Why Classical Christian Education?

By Joe Boot / May 14, 2018

Topic Education

Scripture Isaiah 28:24-29

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Explaining the critical importance of Christian education to many professing believers today – despite the radically secular, humanistic and even pagan direction that is being pursued in the state-funded schools – often winds up sounding like the warning label on a bottle of medication: this activity can lead to looks and expressions of disorientation, disbelief and dismay. More often than not, after an uncomfortable silence or pained contortions of the face, there is an implicit or explicit denial that Christian education is either possible, necessary or desirable. Such conclusions are one of the reasons the church is in the marginalized position it is today, and why we are losing the vast majority of our children to unbelief before they have even finished university – for it is at university that they feel a sufficient sense of independence to tell their parents they don’t believe in Christianity anymore.

By contrast, Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands in the early twentieth century, was convinced that in the late-modern world, in the wake of the falsely named Enlightenment, it would be critical for Christians to once again begin (as in the past) distinctly Christian institutions and organisations that approached life and culture from a truly scriptural standpoint. This was because Kuyper recognized that Western culture was pulling up its roots in the gospel of Christ. He wrote the following concerning secular humanistic institutions and schools:

The leadership in such organisations never falls to us [i.e. Christians], but always and inflexibly to our opponents. They carry out their intention, and whoever of us embarks with them ends up where they want to land but where we never may land. The spirit at work in such principially unbelieving organisations is so alluring and contagious that almost none of us, once he enters into such company, can offer resistance to it. One absorbs this poison without suspecting it … once one is part of such organization, one sees one’s Christian principle doomed to silence.[1]

Spoken at the beginning of the last century, these words have proven remarkably prophetic when you consider the lack of Christian influence in education in the modern West – the general silence of the Christian principle in this regard is notable. Neither do many Christians recognise the slow contagion affecting their children, reducing the faith to a place of irrelevance. And yet the utmost concern of the Christian should be the relating of their faith in Christ Jesus and his infallible word to the world around them – beginning in the family. In fact that is what Christian education in essence is – the relating of the faith to the totality of life. So I want to highlight here three simple ways in which a Christian education enables us to relate Christ and his Lordship to the world around us.

Education and World-and-life-view

First, a Christian education helps us to see the world and our lives right side up. Like a good set of lenses it enables us to see truly and accurately. A huge part of living the Christian life is loving God with our minds (one of the great commandments – Matt. 22:37) and learning to see everything in the cosmos and human culture through the lens of God’s Word-revelation in creation and Scripture. Everyone has a worldview whether they have thought it through in detail or not, because we are all religious beings, and we each have an interconnected set of beliefs and assumptions through which we look at life. These belief sets, in turn, shape our approach to everything we do, including how we educate. As a consequence there is no such thing as a neutral education. Education will be done in terms of one worldview or another.

The Christian view of reality asserts at the outset the creative work of God. There are many aspects of creation that are studied in school – for example the arithmetical, physical, biological, sensitive, logical, historical/cultural, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, moral, pistical and so forth. But the central question is, how do these relate to each other? What gives them meaning? In biblical faith, none of these aspects of our experience exist by themselves or for themselves, but are coherently interwoven in mutual relationship, pointing toward each other and beyond themselves to their origin. Think of the human person. A human person participates in all these aspects of reality, but cannot be reduced to any one of them. We are physical beings with a biological make-up. We are emotional and rational creatures constantly engaged in cultural formation with the ability to symbolically communicate and socially interact. In all that we do and in all our relations there are economic, aesthetic, juridical and moral considerations and judgments, and lying at their root is our faith orientation toward some idea of ultimacy – something which, in our worldview, does not depend on anything outside of itself to live and move and have its being. The coherence of these various aspects of creation points beyond itself then to a totality of meaning.

We might think of it this way. The sun’s light is refracted through a prism into a spectrum made up of seven bands of color. Each band is in itself a dependent refraction of white light. No one band of light can be thought of as the sum of the various colours and none of them exists without an unbreakable coherence with all the others. If white light is blocked before being refracted, all the colors vanish into nothing, and yet white light is not found in the refracted colors. The non-refracted white light represents a totality to which all the aspects point. And just as light has its origin in a light source, so all of the cosmos takes its rise from an origin, by whom and for whom it was created. God’s creation law-word is the totality of meaning behind the diversity of aspects in created reality. In other words, the cosmos is meaning; a creation governed and sustained by the Word of God.

That biblical picture of the world has huge implications for education. Firstly it reveals that what is created can never find its resting place or origin in itself – God has created everything in relation to himself, so nothing can be understood fully and truly except in relation to him. Education that simply leaves students with certain information about aspects of reality and offers no coherence and relationship between them, offers no meaning. We can discover meaning in the world (even when we deny the source of that meaning) because everything is related to everything else by design. Everything in reality that can be studied by a student is meaning because it is related to everything else and because it points beyond itself to its origin, the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ. To leave students without an understanding of the coherence and relationship of all things in relation to their origin is to leave them with a false, incomplete, reductionistic, self-destructive vision of the world. The great lack in modern education is therefore the loss of an integrating principle that brings unity in the diversity.

Secondly, in any attempt to offer a vision of coherence or meaning, what a non-Christian education does is, in one way or another, takes one or more aspects of reality – for example the physical, it doesn’t matter which – and tries to use that one strand of color to account for all the colors – that is, all the aspects of reality. The result is a radical reductionism and a destruction of meaning, leaving students empty and unprepared for life and freedom.

So the first reason a Christian education is so important is that only when we see the root of all creation in Christ, with the coherence and meaning this brings, can we really grasp the truth, wonder and beauty of the cosmos and our place in it. A Christian education is therefore a Copernican revolution which sees Christ and his Word at the centre of all things. In the Christian worldview, in his light, we see light.

Education and Work

A Christian education also links Christ’s Lordship to the real world by connecting it to our work and calling. Much modern education today has become pragmatic and instrumentalist. In other words, the concern of most education is not the cultivation of a critical, discriminating, analytical and creative mind, ready and equipped for all the challenges and opportunities to be confronted in life, but the molding of a child to fulfill a particular role or task that the modern state deems important for its ideal future – i.e. being a good, progressive citizen. Much of what passes for education is in fact humanistic indoctrination into a mold to fulfill a function useful to society. Education is not seen as a good end in itself for the flourishing of the human spirit, it is simply an instrument to get something else. Even higher education has become primarily about training oneself for a particular job – often in order to make as much money as possible – rather than preparing for the much broader work of life and culture itself.

In Christian education the importance of work is central, but it is set in its proper context; one much greater than getting a job to make money. The scriptural context is that God created human beings as his image-bearers, making them creators of culture in terms of a purpose. The calling of our first parents was fundamentally to turn creation into a God-glorifying culture. This began with cultivating the ground in the garden. From the beginning work was not a curse but a blessing when set in relation to our creator and his purposes.

Now to accomplish the task of faithful culture-making – culture that is meaningfull, not meaninglesswisdom is required. The Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). It is not the end, but the ground of wisdom and therefore the foundation of education. As the prophet Isaiah says:

Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?  Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him.  Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin, but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cumin with a rod. Does one crush grain for bread?  No, he does not thresh it forever; when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it. This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom (28:24-29).

We see here that it is by submission to God and his Word for creation that we both learn truth, discover our true task and find purpose in it. Christian education therefore is directed toward the vocation of human beings under God as image-bearers, and is in fact an integral part of that calling, so that we learn not just to ‘get a job,’ but to rejoice in life, to discover meaning, and to find our calling.

Because Christian education is directed toward this cultural work, it must take history and culture into account. This is where the classical component comes in – a pedagogy which reflects with special attention on the cultural work of the Western world and social order. This is appropriate because it is where our children live! The term ‘classical’ for the Christian should not mean bypassing two thousand years of history to get to classical Greece and Rome in a romantic attempt to return to the pagan classical world. Neither does it denote a syncretistic approach to education, taking the last two thousand years into account, but at the same time trying to weld Christianity onto the ideas, concepts, philosophies and values of the classical world. This approach would be to corrupt the Christian gospel. Rather a classical Christian approach takes the full spread of history and Western cultural development into account, acknowledging and celebrating God’s disclosure of truth even in non-Christian cultural contexts, whilst asserting the Lordship of Christ and the final truth of his Word over all life and culture, unveiling the real-world consequences of different religious visions for the cultural task.

The Apostle Paul models this approach when he shows in his letters and in the book of Acts a thorough knowledge of the Greek language, thought and culture – including their poets and philosophers. This is not so that he could synthesize it with Christianity, but so that he could bring the claims of Christ and his Word to bear effectively upon them. Remember Paul’s Words regarding Greek thought:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:20-21).

Douglas Wilson makes the important observation that when Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2 that the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, the term he uses for ‘natural man’ is psychikos. This was a word coined by Aristotle for man at the peak of this thinking and form, not an uneducated or idle individual. Consequently Paul is clearly not a pagan classicist, for he critiques Aristotle’s natural man, but he is a biblical classicist. As Wilson writes, “He does not run from classical culture, nor is he defeated or compromised by it. Rather he declares the Lordship of Christ over it.”[2]

When classical method and learning submit to Christ’s Lordship (and do not attempt to merge with it), then a classical Christian education emerges, resting on the authority of Scripture, concerned to enable students to work in creation, within their historical context, for the culture of Christ.

Education and Worship

Lastly, education is an aspect of our worship that brings glory to God. If we think of the education of our children as part of our family worship, it will have a massive impact upon our educational choices, because education is that process of learning to worship and serve God in opposition to all idols.

This introduces the simple but important distinction between structure and direction in education. The structure of things concerns creation – the laws and norms which govern all created things. The direction concerns the religious root, purpose and focus of all that we do; it concerns ultimately our worship. As Paul writes, “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). To illustrate the distinction, both Lady Gaga and Johann Sebastian Bach are employing the same notes and musical notation (i.e. structure) in their creative process, but between them is an entire world in terms of the direction of their music.

In the same way, whilst non-Christians educate and have schools and often get at the same information in chemistry, math and physics (i.e. structures), the direction of the education is altogether different. This is first seen in reference back to the ideas of origin and meaning – in which direction is reality said to point? This orientation will affect how we theorize with regard to the relation of the various aspects of reality. Now a truly Christian education will scrutinize all the non-Christian genius out there – that by God’s kindness is able to get at truths in creation (concerning structures), albeit without proper insight – and then take that discovery and redirect it, turning it to godly purpose as an act of worship (direction). We do not synthesize with the ideas of the world, which is idolatry, but redirect all true knowledge in worship and service to God.

In the end, all education is an expression of what moves and directs the heart; it uncovers the paradigm by which the educator views the world; it reveals that which the educator adores! Education is an offering in service to someone or something. This being so, as Christians, we cannot sit by while worship goes up to all manner of substitute divinities in the classroom and yet remain unmoved and silent in this foundational area of life. Calvin Seerveld’s powerful question and exhortation is telling:

How can you live openly in this world, God’s cosmonomic theatre of wonder, while the graciously preserved unbelievers revel in music and drama, painting, poetry and dance with a riot of colour, a deafening sound raised in praise to themselves and their false gods, how can you live here openly and be silent? Are you satisfied with bedlam for God? Where is our concert of freshly composed holy stringed music? Our jubilant dance of praise to the Lord? What penetrating drama have our hands made? Why do we not break into a new song … this is needed to show our God we love the Lord here to, passionately … that humans of darkened understanding can make merry under God’s nose and curse the Lord with desperately, damnably forceful art should hurt you. God is not dead. Christ lives! Human existence is not absurd: we glory in the image of God. The world is not a curse: it is good creation, struggling under sin toward final deliverance.[3]

John Milton saw that education was about just that: repairing the ruins of our first parents that we and our children might regain to love, serve and worship God in the cosmic struggle toward final deliverance. Christian education is central to that struggle and is therefore a defining investment in the life of our children and the kingdom of God. Which side of this struggle is your family on?

 

[1] Abraham Kuyper, Pro Rege, or the Kingship of Christ (Kampen: Kok, 1912), 3:184–94 (§ XIX). Translated and abridged by Harry Van Dyke.

[2] Douglas Wilson, Repairing the Ruins: The Classical and Christian Challenge to Modern Education (Moscow, ID: Canpn Press, 1996), 24.

[3] Calvin Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1995), 21-22.

The utmost concern of the Christian should be the relating of their faith in Christ Jesus and his infallible word to the world around them beginning in the family. In fact that is what Christian education in essence is.