Goals of Reformed Education and the Curriculum

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Why do we send our children to our own church schools? Is it so that so that they get taught the same education as at the state school but with this distinction that the teachers belong to the church and there are prayers and Bible lessons? Or should the Bible permeate every subject taught at school, and the way in which we work? Sr Judy Kingma of the Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers’ College shows that it should be the latter and speaks about the bigger purpose. What she says has relevance also for the education at home and, indeed, for our whole life. She speaks about the covenant; the confessions; the antithesis; and the unity of church, home and school as the four characteristics of Reformed education.[i]

  1. Reformed education is confessional in character

To confess is “to say the same as”, to say, “Yes, it is good and true”, to repeat God’s Words after Him. To confess is to acknowledge that God’s Word is normative for all of life – in school as well as outside of it. Faithful education is therefore, in the first place, faithful to the Word of God.

God’s Word is normative for what we teach. Not only in Bible History, but also in science and social studies and mathematics, there is a constant learning to say “I do” to what God reveals about Himself. To confess is to speak God’s words after Him. In this sense, also math is a confessional activity. Math helps us describe and understand and unfold the hidden treasures of a world God has made and which speaks of his majesty and sovereignty.

God’s Word is also normative for how we work in school. It is normative for the teacher’s integrity, care, compassion, work ethic, and attitude. God’s Word is also normative for students’ work habits, peer relationships, and attitudes.

The confessional task of the school is to bring before the child the norms of God’s Word. God’s Word, as we summarize and confess it with the church of all ages in the ecumenical creeds and the three Forms of Unity, is the foundation – the bedrock – of Reformed education and the standard for all the activities of the school. The confessional task of the school is a combination of knowing and doing God’s will within the context of what schools do. We are not educating mindless producers for a global economy. We are educating Oholiabs who know and do God’s will by using their talents and skills in harmony with God’s Word.

  1. Reformed education is covenantal in character

There is considerable divergence in the broader Christian educational community about the relevancy of the covenant for the education that takes place in schools. Although there is reference to the covenant in [other Christian schools’][ii] philosophies of education, those theories are not built on the idea that the learner is a covenant child. With different degrees of emphasis and direction, the general consensus is that a theory of Christian education should flow out of the view of the child as an image-bearer of God with unique talents and gifts.

This general consensus sometimes makes you wonder if our insistence on the view of the learner as a covenant child as a starting point for our educational theory is too narrow and, perhaps, a Canadian Reformed peculiarity imported over the ocean after WWII with a generation who had just gone through a painful church struggle called the Liberation of 1944. In our own circles, some fear that a strong emphasis on the covenant is to blame for the evidence of a “covenant automatism” among our young people, the attitude that being a covenant child is a guarantee of salvation. We do well to remind ourselves that covenantal smugness is an unscriptural application of the biblical teaching of the covenant. We don’t throw something out just because it is misused.

There is also a divergence of understanding among Christians about what the covenant really is. The understanding that the covenant functions like a contract between God and people in which each party does his part leads to an Arminian perception of our role in obtaining salvation. An emphasis on the horizontal dimension of the covenant (people to people) neglects the claim that God places on his people to live and walk before his face according to the ways of the covenant.

Are we finding it more difficult to justify the separate existence of our own schools when there are so many alternatives?

The covenant is not a contract – it is a relationship initiated by God himself: I will be your God; you will be my people. Further: it is a binding relationship characterized by love – love is the obligation of the covenant. Before we can know or do anything, God says to us: I love you, love Me in return.

If the Word of God may be described as the foundation on which education rests, then the covenant is the framework within which we do our work as teachers and students. In the covenant, the student and the teacher have their unique identity. The learners we teach are called children of the living God. They have God as their Father because our Lord Jesus Christ was sent to bring many sons to God and He is not ashamed to call us his brothers. They have God as their Father because the Holy Spirit is teaching them to cry “Abba, Father!” He is teaching them, sometimes through painful means, to live and work like children of the Father.

The school, then, becomes an extension of the training ground provided within the family setting where children of one Father learn to walk as his children. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Who are my mother, my brothers, my sisters? Those who do the will of my heavenly Father”. Doing the Father’s will is a walking in love before the face of the Lord. The home in the first place and the school by extension are training grounds for living in the household of God where the cardinal rule is love: Love Me, love your neighbour. And love is expressed in obedience; otherwise, it’s not really love. Obedience is motivated by love; otherwise it is not really obedience. The school assists the parents in teaching the children to live and work before the Lord in a relationship of loving obedience to their Father in Jesus Christ.

We have long claimed that the distinctiveness of Reformed education is closely tied to our recognition of the covenant which binds us to our God. This is the recognition that our children are covenant children who are being shaped after the image of Christ, the true and eternal Son of God. And why are they being shaped after the image of Christ? So that they, and we, may be restored to what God intended from the beginning – that we should be called sons of God who reflect his image in perfection and who will not only walk before his face, but see Him as He is, face to face. Do we want to surrender this glorious perspective?

  1. Reformed education is antithetical in character

[In the mid-twentieth century], the Dutch theologian B Holwerda, exclaimed: “I wish that the theme of the great enmity would seize us again! Then we would remember what Christian education is! Then we would be immovable again like our fathers: Here we stand, we can never do otherwise for the sake of the Lord’s Name here on earth. And we will never give our children for anything else”.

This is antithetical language: the theme of the great enmity. We also hear antithetical language in theories of Christian education: The kingdom of God stands antithetically opposed to the kingdom of darkness. Some take a cautious antithetical stance: We believe that the Christian life is a struggle against the spiritual forces of evil. Others adopt a bold, optimistic, antithetical stance: The task of the school is to usher in the new creation which belongs to Christ. We believe Christians must transform culture and reform all of society.

Holwerda, however, was not thinking about cautious or bold antithetical stances; he was thinking about Psalm 8, about how the Lord ordains praise for Himself from the mouths of babes and infants. With babes and infants, He is going to still the enemy and the avenger. Babes and infants are not very powerful people.

…are we disturbed by what appears to be a gap between our theory and our practice?

Holwerda was thinking of the covenant in which God as Father gives our students their identity. He was thinking of who they are – God’s children. He was also thinking of who they are not – Satan’s children. The antithesis which God Himself declared spells Satan’s defeat: I will put enmity (Gen 3:15). In these words, we hear God’s great war cry against Satan who had, with man’s cooperation, made himself lord and master of the kingdoms of this earth. In Christ, slaves to sin and Satan are transformed and renewed by the Spirit to be sons and daughters of the living God. When those same children acknowledge in word and deed that their Father is God who created them, we see Christ’s victory over the father of lies.

Parents have to recognize God’s claim. They become kidnappers in the worst sense of the word if they steal children away from God’s service by failing to teach them to walk in his ways. Teachers, like parents, also have to recognize God’s claim on the children they teach. These children are to make God’s Name glorious in the earth, not because of what they do, but because of what God does in and through them.

Faithfulness, therefore, is connected to God’s victory in Christ over Satan. It is the fruit of Christ’s work. So sure is that work that the God of heaven and earth stakes his reputation on it. He connects his Name to our name: He is Father, we are children. It defies the imagination: God is able to ordain praise for Himself through weak and sinful children who are being renewed after the image of his Son!

  1. Reformed education is characterized by unity of purpose shared by home, school, church

We serve one God who reveals himself in one Word, who establishes one covenant and works through one Spirit. Our unity of purpose is to tell the next generation so that they, too, will set their hope and trust in God (Ps 78). The school may share in that common task. The education of the young, therefore, is a task that we do together as a household of faith. Parents have first responsibility, but the members of the body of Christ, the household of faith, have a duty stemming from the communion they have with Christ to use their gifts and talents for the well-being of the others who also share in Christ’s benefits (LD 21).

Parents are not left alone in their task. The Head of the church sees to it that the individual members, including the children, receive what is needed to remain firmly connected to the Head, to live in the joy of having been set free from sin and Satan. An awareness of the communal dimension of God’s work helps us to see the role of the school as an assisting task that has consequences for the well-being of the household of faith to which teachers, parents and children belong.

This is the recognition that our children are covenant children who are being shaped after the image of Christ, the true and eternal Son of God.

Summary

What ought we to consider when we try to describe faithful education?

  1. Consider the biblical standard for faithfulness: Confessing (knowing and doing) God’s Word as the norm for all of life, also life at school.
  2. Consider the covenantal framework for faithfulness: God’s love in Jesus Christ is transforming slaves to sin into loving and obedient children.
  3. Consider the antithetical context for faithfulness: God declares his victory over Satan in the loving obedience of his children (think of Job).
  4. Consider the communal dimension of God’s work: He is assembling a household of faith in which He calls the individual members to use the gifts He gives for the benefit of the other members.

Conclusion

Why do we seem to find it so difficult to write down what Reformed education is? If we could find all the characteristics, would they add up to Reformed education?  Reformed education is truly something greater than the sum of its parts. The essential “ingredient” that cannot be prescribed or written down, that makes education Reformed in the full sense of the Word is the work of the Holy Spirit. Parents cannot give their children faith; teachers cannot either. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through instruments such as parents and teachers – sinful, imperfect instruments. He shapes and moulds both the ones who are being taught and the ones who teach. The Holy Spirit works through the Word and thus we begin where we started, with the Word. Reformed education is rooted in and normed by the Word of God – the living Word with visible effects on those who are taught by it.

The implication is clear: Reformed education is clear: Reformed education is more than we can ever write down. It is dynamic – always a work-in-progress. Does that mean that we shouldn’t try to formulate a theory of Reformed education, theory that would provide guidance for schools as they try to formulate statements of purpose and rationales for the programs and policies of the school? I believe we should, but with the recognition that it is always work in progress, and not a definitive product that settles everything for all time. Reformed education ought to be constantly under discussion, actively reviewed by parents, teachers, boards, etc., so that it is and remains a point of departure for ongoing work in curriculum and teaching practice in Reformed schools.

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[i] Presented to teachers in Ontario at their CRTA-East Convention, October 2003

[ii] Judy Kingma referred to CSI (Christian Schools International) and OACS (Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools)