Steven D. Thomas
December 21, 2007
When Christian parents are faced with the choice of selecting either a Christian school or public school for their children, criteria which may contribute to their decision include such things as providing
- A "faith-friendly" environment, where mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, the Bible, church, prayer, and so on is encouraged rather than prohibited;
- A learning environment with teachers who are interested in the spiritual formation and well-being of the students;
- The possibility of a peer environment in which students mutually encourage one another to follow Christ;
- A curriculum including lessons from the Bible.
While these factors are not unimportant-indeed I want to see them realized in the education of my children, at Trinity Christian School-I will argue that they fall short of what can be fruitfully pursued in a Christian education. So what more can a Christian school offer?
Fully-Orbed Integration of Faith and Learning
Let me begin by praising one of the elements already mentioned, and then expanding on the idea. If a Christian school adds Bible and/or theology lessons alongside other subjects, it achieves something important just in virtue of doing so-it positions religious beliefs as objects of knowledge. Let's face it: schools only have so much time with their students, and must therefore decide which subjects to include, and to exclude, from the curriculum. It must implicitly rank them according to importance and relevance to human affairs. In public schools, religious beliefs-ranging from Creation to the Resurrection and return of Jesus-are out of court, not even on the table for consideration. What guides this principle of exclusion is partly a desire to avoid controversy, or legal problems stemming from the "separation of church and state," and partly a reflection of the contemporary, secular view of knowledge, which counts moral and religious beliefs as the stuff of personal emotion or opinion (in contrast, say, to the tenets of modern science). Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen described this problem nearly a century ago in his essay, "Christianity and Culture":
Our whole system of school and college education is so constituted as to keep religion and culture as far apart as possible and ignore the question of the relationship between them. On five or six days in the week, we were engaged in the acquisition of knowledge. From this activity the study of religion was banished. We studied natural science without considering its bearing or lack of bearing upon natural theology or upon revelation. We studied Greek without opening the New Testament. We studied history with careful avoidance of that greatest of historical movements which was ushered in by the preaching of Jesus. In philosophy, the vital importance of the study of religion could not entirely be concealed, but it was kept as far as possible in the background. On Sundays, on the other hand, we had religious instruction that called for little exercise of the intellect. Careful preparation for Sunday-school lessons as for lessons in mathematics or Latin was unknown. Religion seemed to be something that had to do only with the emotions and the will, leaving the intellect to secular studies. What wonder that after such training we came to regard religion and culture as belonging to two entirely separate compartments of the soul, and their union as involving the destruction of both?
Fortunately, the Christian school is not so constrained, and by including Bible and/or theology lessons in the curriculum, it imparts an understanding of Christianity as a knowledge tradition-something objectively worthy of consideration, and something that may have a real and significant bearing on the decisions we make in life.
But this essay has promised that there is something further to be had than the simple inclusion of Bible in the curriculum: that something is the fully-orbed integration of faith and learning. This is where the Lordship of Christ over Creation comes in: as Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper once put it, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'" If all of Creation is His handiwork, then it seems to follow that He bears some relation to it, and it to Him. This is why theology was once understood as "Queen of the Sciences," the one discipline capable of drawing the diversity of other disciplines together and uniting them (thus the term university). Teachers and students should therefore be about, not only the task of learning the particulars of some subject, but also asking vital questions such as,
- What difference does Christian faith make to the study of this discipline?
- In what way is God necessary to a proper understanding of this subject?
- What contributions have Christians, motivated and shaped by their understanding of God, made to the discipline?
- Where can God's sovereignty be seen in the events pertaining to the subject matter?
- What secular or religious challenges are being, or have been, advanced against Christianity through the discipline, and how should Christians respond to such challenges?
So, by way of example, how does theology relate to music? Or what clues can we find that God is necessary to mathematics? Or, from the history of science, what did figures such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton believe about God that so directed their passion for investigation into the physical world? Or, from politics/U.S. history, what theological foundation is there for genuine human rights in the United States' Declaration of Independence over and against the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
When students are drawn into captivating discussions like these-across the curriculum-and see the profound impact that Christian faith (and practice) can have on various areas of human thought (and life), the relevance of God to all of human experience cannot be missed, and indeed, can inspire students to deeper inquiry, even as it inspired their Christian forerunners to monumental achievements. It is just such a rich, undiluted blend of faith and learning that is needed today if we want our children to be the "salt and light" for this generation.
Still more is available to the Christian school if it is willing to depart from the modernist, pragmatic curriculum that dominates our educational system. A return to earlier, better, proven methods of education is needed: Classical Education. I stumbled upon the intriguing Classical Christian Education movement a few years ago while doing some research on the Internet, and became excited about its prospects. Then our family was fortunate enough (i.e. blessed) to find Trinity Christian, which incorporates the classical approach to education. I will share a few of the distinctive features of this approach below.
First of all, some valuable subjects have been lost and need to be recovered: namely, Latin, Logic, and Rhetoric. Latin can be started early (3rd grade at Trinity), and not only (1) prepares students for subsequent study in other Latin-related languages, but also (2) equips them for the abundance of explicitly Latin terminology still used today in various fields (law, science, medicine, philosophy, etc.), and (3) helps them to increase their English vocabulary-even words they've never encountered before, because they know the Latin roots. We've seen Latin come up again and again in normal conversation as our children have begun their study of it.
Logic-another subject that rarely shows up in schools-is essential for training students to think critically and clearly, so that they can spot errors in reasoning, and reason to arrive at sound conclusions themselves, across the curriculum. This is introduced when students show signs of questioning, of challenging, and of thinking in a more detailed linear fashion.
Finally, rhetoric is the study of applying language in its various forms to be persuasive with what one has learned. The truth deserves to be put in the most elegant and compelling terms possible, and given the fact that we live in a society in which various forums are available for opinion pieces, panel discussions, presentations, debates, and legal argumentation, studies in rhetoric will become something that students can lean upon for the rest of their lives.
One further component is invaluable to the classical curriculum-and this should come as no surprise-the classics. By the "classics" I mean the great works of literature in the Western tradition, writings that have stood the test of time because they surface significant questions from human experience. To discover, for example, Plato's discussion of the just man given in The Republic, Book II, which begins with how a man's integrity can be truly tested and proven, and then advances to raise the question of the value of a life of moral virtue over and against a life of moral corruption, is to find a real treasure that can both illuminate the mind and shape one's character. It may also help the student of the Bible to read his or her Bible better. Fans of C.S. Lewis may remember how Lewis believed that Plato's discussion of the just man applied significantly to Jesus of Nazareth, so much so that "[a]t this passage a Christian reader starts and rubs his eyes," because the resemblance is so uncanny. In my own case, finding Plato's discussion of the just man allowed me to see a dimension of Christ that I had never perceived adequately before. Recalling it, as I often do, draws me into an ever greater admiration of my Savior: Christ is the archetypal just man-the one who suffered and was "clothed in justice only", being "put to the proof", "continu[ing] to the hour of death"-or as the Apostle Paul put it:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name… (Phi 2:5-9, NASB)
Interacting with the classics is a fantastic way to acquire insights into the wisdom and folly of the ages, to gain perspective that would take many lifetimes to collect. And it can lead to a deeper reflection on one's faith as well, if handled properly. This is an important advantage that we should seek to impart to our children.
So what do you want from a Christian school? This essay has introduced some significant possibilities beyond what public, secular schools can offer, and beyond what many Christian schools are offering as well. Trinity Christian is unique in embracing those possibilities, and is thereby challenging students to get the most out of their education, so that they can emerge as whole souls, ready to engage this world and to make a difference for the Kingdom of God. My conviction is that Trinity Christian is not just a Christian school, but the very best school in our area, Christian or secular, for these reasons. If Trinity is within your reach, geographically and financially, why settle for less?
- J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," Internet: HYPERLINK, spotted 09/16/07.
- Michael Patton, "What is Theology?" Internet: HYPERLINK, spotted 09/16/07.
- One place to start is the soon to be released volume by Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic: Nov, 2007).
- See, for example, Eugene Wigner's essay, "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences," Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1960); Internet: HYPERLINK, spotted 09/16/07.
- See Charles Thaxton and Nancy Pearcey, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Crossway Books, 1994), or Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 224-232.
- See Paul Copan's brief discussion in his essay, "The Moral Argument," in Copan and Moser, The Rationality of Theism (Routledge, 2003), p. 152.
- This section is inspired and informed by the work of J.P. Moreland on Christian integration; for a sample, see his essay, "Academic Integration and the Christian Scholar," Internet: HYPERLINK, spotted 09/16/07.
- See HYPERLINK "http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.3.ii.html", spotted 12/21/07.
- See Lewis' essay, "Second Meanings," in his Reflections on the Psalms.