Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

I dealt with this issue when I reviewed Art Middlekauff’s talk on Syriac versus Hellenistic education (see that review here), but I feel the need to revisit it. I have recently begun listening to the Schole Sisters podcast and while there are some of their broadcasts which I would heartily endorse, there is one, entitled “Paideia is all Greek to me,” which I found quite disturbing.

In this broadcast the Sisters discuss a book they have begun reading, Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. I have not read the book myself and will admit that the concept of Paideia is new to me. What I want to discuss today is a part about midway through when the ladies begin to discuss the relative merits of Greek and Hebrew culture, particularly as it relates to education. Though I am going to use their comments as a springboard for my argument, I want to be clear that they are not alone in what they say here. I think the issue is worth addressing because there are some fairly common ideas, especially in Christian classical education circles, that come out.

I’d like to present the issue this way: We have before us two models of education and culture, that which is inherited from the Greeks (through the Romans) and that which comes from Hebraic culture which we know through the Old Testament and to some extent the New. If our object is to form an approach to education, we can use these two traditions in a number of ways:

  1. We can reject both.
  2. We can accept the one and reject the other.
  3. We can blend the two in roughly equal proportions
  4. We can include both to some degree but favor one over the other.

Among the various authors I have read thus far no one actually does #1 and rejects both. Some reject the classical model which comes from the Greeks and look to the Bible alone. Because we are talking about Christian authors, no one goes so far as to say that the Bible should not provide us with a model but some come pretty close to it in their emphasis on the classical.

Before turning to the Schole Sisters again, I feel I need to give a disclaimer — it is hard to review something that it oral. While my desire is to accurately represent their positions, what I am really giving you is what I heard which may not be identical to what they meant to say. 

In the podcast, the Sisters argue for the value of the Greek educational tradition. They did not explicitly say that this tradition is to be preferred over the Hebraic one but they argue fairly strenuously for the merits of the Greek and denigrate the Hebrew to the degree that I at least felt that they prefer the Greek over the Hebrew (option #4 above). Among other things they say that:

  • We should not reject the Greek tradition for being pagan because the Hebrew was also pagan.
  • God was preparing the Greeks for the gospel just as He prepared the Israelites/Jews.
  • There is something unique for the world in the Greek tradition (as opposed to Chinese or Indian or other traditions).
  • The New Testament uses the Greek language and Greek ideas. These ideas are necessary to convey the New Testament message.

There is a lot to discuss here, but I think we can boil it down into two main ideas: the latter two points tell us that the Greek culture was special and the first two tell us that Hebrew culture was not (or at least not that special). I am going to deal with the claims about Greek culture first and then turn to those about Hebrew culture.

Greek Culture: Is it unique?

Is Greek culture in some way superior to or more suited to the gospel than other pagan cultures? The short answer is I just don’t know. The Schole Sisters say essentially the same thing. There are no doubt people who are competent to do so, but neither they nor I have the kind of knowledge of, for example, ancient Chinese thought to be able to make a determination. From their discussion I gather that Jaeger in the book they were reading does make such a claim.

One author I have reviewed recently, Christopher Dawson, comes very close to making this claim as well. Dawson views the Greeks as having been prepared for Christianity:

“The Greeks and Romans had been prepared for Christianity by centuries of ethical teaching and discussion. Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius had familiarized men with the ideas of man’s spiritual nature, the immortality of the soul, divine providence and human responsibility. But the Barbarians knew none of this.” Christopher Dawson, Crisis of Western Education (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010; originally published 1961) p. 9

But note that the comparison here is between Greeks and Barbarians. It is not clear from his writing whether Dawson sees the Greek culture as inherently superior to other more developed cultures. He elsewhere praises the longevity and scholarship of the Chinese tradition (p. 4).  He lists as the Greek contribution three things: its ethics, the idea that man has a spiritual nature, and the concept of immortality.  But are these unique ideas?  I suspect we would be hard-pressed to find an ancient culture that didn’t have a moral code and didn’t believe that man embodies an immortal spiritual element. Certainly the Egyptians believed these things as did the Babylonians (known, by the way, for the Code of Hammurabi). Nor am I convinced that Greek morality was superior to that of other cultures (and, I will argue below, it was inferior to the Hebrew law).

It is an interesting question what would have happened if Christianity came to the world in a different time and/or place. Ultimately, it is not a question we can ever answer as it is completely hypothetical. But we can ask if God chose this time and place for a reason.

Because I believe God’s plan is perfect, I believe that Christ came and the gospel spread just as it was supposed to. God certainly could have built His church first in China or India but He chose to do so in a certain time and place. The Schole Sisters imply that the reason was, at least in part, the Greek cultural atmosphere, that is, its world of ideas. I am not convinced that that is so.

The Schole Sisters as much as say that the New Testament use of Greek language legitimizes Greek culture. The choice of Greek for the New Testament was no doubt a practical consideration. The Hebrew of (the majority of) the Old Testament had already become a literary and not an everyday language (the average Jew would have spoken Aramaic, a close kin of Hebrew, but not the same language). The gospel message was to go out to the world, to the Gentiles and not just the Jews, and therefore using the lingua franca of the day made sense.

But I do think that there is a bit more to the choice of Greek than this. I have heard it said that English is uniquely suited to the modern world. Because it is such a hodge-podge it lends itself well to technological enterprises. Hebrew is a language well suited to narrative. Greek is a language well-suited to philosophy and to more complex theology. As big a fan as I am of biblical Hebrew, it would be hard to convey all the messages of the New Testament in that language (sometimes I think it is hard in English!).

But this is still an argument about language. The Schole Sisters go further and argue that Greek ideas were essential. They point in particular the concept of logos in John 1 (logos the Greek word for “word”; thus it is used when John says that Jesus was the Word).  

The question, it seems to me, boils down to this: Do the New Testament writers use Greek culture because it is essential to make their point? Are there essential ideas derived from Greek culture which the Hebrew culture did not provide? Oa, alternatively, do they use Greek cultural references simply because they are appealing to a Greek (or Greek-influenced) audience?

This could be a huge question and it is probably beyond me to answer it fully. I will share my own observations and inclinations, but I suspect there is a lot more than can be said (and probably has been).

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” (1 Cor. 9:20-21; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

The apostle Paul here gives us a clue as to his own use of culture — he will use whatever he needs to to win people to Christ.  We see this played out in Acts 17 when he preaches about the unknown god. Paul takes something his audience is familiar with. He finds one point of connection and uses it to preach a sermon that they will understand. Though he refers to their poets, again making a connection with what they know, the language he uses of God seems straight from the Old Testament.

But what of the logos?  I am not convinced that there is an essential Greek concept here that John could not have done without. Hebrew has a very similar idea — that of Wisdom. Personified Wisdom is found in both the Old Testament (Prov. 8-9) and in Jewish works from the Intertestamental period (the Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sirah, both of which are included in the Catholic version of the Old Testament). While the concept may not be identical, there is certainly something here that John could have worked with. I don’t think it is clear that he had to appeal to the Greek concept of logos. I find it more likely that John, like Paul, was using a Greek idea to draw in his Greek audience. John raises the Greek idea of the logos, which was an impersonal force, and identified it with a Person, namely God the Son, in order to draw in his Greek audience. [1]

When we think about why the gospel came into the world when and where it did, we also need to recognize that Christianity did not come into the Greek world as such. It came into the Roman world. Now, as I am sure we all learned in our own schooling, the Romans took over a lot of Greek things as their own (including the widespread use of the Greek language), but they also made their own contributions. When we ask why God chose this time and this place, a large part of the answer has to be Roman roads and Roman government. Simply put, the gospel could spread because people could travel relatively easily over a very large and mostly peaceful empire.

One final thought before we move on to the Hebrew culture: If we are going to argue that Greek ideas were somehow essential to the gospel, then we need to evaluate what this means for modern missions. When we bring the gospel message to very different places, from Africa to East Asia, we need to decide how much of the cultural stuff surrounding our message is essential and how much is, well, cultural. What can be adapted to the local culture and what cannot? If we begin with the presupposition that Greek ideas were essential, then we are likely going  to end up keeping a lot more of the trappings of western civilization as well. I do not know if this is bad or good but I do think it is an issue we need to consider.

My provisional conclusion on Greek culture is this: I believe God chose the time and place for the gospel message to come into the world and I believe He chose for the New Testament to be written in Greek. I think the Greek language lends itself well to more nuanced concepts. I have not yet seen any Greek ideas which seem to be essential to the gospel. What I see is what the Apostle Paul describes — that the New Testament writers appealed to Greek ideas to draw in their audiences. The Greek ideas (the logos, the unknown god) are a hook to grab the audience but then there is always something of a bait-and-switch as the apostle (John or Paul) uses the familiar concept as a means of making his point. I will say, however, that I have by no means done an analysis of all the ideas in the New Testament. I am open to other evidence on this point if anyone has any to present.

Defending Hebrew Culture

The flip side of the argument is that Hebrew culture is not special or different. The Schole Sisters call Hebrew culture pagan because the Israelites worshipped idols and (they note this particularly) did not keep the Passover. I would not use the word pagan in this way, but they are absolutely right that the Israelites did these things. They imitated their neighbors and worshipped false gods, and they did not do the things their God told them to. But — and this is a big BUT — the sins of the people and their failure to keep God’s law do not invalidate the law (Rom. 9:6).

We need to be clear that what the Israelites had, what the Old Testament presents to us, is not their law so much as it is God’s Law (big “L”). Other peoples, the Greeks included, had only a shadow of the law, derived from general revelation only (Rom. 2:14), while Israel had God’s revealed Law.

The Scriptures never say look what we are giving you is good and the proof is how great the Israelites were and how well everything worked out for them. They make it quite clear that these were rotten sinful people who couldn’t remember 10 minutes after He did it that it was the LORD who brought them out of Egypt. The law never made anyone good; it shows us our sin (Rom. 3:20).

No people or culture has ever been outside of God’s plan or control (Ps. 47:8). Did God work in Greek culture? I am sure He did. But the Scriptures also make it quite clear that He chose one nation: Israel (Deut. 14:2) and that He gave them something He did not give  any other culture: the Law (Rom. 9:4-5) and that He sent salvation for all peoples in the form of His Son through Israel and not through any other culture (Matt. 2:6). Even when this salvation spreads throughout the world to all cultures it is not because their cultures are deserving in any way but because they become engrafted into the nation of Israel (Rom. 11:17ff).

In His perfect plan, God chose a particular time and a particular place to send salvation. But He also chose a particular people through which to send salvation. They were a people prepared for two millennia — a people chosen in Abraham, instructed in the law by Moses, defined by the exodus from Egypt, and cured from their idolatry (but by no means sinless) by the Babylonian exile.

Because the Schole Sisters single it out, I’d like to focus in on the Passover for a moment. Their claim is that Hebrew culture is no better than pagan culture because the Hebrews did not actually keep the Passover (at least until the time of Josiah; 2 Kgs. 23:22-23). While this is true, the idea of the Passover still comes to us through Hebrew culture. And  there is more necessary, beautiful, and awe-inspiring truth in it than in all of Greek thought put together. Both in what the Passover remembers (the exodus from Egypt) and it what it points toward (Jesus’ work of salvation) the story and the celebration associated with it are a beautiful picture that tell us much about God and about ourselves. One might argue that this is only religious knowledge and that there is much more that we can and should know in this life. I would counter that we cannot truly understand science or history or art unless we understand the world from a godly perspective. None of those things make sense unless we first understand the Creator (as I argued in this post). So in giving us the story of salvation encapsulated in the Passover, the Hebrew culture  — whether the Israelites themselves appreciated it and kept it or not — gives us more truth and beauty than all of Greek culture.


A Little Historical Perspective

I have not taken a historical approach to this question. I am not generally find arguments that begin “the early church said . . . ” conclusive (knowing that God’s people can go astray so quickly), but I wanted to include the two quotes below to give some idea of the   scope of thought in the earliest Church. Both are from William Barclay’s book Train up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (I expect to review this book soon so stay tuned). Barclay gives very thorough analyses of different ancient educational traditions. These quotes are from his chapter on the early Church and their use of the classical authors. Barclay himself is quoting early church writers —

“‘Avoid all books of the heathen. For what hast thou to do with strange sayings or laws or lying prophecies which also turn away from the faith them that are young? What is lacking to thee in the word of God, that thou shouldst cast thyself on these fables of the heathen? If thou wouldst read historical narratives thou hast The Book of Kings; if philosophers and wise men, thou hast the prophets, wherein thou shalt find wisdom and understanding more than that of the wise men and philosophers. And if thou wish for songs, thou hast the Psalms of David; if thou wouldst read of the beginning of the world, thou hast Genesis of the great Moses; and, if laws and commandments, thou hast the glorious Law of the Lord God. All strange writings therefore which are contrary to these wholly eschew.'” William Barclay, Train up a Child (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) p. 230

“‘If those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our use from those who have no lawful possession of it . . . In the same way all branches of heathen learning, have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, wen we go under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths even in regard to the worship of God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence, which are everywhere scattered abroad . . .'” Barclay, pp. 231-32

Two different views are represented here. They amount essentially to “no Greeks, no way” and “use what is good in the Greeks but prefer the biblical tradition.” They show, on the one hand, that even in early days there was no clear consensus on how to approach the classical material. But, on the other, it is not a free-for-all. The more open position still takes the biblical tradition as the measuring rod and is selective about what it accepts from the Greek sources.

Summary and Implications for Education

There is a lot here and I feel I have just scratched the surface. What I feel confident in saying is that God revealed Himself to Israel in a way He did not, and still has not, to any other people. Christ’s work does not undo this special relationship; it just expands it. Israel is redefined (with some branches put out and others grafted in) but the special relationship still exists. The culture and traditions of the Old Testament come from God; those of the Greeks (or Chinese or Romans or any other society) come from man. This is not to say that there is not some truth which comes to us through those pagan cultures but that nothing they have to offer can even begin to rival what God gives us in His Law, in the story of His dealings with His people, in the beautiful poetry of the Psalms, in the wisdom of Proverbs and the other wisdom books.

I began by positing four options for incorporating Greek and Hebrew culture. The Schole Sisters, as I understand them, would include both cultures but give preference to the Greek. Though I did not go into this series with a clear opinion on the matter, as I reread my own writing, especially posts like this one, I am sure it sounds like I at least give preference to the Hebrew culture. To some extent, this is true though I would phrase it in a slightly more nuanced way — The things we learn through the Scriptures are true in a way nothing else can be. Yet there is very little they tell us about very many areas of knowledge. What they do give us is the theological and intellectual framework by which to understand every fact that comes our way. I do think we can receive truth from other traditions, but what we receive from them must be selective and must be filtered through the lens we get from the Hebrew tradition. The Hebrew tradition, then, is the only essential one and the basis for evaluating what is good in the others.

Comparing the Greek culture to other pagan cultures (again, the Chinese or the Indian or any other), I have yet to see a strong reason to prefer the Greek or to hold it in higher esteem. It is, of course, largely the foundation of western civilization of which we are part and as such we should learn about it, but I am not convinced that it is in any way superior to other pagan cultures (though I am still willing to be convinced if anyone has evidence to present on that issue). But whatever we may take from those cultures, we need to do so with discernment. It is not going to be a matter of take all of Greek culture and reject all of Chinese culture or vice-versa. All things should be held up to the standard we are given in Scripture (1 Thess. 5:21).


[1]  For a very brief introduction to the logos, I will refer you to this article on Logos from Ligonier Ministries.


Christianity, Science, and the Pursuit of Truth

Dear Reader,

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

In recent weeks we have been discussing common grace and education (see this post and this one). One of the big questions we have been wrestling with is whether there is anything good and true that we can learn from non-Christians. The short answer is yes. I agree with Van Til and others that God can and does use non-believers to further His greater goal, whether they co-operate willingly with His Spirit or not. Truth and beauty can come to us through non-Christian sources.

But, as is often the case, the simple answer is not the full answer. The line of thinking goes something like this: God is the Source of truth; beauty and goodness are defined by Him. As Creator, God’s nature is seen in His works and is thus available to all people, but not all people recognize their Creator. God chooses to reveal Himself more fully to some people (in reformed theological terms: the elect). The Holy Spirit enables the elect to better see and understand the things of God. Thus we should expect those God has chosen to have a better grasp of what is good and true and beautiful than those who are still mired in sin.

I want to be careful how I say this. I am not saying that truth does not come to us through non-believers or that everything believers say is true (or that everything they do is good or everything they create is beautiful).  We should test all things claiming to be truth (1 Thess. 5:21; 1 Jn. 4:1) ,  no matter how they come to us. Nonetheless, we should expect more truth and beauty and goodness to come to us through Christians than through non-Christians.

Making the Argument, or a Whole Mess of Quotes

I’m going to overwhelm you with quotes today. While they are not all making exactly the same argument, their  conclusions tend to point in the same direction. Should you want to read more, a full, annotated bibliography is at the end of this post.

The work of God’s Holy Spirit in salvation and sanctification affects not just the heart but the mind. There is a sense in which the unsaved person cannot fully understand God’s universe:

“The Holy Spirit’s work in regeneration has an effect not only on man’s spiritual and moral nature, but also on his intellect; it opens the eyes of his understanding (Eph. 1:18). He begins to see facts in the light of God (Psalm 36:9); that is, he begins to see the true meaning of facts. The unregenerate person, on the other hand, continues to maintain that facts can be understood and explained in the light of man; he recognizes no higher category than the human mind, and he will never admit that his mind has been darkened by sin.” J.G. Vos, What is Christian Education?, p. 3

In other words, a true understanding of history or science or beauty is impossible without a godly mindset — that is, without participation in God’s mindset:

“The regenerate person, on the other hand, realizes that the human mind does not exist of itself; it is a created mind and is not competent to be the absolute and final interpreter of facts.” Vos, p. 5

“Another way to say this is that God doesn’t have a point of view; he has a complete view. And because he revealed himself, we can come to a true understanding of the world, thinking God’s thoughts after him — however imperfectly or incompletely — and knowing the truth as God knows it to be. All truth is God’s truth, and therefore, as Jonathan Edwards rightly said, all knowledge lies in the ‘agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.'” Philip Graham Ryken, What is the Christian Worldview?, p. 15

On a very fundamental level, Christians and non-Christians do not and cannot view the world in the same way:

“The conclusion of the whole matter is this. There are two mutually exclusive principles for the interpretation of life.” Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, p. 88

The Christian, because he sees a unifying principle and a divine order in the universe, will understand and interpret the facts before him differently:

“There are no uninterpreted facts. In every area of life and thought, all facts derive their meaning from the religious presuppositions of man.” Rousas Rushdoony, Philosophy of Christian Curriculum, Kindle Loc. 993

Christianity, Scholarship and the Arts

We can see this in various fields. I am going to talk about science in more detail below, but let’s begin with the social sciences and the arts. Without a theistic worldview, we have no standard for right and wrong, no way to judge the events and people of history. Without a Creator, the universe has no meaning and no purpose. If we look at history with such a view, we see it only as a class struggle (much like the very struggle to exist which Darwinian evolution posits) or a mere series of causes and effects, a kind of determinism without any determiner.

“In our day, humanistic reason affirms that there is only the cosmic machine, which encompasses everything, including people. To those who hold this view everything people are or do is explained by some form of determinism, some type of behaviorism, some kind of reductionism.” Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (p. 164)

Christian belief also provides a justification for art:

“The doctrine of creation also affirms music and the arts. Although there is nothing specific about this in Genesis 1 and 2, what we do with sight and sound is part of the inherent potentiality of creation . . .

“Together these various aspects of human life give us what theologians call the ‘Cultural Mandate.’ We have a God-given responsibility to develop the possibilities of creation in ways that reveal our Maker’s praise, and this to fill the whole earth with his glory. We are to do this in science, politics, business, sports, literature, film and all the arts.”  Ryken, pp. 23-24

Christianity and Science

Because Christianity and science are often portrayed as opposites in modern society, I’ll take  a few extra moments to address their relationship specifically.  Christianity is the basis of science because it assumes a world that makes sense (something many Christians today need to be reminded of):

“Science and the scientific method arose in one and only one place: Western Civilization (Western Europe, to be precise). Why is this the case?   . . .

“The surprising answer is Judeo/Christian theology.

“In most ancient societies, nature was viewed as capricious and erratic, as were the gods themselves . . .

“Science and the scientific method could arise only if the universe and world were orderly, predictable, and inherently rational.” Rick Stedman, 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God, pp. 134-35

“That is, scientific exploration assumes that there exists an underlying order of the world that is inteligible even when it is yet undiscovered, as secret code ciphered into the natures of things themselves, a knowable order rather than mere gibberish.” Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, A Meaningful World, p. 123

“Far from conflicting with science, creation is what makes science possible by establishing an orderly universe . . . The people of God have been keenly interested in the study of science ever since, as a way of exploring the mind of their Maker.” Ryken, p. 23

Francis Schaeffer makes the argument from a more philosophical point of view. Christianity not only assumes a universe that makes sense, it also assumes that we can use our senses to know  and find out about that universe:

“In brief, science, as it is now usually conceived, has no epistemological base  — that is, no base for being sure that what scientists think they observe corresponds to what really exists.” Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (p. 199)

But it is not just our assumption of a logical and perceivable universe that leads us to truth but also our innate love of beauty. This love, of course, can drive both Christians and non-Christians. But I would argue that it should be more of a motivating force to Christians:

” . . . there would be no periodic table without our very human love of beauty. Elaborating on this point, the great mathematician Henri Poinare 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.'” Wiker, Meaningful World, p. 115

A specific example of how Christian belief makes a difference in scientific thought:

“Materialism erases the distinction between nonliving and living things, and that misses the essential nature of the way proteins exist in cells. A functional protein structure depends on the living unity of the cell; that is, it is by its function as a part in relation to the living whole, one whose particular, complex arrangements of parts is necessary to carry out its intricate function.” Wiker, A Meaningful World, p. 211

The Flip-Side, or Everybody Has Presuppositions

I tend to get frustrated with Christians throwing around the term “worldview,” but the truth is how one perceives the world and its purpose will affect one’s thoughts in all areas. For this I would point you to a whole book: Benjamin Wiker’s The Darwin Myth. Wiker gives what I think is a very fair treatment of the man but shows how Darwin’s lack of faith (and he does argue that Darwin was not a believer) skewed his view of evolution.  Darwin, for example, starts with the assumption that there is no absolute morality:

“According to Darwin, morality doe snot govern evolution. If it did, then we might expect a divine overseer. Darwin would not allow that; and in order to disbar it, Darwin had to argue that morality was created by evolution. It is, in Darwin’s scheme, an evolutionary after-effect of sociability.” (p. 92)

Indeed, Darwin’s whole theory is based upon not just a godless foundation but on the antithesis of God:

“Death, Darwin thought, was the key to life, a complete inversion of [his wife] Emma’s superstitious belief in a creator God and the idea that death was the punishment for original sin. Death was, is, and always will be, the creator.” (p. 66)

Wiker contrasts Darwin’s take on evolution with that of his contemporaries who were believers, showing that the views of each were shaped by his underlying beliefs:

“The chosen scientific hypothesis or paradigm, the lens through which the investigator attempts to scrutinize nature, both magnifies and distorts, bringing objects nearer and crowding them within a particular field of vision, but at the expense of what lies outside and beyond the frame.” (p. 120)

The conclusion for Wiker is not a rejection of evolution per se but of Darwinian evolution in particular.

Wrapping up

The point of all this is not to beat up Darwin, or any other non-Christian thinker. We should not ignore the truth that comes to us through non-Christians whom God also uses to further His plan. But we should expect more truth and beauty and goodness to come to us through Christians —  because the minds of Christians are being transformed by the Holy Spirit (this, in truth, is education), because their eyes are opened to the divine revelation that comes to us through Creation, because they have the philosophical and theological framework from which to understand and make sense of science and history.


[1] This post focuses on the presuppositions behind an idea; we can also look at its effects. A tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 7:15-16). It is no coincidence that the wide-spread acceptance of Darwinian evolution was followed by a host of other bad ideas from the Waldorf method education (which is predicated upon the idea that kids evolve into people) to the rise of sociology which seeks to control human progress through social manipulation to the attempted extermination of the Jews and other (slightly) more benign attempts at eugenics.


Rushdoony, Rousas. Philosophy of Christian Curriculum. Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2001 (originally published 1981). I was not crazy about Rushdoony’s book but I think he is right on this point: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. No one ever views anything without their worldview coming into play.

Ryken, Philip Graham. What is the Christian Worldview? Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006. This is a wonderful short book, more of a pamphlet actually. I find the title a little deceptive. I think it is more of an introduction to reformed theology. I make this one a must-read for my kids when they are middle school aged.

Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005 (originally published 1976). Schaeffer’s subject is more philosophy than anything else though he covers big trends in art as well. A Christian classic and a must-read.

Stedman, Rick. 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2017. This is a fairly simple and somewhat redundant read but is good as an introduction or for tweens/teens to read. My review is here.

Van Til, Cornelius. Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974. Van Til is a solid reformed thinker. More than any other, his book on Christian education is one I find myself returning to. See my review here.

Vos, J.G. What is Christian Education? Pittsburgh, PA: Reformed Presbyterian Church of N.A. This is a very slim little pamphlet but with a lot of good nuggets packed into it. I highly recommend picking this one up.

Wiker, Benjamin. The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin. Regnery Publishing, 2009. This is an easy book but a must-read. I find Wiker’s treatment very fair and well-researched. He does not reject evolution as such but Darwinian evolution. His own love for and awe at Creation comes through.

Wiker, Benjamin and Jonathan Witt. A Meaningful World. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. I am in love with this book. It is a tougher read but well worth it. The authors show how Shakespeare and chemistry and astrophysics all point to the Creator. They clearly love and appreciate the beauty of God’s world and it shows in their writing.

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)



Church, State . . . and School?

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find the intro posts here and here.

Is there such a thing as a Christian school? Well, of course there are Christian schools. The question I want to explore today is what if any the place of the Christian school is vis-à-vis the Church and state.

If you have been reading here a while, you know that I have been going through a number of books on education. In doing so I was struck by the fact that both Cornelius Van Til and Rousas Rushdoony (see my reviews of their books here and here respectively) speak of the Christian school as an almost divinely-inspired body complementary to the Church:

“Oh, yes, the church and home may speak of this Christ. But neither the church nor the home can deal at all adequately with the length and breadth of Christ as the Savior and Transformer of human culture . . . only in the school, in which professional people engage in setting forth the whole history and meaning of human culture, can Christ and his work be portrayed in full detail . . .” [Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) p. 23-24]

“However, where the state seeks to license, accredit, control, or in any way govern the Christian school as a school, it is then another question. It is usurpation of power by the state, and it involves the control of one religion, Christianity, by another, humanism . . . The school, moreover, is a separate sphere under God from church and state, and it thrives most when free from both.” [Rousas Rushdoony, Philosophy of Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2001) Kindle loc. 1609]

“It should be stressed that discipline requires the cooperation of church, school, and family. Each has its own distinctive task and cannot infringe on the other.” (Rushdoony, Kindle loc. 1819)

There are a number of ideas embedded in even these brief quotes. While they all may work together, I don’t think one need take them as an all-or-nothing proposition:

  • School is a divinely-ordained institution on par with Church and State.
  • School is complementary to Church and State, fulfilling a unique place which may have some overlap with but does not duplicate their roles.
  • The responsibility of educating children belongs to the school.
  • The state and the church should not interfere with the work of the (Christian) school.
  • Family is also a distinct entity with its own role.

The Scriptures address both secular governments and the Church explicitly. Both are given specific authority and specific tasks and have divinely-ordained leaders (on government: Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; on the Church: Matt. 16:18; 28:18-20; Acts 20:28; Col. 1:18). The same cannot be said of school.

The main reason schools are not mentioned in the Bible (it seems silly even to have to say it) is that they simply were not a feature of the time, at least not in the way we now know them. Of course there was education in some form (see this post on teaching in the Old Testament and this one on the New), but I cannot think of a single reference to organized group education of children.

[There is evidence that adults were educated in “classes” by teachers. Jesus was the “Rabbi” of His disciples (Jn. 3:2, among many others) and Paul learned from Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). The boy Jesus learned from the teachers in the temple (Lk. 2:42ff), but this does not seem to have been the norm; the shocking part of this story is that at 12 He was discussing theology like an adult.]

What we do see is that parents are charged with teaching their children about the things of God (Gen. 18:19; Deut. 4:9; 6:7; Ps. 78:4-6; Prov. 1:8; 4:1; 6:20). There is some evidence that others, notably grandparents, might help in this (Gen. 48; 2 Tim. 1:5).

Neither the Church nor State is charged with providing schools. This does not necessarily mean that they should not do so, however. With regard to the Church, they are of course charged with the education of all members, including children, in the things of God. Does this mean the Church shouldn’t provide other forms of education? Not necessarily, but we should balance any such endeavor with a caution against allowing the Church to distracted from its main mission, namely the preaching of the gospel (cf. Acts 6:2).

Among the functions of civil government mentioned in the Bible are: collecting taxes (Matt. 22:17-21; Rom. 13:6-7), punishing wrong-doers (Rom. 13:4), administering justice and settling disputes (Exod. 18:13ff), and waging war (1 Pet. 2:14). There is one more function of government: the care of the helpless, among whom the Scriptures name widows, the fatherless, the poor and needy, and foreigners (Ps. 82:1-4; Jer. 22:3). If we are going to find a Scriptural justification for state education, it is here. One might argue that in our society the way to help the poor, to help them get ahead, is to provide education.

In our church, there are a number of African refugees. As pro-homeschooling as I am, it is hard for me to imagine how these parents — who are often traumatized, don’t speak English, and are frequently illiterate in their native languages (this is true of the mothers especially)  — would ever be able to educate their own children. It would be wonderful if there were good Christian schools for these children to go to but the fact is that there are not. So we are back again to whose responsibility it is to care for them in ways their parents are unable to.

I don’t think there are hard and fast answers here; there is a lot of room for debate and it may be, given the state of affairs on the ground, that what is the right answer in one location is just not feasible in another. But here is what I think:

  • There is no biblical justification for the School (big “S”) on par with the Church and State.
  • If there were any institution on such a level, it would be the family, not the school (though Church trumps family; Matt. 12:50; 19:29; Lk. 14:26).
  • It is the parents who are charged with educating their own children and who must bear primary responsibility.
  • This is not to say that the parents cannot or should not have help.
  • The Church should certainly educate all its members, of all ages, in the things of God.
  • While there is nothing inherently wrong with a Church providing education in other areas, we must be very careful that any such ministry does not distract from the main work of the Church.
  • A better case can be made for the State to take a role in education, especially as it concerns the most needy members of society. However, there are many ways that this could happen . . .
  • Which brings us back to: education is ultimately the responsibility of the parents and Christian parents need to ensure that, above all, their children receive a God-centered education.





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.




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.




Common Grace, Part 2

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find them all here.

In part 1 of this post, we began to look at the idea of “common grace” as it relates to education. The questions before us are:

  1. Can non-Christians be educated? Are they capable of receiving what is good and true?
  2. Can we learn from non-Christians? How are we to view the seemingly good and true things which they communicate to us?

In part 1, I looked at Cornelius Van Til’s definition of common grace in Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and  Reformed Publishing, 1974). I didn’t want to rely on Van Til alone, however, so I sought out other sources on the topic of common grace. The goal for today is to see if Van Til’s depiction (or perhaps just my understanding of it) is in line with general reformed thought and if there are any further conclusions we can draw with regard to education.

The primary source I am relying on for this post is Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (The Ephesians Four Group, 2017; originally pub. 1932). While Van Til’s work was on education and common grace came into it incidentally, Berkhof’s is from the start a systematic theology. He is a well-known and, as far as I know, a well-respected name. Plus he gives a good introduction to the subject including background material and some discussion of the different views and thoughts.  I will summarize what he has to say and then return at the end to a few of my own thoughts.

Common Grace, a la Berkhof

The doctrine of common grace is one of those which does not arise by name in the Scriptures (a fact which we can not necessarily hold against it as even the Trinity is not named as such). Rather it arises as the solution to a seeming inconsistency:

“The question arose, How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? . . . How can we account for it that sinful man still ‘retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior’? . . . How can the unregenerate still speak the truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives?” (Berkhof, Kindle loc. 10291)

Augustine did not teach common grace. His concern was to show that the “so-called virtues [of heathens] were sins, because they did not spring from faith . . . He denies that such deeds are the fruit of any natural goodness in man” (Berkhof, loc. 10300; cf. Heb. 11:6).

Luther made a distinction between the earthly and heavenly spheres, arguing that unregenerate man can do good in the former but not the latter (loc. 10320).

Calvin, though he does not use the term in the sense we now do (loc. 10340), is the first formulator of the doctrine of common grace as we know it. With Augustine, and against Luther, Calvin “firmly maintained that the natural man can of himself do no good work whatsoever” (loc. 10331). But he did argue for a grace which “curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men”(loc. 10331).

As we understand it today, common grace is not a separate act of God (loc. 10362) but refers to “(a) those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through His general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted; or (b) those general blessings, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, which God imparts to all men indiscriminately where and in what measure it seems good to Him” (loc. 10382).  Berkhof later goes on to list specific outworkings of common grace (loc. 10517) which are:

  • The full brunt of the punishment for sin is delayed.
  • Man’s sinful nature is restrained. At times, we see that God gives the unregenerate over to their evil desires (Rom. 1:24ff) so that we may conclude that other times He does not do so but restrains sin from its full range. 
  • Man retains some sense of the good, true and beautiful. Included in this is man’s natural inclination towards some form of religion.
  • Man performs what is called “civil good.” These are not actual good works as they do not stem from right motives and therefore cannot please God. Nonetheless they are in harmony with the law of God. Common grace does not produce any good in the unbeliever (cf. loc. 10401) but merely restrains evil so that we can agree with Augustine that they are incapable of true good. 
  • Man receives natural “blessings.” This is where the sun and the rain come in (cf. Matt. 5:45). I put “blessings” in quotes, because, though Berkhof uses the word, he is careful to note that God does not bless the unrighteous as such.

Common grace does not change the hearts of men and is not saving. Berkhof ties it to God’s creative work, as opposed to His redemptive work (loc. 10275), while yet arguing that common grace would not be possible without the redemptive work of Christ (loc. 10436). Common grace is “subservient to the execution of the plan of God in the life of the elect and in the development of the Church. But in addition to that it also serves an independent purpose, namely, to bring to light and to harness for the service of man the hidden forces of nature, and to develop the powers and talents that are latent in the human race, in order that man may ever-increasingly exercise dominion over the lower creation, to the glory of God the Creator” (loc. 10466).

Berkhof goes further and gives us some specifics regarding the means of common grace (loc. 10496). They are:

  • God’s general revelation. He includes under this heading man’s conscience.
  • Civil governments which maintain order, promote good and discourage evil.
  • Public opinion. Which is to say that men care what other men think and will alter their behavior to seek approval or avoid disapproval.
  • Just consequences. Actions often have natural consequences. The child who returns a lost item is rewarded. The teen who engages in bad behavior gets a nasty disease.

Common Grace and Education

When we looked at Van Til on common grace, I drew two  (provisional) conclusions:

  • That one aspect of common grace is the call which goes out, through general revelation, to all mankind and that education functions within this call.
  • That the unregenerate, while not able to do good in the sense of pleasing God, do nonetheless make real contributions to the cause of truth and beauty. God uses what they do, often in spite of themselves, to further His ultimate end.

Neither of these is at odds with Berkhof’s conception of common grace as well. Berkhof’s common grace may be more than this, but it is not less. He speaks both of the call of general revelation (loc. 10485, 10600) and of the role of common grace in working out God’s greater plan (loc. 10466). Berkhof does not refer to education as such. My inclination is to place education under “general revelation” in his list of the means of common grace [1]. Education is largely how we know about general revelation.

I began with two questions. I feel that we have gone a long way towards answering the second — there is real truth and beauty that can come to us through non-Christians sources because God uses them as a part of His larger plan. This is not inherent goodness on their part as without faith they are unable to please God. They may often be unaware or unwitting cogs in His plan. I think we will need to talk more about when and how and if to use non-Christian resources when we get to some of the more practical details of education. For now I am willing to say that we should not reject outright all things that come to us through non-believers but that we must approach them with caution, testing them as we would any new teacher (1 John 4:1-6; for a little introduction to this topic, check out this sermon).

The other question was about our students — Can we present what is good and true to them if they are unregenerate? Are they able to receive what we present and to be educated in any way? We have part of the answer to this — education is subsumed under the call that goes out to all the earth and as such we can and should present it, without prejudice, to all children (indeed, all people), not just to those we know to be saved.

But that it only half an answer; it does not tell us if they are able to receive any of what we present. Of course, we do not know who is among the elect. That is why I say we present education without prejudice — we must not assume this child is saved and that one is not.  That is up to God and does not rely on us or our efforts.

But does education have a beneficial effect, does it make any headway, even among the non-elect? The doctrine of common grace, as Berkhof presents it, would seem to tell us it does. Not that it can produce true goodness but that it can be one of the means God uses to restrain evil.

I have some level of discomfort in saying this. I don’t want us to think that we can educate anyone into being virtuous. If we make virtue our goal — and it is the goal of classical education —  we will go astray. To the extent that education may restrain evil in the non-elect it is not producing real good. That is impossible without saving grace and that it not something we can educate into children.  We desire far more than the appearance of goodness. Ultimately, we desire their salvation and their sanctification. In education, we present God’s general revelation (which is not to say that we don’t also teach the Scriptures of course). There may be some good than comes from this even without saving grace as evil is restrained, but whether that call is effective is beyond us; it is the work of the Holy Spirit to make it take root or not.


[1]  Education, especially the education of children, is closely linked with discipline which may in turn be tied to that means which I have called “just consequences.” Parental justice — i.e. discipline — is often the immediate means of divine justice.


Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool


my musings, wise or otherwise

Festival Fete

locally grown art, food, and merriment


A Literary Homestead


Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

The Common Room

....Blogging about cabbages and kings since 2005.

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more


Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Handwoven Textiles

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more


Blogging about education, theology, and more

Leah's Bookshelf

Book Reviews You Can Trust

Duxbury Art Boosters

Supporting the visual arts in Duxbury Public Schools

Just Right Porridge

... you'll lick your bowl clean...