You Are What You Read

This axiom, of course, explains so much about Bob Godfrey, but I digress before I begin. Don’t worry, somewhere, in a coffee shop in Escondido, Bob is insulting me to some bewildered stranger. Merry Christmas Bob!

Kevin Efflandt has an excellent reminder today at PCC. Our congregations (whether new or long-established) ought to always have available copies of the Reformed confessions for visitors and members. We might be surprised by the percentage of folk in our congregations who don’t have a copy of the Three Forms or who have lost theirs.

Let’s be brutally honest here. Many of our congregations don’t know their catechism very well. There are many reasons for this. Chief among them is that long ago many Reformed congregations stopped requiring their children to actually memorize the catechism. Don’t worry. I have a plan. If our children actually started memorizing the catechism they would learn our vocabulary, our way of reading Scripture, our theology, piety, and practice.  Without that work it isn’t going to happen.

Parent: “My children don’t know Swahili.”
Pastor: “Did you teach your children Swahili?”
Parent: “Well, no, I thought they would just pick it up. After all, we send them to the local Swahili-themed school, they go to Swahili School on Sunday Mornings and you preach Swahili sermons every week. Isn’t that enough?”

Obviously, the answer is no, that isn’t enough. If the children aren’t made ever to actually sit down and memorize Swahili vocabulary and grammar, they will never actually learn enough Swahili to speak it, especially if it isn’t done at home.

If it is obvious that our children will never learn a second language without actually being made to learn it. They won’t just get it by osmosis or by induction. Yes, our children do learn their home language by induction, but even then we send them to school to learn proper grammar and the like. They learn their home language by induction because they hear it spoken constantly, but the catechism isn’t the home language. The first thing you say to your child in the morning is probably not, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” That might be a little over the top. It’s a second language, and that’s okay, but as a second language it must be learned deliberately.

Sending our children to Christian school (many of which have become deeply influenced by broad, revivalist, pietist, evangelicalism and where the catechism has come to be regarded as an artifact of “dead orthodoxy”)  isn’t enough. Christian education (whether at home or in a traditional Christian school) is a wonderful and necessary thing, but we need to think carefully here. Christian school is not magic and we have an additional problem if, as has happened over the years, the local Christian school is, in some ways, actually working at cross purposes with your local confessional Reformed congregation.

One experience that begin to make me re-think the way things are often set up is my experience as a catechism teacher many years ago. The ninth graders walked into class as if it were the Bataan Death March instead of a 45 minute discussion about creation and redemption. Why were they so reluctant? Over several weeks they revealed that “we hear it all week long.” Well, as it turns out, they didn’t actually hear the catechism all week long but they didn’t distinguish between the daily Bible instruction they received at school from catechism instruction at church. Sunday morning catechism was just another school day to them.

I don’t blame them for being tired of it. I’m grateful for the hard work of those Christian school teachers who are trying to be faithful but if the faith has been reduced to just another “subject” like physics or PE then Sunday begins to look like every other day. In our effort to make the faith “relevant” and to make sure that our children develop a Christian “world and life view perhaps we have unintentionally made the Christian faith pedestrian. This is what I meant above by the verb “inure.” We’ve inoculated students against learning catechism at home with Mom and Dad and against studying it with the minister on the Sabbath.

I have a radical idea – well it might not be as radical as it seems–but in our current context it’s likely to seem radical. Perhaps it’s time for our Christian schools to stop teaching the Bible? Before you go on the warpath hear me out.

Is everyone authorized to teach the Bible? Yes, we believe in the priesthood of believers, but does that mean that just anyone can anoint himself a “Bible teacher”? I guess most of us would say no, it doesn’t. Well, who authorized the local Christian school to teach Bible? Most Christian schools are operated by a board, a private society — which is perfectly appropriate. Where does Scripture teach the establishment of such societies for Bible instruction? It doesn’t. To whom did Jesus give the “Great Commission?” He gave it to the visible, institutional church (Matt 28:18-20). He did not commission the local Christian school to baptize or to make disciples or to preach the gospel. Christ has ordained the visible church to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, to make disciples (Christian education) and to exercise church discipline.

The visible church is not called to operate schools, to teach history, geography, math, or physics. The school has these vocations. The Christian school has one sphere of responsibility and the Christian Church has another. They are complementary. There is one God who our Creator and the same God who is our Redeemer but that doesn’t mean that we don’t distinguish between creation and redemption. The same God who created and by his providence sustains and governs and operates through creation also redeems through the preaching of the gospel, but that doesn’t mean that we hike at church or preach in the forrest.

In the same way Christian schools should focus on creation (nature) and let the church instruct our children about redemption (grace). Do we really need our math teacher to show how math relates to redemption? No. What we need is for the math teacher to teach math and, perhaps, to show it relates to the rest of creation. Is our math teacher really trained to explain the Bible? Is our Christian school Bible teacher actually trained to explain the Bible? Does he or she read Hebrew and Greek? Has he or she taken courses in Church History, Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology and the like? Has the Christian school Bible teacher been examined by a consistory and a classis? I guess that few Christian school Bible teachers are so prepared. Most of them have a BA from a Christian college. Perhaps your Christian school Bible teacher had a Bible major.

Whatever the case regarding the Christian school teacher, your minister is so prepared and he doesn’t (or shouldn’t) pretend to be a math or physics teacher. Let us (follow Kuyper) and distinguish the two spheres of creation and redemption and our children will actually be better catechized because of it.

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  1. Scott, thanks for those thought-provoking comments.

    A question: what about church history? Should Christian schools teach church history as a subject? Or is that also the responsibility of the church? If so, I think we have a lot of work to do.

  2. Hi Wes,

    This is a good and challenging question. It is made difficult because we’re talking about *church* history and that seems to make a it a sacred rather than secular subject. It’s also difficult because both the academy and the church have an inherent interest in church history. The academy has an interest in the history of ideas and the history of the church as a social institution. The church has an interest in these two aspects of church history as a family history and as part of its self-identity.

    I don’t think we should let the adjective “church” mislead us, however. I don’t think the church as church has any ACADEMIC obligations. The church doesn’t have a vocation to teach Greek or Hebrew either. Church History is a subset of history generally and is an academic discipline. The question is whether history of any sort should be taught formally, authoritatively, in the church. Inasmuch as the study of history is the study of creation and not redemption, it belongs to the school, as a formal topic, and not to the church as an institution.

    Church history is not a sacred subject. Faith is not required to teach or study the history of the church anymore than it is required to teach or study the history of science or the history of warfare. Teaching church history is not teaching the faith, as such. A Christian school could have a church history component in its history program without transgressing the boundary between the creation and redemption.

    The business of the church is to exposit authoritatively the Scriptures (from the pulpit) and to provide Christian education for its members. The church as church doesn’t have a vocation to authoritatively exposit church history.

    Those things said, a congregation could certainly offer Greek and Hebrew (or ecclesiastical Latin!) to its members in the interests of increasing biblical and Christian literacy and certainly any Christian ed program that omitted church history from its informal curriculum (e.g. the adult Sunday School or weekly Bible Study) would be the poorer for it.

    The Christian school would be well advised to offer a course in church history or at least to include sections on the institutional and intellectual history of the church as part of its history curriculum. That would be true of any good history curriculum in school.

  3. Great article. Question: Where can we get copies of these creeds and catechisms so we can get started? Thanks.

  4. I agree that the bulk of Christian School curriculum related to Bible amounts to weekly lessons in the Law (or at least moralism) with the occasional “Do you know that you know that you know” message to top it off. When I talk with other Bible teachers, they are either amazed or in abject opposition to what I teach…and I am usually appalled or in abject opposition to what they teach.
    I am the Bible department head (which means one other teacher and myself) at my school. I chose Christian Schools International curriculum for a NT/OT survey in the 7th grade, we do logic and “worldviews” (meaning comparative religion) in the 8th grade. I designed a Systematic Theology course for freshmen (J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology is the text book), a Church History course for sophomores (Church in History by Kuiper from CSI), Ethics for juniors (use the Bible only for Law and Gospel 1st q, Mere Christianity, Christian Manifesto, and CSI topical study follow), and Apologetics for seniors (study of God’s attributes, Basic Christianity-Stott, Problem of Pain-Lewis, Can Man Live Without God-Zacharias). My students are required to provide scriptural support IN CONTEXT for every study/project/journal/paper/test we have. In the Ch Hist course we cover from the 1st century to Erasmus in the 1st semester, then spend an entire quarter on the Reformation. Throughout high school my kids are brought to the confessions, ecumenical councils, and creeds.
    I’m out of order for doing this? None…and I mean NONE of the churches in our area do anything close to truly teaching Law and Gospel in any formal sense. This means they teach, at best, a diluted Christianity from an obscured Bible. My own church’s education program is about to undergo a major overhaul because I’m being given this responsibility, so…in about 3 years one church will have such a formal, systematized and catechetical education approach.
    I don’t deliver sermons, I don’t distribute sacraments, and I don’t practice church discipline…there is a clear separation between my personal vocation (and its institution) and the church. But, the reality is the church has abdicated this responsibility and until she takes it up again I feel fine about having the job I do.
    Just for full disclosure…I have some formal training in theology (no degree, yet…in pursuit), a degree in English (BA) and one in curriculum design (MS). Technically, I’m not even qualified for certification to teach Bible by our accredication agency.
    The school were I teach has no church/denominational affiliation. It is board driven, broadly “evangelical” in approach, and anything but committed to creeds and confessions. And I’ve taught Bible (sometimes English and History, too) there for 6 years. I don’t know why they let a plainly reformed person have that responsibility…but, as long as they do I think I’ll keep doing my job-while I wait for pastors, elders, deacons and seminaries to do theirs.
    I have much respect for Dr. Clark and I appreciate his work on both a scholarly front and preparing pastors (our associate is a WSCAL grad)…but I think he needs to go out in his yard and pick up the baby on this one. The bathwater isn’t the only thing that went out the back door.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    I understand your frustration and I see your point of view. I’m trying to get Reformed folk to think through what schools are meant to do by nature. The assumption behind my post, which obviously isn’t happening where you are, is that students are in confessional Reformed congregations.

    My point is to get those congregations to do what they are meant to do and to get the schools to do what they are meant to do.

    When one of the institutions isn’t doing it’s job, obviously my plan fails.

    I worry about the Reformed churches, however, when they try to do more than they should and about the schools when they try to do more than they should.

    I have real respect for dedicated Christian school teachers like you who do their jobs well and who inspire students to real learning.

    We agree that the churches need to fulfill their vocations.

  6. Great post! I think that nowadays we are in a, dare I say, novel position in someways in that whilst Christian parents ought be catechising their children many parents themselves do not understand the terms. In one way then their catechising their children will kill two birds with one stone so to speak.

  7. Thanks for the response. By the way, I meant to write that I really like the new format.

    An interesting read on at least some points of this topic, Machen’s
    “Education, Christianity, and the State.”

    Are there any good historical studies of the Geneva Academy? Or the kinds of schools put forward by the reformers in general?

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