By Shawn Nelson
This paper is for small group leaders, Sunday School helpers, disciplers/mentors, pastors, parents and anybody teaching in any capacity within a Christian context. It answers the question: What should Christian teachers believe and value philosophically? This is also available as a PDF. If you prefer the PDF version, click here to download.
It will be argued that theism is the basis for all education, that we really can know reality but that there is a limit to what can be known by means of general revelation alone. Further argument surrounds the importance of the Bible as a means of knowing special revelation. Brief analysis is given to the major philosophical influences leading to the secularization of education. In contrast, it will be argued that Christian educators ought to (1) be born again, (2) follow the example of Jesus as Master Teacher, (3) depend upon the Holy Spirit in the teaching process and (4) ultimately seek to transform the conduct of their students while pointing them to God’s ultimate goal for mankind: conformity to the image of Christ.
Theism as a Foundational Worldview
The Christian educator must hold to theism. Theism asserts that there is one infinite, personal God who exists both beyond and in the universe. In contrast, there are six other major worldviews: (1) atheism: no God(s) exist beyond or in the universe; (2) pantheism: God is the universe (the all); (3) pan-en-theism: God is in the universe; (4) deism: God is beyond the universe but not in it; (5) finite godism: a finite god exists beyond and in the universe; and (6) polytheism: there are many gods beyond the world and in it.1 How can it be proved which worldview is correct? The answer lies in solving one of the greatest challenges in philosophy from the beginning: how can there be many and one?
The philosopher Parmenides was the first to logically assert that the nature of reality is one. He said that for two things to differ they must differ by either being or non-being. They cannot differ by non-being because non-being is nothing—it doesn’t exist. And to differ by nothing is not to differ at all. They cannot differ by being because being is what makes them the same. Therefore, there must ultimately be one indivisible thing. 2
A millennium later, Thomas Aquinas successfully refuted Parmenides’ argument. He said that there are different types of being. God is a being of Pure Actuality with no potentiality. Every other being is made of actuality and potentiality. We are like God in that we both have actuality. But we are unlike God in that we have potentiality and He does not. Therefore, there is an analogy between God and His creation.3 In solving the problem Aquinas established the logical framework for theism by proving: that God is distinct from His creation, that God is the First Cause (or uncaused, i.e., eternal cause), that the creation has real existence (in that it is an admixture of actuality and potential). This also successfully refutes the other six world views and proves that theism is the only plausible solution.
“Since theism is true, then all six forms of non-theism are false. God cannot be, for instance, both infinite and finite, or personal and impersonal, or beyond the universe and not beyond the universe, or able to perform miracles and not able to perform miracles, or unchanging and changing.”4
The only position compatible with the teaching of Christianity is theism. The theme that there is one infinite, eternal God who brought the universe into existence and yet intervenes throughout history, performs miracles, and desires to have a personal relationship with mankind is central to the Bible. Therefore a Christian educator must hold to theism.
By embracing theism, Christian educators are embracing the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as well. Creation ex nihilo is that all things were created “from nothing.” One infinite God brought the universe into existence from nothing (without using preexisting material or pieces of Himself). In contrast, creation ex materia (from matter) is the belief that matter is eternal; it is self-generated and self-sustaining. Inferences drawn from this belief is that no Creator is necessary, humans are not immortal, and humans are not unique (i.e., compared to animals). Atheists holding a purely materialistic view of the world (there is nothing beyond matter) typically hold this view. Those affirming pantheism (the universe is God) believe in creation ex deo (out of God). This involves a belief that the universe is made out of the same substance as God with no absolute distinction between the Creator and creation. In short, humanity—and everything—is God.5 Clearly creation ex deo and the implications of creation ex materia are inconsistent with Christian theology and must be rejected by Christian educators.
While it is theoretically possible for non-Christian educators to keep their philosophical views private in subjects like English and math, it is difficult—if not impossible—to do so in areas concerning metaphysics, epistemology and axiology. For this reason, it is preferable in Christian schools for all teachers to affirm theism and creation ex nihilo regardless of the subjects they teach (i.e., they should be Christians).
The material universe is composed of parts ordered by cause and effect. This order is a further basis for education. It is therefore possible for rational creatures to (1) study this order, (2) produce order and (3) act according to order. The study of nature is the order that the mind discovers but does not produce. Art, on the other hand, is the order that the mind produces in things external to it. For instance, when a painter paints a picture he is ordering colors and textures on a canvas. Ethics is really the order that the mind produces in acts of the will which accords with the order of nature. 6 Aristotle once said, “It is the function of the wise man to know order.”7 Indeed, that is a wonderful statement. Christian education should touch on all three categories.
Realism: We Can Know the Real World
Theism affirms realism. Realism holds that there is a reality that exists which is external to our minds, and we can know it. It affirms that our thoughts do in fact correspond to the real world. It further asserts that there are undeniable first principles by which we can know reality and that these first principles are self-evident.8 Once these principles are known, it is clear (self-evident) to a rational mind that they are true, and they form the basis for our ability to understand reality. If we did not have self-evident principles for knowing reality, we would have to conclude that it is impossible to know anything for certain about reality.9
A contrasting view is dualism. Dualism asserts two types of existence. The first type of existence is the independent world which is external to us, and second is our perception of this world through our senses. It is argued that we cannot know anything for certain because there is a difference between what we perceive and reality. Ultimately dualism is reducible to skepticism, and like skepticism, it is self-defeating. The dualist who says, “We can never know truth about reality because of our distorted perceptions,” is saying we can know that truth about reality.10
The last view is idealism which suggests there is no external world to be known at all. Material objects cannot exist independently of the mind. There is no independent, external world of material objects but rather a subjective world that exists between states of consciousness. This view has never had a wide following because it goes against common sense. Even David Hume acknowledged the reality of the external world, and he was arguably the greatest skeptic who ever lived. We all seem to be aware that we could not be aware of anything unless there was something independent of our consciousness to be aware of, and therefore, external objects do in fact exist, apart from our own minds.11
Realism seems to be the most plausible view. Therefore, it is logical to conclude through abductive reasoning (discussed below) that realism is true, and we can have accurate knowledge about the nature of reality.
If an educator subscribes idealism or dualism it will inevitably have an impact on what they teach. A Christian educator holding to a dualist world view doubts whether we can really know anything at all while one holding to idealism denies the realness of the world and believes everything is subjective. These views are not fitting for a Christian educator. Realism is the only viable option.
Truth Corresponds to Reality and Is Absolute
Since the world does exist and we can know it, predications made concerning the universe can be true or false. Truth then is not some ethereal concept but it is a property of a proposition. What we call truth are simply predications made about reality which are correct. Another way of saying it is that truth is what corresponds to its referent. Truth about reality is what corresponds to the way things really are. All noncorrespondence views of truth imply correspondence, even as they attempt to deny it. The claim: “Truth does not correspond with what is” implies that this view corresponds to reality. Then the non-correspondence view cannot express itself without using a correspondence frame of reference. The correspondence view of truth is therefore literally undeniable.12
The correspondence view of truth proves truth is absolute. There cannot be any relative truths. For if something is really true—if it really does correspond to reality—it is really true for everyone everywhere and for all time. In the proposition “Joel has a brown horse on Christmas morning 2014,” if Joel does indeed have a brown horse on that Christmas morning then it corresponds to reality and is absolutely true. Even mathematical truth is absolute. The statement 7 + 3 = 10 is not just true for mathematics majors nor is it true only in a mathematics classroom but it is true for everyone, everywhere at all times.13
Clearly if an educator rejects absolute truth they face some serious challenges. One option is to say that truth is relative. However, the claim that truth is relative is an absolute claim. People who say truth is not absolute but relative are saying that the only absolute truth is the statement, “There is no absolute truth.” Or, if somebody says, “It is only relatively true that relativism is true” they suggest that statement might be false for some people (that it might be absolute). But if relativism were true, the world would be full of contradictions. If one person says, “There is milk in the refrigerator”, and the other insists, “There is no milk in the refrigerator”—and they are both right—then there must both be and not be milk in the refrigerator. If relativism were true, a student would be right even when they are wrong. It would mean students could never actually learn anything, either, because learning is moving from a false belief to a true one—that is, from an absolutely false belief to an absolutely true one.14 So relativism would seem to be an embarrassing choice for an educator.
Another alternative to absolute truth is epistemological agnosticism which asserts that truth about reality is unknowable, that we only know appearance, not the underlying reality of something. This however is akin to saying “the only thing we can know is that we cannot know” and is also self-defeating.15
Skepticism is similar to agnosticism. It holds that we should doubt all truth. We should suspend judgment on all truth claims about reality. We can only know sensory data, but not the underlying reality. Skepticism is also self-defeating because the claim “we should be skeptical about everything” would include being skeptical about skepticism. It also claims that doubt is the only thing that should not be doubted.16
The only view that is not self-defeating is that truth is absolute. And this is the only view which is appropriate for the Christian educator.
Modes of Rationality
A five year old boy might question his mother, “Why is the sky blue? Why is fire hot? Where do babies come from?” What this child is doing is using inferential rationality to make sense of the order around him. In other words, there is a reasoning process taking place which includes four valid ways for discerning truth. Adduction is when the child has direct contact with some thing or some circumstance and draws an inference from the encounter. Deduction is when the child is able to infer from one or more propositions what must necessarily follow from those propositions. This a priori reasoning allows the child to make predictions about future knowledge based on current awareness. The child is using induction when they draw conclusions from their observations of the world around them. This is a posteriori reasoning and forms the basis of the Scientific Method. Finally, the child is using abduction when they infer that a certain explanation is more plausible than another. 17
Society tends to place more value on the inductive approach today. However, all four of these modes of rationality are valid and can/should be used to arrive at truth in the education process. For example, in the context of small group discipleship the teacher should desire that their students not only know about God but teach the importance of directly encountering God through a personal relationship which is a form of adduction.18 This same teacher walking through a systematic theology cannot escape deduction. And they will inevitably desire their students acquire a good appetite for induction when it comes to studying the Bible. No doubt the teacher will desire their small group disciples think critically by being able to identify for themselves which non-essential teachings (e.g., can Christians smoke?) are more plausible than others (abduction).
Limits to Rationality
Rationality gives us the ability to process and analyze the real world around us. It is remarkable what man has discovered in the area of physics, astronomy, biology, etc. This discovery of the world is a part of our curious nature and should be encouraged by teachers. However, there is a limit to what can be known about reality through nature alone.
General vs. Special Revelation
There are only two avenues whereby we can know truth. The first is general revelation and the second is special revelation. Through general revelation we can know some things about God. Using rationality and reason, we understand that there must be a creator and designer of this vastly complex universe. We can also clearly understand that there is an absolute moral law. We know right from wrong by our own reaction when wrong is done to us, and we intuitively know we should not treat people this way.19 However, there is a limit to what we can know about God through logic, rational senses, and reason.
This is why special revelation—what we call the Bible—is important. While we are limited with general revelation, we can know everything God has chosen to reveal to us through special revelation. Through special revelation, we learn of the truths of (1) the tri-unity of God; (2) the virgin birth of Christ; (3) the deity of Christ; (4) the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin; (5) the physical and miraculous resurrection of Christ; (6) the necessity of salvation by faith alone through God’s grace alone based on the work of Christ alone; (7) the physical bodily return of Christ to earth; (8) the eternal conscious bliss of the saved; and (9) the eternal conscious punishment of the unsaved.20
Therefore it is critical that a Christian educator put the Bible in its proper place. The educator should affirm the full inerrancy of Scripture and value it as the final authority for faith and conduct. The educator should not only be one who can accurately teach the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15) but also seek to develop a high view of Scripture in the lives of the students.
Philosophical Influences Leading To Secularism
Secular educational values of our day have been shaped by waves of philosophical influences beginning in the sixteenth century. These influences played a role in undermining the authority of the Bible. Since the Bible is central to Christian education, it would be worthwhile to briefly list these philosophical influences.
First, the precursor to these influences was inductivism led by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon proposed a new approach for truth based on experimentation and inductive reasoning.21 This marked the beginning of the movement that ultimately would seek to remove the Bible from the pursuit of science and understanding. While Bacon himself remained a devote Christian until his death, his inductive approach would ultimately be the spark of the beginning of the Enlightenment.22
What followed was materialism (Thomas Hobbes 1588-1679). Materialism held that everything is finite, there is no infinite. In other words, what we see in this universe is all there is; there can be no spiritual world beyond our physical universe.
This was quickly followed by antisupernaturalism (Benedict Spinoza 1632-1677). If materialism is true, then there is no God, no heaven, and no hell—nothing supernatural. The Bible needed to be rethought of in light of this new “truth.” The demon possessed of Scripture became madmen. Jesus couldn’t have really risen from the dead, but His disciples merely believed that He rose from the dead, and so on. This “rethinking” of Scripture was the beginning of higher criticism of the Bible.
Antisupernaturalism led to skepticism (David Hume 1711-1776). Hume became famous for his argument against the credibility of miracles. The gist of his argument was that miracles are a violation of the fixed laws of nature, that there is far greater evidence for the continuity of natural law, and as such, a wise man should base belief on that which has greater evidence. Hume’s argument was and has since been the intellectual argument against miracles, and while the argument is surprisingly weak, it has yielded disastrous results for the Christian faith.
Next came agnosticism (Immanuel Kant 1724-1804). With miracles “proven” to be impossible and the Bible downgraded to a fairytale, what was left is agnosticism—that there probably is a God, but we cannot really know anything about Him. Kant’s concept was the logical conclusion to the line of philosophical ideas preceding him. His conclusion was that science is possible because it deals with the observable world, but we simply do not and cannot know what lies beyond that.
Finally, we arrived at evolutionism (Charles Darwin 1809-1882). Darwin attempted to remove the last remaining weapon in Christendom’s war chest—the argument that complex life requires a Creator. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a solution that did not require a supernatural origin. Life could have arisen spontaneously, and through natural processes over time; it could have evolved into higher, more organized and better adapted life forms apart from a divine Creator—a theory which was accepted with open arms.
The net effect of this “de-supernaturalization” of the Bible is secular humanism. In short, man became the center of the universe.
John Dewey’s Impact On The Educational Landscape
No philosophy of Christian Education paper written in the United States should fail to mention the “Father of Modern Education,” John Dewey (1859-1952), as
“It would be difficult to find someone in the nineteenth century who had a more profound impact on the educational system of America as a whole and on Christian education indirectly as John Dewey.”23
Building on the foundation of the preceding anti-supernatural philosophies, Dewey, a devout philosopher, social reformer and educator, set out to revolutionize education. He succeeded in developing a secular educational system based on scientific empiricism, pragmatism, moral relativism and humanism.24 While arguably there are positive elements that came during this educational shift, there is clearly much to be concerned about for the Christian educator where it conflicts with the biblical worldview.
What would emerge during this period of secularization is an educational system where (1) “Children are naturally good,” and (2) “the source of evil lies in a distorted and corrupt society rather than in human nature.”25 It almost goes without saying that the story of the Fall of mankind and the need for redemption is at the heart of the entire Biblical narrative. Any educational system which is devoid of this central message certainly cannot be called Christian. Likewise Christian educators should not embrace elements of materialism, antisupernaturalism, skepticism, agnosticism and naturalistic evolutionism; these are clearly not consistent with theism and orthodox Christianity.
Christian Educators Must Be Born Again
The Apostle Paul said, “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14) Therefore it is rather obvious that Christian educators should be born-again. It certainly might be possible to have a non-Christian teaching on certain subjects like English, Math or certain sciences. But clearly if a person is not born-again they cannot understand the Bible in the way intended by Paul and they are not qualified to speak of things related to special revelation. In regard to matters of general revelation, there inevitably will be a conflict of worldviews when it comes to origins, ethics, psychology, etc.
God Is a Teacher
God is a teacher. In fact, each person of the Trinity is a teacher. God the Father can be considered the First Teacher. Theism affirms that an infinite God exists both beyond and in the world. The act of God intervening in human history to reveal Himself is what we call teaching.
God the Son, Jesus, is a teacher. “He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things.” (Mk. 6:34) He claimed to be the most important teacher of all time (“One is your teacher, the Christ” [Mt. 23:8]) and was acknowledged by his followers as “Good Teacher” (Lk. 18:18; Mk. 10:17; Mt. 19:16) and “Rabbi” or Jewish teacher of the Law. His students were called disciples (students): “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:31-32)
God the Holy Spirit is a teacher. Jesus said,
“These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (Jn. 14:25-26, emphasis mine)
Jesus made it clear that the Holy Spirit does not play an ancillary role in the discipleship process but without the Holy Spirit a disciple cannot understand divine revelation nor put it into practice. The Holy Spirit not only convicts (Jn. 16:8), regenerates (Ti. 3:5), indwells (Rom. 8:9-11), baptizes (Acts 1:5) and seals (Eph. 1:13) but guides into all truth (Jn. 16:13), produces fruit (Gal. 5:22-23) and empowers for ministry (Rom. 15:19).
Therefore, Christian educators must recognize that their primary goal is to reveal God following the manner of Jesus through reliance upon Holy Spirit.
Following the Master Teacher
Christian educators should strive to follow the example of Jesus, the Master Teacher. Jesus was patient. His disciples were imperfect, slow to learn, self-centered. Yet he had compassion for his followers. He could work with (and preferred) disciples who were uneducated and unprofessional.26 He willingly “got his hands dirty,” developed intimate personal relationships with his followers, cared for them, was interested in them, and taught based on their needs.27 He was a master at stimulating and maintaining interest.28 He was creative. He told stories, used illustrations, exaggeration and humor. He was a master at teaching very large crowds through monologue (over 5,000+ in Mt. 14:13-21) as well as conducting interactive small groups (“Who do you say that I am?” [Mt. 16:13-20]). In addition, Jesus embodied what he taught. He preached the greatest ethical sermon in history (the Sermon on the Mount) and then lived it out. He was comfortable with all types of people, yet not arrogant, cavalier, or “smarter than thou.” On the contrary he was “meek and lowly in heart.” (Mt. 11:29) He taught by infectious example (his disciples, watching him pray, asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” [Lk. 11:1]). He taught the importance of not just academic learning of truth but the need to live it out in practice. Jesus was a masterful teacher and Jesus is our consummate example of the type of teacher all Christian educators should strive to be like.
The Ultimate Goal: Aligning Students With God
There is clearly more to Christian education than acquisition of knowledge. The ultimate goal is that our discovery of truth moves us toward a right relationship with God. This means that learning should not just fill the head but change who we are as we align our actions with God’s. This is whether ethics fit in. Clearly there is much debate surrounding ethics in secular environments where the Bible is not permitted. However in Christian institutions the Bible can and must be upheld as the final authority not just for faith but practice also. The Bible must affect conduct or it cannot be said that Christian education is properly taking place. Christian ethics is the ordering of one’s actions so that they accord with God’s intended purpose. Therefore, the ultimate goal of Christian education is to transform the head, heart and hands while guiding students closer to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:2). Surely this is a lifelong process beginning with justification, proceeding through sanctification and culminating in glorification of the believer. One well-written mission statement puts it this way:
“The goal of Christian education is to guide children towards an understanding that God is at the center of every pursuit of knowledge. Not only that, but Christian schools also strive to challenge students towards allowing God to mold their hearts in submission to Him, and in doing that, they equip them to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world. There is no greater purpose for a school than to guide students towards embracing the world in this way.”29
1 Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide (A to Z Guides) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 599-600.
2 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 22.
3 Ibid., 24-26.
4 Ibid., 21.
5 Norman Geisler, ed., Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), s.v. “Creation, Views Of.”
6 Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction To Logical Thinking (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1990), 12.
7 Ibid., 11.
8 These self-evident first principles are: (1) the principle of existence (something exists); (2) the principle of being (a thing is identical to itself); (3) the principle of non-contradiction (something cannot be an not be at the same time and same sense); (4) the principle of the excluded middle (there is nothing between being and non-being). They are said to be self-evident in that they are literally undeniable (one must use them to deny them).
9 Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A To Z Guide (A to Z Guides) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 477-478.
10 Norman Geisler, ed., Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), s.v. “Realism,” 634-635.
11 Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: a Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1980), s.v. “Idealism,” 143-148.
12 Norman Geisler, ed., Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), s.v. “Truth, Nature of,” 742-743.
13 Ibid., 743-744.
14 Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide (A to Z Guides) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 563.
15 Ibid., 13.
16 Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: a Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1980), 299-301.
17 In addition there are two modes of non-inferential rationality: direct and concomitant (both learned and unlearned). Mark M. Hanna, “Philosophy Session 2” (lecture, Veritas Evangelical Seminary, Murrieta, CA, January 15, 2013).
18 The author rejects any mysticism whereby revelation is discovered through personal encounter. On the other hand, theism and the ministry of the Holy Spirit require that there be some degree of personal interaction between the redeemed and the Creator.
19 The Bible validates general revelation. Paul says mankind clearly perceives God but doesn’t receive Him (Romans 1:18-22) and later says that mankind has the work on the moral law on their hearts, so they are without excuse (Romans 2:14-16).
20 These along with inspiration/inerrancy are the beliefs that define an evangelical Christian. See Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: Introduction, Bible (MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 15.
21 M. Galli and T. Olsen, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 354.
22 It is worthy of noting that Francis Bacon actually believed strongly that the use of rationality and his inductive approach would lead one to conclude that God exists. His high regard for both science and the Bible can be seen in his statement: “There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.” See Henry M. Morris, Sir Francis Bacon (El Cajon, CA: Masters Books), 1990.
23 Ibid., 334.
24 Michael J. Anthony and Warren S. Benson, Exploring the History and Philosophy of Christian Education: Principles for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2003), 334.
25 Ibid., 344.
26 Summarized from William Yount, The Teaching Ministry of the Church, 2nd ed., ed. William R. Yount (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), 45-72.
28 Ibid., 63.
29 “Why Christian Education?,” Lynden Christian Schools, accessed January 9, 2015, http://www.lyncs.org/philosophy/why-christian-education.