What We Believe

Is There Such a Thing as Christian Education?

David C. Noe

Ordained Servant: April 2012

Natural Law

Also in this issue

Natural Law in Reformed Theology: Historical Reflections and Biblical Suggestions

Faith and Reason: A Review Article

A Better Resurrection

Nouns are important. Along with verbs, they are the sturdy workhorses of any language. Writers both skillful and clumsy call upon them routinely to pull heavy cartloads of meaning through the streets of prose and poetry alike. The many things we want to say cannot be said without nouns. In their concrete and abstract forms nouns undergird and adorn all manner of important communication. There is a sense in which the noun in any given expression is the essential element while the accompanying adjective provides us with a shade or modification of meaning. This is why in Latin, and in the Romance languages which call her mother, the noun typically precedes the adjective: Geneva pulchrior urbibus aliis est we might say, or “Geneva is more beautiful than other cities.” Geneva comes first, then that she is quite beautiful. English convention is of course the opposite, as we seem to want to know what kind a thing is before knowing what the thing is itself.

Adjectives, which give us the what kind, likewise have a part to play in the drama called speech. Adjectives can be revealing, concealing, pointed, dull, archaic, newly-minted, and everywhere in between. They add color and flavor to the staid and reliable world of nouns. It is on one particular adjective, namely “Christian,” that I want to focus in this brief essay.

In the book of Acts, Luke records for us that it was at Antioch that disciples of Christ Jesus were first called Christian (Acts 11:26). Since what follows below may seem obstinate or narrow to those accustomed to applying the adjective “Christian” to all manner of nouns (counseling, publishing, radio, hip-hop, etc.), I want to state for the record that it is clear the adjective Christian can be used properly. While the only biblical example that we have, the one just cited, refers exclusively to those persons in whom Christ dwells by his Spirit, arguably we can extend the adjective to apply to those things closely and uniquely connected to Christ. For example, “Christian worship” is a designation that does not seem to admit of any real ambiguity. It helps us distinguish the worship of Christ from that of Allah, for example. There are certainly important differences in Christian worship, between, for example those who follow the regulative as opposed to the normative principle. But clearly the phrase has reference only to the worship of Christ’s person performed by his followers. Likewise, the adjective Christian seems to me to apply well to the noun “religion,” as that also names one and one thing only, the many differences notwithstanding.

When one attempts, however, to apply the adjective Christian to other sorts of nouns, an immediate difficulty arises. Since non-Christians also engage in nearly every activity in which Christians properly engage,[1] from cooking and eating, to riding their bicycles, to writing poetry, it becomes difficult or even impossible to identify precisely what about how that activity is performed or what product it results in makes it “Christian.” If, for example, a world-class cyclist wins the Tour de France one summer, and then by God’s grace is transferred during the off-season from the kingdom of darkness to that of Christ Jesus, presumably this new believer will want in the next season to ride for his Lord.

How precisely is he to do this? He is now both a Christian and a cyclist no doubt, but is there such a thing as “Christian cycling”? One may wish to answer that “Christian cycling” does in fact exist, because the one who once cycled for money or fame, which are selfish motives if pursued exclusive of God’s glory, now cycles for the glory of God. Such an idea is coherent and even helpful, but notice that we have now expressed by attaching the adjective “Christian” something about the person, but nothing specific about the actual activity.

I can watch on my television as three hundred cyclists climb the Alps and then race through the streets of Paris toward the finish line, not having any idea whatsoever which one is engaged in Christian cycling and which is practicing Jewish cycling perhaps or Hindu cycling. In other words, the activity itself, though practiced by a Christian, has really not changed at all in and of itself. If our Christian cyclist were in fact to alter his activity in the slightest way from what caused him to win the event in the previous year at a time when he was not reconciled to God, he may very well lose the race. In that instance, we might be tempted to say he was cycling to God’s glory less than before inasmuch as his pursuit of excellence was now diminished.

But let us say that his skill is not diminished and he succeeds in winning this brutally competitive contest. He then boldly proclaims to the cameras that mob him in the winner’s circle that he gives all glory to God for his victory. We then know that he is both a Christian and a cyclist because he has told us something about his personal commitments and motivations, his desire to glorify the God who made and saved him. But I do not think we are in any way justified in calling what he does “Christian cycling.” It is not distinguishable except for motive and disposition from the second place winner who worships Allah or perhaps no god at all. And unless he tells us, we do not know his motive any way. I am not at all suggesting that motives and intentions are unimportant. In fact, as Calvin says in Institutes Book III, they are the primary value of good works. But we are wrong, I suggest, to expect that difference in motivation will yield other kinds of observable differences.

One might be inclined to agree with the analysis so far but dissent when we start to apply the same logic to something other than athletic activity. Can there, for example, be a Christian practice of philosophy or of art, by which we want to indicate something unique with respect to content and practice rather than merely about their practitioners?[2] One might want to make a claim like this on the belief that certain kinds of activities, those in which the mind rather than the body seem to predominate as regards success, are more revelatory of the image of God implanted within us. In point of fact, I am not sure that this would reflect anything more than ignorance of the intellectual elements involved in winning the Tour de France (strategizing, years of nutritional manipulation, etc.) It may also be a simple prejudice for abstraction over sweaty exertion. Whatever the case, let us grant for the sake of argument that music and philosophy are higher in some sense than athletics.

If by “Christian philosophy” one means philosophizing (the production and evaluation of rational arguments that deal with such things as ethics and metaphysics, for example) that deals with explicitly Christian topics,[3] then at first glance the adjective has some salience. But deeper reflection, I argue, proves that this designation is also problematic. 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.

If that is true, what would it be about the believer’s philosophizing that makes it uniquely Christian? If we cannot tell based on the product of his or her work whether our philosopher was practicing “Christian philosophy” even on topics that deal explicitly with matters of faith, does the noun “philosophy” receive any meaningful modification when we add “Christian” to it? Could one really be said to practice Christian philosophy in that instance? Are we not rather just back at the same point with philosophy done well (producing both sound and valid arguments that tell us something meaningful about the world), but that it is Christian when done by Christians with specific goals and dispositions motivating them and non-Christian otherwise?

The same seems to apply to the practice of art. Much of the really gorgeous art of the Renaissance and other eras deals with explicitly Christian topics. Caravaggio’s painting of David holding the severed head of Goliath, for example, is executed on a theme that comes directly from special revelation in 1 Samuel. Is this Christian art? It might make sense to call it such if we mean art that deals with Christian themes. But could we say that Caravaggio or any other painter was practicing Christian art simply because he or she painted such themes? Other artists, who tell us explicitly that their motive is to glorify God, are sometimes by common consent less skilled at what they do and do not always depict scenes from special revelation in their paintings.[4]

When Pope Paul V threatened Caravaggio with excommunication and sentenced him to death, did he cease to be a practitioner of Christian art during that time, since he was officially outside the communion of the church? When the same Pope later pardoned him, did his status as a Christian artist return? In addition, few would doubt that some of the beautiful paintings on religious themes were wrought by those not reconciled to God through Christ. Were they practicing Christian art, though not themselves Christian? In other words, if the cultural product is not materially distinguishable when done by a Christian or non-Christian, does it make sense to call what the Christian practices “Christian art”? And are not the skills involved in painting beautifully the same whether one is depicting Madonna and Child or Bacchus and Ariadne? So it seems that neither the skills constituting the process nor the final product are distinguishable when practiced by Christians or non-Christians irrespective of theme.

As a first conclusion, then, we find that the adjective “Christian” is not meaningful with respect to the cultural artifact itself nor the process that an individual uses to produce it. Both the skills involved and the final product can always be the same for believers and non-believers alike (I can think of no counter-examples that are not actually violations of God’s law). In addition, we often do not have access to the disposition and intention of the cyclist, philosopher, or painter. Unless they tell us that they ride, reason, and paint for God’s glory, we would seem to be on very shaky ground in labeling anything about the activity “Christian” in any sense.

God knows those who are his own and their motives also, and at the last day we may learn that all sorts of activities were indeed Christian because we see, ex post facto, that they were done for his glory. But that seems to me to have little value in the present life, since we are not privy to such knowledge, and, as I have said, even when we are, when the agents tell us why they do things, it does not change in any way what they do or how they do it. In addition, it would also seem impossible to teach others how to be a Christian pianist or Christian volleyball player beyond giving exhortations with respect to motive. And I imagine that we would offer the same exhortations to the non-believer: practice scales and arpeggios, or bump, set, and spike, for God’s glory and not your own.

If what I have argued so far is true, then it would seem to apply as well to that last noun-stronghold where the adjective “Christian” shelters and where many thinking Christians wish to keep it protected. I mean education. I teach Classics for the glory of God. I do this because he has saved me from my sins, and reconciled me to himself through the vicarious atonement of his Son freely given for me. This makes what I do Christian, but it seems that this is only because I seek, Dei gratia, to do it for his glory.[5]

I use in this instruction a vast array of books, tools, terms, and skills, the overwhelming majority of which were produced by men and women whose motivations are likely different than mine. Moreover, while their motivations sometimes differ from mine in ways that are un-Christian,[6] I as a Christian am utterly at a loss to find a better, or sometimes even different way to do the things they did despite my having a motivation that is sanctified. In fact, efforts to find a uniquely Christian way to teach Classics, for example, seem both vain and futile, as well as ungrateful in that they risk denying the common grace God has given the wicked, the rain he has sent on us both, and by which he has apparently intended to bless me also.

Process aside, what about results? If I fail in using my sometimes superior (because righteous) motivation to produce superior results, either because I do not have gifts equivalent to those of non-believers or because I am sinfully lazy in employing what gifts I have, should I be allowed to say I am providing students with a “Christian education”? My motive, at least at times, is Christian (to glorify my Savior), but that says something about me, not about the education itself.

If I succeed with my sanctified motivation and surpass the efforts of a non-believer such that my students understand Plato’s Greek, for example, more accurately and profoundly than if a non-Christian had taught them, this does not seem to me to constitute Christian education. The rejoinder that a Christian will have taught them to see Christ speaking in Plato[7] will not do either, since that can also be accomplished by a non-Christian and presumably better by one more gifted and studied than their Christian counterpart. This means 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. If so, why give the adjective “Christian” to education? Remember that discussing motivations is mostly saying something about persons, not about the task itself in either process or result.

In conclusion, it seems to me that, as with cycling, philosophy, and music, the most we can say about “Christian education” is that it is education delivered or provided by Christians. This, of course, is not an unimportant claim. But when we say that, however, we are once again talking about dispositions and motives and saying nothing distinguishable either about the process or the result of that process. In short, it seems there may be no such thing as Christian education after all, at least not in the sense in which it seems often used, and that grand adjective which indicates a special closeness with the divine Son of God ought, perhaps, to be confined within a much closer compass: to persons whom Christ has saved, the worship such persons offer, and the study and promulgation of the divine Word on which that worship is based. If by “Christian education” this is what is meant, the term seems quite apt.[8]


[1] I use the adverb “properly” here in an advised fashion, inasmuch as there are obviously sinful activities, adultery, lying, stealing, that I do not think are in danger of being labeled “Christian” even by those most eager to employ the modifier (although it has been applied even to such unlikely and inappropriate candidates as “hedonism”).

[2] I choose these nouns advisedly as well, since they may be considered subsets of a typical program of so-called Christian education.

[3] In other words, if “Christian philosophy” simply means philosophizing about the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, the extent of the atonement, and like topics, then the designation seems at first to have coherence.

[4] The example I have in mind is Thomas Kincade.

[5] It seems to me quite important that WCF 16.7, in its explanation of how the works of a believer differ from those of the unregenerate, mentions only the motives of the one who performs them rather than the method, and seems to say that a “right manner” means in conformity to the Word. It also suggests the outward indiscriminability of such works.

[6] Apart from Christ, they may be motivated by vainglory, love of money, etc. But to my shame, I often do my work, simul iustus et peccator, from the same motivations (cf. WCF 16.5). And non-believers seem often to act from altruistic motives, to the extent that anyone truly understands their own motives. This is another very telling criticism even of the “motivation” explanation for labeling something “Christian.” Note that it does not militate against something actually being found by Christ to be a good work, but rather against our accustomed carelessness in so labeling it.

[7] I mean this in a light of nature way (WCF 1.1), and quite despite Plato’s own intentions or consciousness of the fact.

[8] I believe that this is the way in which WCF 1.6 uses the phrase “Christian prudence,” i.e., in a context explicitly tied to questions of ordering Christian worship according to the Word. And even here the light of nature contributes.

David C. Noe, a ruling elder at Redeemer OPC in Ada, Michigan, is Assistant Professor of Classics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Ordained Servant: April 2012

Natural Law

Also in this issue

Natural Law in Reformed Theology: Historical Reflections and Biblical Suggestions

Faith and Reason: A Review Article

A Better Resurrection

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