A Brief Philosophy of Education

Introduction

What is Christian education?  Is there even such a thing as Christian education?  These are real, legitimate questions that the church faces in the modern age, and as faithful followers of Jesus we must provide convincing answers to them.  I suspect deep down in my soul that one reason the church is losing so many of its young (and old) people today is that we have jettisoned the role of education for more entertaining activities geared towards wooing “the outsiders.”  In a bid to keep up with the Joneses, the church has done away with expository preaching in favor of dialogues, done away with catechizing children with the historic creeds of the faith in favor of lessons on morality, and done away with exegetical Bible study in favor of a relativistic “What does this text mean to you?” approach.  Entertainment, it seems, is the primary goal.  And this is not simply a problem for liberal, mainline denominations; plenty of evangelical churches are simply places for entertainment and socialization rather than hubs of clear, articulate gospel proclamation.

And this turn away from education and toward entertainment has only negative consequences.  It diminishes the real line between the blood-bought church and the God-hating culture; it sacrifices biblical truth for culturally-accepted platitudes; it ignores church history and is subsequently carried away by every wind of doctrine.  While there is no simple solution to these problems, we must affirm that education is the principle way by which the Christian church will be “always reforming” toward greater faithfulness to Christ and Scripture.  The purpose of this essay is to provide a brief personal philosophy of Christian education.

Philosophy of Christian Education

As followers of Jesus, it is generally a safe bet that we should base most of what we do on either what he has done or what he has told us to do.  In this case, a philosophy of Christian education should start with a philosophy of Christ’s view of education.  But before we get into that, a few definitions are in order.  Philosophy literally means “love of wisdom,” so when we talk about a philosophy of Christian education we are essentially trying to discern how we should think about and apply Christian doctrine.  Teaching is essentially that task whereby a teacher causes students to know or learn.  This can be done in a variety of ways, and Hendricks posits, “the way people learn determines how you teach.”[1]  As a conclusion to this line of reasoning, Hendricks says, “The teacher must excite and direct the learner’s self-activities.”[2]  While I agree with Hendricks that a teacher must equip students with the tools for learning, there is a certain sense in which his conclusion here does not include the whole of what we can say about teaching of Christian education.  To be sure, it is crucial that teachers help students learn how to think, but it might be just as important that they impart some kind of knowledge to them.  Why this must be the case will be made manifest later.

We’ve now defined both philosophy and teaching, but we have yet to explore the meaning of a Christian philosophy of education.  Here is my working definition: Christian education is that process whereby Christian teachers help followers of Christ learn to love God’s truth.  Obviously, this entails teaching them what that truth actually is, and helping them to love it and walk in such a manner that they are faithful to it.  What makes Christian education distinct from general education is that it has specific content, specific underlying grounds, and a specific Helper who illumines Christian minds to understand the truth of God.  This definition of Christian education will now be demonstrated from the biblical text.

As I’ve said before, Jesus’ actions and commands should be the foundation upon which we build any philosophy of Christian teaching.  Thus, in Matthew 28:18-20 we find a clear mandate from our Lord: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Here we find an explicit reference to Christian education.  The Great Commission involves in it the content of what Christians are supposed teach to all the nations: namely, all that Jesus has commanded.  So, Christian education involves a certain level of imparting knowledge to others.  But it is not only that, for Jesus tells his disciples that we are to teach the nations to observe all he has commanded.  This means that Hendricks is right to say that the teacher must equip students to learn on their own.  These students must learn to observe all that Jesus commanded.  Thus, the full content of Christian teaching is to help students to obey everything Jesus commanded.  By extension, we may note that Christians are to learn all that Scripture commands, since we believe that God has inspired it for the express purpose of teaching (2 Timothy 3:16).  In the context of 2 Timothy, the teaching leads to a knowledge of “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 15).

Thus, the content of our teaching is rooted in the commands of Jesus found in Scripture, and these are able to make us wise for salvation.  But, going back to the Great Commission, notice the ground for our teaching: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18, 20).  The truth that undergirds the entirety of Christian teaching is the fact that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth.  He is Lord.  This means that he can do with creation as he sees fit, since he is master over it.  Thus, when our Savior tells us to go and teach the nations to observe what he has commanded, two things must be made known.  First, education is an indispensable part of Christian discipleship.  In fact, I would be willing to go so far as to say that there is no real discipleship without education.  This is because we are to make “disciples of all nations” precisely by “teaching them to observe” all Jesus has commanded.  Second, Jesus will ensure that his word goes out and is profitable throughout creation.  This is the ground and comfort of all Christian teachers: ultimately, it is not decisively up to any of us whether someone accepts or rejects the validity of the content of the Christian message.  It is Jesus who has all authority, not us.  To be sure, it is an unspeakable privilege to be included in God’s work of redemption throughout the world, and Jesus even promises to be with us until the end of the age.  But nevertheless, we are mere tools in the Farmer’s hand as he reaps his harvest.

Before moving onto the next section, another distinct point about Christian education should be made.  As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit illumines our minds to the things of God.  Without this work of the Spirit, all of our teaching would be in vain.  A prime example of this is seen in Acts 16:4 with Lydia: “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  The importance of this can hardly be overstated.  Christianity does not teach primarily natural truths (though these are obviously involved); rather, the Christian faith stands on a significant number of spiritual truths.  What this means for Christian education is that there is more going on than just the “natural” learning process.  If we are to learn genuinely spiritual truths, the Spirit of God must impart these truths to us by his own power, as the biblical text makes clear.  This should liberate the Christian teacher who knows that it is ultimately God who will be the one teaching his people his truths.  This does not discount in any way the real necessity of good teaching, for God uses teachers as a means to accomplish his ends.  In fact, Paul says that he has given teachers to the church so that we may all attain unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God (Ephesians 4:11-13).  Yet we must never assume that we are indispensable to God’s ultimate mission in the universe.

The Mission of God

Speaking of missions in the universe, the missio Dei, the mission of God, is to glorify his name throughout all of creation.  Everything that God does, he does for the sake of his name and fame.  From creation to the cross, God’s mission is to make known the infinite perfections of his character.  The Psalmist tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1), and Paul tells us that God’s purpose from predestination to the preservation of sinners to finally be saved all work to the “praise of God’s glory and grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6, 11-14).  And this missio Dei spreads primarily through the proclamation of the gospel, otherwise known as: teaching.

As we have seen, Jesus commands his followers to teach disciples to observe everything he has commanded.  The ground for doing this is that he is sovereign over the entire universe.  But the purpose that drives all of it is to make his name great among all the nations.  In Colossians, Paul says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28).  So, for Paul, there is an explicit connection between proclaiming Jesus and teaching.  One might say that this proclamation is the teaching.  The content is Christ, the ground is his lordship, the purpose is his glory, and the method is proclamation or teaching.

What this means for me, I think, is that I should be a teacher of Christ.  As introverted as I am, God has gifted me with a unique set of skills for teaching: I am not scared in the least to talk in front of crowds, I’ve been told that I’m a good speaker, and I’m firmly committed to preaching Christ and him crucified.  In the past, I’ve served as a youth minister, and I’ve also had the opportunity to speak on several occasions at a variety of churches.  These gifts and opportunities are simply ways that I can contribute to the mission of God in the universe.  God has ordained teaching, preaching, and gospel proclamation as the primary way of spreading the truth of his glorious redemptive action in the work of the Jesus, and my gifts in these areas only serve to help advance this mission.

Teaching and Imparting Knowledge through My Gifts

This means that we can now transition into how teaching actually helps teach significant, meaningful knowledge to those who hear.  Christian teaching must be done in such a way that its message is meaningfully understood.  The major content of Christian teaching is inherently significant.  The question is: How do we ensure that it becomes meaningful knowledge in those who hear?

In answer, first, God has ordained teaching to be a means to imparting meaningful knowledge.  Thus, it will, in a certain sense, teaching will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, become meaningful knowledge in those who hear.  For his own glory, God has decreed that the primary way that knowledge of the Son is given to his people is through the proclamation of the gospel in teaching and preaching.  For those of us with high views of teaching and preaching, this can be quite an intimidating prospect.  This means that every time we get up to preach, or every Sunday when pastors get up to preach, we are engaging in the very method which God has designed to give knowledge to his people.  In that way, the teacher and the preacher are doing what needs to be done in order for real learning to take place.

But Neil Postman makes an excellent point that all teachers should keep in mind.  Presumably, teachers are somewhat excited about the subject matter they are proclaiming (regardless if this actually manifests itself in the duty of teaching).  Yet we all know from experience that not everyone is excited to be in church early on Sunday mornings or in classrooms during the week.  Dads think about football.  Moms think about the fussing kids.  Kids think about the newest app on Mom’s phone.  Students think about literally anything but the subject matter at hand.  And on and on it goes.  These may be overgeneralizations, but we’ve all seen them to be somewhat true.  Thus, a teacher must always remember that he needs to somehow communicate in such a way that he enlivens the subject matter for his hearers.  As Postman says, “Most teachers…teach subjects they were good at in school…As a result, they are not likely to understand how the subject appears to those who are not good at it, or don’t care about it, or both.”[3]  The point is, teachers must step into the shoes of the audience and try to see the subject from their point of view.  We must know that not everyone has a stake in the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate.  Far from it, most Christians are simply wondering, “How can I serve God this week?”  It is the teacher’s job to tell them how God says he should be served.  In a way, Socrates is right when he says, “I should not only speak the truth, but I should make use of premises which the person interrogated would be willing to admit.”[4]

On the other side of that same coin, the Holy Spirit of God ensures that his people will hear and understand.  The teacher teaches, and the Spirit takes the taught word and applies it to the listening ears by opening their hearts to receive it.  Again, this is a profoundly spiritual process, but it does not discount physical work.  All this means is that we should not expect purely natural methods to work sufficiently for our goal of teaching spiritual things.  The Spirit of God must be at work if the word is to be understood meaningfully.

Finally, teaching, and other forms of public speaking, even though they have gone somewhat out of favor with the general population, still have as the main goal to persuade the audience to action.  Teaching has fallen on hard times in the church.  I have a feeling that this is due to a wide variety of reasons, but one of them must surely be that some teachers and preachers simply are not gifted public speakers.  This is not to say that one must be a good public speaker to be a teacher, or to even have the gift of preaching.  But I’m sure that many Christians have memories of drab, dull, and dreary preachers with zero passion.  In essence, we can see right through the preacher: he has the most magnificent Person in the entire universe to declare to the people, yet he can hardly bring himself to raise his voice in zeal for him.  Another reason is the entertainment culture that surrounds us.  Christian teaching is often boring because we have access to Facebook, Twitter, and television right at our fingertips.  As Postman puts it, “And this style of [television] learning is, by its nature, hostile to what has been called book-learning or its hand-maiden, school-learning.”[5]  This has obvious implications for teaching, because everything we know about Jesus and are meant to proclaim about his work is found in a book (or 66 books): the Bible.

Yet this need not deter us from teaching.  To be sure, we should ensure that our message is proclaimed in such a way that the culture can see it for what it is.  This means we cannot change the message; rather, we should find ways to teach it in such a way that our audience can truly understand who Jesus is and what he has done.  Christian education is the process whereby we help disciples learn to love the truth of God, not be so bored by it that they’d rather die than have to sit through another lesson or sermon.  The mission of God is to display his glory in all of creation, and the primary mechanism by which that occurs is the taught word.  So, to the extent that we do not teach effectively, we are not effectively participating in the missio Dei.  Thankfully, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  He emboldens us and illuminates our hearers.  In this way, Christian education functions to impart meaningful knowledge of God to God’s people.


[1] Howard Hendricks, Teaching to Change Lives (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2003), 39.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Neil Postman, The End of Education (New York: Vintage, 1996), 115.

[4] Plato. Meno. Benjamin Jowett, trans. (Rockville, MD: Serenity Publishers, 2011), 84.

[5] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin, 1985), 144.


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