Posts Tagged ‘education’

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.






John Milton in Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series on reformed education. Find them all here.

I recently ran across an article by John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, on education.  It is a fairly brief piece and doesn’t have a lot to contribute to our discussion, but given the stature of its author I thought it was well worth reading and reviewing.

In “Of Education” Milton writes to a friend, Master Samuel Hartlib, and proposes a particular approach to education. After a long introductory paragraph explaining his reasons for writing, Milton jumps right into the goal of education:

“The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.”

The language, as I am sure you have noticed, is dated, but Milton’s point is clear: the goal of education is to undo the effects of the Fall. I tend to shy away from those who make virtue the highest end of education so I like that Milton unites virtue to faith.

Milton does not spend long on theory but turns quickly to practical matters. He argues against a tedious and repetitive approach to education and particularly to the learning of (classical) languages. He does believe that one should learn Greek and Latin but makes clear that knowing the languages is not the end in itself but that the goal is to be able to delve into the real heart of the material, the content of the classical writings themselves. Knowledge should not be an “exaction” but “worthy and delightful.”

Milton’s overall plan is for an education that is “compleat and generous” so that a man may “justly, skillfully and magnanimously” perform “all the offices both private and publick of Peace and War.” Study does not begin till age 12 but continues in one institution which serves as both middle/high school and college till age 21.

After a foundation in pronunciation and grammar, the student is to begin with Plutarch to learn virtue, diligence and courage. To this is added some arithmetic and geometry. Religion and Scripture are taught in the evenings. Subjects are introduced in sequence including practical ones such as agriculture, astronomy and geography. Latin is learned first, then Greek, Italian and Hebrew and possibly even Babylonian and Syriac (having taken these languages myself in grad school, I can say this is not small enterprise). There seems to be a kind of apprenticeship involved as well in which the students learn from hunters, architects, anatomists and more. The study of history seems to come rather late in the plan as do poetry and drama. Milton also makes provision for physical and musical training.

Milton’s approach seems to be a modified version of the classical. He relies heavily on Latin and Greek authors and subjects and the overall program of intellectual, musical and physical training is in the classical (read: Greek) mode. I like the practical bent he gives to it all and the emphasis on true learning rather than rote learning and profitless exercises. This is not a must-read article but it is am amusing and short read.


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 Christian Home School

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Purpose of Education, Part 2

Dear Reader,

We don’t need no education; 
We don’t need no thought control.”

(Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”)

We are narrowing in on the purpose of education. Last time we talked about the “when” and I made the case that education must be for the long term. Today I’d like to look at the “who” — or perhaps I should say the “for whom?” Specifically we are going to ask: Are we educating primarily for the individual or for the larger society?  Of course, the two are not wholly unrelated; societies are composed of individuals and to change one is to change the other. The question before us is not so much who benefits as where our primary focus lies.

In anthropological terms, education transmits — and  in the process creates– a common culture. As Christians, we limit ourselves if we stop there. The definition tells us one aspect of what education does but it does not tell us what education should do.

What I’d like to propose today is this: While acknowledging that education affects both the individual and the society, we as parents and educators need to keep our primary focus on the individual. This is not something I am going to be able to prove per se, but if you’ll indulge me, I’ll try to convince you that this is the best approach.

Last time I made the case for long-term goals. Education, I argued, is not about equipping children to become part of God’s plan; it is about fulfilling that plan, however we may define it.

If this is the case, then we have to look at the divine plan in order to understand the goal of education. Our question today is: Is it for the individual or for the society? [I am using “society” loosely here. Depending on one’s view of education it might be variously defined. In a Christian context, “society” equals Church. For others, the society might be the state, the nation, the world.]

The answer is really both. God is building His church. In many ways the people of God are a unit. We are the bride — not brides — of Christ (Rev. 21:2; 22:17).  We are both a building and a body (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Cor. 12:12ff). The gospel is often seen to spread community by community as nations (Matt. 28:19) and households (Acts 16:15) are transformed. And yet our God works in such a way that He never overrides the individual. While Jesus and later Paul and the other apostles often preached to large crowds, they never scorned the individual. God speaks to each one (Acts 2:6). Nor is our religion one that calls us to transcend the individual personality. Van Til goes so far as to argue that the goal of education — and of life — is the development of the individual personality:

“In covenant education we seek not to extract the human begin from his natural milieu as a creature of God, but rather seek to restore the creature with his milieu to God . . . A Christian is a true human being once more.” [Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974), p. 143; cf. p. 152]

Personhood is vital to Christianity. There is a corporate goal, yes, but never at the expense of the individual.

In some sense the individual versus corporate tension does not even make sense from a biblical perspective because God orchestrates the small events of one person’s life and the large events of His greater plan in such a way that there is never a conflict or contradiction (Rom. 8:28).

Nonetheless, I am making the case that our goal needs to be primarily individual. The problem is that we are not God. It is much harder for us to balance competing concerns.  If we begin with a societal goal, we end up fitting the individual to that overarching end, cutting or stretching them as need be to suit the greater good. But if we start with the individual, that one person’s good becomes one more brick in the edifice that is the greater good without having to lose its individuality. From God’s perspective, and in His perfect plan, there is no conflict between the individual and the society. But we are not God, and if we set ourselves to shape the society we will tend to run over the individual in the process. If we set ourselves to educate the individual, the benefit to the larger society will naturally follow. As Van Til says:

“It is all summed up in the expression that man must live his life to the glory of God. In seeking the glory of God, man the individual and mankind as a whole will also be enriched.” (Van Til, p. 45)

I am intentionally stopping short of saying what our goal is. Thus far I have argued that:

  • We need a long-term goal that places education within God’s greater plan. Education is not about equipping youth to be able to become part of that plan; they are already bang-splat in the middle of it, as we all are. 
  • On one level, there is no inherent contradiction between the needs of the individual and that of the society because God is able to orchestrate the two perfectly.
  • But we are not perfect, nor do we see the whole picture. Because the tendency if we have societal goals is to override the individual or to try to manipulate him to fit the ends, our goal in education should be primarily focused on the individual.


Book Review: Rushdoony’s Philosophy of Christian Curriculum

Dear Reader,

[I apologize if there are weird font things going on in this post. WordPress and I are not on the best of terms this week.]

As a part of my ongoing quest for a reformed Christian theology of education, I recently read Rousas John Rushdoony’s The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2001; originally pub. 1981). 

This is now the third or fourth book on Christian education which I have reviewed. They were all written some 30-40 years ago, are all quite critical of modern American public schools, and all advocate Christian education as the only way to go, some quite vociferously. Rushdoony’s book falls in line with the others and makes a lot of the same arguments (he quotes Van Til extensively). I do think it is worth adding to your reading list, however. Philosophy covers a lot of ground, and while there are some foundational ideas I disagree with, there are also a number of good points made along the way.


Two advantages of Rushdoony’s work are that it deals with the education of children – not just college-level education – and that it begins to delve into specifics. By comparison, Vos and Van Til were much closer to where I am theologically, but they are both concerned with education at the university level. Wiker, though Catholic, makes some great arguments but again seems to focus mostly on the renewal of the Christian university. Dawson, another Catholic writer, is focused on the education of children but (besides being virulently pro-Catholic and anti-protestant) offers little in the way of specifics. Ultimately, what I want is something that provides not just the theory but gives guidance on how we actually teach day to day. (None of these books, including this one, mentions or even considers homeschooling as an option though I am told that Rushdoony was big in the early days of the modern homeschooling movement.)


I am not going to be able to cover everything Rushdoony has to say in this one post, though I am sure I will come back to his ideas in the future one. For today, I’d like to focus on his foundational ideas. Before diving in, a few words about the man himself and his thought — Rousas Rushdoony was a pastor and philosopher who seems to have been most active from 1960-1980. On first glance he has a lot to recommend him in my eyes — Calvinist, Presbyterian, pro-homeschooling. He was apparently a big fan of Van Til whose work I find myself quoting a lot. In fact, as I read his book, I wondered what he thought he had to add to Van Til’s work as he quoted him so often. While he wrote on and advocated for Christian education, Rushdoony is known more for his association with the Christian Reconstructionism, a political movement advocating theonomy, i.e.  applying Old Testament law to modern society. Van Til distanced himself from Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism in 1972. [1]

I bring this all up to show where Rushdoony stands in the scope of things. If I could sum up his thought and my own reaction to it in one sentence it would be this: “Yes, he makes a lot of points which sound good on the surface but he just seems to go too far.”  The Wikipedia article on him says:

“Rushdoony developed his philosophy as an extension of the work of Calvinist philosopher Cornelius Van Til. Van Til critiqued human knowledge in light of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. He argued that sin affected a person’s ability to reason . . . Rushdoony attended to the implications – where Van Til held true knowledge came from God, Rushdoony asserted that ‘all non-Christian knowledge is sinful, invalid nonsense. The only valid knowledge that non-Christians possess is ‘stolen’ from ‘Christian-theistic’ sources.’ ” (“Rousas Rushdoony,” from; April 20, 2018).

In other words, Rushdoony took Van Til’s ideas to an extreme. In the end, this led him to say that there is no true knowledge can come through non-Christians. While Van Til makes similar statements, he also acknowledges that non-Christians make real contributions to both science and the arts. [2]

Rushdoony’s approach reminds me very much of the Biblical Principle Approach (I have no idea what if any his connection to that approach actually is). It seeks to find the justification for every subject in the Bible and the end of every effort in the service of God, which sounds good, but it defines both these things too narrowly. Certainly the Scriptures are God’s special revelation and tell us the things we need to know for salvation. But they are not God’s only source of revelation. The Bible also tells us quite clearly that God can be known through what He has made. And while the Scriptures are more special, general revelation is more abundant. We do ourselves a disservice when we neglect that knowledge that comes to us through it [3]. I think Van Til would agree with this assessment as he places education within the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14) which Scripture in turn places in Creation (Rom. 1:20) [4]. My first disagreement with Rushdoony, then, is this: He defines education too narrowly by tying it so closely to special revelation at the expense of general revelation. [5]

My second major disagreement is perhaps tied to the first — Rushdoony undervalues knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Though undeniably Christian, his goals for education are overly practical. His concern is with results — How will we use this or that subject to further the spread of the gospel? How can we use it to witness to others? A couple of examples will show his attitude:

“Mathematics should be geared more to management, accounting, and a variety of practical needs of the modern world.” (Kindle loc. 243)

“Latin was once the language of scholarship and an international language; its only value now is to historians and classical scholarship. Green and Hebrew are important to a Christian society, but basically only to the biblical scholarship of that society.” (Kindle loc. 243)

I would argue that if all these things — science and history and language — are part of God’s creation and, as Scripture tells us, reveal His character, then they are worth studying in and of themselves. Our God is a God of truth and to the extent that we learn more of that truth, we become more like Him and bring glory to Him. This is apart from any value that this knowledge may have in our witness to non-believers. I would add that it is not just truth in terms of true facts but the beauty and poetry of creation which merit our attention and study (Phil. 4:8). Rushdoony, in contrast, calls knowledge for knowledge’s sake and art for art’s sake humanistic ideas (Kindle loc. 484).

These, then, are my two major disagreements with Rushdoony: he undervalues general revelation and he undervalues knowledge and beauty for their own sake. I feel less equipped to critique what Rushdoony has to say o n Christian schools since we have never used them, but, as his stance is so forceful, a review of his book would seem incomplete without at least alluding to it.

All of the authors I have looked at this far have advocated for exclusively Christian education and denigrated public education. Rushdoony is among the most extreme in his rejection of public education:

“Hence, for Christians to tolerate statist education, or to allow their children to be trained thereby, means to renounce power in society, to renounce their children, and to deny Christ’s lordship over all life.” (Kindle loc. 2343)

He even argues against Christian schools seeking accreditation (Kindle loc. 1609) and has very particular ideas about how a Christian school should operate.  I find some of what he says disturbing, for example:

“‘Scientific’ tests have indicated that there are racial and sexual differences.” (Kindle loc. 2023)

A brief statement but one that raises my hackles. Rushdoony does not expand upon the racial differences. He does argue for separate education for boys and girls. Some of this may come from considerations of how children learn best, but he also claims that girls are not as capable of abstract thought (Kindle loc. 2032). He stops short of saying that girls need not have higher education but given his overall practical stance, it would not surprise me if he ultimately came to this conclusion. This line of reasoning — a girl’s place is in the home therefore girls don’t need higher education — stems from the same sort of thought Rushdoony does evidence, that knowledge is only valuable for what we can do with it outside of ourselves and not in its own right. 

One of my goals in formulating a philosophy of education is to have something that can be applied to both Christian and non-Christian pupils. A number of the other writers I have read seem to assume Christian children in their schools. Rushdoony does not, but what he has to say about the discipline of children in his (proposed) schools also leaves me with concerns.  I am all for discipline of children and agree with Rushdoony that it should fall under the heading of discipleship. When it comes to practical matters, however, he seems to go too far–

“St. Paul is here describing the necessity under God to purge out delinquents, the sinners. His words apply to every Christian institution, the school as well as the church.” (Kindle loc. 1844)

I will probably write another whole post on the idea of a Christian school. Rushdoony is not the only writer that speaks of the school as a separate, almost divinely-inspired, Christian institution. Whether it is or not (and I expect to argue it is not), I don’t see any reason to apply the passage in question (which is 1 Cor. 5:6-7) to anything but the Church. Then there is the practical question of how such discipline would be applied which Rushdoony does not fully answer. I am left after reading the book with the idea that his school would be rather strict and that its teachers would be a bit distant and not necessarily caring (Kindle loc. 1865).

Despite my differences with Rushdoony, there is still a lot in his book to make it worth reading. He begins with a history of education which provides a nice background. He provides some good criticisms of both classical and modern education, both of which he deems statist, humanistic and secular.  As he gets into specific subjects, he provides us with a starting place for evaluating how to teach them, and he has a number of intriguing statements that I’d like to return to in future posts. So while I have some very fundamental differences, I do think Rushdoony’s Philosophy of Christian Curriculum is one to add to your reading list.


[1] Since it is not my main subject, I hope you will forgive me for admitting that most of this background information is from the Wikipedia articles on “Rushdoony,” “Theonomy,” and “Christian Reconstructionism” (all as of 4/20/2018).

[2] Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) pp. 89-91.

[3]  I would include under general revelation not just what we can observe casually but also what we can know of God through more in-depth investigations into science and history and culture.

[4] Van Til, p. 91.

[5] Re history, Rushdoony says: ” . . .for the Christian historian and teacher, the basic textbook is the Bible” (Kindle loc. 685). And even grammar is tied to the Bible: “Our ideas of grammar, of tense, syntax, and structure, of thought and meaning, bear a Christian imprint. Very clearly, our language and grammar are relative, but relative to a heritage of biblical faith” (Kindle loc. 809). And a general statement: “If the Bible is what it declares itself to be, then it is the most basic book in education” (Kindle loc. 1223) and again: “The sovereignty of God means that our educational standards must be derived from Scripture, not man” (Kindle loc. 2402) and “. . . the Bible must establish, govern, and condition the curriculum, or else we do not have Christian education” (Kindle loc. 2451).

The Purpose of Education, Part 1

Dear Reader,

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

In recent weeks I have been throwing a lot of evidence at you, some from the Bible and some from books I have read. I’d like to take a step back today and look at one of our big picture issues: the goal of education.

When we begin to educate children, we are making two assumptions that are so basic we don’t even think of them as such: that we should educate and that we can educate. Today we are going to look at the first of these and ask: Why education? While I hope we can ultimately state the purpose of education, we are going to begin by simply looking at what kind of goal we should have.

Depending on our view of the child, we might be educating for the short term or the long term. Depending on our view of humanity, we might be educating for the individual or for society. These two axes  — short vs. long, individual vs. corporate — define what we do and I’d like to use them as a kind of scaffolding as we begin to define the purpose of education.

Some approaches to education lend themselves more to a short-term goals. The Waldorf method is an extreme example in that it does not even view the child as being the same sort of thing as an adult. Rather, the child evolves into an adult. Education serves a role in this evolutionary process: it helps the child become what he is meant to be. Though the philosophy behind Waldorf may seem ridiculous to us as Christians, it highlights an important point: education is only necessary is we desire change. If the child were both perfect and complete, we would not need to educate him. We educate because we are not at the end of the process, whatever that end might be.

Any approach that sees the child as not fully formed or as lacking certain faculties is going to tend to result in short-term thinking. Modern classical education fits into this category. While it may embody some longer-term goals, it also defines stages along the way. In the early years the child memorizes facts and in the middle years learns to relate subjects and finally to form arguments. Only when these stages are successfully passed through is one fully functioning. While such an approach stops short of actually saying the child is not fully human, it suggests that he is not yet equipped to deal with the world in its fullness and posits shorter-term, intermediate goals.

The more we divide up life into stages, the more short-term our thinking will tend to be. We can see this in our public schools. We prepare high school kids for college and middle schoolers for high school, and so on down the line. The end-game is no further than the next milestone.  To a large degree this mindset is inherent to a system which separates schooling from the rest of society. There is no natural continuum between school and what comes after. We use words like “prepare” and “real world” to suggest that what goes on in our schools is not in itself “real life” but only the stepping-stone to it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Cornelius Van Til (see this post on his book Essays on Christian Education). In his view, the range of education is  no less than that of time itself. Education begins in Creation and is not complete until Christ comes again:

“We mean by that that our constructive program is nothing else but carrying through, as far as we can, in this world of sin the program that God gave man to do in paradise.” [Essays on Christian Education, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974) p. 167]

The ideas behind such a position are worth ferreting out. Perhaps the most obvious is that there is some grand (divine) plan which is being worked out. Education, placed within such a plan, serves a much larger purpose. A purpose as sweeping as Van Til’s is impossible without a belief in something beyond this life. It presupposes both a Divine Being to give meaning to human existence and a spiritual nature which will continue beyond this life.

Because the benefits of education go even beyond this world, it is not limited to the young but becomes a life-long enterprise. The education of children is not fundamentally different than the education of adults. This is not to say that some extra equipping does not go on in childhood, but that childhood itself is not a separate stage (or series of separate stages) one goes through in order to become fully human.

The Scriptures speak of youth as the time for education and training. One’s younger years are the time to get off to a good start and to firmly cement one’s relationship with the Creator. It is the young who most need learning and who are best able to absorb it.

Short-term thinking often comes from wrong ideas about the nature of children. Children are included in God’s covenant people. They are able to have a relationship with their Creator from earliest years, are called to follow His Law, are capable of faith and culpable for sin. In the most fundamental ways, children are no different from adults. (For a fuller explanation of all these principles, with references, see this post on children in the Bible.)

I think often as Christian parents we fall into the trap of thinking that we are preparing our children for what God will call them to, forgetting that He is already at work in their lives. So, while education may be much more of a full-time task for the young, it is not because their (spiritual) life is yet to come.

Nor is education only for the young. While our children may spend much more time on it, learning is not exclusive to children. Sanctification continues and the command to let our minds be transformed is for all of us (Rom. 12:1-2). Our perspective, for young and old, should be a long-term one, with our eyes always on our ultimate goal (Heb. 12:1-2).

The take-away for today is simply this: We need a long-term goal that takes into account God’s providential plan for humanity and our eternal spiritual nature.

Next time we will look at the other axis and ask: Should the goal of education be individual or societal?







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