Some Preliminary Comments and Qualifications

I want to begin by thanking Rev. Miller for his careful reading of my essay, and the editor for this opportunity to respond to his criticisms. In the interest of full disclosure, the reader should know that Mr. Miller and I had the opportunity to speak by telephone after he graciously sent me an advance copy of his critique. While I reply directly to his comments below, I would like to begin by clarifying, for those who may not have read as closely as Mr. Miller, what the original essay both did and did not say.

First, this was not an essay that dealt with the topic of the appropriateness of Christian schooling as such. Nowhere in the essay was it suggested that Christian schools are illegitimate, wrong-headed, etc. Although the Christian day school has never, to my knowledge, been a large part of OPC culture, I understand that for many it serves an important function and do not seek to undermine that. Rather, my intention was to question whether one of the common rationales adduced in support of what is called Christian education—that it is fundamentally different from non-Christian education—really holds up to scrutiny. In my estimation it does not, at least not without a few important qualifications.[1]

These qualifications, though present in the original essay, nevertheless ought to be restated here. First, education provided by Christians may in fact differ from that provided by non-Christians, but not necessarily so. And even when it does, it is not in the way perhaps commonly thought. Moreover, such a difference may not even be observable. We as Christians ought to have more devotion in our instruction, more zeal for the truth, more love for our students, more desire to see the name of Christ glorified, and so forth. If we are honest, however, we will acknowledge that such is not always the case. Consequently, as I labored to explain, the primary value of this as of any activity in which we engage as followers of Christ rests in our intentions and motivations, as Calvin explains in Institutes 3.17 and as Westminster Confession of Faith 16 summarizes. This is what is unique about our actions as Christians. But do we really want the “Christian-ness” of any of our activities, including our efforts to educate, judged by the consistency of their content or the effect they have on others? Our gracious Father at the last day will, the Scriptures promise, reward our works—whether they be catechizing our children, feeding the poor, preaching his Word, teaching Demosthenes or, like Calvin, writing commentaries on Seneca. But such reward comes for Christ’s merit, not ours, and is not commensurate with their intrinsic value (cf. Isaiah 64, Matthew 20, and Romans 7). I find this to be a sufficiently compelling distinction between what I do and what the unbeliever does, a wonderful motivation to excellence, and a means of avoiding the casting of odium on the gifts God has distributed to unbelievers.

What Does Cornelius Van Til Have to Do with Athens and Jerusalem?

I understand that some of the criticism of my essay, not only from Mr. Miller but from other quarters as well, arose from those who believe it contradicts fundamental truths elucidated by Cornelius Van Til. A few years ago I read Van Til under Bill Dennison’s tutelage and found much of what he says very persuasive. For example, Van Til is surely right when he says, “The first objection that suggests itself may be expressed in the rhetorical question ‘Do you mean to assert that non-Christians do not discover truth by the methods they employ?’ The reply is that we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own methods consistently.”[2] While data do exist in the raw (contrary to Mr. Miller’s assertion, which I believe overstates the case on that score), and there really is a world out there, Van Til is also correct when he says elsewhere that those who encounter such data are either in rebellion against God or reconciled to him. What implications this insight has for how education functions is to me less clear.

When, for example, we subject the equation 1+1=2 to a metaphysical investigation, it has different implications for the believer than for the unbeliever. For the believer this is true because the triune God of the holy Word as unmade maker is the absolute ground for all reality and for our understanding of it. For the unbeliever, it is true for the same reasons despite his ignorance of that fact and his inconsistency in appropriating the data he encounters. Yet this same inconsistency, though personally vicious and culpable, is part of God’s common grace, i.e., he uses even the inconsistency of wicked and reprobate men to allow them to know true things about the world. This part of Van Til, to the extent that I understand it, I agree with.

But no one has yet articulated to my satisfaction how these metaphysical considerations alter the way we educate, or change the way that 1+1=2 is explained and communicated, beyond adding crucial caveats like “and this would not be so were it not for God’s sustaining hand, and to him be the glory for every aspect of any knowledge we have.” Since it is the case that those in rebellion against God can function amazingly well, sometimes learning, teaching, and understanding many things better than believers who are not so epistemically impaired, the extent to which the differences in their respective epistemology affect their learning is clearly limited. To put it another way, I do not see how Van Til’s understanding of reality changes the way we teach certain topics like classics, mathematics, etc., beyond reminding people that the goal of knowledge’s acquisition and dissemination, like that of everything else, is God’s glory (the indispensable caveat again). If a student refuses to accept those truths from special revelation, remarkably they still are able to learn, if they choose, many true things about, for example, Greco-Roman literature. How do we explain that? How do unbelievers even function in this complex world since their epistemology is so flawed? I know Van Til’s answer and find it persuasive. Some of the implications of his views, however, like that form and content are never wholly distinguishable, are not persuasive to me. I see so many examples of pagans mastering content using what we might consider bad form that the distinction between them ought not to be abandoned.

The way in which non-Christians discover such data is not different from the way in which we do, and their conclusions are no less sound and valid, and depending on the quality of their reasoning, are sometimes more so. A failure to acknowledge this will lead to all manner of false conclusions and the dangers of perspectivalism, wherein something can be true from one vantage point and false from another. For example, when Mr. Miller searches for a counterexample to my claim, he uses that of constitutional jurisprudence:

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.

The claim is not that the term Christian is meaningless when applied to education, it is rather that it cannot bear the weight many seem to want it to carry. In the same way that the Bill of Rights has an actual meaning as ratified by the Founders, irrespective of how human wickedness seeks to twist and distort it in progressive or conservative directions, so the truth about God’s world stands independently of one’s perspective. If the progressive jurist or Christian says x = y at time z and the conservative jurist or pagan that x ≠ y at time z they cannot both be right regardless of their epistemic presuppositions. Truth is not a function of one’s worldview. I know that neither Mr. Miller nor Van Til seek to make truth a function of worldview. But we must be careful, if we would seek to characterize the way we think and teach as “Christian,” that we do not fall into the twin dangers of labeling our own falsehoods as true simply because we are Christian, or of refusing to accept what is true simply because it is thought and taught by non-Christians.[3]

There is one other point here, however, that I would like to address. When I said, “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,” Mr. Miller replied:

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?

I reply by pointing out, first, that I did not claim any necessity in such matters just possibility, and that I added the important caveats that the unbeliever must be reasoning “consistently, diligently, and with complete access to the basic data of special revelation.” Beyond that, I would ask Mr. Miller whether it is an implication of the Word’s perspicuity that all of its claims and intricacies can be understood full well by the unregenerate and still be rejected. Unbelievers have a different understanding of our Lord’s incarnation because they have not been regenerated and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, nothing more, nothing less. In the third and fourth centuries after Christ, for example, some pagans were inclined to accept intellectually the supernatural claims Christ made about himself and the facts of the resurrection. They sometimes persisted in unbelief nevertheless.

When it comes to the question of who is going to teach Sunday school (which I do not believe, incidentally, is a natural application of my argument but somewhat of a red herring), it is fairly unusual in my experience that someone who is not a believer would have an equal understanding of theological topics as one who is. But this is not because of some gnostic infusion or special aptitude for God’s Word that we have which unbelievers lack. Rather, the explanation is both more simple and humbling, namely that unbelievers seldom have the same interest in the Scriptures as we do. So while theoretically unbelievers can understand God's Word in a technical way very adequately, and even better sometimes than believers do, it is seldom the case that they actually do.

But to assume that the greatest precision in the expression of theological ideas is always the first priority in teaching is false. I would typically rather have the local pastor teach Sunday school, even though his knowledge of Greek, for example, may not be the same as that of members of the Harvard Divinity School. The reason is that Greek expertise is not always the most important consideration in teaching about such matters. The Lord in his wisdom has entrusted the task of feeding the flock to the church, that as flawed shepherds we might build up the saints. I am not remotely suggesting that we should set aside that responsibility. On the other hand, I have seen many abuses of worldview thinking in which the sloppy efforts and performance of Christians are excused on the basis of their valid profession of faith. So no, the pastor with an average IQ should not offer his class to the brilliant pagan per se, but I can imagine instances in which such would be appropriate, and something very like this happens when pastors consult a variety of exegetical resources to gain clarity on God’s Word without regard for whether such resources were prepared by believers (Josephus is a prominent example).

Machen, Chicago, and Wilhelm Herrmann

I was glad to have Mr. Miller bring to my attention the quote from Machen’s speech to an educational convention in Chicago in 1933. It is well worth reading. But if one examines his whole essay,[4] I believe one will find that it is not really a propos of our question. Machen appears to be arguing for the necessity of a society that is free enough to allow schools that offer religious instruction. It seems to me primarily an argument against the state meddling in the educational prerogatives of parents and local districts, a brief in part for the maintenance of cherished American institutions in a Tocquevillian fashion without state interference. For example, I take it that when Machen says “I favor it [the Christian school], in the second place, because it is necessary to the propagation of the Christian Faith,” he cannot mean that its mere existence is necessary. Machen knew that the Christian faith was propagated for long ages before anything resembling today’s Christian schools existed. I wish to give Machen the benefit of every doubt in charitable interpretation, but if this is what he means, I must disagree with him.

Beyond that, there seems to be nothing in Machen’s remarks that contradicts my main contention that the difference in the way we as Christians educate primarily has to do with our intentions and motivations, not with method, process, or result as pertains to content. Thus in the part Mr. Miller quoted, Machen speaks of the “bearing,” “meaning,” and “purpose” of the truth, not the process of its impartation or its content. That Machen may have something different in mind than the purpose for which Mr. Miller quoted him is borne out as well, it seems to me, by Machen’s own educational biography. His decision to study at the secular Johns Hopkins University, but especially his desire to be taught by Wilhelm Herrmann and other German liberals is an indication that his assessment of education cannot be easily discussed in worldview terms.

Moreover, Mr. Miller does not mention that part of Machen’s same speech in which he lavishly praises public school teachers, not for their efforts to view all of life from the perspective of Christian faith and to teach in that way, but for their quite ordinary and pagan virtue of diligence. Says Machen, “I desire to pay the warmest possible tribute to many thousands of conscientious men and women who are teachers in the public schools in this country.” Such a commendation is at least arguably out of step with Van Til’s dogged insistence, as quoted by Mr. Miller, on observing the virtual inseparability of form and content.

Reductionist Anthropology?

Perhaps the most incisive of Mr. Miller’s criticisms is that I am operating with a reductionist and therefore unbiblical anthropology. Though I am not sure where in the Scriptures such an anthropology is definitively presented, I see how one could draw the conclusion Mr. Miller does. I was aiming to define and describe what education is per se. Indeed, the human mind is not merely a receptacle for knowledge. But it is a receptacle for knowledge. We do quite obviously assimilate facts and retain and analyze them, though fewer of these than we should.

Prudentially speaking, and here opinions differ of course, it seems to me that we live in a time in which the dangers of relativism and the rejection of objective truth are far more pronounced than in previous generations. A consequence of this is that the standards for excellence in academics at all levels are desperately eroded. Does anyone doubt that even our best colleges and seminaries, particularly in languages, philosophy, and historical studies, only approximate the erudition of our forebears? The goals of education, therefore, sometimes must be proximate and not ultimate. I contend that sometimes we ought to be satisfied if students have mastered the basic elements of any given subject matter, and more modest about whether our teaching will result in the character formation that is only accomplished by the grace of God. Augustine’s closing comments in The Teacher, in the mouth of his son Adeodatus, are helpful here:

From the encouragement of your arguments I have indeed learned that arguments do nothing but encourage someone toward learning, and that it is equally true that only a little bit of the thinking of the one who speaks emerges in the actual instruction. He alone, moreover, teaches whether what is said is true, He who, when He spoke without, encouraged us that He dwells within. Him shall I love, then, as He himself enables me, with greater zeal the more I shall have advanced in learning.[5]


Finally, the Trivium. As a classicist I cannot fail to take Mr. Miller’s bait and comment thereupon. Its omission on my part is not “remarkable” but deliberate. Though no doubt it serves some parents and schools well in attaining their educational goals, it is beyond dispute that the Trivium is medieval in origin. In other words, its claim to being classical is specious, and I am not a medievalist. Furthermore, I do not find the exegetical arguments offered for it at all compelling. The book of Proverbs—often cited in this regard—is not intent, so far as I can tell, on explaining how we are to gain the knowledge we need to navigate this broken world in all manner of practical ways. Like other moral teaching in the Scriptures it is an expansion on the law of God to be used in the three ways Calvin elucidates.

But this is no problem, since exegesis of Scripture is no more necessary a prerequisite for selecting a method of instruction than it is for reading Ordained Servant on a Kindle as opposed to on paper. I mention again, though I hope it is not necessary to do so, that any method of doing anything that involves means or ends contrary to the law of God is ipso facto illegitimate. But the point is that parents and schools ought to have the liberty to adopt whatever methods, provided they are not contrary to God’s law, that best accord with the goals they are trying to achieve, since there is no uniquely Christian method of education.


[1] There are two excellent rationales for the Christian day school or the Christian college, like the ones where I teach. The first, is that we are dealing explicitly with the content of special revelation, topics that are likely not of as much interest to non-believers. The second is that Christian parents rightly want to shelter their children from immoral influences during more tender years. It does not seem to me that the latter applies so well to Christian colleges, but such decisions are best left to the believer’s freedom.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 103. I need to thank Paul Manata for bringing this to my attention. Of course, neither do we as Christians ever employ our own methods consistently. Thank God that the truth of what we believe is not dependent on the consistency of our methods in appropriating and retaining it.

[3] I could run Mr. Miller’s other counterexamples through this same grid, namely that of the terms “evangelical” and “non-evangelical” when applied to New Testament studies, and sexual education. But I trust the reader can do that on his own.

[4] Available here: http://www.reformedliterature.com/machen-the-necessity-of-the-christian-school.php.

[5] De Magistro Liber Unus, XIV.45; the text is from http://www.augustinus.it/latino/maestro/index.htm, the translation is my own. For a complete English translation see Augustine, Against the Academicians and The Teacher, translated by Peter King (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995).

David C. Noe is an elder at Redeemer OPC in Ada, Michigan, serving as an assistant professor of classics at Calvin College. He also serves on the Committee for the Historian. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2012.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2012

Christian Education

Also in this issue

Education, Natural Law, and the Two Kingdoms

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

Geneva College and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

The Education of a Monster

Life’s Complications and the Limits of Expertise: A Review Article

The Facebook Box

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