The Need for a Confessional Basis for Our Children's Education
In the past year several church communities in our federation have opened small schools. The children of almost all the congregations are now able to attend schools that are owned and operated by Reformed parents. But why should this be important? Why should these small schools exist? What legitimacy do they have if there is a large general Christian school in town? What makes a Reformed school different from a general Christian school? This has been a question raised by many in the past. It was likely raised in those communities where parents wanted to open new schools. It surely will need to be addressed again in the future. Why should we have our own schools?
Article 58 of the Church Order
The title of this article is not simply picked out of the air. Article 58 of our Church Order reads:
The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions.
In article 58 of the Church Order the churches have agreed that consistories should encourage parents to send their children to Christian schools. These schools should be not just general Christian schools, but schools that have the Reformed confessions as their basis. Before we examine the specific question of the need for a confessional basis for our children's education we should look at the historical background to article 58 of the Church Order.
The Church Order came into being in the late 1500s, more than 400 years ago. The Reformed churches of the Lowlands, of Belgium and the Dutch states, had met together in various meetings and synods and made decisions that affected the churches in common. The churches assembled these decisions and so formed the skeleton for the Church Order that the great Synod of Dort of 1618/19 wrote and adopted. This is the same synod that gave us one of our creeds, the Canons of Dort. This synod also adopted the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession as doctrinal standards for the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.
In the Church Order of Dort the churches included Article 21. In translation, it reads as follows:
Everywhere consistories shall see to it that there are good schoolmasters who shall not only instruct the children in reading, writing, languages and the liberal arts, but likewise in godliness and in the Catechism.
Fifty years earlier, in 1568, the Reformed churches meeting at Antwerp had decided that, The parents, as shepherds of their families, shall be exhorted, in order to form their children in the fear of the Lord, not to send them to schools or whatever other institutions there may be, where they could be corrupted or steeped in wickedness of conduct or doctrine.
We can notice from these two quotations that there was a development of thought from a rather negative, defensive position of protecting the children from wickedness of conduct or doctrine, to a positive attempt at providing good schoolmasters who would also teach the Catechism in school.
To place this in an historical context we should note that the churches assembled at Antwerp just 50 years after Luther's famous 95 theses. Calvin had come to Geneva only 30 years before, in 1538. The Reformation came to the Lowlands in the decades that followed. Guido de Brès wrote the Belgic Confession in 1561. This means that the Reformed churches' decision about the children's education comes at the very beginning of the Reformation in the Netherlands. From the very first, the Reformed churches defended the position that parents were the primary educators of their children. By 1600 the Reformation had taken deep root in the Netherlands and Belgium.
We must understand that while the government funded the schools of the 17th century, the consistories nevertheless had great power in appointing and hiring the teachers. The government itself was committed to the Reformed faith and to the reformation of the church. The laws of the land required that all teachers in the schools be Reformed confessors. They had to be godly in their conduct. They had to show knowledge of the Catechism and have an ability to teach it. They were to be Reformed believers who lived under the supervision of the consistories.
Church, home and school
Our political and social situation today is radically different from that in Reformation Holland. Still, we must note that in the very midst of the great Reformation, the church, state and home recognized the role the Confessions played in the school. We must not now place the confessions in an ecclesiastical ghetto. The confessions, rather, should have a prominent place in all of life. The old Church Order held the Catechism to be mandatory in the curriculum. Teachers were to be confessors of the Reformed faith. There was a recognition that Reformed children of Reformed parents were to be instructed by Reformed teachers. There was a unity of confession between church, home and school.
It is important for us to observe, however, that there is also a separation of authority and jurisdiction among church, home and school. We have come to understand more clearly that the primary responsibility for raising and teaching children lies with the parents. Children belong to their parents, not to the state. Parents are to teach their children (Deuteronomy. 6:7; 11:1 9; Ephesians. 6:4; Proverbs 2-7). The primary responsibility for their training and education lies with fathers and mothers, not with church or state. The idea that children belong to the state is from the philosophy of ancient Greece. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that children are possessions of the church. The Reformed and biblical position is that responsibility for children's education falls to the parents, for it is to parents that God gives children. Our fathers did not promote nor envision church schools like the Roman Catholic parochial school. According to the Church Order, however, the consistory does have a role. The office bearers must promote the organization and proper maintenance of Christian schools based on the confessions of the church – the Ecumenical Creeds and the Three Forms of Unity.
At this point we need to examine a pressing question. Do parents, at the baptism of their children, promise to send their children to Reformed schools? Do they promise this when they vow that they will instruct their children in the true and complete doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, summarized in the confessions and taught in the church, and have their children taught therein to the utmost of their power? Is this promise a vow of commitment to Reformed schools and education? Is this a commitment to confessionaly based institutions of learning? Is this perhaps a vow before God to establish Reformed schools and even universities?
I think not. I do not think that we can defend that position, though many people do. If that were true, then the consistories of churches where children have attended general Christian schools and public schools would have had to place many parents under discipline for being negligent in breaking godly vows. Hundreds of parents would have had to quit their jobs and go work where they could send their children to Reformed schools. If it were true that baptism vows bind parents by vow to Reformed schools for their children then many congregations should have been dissolved. Perhaps it was even sinful for our parents to have emigrated to this fair land. This is not the case, however.
Rather, the promise at baptism is a promise to train the child in the doctrine of salvation at home, as well as to take the child to church and to send the child to catechism. The doctrine of salvation is taught first by parents and then by office bearers, especially the minister. These are the people appointed and ordained by God to teach the doctrine of salvation taught in the church and summarized in the confessions. In church and catechism classroom, the teaching of doctrine is supervised by the consistory. In these places the office bearers of the church of Christ have authority. They do not have this direct authority in the school class room. Neither does the consistory have direct authority in associations into which church members enter. The consistory does not have authority over the Chamber of Commerce if a church member joins. The consistory does not have authority over the professional associations that church members join. It also does not have direct authority over school associations in which church members are active.
Why then have a school? Why then have a Reformed school if we do not need a school to have the children taught in the doctrine of salvation? Parents establish schools because the law of the land says that they must have their children educated in the arts and sciences. This education must also meet certain academic standards. The school, then, must teach children in all sorts of subjects, math, history, science, art, music, literature, language and so forth. The school is not there as a result of the parent's promise to have their children taught in the doctrine of salvation. It is an institution of learning run by likeminded parents who want to prepare their children for their place in the world.
Does the establishment of a Reformed school then have no relationship to faith and confession? Here we come to the heart of the matter. What then should underlie the teaching of math and science and art and music? Upon what should we base the teaching of literature, reading, writing? In the Church Order we have agreed that our schools should be founded on the Word of God as it is summarized in the confessions of the church. There is a good reason for this. Their education equips the children for their task in the world. The task of Reformed people in the world is always in the office of all believers, namely, as Prophet, Priest and King. In their office, believers (also children) submit their lives to Christ as their chief Prophet and Teacher, as their great High Priest and as their eternal King. Together with their parents they pray, “Thy kingdom come,” that is, “So rule us by Thy Word and Spirit that more and more we submit to Thee.” Thus the children also pray to Father that He might rule them by His Word and Spirit in their whole walk of life. As they learn to read, write and figure, as they learn about their bodies, about the earth and its creatures, about our country and its history and as they study literature, music and art, church and Bible history, they will learn that all of life is a matter of faith and confession. We want our children to have a “world view” that is in harmony with the Word of God. Scripture teaches us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and of knowledge. Without the fear of the Lord, as taught in the Scripture, true knowledge is simply impossible. This includes knowledge of things concerning His creation. Without faith there is no real knowledge and understanding, but only facts and great learning.
Now someone may say, “Well and good! That is what the general Christian schools strive to do.” There must be, however, a unity of faith between church, home and school. The confessions are not only confessions of the church. We must also say that they are the personal confessions of the believer. They are expressions of the head and heart knowledge of the believers, also of the children.
Confession or philosophy?
We may be able to agree with the basis of the general Christian schools as well as the religious principles that they use as guidelines for instruction, but are they enough? I do not believe so. The underlying principle of the general Christian school is based on a philosophy not a confession. This philosophy, this system of thought, formulates the main tenets of the Christian religion around the themes of Creation, Fall and Redemption. This philosophy holds that as long as these three themes are dealt with in the set up of human institutions, they will function correctly without confessions.
In the first half of this century a Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, developed this train of thought. His followers in North America (whom some like to call the neo-Dooyeweerdians) worked out this philosophical understanding in the framework called “sphere sovereignty.” This philosophy teaches that every sphere of life has to draw up its own creed in which are included the three themes of Creation – Fall – Redemption. Schools are simply one of the spheres of life. Christian schools are one sphere among many and so they need their own creed and their own religious principles. Most general Christian schools function under this kind of philosophical idea.
This way of thinking means that also the church must draw up its own creeds. It is but one sphere, one community among many. It is a community of people not unlike school societies or labour unions or professional associations. Each sphere of life develops its own creed. A church creed is for the church. A school creed is for the school. A union creed is for the work place. And there are yet other creeds for business or professional associations. Sphere sovereignty is based on an idea that philosophy is the basis of our understanding of God, creation, fall and redemption. It also promotes the idea that the institutional church is not really the church of Jesus Christ at all. It is but one social structure among many. The real church is not the body of believers that meets as a local congregation on Sunday. The real church does not have an address or a local existence. Supporters of this view teach that the real church is that invisible supra-temporal church to which all believers belong. Each one of the social structures, as long as it is organized in a Christian way, is considered to be the body of Christ, with its own offices. The local church is a manifestation of the church, but also the school and the work place, if organized with a creed that recognizes Creation – Fall – Redemption, are bodies of Christ. The church with its creeds can be called the church as institute. The others are the church as organism. Each of these bodies needs its own peculiar and specific confession.
Those who hold to the ideas of sphere sovereignty would say there is no place for the church confessions within the school walls or in the halls of learning. They do not belong there. They have no meaning and cannot function there. The church as institute has its own confessions.
We should answer, however, that the confessions are the confession of the believers. The “we believe” of almost every article in the Belgic Confession is the “we believe” of the man and woman, the child in the pew. The confession is not the testimony of only the minister or of the elders and deacons. Yes, the confessions are the confessions of the church, but the church is made of believers, of confessors. It is made up of people, men and women, who are confessors, believers, and their children. When we made a profession of faith, each one of us confessed that “we believe” the doctrine as it is taught in this church (and that doctrine is taught in harmony with the Reformed confessions). We promised that we would steadfastly continue in that doctrine in life and death. We confessed that the doctrine taught in this church is a doctrine for all of life – also for our life as mothers and fathers and for our life in all occupations.
We cannot pretend that the confessions are only part of our church life. Look at them! Read them! Listen to the creeds! Lord's Day 12 is about our life as a Christian in the world. Belgic Confession, article 36, is about our relation to the state and lawmakers, to our government. Lord's Day 27 is about the separateness of the children of the covenant. (Perhaps the fundamental reason for our schools.) The Heidelberg Catechism's discussion of the 10 Commandments is about our life in the world and our life with God and neighbour. The confession about the Lord's Prayer is about our walk of life before God, about our bread, God's kingdom, about God's will for all men.
Clearly, the confessions are not (only) church confessions. They are life confessions. Lord's Day 1 is not restricted to church life. It is about all of life. As parents, we must pass on these Reformed confessions to our children. We need to teach our offspring that the confession is a confession of faith for all of life. It is that confession which should be the basis of their education. It should be the testing stone for what they learn. It should be the measure our children use to test the spirits of our time. They need a lens through which to examine the world. They need a paradigm by which to structure their thoughts, their ideas, their conclusions. They need a “world view.” We should not base that “world view” on some philosophical construction, but rather on the doctrine of the Word of God which we confess in summary in the confessions.
Abraham Kuyper said that not one inch of life falls outside the domain of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ who is sovereign says about your whole life, “It is mine.” With this I think we can all agree. Jesus Christ has claimed our lives. “He has bought us,” Lord's Day 1 says. He has paid for us so we must then live for Him from now on and confess our faith in Him. Confessing Christ and living for Him, however, has serious implications, because our confession is not simply a church confession. The confession of our faith remains the same on Monday as it was on Sunday. We do not leave the Heidelberg Catechism in the book rack of the pew at the end of the afternoon service. We take it with us to work on Monday. We carry it to school on Tuesday. This is true because all of life is one. Because this is true, we must also teach our children that all of life is one.
Faith or religion
As Reformed people we stress faith and knowledge, not religion. We maintain confessions of faith, not religious principles. Dr. Klaas Schilder, that great theologian and thinker of the past generation, has said:
To the Reformed believer, the Bible is everything. It is the norm and guideline for his piety. The experiences of his heart may only rest on what the Bible teaches as truth. Therefore, the contents of his faith, his confession, must be firmly established in his mind.
Prof. J. Geertsema, one of my teachers, has said: The evangelical believer stresses the heart, his religious experience. He has no problems with all kinds of different views and opinions in matters of doctrine. One can believe this and the other that; it does not really matter. Each experiences his faith, his mystical union with Christ in his own way and any way is OK. The Reformed believer, however, wants to have his doctrine straight so he brings his confessions to bear on ail of life. This is not intolerance. This is faith in Scripture and in God who reveals Himself to us in His Word. Therefore his confession is important in all of life.
Those who do not want to maintain confessions as the basis of all of life are actually attacking the Word of God. For they attack the truth of revelation. This opens the door to spiritual relativism. Each person has his personal experience. Each can have his own interpretation of the Bible. This is the cry of the Anabaptist. “No creed but the Bible. I will not be bound to your interpretation.” The Bible, however, is not a book of many interpretations. It does not teach for and against infant baptism. It does not teach for and against the Roman Catholic mass. It does not teach for and against prayer to the saints. It does not teach for and against women's ordination. It does not teach for and against homosexuality. There is but one message. There is but one doctrine. There is but one truth.
The Reformed view about the place of the confession is opposed by modern denominationalism. In denominationalism no one may say that other people are wrong. We can no longer say that the Anabaptists are wrong or that the Roman Catholic Church is wrong. “No,” we are told, “we just have differing insights; different emphases.” We must, however, reject this. We must test the spirits of our times, also in general Christian schools, even if this makes us rather unpopular, just because the world no longer wants to say what is right, and what is wrong, we may not follow suit. We must be willing to stand up and say, “This is what the Scriptures teach. This is what 'we believe.'“ This is what we confess. We do that together as church of Jesus Christ, with one voice, in the Three Forms of Unity and in the Ecumenical Creeds. But if we say that in church, we must say that in our homes and teach our children to say the same. By implication we want the school to say the same.
Our confessions are products of great struggles against heresy and of defenses mounted against attacks on the Word of God. This is true both of the Ecumenical Creeds as well as of the Three Forms of Unity. These latter three confessions testify against the error of the Roman Catholic Church, the Anabaptists, Libertines and the Arminians. They are faithful summaries of the Word of God in the face of attacks on the truth of that very same Word. Today we again live in a time of unprecedented attack on the truth of God's word. We live in a time of relativism. It is a time when everyone has an opinion and everyone's opinion is regarded to be as good as the next person's. Truth, and the possibility of knowing anything for sure, is abandoned. We, however, can know the truth. God has revealed it to us in His Word. True knowledge is really possible – knowledge of God, but also knowledge of biology, psychology, origins, history, social structures, physics, language, music, art. Such knowledge can only be arrived at within the framework of scripture and confession. As we educate our children, let us then strive to base their education upon that confession, the confession that our fathers held to in life, and the confessions for which also many of our fathers died.
We must take this call very seriously. In this day of moral and social relativism, in this day when faith and confession are but a matter of opinion and not truth, let us stand fast on the Reformed confessions so that we and our children might not be blown about by every wind of doctrine. Let us teach our children to love their confessional heritage. By those confessions they can learn and confess that the truth of God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. With these confessions they will learn that in all the market places of life they can be Reformed confessors holding fast to the truth of Scripture as the only rule for all of life.