Christian Schools Should Remain Reformed and Be Defined in Terms of Creedal Theology
"Affirming Basic Commitments"
The subject chosen for this year's convention was AFFIRMING BASIC COMMITMENTS based on the theme text, Titus 3:8, "This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works." Observe that this practical admonition in the conclusion of the apostle's letter is recalling and applying the doctrine which has been a dominant theme throughout the letter. Titus had been appointed to ordain elders who would be able to teach and maintain "sound" (or "healthful") "doctrine," in view of the many who are misleading people away from it (1:9-11). He is urged to "speak ... the things which become sound doctrine" (2:1). A little later an important part of that doctrine is summarized when Paul refers to "our Savior Jesus Christ: Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (2:13, 14). Then point out that we are saved "not by works of righteousness which we have done", but according to "the mercy of God our Savior" (3:4, 5). The "affirmation" of the convention theme text is simply applying the preceding Christian doctrine — an appropriate beginning for a discussion of the role of church creeds in our Christian education.
We may follow at least five lines of argument in favor of keeping church creeds to define our Christian faith in our Christian schools.
1. We Need Clear Definitions of (a) Christianity and (b) Christian Education in Our Schools if they are to Endure and Succeed
Christian schools are becoming popular, as many parents, disillusioned with the educational and moral breakdown of public schools, begin to send their children to non-public schools. Some, both Christians of various backgrounds and non-Christians, are sending them to our schools. Now we are being urged, in order to make our Christian schools more effective to meet this need and more helpful to Christians of various backgrounds, and in fairness to Christian parents who do not belong to our churches, to give up the traditional commitment of our schools to our Reformed church creeds. The plausibility of some of the arguments should not make us lose sight of the fact that giving up our constitutional definitions of Christianity threatens our schools with the loss of the very things that distinguish them as Christian schools.
A number of years ago I served as pastor in a community that had experienced the disruptive and destructive effects of the policy that is now being considered. Members of the at that time small congregation had taken a leading role in rather carefully setting up a Christian school on a somewhat broader basis than our church creeds. As the school grew it came under the control of people whose Christian and educational convictions differed quite widely from their own, and bitter experience finally compelled them to make a new beginning based more firmly and explicitly on the full teaching of God's Word as we maintain it in our Reformed creeds.
This is not to say that we ought to be unappreciative or hostile to the more broadly based Christian schools. I have come to warmly appreciate and often speak for that kind of school organization. But when it is being proposed that all of our schools ought to move from the Reformed creeds to such a broader Christian basis as a better kind of organization, I believe that the proposal is misguided and dangerous.
I have heard of other schools that have had a similar disillusioning experience with moving toward a broader, less clearly defined basis. Our readers can likely cite still more examples. When one of the major problems of our time is the prevailing religious and educational confusion and many people are looking to our schools for something clearer and better, we will certainly not help their needs by giving up our religious and educational definitions in favor of something designed to fit more easily into the general confusion!
Anyone at all familiar with the general history of education in North America knows that almost all of the older schools and colleges were begun to teach the Christian faith and life as confessed in the creeds of the churches. Almost all of them sooner or later abandoned that faith and came to oppose it. In the light of that almost universal history of education in our part of the world, doesn't it appear to be foolish for Christian schools to consider adopting a policy of weakening their Christian definitions? It sounds like a significant move in the direction that, pursued further, has been destroying public schools.
2. Our Definitions should Continue to be the Divinely Authoritative Definitions of Bible and Creeds
It will be objected that what is really being proposed is not giving up the Christian or even the Reformed commitment of our schools, but only "the creedal basis — that is, the necessity of retaining the creeds."
Who Defines Christianity? God or Man?
We may not overlook the fact, however, that removing the creeds is abandoning what has been and is, for many of our schools, their existing definition of what it really means to be Reformed. The creeds are the official and authoritative definitions, accepted by Reformed churches, of "Reformed." If these are given up, what is to be put in their place? The answer is, "Some briefer, looser and broader statement that will be more satisfactory to a wider group of Christian people." An even more significant question is, "Who will determine what this new, looser and broader definition will be?" And the answer to that, it seems, is, "A committee of educators and philosophers," and eventually, perhaps, "Christian schools or their organizations." What is being tacitly assumed in this procedure is that we, of course, have the right to determine for ourselves what is to be the new definition.
I know of no one who has shown more clearly than Harry Blamires in his The Christian Mind (p. 115) that this way of thinking and dealing with such matters reveals an "astonishing misconception — the idea that the Christian Faith is something which men have manufactured and which they have the right to alter" — the assumption of a "secularism" which has so dominated our culture that even in the Church and Christian institutions we unconsciously operate with it. Accordingly, "often the assumption appears to be that Christianity represents mankind's best shot so far at making a religion; that, if man had another try, he might do better next time." He went on to show that we, to correct this basic error, must begin "by taking for granted the authoritative, God-given nature of the Christian Faith, and reestablishing in ourselves an unfaltering sense of the objectivity of Christian truth."
Blamires was right in so stressing the fact that Christianity is properly not man's discovery or contrivance at all, but God's revelation. Its faith is not, as Paul said (1 Thessalonians 2:13) "the word of men, but ... in truth, the word of God, which also worketh in you that believe." It is not a man-made doctrinal system, but the Bible which everywhere confronts us with, "Thus saith the Lord," a claim which extends to its very words (2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Corinthians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:21, 22), and which we are warned that we disregard or alter at our peril (Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18, 19). The Bible doesn't only convey, but it is God's Covenant (Old and New "Testament" — "Covenant" and "Testament" in both Hebrew and Greek are the same words). That Covenant is not merely a personal relationship but one defined in great detail in inspired words — somewhat analogous to the way in which the most important of human relationships are defined by inviolable "contracts" (Galatians 3:15). (This fundamental fact about the Christian faith needs to be more clearly recognized and affirmed than it often is in discussions such as these.)
It may be objected that we are discussing not our commitment to the Bible, but to the 16th Century Reformed church creeds which are only man-made documents. The creeds, to be sure, are not inspired as the Bible is; they are subject to change and improvement. But we should not overlook the fact that they are more than merely a group of men's "shot at making a religion" (to borrow Blamires' phrase). The Lord promised His church before His departure that He would "give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth" (John 14:16, 17). "He shall guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). We believe that the Lord kept that promise. Therefore we have to regard the churches' struggles with many errors over the centuries, struggles which at certain strategic points produced officially stated and authoritative conclusions on the truths of God's Word in the form of creeds, as much more, and much more authoritative than some Christians' opinion of how it might seem expedient to them to state their faith. To replace the creeds hammered out by the grace of God in the churches' struggle with errors through the centuries with a "contemporary," loosely drawn consensus statement at least raises the question whether we are not, perhaps without realizing it, losing our awareness that the Christian Faith is God's revelation, not ours to modify as we see fit.
3. The Reformed Creeds are not "Optional Extras" but the necessary Standards of Our Christian Faith and Life
The proposal to drop the Reformed creeds in favor of something briefer and broader suggests that we may be dealing with a common but radical misunderstanding of the Reformed Faith. That is the assumption that the Christian Faith is one thing and that the creedal doctrines which we call Reformed are "optional extras" which one can add or take off at will — like buying a car that is "loaded" with or "stripped" of fancy accessories. It is the assumption that without this creedal baggage we still have essentially the same thing. This assumption is incorrect. The creeds are not like extra and expensive trim or decorations; they may be more appropriately compared with the standards and specifications for properly assembling the engine! A Christianity which has been stripped of its creedal definitions is not only lacking a few extras, but is one that is more carelessly put together, and may be seriously defective.
B.B. Warfield once pointed this out in an article on "The Theology of Calvin" (Calvin and Augustine, p. 492). He observed that there is only one Christian Faith, the faith that is taught by God's Word, the Bible, and our Reformed or Calvinistic Faith is nothing but the effort to hold and teach it correctly and completely and apply it to the whole of life. The Lord ordered us to teach men "to observe all things whatsoever" He commanded us (Matthew 28:20). The Apostle Paul, obediently carrying out the Lord's purpose, said, "I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). The Apostle Peter pointed out that in this gospel knowledge of Christ we are granted all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). In our schools are we free to settle for anything less than this?
4. We need to Retain and Maintain in Our Schools the Particulars of the Christian Faith and Life which the Creeds Define
Let's consider what some of the creedally defined doctrines which we consider dropping from the schools are and how dropping them would affect our education. Consider the Canons of Dordt. They might seem to be expendable baggage until we recall that their Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine deal with "The Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, and the Manner thereof." How can we talk seriously about Christianity at all without dealing with those matters? And what will we say about them in school? What is our view of human nature, the nature of the child? Will we in the school assume that man, created in the image of God, has become by nature "dead through trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2)? That assumption, however Biblical, is not going to be acceptable to some of our Arminian friends.
Will we approach our children as children of the Lord's covenant (Acts 2:39), although in need of repentance and conversion (v. 38; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:1)? Especially when we talk of God's Covenant, a doctrine which appears hundreds of times in the Bible, and which is basic to our whole Christian school motivation, direction and history, some of our Baptist colleagues will likely have to take exception to some of the things which we must stress. What happens to the school when we drop or evade that controversial point?
The moral breakdown of our society demonstrates the urgent need for an education that returns to the Biblical standards of God's law. Will that law of God, as the Catechism, following the Old and New Testament, explains and applies it, get a key position in our schools? Or will we have to drop that because some of our cooperating Christian parents are convinced that we are un-Christian when we bring the law into this New Testament dispensation?
These are just a few of the many basic Christian doctrines which are threatened when we propose to cut loose from the Reformed creeds and replace them with some looser, "common denominator" statement.
5. We should Seek to Keep the Churches' Interest and Confidence in and Support of Our Christian Schools
Our schools, although parental rather than parochial, have been initiated, promoted and supported by our churches to apply the faith they confess in their creeds in the education of the children. There seems to be a tendency as the schools grow and become accepted, for the churches' interest in and support of them to decline. The results are often obviously detrimental to the school and particularly to parents of larger families who need the help of fellow Christians to sustain the costs of educating their children. To introduce a difference even of the creedal definitions of Christianity between the churches and schools promises further alienation and injury to churches, schools and families. As one young parent observed, "Our Christian schools may turn into private schools for the rich." That too has happened before.
Mr. Tanis, in his presentation, began by telling of his experience in the administration of a school based upon such a broader basis, for families from diverse backgrounds. He cited a number of statistics which show that many of the schools of the organization (CSI – Christian Schools International) as a matter of fact are moving toward serving a broader constituency and working on a broader basis than our churches' creeds, as they seek to meet a rising widespread interest in Christian schools as an alternative to public education. He was convinced that we should move out of our narrow parochial concerns to meet the needs of the wider Christian community or the universal church, stressing Christian life and God's kingdom rather than church creeds. In the discussion and at other points in the sessions similar sentiments were expressed.
The CSI has for some time had a "Task Force on the Future of Christian Education." Under its auspices Dr. N. H. Beversluis, retired Professor of Education at Calvin College, prepared two studies on the subject. The first, a 15-page document, was entitled Christian Education: A Creedal Summary, and the second, issued in March, 1982, amounting to 30 pages, was entitled IN THEIR FATHER'S HOUSE, A Handbook of Christian Educational Philosophy.
Because Professor Beversluis was unable to be present at the conference because of his health, Rev. B. J. Haan, ex-president of Dordt College and also a member of the Task Force, substituted for him in speaking on the subject. He cited a number of reasons for the forming of the "Task Force," including the already mentioned changes in many of the Christian schools, weak or waning interest in and support for them in the churches and on the part of many of our ministers, and confusion in the policies of many of our schools (even when they were nominally tied to the church creeds). He cited a speech of Dr. Clarence Bouma who in 1925 argued that Christian schools should be committed to Reformed principles, but not the church creeds. Praising the work of Dr. Beversluis, he also acknowledged criticisms of and uneasiness about the documents already mentioned, which were only "a starting point," looking forward to a shorter, simpler statement more readily understood by the general public. He thought that the documents contained "the essentials of Reformed principles," although "you may have to dig them out!"
As has been pointed out in previous articles in the OUTLOOK, the first document "A Creedal Summary" is distressingly vague and fragmentary in its definition of the Christian Faith. An outline of Creation, Fall and Restoration, and some references to the Kingdom and its cultural implications hardly constitute an adequate definition of orthodox, not to speak of Reformed Christianity, which could substitute for the church creeds. The larger educational part of the document is similarly vague and some of its expressions suggest the out-worn theories of "progressive," "child-centered" education which have helped to ruin the public schools. The longer document, although modified to meet criticisms, still has the same perspective and "one-sided" emphasis and one can hardly use it as a "creed" to clarify what the schools are supposed to stand for. That the schools might be well served by a clear statement of what we understand by "Christian" and by "Christian education" to help both the constituency and others, I can readily believe. But what has been proposed up to this point, although it might be useful to raise certain issues, is seriously inadequate, and is certainly not desirable as a substitute for the historic creeds.
Attending the convention is an interesting experience and acquaints the visitor with a goodly number of Christian school leaders whose strategic position and important service in our Christian community is far too little recognized. And one is impressed with the seasoned Christian conviction and sound common sense of many of them — the suggestion was made that more of these experienced teachers should be on the "task force."
The point was made that CSI as a service organization has no authority over our independent schools — it is no "synod." At the same time, we ought not to discount its influence on and services to the schools.
The broadening interest in our schools undoubtedly presents us with increasing opportunities for Christian service and influence. And it may well be, as some have observed, that some of those from other backgrounds who come into our schools from genuine concern and interest may have a more wholesome influence on them than some merely traditional supporters. Our schools, like our churches, should not be tied to our traditional cultural background. But they should be tied more firmly than ever to God's Word and the whole Faith which it teaches.
J.J.G. Machen, likely the greatest defender of evangelical Christianity in his time, saw very clearly that the Reformed Faith is simply consistent Biblical Christianity. Although he warmly appreciated many other evangelical Christians, he was convinced that the most effective defense of the Christian faith was not that of a broad coalition of such Christians, but rather a specifically Reformed effort. When he was offered the presidency of a broadly evangelical university, he wrote, "...in the presence of ... a common enemy those who unfeignedly believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ are drawn into a new warmth of fellowship and a new zeal for common service. Nevertheless, thoroughly consistent Christianity, to my mind, is found only in the Reformed or Calvinistic Faith: and consistent Christianity, I think, is the Christianity easiest to defend" (Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, p. 428). Later, at the opening of Westminster Seminary, which he had helped to found, he welcomed students from various churches saying, "But we cannot consent to impoverish our message by setting forth less than we find the Scriptures to contain: and we believe that we shall best serve our fellow-Christians, from whatever church they may come, if we set forth not some vague greatest common measure among various creeds, but that great historic Faith that has come down through Augustine and Calvin to our own Presbyterian Church" (p. 457). May our schools seek to follow the same course.