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A Response to Noe’s Article “Is There Such a Thing as Christian Education?”

Benjamin W. Miller

I am writing in regard to the article by Dr. David Noe in the April 2012 edition of Ordained Servant, bearing the provocative title, “Is There Such a Thing as Christian Education?”

Dr. Noe seeks to mount an effective (and in his mind, it seems, somewhat overdue) assault on “that last noun-stronghold where the adjective ‘Christian’ shelters and where many thinking Christians wish to keep it protected,” namely, education. The adjective “Christian,” he argues early in his article, has been attached most unhelpfully to all sorts of nouns, not only without adding any real meaning to these nouns, but actually with the effect of muddling their meaning.

What, for instance (he asks), is the difference between bicycling and “Christian” bicycling? Or piano practice and “Christian” piano practice? Or volleyball and “Christian” volleyball? If we cannot discern how attaching “Christian” to such nouns makes any difference, other than to create the misimpression that (say) the motion of bump/set/spike changes because one believes in Jesus, should we not abandon the adjective? But then, why stop here? Is it not in the interests of semantic economy to unburden other nouns, such as “philosophy” and “art”? Doesn’t one read the same text of Gorgias whether one is a Christian or not? Doth not the Christian and the pagan potter throw the same clay? Who then can meaningfully speak of “Christian” or “non-Christian” philosophy or art?

With all of this in hand, Dr. Noe finally reaches out to grasp his intended quarry: there can be (he says) nothing distinctively “Christian” about either the process or the result of the activity for which we employ the noun “education.” For instance, “the fact that I am a Christian would make no observable difference in either process or result when it comes to educating students in Plato.” From this it follows: “the most we can say about ‘Christian education’ is that it is education delivered or provided by Christians.... [In saying that, we are] saying nothing distinguishable either about the process or the result of that process.”

I retrace Dr. Noe’s steps in this way because I wish it to be clear that I have understood him. Quite clearly, in fact. And having understood him, I don’t know which appalls me more: his argument, or the fact that his argument was presented in Ordained Servant Online without so much as a hint that it reflects anything other than the mainstream of thought in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I, for one, wish to register my dissent from Dr. Noe’s argument and his conclusion in the strongest possible terms, and I am fully confident that I am not the only minister in the OPC who would wish to do so.

Is it in fact the case that the bread of “education” simply is what it is, and that being a disciple of Jesus Christ determines nothing more than the jam one prefers on one’s bread? That is precisely what Dr. Noe is saying: the text of Plato is the text of Plato, the teaching of Plato is the teaching of Plato, and while one may dab on here or there the condiment of Christianity, this has nothing to do with the substance of one’s learning, or the process by which it is learned.

What is completely absent from this analysis is a biblically holistic understanding of education. One could, I suppose, reduce “education” to mere data input. One could perhaps even call such data input “the acquisition of knowledge.” What one could not do is derive such an educational model from the anthropology presented in Scripture. Man, in biblical terms, is never simply a receptacle for data; he is called to bear the image of God in understanding, discernment, and wisdom; and the formative processes of God’s covenant with his people, especially when they are still young, are all directed at the inculcation not simply of information but of everything meant by wisdom. (As an aside, it is remarkable that Dr. Noe, a classicist, fails even to mention Christian interaction with the classical trivium in terms of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.) Data neither exists in the raw, nor is it ever learned in the raw; it is always discovered and mastered within an interpretive framework (a “worldview,” to deploy the overused term). The same may be said of the development of various skills: all are learned within an interpretive and teleological context, within the context of a worldview. Here I don’t think I can improve on the words of J. Gresham Machen, who said of the “freedom” granted by government schools for hours of religious instruction:

But what miserable makeshifts all such measures, even at the best, are! Underlying them is the notion that religion embraces only one particular part of human life. Let the public schools take care of the rest of life—such seems to be the notion—and one or two hours during the week will be sufficient to fill the gap which they leave. But as a matter of fact the religion of the Christian man embraces the whole of his life. Without Christ he was dead in trespasses and sins, but he has now been made alive by the Spirit of God; he was formerly alien from the household of God, but has now been made a member of God’s covenant people. Can this new relationship to God be regarded as concerning only one part, and apparently a small part, of his life? No, it concerns all his life; and everything that he does he should do now as a child of God.

It is this profound Christian permeation of every human activity, no matter how secular the world may regard it as being, which is brought about by the Christian school and the Christian school alone. I do not want to be guilty of exaggerations at this point. A Christian boy or girl can learn mathematics, for example, from a teacher who is not a Christian; and truth is truth however learned. But while truth is truth however learned, the bearing of truth, the meaning of truth, the purpose of truth (even in the sphere of mathematics) seem entirely different to the Christian from that which they seem to the non-Christian; and that is why a truly Christian education is possible only when Christian conviction underlies not a part, but all, of the curriculum of the school. True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life—those are great central convictions that underlie the Christian school.[1]

This is not difficult to illustrate, using adjectives other than “Christian.” My background prior to the ministry was in law, and there is no doubt that the Bill of Rights is the Bill of Rights whether one studies it at UC Berkeley or Regent University. One could therefore try to make the case that the adjectives “progressive” and “conservative” are meaningless as applied to constitutional jurisprudence. That would be news to the faculty and students at either institution.

Or one might say that because Yale Divinity School and Westminster Theological Seminary use the same Greek New Testament, the adjectives “evangelical” and “non-evangelical” are vacuous in New Testament studies. Dr. Noe actually says something very like this: “Presumably a very bright non-Christian reasoning consistently, diligently and with complete access to the basic data of special revelation, can more often reach sound and valid conclusions than the most devout yet dim-witted believer on the topic of our Lord’s incarnation.” As a plank in his overall argument, I find this simply bizarre: are we really prepared to say that because some non-Christians bring a higher IQ to the Bible than some Christians, and because everyone is using the same Bible, there is no significant difference between a “Christian” and a “non-Christian” understanding of our Lord’s incarnation? I wonder: should the pastor with an average IQ offer his Sunday school class to the brilliant pagan from the local divinity school, because the biblical data of the incarnation is the same no matter who teaches it?

Or let us suppose the educational subject matter at hand is sexuality. The facts are the facts, for Christians and non-Christians alike; yet I can hardly imagine a Christian parent who wouldn’t insist on presenting those “facts” within a decidedly “Christian” context. Here as elsewhere, the “facts” are never in the raw; it makes a universe of difference whether they’re learned within the context of the fear of the Lord, or not. If that is true in sex education, it’s true in all education. There is no sphere of learning in which the child of God is not called and commanded to love the Lord his God with all of his mind. There is an educational process that aims at this result, and there is an educational process that undermines it. The one is Christian; the other is not.

Our fathers in the OPC have made this case even more strongly than I have done here. Cornelius Van Til, for example, had this to say on the issue of educational method:

Here, too, the temptation besets us that we should be very keen to watch the methods that are used around us. Now this too is in itself altogether commendable and necessary. It is commendable because every good soldier should know the tactics of the enemy. It is commendable too because perhaps some of the methods used by the enemy may be transformed and used by us. But transformed they must always be. We cannot afford to say that if only we place a different content before our pupils we need not worry about the form because the form is neutral. If a glass has contained carbolic acid you do not merely pour it out in order then to give your child a drink of water. How much more impossible will it be to take a non-Christian spiritual content and pour it out of its form in order to use the latter for the pouring out of a definite Christian-theistic content? The connection between form and matter is too much like that of skin and flesh to allow for the easy removal of the one without taking something of the other. It is incumbent on us to be on our guard with respect to the educational methods of our opponents. We can never, strictly speaking, use their methods. We can use methods that appear similar to theirs, but never can we use methods that are the same as theirs.

So, then, our conclusion with respect to the educational philosophies and the educational policies that surround us is that we must be intensively and extensively negative or we can never be intensively and extensively positive in the Christian-theistic sense of the term. The fundamental principle of the antithesis upon which Christianity is built demands nothing less than that. We must more and more dare to be consistently peculiar in our educational policies. If we dare to be peculiar we will be “peculiar” in the eyes of the world, to be sure, but we will not be “peculiar” in the eyes of God. If we are not peculiar, we will be “peculiar” in the eyes of God and be twice “peculiar” in the eyes of the world. (emphasis in original)[2]

These are sage words, and we would do well to heed them for the sake of our children’s children.

Endnotes

[1] J. Gresham Machen, "The Necessity of the Christian School," in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004), 171–72.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, “Antitheses in Education,” in Foundations of Christian Education: Addresses to Christian Teachers, ed. Dennis E. Johnson (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1990), 14.

Benjamin W. Miller serves as the evangelist of Trinity Church (OPC) in Huntington, New York. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2012.