Now that our reformed schools are opening their doors for Term 4, I pass on the first of two parts of a speech Dr C van Dam presented some time ago at a Reformed School Society. As might be expected, it has relevance both for the teachers in our reformed schools as well as for parents. JN
No one will deny the great importance of schools or the considerable influence which teachers exercise on the lives of their pupils. Indeed, our being here this evening testifies to our interest.[i] Teachers in a sense work with pliable clay, moulding the lives and ideas of their pupils or students.
In the Bible there is a term to describe teachers which we seldom use. Teachers are called “fathers” and the students are “sons” (and therefore also “daughters”). According to this terminology, students in school not only have parents at home, they also have a “father” or “mother” at school. Let us take a look at this terminology as used in Scripture and then touch on some implications of this metaphor for the education of our children.
The term “father” is used in the Scriptures as a term of honour (e.g. 1 Sam 24:11; 2 Kings 6:21). It is therefore not surprising that teachers be given this title. When Elijah was taken up into heaven by a whirlwind, then Elisha cried: “My father! my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Kings 2:12). The meaning of the term “father” as used here certainly includes the meaning of teacher, especially when one considers that Elisha was a student of Elijah and that the students of the prophetic schools were called the “sons of the prophets” (cf. 2 Kings 2:3, 5). The teacher was the “father”.
Similarly when David wanted to give instruction, he set himself up as father. “Come, O sons, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps 34:11). These “sons” are not his natural offspring, but are the saints (cf. v. 9). Indeed, the heading of this Psalm suggests a time when there is no record of David having sons (cf. 1 Sam 18-21). We find a similar usage of “father” in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is often the voice of a teacher to his pupils. “Hear my son, your father`s instruction” (Prov 1:8).
Similar terminology is found in the ancient Near East. In ancient Sumer, the land which came to be known as Babylonia, texts dating from about 2,000 B.C. indicate that a school teacher was among other things called a “school father” and a student was called a “school son”.
In the New Testament we see that the Lord Jesus called students of the Pharisees who perform exorcisms “sons of the Pharisees” (cf. Matt 12:27). Paul, a student of Gamaliel, a Pharisee, called himself “a son of the Pharisees” (Acts 23:6).
The Bible emphasizes that the parents have the first responsibility to teach their children. Indeed, the school terminology of “fathers” and “sons” in a sense underlines this. The other teachers in Israel were the prophets and priests. Especially the priests had to educate Israel in the
Law and their obligations to God (Deut 31:9-13; 2 Chron 17:7-9). Today, besides the parents, we have the office-bearers in the church and the school teachers who instruct our children. Indeed, the teacher in a Christian school has an important task.
Purpose of Education
According to Scripture, children were to be taught the great deeds of God (e.g., Deut 6:6-9) as well as the practical skills of life. With respect to the latter, that would include being able to read and write. It appears that a normal family was literate. For example, Gideon could ask a young man from Succoth who had been captured to write down for him seventy-seven names (Judges 8:14). Literacy was widespread (cf. Deut 6:9; 27:2-8; Isa 10:19) for Israel`s education was not only geared for the spiritual but it was also very practical. Think, for example, of the practical teachings present in the book of Proverbs. Indeed, would a father not want his son to do well? Common thinking in Judaism was that a man who did not teach his son the Law and a trade, the ability to work, reared him to be a fool and a thief.
Israel`s education was geared so that boys could earn the bread and butter and girls could be prepared for their future task in the home. At the same time, this education was religious. The fear of the Lord is the basis of all knowledge and wisdom (Prov 1:7). The Bible does not separate the practical and the spiritual. This life and the life to come is one continuum, for as we confess in our Catechism, we start eternal life here (QA 58 and 103). The great duty of the father and the mother was to see to it that their sons and daughters could live; that is, to make a living before God in obedience to him and so receive the covenant blessing of a long life, yes eternal life! The practical and the spiritual belong together and are to be integrated. Just as fathers and mothers are God`s instruments to impart physical life, so also they are to be instruments to impart eternal life.
If we see this as the root meaning of what it means to be a parent, also when speaking of education, then the implications of what it means that a teacher is called a father (and by analogy also a mother) are quite staggering. Israel and later the Jews saw that clearly, especially when professional teachers more and more took over the education of children. In view of the awesome life-giving function of father, one can understand how an ancient Jewish exposition even dares to place the relationship of the student to the teacher as father, higher than his relationship to his physical father, “for his father has brought him into the world, but his teacher, who has taught him wisdom, brings him into the future world.” Teachers were held in very great respect.
In ancient Israel the education was to be given in the home; later schools developed more and more. Today, the education is to be given in the home, but much time is spent in our children`s going to school to prepare for life. This can put strains on the education which the home is to provide, for the school has much to say. This situation has also given our children two sets of earthly parents.
It is noteworthy that the term for instruction or teaching in the Old Testament is torah. Among other things, the word denotes giving direction. Not surprisingly, the term also came to mean the instruction as given in God’s law. Education is giving direction. Christian education is giving direction in accordance with God’s norms so that life is possible on earth in all its aspects, before God, even to eternity. Because God’s Word forms the ultimate foundation for all teaching in a Christian school, the teaching and providing direction to life needs to be done with authority.
This reality means that teaching cannot consist of seeking the truth together as can be done in a secular environment. The teacher, the school “parent”, has the godly task of presenting biblical truth authoritatively. Because the unbelieving world does not recognize the authority of God or of his Word, its concept of authority must of necessity be only utilitarian.
Because the teacher as father or mother has to impart to children the fear and wisdom of the Lord, that is, true life, therefore the authority of a teacher must be life-producing. It must be exercised as a parent would do it, with love, encouraging the pupils in the Lord. One sometimes reads of overzealous teachers who make all kinds of rules which cannot be enforced. Then such a teacher is not a school “father” or “mother” but a police officer. As the saying goes: “If you act like a warden, your students will behave like prisoners.” Something of the beauty of a family atmosphere must be present in the school, for the teacher is as a parent and the teaching is for life instruction. After all, properly seen, the school is ideally nothing but an extension of the home.
The nature of such life-inducing authority does not of course mean a lack of discipline, as teachers know only too well, for our sons and daughters are inclined to sin. For them accepting the direction and teaching for life here on earth and starting a life eternal neither comes naturally nor easily. But the discipline can never simply be a conditioning, a making of something from a blank slate. Our sons and daughters are recipients of God’s covenant promises and a school father or mother has the holy obligation to recognize that reality and encourage the true life in Christ. Therefore Proverbs 13:24 can extol the virtue of godly discipline. “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” The late Prof. H.J. Schilder has shown in what a sly and humorous way the Proverbs often speak. According to his translation, Proverbs 23:13-14 goes something like this: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; give it to him with a stick. Don`t worry. It won`t kill him! Just give him a spanking. You will save his life from death.”[ii]
(to be continued tomorrow)
[i] This speech was presented at the membership meeting of the “Timothy” Canadian Reformed School Society of Hamilton on May 2, 2013.
[ii] My translation from his Dutch version in H. J. Schilder, “Education and Upbringing in the Old Testament (II)”, Almond Branch, 1:2, 16.