Posts Tagged ‘calvinism’

Should We Use Textbooks?

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I seem to be on a roll with practical posts (quite unusual for me). Last time we talked about how theology impacts our methodology in education. This time I’d like to touch on the kinds of books we use, specifically whether textbooks are a good idea.

In A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011) Donald Oppewal argues for Christian textbooks. The point he is making is that Christian schools need Christian textbooks. He is not making an argument for textbooks as opposed to other kinds of books or materials. Nonetheless, his comments give us some insight into how textbooks operate.

Whereas secular textbooks, such as are used in the public schools, assume a materialistic, godless worldview, Christian textbooks “contain many explicit examples of faith integration” (p. 229). Oppewal gives the example of a literature textbook which gives “several pages of introduction” in which “the student is given biblical explanations of the importance of choosing properly and making careful decisions” (p. 228). Though the stories themselves are given without commentary, they are carefully selected. Likewise, the civics book provides a certain view of the role of government in society. The science books are laced with a “type of commentary [which] is repeated throughout the series” (p. 229). Thus in both their selection of material and in the commentary at the beginning and perhaps throughout the book, a certain viewpoint is being given and the child is being guided (to say the least) into how to think about the material.

Because books are not neutral, and texbooks themselves are curated collections, we should approach them with discernment. “More parents and teachers than ever before,” Oppewal tells us, “are realizing that textbooks contain not just bare information but also have a point of view, a perspective on the subject” (p. 231).   In and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to recognize that textbooks are no more neutral than any other book, and, as they choose material and put it in a framework, so we need to be discerning in choosing them and in how we use them.

There may be times and situations in which textbooks are our best available choice. Certainly for some subjects, such as math or foreign language, they seem quite appropriate. But there is also an unnecessary building up of layers here. The parents choose a school. The school chooses teachers. The teacher chooses a textbook, the content of which has itself been choosen by someone else, possibly by a committee of people and a number of editors. The texbook presents not just material but a certain take on that material. And perhaps the teacher also gives her own spin to the whole thing by choosing which parts of the book to use and by adding her own commentary. That’s a lot of people and a lot of minds between the parent and the student and between the material and the student.

I would like suggest that we take a page from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and eliminate as many of these layers as possible. In Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen speaks of the “pecularities of authorship” (p. 103; see this earlier post). I don’t know how the textbooks Oppewal advocates were written, but many have multiple authors not to mention editors. An individual gives a particular view and communicates ideas in a way that a committee cannot. As Esolen says later: “Five people can have a conversation. A thousand people can only make noise” (p. 206). The more people we invite into the conversation that is our children’s education, the more chaotic it becomes.

Charlotte Mason believed that the main thing in education was to put children in contact with other minds. Ideas, she believed, are caught from one mind to another. Given contact with other minds, children do not need a lot of commentary from us which only serves to interrupt the conversation (so to speak):

“Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation . . . they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 204; see this post)

Thus Mason urges teachers to engage in “[t]he art of standing aside” (School Education, p. 54):

“Half the teaching one sees and hears is more or less obtrusive. The oral lesson and the lecture, with their accompanying notes, give very little scope for the establishment of relations with great minds and various  minds . . .” (Ibid., p. 54)

There is still a role for the teacher. We know that not everything in this world is good and true and beautiful so we must choose what minds to put our children in contact with. Those minds come with their own built-in worldviews, whether they themselves are aware of them or not, so discernment is needed.

Whether — or perhaps we had better say when — we expose our children to minds whose views differ from our own is a point which requires some insight. As I have discussed on a number of occasions (see this post), as reformed people we do believe that there is some measure of truth which is revealed to non-Christians. We do not exclude them from the conversation. I would like to propose a scheme in which there is a gradual opening up. For the youngest children we are probably not going to choose as many resources with views that differ from our own. But as they age, it is perfectly appropriate to expose them to a wider variety of materials. Though Mason was opposed to much commentary from the teacher, viewing it as a barrier between the student and the mind behind his book, some commentary, infrequently given, can guide students into being able to discern the underlying assumptions behind a book (or commercial or movie or song or …).

Better yet — we can provide books which themselves show us how to identify underlying assumptions. Two I would recommend are Grant Horner’s Meaning at the Movies and Francis Schaeffer’s How Then Should We Live. Though the former is about movies, it is a good introduction to how to think about the assumptions behind an artistic creation. The latter is a classic on how large trends in western thought have shaped culture. Another book I found quite helpful is Deconstructing Penguins. This is not a book for the student to read (though an older one certainly could). It describes a book club for younger children and how the authors walked them through identify protagonists and antagonists, point-of-view, and also world views in various classic children’s books. I used this book to construct a kind of mini-course for my own children. Using books that were too easy for them I think actually worked quite well. We could concentrate on the ideas behind the books without getting bogged down.

Books are powerful things. Through them we encounter other minds which may be separated from us by time and space. We believe there is good and evil in this world so we do not want to give our children free rein to all that is out there, especially at a young age before they have developed any discernment of their own. But we do want them to be able to interact with these other minds. Our tendency, I think, is too often to jump in and interrupt this conversation. Textbooks are simply not as good a choice a living books by one author who knows and loves his subject. They add layers, making the conversation more like a game of telephone. They bring more voices in and they mute the original voices by taking them out of context. If we want to use textbooks, Oppewal is perfectly right that Christian ones are preferable. But there is even a better way — actual, real, living books. In the words of Henry Zylstra,

” . . . the teacher and the textbooks are but guides and interpreters of traditions of life and thought which are embodied in book.” [Testament of Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958) p. 84]


Theology and Methodology in Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I realize that in our discussion of education I have largely been staying on the theoretical plane, but I am also a homeschooling mom and I know that on Monday morning you need to know what to do with your children/students. All this stuff about the nature of man and what it means to know — what does all this have to do with actually educating our kids? The answer is – quite a lot. Theology is not separate from methodology. Or, to put it the other way, our methodology says a lot about what we believe.

In his book A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011) Donald Oppewal argues just this point. He says that “a teaching methodology is no more philosophically neutral than an epistemology” (p. 147) [1]. We must therefore be careful what methods we use:

“The adoption of a classroom methodology proposed by others, whether it arises out of Platonic idealism, Deweyan pragmatism, or realism, is fraught with the danger of inviting the Trojan horse into the City of God.” (p. 147)

Take, for instance, the Socratic method, otherwise known as dialectic. This using of questions and answers as a process to uncover knowledge is the hallmark of classical Greek education (for a fuller explanation of classical classical education, as opposed to its modern reincarnation, see this post). This methodology rests on a belief: that knowledge has been planted within man by the divine and that the goal of education is to discover knowledge within ourselves. The question and answer technique is designed to do just this, to help the learner find the knowledge that is within him. The problem with this, from a Christian perspective, is that knowledge does not reside within us. All wisdom and knowledge belong to God. They are external to us.

Since the late 1800s, much of public education has been dominated by the ideas of John Dewey, known as pragmatism.  Dewey was heavily influenced by evolutionary ideas. His philosophy is materialistic, denying the existence of the spiritual. His methodology reflects this. Very simply put, just as the theory of evolution says that creatures have changed and adapted in response to forces in their environment, so too Dewey’s approach to education says that students must be confronted with conflicts and resolve them in order to learn and advance.

Oppewal offers his own methodolgy which he calls the discovery method (see this earlier post) which “requires active participation of the learner. He or she is not simply accepting, but constructing explanations for what they see. They are respected as a participant in finding, and not simply treated as a receiver of, knowledge” (p. 220). The theological principles behind his method Oppewal identifies as “the doctrine of the image of God, the priesthood of the individual believer, and the cultural mandate” (p. 220).

There is a lot here I like. In terms of specific applications, I would go a different way, but Oppewal is right on target with the idea that we need to construct a methodology that recognizes the unique personhood of the child and his standing before his God. The Bible teaches that children are fully human persons. While they need education (or we wouldn’t be here having this discussion), we need an approach to eduaction which recognizes: 1) that each children is a complete person, unified and yet composed of rational, emotional, physical, and spiritual elements; 2) that each is a unique person created by God; 3) that the child is a fallen creature; and 4) that he has a standing before God; that he is both able to sin and to be saved.

Practically speaking, this means a few things —

Children are not vessels to be filled, lumps of clay to be molded, or plants to be coddled in a hot-house. It is not us that shapes and trains them but God and we need to be very careful not to overstep our proper boundaries by manipulating the child, playing upon his feelings and desire for acceptance, etc.  This is an idea which Charlotte Mason made much of, and, while I disagree with her theology, I think on methodology she has a lot to contribute.

Contrary to the belief of Rousseau and of the modern unschooling movement, children are not inherently good. They will not gravitate towards what is best for them so we do need to exercise some oversight and to teach them discernment. There is a place for the teacher to determine a suitable curriculum.

We believe in absolute truth which exists outside of us. But we also believe in the uniqueness of each person. We need to recognize that not every child needs to or is going to learn the same things. Related to this is the idea that the child has his own relationship with his Creator. God works in the lives of each one and we need to allow Him to do so. Because the Holy Spirit is the giver of wisdom, we will not be able to control outcomes and we need to be willing to allow Him to work  — or not work — as He wills. Again, I think Charlotte Mason was on the right track in how she balanced the common core of a curriculum versus the unique abilities and personality of each student. See this earlier post.

While I personally have defined education as the transforming of the mind, this is not meant to operate in isolation from the other aspects of the person because we are not separable into mind versus heart versus body versus spirit but all parts work together. Balancing all of these in a school environment which doesn’t also usurp the ultimate authority of the parents over their child’s training is very, very hard to do. I think this is actually one good argument for homeschooling. How this principle of unity in the person plays out practically speaking for education is something I am still mulling over. I am not convinced, as some are, that there must always be a physical action to accompany the intellectual work of learning, but we do need to be aware that the child needs transformation in all aspects of his being and that to address one area and neglect the others will lead to a kind of warping.

That the child has a standing before his God also means that he needs to be able to interact directly with the things of God. It is these things — God’s general revelation — which we place before the child when we educate him. I agree with Oppewal that the child needs to be able to actively participate. I am not sure that agree with him on what this participation looks like. “Actively,” again, does not need to mean there is a physical action involved, creating a diorama or doing a service project for instance. Instead it is intellectual activity we seek. Once more I return to Charlotte Mason — she believed that students need to digest material for themselves. Worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, short answer questions all ask for regurgitation of material. Narration is a process which requires the student to process the material for himself. He does not merely extract facts pre-determined by the teacher but his mind is actively involved in understanding the material, selecting and extracting relevant information, making connections, putting his thoughts into words, and so on.

This has been an introduction to how we begin to construct a methodology and I realize it has been somewhat scattered. I’d like to return in the not to distant future to fleshing out a methodology that fits our reformed theology.


[1] Epistemology is the field which answers questions about knowing, i.e. what is knowledge and how do we know something. See this earlier post, also on Oppewal.

How Specific Calvinistic Beliefs Impact Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

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

In his book A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011; see also this earlier post on Oppewal) Donald Oppewal shows how some reformed doctrines have specific applications for education. These are broader principles, derived ultimately from the Scriptures and held to by at least some significant segment of the reformed world.

The Sovereignty of God

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

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

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

Sphere Sovereignty

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

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

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

There are four possible answers to this question:

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

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

Covenant Theology

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

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

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

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

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

The Two Books of Revelation

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

The Cultural Mandate

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

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

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


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

Movie Review: Calvinist

Dear Reader,

This is not inherently education related but I am going to try to tie it in 😉  (You can see all the posts in my current series on reformed Christian education here.)

The Calvinist Movie was made fairly recently by a guy names Les Lanphere. It is available on DVD, Blue-Ray or as a digital download from his website here. My short take on this is that it is well worth watching and even buying (price to rent is $5 and $15 to buy). There are really two parts to the movie– the bulk of it is about trends in evangelicalism and how and why Calvinism has become hip and new again. Sandwiched in the middle is about half an hour (of 1.5 hrs total) which explains Calvinism with lots of biblical quotes and (intentionally?) cheesy graphics.

The best part of this movie is the middle bit exlaining what Calvinism is. I could definitely see showing this section to anyone who asks “Reformed? What does that mean?” (which actually happens a fair amount when I say the name of my church). Admittedly they are preaching to the choir with me, but I went away from this section thinking “Why on earth wouldn’t anyone believe this?” They do a very good job of highlighting (literally) biblical verses to support all they say. The one lack, if there is one, is that while they show reformed theology to be biblical, little is said about what comes between the New Testament and the Reformation. I’m sure time was limited and one had to pick and choose but you wouldn’t know from this video that there was any good theology in the early church which the reformers were returning to.

Two-thirds of the movie is about the trend that has been called “Young, restless and reformed.” I think I am old enough that I am not part of this trend though my own journey (from Catholicism to 4 or 5 years as a generic evengelical to reformed faith) is not so different from many in the video. It was interesting to me as the study of a social movement. I don’t think this bit would be for non-Christians. I do plan to show it to my soon-to-be college student because, though he has been raised in the reformed faith, I think it would be good as he goes out in the world to have some sense of where his Christian peers may be coming from.

The Calvinist Movie does a good job of showing where the evengelical movement is lacking and how the continual altar calls with no emphasis on what comes after have left church kids empty and anxious. Though this is not my own experience, the feelings I got from growing up Catholic, with the continual need to repent, were similar. The movie makes the point that we have been depriving our kids by exiling them to children’s church where they are basically entertained. We need to treat them like people and to include them in the worship of the church, a position I fully support (see this post on children in the Bible).

A major theme in the movie is that what we believe matters; we can’t just boil down the gospel to the simplest terms. People (children too) need the meat of theology. This is a point I have been making on this blog for years — ideas  matter. To bring it back to the topic of this series — it is why we need a reformed theology of education. There is one particularly good quote near the end where one of the interviewees (Joel Beeke, I believe) says that theology changes us and flows out and affects our feelings and actions as well.  I completely agree with this. I would extend it and say that, perhaps to a lesser extent, the other, not inherently theological, ideas that we take in do this also. Our ideas shape us.

If there is one flaw in this movie, it is that it doesn’t go far enough. The core beliefs of reformed theology (I have just learned we call now these  “the doctrines of grace”) are clearly presented but beyond that there is no effort to present a biblical ecclesiology or a biblical doctrine of worship. And while I would agree that there is some diminishing importance and that we can’t get hung up debating every point small point of doctrine, some of these other issues are still quite important. I am not going to dwell on worship because though the film shows mostly what I would consider unbiblical worship, I hear that the filmmaker has since come to a more biblical understanding of worhip and that his next project will be on the Regulative Principle of Worship.

In the latter half of the film, Lanphere addresses Mark Driscoll, a popular reformed pastor who suffered a dramatic downfall from his ministry.  He then moves to talking about the various reformed Confessions, the implication being that adhering to Confessions will keep us from getting into situations where we are too dependent on the personality of one charismatic leader. Confessions are good, but I would argue that what we need is a biblical ecclesiology. In the movie’s defense, it uses the word ecclesiology a lot but it fails to take that added step and argue that there is a biblical ecclesiology and that we need to adhere to it (I would argue that what the Bible depicts is essentially a Presbyterian structure — one with a lot of accountability).

I definitely recommend the Calvinist Movie. The bulk of it is best for those who are already Christian and even reformed but the half an hour in the middle (actually about 15 minutes in, I think) is a very good, concise and clear way to present reformed theology to anyojne who shows an interest.