Should We Have Christian Schools? A Defense of the Presuppositions of Christian Day Schools after 1890

This is an amended version of a paper I wrote as a student at Mid America Reformed Seminary for a Denominational History class with Dr. C. Venema.

Introduction

Generation after generation of Reformed Christians has had to defend their Christian schools. The influences and mentality over the last twelve decades or so of Christian education have been refined and sometimes amended.

There is a long history of influences in the Reformed churches that have shaped what its reasons or purposes for Christian education should be. Though I am greatly indebted to those who have traced the history of this development, it will be my purpose here to explain and defend what I believe are the vital and essential presuppositions to (Reformed) Christian day schools. By (Reformed) Christian day schools I am referring to those schools that teach from a Calvinistic worldview and teach children through twelfth grade. Though there have been a many presuppositions for the defense of Christian education, I will focus my treatment on the four largest reasons, namely, redemption history and the sovereignty of God, the covenant, the antithesis, and the notion of Protestant vocation or calling.

Redemption History and the Sovereignty Of God

The Reformed believer has a completely different starting point in discussing education from that of the non-believer. As Cornelius Van Til states concerning the motivating power of education, “For the non-Christian, this is faith in man himself, but for the consistent Christian position it is faith in the triune God of the Scriptures.” This has always been a starting point for the Reformed. Also, it is only when we look briefly at redemptive-history that we will be able to see the great need for Christian education.

Redemptive-history begins already with creation in the garden of Eden. God created man in His own image with a perfect knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Man was in fellowship with God while thinking God’s thoughts after Him. However, this relationship was shattered when sin entered the picture. The fall of man into sin wreaked havoc on the original fellowship. Man had become cursed.
After sin, God came to man and promised him His grace (Gen. 3:15). God made it clear that He would be a restorer of fellowship. This restoration would take time and it would progress. In the meantime, man would have to recognize his fallenness and inability to serve God, learn properly, and work well. Throughout history God has been redeeming a people for Himself and adding them to the church. It is through the tool of the church that God restores fellowship with us individually. Once fellowship is restored, the Holy Spirit renews the believer, after the image of God. Before the fall, man reasoned properly; after the fall, his reasoning was corrupted as he began with the autonomy of self as his starting point instead of knowledge proceeding from God.

Therefore, in education, it is key to strive after knowledge of God and of His creation. He has established the means to fulfill this calling. These means or tools are the church, the home, and the school. These three arenas or spheres of life work together in the education of our children. In baptism, parents take a vow to instruct their children in the fear of the Lord. They also vow to “cause them to be instructed therein.” This refers primarily to catechism, but I think the same principle applies to Christian education, whether in the home or in the day school. These three institutions are the tools parents use, and all three ought to reinforce what the other is teaching.

The Covenant

The role of the covenant has also been debated among the Reformed. However, it is a Reformed conviction that the covenant of grace between God and His people is, and must continue to be, a driving force in our view of Christian day school education. Without this knowledge, one may wonder why to put so much money, time, energy, and prayers into the schools. Some may argue that the massive amount of money spent on Christian day schools could be put to a much better cause for the kingdom of God. I am certainly not of that opinion.

To me, replacing Christian education with public school education is not an option. Neither was it for our forefathers. As I mentioned, there have been many influences in the history of the Reformed churches concerning Christian education. However, with the influence of Abraham Kuyper, some of the mentality changed. In the early years of the Christian Reformed Church the Christian schools were established as parochial or church-run schools. As views changed (after 1890), many began to see the school not so much as an extension of the influence of the church, but rather as an extension of the home, where covenant life begins and grows primarily. There are others who viewed the Christian school as a separate institution from both the home and the church. It has its own “sphere.”

Regardless of which view one holds, the obligation of the covenant still remains. The Reformed believe that God has covenanted with his people and their children. All of the children of believers are different from other children, for the children of believers have the sign and seal of the covenant on them. To put it one way, they are being restored and trained as members of the kingdom of God, even in their education (Eph. 6:4; Deut. 6:1–9).

Parents use the school to work out their calling to teach their children. This is why the Christian school was born. Parents formed an association among themselves, as believers, to train these young ones. This association would be in charge of hiring teachers and administrators, along with the admittance of children into the school. The covenant community could pool together its efforts and resources to give children a solid, biblical, and academically rigorous education.

Covenant children were not to be viewed or treated the same as children of unbelievers. They were not to be evangelized but rather nurtured. They needed more than “een school met de Bijbel;” they needed to be trained with a Calvinistic world and life view. These young ones needed a place to grow and mature in the covenant and in sanctification. Therefore, though the world and life view were essential, there came to be certain features that were necessary in the Christian day school. These children should be taught God’s word through narrative and memorization; they should be taught to sing the Psalms; they should be taught about creation, fall, and redemption. Christian education was to encompass everything.

The Antithesis

The antithesis is closely related to the covenant. There are always at every time and place the children of God and the children of the world. These groups must be distinguished and treated differently. It has often been understood that for members of Reformed churches, the public school is the sphere of the world and the private school is the sphere of the redeemed. There is a battle going on between good and evil, the wicked and the righteous, and many have operated with the mentality that “we will not subject our children to the world, especially at a young age, but we will rather protect them, as much as we can from such harm and wickedness.”

For Kuyper and his followers in Holland and America/Canada, this was an important aspect of reality that must not be underemphasized. It is not only the job of the church and the home to teach children about the riches we have in Christ, but also of the school. All three “spheres” are training our children. As C. Van Til states, “However, only in the school, in which professional people engage in setting forth the whole history and meaning of human culture, can Christ and his work be portrayed in full detail as he works out his program of removing all that divides men from God, their creator-redeemer, and of directing all that accomplishes their reunion with him.”

In recognizing the antithesis, we can see that all of education, whether history, science, or mathematics, is built on the creation of God. There are no brute facts, but rather all knowledge must take into account the vast distance between God and man and the redemption of Christ to restore the lost communion.

According to William Masselink, who wrote a treatise entitled “Common Grace and Christian Education,” in which he explains the role of common grace in Christian education and how that plays a role in the antithesis (See also C. Van Til in Common Grace and the Gospel). In Christian schools, the teachers and students must acknowledge that they are indebted to those unbelievers who have shown such proficiency in their fields, that a failure to borrow what they have taught would be unwise. There is much more that can be said about this than we can say here. We ought to take what is helpful from what has been taught.

However, if the doctrine of “common grace” is ever used to defend or promote sinfulness or a violation of God’s law, this is certainly not what has been intended by men such as Masselink and Van Til. I have seen the term so abused that it became unhelpful. One example is the allowance of Calvin College having the Indigo Girls rock band play on campus. The Indigo Girls are a lesbian rock band. How could they do such a thing? Answer: Common grace and an over-emphasis on transforming culture. This thinking must be rejected.

Protestant Vocation

Going back to John Calvin and the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Protestants have had a unique view of calling and vocation. According to the Reformed, God calls us into any number of occupations and callings in our lives. We have many callings simultaneously, and these are all from God. This means that there is no job or area of life that is not inherently religious. You can’t escape from God in the business world. A Christian man may be called by God to serve at the same time as a husband, father, teacher, trainer, businessman, and elder in a church. In light of this, the education of children is to equip them for this calling.


As Reformed, we do not believe that only those who hold full-time ministerial office are called by God. God calls Christians to be doctors, lawyers, laborers, teachers, missionaries, store clerks, and public servants. This hinges closely on a proper worldview as a Christian. As Kuyper is often quoted, “There is not one square inch of this earth, that Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not call out, ‘Mine!’” The calling of a Christian is wide and affects every area of their lives. I may help an old lady carry her groceries to her car, in part, out of a calling to love my neighbor as myself.

Therefore, in education, this idea of the calling or vocation of all believers must be a driving principle. Teachers, parents, and preachers must be teaching covenant youth this important and vital truth. A young girl may be called by God to be a stay-at-home mother some day. This is a noble and high calling because it comes from God. The Christian day school, in part, is a tool that must be used in preparation for vocation.

I have already mentioned the far-reaching aspects of Protestant vocation, but this also has an effect on how our children choose whom they will marry. It is often the case that one of those who are nearest to our children, especially in their school years, is the one they will someday marry. This is a joy to many Reformed parents. Protestants believe that God does not call anyone into something that is contrary to His Word. For instance, God would not call my child to marry a non-Christian in order to convert him. For God says, “Do not be unequally yoked with non-believers.” It has often been said among the Dutch Reformed, “Well, at least we know that he comes from a good family.” There is something important to this. This does not mean that the certain young man or woman is elect, but rather that his parents share the same presuppositions in sending their children to this school.

Another aspect of calling comes in light of teachers. Reformed school teachers are called by God to train children. Because of their calling, they should not approach their work with an eye to avoiding work or with a complaining attitude. The Reformed do not want to entrust their children to someone who is different from them in terms of religion and service. It is a high calling to be a Christian school teacher, and this is something that teachers must recognize.

Conclusion

God has given Reformed Christians a rich heritage of Christian schooling. The history of the Christian schooling has seen a transition from the earlier parochial school model to the current model of parent-run schools. For many, the tradition of Christian day schools continues in the United Reformed Churches. Our children are a heritage of the Lord, whom he entrusts for their education to us as parents and communities.

It is my prayer that God will continue to bless us with Christian day schools, teachers, and children who are nurtured in the fear of the Lord to be leaders in our secular society to have a Christian influence on the world. We need Christian professionals who believe in the sovereignty of God, who walk with God in the covenant, who sense the reality of the antithesis, and who view their vocations as callings from the God who is sovereign over all. Soli Deo Gloria.

Rev. Steven Swets
(MDiv, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, 2007) is the pastor of Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church(URCNA) in Abbotsford, BC.

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