To Spread His Glory
Four Theses on Christian Education
Christian education should be more than just avoiding the evil influence of the secular academy. It not only has a critical role to play alongside the Church and the home in transmitting the biblical worldview to the next generation; it also, in its higher levels, has a role to play in showing the relevance of the Christian worldview by applying it to all of life. It is not a luxury; it is a necessity if the Church is going to fulfill its mission.
Yet the Christian school movement—whether on the primary, secondary, or collegiate level—is the stepchild of the Church. We give lip service to its importance, but we will not support it on a level at which it can function well. It struggles to pay its faculty a living wage and still remain affordable enough to be a viable option for parents in the real world, for these are incompatible goals. They simply cannot both be met without a constant infusion of cash from outside the tuition structure—whether from endowments or from unrestricted giving. Most Christian schools do not have the endowments and aren’t going to get what they need in gifts. Qualified faculty members are hard to retain, and when they are retained, they are usually overworked in ways that make it difficult for them to advance in their fields.
Nevertheless, despite their constant struggle for survival, Christian schools almost all outperform the public schools when it comes to the basics, the “three Rs”—not even considering the inculcation of the biblical worldview. We need them to have a much greater impact, but we are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary for that to happen. We talk a good game, but they continue to struggle, and the Church is content to have it so. This is a major reason why revival tarries. How do we get beyond talking a good game and start actually playing one? Understanding these four theses about what is at stake could help.
Secular education is an oxymoron.
Let us imagine that we are trying to create a school that will do what our secular state schools think they are obligated to do: provide an education that is religiously neutral. It will not be Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox; it will not be Christian, Muslim, or New Age; it will not even be theistic, animistic, pantheistic, or atheistic. It will maintain a strict neutrality on all such beliefs. And let us imagine that it succeeds in that neutrality, treating all such beliefs even-handedly the same, neither privileging one nor denigrating any. We might be able to imagine such a thing—until we get down to specifics. And then our supposed neutrality will quickly vanish into thin air.
As we design our curriculum, we find that we have to ask what our purpose is. What do we want our graduates to be? Well, surely we want them to be productive workers, able to hold good jobs and provide for themselves. But all the vocational training in the world will not accomplish that goal if they are dishonest, lazy, undependable, and lacking in self-discipline. Employers will not retain them if they cannot trust them. So in order to achieve what we thought was the purely secular goal of vocational training, we discover that we cannot ignore virtue.
But which set of virtues are we going to inculcate? On what basis? Will it be Christian ethics, or Sharia law, or moral therapeutic deism, or naturalistic utilitarianism? The last option is the only one with even a pretense of religious neutrality. But will a purely pragmatic view of honesty as something that will help you keep your job suffice to keep you from stealing from your employer if you think you can get away with it? Even if we think it will, we have just lost our neutrality. For now we are teaching ethics as if atheism were true.
Do we just want our graduates to be good workers, or do we also want them to be good citizens? Society will surely expect us to do something toward the latter end. So what kind of country are we training them to be citizens of? One that is founded on the idea that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, or one that thinks such ideas are only rhetorical flourishes that were thought useful in the past? One that grounds its concept of rights in the created order, or one that grounds it in the will of the majority? Or one that just grounds it in the perceived greater good of the greater number? Or one that has no concept of rights for anyone not favored by those in power? Once again, our goal of religious neutrality has proved elusive. We have to make choices that have religious implications. We don’t have the choice not to do so. The only choice we have is whether or not we are going to be honest about it.
Secular education is an oxymoron. It is a contradiction in terms. It cannot really be religiously neutral without implying that it does not matter which religion one embraces, or whether one embraces any. And if religion has no consequences, then it is trivial and unimportant. The harder education tries to be secular, then, the more it becomes secularist. Atheism and naturalism are subtly privileged, in effect, as the only truths that matter. And this privileging is unavoidable.
It is unavoidable because in our supposedly neutral school the secularist message is effectively delivered by the whole structure of the curriculum even if it is never actually verbalized. The very premise of neutrality prevents anyone from saying anything that could possibly contradict it. Even if released time for religious instruction is granted, that instruction is still secluded and segregated from the rest of the curriculum. Science, history, civics, and literature will still have to be taught as if that religious instruction did not exist. One reason Christians lost their influence in the public schools is that they had been lying to themselves about what, by its inherent nature, public education was capable of being, about the bias that is built into it by its very stance of enforced neutrality.
The full effects of this educational religious “neutrality” were obscured as long as America had a strong Judeo-Christian consensus at the core of its common culture. We could easily pretend that neutrality just meant that the public schools would be non-sectarian. Though they would not be Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist, they would still uphold ecumenical truths like those at the foundation of the Declaration of Independence. But when the failure of the churches to fulfill their mission of evangelism and discipleship had allowed that consensus to erode beyond a certain point, the real nature of the monster that had been created in public education was no longer avoidable.
When I was in high school, in the public schools of Fulton County, Georgia, as late as the 1960s, we started each day with a reading from the Bible piped over the public address system to every homeroom. Students volunteered to do those readings, and Christians were the ones with the motivation to volunteer. It was a good thing. But today, would we want this practice restored? Stop and think before you say yes. If it were, on what basis could passages from the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, or even the Red Book of Mao be excluded, if someone were motivated to read them? The old consensus cannot be restored simply by pretending that it was never lost.
Is public education a necessary evil? Maybe it is. Somebody has to teach the masses basic literacy and math if they are to be employable at all, and the Church is not presently prepared to do it. But Christians must not continue to be naive about what secular education is; they must not continue to be naive about the dynamics that drive it to be dishonest about its neutrality even when good and well-meaning people are trying to work in that system. They need to become much more serious about providing an alternative, providing it well, and making it available to larger numbers of people. Otherwise, they will not be able to maintain their own distinctive subculture, much less reach the larger culture with the gospel.
You cannot educate a human being unless you know what a human being is and what he is for.
One of the reasons why no school can be religiously neutral is that it is impossible to educate a human being apart from some idea of what a human being is, and there is no such concept that is not determined by whether or not we conceive of a human being as created by and related to God—and what kind of God? Are we subject to the inscrutable will of Allah or responsible to the God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or are we trapped in illusion, as certain Eastern religions say? Or did we just evolve without any purpose at all other than the arbitrary ones we create for ourselves? We will have a very different educational approach, depending on the answers we give to such questions.
The word education comes from two Latin words, e, “out of,” and ducere, “to lead.” Thus, the word means to lead or bring out of the student the powers that lie latent within him—in other words, to help him achieve his potential. Human beings have the native ability to read, write, cipher, and think logically, but they will not realize these abilities unless they are taught.
Then there are the more complex tasks that are built on the foundation of the basics, which also have to be taught. The ability to add, subtract, multiply, and divide does not automatically make you able to keep the books for a corporation or to plot the trajectory of a rocket. The ability to read and write does not automatically make you able to generate an effective political speech or an edifying sermon, and the ability to think logically does not automatically blossom into the ability to combine forensic evidence with principles of the law to achieve justice. There is a host of other ways in which people make a living that require further instruction, both in school and on the job, if they are to be done well—or even done at all. Our potential for such things has to be discerned and developed, or they will never happen.
And what about the time when the graduate is not at work? Here is the place where the question of our nature and purpose becomes unavoidable. Is there more to him or her than just being a cog in an economic machine? Are there other things in life it would be tragic to miss, or not to accomplish, which education ought to prepare us for? Unlike other animals, we cannot learn everything we need to know to be able to participate in and transmit the culture that is the life of our species just from instinct or by picking it up from our immediate pack. How handicapped would we be, not just for work but for life, if we had never been exposed to the Bible? To Shakespeare? To Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart? To Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Monet? If handicapped seems too strong a word, what about impoverished? Without education, will you be able to tell the difference between what Shakespeare and a rap artist can give you? Rembrandt and Thomas Kinkade? Does it matter?
Can a species be impoverished by missing or not learning to appreciate such things? For most species, the answer is probably not. A cat that is safe, warm, and full will not miss Mozart playing on his master’s stereo. But for humanity . . . well, we do seem different somehow. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we for? Any educational system that does not start by asking such questions and that does not insist on having satisfying answers to them is doomed to futility and failure. Any educational system that has the wrong answers will at best fail to bring out the fullness of human potential and will at worst create twisted ideologues who will undermine that potential for others. Before you entrust your children to any educational system, you had better know what its answers are. What are they supposed to be for believers?
Human beings were created in the image of God to enjoy him through fellowship with him and to glorify him by serving him as his deputies and regents in the rule and care of the earth.
For Christians, human beings were created in the image of God to glorify him and enjoy him forever. We are to be the stewards of his creation, a bridge between the spiritual and material worlds by virtue of being the only creature we know of that fully participates in both. We are creative because we were made in the image of the Creator, and consequently the history of the creativity of our fellow human beings (i.e., culture) is part of who we are; we are not fully present in the world to the extent that human culture is not present in and to us.
We were made in the image of God, but we fell through disobedience and corrupted that image; nevertheless, it is being restored through the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ in those who put their trust in him. Our purpose now as redeemed sinners is to glorify our Creator and Redeemer by living a full life that expresses our identity as his creatures, that restores our role as stewards of his creation (still beautiful despite its corruption by our fall), and that (most importantly) makes that redemption available to others through the spread of the gospel. Any Christian education that deserves the name must keep that vision of who we were meant to be front and center at every step of the way.
One of the problems with much contemporary Christianity is a truncated vision of human nature and human purpose. We retain bits and pieces of the biblical picture, but we lack an integrated view of its wholeness. I was a student at a good Christian college in the early 1970s, and I have taught at another one for the last thirty-plus years. The students (with some stellar exceptions of course) were marked by American pragmatism on steroids. You would expect Christians to be less utilitarian than their secular peers, but my impression is that they are more so. There was less of a viable and vibrant intellectual and artistic subculture in both of those Christian institutions than there was in my secular high school.
It is not that the faculty were not trying to promote something better—but the Christian subculture would not support it. Most of the students who were not called to full-time ministry were not interested in any course or activity that would not make them more money after they graduated, and most of those who were so called wanted practical skills and had little patience for anything else. The wholeness of a life responding to all of God’s creativity with all of ours was not so much missed as resisted like the plague. It is not shocking that in this we resemble the secular society of which we are a part. But it is tragic that our Christian faith does so little to make us different.
We want the education we provide as Christians to move us in the direction of wholeness, a wholeness informed by a biblical view of what humanity is. We did not evolve by chance from a purposeless process. We were created in the image of God, and he created us in his image because he had a purpose in mind for us. We would enjoy fellowship with him while serving him as the stewards of his creation, finding joy and fulfillment in carrying out our responsibility under him for the care of the earth and of our fellow creatures. We would fill the earth with his glory both by exercising oversight and by exercising the creativity we were given by virtue of our existing in the image of the Creator.
But we fell into disobedience, and in our revolt lost our fellowship with him and our awareness of our purpose. Nevertheless, we did not lose that purpose. We still rule the earth, though now in rebellion and hence often very badly. We still exercise our creativity, but now sometimes in ways that are perverse and polluted.
Nevertheless, we are offered by God’s grace a redemption that restores those who accept it to their original intended purpose and hence to the possibility of joy and fulfillment. Filling the earth with God’s glory now involves preaching the Good News of that redemption to every creature and making disciples—fulfilling the Great Commission.
That Commission is not something new, an emergency task added merely as a desperate response to the Fall. It is rather part and parcel of our original purpose, the form it must appropriately take in the context of our fallen state. It should occur in the context of that creativity which is central to our identity; it is not an alternative to it. This and nothing less than this is the role in the world that Christian education should train and prepare us for.
What would the education we are describing look like? There is a thesis for that!
Christian education develops the whole person to glorify God in every area of a whole life.
Education starts with anthropology, the doctrine of man. So Christian education starts with the imago Dei, the image of God. It starts, in other words, with Adam and Eve reigning over the Garden of nature, representing the Creator in his creation. What possible knowledge about that creation, its nature and its purpose, could be irrelevant or uninteresting to them?
No human being can know everything, and now that there are millions of Adams and Eves, differentiation and specialization are unavoidable in the fulfillment of their task. But God is still the King under whom they govern, and so the universe is their field of operation. And God is (for believers) their heavenly Father, and so the universe is their back yard.
Therefore, as the foundation from which they specialize, a well-rounded grounding in general knowledge seems appropriate. They are, after all, the lords of the earth, not a niche species. In a complex world that requires analysis, and a fallen world that requires discernment of truth from error, they had better be solidly grounded in the tools and methods of critical thinking. In a fallen world that requires discernment of good and evil, they had better be well versed in God’s revelation; they should be students and followers of Scripture, understood by the careful use of those tools of critical thinking, which are applied through sound hermeneutics in the light of the wisdom of the Christian tradition. As persons created in the image of the Creator to serve him in the context of the culture generated by the creativity he gave them, they need to be grounded in the appreciation and, for those so gifted, the production of the arts. (For further discussion of these matters, see my Inklings of Reality: Essays Toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, Lantern Hollow Press, 2012.) What less could prepare them for the roles they are expected to play?
It sounds very much, then, as if something very like what we call a “classical education,” taught from a biblical perspective, is demanded by a Christian understanding of our nature and calling. Such an education begins with the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. They are together the indispensable tools of thought, the foundation of whatever endeavor we may find ourselves called to pursue. (See Dorothy L. Sayers’s classic essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” for further development of this idea.) Grammar is the study of the rules of language, of how to say something. Logic is the study of the rules of reasoning, of how to say something valid. And rhetoric is the study of the rules of presentation, of how to say something well.
The more mastery we have of these three skills, the more effectively we can think. We are, after all, homo sapiens, the thinking creature, the only animal who, by virtue of the imago Dei, finds rational thought central to its life and identity. To rule the other animals for God, we have to understand them in ways that they do not have to understand us.
Lest we think this an elitist program unrelated to the practical needs of the Church or of simple, non-academic lay persons, we should remember that Isaac Watts was just as well known in his day as the author of a standard textbook on logic as he was for his hymns. A leader as pious as John Wesley recommended to his convert Margaret Lewen a curriculum of the Bible, grammar, arithmetic, geography, logic, ethics, natural philosophy (i.e., science), history, metaphysics, poetry, and divinity (i.e., theology). “And you will then have knowledge enough for any reasonable Christian” (Letter to Margaret Lewen, June 1764). Well, yes; it would be a start.
In fact, the practical needs of the Church can only be served by an education that is both classical and Christian because the Church is the body of Christ, the Lord of Glory, and is made up of redeemed human beings created in the image of God to serve him in the whole scope of his vast and wonderful world. Therefore, there will be no recovery of relevance in the Church until it is committed to an education that reflects these truths—that seeks to develop whole persons who will glorify God in every arena of a whole life.
We have work to do.
Donald T. Williams Ph.D., is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College. He is the author of eleven books, most recently Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016) and An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Christian Publishing House, 2018). He is a member of University Church, an interdenominational house church in Athens, Georgia.