Do the creeds function in education?
Every once in a while one hears a conference speaker call for an abolition of creeds in the educational arena. "Away with the creeds; they have no relevance for our schools. We don't need them. They are totally irrelevant to the schooling process."
How do we react to such speakers? Do we write them off as wild-eyed radicals? Do we ignore them as ill-informed liberals? Or do we accept their advice as coming from well-advised friends of the cause? Do we really need the creeds, or do we put them in the category of a philosophic appendix? Are the creeds at the heart of our educating efforts, or would we do well to surgically remove them?
Before we jump to any conclusions, we ought to remember that most members of Christian Schools International (CSI) have historically stipulated that their entire operations were "based upon the Word of God, as interpreted by the Reformed creeds." In addition, the contracts that most teachers are required to sign as a condition of employment declare that all instruction must be in harmony with those same standards.
Why reject creeds?
Some communities have regrettably cast aside those declarations and deleted them from both their constitutions and their contracts. For some, it was simply a matter of ethnic embarrassment. Throw out the wooden shoes and everything else that sounds Dutch. For others, the rejection of the creeds was a matter of commitment to Kuyperian philosophy. Carrying the sphere sovereignty principle to its logical and intended conclusion, these advocates have insisted that we need an educational creed for the educational sphere. The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and that other one whose name we often forget, are only "church creeds," intended to serve us only in the ecclesiastical sphere. They cannot possibly function in the educational arena, which is a wholly separate, independent, and sovereign sphere.
Such argumentation may sound appealing at first, especially if one is a priori committed to the sphere sovereignty idea. But watch out! That idea is a subtle distortion of the truth and can only produce harmful consequences. If we continue along that perspective, we will need to fragment life into multiple, disjointed parts. Each separate, sovereign sphere will need its own creed, one for art, one for science, one for government, and one for business.
To insist that our schools need a separate educational creed is to push a thoroughly secular line of thought and go contrary to everything that is Reformed. Our Reformed heritage has always emphasized that all of life and reality cohere in Christ and that God's sovereignty extends to every corner of it. Creation and life are unified, not artificially fragmented into separate, sovereign spheres.
There are others who have allowed the creeds to atrophy simply because of ignorance of them and lack of use. Since fewer board members knew what the Confession and the Canons said, no one complained when they were ignored. Add to that mix a strong desire to invite non-Reformed families into our schools and you have a perfect prescription for creedal rejection.
It won't take long, however, before someone will ask, "What does your school believe?" "Where do you stand?" "What are the fundamental principles on which your program operates?"
As we drift further and further away from the creeds and become less knowledgeable of them, we will hear increasing calls for statement of purpose and vision. There will be a gnawing sense of drifting with the current and shifting with every wind of educational doctrine. It is not a mere accident or coincidence that a collection of leading CSI educators has met repeatedly at the Chicago Conference during recent years to discuss these questions. Expressing a sense of "holy discontent" with the status quo, they have attempted answers to those basic issues of purpose and direction. After a period of exciting profitable discussion, the group's leaders put together a simple little book called Twelve Affirmations, which has quickly attracted a wide and avid following. Some have hopes that it will someday become an educational creed, since it has some creedal qualities. That is pipe dreaming, however, for elevation to creedal status could only come about if we totally lose our grasp on the established creeds.
What is a creed?
Before we go on, we must ask some questions about the nature and character of a creed. In the first place, a creed is short and simple. Look at the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian creeds. Combined, they occupy four pages of print. Our Reformed creeds, too, are very limited in length. They are short because they are merely summaries of Scriptural teaching. They catch and crystallize the main truths of God's Word. They outline God's Word and become the guidelines for our reading and interpretation of it. The creeds to which we adhere will in large part determine how we understand and read the Scriptures.
Which creeds apply?
One of the most obvious facts about the churches in the Reformed tradition is that we have multiple creeds. We have historically been characterized by our commitments to both the ecumenical and the Reformed creeds. When I asked a Christian school teacher whether the creeds affected the way she conducted her classroom, she thought for a few minutes and then offered, "Well, the Apostles' Creed tells me that God is the maker of heaven and earth." Her answer took me by surprise because I had been conditioned to believe that only the Reformed creeds had a bearing on Christian education. I had not been alert to the fact that the ecumenical creeds, as well as our peculiarly Reformed creeds, must have relevance for our educational endeavors.
The ecumenical creeds (The Apostles', the Athanasian, and the Nicene) are those we share with all those around the world who call themselves Christian. Those are the fundamentals of faith, the core of our Christianity. As such, they become the basis for the unity with Baptists, Mennonites, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and most other brands of Christians. When we function Christianly then in our educational setting we cannot be at war with our Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or fundamentalist brethren.
We can't be fighting against the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) or against Bob Jones University. We may not and need not agree with them on every point of philosophy or theology, but they are still brothers and sisters in Christ. They may not be condemned as the enemy, as some of our people are wont to do with the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the ACSI.
We all would do well to remember that the creeds of the Christian faith have rightly been dubbed as our "formulae for unity." They simply state what we as Christians all believe. They are communal statements of faith to which we all claim to adhere. If we mean what we profess, then we ought not be at war with those who make the same profession before the same God. Rather, we ought to be joining forces in the common war against Satan and all his allies. If the ecumenical creeds are real, then we ought not pretend that the great antithesis is between the CRC and the "fundies," or between CRC colleges and the ICR.
What about the Reformed creeds?
In contrast with the ecumenical creeds, the Reformed creeds are much more specific and detailed. One of their functions is to distinguish the Reformed perspective from that which is not Reformed. Their purpose should never be to set us against those that are not Reformed, but to distinguish us from them. On the positive side, the Reformed creeds are also supposed to be the glue that holds the Reformed denominations together. The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Confession are those documents that give us our formula for unity. They are the standards on which the CRC, the PCA, the OPC, the PR, the RP, the FRC and a host of other denominational groups can function in a spirit of harmony. If we all understand and apply those common creeds, we should have no difficulty working together for common cause in our schools. Our Christian schools, in fact, should be models of cross denominational cooperation. Putting our creedal commitments in the foreground and our sometimes petty denominational politics in the background should allow us to educate God's children in the spirit of unity for which Christ prayed in John 17.
All of this will hold true, of course, only if we know and understand what the creeds teach. If we no longer adhere to them, we can no longer claim to be Reformed or experience unity among the Reformed people. What we have to do, then, is to examine those creeds to see what they teach and how they affect our educational program.
What do the creeds teach us about education?
At the most obvious level, it is apparent that the creeds will not tell us whether we should paint our school buses orange or yellow. They will not tell us whether we should teach modern or traditional math. They will not tell us whether we should teach Spanish or French or German as a foreign language.
We must recognize at the outset that there are hundreds of operational type questions that will not be answered by either the Scriptures or by the creedal summaries of them. That should not disturb us. God's Word is not a blueprint for administrative decision-making. The Bible is rather a road map for life. It has all the main routes clearly marked, but it doesn't include every detail, and every gravel or tar road that might be traveled. What the Bible and the creeds do give us are the basic themes, the primary directions, and the perspectives that emanate from the mind of the Maker.
Whenever philosophers or theorists attempt to understand and analyze the myriad of activities that make up the educational process, they inevitably try to reduce them to a basic model, pattern, or paradigm. In the history of Western education there have been two basic paradigms which have dominated discussion since the ancient Greeks. Almost all educational practice and methodology have been devised in response to one or the other of these models.
- The older of these two models is usually given the label of "liberal arts" or classical humanism. For a long time Christian colleges have been enamored with this tradition and have proudly called themselves liberal arts colleges. The genesis of this paradigm resides in the dialogues of Plato and has been nurtured down through the ages by Idealist philosophers. The central idea in this Platonic model is that of innate knowledge. When that little baby is born into the world, he comes equipped with knowledge and defined talents. He has latent intelligence, stored somewhere in his head, which has to be drawn out of him or her. They assume that IQ tests can measure the amount of knowledge that is assigned to each of us, but now it is the teacher's job to pull or coax it out. The terminology that is used to describe this process will vary from one theorist to another, but the basic concept remains the same. Those who talk about "unfolding" or "discovering" or "leading out" or "uncovering" are all playing variations off this theme. There are many Christians who buy into this model and assume that it is in agreement with their Christian faith.
- There is a second, slightly younger model which can be traced to the writings of Aristotle. In response to the ideas of Plato, Aristotle argued that the child was not born with innate knowledge, but only with the potential for acquiring knowledge. The baby knows nothing at birth. There is no latent intelligence to be drawn out; there is only capacity for taking in information and ideas. John Locke, some two thousand years after Aristotle, crystallised this idea when he talked about the tabula rasa or blank slate. In this paradigm, which the majority of twentieth century Americans assume is accurate, the primary purpose of teaching is to dispense information which the student can absorb through the senses. Education is simply a matter of filling up an empty head with information.
Who is right?
Which of these two models is expressing the truth? Do our children come into the world with latent knowledge? Is it really our job to draw it out by well-formulated question? Or do they enter life empty-headed, waiting to be filled? Is our job primarily that of passing on our knowledge to the next generation, simply disseminating information and finding the most efficient ways of communicating it to those who have less of it? Are teachers primarily information dispensers?
Both positions cannot be correct, for they clearly contradict each other. We cannot agree to both A and not A. Either Plato and his disciples or Aristotle and his are wrong. But it is also quite possible that both paradigms are false. In order to make that determination we need to have a reference point that transcends both Plato and Aristotle. We need an authority who precedes and outshines both the Idealist and Empiricist traditions.
The Belgic Confession gives us such an authority. As the oldest of the Reformed creeds, it puts the most important themes at the very beginning so that the reader cannot miss or ignore them. It tells us in Article I that there is only one omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, and sovereign Being who can be classified as ultimate authority on all matters. That Being of course is God, who reveals Himself and His wisdom to us by two means. The creed then goes on to articulate for us that most significant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, devoting articles II through VII to its exposition. There is only one book that qualifies as the only rule for faith and life. There is only one Author who always speaks the truth and who understands clearly every issue we might confront. That book is God's Holy Word. That Author is God Himself. Everything must harmonize with that single authority if it is to be judged as true. If something is out of tune with the Scriptures, we must judge it to be false and "reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule" (Art. VII).
This wonderfully Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura is immensely practical in the way we operate our educational programs. First of all, it allows for no dualistic or pluralistic thought patterns. The world cannot be carved into two or more compartments where the Bible may not shine. We cannot allow God's Word to speak to the world of religion and then forbid it to address the worlds of science or education. We cannot tolerate secular thought patterns if we understand and are committed to Sola Scriptura.
At every level of teaching we must help our students to test the spirits of the age to see whether they reflect the mindset of God. At the earliest age levels we must equip our children to see the very subtle ways that evolutionary theory undermines God's authority. We must do the same thing with the New Age themes in literature, with ideas of democracy, romanticism, feminism, sexism, liberation theology, and a host of other distortions of the truth. Such exposure and careful analysis on contemporary, popular themes will not always be easy and will not always result in universal approval. Students are not always going to like us when we engage in the risky business of critiquing our culture. They are not going to jump for joy when we challenge their pet beliefs. From experience, I know that an honest, open critique of "democracy" can produce sharp criticism and even open condemnation from some overly patriotic parents.
If we take the doctrine of Sola Scriptura seriously and practice it responsibly, our classes will not be dull, boring places. Students will not always agree with us, but forcing them to read and think critically about contemporary issues will keep them wide awake. In the light of all the Bible's warnings about false prophets, false teachings, and the need for us to "test every spirit to see whether it comes from God," there are not many teaching tasks that are more important than this.
From the Belgic Confession, then, we learn quickly that one of the most significant and most challenging tasks as teachers is to test all of our curricular material against God's Word. Our job is not to draw out innate knowledge or fill up empty heads. Too many teachers see their task simply as that of loading up at the library, walking into a captive classroom, dumping their information on some unwilling recipients, and then unwinding in the faculty lounge.
Our job, as Reformed educators, is much more complex, much more significant than that. One dimension of our task is to arm our children against the wiles of the evil one and to help them discern truth from falsehood. As responsible guides in a deceptive world, we must equip them to become servants of the Master who purchased them with His blood.
Some practical implications
If we see a significant part of our task as that of equipping children and young adults to live in a hostile world, a number of practical implications should follow from that.
- First, we must learn how to teach critical reading and critical thinking skills. We cannot pretend that the world is a neutral place where only truth and light prevail. We cannot treat our students as sponges and let them soak up whatever comes their way. When they are not yet equipped to practice careful discernment, we need to have the courage to practice censorship — censorship over their TV viewing, their song selection, their friends, and their reading material.
- Second, we need to recognize that falsehood is usually a very subtle distortion of the truth and is not easily detected. We see this illustrated so powerfully in the Canons of Dort, where the Biblical teaching is systematically contrasted with that of the Arminians. The distinctions sometimes are so fine that it becomes easy to despair and take the easy road of following the crowd. Repeated, wise, and patient effort is needed from all those who would teach.
- Third, it may be necessary for us to remodel our curricular program and change our emphasis. If we are serious about equipping God's children to lead the life of commitment to Christ, then we ought to spend less time in the pursuit of pleasure. School dances, winning sports programs, ballet lessons, and drivers education may have little value in equipping our kids to fight the good fight of faith to which the apostle Paul calls us. Debate, forensics, choir, journalism, and art, on the other hand, can be tremendously effective means for arming our students against the wiles of the devil, yet they get little attention and less money in our school programs.
The world around us keeps whispering in our ear that the highest goals are those of success, appearance, and sex. Our kids hear those siren calls. They read the ads. They swallow the line about the pursuit of pleasure. Their peers claim that everyone is doing it. Their friends are more afraid of peer pressure than they are the judgments of a righteous and holy God.
In such a context, the Lord comes with stern warning: "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world."
1 John 4:1