GREENVILLE PRESBYTERIAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
BOOK REVIEW: FOUNDATIONS OF CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
AT 41 Christian Education
November 7, 2015
Although Foundations of Christian Education is a collection of addresses delivered in the 1920’s and 1930’s by Louis Berkhof and Cornelius Van Til, they translate well onto the written page, and the essays remain valuable today because they demonstrate the need for and basis of Christian schools and Christian education from a Reformed worldview. Today, just as when these addresses were given, Christians often take lightly the calling to educate their own. This short book describes what Christian education should look like by giving a theological basis for it and by giving practical guidance on how to implement it. The first “section” of the book discusses the necessity and distinctiveness of Christian education from the Reformed perspective. The second (and final) part lays down the doctrinal foundations for Christian education. These two sections will be examined in turn, beginning with Van Til’s essay in section one, Berkhof’s in section one, Van Til’s three essays in section two, and finally, Berkhof’s two essays in section two.
Van Til: Section One
Van Til’s essay in section one stresses the antithesis that is necessarily involved in education. This antithesis is one between Christian education and non-Christian education, or more basically, the antithesis between the presuppositions of the believer versus those of the unbeliever. Van Til focuses on three areas of antithesis: the field of educational philosophy; the field of the curriculum (what is to be taught); and the child being instructed. Godless education has an eternal universe and finite god, and Christian education has a finite universe but eternal God. Therefore, in the Christian scheme, man is a responsible moral agent to God, and all creation is unified and orderly because the God who made it is unified and orderly. This is not the belief in unbelieving education. Christian education wants to lead the student to God; godless education has nothing back of the universe to appeal to and is left with only pragmatic motivations for inquiring. Christians believe that God has revealed Himself to man, not just in Scripture, but in all creation, and therefore a pursuit and study of anything is ultimately a pursuit and study of God. Non-Christian education can make no such claim, and therefore often fails to see any interconnectivity between one field of study and another.
Van Til notes that non-Christian education is man-centered at heart, while Christian education, though not man-centered at root, is man-centered in the sense that creation was made for man to rule over as an act of worship and service to God. Thus, man’s duty is to learn about and subdue the earth in order to rightly utilize it to glorify God. The unbeliever views the universe as impersonal, making laws and facts exist of themselves rather than being expressions of the will of an eternal, personal being. This produces lifelessness in educating children, where the universe is depicted as cold, empty, and disconnected from humanity. Education becomes a means of getting away from God rather than finding Him everywhere and in everything. Because there is no God who unifies all reality, secular education paints reality to be irrational, unable to be harmonized, and charges those who say otherwise with conceit.
So then, what is the center and focus of secular education? Secularists are not sure. By jettisoning God from the equation, they have not found a “god” adequate to replace Him and accommodate for all the facts of reality and history. Van Til says that functional education has replaced conceptual education; education is no longer about imparting information, knowledge, or wisdom, but rather intends to prepare the personality to adjust to the environment in which it exists. Van Til states that it is self-contradictory to teach children to prepare for their environment when it is said that the environment is mysterious and unknowable. Yet Christian education is armed and ready to teach what is “out there” and can also unify the universe because God is the unifying Creator of all things. It follows that Christian educational philosophy, policies, and curriculum must always keep this antithesis in mind, and anything that cannot be harmonized with a Christian-theistic pattern of education must be rejected from the outset in Christian educational methodology.
Regarding curriculum, Van Til lays down a few ingredients that must always be present in Christian education. He is emphatic that facts are not viewed equally by all men alike. Facts do not exist of themselves, but are always theistic facts, and God always interprets the significance and meaning of facts. Two plus two does not equal four because of a brute fact, but because God has structured math in that fashion. Van Til says, “The ground for the necessity of Christian schools lies in this very thing, that no fact can be known unless it be known in its relationship to God.” Even math equations, says Van Til, are laws that express something of the very being of God, a reality which a child in the eighth grade should already have some comprehension of. Van Til states that Christian education must also stress that all things are the believer’s, that the Christian man only takes his rightful place at the center of the curriculum when nature is connected to history, and that secular history is connected to sacred history. Only then can every fact be brought into relation with God and education become concrete rather than abstract. This is the atmosphere that makes Christian education so valuable, and it is this atmosphere that secular education has dismissed from the outset.
Van Til claims that the result of secular education has led the curriculum to be subjected to the child, rather than the child being subjected to the curriculum. This is meant to produce individualism and personality in the pupil, but it destroys the very foundation of education. Christian education subjects the child to the curriculum by leading the child to see God in all areas of study, and in finding God the child finds his or her true identity and personality. Secular education has an unknown universe which is contorted by their curriculum in an effort to meet the needs of the individualism of each child, rendering the purpose and meaning of the child’s individualism indiscernible. “To have knowledge at all, both the knower and the known must be in contact with God. Only through God can the two be brought together.” Since all is relative and the universe is not coherent, this calls into question the authority of the teacher to even make absolute truth claims. While the authority of the secularist erodes, the authority of the Christian teacher is bolstered by the infallible authority of God, who made all things to reveal Himself and to be understood by His people.
Berkhof: Section One
Berkhof looks at secular approaches to education; the Reformed perspective on education; and the Christian school and education. Berkhof begins by denouncing support for a nationalized and free public school system supported on a utilitarian basis. Berkhof counters the belief that a school unified on nationalism is best for a given country by saying that a school unified on true religion will bear the greatest blessing on any given nation among its citizens. He turns his attention to the secular idea that children are inherently good, not sinful, and only prone to imperfections. Secularism will not teach children that he or she is sinful, nor will it teach the truthfulness of one religion over another. Echoing Van Til’s sentiments about education in general, Berkhof says, “It is only in the light of Scripture that we can give a true interpretation of God’s revelation in nature, and it is therefore to the Bible that we must turn for guidance.”
Berkhof addresses the matter of who is responsible for educating children, and asserts that it is the parents of the children, primarily. He cites Scripture to support this, but also mentions that Athens and the Romans prioritized the family in instructing its children. If parents believe that they need the help of others to instruct their children, those called in to help should see themselves as loco parentis (in the place of the parents). Deuteronomy 6, Ephesians 4, and Psalm 78 all call upon parents to instruct their children, not the state.
One cannot truly educate by ignoring, or denying, that the pupil is made in the image of God. As an image bearer of God, the child is a unity, and in education the head and heart must go together. Berkhof says that the Christian home is waning in its influence and identity, and given the church can only devote a few hours of training to its children each week, the Christian school is the most important educational agency at present. Yet Christian families have left their children to secularized education, meaning that “America is today reaping in its churches what it has sown in its schools. It has sown through the secularized schools, and it is reaping a purely naturalistic religion.”
Berkhof declares that a truly Reformed believer cannot denigrate the need for Christian schools without simultaneously compromising his religious convictions. The objections by Christians to Christian schools often centers on cost and Americanism, showing where their true allegiances lie. Berkhof scoffs such advocates, claiming they all but say, “Seek ye first America, and all other things will be added unto it.” He wonders just how much a secular, state school will really tolerate Christianity, even in a nation that is sometimes considered Christian. He argues it is wrong to try to force sectarian, Christian doctrines and principles in a state-run school that is supported by tax payer’s money. The need is not a Christianized secular school, but a thoroughly Christian, Christian school. Berkhof concludes that Christians must support Christian schools, fund them, and send their children to them out of a sacred duty to educate their children in the ways of the Lord, to nurture them in the covenant, and to see them bear righteous fruit as they mature.
Van Til: Section Two
Having examined the needs and distinctions of a Christian education, Van Til now addresses doctrinal foundations of Christian education, examining creation, faith, and eternal life. Van Til’s doctrinal argument is that creation is the presupposition of the covenant idea, and that while many Christians today will defend creation for the sake of preserving biblical soteriology, their scope is too narrow. Creation encompasses all of life, including God’s covenant with man. Defending creation as the presupposition of the covenant is the truly Reformed perspective of Christian, covenantal education. Man is prophet, priest, and king, called to think God’s thoughts after Him, and in such a framework Christian education must be defended. Christian education is based on the covenantal idea, and the covenant is involved in creation, which in turn involved God creating, and if God did not relate man to creation and creation to man, man’s life would be meaningless. Creation was intended by God to be ruled by man, who is also created. God covenanted with man, telling man to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. This multiplying and subduing, this exploring and cultivating, this life-long learning and working two-step, was to be done in covenant with God, not apart from Him. Because God is Creator, he is the interpreter of all reality, and because man is in covenant with God, he can interpret reality in light of what God has revealed to him. Because God is behind all things, rationality stands supreme; but for the secularist, the source of all is chaos, irrationality, and from the root of irrationality secular education seeks in vain to produce some fruit of rationality and truth.
Plato and others elevated man as co-eternal with God, and made man an independent interpreter of reality apart from God. The eternal and what was “right” was elevated above God Himself. Once Kant came along, a synthesis occurred where thought was now seen to be “creatively constructive,” that is, thought itself, the human mind, imposes order, rationality, and significance upon all things. The mind of man takes the role of the mind of God, and becomes supreme. Human thought is no longer seen as something created by the creator. Man is on par with God, and the rules that man must submit to are the same to which God must submit. In the end, the doctrine of creation, as understood by Christianity, is obliterated. God and man either both stand outside of all authority, or are both under an unknown authority, an intuition of sorts, or something discovered in the vast unknown. This void, created by the universe, has become God. All that remains is flux; all reality is temporal, and this is the evolutionary and pragmatic bent of John Dewey and the modern educational system. With this view of education, one wonders what place education has, since there is nothing timeless to be discovered and grasped. Christian education must remind its pupils, and the world, that the good is good because God wants it, and God wants it because it reflects His very being. True thought is receptive and reconstructive, not creative. It receives revelation from God, both special and general, and thereby learns by thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Christianity itself, then, is a restorative religion. Christ came to seek that which was lost, and to restore the image of God in lost sinners, so that they could once again serve as redeemed saints, being fruitful and multiplying, filling the earth and subduing it. It is a Christian education that teaches us how to rightly understand creation by teaching us about God, man, and creation, and these three are held together through Christian education showing God’s purposes for man to cultivate creation for His glory. In light of this, Van Til says, “It is as impossible to oppose Christian education and be genuinely interested in human culture as it is to deny human culture and be interested in Christian education.” Van Til beautifully describes the consistent Christian philosophy of education as one that doesn’t fall into individualistic revivalism but rather sees the all-encompassing nature of God’s covenant with man; he argues that covenant education does not “extract the human being from his natural milieu as a creature of God, but rather [restores] the creature with his milieu to God,” proving that the Sunday School, catechism, and church are insufficient for our educational purposes because it restricts the restorative characteristic of Christianity by jettisoning the physical, salvaging only the spiritual when both were meant to always be joined in harmony.
If Christian education has such a high and lofty calling, how can it be implemented when the world, including Christians, is full of sin, and the mindset of the people is far removed from the covenant? The answer is faith. Van Til urges obedience to the plan God gave man when He placed him in paradise and patience as he labors to fulfill this plan under the weight of sin and temptation by the devil. Finally, we must have the hope of faith, trusting that man will indeed complete God’s purpose for him in the end, even though it does not seem so presently. God’s purpose for man is nothing less than seeing the kingdom of God realized on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10), and as man fulfills this purpose, he comes to the height of being an image-bearer of God. Non-Christian thought finds such claims for education and the purpose of man to be far too grandiose, too lofty, because it believes that evil is natural, inherent, and eternal. But the great hope of the Christian faith is that evil will one day be no more, and even now Christian education seeks to fight against the forces of evil, both within the believer and outside the Christian camp.
Van Til says that the heart of Christianity is the glorious reality that God’s program for man is being realized in spite of sin. Secular education has no conception of a program for man and the universe. It is all by chance, and there is no such thing as real progress or culmination. But in the book of Revelation one discovers that the glory of the nations is brought in to the New Jerusalem, and this glory is all that mankind has accomplished in obedience to the program God has given man to complete. Therein lies the hope of faith. In light of this, Van Til says that Christian education is not only good for this life, but is also a great foundation for the life to come. He says the Christian educator can be bold and confident because Christian education is the only true education, that all other education is irrational to the core, and because of that it cannot and will not win. Christian education, then, is the only education that is fit for a covenant child.
Van Til’s last essay shows the telos of an education based on godlessness and the telos of education based founded upon the God of Scripture. The godless education produces diminishing returns, and as their foundation is chaos, they fail to make sense out of anything they teach, and what beauty was seen in the beginning fades into oblivion. The only thing that the secularist can try to cling to is not the beauty of holiness, but the holiness of beauty, by which Van Til likely meant base, carnal pleasures -- individuality. One either has to embrace the chaos, the lack of harmony, and get a short thrill out of it until he is absorbed back into it, or simply choose to end his life and be absorbed right away. Secular education promotes evolution, advancement, but has no firm ground to stand on by which to climb up to some higher, more glorious peak. “The present-day scientist is often not the humble seeker after truth but the militant preacher of a faith, and the faith that he preaches is the faith of agnosticism.” By contrast, Van Til concludes that the full-orbed Christian life is life with God, which the Christian has right now through the Spirit and will have in full when Christ returns. Because of God and His purposes for man and creation, man’s life has meaning now, and this reality must be stressed and foundational in a thoroughly consistent Christian educational system.
Berkhof: Section Two
In Berkhof’s first essay in section two, he emphasizes the importance of the covenant of grace for Christian education. He bewails the fact that most Christians in his day are largely ignorant of the covenant and its meaning in general, much less its importance for Christian education (this sad reality remains true today). Berkhof gives a brief definition of the covenant of grace as “that gracious compact or agreement between the offended God and the offending sinner, in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ and the sinner accepts this believingly.” Berkhof describes at length how, in this covenant, God is infinitely greater than man, and man has no authority to barter or protest against any commands or arrangements that God imposes upon him. This is because God is creator of all, including man, and because man is sinful and has forfeited his life. God was gracious in the covenant of works made with Adam, but vastly more so in the covenant of grace made with sinful man through the blood of Christ. Through Christ, believers brought into the covenant of grace are adopted as children of God, and as adopted sons, they become heirs of all that is God’s, which means they become heirs of all things. These covenant promises are seen in Scripture to be for believers and their children (Acts 2:39). Therefore the children of believers are to be seen as heirs of all things, and it is the duty of parents and Christian educators to prepare these children to be good stewards and faithful servants to their heavenly Father.
When parents bring their infants to be baptized, they are acting on behalf of their children and are declaring that they belong in the covenant and in fact are in the covenant of grace. This means a baptized child already has covenant obligations that he or she must keep, and parents have obligations to diligently educate and rear their children in the instruction of the Lord, being confident that God in time will grant their children a clean heart and willing spirit. In light of all that it means to be a covenant child, Berkhof sarcastically asks if one can seriously question whether or not a Christian education is necessary for covenant children. “Let us ever be mindful of the fact that the King’s children must have a royal education.” Berkhof also argues that Christian education teaches covenant children how to properly express gratitude and cultivate all that they have inherited as heirs of Christ. Even more basically, Christian education actually informs the child that they are rich in the Lord and have inherited the earth. All the treasures of God must be discovered, and Christian education goes a long way in helping young people do that. “Many children of God are even today living in spiritual poverty, though they are rich in Christ and heirs of the world, because they have not been taught to see the greatness and splendor of their spiritual heritage.” Thus the impetus for Christian schools and Christian education. Covenant children need to see their spiritual wealth and be good stewards of it. Christian education helps show them that this is their duty and trains them to make it their delight.
Berkhof’s final essay examines The Christian school and its authority. He relates how the in the arena of labor and even on a national scale, people in general are increasingly desirous of asserting their independence and shirking the authority that God has placed over them in different spheres. He hones in on the authority of the Christian school teacher – whether there is any authority for the teacher or not. Berkhof does not believe it is necessary to argue in Christian circles that, in principle, the teacher has authority, though he recognizes in practice the teacher is not always regarded as having authority. Berkhof defines authority as the “right to command and enforce obedience, or to speak the decisive word in debatable questions.” Parents have original authority over their children, not derived from the church, state, or anywhere else, precisely because their children are born to them. All authority ultimately is derived from God, who has made all things and governs all things. Yet secular education wants to diminish the authority of the teacher, and compounding the problem, regards children as generally good. The belief is that the less the teacher interferes and intervenes, the more the child is freed to naturally grow into the goodness that he is, and is becoming. Independence of thought is stressed over morality and knowledge. With a gentle nudge, the children will supposedly desire and discern the true, good, and beautiful. This stands in sharp contrast to the biblical depiction of children, who are born dead in their trespasses and sins (Ps. 51:5). Berkhof points to corporal punishment as something mandated by God as well. He addresses the sticky question of whether the teacher derives authority directly from God, or a mediated authority delegated by the student’s parent. Berkhof says the teacher’s authority is derived from the parent, and that the teacher acts in loco parentis but that the parents can only criticize the teacher’s exercise of authority when it is not in keeping with the revealed will of God. Yet, Berkhof also recognizes an independent authority for the teacher that derives directly from God, saying that the teacher/school is not simply an elongation of the family. It is a community of its own, comprised of its own cluster of people. This means the teacher and the school organization has the right to determine its own rules and regulations, without subjection to the cavils of the parents, and to demand that the children obey the rules and regulations for school life. For these rules the teacher alone is responsible to God. The teacher, in carrying out his authority, should do so by informing the class that they exercise authority because it has been granted to them by God, but should do this carefully, perhaps by showing that all authority is ultimately derived from God. The teacher should also carry out all authority in accordance with the Word of God. The impetus for correction in a school should primarily be moral improvement, motivated out of love, without losing sight of justice. The teacher should love the children as their parents love them. It is a chastising discipline, not a condemning one. Finally, equity and justice must be maintained in the classroom, and the teacher must maintain his authority with firmness. Long-suffering and indulgence is good, but only to a point, else the teacher is in danger of undoing all that he has tried to impart to the student. In light of this, Berkhof does not consider it a good idea to have student governments, saying that the children are inexperienced and not equipped well enough to govern the affairs of their school prior to college. Teachers should maintain this duty, and set a good example for the students.
Both Van Til and Berkhof argue for a thoroughly reformed approach to education. Whether the focus is on the antithesis, the covenant, creation, or the sources of authority, the point is maintained that nothing can be learned when God is left out of the equation. All truth is God’s truth, and where God is not present, no truth can be uncovered. As Christians, we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, and made joint heirs with Him of all things. Such a grand calling demands that we give the best possible education we can to our children, and because we were made to glorify God, body and soul, and rule over creation, we need a comprehensive Christian education where everything, including math, is taught from the proper perspective of God ordering all things and giving significance to all things through His unfolding plan of redemption.
 Berkhof, Foundations of Christian Education, 3
 Ibid., 8-9
 Ibid., 11. This demonstrates that secular education was already planting the seed of postmodernism nearly a century ago.
 Ibid., 13
 Ibid., 18
 Ibid., 21
 Ibid., 23
 Ibid., 27
 Ibid., 28
 Ibid., 33
 Ibid., 34
 Already in Berkhof’s day, denominationalism was not tolerated in the public school -- only a broad belief in theism and a general Christianity were permitted.
 Ibid., 39-40
 Ibid., 43
 Ibid., 52
 Ibid., 54-55
 Ibid., 60
 Ibid., 62
 Ibid., 82
 Ibid., 92
 Ibid., 99
 Ibid., 125
 Ibid., 129
 Ibid., 68
 Ibid., 69-70
 Ibid., 75
 Ibid., 77
 Ibid., 103
 Ibid., 109
 Ibid., 112
 Ibid., 115