Reformed people are very much involved with the education of their children. That is not surprising, since the Bible has much to say about parents educating their children. At the baptism of their children, reformed parents vow to provide their children with a reformed education (Form for Baptism, Question #3; Book of Praise, p. 598). Reformed education also turns up in the Church Order: Article 58 (Article 53 in Australia) makes it the responsibility of the consistory to ensure that parents, to the best of their ability have their children attend a school where the instruction is in harmony with the Word of God as the Church has summarized it in her Confessions. This concern with the education of the children of the church has led to the establishment of parent controlled, reformed schools. In this article I wish to consider the question: What makes reformed education reformed?
The word “reformed” is, alas, at times contrasted with the word “Christian”. Common usage appears to have given the word “Christian” a rather “greyer” meaning than what we learn in the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 12:32). And in our own circles, we tend to make a distinction between “reformed” schools when parents, teachers, and students all belong to the same reformed church, and “Christian” schools when parents, teachers, and students may belong to different churches. This distinction is rather unfortunate; if the words are rightly understood they are synonymous.
The term “reformed (or Christian) education” usually stands in contrast with the term “secular education” (secular = relating to the world or the temporal). Using this contrast, we could describe reformed education as focussing on religious knowledge and eternal values. But of course we can say much more. The term implies a commitment to the Word of God as the rule for all of our life, no area or aspect excepted or exempted. Reformed, or Christian, education means an education which in all its aspects wants to submit itself to the Word of God. Therefore, we reject the idea that some elements of education – for example the teaching of skills – could be considered neutral ground where our beliefs and convictions would matter little. We believe that all things are the Lord’s (Rom. 11:36) – in Christ all things hold together (Col. 1:17). This is what the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century was all about, and it is significant that all reformers immediately concerned themselves with the establishment of schools for the children of the church – a good reason to maintain the word reformed when speaking of our schools.
Reformed education also relates directly to the four characteristics of an educated person: willing and able to act independently, having developed his or her abilities, committed to serving others, and willing and able to carefully examine his or her own actions. Claiming that educated persons are independent does not mean that they do not need to submit themselves to the Bible as the rule for all of life. That would be claiming autonomy, that is, recognizing no authority higher than oneself. We want to say with the term ‘independent’ that we have actively chosen to submit ourselves to the rule of God’s Word, as we did when we made profession of our faith. At that moment, we acted independently in full submission to the demands of God’s Word. As we do this, we acknowledge that our talents and abilities are not our own property, for us to use as we see fit. We acknowledge that God has made us with a particular set of talents and abilities (Psalm 139), and that it is our responsibility to develop and use these appropriately.
Further, we don’t do these things because we are forced to (by our parents, by the church) but because we want to do them as God’s children. We are committed to doing them since that is what the Word of God requires of us (Rom. 6:17). We learned to act and we now want to act as is expected of us by our Father. Throughout all this, we acknowledge that such acting is never automatic (human beings are not automatons). To be obedient to the demands of God’s Word requires our constant and prayerful effort: being a Christian does not guarantee of itself that we will also act as a Christian. Similarly, being educated does not guarantee that we will always act in an educated manner (Rom 7:18).
All too often, secular educators explain wrong actions by suggesting a lack of education. Think of examples such as the fight against AIDS: this is not considered a moral problem, but an educational problem (and we ought to admit it, at times we fall in the same trap of thinking that a good education will solve all problems). Unfortunately, it is a hard lesson to learn – as the Apostle Paul knew so well – that all too often we do not do what we know to be right! Therefore, it is necessary that we spend much time and effort reflecting on our actions in order to evaluate whether we are acting appropriately, that is, in accordance with the precepts of God’s Word (Ps 25). Self-examination is a critically important characteristic of a Christian, of a truly educated person. Reformed education seeks to help young individuals to become such educated persons, committed to living according to God’s commands, and willing to be reformed constantly – semper reformanda!
From this we can see that the term reformed education itself shows a program. It suggests the goal towards which all efforts are directed. And it does this in a manner that leaves no room for alternatives: Christians know of only one basis, of only one comfort, and therefore of only one direction in their lives: serve God and your neighbour. Consequently, reformed education will often find itself in conflict of conscience with secular education. If there is no opportunity to study within a reformed environment, many Christian students have struggled to resolve the conflict between the express goals of secular education and those of their Christian faith. Obviously, such conflict is not limited to students at a secular institution; also in the work place, there is all too often tension and conflict between opposing beliefs and values (read about this in John 17).
How might we, then, define reformed education? It is an educational enterprise which submits itself willingly and fully to the norms of God’s Word as the rule for all of life. This determines the goal for education, its content, as well as its methods. Although it is not possible to identify the peculiarly reformed nature of every particular educational action or decision – some of these are more closely related to the identity of teachers and the use of a particular brand of pen – there is no aspect that escapes (or should be allowed to escape) the impact of the normative principles of reformed education. In other words, the reformed nature of education is all-pervasive; you find it everywhere. It is like the air we breathe, or the water the fish need. We will not always notice its presence, but we will surely notice its absence.
(This article appeared in Clarion January 10, 1997. At that time the late Br VanderVen was principal of Covenant College, Hamilton, ON.)