Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Education’

Book Review: Train up a 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 my quest to define what reformed Christian education should be, William Barclay’s Train up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) has been an absolutely invaluable resource. It provides something I was sorely lacking: historical background. Barclay goes through the educational systems of five different societies in great detail. He is not an unbiased author (who is?) but he clearly has put much effort into his research and quotes primary sources extensively making his book a must-read if this is a topic you, like I, want to tackle seriously (but if you are content to settle for my digested form, read on).

The societies Barclay addresses are: Israelite/Jewish, Sparta, Greek, Roman, and early Christian. For each he begins with broad brushstrokes and theories and then narrows in and discusses specifics of when and how they educated. I am not going to, and could not possibly, recap everything he has to say but I will give you the big bullet points on each so that we can then return to our main topic and discuss how we as reformed Christians should educate and what we can take from each of these traditions.

Israelite and Jewish Education

Barclay lumps Israelite and Jewish education in one chapter and though he makes clear where he is historically as he writes, I think it could be easy for a reader, especially one with less historical knowledge, to miss that this is not all about what God’s people did in Old Testament times. In fact, most of what he has to say is about Jewish education after the time of Christ.

The truth is there is not much in the way of formal education in Old Testament times, i.e. before the Babylonian exile of 586 BC. Barclay’s main flaw is that when he has little to go on, he speculates. With regard to Israelite education, he says:

“Long before there was any formal education lads and young men must have been trained in the simple processes on which food and life depend; and in that training they could not help, perhaps half-unconsciously, perhaps by the process of soaking them in rather than of learning them, acquiring these beliefs in their hearts. For the Jew to work on the land must have been to be educated continuously in the ways of God.” (p. 19)

Note the use of the words “must have been” and “perhaps.” Barclay is assuming here and while his assumptions may be logical, they are nonetheless assumptions. The truth is, we know little about education in the pre-exilic period. (You can read my own post on teaching and education in the Old Testament here.) I agree with him that what happened most likely happened not in formal schools and through ordinary life in the family but the fact is we really don’t have much to go on.

In later Judaism, the synagogue became the center of learning. It was not so much a place of worship as of instruction (p. 24). Schools as such do not seem to have existed until 70 AD or later (p. 32). Because of the importance of the Scripures, literacy was highly valued. Though education was highly valued, it was also limited: it was for boys only (p. 37) and the only textbook was the Scriptures (p. 38). In fact, children were forbidden from studying Greek (which would have been the lingua franca of the day) (p. 38). Teaching was oral and education amounted largely to memorization through repetition (pp. 39-40). Knowledge was intended to be practical in that the Law should not just be known but lived (p. 39, 47). A common definition we have run across is that education enculturates and this was very deliberately true for the Jewish people; they educated to preserve their unique culture and to distinguish themselves from their neighbors (p. 47).

Spartan Education

I am going to breeze over Spartan education fairly quickly. Nobody seems to use Sparta as an example, for good reason. Suffice it to say the Spartan system would make a good basis for a modern dystopian novel for teens. I will make this one point: Ancient Greece was not one unified culture. Those who trumpet “classical” and “Greek” education as the high point of learning would do better to specify “Athenian.”

Athenian Education

Which brings is to our next society: Athens. Here we find what has become the root of “classical” education (I use the quotes because classical can and has been defined in many ways). The Athenian Greeks, through their influence on the Romans (see below), have been perceived as the high point of philosophical thought and of education.

So what was education in ancient Athens really like? Though education was highly valued, it was very much an intellectual enterprise. Education was a head thing and practical skill learning was despised (though exceptions were made in some fields such as medicine and architecture) (pp. 78-83).

The goal of education was to form an ideal person. Valor and wisdom above all were valued (p. 84). This was character education designed to suit the boy to an ideal life which was a life of leisure.

Homer served as a kind of Bible for Greek education. His writings above all were the textbook of education (p. 109). Though this involved a lot of memory work, it was done through games and play and as such was no doubt not unpleasant (pp. 106, 114, 122-23). Poetry was highly valued and was taught before prose (pp. 117-18).

As in Jewish culture, education was a male affair. Though the home was  important in education, most mothers were not equipped to participate in any way. Nor were girls educated (pp. 91, 95, 141).

Because of the emphasis on intellectual pursuits and the despising of practical skills, Athenian education produced an educated but largely useless elite. Barclay goes so far as to call it a system based on slavery (p. 141). “[T]he fault of Greek education,” he says “was that it remembered culture but forgot duty” (p. 142).

Roman Education

Roman education can really be divided into two stages, before and after Greek influence.

In its early days, Roman education was not systematized but centered around the home. It was a kind of populist ground-up affair which embodied peasant values and placed the child and family before all (pp. 144-47). Notably in the ancient world, the mother was involved (p. 150). Education was largely through imitation and perpetuated a way of life built on family values and family gods. This lasted until about 240 BC.

When Rome became an empire, and thereby encountered other cultures, education changed. Schools were introduced. Because the Romans had little culture of their own, they taught Greek culture and like the Athenians, emphasized poetry (pp. 180-81).

But the methods and goals of education were different. Play and games were not the backbone of Roman education. Elementary education, Barclay tells us, was characterized by boredom and fear (p. 166). Severe punishments were used (p. 164). There was a practical turn to Roman education. Mathematics was learned only insofar as it was useful (p. 168). Music too was utilitarian, not aesthetic (p. 188). The goal of Roman education, the ideal product, was to produce a skilled orator (pp. 190-91).

Despite the harsh methods of Imperial Roman education, it is from this period that we get the three-stage approach so characteristic of modern classical education. In Rome, they were defined by the litterator, the grammaticus, and the rhetor (p. 160). The first stage, that of the litterator, was defined by the elements of knowledge, the three R’s taught through “senseless repletion” (p. 160). Most would have only had this first stage of education. Those who did go on would be taught right speaking and poetry by the Grammaticus (pp. 178, 183). [Barclay does not describe the third and final stage, that of the rhetor.]

Early Christian Education

The issue for the early Church was how to respond to all of this, what to accept and what to reject. And, possibly, what to replace it with. As Barclay paints the picture, there were two competing trends in Christianity. On one hand, there was an anti-intellectualism which tended to reject learning because it was so often built on pagan writings (pp. 198-99). On the other hand, many Christian apologists were themselves quite educated and were not opposed to using the pagan philosophers as it suited their purpose (pp. 205, 209-10). They were willing to acknowledge some level of truth in the philosophers and to use what was good while rejecting the bad.

Though Christian parents were held responsible for training their children, the early Church was never in a position to establish schools and did not attempt to do so (p. 238). The result was that children were sent to pagan schools as a necessity (p. 240). The schools themselves, which still based education on Homer and other pagan writings, were often pawns in the various persecutions against Christians. Their attitude essentially boiled down to: use the schools for what they can teach but it is the parent who shapes the child (pp. 258, 261). In other words, the pagan schools were a tool but the real influence was still the Christian parent.

Lastly, I will note that there is some evidence that Christian girls were taught as well (p. 254).

Pulling It All Together

There is a wealth of material in Barclay’s book. My goal in reading it and in presenting it here is to circle back around to the purpose of this whole blog series and to ask what knowledge we can glean that will aid us in constructing a reformed Christina approach to education.

It is hard having read this book not to revisit the topic of Christian classical education (and, frankly, I am not resisting very hard). The picture I have always been given is this: education was at its height in ancient Greece (read: Athens); the Romans took over the Greek approach and then the early Church did as well. This is still the best approach to education and is the ideal for us which we should adopt, albeit perhaps with some Christina tweakings. Barclay shows is that there was not just one model for education in the ancient world and that each approach had its flaws as well as its merits. This is true of the Athenian model as much as, if not more than, many of the others.

The other big point I think we should take from this book is that all our struggles regarding education are not new. The early Church faced many of the same dilemmas. They too were faced with schools that were taught (often) by pagan teachers and used pagan materials. They were not above using these schools but they never ceded all control to them.

I have tried in this series not to wade to far into the public school vs. Christian school vs. homeschool battles.  The one thing I will say clearly is that however we choose to educate our children, we as Christian parents must always view ourselves as ultimately in control of their education and training. Perhaps we, like the early Church, can use the pagan schools (I say perhaps because I do not know if we can and maybe the answer will vary by location) but we must never turn them over to the schools to the point that we abandon our children to them and cede our God-given parental authority to a pagan institution.

I would like to have read in this book that there was some other good model on which we can base education, something we can return to as we seek to rebuild. Sadly, I haven’t found one model that stands out above the others. Little is known of Israelite education and, in truth, there probably was little education. Jewish education was scriptural but did not extend beyond this and gives us no model for how to incorporate other learning, nor, with its emphasis on rote memorization, is it particularly appealing. Sparta is, if anything, a model of how not to do anything. The Athenians valued knowledge in its own right, but too much so — there is no practicality here and the end result is not a functional member of society. They also give the lowest role and place the least importance on the mother. Roman education before the empire actually has quite a bit to recommend it. It is family-based, religious, and practical (albeit based on pagan religion). It does not, however, value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Some Christians seem content with such an approach (see this book review); I could not be. Finally, when we look at the early Church we find people who faced much the same problems as we do. Their solution is compromise and perhaps we will end up in much the same place. I do think we have resources they did not, however, and I think we can at least aspire to something more ideal.

Nebby

 

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Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek Culture: Is it unique?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending Hebrew Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Little Historical Perspective

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

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

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

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

Summary and Implications for Education

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

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

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

Nebby

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

Christianity, Science, and the Pursuit of Truth

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

Making the Argument, or a Whole Mess of Quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity, Scholarship and the Arts

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

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

Christian belief also provides a justification for art:

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

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

Christianity and Science

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

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

“The surprising answer is Judeo/Christian theology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

” . . . there would be no periodic table without our very human love of beauty. Elaborating on this point, the great mathematician Henri Poinare said, ‘The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living.'” Wiker, Meaningful World, p. 115

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

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

The Flip-Side, or Everybody Has Presuppositions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapping up

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

Nebby

[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.

Bibliography

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)

Nebby

 

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.

Nebby

Book Review: The Christian Home School

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebby

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

 

Common Grace, Part 1

Dear Reader,

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

One of the big questions we have to wrestle with as we seek to build a Christian philosophy of education is how much good, if any, is there in non-believers? This comes up for two reasons–

1) I want an approach to education that works not just for believing children and the children of believers but for all children. If we are going to educate such children, we need to know if they are even capable of recognizing and accepting what is good and true.

2) A lot of what passes for human knowledge comes to us through non-Christians. Can we accept such knowledge and if so, how? How are we to view things that seem good and true but come to us through fallen, unredeemed minds?

The underlying question behind both of these is: How do we reconcile that good that unredeemed men seem to do with the doctrine of total depravity? The answers which are usually given involve the phrase “common grace.”

I came to faith some 25 years ago and to a more reformed understanding maybe 5 to 7 years after that. Along the way I acquired some notion of “common grace” though I honestly can’t ever remember having specific teaching on the topic.  If you’d asked me anytime in the last 20 or so years, the first thing that would have come to mind is “rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous” (my half-remembered recollection of Matthew 5:45). Reformed theology always seemed to say: “Man is fallen and, apart from the saving faith which comes through grace, is incapable of choosing or doing good but common grace means that it is not really quite so.”  This is not a very satisfying explanation but somehow in those 20 or so years I never had cause to push farther and sort it all out. This is me pushing farther.

Among the various books I have been reading on education, Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) has risen to the top as one I keep coming back to. One of the many things I realized reading Van Til’s work is that there is probably a lot more to common grace than I realized:

“Common grace does not overlook ultimate differences  . . .  On the contrary, common grace helps to point out that things which look alike are not ultimately alike.” (Van Til, p. 191)

For Van Til, the goal of education is no less than the fulfilment of God’s original design for Creation (see this post on the goal of education). All things, he seems to say, work towards the end that their Creator originally intended. Education works within that plan. Common grace also works within that plan.

“If God’s gifts of common grace such as ‘rain and sunshine,’ are thus seen as being part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their ‘testimony’ to unbelievers . . . God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ.” (Van Til, p.91)

There are two aspects here to common grace: It is part of the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14; Rom. 1:20) and it is the outworking of God’s design for all creation. He uses the unsaved in this plan as He used Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:20), Pharaoh (Exod. 7:3), and Cyrus king of Persians (2 Chr. 36:22-23).

Philip Ryken makes a similar argument:

” . . .God accomplishes his gracious purpose in the world even through non-Christians. Their work, their science, and their artistry being some glory to God, even if that is not their explicit intention.” Philip Graham Ryken, What is the Christian Worldview? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006) p. 36

If this understanding of common grace is correct (and I will revisit it in part 2; these are somewhat provisional answers for now), how would this affect our answers to the two questions above? With regard to the latter — how we are to understand the truth and beauty which seem to come to us through non-Christians — the answer seems to be that they, like Cyrus, are capable of doing “good” insofar as God uses them within the larger framework of His plan. Like Joseph’s brothers, their intentions may not be good, and we know that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebr. 11:6), but to the extent that their works are part of the divine plan they are good because they work to that end. Van Til acknowledges that in both the arts and sciences non-Christians can make real contributions.

The first question was: How can we educate the unredeemed? Is education effective without saving faith? The (again, provisional) answer seems to be that education, as it contributes to God’s overarching plan, is part of that call which goes out to the whole world. By itself, it cannot save, but, like the sower casting his seeds (Matt. 13:1-9), we are to spread it abroad and it is up to God where it shall take root.

I like both these answers. They feel true. But there are some ifs involved — if I am understanding Van Til correctly and if he is giving a reliable picture of mainstream reformed thought. So my next step in this — and what we will cover in part 2 — is to look at some other writers and to see if their take on common grace, and their answers to these questions, follow the same lines.

Until then,

Nebby

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