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Instructing Our Children – 5-6
Schooling and Parental Hopes
XXI. – XXII. Texts that Transform
Finally, we should seek to provide our children with comprehensive Christian schooling. All parents at some point reach the limits of their capacity or competence to educate their children. It may occur at kindergarten or at college, but eventually those whose expertise exceeds our own must be called upon to help.
I am a product of the secular public school system. I attended the Los Angeles City School District’s Dominguez Elementary School, Andrew Carnegie Junior High School, and Phineas Banning High School, graduating in 1973. I then attended the University of Southern California, once a private Methodist institution dedicated to “the glory of God and the preservation of the Republic.” However, by mid-century its church ties had been completely severed and its secular identity thereafter celebrated. By the time of my matriculation in the fall of 1973, it had long learned to highlight its non-sectarian identity by boasting of its foundation on land donated by a Protestant, a Catholic, and a Jew.
I recall even in elementary school the dichotomy between my Sunday experience at church and my Monday-Friday experience at school. Those were two different worlds which never intersected. I had church friends and I had school friends. We learned Bible truths at church and everything but Bible truths at school. Religion, Christianity, the Bible, Jesus never came up at school. Conversely, history, science, and literature never came up at church. Never once did it occur to me that Christian truth and the school’s curriculum might intersect.
So things continued until the summer between my sophomore and junior years at college. I was growing rapidly as a believer throughout my sophomore year. I was loathe to go home for the summer because I feared I might fall into old patterns of behavior that I now rejected. Instead I enrolled at the “Light and Powerhouse,” a Christian study center run by Hal Lindsey (b. 1929) of The Late Great Planet Earth fame that met at the old Kappa Sigma house on the UCLA campus.1 Lindsey even then lacked credibility for me. However, another member of the faculty built his course of instruction around the works of Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), specifically his trilogy: The God Who is There; Escape from Reason; He is There and He is not Silent. The impact was life-changing. My academic career was dramatically transformed. Prior to this class I had never seen any connection between my Christian faith and so-called “secular” school curriculum. After that class I listened to every lecture and read every article and book with a new set of ears and eyes. What the psychology professor is saying about human nature, is it compatible with a Christian view of humanity? What the literature professor is saying about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, is it an accurate characterization of New England Puritanism? What the history professor is saying about the Crusades, about the Reformation, about the Enlightenment, is it balanced? What are his or her criteria? What the economics professor is saying about the glories of socialism and the evils of capitalism, is it fair and reasonable and compatible with a Christian view of the powers of government and the right of private property? Is what the biology professor is saying about the origin of the universe and the origin of life compatible with the Christian and biblical view?
I learned of the necessity of a Christian school education those last two years of undergraduate education and became convinced that as far as was practical, one day my children would attend schools where they would learn to think like Christians.2 We home-schooled for a season and tackled the exhausting task of starting (with others) a classical Christian school, the Veritas Academy of Savannah, to ensure that this could be done. I learned in the process, as with so many other things, that Christians have done a great deal of thinking about this over the centuries. How shall we educate our children is a question that Christians long have asked. We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. The answer of the Christian community has been, by one means or another, we will educate them as Christians; not as pagans, not as Muslims, not as Hindus, but as Christians. J. C. Ryle speaks broadly for the Christian consensus when he warns, “Any system of training which does not make a knowledge of Scripture the first thing is unsafe and unsound.”3
During the course of the 5th and 6th A.D. centuries, public education collapsed in the Western Roman Empire with the closing of the last Athenian academy. “This presented the church with a unique opportunity to capture society by its roots,” says Paul Johnson in A History of Christianity.4 “It had a chance,” he continues, “not only to establish a stronghold in education, but to recreate the whole process and content and purpose of education in a Christian setting.”5 Augustine (354-430), in his De doctrina Christiana, On Christian Doctrine, laid the groundwork for this endeavor by devising a complete system of knowledge in which “every aspect of human creativity and intellectual endeavor was related to Christian belief.” The first initiative to construct the system that would transmit this knowledge began when Cassiodorus (c. 485-580), a prominent Catholic layman, asked Pope Agapetus (c. 535) to found a Christian school of higher education in Rome. He urged the Pope “to collect subscriptions and to have Christian rather than secular schools in the city of Rome.”6 His Institutiones followed Augustine in dividing human knowledge into seven liberal arts. Yet it wasn’t until 636, when Bishop Isidore of Seville (c 560-636), building on Augustine and Cassiodorus, published his Etymologies, that the church had a complete system of education. Johnson describes the effect:
Almost by accident he founded a civilization, or at any rate an educational system. His work, made public in 636, first describes the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy; then their dependent arts, medicine, law and chronology; then it moves on to the Bible and its interpretation, and the Church’s canons and offices. The central part deals with God, the bonds that hold God to man, the relations of man with the State, and man’s anatomy. Finally he moves on to animals and inanimate nature. We have here a summa of human knowledge in which Christian doctrine and teaching, and the role of the Church, is placed right at the centre of the intellectual universe, and radiates to its most remote corners. Isidore completes the Augustinian revolution: the Church now embraces every aspect of society and contains answers to all questions.
Isadore’s Etymoligies, edited in twenty books by Braulio, Bishop of the Saragossa, became the basis for all teaching in the West for about 800 years. They determined educational method, as well as content, from the primary to the university level. Everything taught thereafter was no more than an elaboration of what he wrote.7
Indeed, one could argue that well into the 19th century a classical and Christian approach continued to dominate education in the western world, and given the prominence of the west, to shape education throughout the whole world. Remnants of the classical system, such as three-stage division of lower education into grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the central role of Latin, survived into the middle of the 20th century.
As this pattern began to decline in the mid 1800’s, leading Christian voices rang out in protest against secular education. For example, Daniel Webster (1782-1852), an important congressman and senator from New England and part of the “Great Triumvirate,” along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, asked,
In what age, by what sect, where, when, by whom, has religious truth been excluded from the education of youth? Nowhere; never. Everywhere, and at all times, it has been and is regarded as essential. It is of the essence, the vitality of useful instruction.8
Leading theologians such as Charles Hodge in the North and Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) in the South also protested the increasing secularization of the schools, the latter insisting that “no Christian of any name can be an advocate” of a system in which the curriculum of the school is secular and the religious instruction is left to the parents to provide in their own time. “Indeed,” he continued,
No adherent of any religion can be found in any other age or country than America who would not pronounce it wicked and absurd for any agency undertaking the education of youth to leave their religious culture an absolute blank.9
Behind them stood Martin Luther who said,
I am much afraid that schools will prove to be great gates of hell unless they diligently labor explaining the holy Scriptures. I advise no one to place his child where the Scriptures do not reign paramount. Every institution in which men are not increasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt.10
Clearly, such an education would of necessity be provided by Christians for Christians. “This whole process of education,” says Charles Hodge, “is to be religious, and not only religious but Christian.”11 This is axiomatic. Christians must, and always have educated their children. All the schools, colleges and universities of Europe, its colonies, and former colonies for over 800 years were started by Christians in order to educate their children and their ministers. In the English-teaching world this includes Oxford and Cambridge, the New England Puritans’ Harvard and Yale, the Presbyterians’ Princeton, the Baptists’ Brown, the Congregationalists’ Dartmouth. Not until the 20th century did America’s public and private colleges and universities cast off all Christian influence and completely secularize.
Throughout the 19th century immigrant groups discontent with the generic Protestantism of America’s public secondary and higher education options tended to found at great sacrifice their own school systems through college. This is the origin of Notre Dame and scores of Roman Catholic schools, Calvin College and scores of Reformed schools, Concordia and scores of Lutheran schools, and on and on.
Why has this enormous energy been expended by Christians? So that they might transmit their faith to their children. It has seemed unreasonably opportunistic to think that the church in a few hours on Sunday could counteract the implicit and explicit teaching of 30 hours each week of non-Christian schooling. The ideal has always been to speak to our children with one voice: the family, the church, and the school all agreeing together. The ideal has always been that all the academic disciplines should be taught from a Christian perspective and in light of Christian truth. How one goes about supplying a Christian education in any particular case is open to discussion, but here are the ideals.
A Christian education is more than a prayer and Scripture reading at the beginning of the day and followed by the academic disciplines taught from a secular, naturalistic perspective. Rather, Christian parents will see to it that their children are taught a historically Christian and biblically sound understanding of God, the material universe, humanity, morality, redemption, and the telos, the end and purpose of all things. From that perspective, historical persons and events, literature, the arts and the sciences will be learned and evaluated. We want our children to view all things through the lens of Scripture. All knowledge and alleged knowledge will be evaluated by them on the basis of the word of God. Like the early Christians, we aspire to outthink and outlive and out die our generation.
Teachers and schools
To whom are we to entrust the education of our children? This is not a new issue. It was typical of the post-World War II generation not to give a moment’s thought to their children’s schools and teachers. Protestants sent their children to the local public school and Roman Catholics to the local parochial school. Yet this was not always the case. The older authors warn parents to be careful about who are to serve as the teachers and tutors of their children once their own competence and capacities are exceeded. For example, William Gouge (1575-1653) outlines the three main teaching responsibilities of teachers (schoolmasters) and schools.
1. Knowledge – they are to teach the academic disciplines.
2. Civility – they are to teach good manners, to show respect for those in authority and for adults, and give honor to whom honor is due (Rom 13:7).
3. Piety – they are to teach the doctrines of true religion and the disciplines of piety (e.g. prayer, Scripture study).
He warns that “schoolmasters commonly cast the first seed into the hearts of children.”12 Consequently, choice of schools and teachers must be undertaken with great care. “Children oft learn such evil qualities of their schoolmasters as they can never shake off.”13
My high school baseball coach was very, very good to me but he was a very, very immoral man. At a time when I was vulnerable I was spending hours with him, roofing his house, bodysurfing at the beach, while he talked incessantly about his sexual conquests. Only by the grace of God and the foundation of a Christian home and church did I survive. Others didn’t. “Take heed,” says another Puritan Arthur Hildersham, “what schoolmasters and tutors (you) send them to.”14 They point out that an ungodly instructor with hours of time with one’s children can undo all the piety that parents have labored to impart to their children. The charming, charismatic, but unbelieving teacher can lead the children of godly homes into cynicism, then skepticism, and finally atheism. “If you send your children to places of education,” Philip Doddridge warns, “be greatly cautious in your choice of them.” Parents will pay a dear price for their children’s learning if it comes at the expense of their souls. Their school teachers, he maintains, should be “faithfully and tenderly solicitous for the souls of those committed to their care.”15 We would do well to heed the advice of our ecclesiastical ancestors. Scripture warns us not to walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers (Ps 1:1).
Students and families
The older authors also are exceptionally cautious about who one’s children’s classmates will be. Keep your children “from bad company,” Baxter warns in his Christian Directory, “especially of ungodly play fellows.”16 His warning echoes the Apostle’s: “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor 15:33, NASB). “Wicked children,” he counsels, “will infect them with their wicked tongues and practices; they will quickly teach them to drink, to game, to talk filthily, to swear, to mock at godliness and sobriety.”17 The problem is especially acute in common (i.e. public) schools, he maintains, because of the “many rude and ungodly ill-taught children in (them).”18 Children will tend to imitate what they see in other children. They are drawn to and fascinated with evil. I’ll never forget how our children were obsessed not with the virtuous characters but with evil Gaston in the otherwise delightful animated version of “Beauty and the Beast,” and Darth Vader in the Star Wars series. Why? Because human nature is bent in the direction of evil. Parents’ spiritual aspirations for their children may be frustrated by the influence of their classmates. “When you have watched over them at home as narrowly as you can,” Baxter warns, “they are infected abroad with such beastly vices, as they are hardly ever after cured of.”19 He recommends educating children at home or in “private and well ordered schools.”20 Responding to those who send their children to “popish” or profane countries to learn the fashions and customs of the world, he insists, “I had rather make a chimney-sweep of my son than be guilty of doing so much to sell or betray him to the devil.”21 “Be sure,” then, “that you engage your children in good company.”22
Guarding one’s children from the influence of ungodly influences is a theme under expressed in more recent times compared with previous eras. Ryle is adamant, arguing on the basis of Jesus’ admonition to “remember Lot’s wife” (Lk 17:32) in his classic book, Holiness. Lot made a bad choice when he determined to live in proximity to Sodom, discounting the evil impact its nearness would have on himself and his family (Gen 13:1-13; 19:30-38; 2 Pet 2:7, 8). Ryle warns,
Make a wrong choice in life – an unscriptural choice – and settle yourself down unnecessarily in the midst of worldly people, and I know no surer way to damage your own spirituality, and to go backward about your eternal concerns. This is the way to make the pulse of your soul beat feebly and languidly. This is the way to make the edge of your feeling about sin become blunt and dull. This is the way to dim the eyes of your spiritual discernment, till you can scarcely distinguish good from evil, and stumble as you walk. This is the way to bring a moral palsy on your feet and limbs, and make you go tottering and trembling along the road to Zion, as if the grasshopper was a burden. This is the way to sell the pass to your worst enemy – to give the devil vantage-ground in the battle – to tie your arms in fighting – to fetter your legs in running – to dry up the sources of your strength – to cripple your energies – to cut off your own hair, like Samson, and give yourself into the hands of the Philistines, to put out your own eyes, grind at the mill, and become a slave… beware of needless mingling with worldly people. Beware of Lot’s choice! If you would not settle down into a dry, dull, sleepy, lazy, barren, heavy, carnal, stupid, torpid state of soul, beware of Lot’s choice!23
Ryle is saying no more than did the Apostle when he urged,
“Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord,
“and do not touch what is unclean.”(2 Cor 6:17, NASB)
Ideally, your child’s classmates should be coming from families that share a basic consensus on what it means to be Christian and what it means to rear one’s children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).
In practice, there are variables in how we go about providing that education. Families must factor in location, expense, and competence. Some “Christian” schools are not competently run. They do a poor job of educating. Some Christian schools are located at too great a distance to be practical. Some Christian schools are too expensive for the family to afford. We are not in a position to judge each other’s decisions. Some of us may end up in secular and state schools because, in the balance, that works best for the family. The “Christian” part of our children’s education must then be made up over the dinner table as we debrief with them on a daily basis, explaining and rebutting what they have heard throughout the day. For years this was such a regular part of our family conversations that our second son, Sam, finally said he needed a “dad app” so that he could immediately respond to whatever challenges he was hearing in class.
Nevertheless, what Dabney argues is true. We may not neglect our responsibility to provide a Christian education. He writes:
Seeing the parental relation is what the Scripture describes it, and seeing Satan has perverted it since the fall for the diffusion and multiplication of depravity and eternal death, the education of children for God is the most important business done on earth. It is the business for which the earth exists. To it all politics, all war, all literature, all money-making, ought to be subordinated; and every parent especially ought to feel, every hour of the day, that, next to making his own calling and election sure, this is the end for which he is kept alive by God. This is his task on earth.24
For a number of years I was a member of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America’s permanent Christian Education Committee. On one occasion the committee’s staff presented a three-hour-long study of millennials, their distinctives and peculiarities, as a prelude to a call to completely revamp the entire ministry of the church, including its worship services. Millennials, we were assured, were so unique, so different from all that came before them, that all manner of new techniques would be necessary to reach them for Christ.
I raised my hand at the conclusion of the exhaustive and exhausting seminar and noted that I knew a little about millennials because I had five of them living in my house. I then pointed out that nothing has been said about the primary means utilized by the faithful to disciple their children for the last 500 years. Nothing was said about the “family pew,” about bringing their children to the ordinary services of the church on Sunday morning and evening. Nothing was said about the daily “family altar,” so prized by our spiritual forefathers. Nothing was said about bringing children to Sunday School, which has a 200-year track record. Nothing was said about catechizing our children. Nothing was said about the Christian school and homeschool movements into which the families of our churches were putting enormous energy and resources.
These means, I pointed out, are the tried and proven methods of passing along our faith to our children. If we will provide our children a model of godliness and maintain these disciplines, we may have strong hopes of our children’s salvation. Has God not promised to be a God to us and to our children (Gen 17:7)? Has He not promised that if we fear Him and keep His commandments that it will go well with us and our descendants (Deut 5:29, cf Isa 48:19; 65:23)? Has He not promised that the children of His servants “shall dwell secure” and “their offspring shall be established” (Ps 102:28, cf Ps 112:2)? Has God not promised that “the righteous who walks in his integrity – blessed are his children after him (Prov 20:7)? Has God not promised, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6)? Henry encourages us, saying,
If you make conscience of doing your duty, by keeping up family doctrine, ––if you teach them the good and the right way, and warn them of by-paths, ––if you reprove, exhort, and encourage them as there is occasion, ––if you pray with them, and for them, and set them a good example, and at last consult their soul’s welfare in the disposal of them, you have done your part, and may comfortably leave the issue and success with God.
Again, he says,
God will be with you in a way of mercy while you are with him in a way of duty.25
Yet we must also recognize that sometimes good parents have wicked children: David has an Amnon and an Absalom (2 Sam 12-18) and Hezekiah a Manasseh (2 Sam 21). Sometimes wicked parents have good children: Ahaz has a Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-20) and Amon a Josiah (2 Chr 28-35).26 Why does this happen? God sometimes withholds His blessing of the children of believers so that parents and children might not presume upon God’s grace. If it were automatic that the children of believers always believed, parents might grow passive or indifferent and shirk their responsibility. They might neglect to utilize the means of grace. The children might do the same. Because faithful families have prodigals, parents must be diligent about utilizing “all the means of God’s appointment” in order to lead them to Christ.
Furthermore, when God saves prodigals, it magnifies His grace even further. When those with every spiritual advantage at home go off into a “far country” and squander this wealth in “reckless living,” and finally come to their senses and truly repent, the compassion, embrace, and kiss of the Father reveals the love and grace of God as little else does. When He asks for “the best robe,” places a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet and when he kills the fatted calf and celebrates the prodigal’s return and says, “For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found,” does this not magnify God’s mercy beyond measure (Luke 15:11-24)?
Elisabeth Elliot concedes the point that “no one can make a child love anything, from spinach to
sparrows to Scripture.” Still, “The parents’ love for things exerts a powerful thrust in that direction.”27 She continues,
It works both ways – a son whose father loves sports is likely to love sports; a son whose father hates work is likely to hate work. Because we heard the majestic cadences of the Authorized Version of the Bible read to us day after day, year in and year out, at home and in church and Sunday School and the Christian institutions we all attended, we learned, finally, to love the Bible, in spite of all the years when we shrugged and sighed and rolled our eyes and poked each other under the table and generally appeared to ignore what was supposed to be going on. Much more than we or our parents knew sank in by a sort of providential osmosis.28
E. J. Young (1906-1968) was arguably the leading conservative Old Testament scholar of the mid-20th century. He published over 20 books including a major commentary on Isaiah (1965-1972, in three volumes, two posthumously!), another on Daniel (1949), the widely used An Introduction to the Old Testament (1949), and another much-appreciated study of the prophetic books entitled My Servants the Prophets (1952). He enjoyed a reading capability in an estimated 25 to 30 languages. He died suddenly in 1968 at the age of 61 of a massive heart attack. His son Davis, a serious scholar in his own right, wrote a wonderful biography of his father entitled For Me to Live is Christ: The Life of Edward J. Young. In the book’s epilogue, he speaks of his
deep appreciation of the astounding God-given privilege that was mine of being born into the home of Joe and Lillian Young… Most of all I am grateful to my sovereign Lord, Creator, and Redeemer for giving me such a kind, generous, patient, tender, encouraging, lighthearted, humorous, godly father. What an example he set for me by his consistent, yet humble Christian walk.”29
Such a tribute from our Christian children is that to which all parents aspire.
Published in 1970, The Late Great Planet Earth was the best-selling book of the 1970’s and by 1990 had sold 28 million copies.
Our children attended Christian schools or were home-schooled through 6th grade (Sally and Sam), 7th grade (Drew), and 9th grade (Abby and Ben).
Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Touchtone, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2005), 153.
Johnson, History of Christianity, 153.
Cited in Stull, The Erosion of Education in America (Apollo, PA: Areopagus Books, 2018), 113. Stull gives an excellent overview of the 19th century leaders Horace Bushnell, Charles Hodge, and R. L. Dabney.
R. L. Dabney, “Secularized Education,” in Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, Volumes 1-3 (1892, 1897; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 3:265.
Cited in Stull, Erosion of Education, 93.
Hodge, Ephesians, 265. He adds, “The whole process of instruction and discipline must be that which he prescribes and which he administers, so that his authority should be brought into constant and immediate contact with the mind, heart, and conscience of the child.”
William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties (1622; Pensacola, FL: Puritan Reprints, 2006), 430.
Arthur Hildersham, “Disciplining Children,” in The Godly Family: A Series of Essays on the Duties of Parents and Children (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), 135.
Doddridge, “Religious Education,” Godly Family, 218-219.
Baxter, “Directory,” Works, 1:452.
Baxter, “Poor Man’s Family Book,” Works, 4:234.
Baxter, “Directory,” Works, 1:452; see also Doddridge, “Religious Education,” 218-219; Hildersham, “Disciplining Children,” 14-135.
Baxter, “Poor Man’s Family Book,” Works, 4:234; Doddridge, “Religious Education,” 216-218.
J. C. Ryle, Holiness: It’s Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (1877, 1879; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), 209.
Robert Dabney, “Parental Responsibilities,” Discussions (1891; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), I:691(my emphasis).
Henry, “Church in the House,” Works, I:254, 259.
William Gouge lists several reasons why God sometimes alters his normal course and withholds His blessing from the children of believers: 1) so that parents might know that God’s gifts and blessings come not by “natural propagation from the parent,” but “by free donation from God;” 2) so that parents might not neglect the means of their Christian education; 3) so that children might not trust too much in their parents’ righteousness and grow negligent and carnal; 4) so that all might know that God’s free election is unrestrained (Of Domestical Duties, 365).
Elliot, The Shaping of a Christian Family, 60.
Davis A. Young, For Me to Live is Christ: The Life of Edward J. Young (The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2018), 353.