Christian education aims at training man both spiritually and morally to serve God. This article traces the biblical basis for this conviction and shows that this was the conviction of our forefathers when they established schools and universities for education. It calls us to regain this conviction for our time.

Source: Witness, 2010. 5 pages.

Christian Education: A Crisis of Our Time

As a Church we ought to be deeply thankful that we stand in the heritage of the Reformed Faith frequently called Calvinism. That heritage, what it is and what it should look like in our lives, has been wonderfully described by B B Warfield who once wrote:

He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing; in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual; throughout all his individual, social, religious relations is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.

This article is about one vital area of our heritage that we have surrendered. In it we are not the heirs of Calvin nor are we the heirs of Knox or Melville, Luther or Edwards, Dabney or Hodge. Nor do we follow in the footsteps of James Begg, Hugh Martin, J Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til nor Professor John Murray. It is of such an order as to be called a crisis of our time, one that must be addressed urgently to halt the decline of the church in the UK. That issue is Christian Education: by which is meant the Christian Education of the children of our families and congregations.

We will not deal with the relative merits of how this should be accomplished, whether by Christian Schools or Homeschooling. The goal is to establish the principle of Christian Education and press the necessity of it as it is due to the fact that this principle has not taken hold of us that we find ourselves in the sad position today that the majority of our children are educated in schools that are the very opposite of Christian. We do not intend to be reactionary either. We could list the moral problems in schools, the lack of respect, the teaching of evolution, alternative ‘sexualities’ etc, all the normal things we hear complained about regularly in our churches, but as one author writes, ‘Our educational obligations do not come into existence through any reaction to the dismal state of government schools ... We must define the basic biblical issues clearly then apply them to our contemporary situation. Reaction is not the basis for renewal’. The issues are really quite basic: Do we give our children a Christian Education or a non-Christian education? What does God require? What do we desire? What will we do to provide it for them?

Christian Education — The Concept🔗

The word ‘education’ comes from two Latin words: ex meaning out of, and ducere meaning to lead or bring. Education then means to lead or bring out and the original thought behind it was the process of ‘bringing out values that are inherent in human beings’. We tend to think of education today as being a merely intellectual activity and we limit our idea of education to what would be better called ‘inducation’ ie the process of putting knowledge and facts into the child; but from the beginning education has been thought of as being primarily a moral pursuit.

Noah Webster embraces both these aspects in his definition of Education:

Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

The first thing then that we need to recognise about education is that it is much larger than we are apt to think. It is full-orbed and it is viewed correctly only when taken as a whole. We like to compartmentalise it by separating Religious Education for the Lord’s Day and perhaps Family Worship, while the education that takes place during the rest of the week we view as secular, but this is a mistake.

Now we come to some who are writing from a more explicitly Christian view of Education. We ask the 19th century American Presbyterian R L Dabney, What is Education? He tells us ‘Education is the nurture and development of the whole man for this proper end. That end must be conceived rightly in order to understand the process, and even man’s earthly end is predominately moral’. This was understood by the Reformers. Their view was opposed to the Humanism of the Renaissance period which made man the measure of all things. Both saw the end of Education as predominantly moral, but whereas the Humanist philosophy of education could be stated as ‘man’s chief end is to glorify man and enjoy him forever’, the Reformers believed that man’s chief end in Education was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever and to them the function of education was to train him to do so. This was the philosophy that lay behind Calvin’s erection of the College of Geneva in 1559 and Knox’s aim to establish a school in every parish of Scotland. These parish schools were not to be secular, but, says Andrew Douglas, ‘they were to be in every way Christian Schools ... the subjects of the Curriculum were related to the teachings of the Scriptures, the Bible itself being the principal textbook.’ The whole aim of the educational enterprise was well summed up in the phrase: to train the young ‘for the business of life and the purpose of eternity’.

The Puritans had the same view. Leyland Ryken in his book Worldly Saints: The Puritans as they really were, writes: ‘The essential thrust of Puritan education was the mastery of the tools of culture for Christian ends’. This is nowhere better and more famously stated than by the Puritan Poet John Milton:

The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining the knowledge of 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 virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith, makes up the highest perfection.

Puritan Colleges🔗

This is what we contend for as the concept of Christian Education, and the schools and colleges that came out of the Puritan movement clearly adopted this as their philosophy of education. Take Harvard University as an example, which was the first college founded in Puritan New England. It was established in 1636 and among its rules and precepts as stated in September 1642 was this:

Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, Let everyone seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of Him, Proverbs 2:3.

In 1701 Yale University was founded ‘to plant, and under the Divine blessing, to propagate in this wilderness, the blessed Reformed, Protestant Religion in the purity of its order and worship’. The primary goal, as outlined by the founders, stated: ‘Every student shall consider the main end of his study, to wit, to know God in Jesus Christ and answerable to lead a godly, sober life’. In 1746, Princeton University had its beginning as The College of New Jersey’. It was founded by the Presbyterian Church, and the University’s official motto was ‘Under God’s Power She Flourishes’. The Rev Jonathan Dickinson was its first President and he summed up Princeton’s original philosophy of education quite succinctly, ‘Cursed be all learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ’.

Coming into the 20th century Louis Berkhof, J. Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til and others began to highlight the need for a recovery of Christian Education and Schools upon this principle not the principle of a narrow intellectualism or moralism. That would not do. Consistent with their Reformed heritage, they saw the demands of truth as being all encompassing, not piecemeal, and because of this they viewed education, if we were to summarise Van Til, as: ‘The training of the whole man to think God’s thoughts after Him and to do God’s deeds after Him in his calling to dedicate the universe to its maker’.

This then is the concept of Christian Education that we will be arguing for and that we will see is in harmony with Scripture and with our forefathers in the faith, whose steps we claim to follow.

It is vital however that we understand that this concept of Christian Education is founded on Scripture. The men who held it believed in the Reformed Principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and endeavoured to make the will of God revealed in the Bible to be their rule for the whole of life. So they asked the question, what does the Bible say about education? This seems a very obvious thing to do, not at all profound, yet it is a question the church and Christian families have not asked for a long time in the UK.

If however we allow ourselves to be controlled by the will of God in this area we will consider it to be a sacred duty laid on us by God to provide our children with an explicit and thorough Christian education.

Christian Education — The Command🔗

An Old Testament Requirement🔗

In Deuteronomy 6:4-7 Moses spoke to Israel words that are very important to any study of the biblical view of education:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

Here God revealed that responsibility for the education of children rested upon the parents and it was their obligation to provide their children with an education in the whole of life that was directly related to the Word of God.

From these verses we see that:

  1. The environment of that education was to be dominated by God’s Law. The Word of God was to permeate every sphere of the life of the Israelite — everywhere and always!
  2. The content of that education was also to be expressly biblical — they were to be taught everything from a biblical standpoint so as to be trained to think about everything from a biblical perspective, in contrast to the unbiblical worldviews of the surrounding nations.
  3. This was to be the proof and consequence of their love to God with all their heart, soul and might.

Other passages in the Old Testament establish the same thing eg Deut. 11:18-25; Psalm 78 (particularly vv1-8).

The whole book of Proverbs is also a case in point. Consider the words: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ (Prov.1:7), or ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding’. These verses are often pressed upon men in personal evangelistic application, but there is much more in these words than this. There is a biblical philosophy of education that grounds all true wisdom and knowledge exclusively in a biblical worldview and understanding of reality.

The Old Testament gives no room for an artificial sacred/ secular distinction when it comes to education. The whole life of the Hebrew, including his education, was to be founded on and governed by the Word of God.

A New Testament Requirement🔗

The New Testament confirms the teaching of the Old and lays the same duty on the church today. Paul writes ‘And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’ (Eph.6:4). It is evident from this command that parents are again addressed as being the ones responsible for the education of their children. Furthermore this education is again to be explicitly Christian.

According to this we are to:

  1. Bring them up — that is raise and guide them to maturity, from childhood to adulthood, all the while under direct parental care.
  2. This upbringing however is specific. It is to be in the nurture and admonition of the Lord — where the word translated ‘nurture’ is the very significant and informative Greek word paidea.

In ancient Greece ‘paidea’ described the entire process of educating humans into their ‘true form’, seeking the perfection of ‘the real and genuine human nature’. It involved the whole training and education of children in the development of mind and morals, and for this purpose it employed instruction, commands, admonitions, reproofs and punishments.

In Ephesians 6:4 this idea is taken from a Greek culture and rooted in a Biblical one. Paul is not concerned with ‘nurture’ alone; the command concerns the NURTURE OF THE LORD. In other words, the whole process of the instruction and discipline of the child is to be in the Lord. To paraphrase what he is saying correctly we could say, ‘Fathers, give your children a Christian Education in all things’.

Charles Hodge comments on this verse: 

It is the nurture and admonition of the Lord which is the appointed and the only effectual means of attaining the end of education. Where this means is neglected or any other substituted in its place, the result must be a disastrous failure. The moral and religious element of our nature is just as essential and universal as the intellectual. Religion therefore is as necessary to the development of the mind as knowledge. And as Christianity is the only true religion and God in Christ the only true God, the only possible means of profitable education is the nurture and admonition of the Lord. That is, the whole process of instruction and discipline must be that which He prescribes and which He administers, so that His authority should be brought into constant and immediate contact with the mind, heart and conscience of the child ... It is only by making God in Christ the teacher and ruler, on whose authority everything is to be believed and in obedience to whose will everything is to be done, that the ends of education can be attained.

Implication for Today🔗

From what we have established we are faced with a hard and unpopular conclusion. The implications of these texts of Scripture do not permit the sending of our children to an unbelieving institution for 30-35 hours per week to be instructed in an unbelieving curriculum by unbelieving teachers through unbelieving textbooks, all of which either do not mention Christ as though He were irrelevant to their field of study or openly mock, undermine and oppose the teaching of the Word of God.

Parents do have the right to delegate the responsibility for educating their children to those who are better able to teach them in the different fields of study. That teacher will then act in loco parentis (in place of the parent). But that right of delegation only extends to those who in the place of the parent will facilitate and promote the bringing up of the child ‘in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’.

To do otherwise in Old Testament terms would be akin to Israel putting the education of their children into the hands of Philistines to be instructed in a pagan worldview, but we are commanded to give our children an explicitly Christian education in all things.

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