The Holy Spirit in Christian Education | Dewey Dovel

by | Sep 6, 2023 | Practical Theology

 

The Holy Spirit in Christian Education | Dewey Dovel

 

From the earliest days of civilization to the twenty-first century, human beings have demonstrated an insatiable curiosity about the world in which they inhabit.[1] Philosophers, scientists, and theologians often posit competing explanations regarding the ultimate nature of reality.[2] Ordinary citizens in the public square regularly assert truth claims and spend countless hours debating the validity thereof.[3] When considered holistically, the yearning for knowledge appears to be transcribed upon the DNA of mankind.[4] Consequently, the curiosity embedded into human cognition has fueled formal education pursuits around the globe for millennia.[5] Such pursuits have entailed no shortage of questions or spilled ink concerning preferred approaches to education.[6]

While it is impossible to speak to every conceivable methodology, a common denominator in contemporary educational contexts is materialistic anthropocentricism: man is the centerpiece within these educational philosophies (anthropocentricism), resulting in a rejection of any immaterial or transcendent entities (materialism).[7] Given materialism’s pervasive influence on the realm of secular academia, one should not be surprised to see human beings at the crux of its educational philosophies.[8] Yet for contexts that self-identify as Christian, the philosophical underpinnings of education are fundamentally antithetical to non-Christian counterparts.[9] Whereas the a priori conviction of secular academic institutions is to divorce god(s) from the pedagogical endeavor, Christian academic institutions are unashamed to solidify education philosophies around the triune God.[10] Stated differently, secular educational philosophies are the product of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2d); Christian educational philosophies are the product of the Holy Spirit, who is truth itself (John 16:13).[11]

For the remainder of this paper, the author will propose a philosophy of Christian education featuring at least three core distinctives:

  1. Christian education must be shaped by divine revelation.
  2. Christian education must be shaped by the lordship of Jesus Christ.
  3. Christian education must be shaped by holiness of living.

Scripture appropriates the mediation of divine self-disclosure (2 Pet. 1:20-21), the glorification of Jesus (John 16:14), and the sanctification of Christians to the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18).[12] Therefore, the bulk of the aforementioned principles—as further developed below—will be incorporated into any God-glorifying and Spirit-shaped pedagogy.

 

Christian Education Must be Shaped by Divine Revelation

 

In conjunction with curiosity, one could rightly observe that presuppositional is another architectonic descriptor of the human race. There is never a moment in man’s creaturely existence that his interpretation of reality is not directly shaped by an aggregate of known or unknown presuppositions.[13] One of the most central presuppositions embraced by Christians is that the triune God has plainly revealed Himself in nature and in Scripture (Ps. 19:1-14; Acts 17:24-31).[14] Cornelius Van Til helpfully and thoroughly expounds this certitude in The Defense of the Faith.

God has never left himself without a witness to men. He witnessed to them through every fact of the universe from the beginning of time. No rational creature can escape this witness. It is the witness of the triune God whose face is before men everywhere and all the time. Even the lost in the hereafter cannot escape the revelation of God. God made man a rational-moral creature. He will always be that. As such, he is confronted with God. He is addressed by God. He exists in the relationship of covenant interaction. He is a covenant being. To not know God, man would have to destroy himself. He cannot do this. There is no nonbeing into which man can slip in order to escape God’s face and voice. The mountains will not cover him; Hades will not hide him. Nothing can prevent his being confronted “with him with whom we have to do.” Whenever [man] sees himself, he sees himself confronted with God. Whatever may happen, whatever sin may bring about, whatever havoc it may occasion, it cannot destroy man’s knowledge of God and his sense of responsibility to God.[15]

-Cornelius Van Til

Insofar Van Til’s argumentation is cogent, a philosophy of education cannot be classified as Christian apart from seeing itself as exhaustively shaped by divine revelation.[16] Whether studying math, science, history, language arts, or the Bible, every truth disclosed in every subject taught is a truth that God has solidified in creation.[17] A philosophy of Christian education understands that God has graciously allowed His image bearers to acquire knowledge of the world by the Holy Spirit’s gracious work.[18] Accurate discernment of spiritual truth depends on the Holy Spirit’s work of regenerating grace (1 Cor. 2:10-16), and the ability to rightly apprehend natural truth depends on the Holy Spirit’s work of common grace (Acts 14:16-17).[19] Thus, Christian educators must recognize their absolute dependence upon the Holy Spirit to teach students the truths that God has unveiled in general and special revelation.[20]

 

Christian Education Must Be Shaped by the Lordship of Jesus Christ

 

Every genuinely Christian philosophy of education must be shaped by the lordship of Jesus Christ because Christ Himself is the telos of divine revelation (Col. 1:15-20; Rev. 1:8).[21] When considering Jesus’ relationship to general revelation against the backdrop of His divine nature, one can rightly affirm that general revelation has showcased the glory of God the Son from the moment of creation ex nihilo (Ps. 8:1-9; Rom. 1:20).[22] When considering Jesus’ relationship to general revelation against the backdrop of His post-resurrected, ascended, and glorified human nature, one can rightly testify that Jesus of Nazareth rules over the entirety of general revelation as the King of kings and Lord of lords (Acts 2:33-36; Phil. 2:9-11).[23] In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “there is not a square inch in the whole of creation over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[24]

Additionally, Jesus enjoys a unique relationship to special revelation as the incarnate word of God (John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:3).[25] When considering special revelation against the backdrop of Jesus’ divine nature, one can rightly note that He co-equally decreed every detail ever to be penned in sacred Scripture along with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Rom. 11:36; Eph. 1:11).[26] When considering special revelation against the backdrop of Jesus’ first and second advents, one discovers that the Old and New Testaments ultimately point to Him (Luke 24:25-27; John 5:45-47).[27] Ergo, the inspired words penned by the human authors principally function as the Holy Spirit’s witness to Christ’s person, work, and instruction (Rom. 15:4-6; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).[28] In a world where confusion abounds about the character and will of Christ, praise be to God that we possess an inerrant and unchanging portrait of Jesus in His Word![29]

A Christian’s reverence for special revelation is nurtured as a result of apprehending the Holy Spirit’s direct involvement in Scripture’s authorship, and the ensuing byproduct is surrendering to the One that special revelation chiefly reveals: the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44-48; John 5:39).[30] As the people of God surrender to Christ’s lordship over general and special revelation, they will inevitably begin to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (Acts 17:11; 2 Cor. 10:3-5).[31] Inasmuch such a practice is concretized in Christian educational settings, God will be glorified as students learn to interpret reality as their Creator would have them to do so.

 

Christian Education Must Be Shaped by Holiness of Living  

 

Education will always feature the process of acquiring knowledge and the development of critical reasoning skills; this is true regardless of one’s geographical, historical, religious, or social context.[32] However, a Christian education is not merely the dispersing of new information from teacher to student. Christian education is not solely embodied by learning about truths entrenched within the created order or connecting every iota in reality to the lordship of Jesus Christ. While a Christian education will certainly be distinguished by each of the antecedent elements, education is not repletely Christian unless growth in holiness is stressed to the same degree as growth in knowledge.[33] This dual necessity is passionately conveyed by A.W. Pink in his work, The Holy Spirit.

“Knowledge puffeth up” (1 Cor. 8:1), that is a notional, theoretical, intellectual knowledge that is merely received from men or books in a natural way. But that spiritual knowledge which comes from God reveals to a man his empty conceits, his ignorance, and worthlessness, and abases him. The teaching of the Spirit reveals our sinfulness and vileness, our lack of conformity to Christ, our unholiness, and makes a man little in his own eyes… The light of God shows how far, far short we come of the standard Holy Writ reveals, and stirs us unto holy endeavors to lay aside every hindering weight, and run with patience the race set before us… Here then, is a sure test… Does increasing light lead to a more tender conscience, more Christlike character, and conduct? If not, it is in vain [and is spiritually] worthless.[34]

-A.W. Pink

Although diametrically opposed at the presuppositional level, secular and Christian contexts of learning will mirror one another by presenting students with manifold opportunities to grow in knowledge. Even so, it would be a great tragedy if the only differentiating factor between secular education and Christian education were differing ideological convictions. Even the demons can espouse orthodoxy (Luke 4:34; James 2:19), and it is oxymoronic to call an institution Christian if there is no discernible contrast of belief and lifestyle from secular institutions.[35] Whether an administrator, student, or teacher, all believers are called to be renewed in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness over the duration of their spiritual pilgrimage (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).[36] By the gracious enablement of the Holy Spirit, may all bonafide Christian educational contexts likewise be oriented to such an end.

Soli Deo Gloria!

 

[1] Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009), 1-4.

[2] Although the disciplines of philosophy, science, and theology are often seen in conflict with one another, Vern S. Poythress demonstrates how this should not be the case on pages 13-31 of Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006) and pages 13-19 of Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

[3] “Social Media Statistics Details,” Undiscovered Maine, October 8, 2021, https://umaine.edu/undiscoveredmaine/small-business/resources/marketing-for-small-business/social-media-tools/social-media-statistics-details/.

[4] Even secular neurological and psychological studies have disclosed that human cognition is foundational to human experience. Consider the following resource as a sampling of this research: Celeste Kidd and Benjamin Y. Hayden, “The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity,” Neuron 88, no. 3 (November 4, 2015): 449–60.

[5] On the basis of recorded human history, Tyrel Eskelson argues for at least 5,000 years of formal education in “How and Why Formal Education Originated in the Emergence of Civilization,” Journal of Education and Learning 9, no. 2 (February 5, 2020): 29–47, https://doi.org/10.5539/jel.v9n2p29.

[6] A sample of book length treatments teasing out competing methodologies of formal education are Russell Lincoln Ackoff and Daniel A. Greenberg, Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back On Track (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2016) and James M. Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2021).

[7] James N. Anderson, What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 69-70.

[8] As defined by John M. Frame in A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015): “[Materialism is the belief that] all events can be explained in terms of matter and motion. On this view, there is no immaterial soul. If there is something we can call soul, it is either material (the Stoic view) or an aspect of the body” (10-11).

[9] Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 2000), 51.

[10] George R. Knight, Philosophy & Education: An Introduction in Christian Perspective (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2006). 224.

[11] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are derived from the New American Standard Bible (1995).

Furthermore, this paper is not arguing that it is impossible to attend or work for a secular academic institution and be faithful to one’s Christian witness. Rather, this paper is observing that at the philosophical level, secular and Christian academic institutions are operating from fundamentally antithetical presuppositions. By definition, secular academic settings seek a neutral/non-religious stance from the outset of formulating curriculum, hiring staff, etc. On the other hand, Christian academic settings seek a positive religious stance from the outset of formulating curriculum, hiring staff, etc. Yet ironically—given the philosophical impossibility of neutrality—the former approach is not only unable to satisfy its own expressed intentions, but it also necessarily sets itself in opposition to biblical Christianity (e.g., Matt. 12:30; Luke 9:50). Therefore, by virtue of being incompatibile with biblical Christianity, secular educational philosophies should be understood as materializing from the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4). At bottom, Believers who choose to be immersed into secular educational contexts need to be aware of the preceding antithesis from the outset of their involvement.

[12] Although all of the triune God’s ad extra works in creation are inseparable, many passages of Scripture will appropriate specific works to one person of the Godhead. For more on the “essence-appropriate”—“persons-appropriate” distinction, see Mark Jones, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2017), 22-23.

[13] The inescapability and universality of presuppositions is teased out on page 5 of Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, ed. William Edgar, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003): “Everyone ‘sees’ through a lens. There can be no neutrality, because everything in our awareness flows out of some kind of presupposition.”

[14] Theologians have historically designated God’s revelation in nature as general revelation, and God’s revelation in Scripture as special revelation. More expansive definitions of these terms can be found on page 936 of John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).

[15] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008), 176.

[16] Lamenting the state of secular education in “What Shall We Feed Our Children?,” Presbyterian Guardian 3 (1936), Cornelius Van Til calls for the people of God to retrieve a distinctly Christian education:

“Our child will certainly attend the grade school for several years and that for five days a week. In Sunday school our child has learned the nineteenth psalm. As he goes to school those beautiful words, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ still reverberate through his mind. But when he enters the school room all this has suddenly changed. There the ‘starry universe above’ somehow operates quite independently of God. And what is true of ‘the heavens above’ is true of everything else. At home the child is taught that ‘whether we eat or drink or do anything else’ we must do all to the glory of God because everything has been created by God and everything is sustained by God. In school the child is taught that everything comes of itself and sustains itself. This much is involved in the idea of ‘neutrality’ itself. At best this means that God need not be brought into the picture when we are teaching anything to our children. But is it not a great sin for Christian parents to have their children taught for five days a week by competent teachers that nature and history have nothing to do with God? We have no moral right to expect anything but that our children will accept that in which they have been most thoroughly instructed and will ignore that about which they hear only intermittently” (23-24).

[17] On this point, the axiom “all truth is God’s truth” is especially applicable. For insights into the utilization of such an axiom, see Frank E. Gaebelein, The Pattern of God’s Truth: Problems of Integration in Christian Education (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1968), 20.

[18] In Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 1, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), Herman Bavinck argues that the “operation of God’s Spirit and of his common grace is discernible not only in science and art, morality and law, but also in [false] religions” (317). Hence, the ability for humanity to know any true things in reality is an extension of God’s common grace, with a special appropriation to the Holy Spirit’s work in creation.

[19] These twin truths were championed by the Dutch Reformed Neo-Calvinists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A sampling of this observation is portrayed in Cory C. Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022), 91-92.

[20] Upon reflecting on Christian teachers’ absolute dependence on the Holy Spirit throughout the educational process, J.T. English offers sage insights in Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2020): “There is no path for deep [learning] other than living the Christian life by the power of the Holy Spirit; only he can make us whole again and conform us to the image of the Son. If not for the work of the Holy Spirit, all of our best ministry plans [and efforts] would be laid to nothing” (136).

[21] As argued by Stephen Wellum in “From Alpha to Omega: A Biblical-Theological Approach to God the Son Incarnate,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 63, no. 1 (2020): 71–94, the Lord Jesus Christ is both at the center of Scripture and is the goal (telos) of Scripture.

[22] By virtue of divine simplicity, and the ensuing doctrine of inseparable operations, the entirety of the Godhead co-equally receives glory through any self-revelation in creation or Scripture. As footnote 12 indicates, “persons-appropriate” language does not undermine the co-equality of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

[23]  Daniel J. Treier’s chapter in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, ed. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 216-42 is especially helpful in accentuating the lordship of Christ subsequent to His humiliation and exaltation (e.g., Phil. 2:5-11).

[24] James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

[25] The following excerpt from Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Revelation and God, vol. 1, 3 vols. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019) incisively communicate the unique relationship that Jesus has to God’s special revelatory purposes:

“Possessing unique intimacy with the Father, the Son is uniquely qualified to make known. Christ is ‘the Word,’ the living Revelation of God who has been from the beginning, so that no one has ever known God unless ‘the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father,’ has ‘declared him’” (266).

[26] See footnotes 12 and 22 for clarifying comments about “persons-appropriate” language in Scripture.

[27]  In Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2015), John Calvin unpacks how the Old and New Testament authors were guided by the Holy Spirit to divulge the person and work of Jesus Christ:

“If what Christ says is true—‘No one sees the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ [Matt. 11:27]—surely they who would attain the knowledge of God should always be directed by that eternal Wisdom… Therefore, holy men of old knew God only by beholding him in his Son as in a mirror (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). When I say this, I mean that God has never manifested himself to men in any other way than through the Son, that is, his sole wisdom, light, and truth. From this fountain Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others drank all that they had of heavenly teaching” (763).

[28] The Holy Spirit’s role in bearing witness to the person and work of Christ is summarized on pages 13-14 of Roy B. Zuck, Spirit-Filled Teaching: The Power of the Holy Spirit in Your Ministry (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998).

[29] Perhaps the quintessential evidence of global confusion surrounding Christology, and other basic tenets of orthodox Christianity, is encapsulated in the bi-annual State of Theology Survey conducted by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. To access the results of every survey from its inception in 2014, see “Data Explorer,” The State of Theology, accessed August 30, 2023, https://thestateoftheology.com/.

[30]  Chapter 17 (i.e., “The Holy Spirit and Scripture”) of Gregg R. Allison and Andreas J. Köstenberger, The Holy Spirit (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2020), 307-23 supply readers with many helpful insights pertaining to the connection between a believer’s reverence for God’s written word, and how such a reverence cultivates a posture of submission to Christ’s lordship.

[31] Although the notion of “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” is usually attributed to Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Jason Lisle provides several practical ways in which believers can “think God’s thoughts after Him” on pages 54-61 of The Ultimate Proof of Creation: Resolving the Origins Debate (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2022).

[32] The definition recorded for education is a paraphrase of the more expansive definition transcribed in Robert B. Costello, ed., Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (New York, NY: Random House, 1992), 425. In the technical sense, this definition is a faithful synopsis of what any education experience will offer.

[33] Based on the model of Acts 2:37, Lawrence O. Richards and Gary J. Bredfeldt propose that there are three integral dimensions to imparting divine truth to students (or people in general): (1) cognitive; (2) affective; (3) behavioral. The cognitive dimension pertains to exposing others to truth, the affective dimension alludes to the process whereby one explains how attitudes/values should be impacted by the truth, and the behavioral dimension refers to how a lifestyle should be impacted as a result of embracing the newly discovered truth. Each of these insights documented by Richards and Bredfeldt signify a uniform perspective on the relationship between what one knows intellectually and how one applies that particular data. To access the chapter long treatment of these subjects, see Creative Bible Teaching (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2020), 145-63.

[34] Arthur W. Pink, The Holy Spirit (Seaside, OR: Rough Draft Printing, 2016), 107-8.

[35] Despite many individuals and institutions who claim the name Christian, and embrace orthodox doctrinal/ideological convictions, an evaluation of their observable lifestyle reveals that they are not Christian in any meaningful (i.e., biblical) sense of the term. Francis Turretin highlights the nature of those who model proper head knowledge, but display no fruit of living it out: “[Unbelievers of this kind possess knowledge that] sticks to the uppermost surface of the soul (to wit, intellect); [but] it does not penetrate to the heart, nor does it have true trust in Christ.” Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George M. Giger, vol. 2, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1994), 588.

[36] This threefold line of argumentation employed throughout the paper has followed this biblically-based template:

Knowledge: Christian Education Must be Shaped by Divine Revelation.

Righteousness: Christian Education Must be Shaped by the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Holiness: Christian Education Must be Shaped by Holiness of Living.

Incidentally, a synonymous line of reasoning is likewise expressed in Question and Answer 13 of the Baptist Catechism: “Question: How did God create man? Answer: God created man, male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures (Gen. 1:26-28; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24).”

An online edition of the Baptist Catechism can be accessed here: “The Baptist Catechism,” Founders Ministries, September 12, 2022, https://founders.org/library/the-baptist-catechism/#:~:text=God%20created%20man%2C%20male%20and,4%3A24).

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Are all sins the same? | Tom Hicks

Are all sins the same? | Tom Hicks

“Is it true that all people are equally sinful? If someone has sinful anger in his heart, but never acts on it, is that person really the same as someone who has sinful anger in his heart and then murders his whole family?”

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