, that I had that young brain now!).

“We can have a faint idea or hunch in our mind, but it is only when we speak or write it that it becomes clear, not just to others but to ourselves as well.” (Kindle loc. 1179)

This is why Charlotte Mason, in her approach to education, had students narrate everything they read, first orally and then as they were able in writing. Narration is not for the teacher to evaluate but enables the student to cement what they have read in their brains.

And one last thought on education:

“The last thing you need when you are learning, at any age but especially in childhood, is to have things made too easy. Difficulty and resistance as long as they are age appropriate and not too discouraging, are actually what press our brains and bodies to adapt and learn.” (Kindle loc. 1189)

As out muscles are not built with physical resistance, without ever pushing them slightly beyond what they have done before, so our intellect is not built without some struggle.

In all honesty, I feel like there are a lot of books on Christian parenting and technology and I was not expecting too much of this one. I was pleasantly surprised. Though not all of Crouch’s suggestions are unique, he doe shave some good insights and writes in a very enjoyable way. The true treasure in my eyes is the nuggets of thought in there on other topics (like education). But either way The Tech-Wise Family is a book well worth reading.

Nebby

 

 

Book Review: The Christian Home School

Dear Reader,

Thank you all for continuing to give book suggestions. My latest read has been Gregg Harris’ The Christian Home School (Gresham, OR: Noble Publishing Associates, 1995; originally published 1988).

Harris’ book is a bit dated (can one still realistically homeschool for $100-200 per child per year??) and I found its scope too narrow, particularly in talking about how to homeschool, but there enough good material here to make it worth perusing.  As my source indicated, there is one stellar chapter here, chapter 5: “The Biblical Basis of Education.” If you are new to homeschooling and need encouragement and the very basics of how to begin, you might appreciate the rest of the book; otherwise you can probably just skim large chunks (as I confess I did).

The Christian Home School begins with a lot of the usual scary stories about public schools. I don’t doubt the truth of these stories; there no doubt is something indeed to be afraid of. But I’m not a big fan of this approach. Harris also includes a brief history of public schooling in the United States and shows why reforming the current system is not an option.

Harris then turns his attention to Christian schools. For me as a homeschooler, this was refreshing; all the other books I have read thus far have been pro-Christina school and not even mentioned homeschooling as an option so it was nice to hear arguments for homeschooling in particular. Nevertheless, while I agree with a lot of what Harris says, both anti-Christian school and pro-homeschooling, I don’t think he is as fair and well-rounded as he could be. Let’s just say there are pros and cons in any option.

Having established the case for homeschooling, Harris then gets to the meat: the role of the Bible. Though he appears to be a fairly conservative writer, Harris’ stance is not overly fundamentalist. The Bible, he says, “isn’t intended to be a textbook for teachers and school administrators . . .But it does tell us everything we need to know to evaluate education – to tell the basic difference between good education and bad” (p. 66).

Parents are the primary educators (p. 66). This point is easily established. Harris makes the case that as our parenting is compared to God’s that we will be better parents the more we emulate God and adopt His style. While the Bible may not give us many specific instructions in how to parent, there is much we can learn from examining how God parents and educates us (p. 67). [1]

Harris finds the purpose of education in the purpose of man (p. 70). He goes on to say: “It only stands to reason, then, that one of the primary purposes of education is to prepare people to be born again and then to worship and fellowship with God” (p. 70) and again: “Thus, education is to benefit our society and the Church by equipping us to fulfill our part and take our place in the community of faith” (pp. 70-1). I agree with him in much of this — the purpose of education is found in God’s overall plan for man; and the primary purpose is for the individual but the larger society also benefits. I have a slight quibble with his phraseology, however. Harris speaks of “preparing” and “equipping” as if children are not yet a full part of the Church. I have argued here that there is no real divide between children and adults in the covenant community. Children are fully part of that community, are able to contribute to it, and are already interwoven into God’s plan (see this post, this one, and this one).

When it comes to the how of education, Harris tries to keep an open mind, allowing for various methods of education [though not unschooling (p. 88), a conclusion I agree with], but he clearly has a favorite. His own preference is for what he calls “Delight-Directed Study” which he equates with Unit Studies. Very briefly when we began homeschooling, we tried unit studies. I have some problems with the idea of unit studies (see this post or this one) though Harris’ arguments make me more amenable to his approach that I would have thought I would be. Part of the issue is that Harris shows no awareness of a living books approach to homeschooling such as Charlotte Mason advocates. I suspect this is because his book is older and the Charlotte Mason resurgence in homeschooling circles had not occurred, or at least not developed so much steam.  [More than any other approach we have followed the Charlotte Mason method in our homeschool. While I have become less enamored of her philosophy in recent years (and this series is the result of that disillusionment), hers is still the best single approach I have found.]

In reality there is much that Harris says that would fit well with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. He argues that children have an innate, God-ordained appetite for knowledge (p. 69) and advocates a broad liberal arts education (p. 71). In fact, his language is very much like Miss Mason’s when he argues for a balanced intellectual meal that will bring pleasure to the child (pp. 101-02). They also both say that education cannot and should not be accomplished through force or discipline and that the role of the parent/teacher is largely to prepare the feast (Charlotte’s image) and to wait for the child to respond, as flower bud opens (Harris’ image, p. 111). 

Harris is a bit more in the classical mode in that he sees stages on education, those his are not strictly defined (pp. 112-17). This should not surprise us given the emphasis he places on education as preparation (as I argued in this post).

Delight-directed studies, as Harris defines them, teach multiple subjects through whatever topic the child is interested in. That is, if a child has a particular interest in cats, he might do language arts by reading and writing about cats and learn math by starting a cat sitting business. This were he is most like Unit Studies and least like Charlotte Mason. Though I think in the end, there is more similarity here than I thought; Charlotte’s approach also teaches some subjects, like grammar and writing, indirectly through readings and narrations done on history or other topics.

Harris advocates delight-directed study not just because it works but because, he says, it is biblical. This is perhaps his best and most unique argument — that God intended us to have pleasure even in the things we need, from food to procreation, and that we should also find delight as we satisfy our intellectual appetites (pp. 96ff). For evidence of this he points to the Psalmist’s pleasure in his study of the law of God (Ps. 1:2 among others).

One final quibble — I am once again (as I was with Rushdoony) uncomfortable when Harris talks about education for boys versus that of girls (pp. 119-20). He argues that high school age boys should be educated for a specific career but that girls should be given a broad education so that they will be prepared to help their husbands in whatever their calling might be.  My problem with this kind of thinking is two-fold: It ignores the very real possibility that not every Christian will get married. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that it is better not to be married (1 Cor. 7:32ff) and  perhaps we would take this injunction more seriously if we didn’t start our kids off with marriage as the be-all and end-all of Christian life. Secondly, it tends to undervalue knowledge for its own sake. Harris does not go as far as Rushdoony in this but perhaps just teeters in the edge of the idea.

The bottom line is that Gregg Harris’ The Christian Home School is not a book you necessarily need to run out and get right away but there is one solid good idea in here which I think we need to add to our discussion of a reformed Christian approach to education.

Nebby

[1] As a side note, I don’t agree with Harris’ definition of “to train up” in Proverbs 22:6 as “to touch the palate” (p. 68).  I have no idea where he got this. You can see my own interpretation of that verse here.

 

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.

A Bit of General Revelation: Babies Can Think

Dear Reader,

In my continuing quest for a reformed theology of education (see this post and this one), I have been focusing on special revelation — i.e. what God tells us in His Word– but we can also learn from general revelation. General revelation is that which we can learn from God’s Creation and this includes what we learn through science (see this post on methodology).

In that light, I ran across this summary of a paper in the magazine Science which argues that babies not only think but that they are capable of quite high level thought. Basically, researchers found that babies can infer how much adults value different goals based on how hard they work to attain them. Most interesting to me was the last paragraph in which one of the researchers, Elizabeth Spelke, observes (if I may paraphrase) that, as babies have so much to learn about the world, it should not be surprising that they are capable of complicated and high level thought.

This idea may not seem revolutionary but if you consider how children have been seen historically — as lumps of clay, blank slates, and so on — it is really quite something to be able to show that there is not just real cognition but high level thinking in those little brains. And, to bring this back to my enterprise, it gives us scientific evidence, in addition to the biblical witness, to reinforce the idea that even the smallest children can and should be considered as full people.

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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