Rev C Stam and Covenantal Education

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When I read recently that Rev C Stam had been taken up out of this earthly life by the Father,[i] I was reminded not only of the various books and articles that he has published over the years, but particularly of a speech titled “Covenantal Education” which he held for a group of principals in Canada back in 1979. I was not there; I’ve never seen Rev Stam. But somehow I got hold of the printed version of the speech and was impressed by it because, unlike so much Christian literature on reformed education, Stam illustrated the great significance of the covenant in the education of the children. I’d like to pass on some of what he said because I think it benefits us all.[ii]

We need to begin, says Stam, by asking ourselves “Why do we have our own schools?” Or “What makes our schools so distinctive and (in that sense) ‘special’ that [our children] should merit and receive a different education than other children in the same society?” After all, they’re no different than other children. They have a common origin and, as we confess, are all “by nature conceived and born in sin and therefore subject to all misery, even to condemnation itself”.[iii] So we can’t say, like some Christian authors claim, that we should establish our own schools because our children somehow “possess an intrinsic desire to worship”.

But if we cannot find something unique in the child, we must look outside of the child – to God and the covenant he has established with believers and their children. We confess that although our children share a common depraved nature and misery they are nevertheless “SANCTIFIED in Christ and set into HIS COVENANT”. Stam sees this as “the only redeeming feature” in our children. Instead of looking at “what is IN the children by creation” we should look at “what has been given TO the children in God’s covenant”. That alone is what distinguishes our children from others. With Rev P Y de Jong,[iv] we may speak of our children’s “covenant distinctiveness” whereby they “have a distinctive position, purpose and problems, and therefore must be taught by a distinctive PROGRAM”.

Since that is so, it follows that the education of our children must continually be done in the context of the covenant. Psalm 78 teaches us, says Stam, what this ongoing task is to focus on: “God’s testimony, the Law, the works of God, His commandments, in short, the whole COVENANT WAY OF LIFE”. This means that our education should focus on the one hand on the “great riches and underserved privilege” we possess in that covenant and, on the other hand, “its high obligation and calling”.

Of course, the only foundation for such covenantal education is “the WORD of the Covenant”. As Stam says:

“There is ONE Covenant and ONE Word, so there is a common calling and bond for home church and school, and they deal with a common denominator: ‘covenant children’. This does not mean that the calling is not DIVERSIFIED. In the home basic attitudes and skills will be developed; the church will lead the children into the DOCTRINE of the Scriptures as a creedal unity; the school will concentrate on arts and skills necessary so that the children can adequately function as God’s children according to their talents and gifts. Each ‘institution’ (if we may use that word) must see its own special task, yet not loose from the others. The one Word and Covenant sets ALL under that absolute sovereignty of God.”

Reviewing what various Christian authors write about education Stam saw on the one hand total lack of emphasis on the covenant as principle for Christian Education and, on the other hand, great emphasis on it. Those who emphasised the covenant saw the great unity between church and school. That doesn’t mean that the church should directly supervise the school, but Stam does “see a common basis, therefore a mutual influencing, and since the teachers and pupils are members of the church, a specific responsibility of the Consistory” (as recognised in our Church Order).

Stam noted that the failure of the Christian Reformed Church and the Calvinistic School system to see the COVENANT as unifying factor between home, church and school led to them emphasising the “religious nature of the child as image-bearer” and this in turn, he says, led to their schools becoming “interdenominational”.

When Christians no longer see God and His Covenant as providing the distinctive basis for Christian education they “must necessarily look to man, to the child”. The result, believes Stam, is that they then focus on the child as having been created in God’s image (‘image bearer’) and try to discover what is left of ‘God’s image’ in the child after the fall into sin so that the educator can build on that. He says that we then “get elaborate explanations of the nature of the child and his psychological composition”. Anyway, since ‘being created in God’s image’ applies to both believers and unbelievers, we can hardly use the fact that our children are created in God’s image as a basis for separate schools.

It is worth considering here what we confess about being God’s image bearer. Lord’s Day 3 states that God created man “in His image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him”. So, says Stam, “here it is: two characteristics (righteousness and holiness) plus the calling: knowledge, love, yes, COMMUNION with God.” But what’s left of this after the fall into sin? Certainly not enough, says Stam, “on which to base a Christian philosophy of education?” Indeed, we confess that man “has lost all his excellent gifts which he received from God, and retained only SMALL REMAINS thereof”. And these small remains (traces) are no basis really, for they function, says article 14 BCF, “to leave man without excuse”.[v]

That doesn’t mean that Stam wants to discard the term ‘image bearer of God’:

“Covenantal education would stress not that the child IS in the image of God, image-bearer by nature, but must again become IMAGE-BEARER, putting off the old nature with its practices, and having put on the new nature WHICH IS BEING RENEWED IN KNOWLEDGE AFTER THE IMAGE OF ITS CREATOR (Col 3:10). It is IN the Covenant, and by the blood of the Covenant Mediator that we are restored to our original office, that we receive the righteousness and holiness of Christ, may come to KNOW God and love Him, having with Him eternal, blessed communion. That is the ‘covenantal context’ and function of being created in the IMAGE OF GOD. In this education we do not seek what is IN THE CHILD, but what God has said TO the child, and WORKS in the child by His Word and Spirit. I think that this must be the essential difference between Covenantal education and all other education. Our task is to seek the children’s positive response to the promises and demands of the Covenant and constantly to place the children before both, stressing God’s underserved grace and their ongoing responsibility.”

If we don’t hang onto this prime principle, says Stam, we will slide back into an Arminian and humanistic direction whereby we try to find some redeeming qualities in the child on which to focus. Instead, we must focus on the covenant of grace which, because it is of grace, gives God all the glory. And since that covenant is the only ground for establishing our own school and sending our children to it, we need to know it well, recognising that in this “ONE covenant … God gives His grace and gifts, and also imparts a calling to His children to serve and glorify Him”.

This of course has great ramifications for the climate of the school. Says Stam:

“The teachers are to regard their pupils as CO-HEIRS of the covenant who are to be instructed in the way of the covenant, one with them in sin and sinfulness, one also in Grace. The teachers are fellow-workers, whose combined goal in the different classes and subjects, is to bring about covenant awareness and responsiveness in the pupils. The pupils are to see one another as standing in a common heritage, under one calling, having responsibility to God, as His children, and to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. There shall be a good working relationship among the staff and between the staff and the board, in which the duties are well-divided and the authority is clear. There will be emphasis on Christian conduct and fellowship therefore. DISCIPLINE must be a prime factor at Covenantal schools, according to Biblical norms. The staff will strive to entertain a good relationship with the parents, and the Board will be open to the Society….”

It also has great ramifications for the aims of the school. Drawing on Christian educators, Stam emphasises that the students are to come to accept the promises God gives them in the covenant and to choose consciously for the service of God. Hence the relationship they have with God in Christ needs to be made clear to students. Moreover, they are to receive Bible knowledge in the context of a personal relationship that commits them to their covenant God. The students also need to develop a love for the covenant community, the church, and the need to participate actively therein.

Moreover, in all the subjects—in using language, in studying literature, in examining creation, in understanding history, in applying mathematics—“the children are to become more and more ‘men of God’, completely ‘equipped for every good work’”. They are to learn to excel in the service of gratitude, apply their knowledge and skills as they increase in maturity for a life dedicated to God. Each student is to know his “own place again, in the Covenant under God, in the communion of saints, as a citizen of his country, being as Adam, now in the second Adam, a prophet, priest and king, awaiting the full restoration of Heaven and earth”.

“This does not elevate the teachers to clergy, nor does this make them servants of the parents. Which does not mean that there should not be good communication between teachers, clergy and parents. But you may introduce the covenant children, as co-heirs with you of the promise, to the riches of God’s creation, to the progression of His history, and show them: THIS IS GOD, YOUR GOD, SERVE HIM.”

Concluding his speech Stam emphasises that this “is NORMAL education, as God intended it from the beginning” because “it is based on and seeks God’s NORMS for life, experiences His grace and works for His glory”.

Rev Stam is no longer here on earth with us but by God’s grace he has left us the benefits of his understanding of Scripture in a variety of publications. His emphasis on God’s covenant of grace is particularly insightful. I, for one, found this speech on covenantal education of great benefit and I hope that other parents and teachers may likewise benefit from it.[vi]

J Numan

 

[i] 1 January 2016 (Clarion, 12 February 2016, p. 62)

[ii] This article has been submitted for publication in Una Sancta and is published on this website for the benefit of other readers, such as overseas subscribers.

[iii] Form for infant baptism.

[iv] P Y de Jong, Christian Education in a Changing and Challenging World, p. 17 ff.

[v] Stam refers also to Canons of Dort (111/1V, par 4.)

[vi] Those wanting to read Rev Stam’s entire speech, it is available here: https://defenceofthetruth.com/2015/07/covenantal-education-by-rev-clarence-stam/ .