Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Book Review: Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood

Dear Reader,

I thought 2019 was my year to read books on gender-related issues but apparently the trend continues. When I heard about Aimee Byrd’s Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2020) I knew I had to add it to my list. I “know” Aimee Byrd from her work on the Mortification of Sin podcast and  I like a lot of what she has to say so I went into this book with a fairly positive attitude.

I had also heard two interviews with Byrd discussing the book before I began reading, one on Mortification of Spin and one on Theology Gals. From these I know that Byrd was encouraged by her editor to use the current title for the book (which is somewhat inflammatory) and to include a fair amount responding directly to the positions of Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and other more conservative complementarians. The result, in my opinion, is that this book really has two main thrusts, one related more directly to gender issues in the church and one focused more on discipleship in the church with an emphasis on the discipleship of women. From listening to her regularly I know that the latter is a particular interest for Byrd and I think that there is something valuable here that needs to be said. However, the overall effect of this two-pronged approach, for me as the reader, was to make it a bit of a disjointed book.

Byrd’s title, as I said, is provocative. It plays on the title of Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In the discussion of gender within the church, there are two main camps, the egalitarians and the complementarians. The former, as their name suggests, argue for equality in roles between the genders. That is, what men can do in the church (pastor a church, preach, etc.) women can do. The latter argue for a distinction in roles, saying that men and women while equal in value have different roles which complement each other. There is a wing of the complementarian camp which takes things a step farther and argues that the roles of men and women, being those of authority and submission respectively, are eternal ones. This applies in the here and now in the belief that all women should submit in some way to all men and is even read back into the Trinity in the belief that God the Son always submitted to God the Father. This is the position known as Eternal Functional Submission (EFS) or the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS). Because this wing has to a large extent taken over complementarianism, Byrd does not use the term for herself (p. 121). Neither is she an egalitarian. She does recognize separate roles within the church for men and women, reserving ordination for men. This is pretty much where I would place myself in the debate as well, both before and after reading this book.

Byrd’s second major thrust, and from my understanding her original purpose in writing the book, is to argue for the discipleship of women within the church. Personally, I have never experienced much in terms of being looked down upon for being female within the church so I don’t come to these issues from as raw a place as others might.  I understand, however, that this is an issue for others and I do think it is something we need to be conscious of. Byrd’s message — that discipleship is the work of the church (as opposed to the parachurch) and that women as well as men pass on their faith and need to grow in their faith and therefore need to be discipled is a good one (p. 161). I particularly liked a point she made that even in our own private study we interpret the Bible not on our own but within an interpretive community (p. 164). If we are not educated in our faith and in how to do this, how can we even begin to read our Bibles?

Looking at these two big issues, I may not like the way the book is put together and find their juxtaposition a little awkward, but I am mostly on board with Byrd’s opinions on both. The biggest problem I have with Recovering is not actually with either of the big points Byrd is trying to make but with her use of Scripture. I should say as we get into this section, in case you are not a regular reader here, that my own training is in biblical Hebrew [1].

The first part of the book addresses what Byrd calls “gynocentric interruptions” within the biblical text. There is not a clear definition given for this term. As Byrd uses it, it seems to refer to those passages and stories in which females are the main characters. There are a couple of assumptions behind this phrase. The first is that the majority of the Bible, because it was written by men and because men are the main characters, is androcentric. The second is that stories which prominently feature females give us a female point of view. For Byrd, these female-centered stories are interruptions in what is primarily a male-oriented book. Her thesis for this first chunk of the book is summed up as follows: “Scripture incorporates the female voice in an androcentric text” (p. 92).

I object two both halves of this statement. I do not think Scripture is inherently androcentric and I do not think that those texts which feature females interrupt in any way or necessarily give us the female perspective. It puzzles me quite a bit why Byrd seems to accept the premise that the Bible is androcentric. Yes, men wrote it but they did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Word more than man’s. And, yes, men are the major characters in most of the narratives, but again male characters does not automatically imply male perspective.

There is another assumption going on behind the scenes here. It is quite a modern one that says that I cannot know the experiences and feelings of someone from a different group. It is the kind of mindset that gives us phrases like “cultural appropriation.” I do not think that I cannot related to a story just because it features male characters. I do think that as human beings we are capable of putting ourselves in one another’s shoes and that is quite a wonderful thing.

Yet there is something to the idea that the stories featuring women stand out within the biblical text. The world of the Bible was a patriarchal one. That is a historical fact. Men had power and authority and status that women did not. So it should not surprise us that men are the primary actors in biblical narrative. In another book I reviewed recently, Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation, the author discusses how the Bible treats science. His argument is that the Scriptures accept the scientific understanding of the day and do not challenge it, a fact which is often disconcerting to us modern readers.  I think something similar is going on here: the Bible does not directly challenge the patriarchal traditions of the time in which it was written.  That does not mean that it accepts or approves those traditions but simply that its main goal is not to challenge and overturn them.

What is striking within all this is that there are so many stories in which women do play a pivotal role. I would argue that these stories do not stand alone, however, but are part of a larger dynamic. There are also quite a number of stories in which God works through others who would not have been seen by their society as the chosen few. We see this particularly in how God often chooses non-firstborn sons. Think of Jacob and Joseph and David. Again and again God shows us that He does not choose based on the world’s standards, that He sees things differently. Saul was one whom the world looked upon with favor but he turned out to be a bad king. David was the least of his brothers and the world would not have chosen him but God did. The role of certain prominent women in the Bible, I would argue, is not so much about their gender as about their unsuitability in the eyes of the world. In this they are not alone. Quite a number of men were also unsuitable and yet God also worked through them. The lesson for us in all this is that God does not see and the world sees and that God chooses the weak of the world to shame the strong and to show His power. Viewed in this way, the stories which feature women and not so much about the women themselves or their femaleness but about God and His electing will and His power. One could even say that God’s use of women, as well as that of foreigners and younger sons, confirms their unsuitabilty. He chooses them and works through them precisely because they are the means the world despises.

Though Byrd at times speaks of the Bible’s suitability as a means of instruction for both men and women (p. 51), she persists in this characterization of the text as primarily androcentric with gynocentric interruptions. In this I think she has accepted the premises of other groups from both ends of the spectrum who either dismiss the text as being irrelevant because it is patriarchal or who point to its androcentrism and a means of buoying up their own patriarchal ambitions. What we need is not to find the women’s voice in Scripture but to take the text as it is, as God’s Word to mankind, not just to man. It is the categories and divisions in our minds which are the stumbling block, not the next itself.

A second issue I have with Byrd’s way of using Scripture is her tendency to read into the text more than we are told. Now we all do this to some extent. We read and narrative and it is natural to imagine how the characters felt or what the larger circumstances might have been, but we need to be careful that the things we imagine don’t become Scripture to us. The nature of biblical narrative is that iftoften doesn’t tell us all we want to know. So we add to it, without perhaps even knowing we are doing so, and our additions shape how we read Scripture.

Many of the assumptions Byrd makes are about the role of women. She assumes, for instance, that when Phoebe delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans that this necessarily entailed some kind of interpretive authority (pp. 147ff). Paul, she tells us, “also must have picked up on her theological vigor and poured into her, equipping her well to answer questions the Roman church was sure to have” (p. 220). No doubt the commission was a prestigious one, but we are not told and I do not think we can assume what Phoebe did or was expected to do with regard to helping the church in Rome understand the letter. The role of women in passing on the faith seems to be a sticking point for Byrd so she also assumes that stories about women much have bee told by women. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is such an example (p. 82). Again, there is an assumption here that only women would have told or could accurately have told a story featuring female characters.

Byrd, following others, also assumes that women led the house churches which were usual in the early church. “‘[I]f Lydia didn’t lead the fledgling church in Philippi, who did?'” she asks (p. 191). Byrd says that she adheres to male-only ordination, and I believe that she does, but she is walking dangerously close to the edge of the cliff here. If one accepts that Lydia led her house church which met in her home, led in terms of leading  worship and explicating God’s Word, why should women not do the same today? On the other hand, if we read the passages about these house churches within the context of the rest of the New Testament, I think we must conclude that Lydia and other women did not lead in these ways. Paul makes quite clear elsewhere that this kind of authoritative leadership is reserved for men. Who did lead the church in Philippi? We don’t know; Scripture doesn’t say. But there are lots of details like this that we are not given and many servants of God who are not named. This need not disturb us.

Byrd is unapologetic for the way in which she thus reads into Scripture, quoting Richard Bauckham, she calls this “‘historical imagination'” (p. 223). While there may be a degree to which it is impossible for one to avoid using their imagination in reading the narrative of Scripture, I would not tout this as a good and appropriate way to approach God’s Word. We should be aware of our own tendency to imagine not so that we may do so and try to fill in details God has chosen not to give us but so that we can try to avoid doing so and to stick more closely to His Word.

As a side note here, I will add that I am concerned about Byrd’s sources, about the books she is reading and quoting. I have not taken the time to look into them but, judging a book by its cover of you will, based on their titles and on the quotes she selects, it seems like many if not most of the people whose interpretations she is following are from the liberal egalitarian camp. Which is not to say that they may not at times have valuable and true things to add to the discussion but the impression I get is that there is little balance here.

I’d like to end my discussion of Byrd’s use of Scripture where she ends the book (or close to it), with her take on the story of Eve. Early in the discussion, she quotes one P. Wayne Townsend who argues that Genesis is written in light of the exodus and conquest of the land as an apologetic for the nation of Israel (p. 207). “‘In this context,” Byrd tells us, quoting Townsend, ‘”the story of the Fall functions as a pretext for the exodus-conquest. Genesis 3 identifies the sources of evil that have led to the suffering of slavery. It also justifies the conquest . . . ‘” and so on (p. 208). Byrd goes on to tie the sin of eating the fruit in Genesis 3 to the Levitical laws about cleanliness and the dietary laws. For a new Israel, separation from the nations was important and Genesis 3 gives the justification be presenting the original sin as one of touching and eating what should not have been touched or eaten.

This argument is oddly like that which LeFebvre makes regarding Genesis 1 in The Liturgy of Creation (again, my review here).  Both tie a Genesis narrative to the presumed original audience — the nation of Israel — and therefore place the significance of the Genesis narrative in its meaning to that audience which is primarily assumed to be a justification for the practices they already know. That is, for LeFebvre Genesis 1 justifies the weekly calendar of work and Sabbath and for Byrd (and those she is relying on) Genesis 3 justifies the Levitical laws about cleanliness and food. There is a base assumption here which says that the meaning for the original audience is the primary meaning. The narratives of Genesis are not read for their truth value (Is this how God really created the world? Is this how mankind fell?) or for their place within the larger revelation of Scripture (What do these events say about mankind’s state before his Creator?) but as a kind of ancient Israelite propaganda. In neither interpretation does the Genesis narrative considered even give new information to its original audience. They are into taught about how man was created or how he fell but are only given justifications for practices they already know. I find this a very narrow and unacceptable way to read Scripture.

For Byrd, reading Genesis 3 in this way, Eve becomes a find of hero. As you may recall, God had told Adam not to eat of the tree and Eve adds “nor touch it.” This may be interpreted various ways. Some say Adam added to God’s law in repeating it to Eve and thus make adding to the law a kind of sin and place it on his shoulders. In Byrd’s interpretation (again following others), Eve adds “nor touch.” In doing so she makes the prohibition more like the Levitical laws and thereby gives us “the story behind the story” (p. 209). Eve is portrayed as a kind of prophetess and the original sin its nature and its implications, are largely undiscussed.

Byrd has some valuable ideas which the church needs to hear. I like how she speaks of siblingship within the church and the need to disciple all lay people, men and women.  I agree as well with her critique of the extremes of the complementarian movement. But I am very disturbed by some aspects of how she uses Scripture to make her arguments. We do not need to accept the categories others give us that the text must either be androcentric or gynocentric and that men and women can’t fruitfully read texts which are not about their own gender. And when we do read, we need to be careful who we follow and we need to resist our own urge to fill in details, particularly when we then use our own “historical imagination” as the basis for our biblical interpretation.


[1] I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Hebrew and was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in a Ph.D. program at a prestigious secular university.


Booklist: Marriage and Gender Issues

Dear Reader,

Without intending to, I have ended up reading a number of books on marriage and gender over the past year. These are tough and yet quite topical subjects so I thought I would share some of the best of them. A word of warning: the nature of the topic is adult. You should pre-read any books you give to teens and most are not appropriate for younger children.

Books on Marriage and Gender Issues

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz (Penguin Books, 2005) — A history of marriage across cultures and time from the earliest days of humanity till the present. It’s quite an undertaking but this is a well-written, thorough book and a great place to start for some historical perspective. The author is not Christian but the scholarship seems solid; I have read much the same things in Christian books (see below).

Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax (New York: Harmony Books, 2017) — Like the above book this one is by a non-Christian but gives some solid scholarship and lays a good foundation for later reading. For anyone who works with kids (or perhaps anyone of the opposite gender) there are some useful bits of information here to aid in communication and mutual understanding. FYI look for the updated 2017 version. I’m not sure exactly what has been changed but gender issues in the public eye have changed a lot since the book was originally published in 2005.

Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction by David Ayers (Lexham Press, 2019) — Comprehensive does not begin to sum up this thick volume. Ayers clearly loves statistics but he is fairly easy to read and has lots of practical suggestions as well, especially for parents and ministers. The book covers almost every topic relating to marriage and sex that you could think of and gives numbers for most of it with a special emphasis on comparing what “evangelicals” believe relative the to wider culture. This is not the best book for reading cover to cover; selecting sections of particular interest would work better. I got the Kindle version and that was not ideal as it makes the many charts hard to read.

Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? by Gary Thomas (Zondervan, 2015) — The subtitle here tells you where the author is going, and it is a good place. This was not my all time favorite book but I had picked it up looking for a gift for an at-best-weak-Christian friend who was getting married and I think it filled that role nicely in that it gives a different perspective on marriage than our culture does. See my full review of the book here.

Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage Church and Society by Rachel Green Miller (2019) — As I write this I am in the midst of reading Miller’s book. I have heard her speak on numerous podcasts as well (see below). Overall I would say I share her take on the roles and relationship of men and women. Her book is mainly a response and correction to certain overly rigid Christian views that come from the complementarian side, particularly the view known as Eternal Functional Submission (EFS). Miller is not an egalitarian but the thesis of her book is, as its title suggests, that we need to see beyond the authority/submission paradigm. Where she addresses the history of marriage, her book seems to fall in line with Coontz’s (see above). Her take on the various waves of feminism is also quite helpful.

Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Amy Byrd — This is a newer book which has gotten a lot of press, much of it unfavorable. I actually tend to agree with Byrd’s positions (she is quite similar to Miller actually) but I am still not a huge fan of the book. My biggest concern is how she uses Scripture. You can read my full review here.

Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (2012) and Openness Unhindered (2015) by Rosaria Butterfield (both published by Crown and Covenant) — Rosaria was an openly lesbian university professor when she came to faith. The first book, Secret Thoughts, is the story of her conversion, with a fair amount of theology woven in. Openness Unhindered continues the discussion (she also has at least one later book on hospitality). A very personal story, Rosaria’s works help breed understanding for those that, frankly, Christians are not always compassionate towards, without compromising the truth.

The Gospel & Sexual Orientation and Gender as Calling: the Gospel and Gender Identity (Crown and Covenant) — These fairly thin volumes are concise, pastoral statements on how we should view those with gender-related issues and how to counsel them. Even if you are not a pastor, they are well worth reading.

And some fiction: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each of these books shows the real-life effects of adultery and sexual sin. I am sure there are many more that could be added to the list but I happened to have (re-)read these three in the past year.

Finally, for those who don’t always have time to read, a few sermons and podcasts:

On divorce: “Divorce with Pastor Todd Bordow” from Theology Gals (2019). Rachel Miller (above) has actually joined this podcast recently and they have been doing a lot of episodes on marriage-related issues. I found the one on divorce particularly thoughtful and well-balanced. I have not read it but their guest, Todd Burdow, also has an article that is probably worth picking up if you want to delve deeper.

On the role of women in the church: “Women are to Keep Silent in the Churches” by Cliff Blair on Sermon Audio (3/25/2018) — I stumbled across Pastor Blair’s sermons somehow or other and have been very pleased with them. His style is a very careful, well-explained, and close exegesis of the texts. In this one he tackles 1 Corinthians 14. I haven’t heard anything better or clearer on the passage. Spoiler: despite his title, he is not arguing for absolute silence from women.

On headcoverings: “Headcoverings, parts 1, 2 & 3” by Cliff Blair on Sermon Audio (January, 2018) — Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Pastor Blair preached three sermons on headcoverings. Again, his exegesis is clear, thorough and well-balanced. I do not end up where he does, practically speaking (see below), but his explanations of the relevant verses are the best I have heard.

And again, on headcoverings: “Contra Mundum: Interview with Pastor Scott Wilkinson on headcoverings” from Sermon Audio (10/4/2017)– The reason I don’t end up where Blair does on the headcovering issue is because of that one phrase “praying and prophesying.” In this interview Pastor Scott Wilkinson explains how he interprets the passage and I tend to follow him on this.

That’s what I’ve got so far. Any other recommendations?




Reformed Thinkers on Education: Peter Ton Tackles Classical Education

Dear Reader,

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

I am currently in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at some modern reformed thinkers on education, The introductory post to this mini-series is here.

I have written a number of times on the modern philosophy of education known as  Christian classical (see here and here). The long and short of it is, I am not a huge fan. I was excited to stumble across this article by Peter L. Ton. “Is Classical Christian Education Compatible with a Reformed Christian Perspective on Education?” (2005) is Ton’s Master’s thesis from Dordt College. The lovely thing about a thesis is that it starts with an abstract that tells you exactly what the author wants to say. Thus at the beginning we get Ton’s conclusion:

“When compared to the Reformed understanding of covenant children as well as Reformed purposes and methods of education, classical Christian education is found to be too intellectualistic and elitist to be compatible with a Reformed Christian perspective on education.” (p. iv)

Because of his genre, Ton spends a lot of time defining terms. One of the first things that struck me is that he places the heart of Christian classical education in  Moscow, Idaho. This is a red flag for me. If you are unaware, Moscow is the home of Douglas Wilson, a prolific Christian pastor and author, who has, sadly, been associated with some at least borderline heretical movements. I know even within my own denomination there are some who love Wilson and it is not the purpose of this post to discuss him or his work. Suffice it to say, for me mention of Moscow and of Wilson is an indicator that I need to be discerning in what I read. The other major figure behind Christian classical is Dorothy Sayers. I reviewed her article, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which really inaugurated the modern movement here. The short story on that is that I had serious reservations about her own view of and attitude toward children. Ton notes that Sayers “tried her hand at teaching in an elementary school for a brief period, but gave it up quickly and without any misgivings” (p. 74).

Ton begins with a review of what Christian classical education, its origins, goals, and methodology. “Classical” refers to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Medieval educators went back to the classical model, and modern ones in turn went back to the classicism of the Middle Ages. When looking at the ideas behind the modern Christian classical movement, then, we have a number of layers to consider. What Ton finds in those predecessors is an emphasis on the intellectual and theoretical:

“Faith in human intellect, or intellectualism, clearly looms largest, while idealism
with its exaltation of ideas and denigration of matter is a close second.” (p. 21)

“Clearly evident also is the Greek glorification of theoretical knowledge.” (p. 23)

With such roots, it is not surprising that many “Christian educators uncritically adopted or synthesized many pagan Greek ideas in their curriculum” (p. 26). As I have said many times on this blog, not all ideas that come to us through non-Christian sources are necessarily wrong. Nonetheless, we must be discerning in adopting ideas that come to use with such a pedigree (p. 30).

Ton moves on to an examination of if and how these ideas have come through into the modern Christian movement. There are some more technical or methodological differences — grammar, for instance, is defined differently by Sayers than by her predecessors. There are also some common elements, including an emphasis on the social function of education:

“Quintilian and Wilson both assume education is to lead and govern” (p. 42)

Particularly concerning is a view of the child which comes through:

“The purpose behind Greek education was to make good adults, particularly good men, and they did not believe that infancy had much to do with the process’ (Castle, 1969). In fact, infanticide was practiced regularly, no cultural value forbade parents from selling their children into slavery and no civil law prohibited a father from condemning his child to death! This classical view of the child is necessary to point out because it has implications in today’s classical Christian schools. Classical Christian educators are, of course, innocent of such heinous practices as those just mentioned, yet remnants of this view of the child still linger in today’s classical Christian psychology despite their sincere attempts at articulating a Christian understanding of children.” (p. 45)

Ton then moves on to comparing the classical approach to the reformed view of education. He admits, however, that there is not just one reformed take on education. (I used the three-fold division he artiuclates in my introductory post.)  Ton himself takes the antithetical position which combines an emphasis on content with concern for the practical application. Education, he says, “equips the child for ampler and better oriented cultural activity” (p. 69). Which is to say education equips children to live in this world and fulfill their covenant responsibilities. The faith of the teacher and community and the content of the educational materials are both important.

In his analysis of Christian classical education, Ton sees a conflict between covenantal and communal views of the child. The difference seems to be that a covenantal view emphasizes the need to educate all (covenant) children, even those whose natural gifts might be lacking (p. 47), and places a paramount importance on the role of the parents. Ton argues that Christian schools should not function in loco parentis and thereby diminish the parents’ God-given, even God-commanded, role in education (p. 51). One of the dangers in doing so it that education comes to be seen as the solution to all problems. With parents and church de-emphasized, education becomes almost salvific. It is seen as the solution to all society’s problems (pp. 75-76).

I agree with Ton when he concludes that Christian schools do not take the place of parents and can not, by themselves, apart from the parents, satisfy the demands of Christian education. But I am puzzled when Ton concludes: “A Reformed Christian community ought to encourage Christian school enrolment” (p. 53). Many of the arguments he has made would be good arguments for homeschooling so I don’t know why in the end he seems to dismiss this option.

With regard to the goals of education, Ton’s main criticism of the classical movement is that it is too intellectualistic. Biblical wisdom is lived out; it is not just head knowledge. Classical education, in contrast, views the content, the fodder of education if you will, as the main thing.

“[T]he program is oriented much more toward the mastery of content than to Christian discipleship. This emphasis on content over and above individual learning styles, pedagogic strategy, heart response, student application and discipleship is yet a legacy of the ancients’ faith in curriculum. ” (p. 55)

I recently reviewed a book on Jewish education which made just this same point. The education of the Jews from 550 BC to 220 AD was distinct from that of the Greeks and Romans in that it sought to make wisdom affect life. (In contrast, our previous thinker was Gordon H. Clark argues that reformed education should be “intellectualistic.“)

Because Ton believes that practical application is important as well as content, he ends up rejecting the methods of classical education which he sees as dividing these two enterprises. Modern classical education sees strict stages. Initially children are in the grammar stage and are memorizing but not analyzing. This is a misunderstanding, or at least a reinterpretation, on Sayers’ part of the classical term “grammar.” For Ton, it renders classcial education unacceptable:

“A Reformed philosophy of education insists that memorization, analyzing
and presenting are taught simultaneously, not consecutively. Upholding the
dignity of subject matter and student, this method underscores that knowledge and
skills are to be used, not stored away without comprehension or application.” (p. 76)

He rejects the classical methodology both because it separates memorization from application and because it does not recognize learning differences which he attributes to the unique image of God in each child.

While the first stage of a classical education, the “grammar” stage, according to Sayers and other modern classical educators focuses on memorization, the second stage, which roughly corresponds to middle school, is the logic stage. In it the focus is on argument because, they would say, children are naturally argumentative at this age. I agree with Ton here that it is wrong and unbiblical to attribute one particular, sinful characteristic to all children of this age and only to children of this age.

The third stage, the rhetoric stage, which corresponds to high school, Ton also criticizes. At this age students are said to focus on appearance and peer interactions. Ton argues that the training of the rhetoric stage will not combat these desires.

Ton spends most of his critique arguing against the broad outlines of classical education as delineated by Sayers. At the end of his analysis he briefly addresses Wilson’s arguments. Wilson uses some Bible verses to support the classical stages, saying that children get knowledge early on but must develop wisdom. I again agree with Ton that there is little true biblical support for this view and that a much more in-depth analysis of the biblical view of wisdom would be necessary.

When it comes to his analysis of classical education, I agree with a lot of what Ton has to say. I think he does a good job of describing this approach to education and showing why it falls short of the biblical view of wisdom, which is always very practical and applicable, and why it undervalues or misvalues children at the various stages of life. It has been my contention for years that any philosophy of education makes statements about the nature of man and his ultimate purpose. Without necessarily using that language, Ton shows how the classical approach falls short on both these counts.

I am less convinced by Ton’s own philosophy of education. He states clearly that there are multiple theories about reformed education and he is up-front about his own position, but he does not defend or argue for his position. I understand that this is a master’s thesis and a more detailed presentation of his own view may have been beyond the scope of the work. I would like to see — from Ton and all the other authors I am reading — a truly biblical argument for why their particular philosophy of education is best.



Reformed Thinkers on Education: Gordon H. Clark on the Image of God

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 am endeavoring to look at more of what’s out there by other reformed thinkers on the topic if education. You can find my introduction to this series within a series here. Today’s thinker is Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) who was primarily a philosopher.  His “A Christian Philosophy of Education” was published in 1988 (apparently posthumously) in Trinity Review (this seems to be a shorter article summarizing a longer book originally published in the 1940s). The period from roughly 1965 to 1990 generated a lot of  Christian writing on education, most of which took the form of a call for a more distinctly Christian approach. Most of my book reviews relating to Christian education are from this period: Dawson (a Catholic), Vos, Van Til, Greg Harris, and Rushdoony. It is no wonder that the modern homeschooling movement has its roots in this era.

Clark, like these others, is clearly responding to a crisis he saw in his own day. He cites particularly modern advances — the telephone! and end to typhoid! — which though seemingly good can also be used for evil and do not make people inherently better (and, yes, he does see a downside to the end to typhoid as well; read the article to find out what it is 😉 ). One can only imagine what he would have made of the internet. If there is any specific event which seems to have generated this article it is the prohibition by the courts of prayer in schools, though he is not entirely opposed to such a prohibition, acknowledging that not all prayer is righteous prayer.

Like all those others whose books I have reviewed, Clark sees no compatibility between Christianity and public education. He spends some time on the origins of the public schools and notes that they have never been Christina institutions. Be their very nature, they must be opposed to true Christian doctrine. Though he laments the lack of good Protestant schools, he does not mention homeschooling (perhaps it was not at all on his radar). His call is a fairly general one — for an education based on Christian doctrine (he cites the Westminster Confession of Faith specifically as a proper ground for such education).

In the first half or so of this article, Clark seems to be focused on stemming the evils in society. Discipline in the schools seems to be an especial concern. Interestingly, the view of evil is cited as a key element behind one’s philosophy of education:

“The two philosophies [Christianity and secular humanism] and their educational implications differ on what to do, on what evil is, and on how it originates.” (Kindle loc. 100)

In the latter half of the article, Clark advances a particular theory related to the image of God in man. He argues that the image of God is reason. He sees reason as the thing which separates us from the animals. “Christianity,” he says “is intellectualistic” (Kindle loc. 180). Fellowship with God requires thinking and understanding. Morality as well is impossible without reason. The animals are incapable of sin, or of doing good, because they cannot reason. We could glorify God, he says, without reason, but we could not enjoy Him forever (Kindle loc. 189). The fall did not erase the image of God in man but it did corrupt it. Errors in thinking, even something as basic and concrete as arithmetic mistakes, are a result of the fall. “[S]alvation will improve a man’s thinking in all matters” (Kindle loc. 218). Education, then, is an intellectual endeavor. He rejects hands-on enterprises, carpentry, plumbing, even the making of music and art, as skills, God-given skills perhaps, but skills nonetheless. Education, for Clark, is about the mind because this is the focal point of his view of man. The art critic, for Clark, is higher than the artist because he thinks about art rather than making it.

“The object of education is truth; the transmission of truth to the younger pupils and the discovery of new truth by more advanced students. The aim of education, at least the aim of the purest and best education, is intellectual understanding.” (Kindle loc. 244).

This series exists because, to a large extent, I stand with these (slightly) older authors. Like them, I am issuing a call for a more distinctly Christian approach to education (and in my case, a reformed Christian approach). As a homeschooling mom, I find that their calls often stopped short of where I want to be. They don’t tend to get down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what are my kids going to be doing on Monday morning? I hope that I am advancing more towards this goal.

Clark stands in this body of work. His criticism of the public schools of his day and his call for a Christian education are not new or unique. He does get into some new territory when he discusses his own view of the image of God and its implications for education. There are many ways the image of God has been delineated in Christian thought and I am very hesitant to tie it down to one quality as Clark does. I would agree with him that the fall affected our reason and I like his point that this affects even our most concrete reasoning. Our kids would not make mistakes in math if they weren’t fallen  creatures. His emphasis on the mind, to the detriment of any physically based aptitudes, also makes me uncomfortable. It smacks a bit of a dualistic understanding which separates man’s mind and spirit from his body. I do not believe this is the Christian view of man.

My short take on “A Christian Philosophy of Education” would be that it stands firmly within the Christian writings of the time on education. There is a germ of a new idea here, but it is not one I can wholly subscribe to.


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.