A New Protestant Educational Theory II – An Appraisal

Professor Emerson W. Shideler, in setting forth a Protestant doctrine of education,1 claims to have found the way out of the dilemma of teaching religion in the public schools. If we accept his conception of education as conscious training in making decisions, we shall not be forced to deny the authenticity of our religious claims when public schools teach religion, nor shall we have to set up our own separate schools. He tells us he has found the way to be both objective and non-partisan without denying our allegiances or goals. If he can substantiate this claim, he has done the whole Western world a tremendous service. Let us take a second look.


Shideler has correctly seen that the informational theory breaks down in a critical way at the very point where it claims to be strong. The impartiality that is needed to make it succeed is only a mirage. With sure vision Shideler has seen that both in the selection of the facts that are presented and in the most “objective” presentation of them there is a deep and inescapable involvement of the teacher as well as the student. Uninterpreted facts do not exist. Mute facts cannot speak. The facts that do speak come to us through the voice of the interpreter; i.e., through the teacher, in his language, his choice of words, his selection of material, his inflection of voice, in fact, even in his presumed impartiality. This inescapable involvement of the instructor in the educative process makes the informational theory wholly untenable.

Our professor has also clearly sensed the directive role of one’s commitments in the learning process. It will make for better understanding all around if the teacher does as he says; namely, expose his own commitments as clearly as he can. Through the commitment man’s religion speaks. What now is the precise role of religion in education?


It seems to be the assumption of many that the role religion should play in the educational process is limited to the teacher’s commitment. While the content of the commitment may vary, its form is in any case the same.

A commitment, however, may mean two quite different things. It may be the person’s initial taking-of-position that underlies all he does. It may also denote the basis, method, and way in which he “discovers and selects his ultimate norms.” In the first CllSC it is a real starting point. In the second instance it is only a conclusion which one selects in order from it to proceed further. If it is used in the second sense, the question arises: what lies behind this commitment? Why docs the person follow precisely this method and teach these conclusions?



Therefore, we shall do well to analyze with care the relationship betwecn commitment and religion, for it appears that persons whose views of religion differ greatly will at least agree that one’s commitment must be recognized. It is possible to advocate an involvement-in-commitment and at the same time hold to a view of religion that leaves man completely autonomous (independent. self-determining–Ed. ). It is also possible to stress the initial and pervasive religious involvement in terms of the complete sovereignty of Cod in the educative process. The former is exemplified in Shideler’s Protestant educational theory. The latter has recently been done in the formulation of a Christian educational creed by the Association for Reformed Scientific Studies.” The meaning of “commitment” is by no means unequivocal. It is determined by the religion which it expresses.

A religion of human autonomy not only allows but may openly advocate that the teacher clearly display his commitment for therein he can exert his autonomy. The religion of Christianity, if it is to be true to itself. will also advocate that the teacher make known his initial taking-of-position, for it requires that the truth which man believes in his heart he must confess with his mouth. Therefore, before we can define the place of the commitment in education, we shall have to consider the religion it expresses.

The trend of thought that has left behind the out-moded conception that one’s personal religious convictions need not and should not enter into the educational process and now espouses the open recognition of religious involvement, is both a step forward and a step backward. It is a step forward inasmuch as it stresses the impossibility and the undesirability of teaching from an unbiased viewpoint. It is a step backward, however, because it exchanges the supposedly neutral for that which is admittedly controlled by the concept of an autonomous religion in which man selects his ultimate norms. In the former view learning was largely a no-man’s land. Now it is put squarely in the lap of man.


The question is this: is religion an area in which man exercises control? or is it service? Does it enable him to decide in unobstructed and undetermined choice to go his own way in life? or is it an all-encompassing service of God (Gottesdienst)? Is religion man’s sovereign initiative? or is it his obedient response?

The educational creed of the Association for Reformed Scientific Studies clearly states that “scholarly study unfolds itself as service either of the one true God or of an idol.” There may be a difference in that to which the service is rendered (either to God or to a substitute for God) but in any case scholarly study is service. It is a religious exercise, for life in its entirety is religion.

On this view religion understood in terms of human autonomy is also service. And scholarly study which springs from such religion is service too. But because this religion proclaims and this study assumes that man is a law unto himself, the service is the service of man. He is his own idol.


Let us consider how this comes to expression in Shideler’s Protestant theory of education. He says, “The teacher’s primary job is that of making clear the bases upon which he weighs the facts, the methods by which he separates fact from fancies, and the ways in which he discovers and selects his ultimate norms.” He must leave the pupils free to make their own commitment. In doing this “he protects their freedom to declare themselves and to respond to God or to reject him if they so will.”

In line with this view of the autonomy of man, truth is neither final, nor absolute nor propositional. “It is not a specific body of content at all.” Truth must be explained in terms of a living relationship between man and God. It is not a set of formulas or the recital of facts about Him, but “the life of Christ that one shares in dialogue with God.” God reveals himself, not propositions about himself. In the dialogue between God and man, because man “ultimately identifies truths and formulates them, he must bear the burden of his judgment, which means taking the risk that in his sin and finiteness he has erred. He cannot genuinely indoctrinate lest he perpetuate his errors and condemn his pupils—or his children—to the fate of his own errors.” In man’s dialogue with God he finds that he needs, not knowledge, but forgiveness.

One cannot escape the impression that in this man-God dialogue man is doing most, if not all, of the talking. This we might have expected, for since the truth is not a set of revealed propositions, in fact has no specific content at all, it would logically follow that it is impossible for God to speak. To give a twist to a saying of Karl Barth: of man it is impossible for God to speak, for when He speaks of him, it is no longer man of whom he speaks.

Autonomous man, having cancelled out not only the finality of God-revealed truth, but also its specific content, now goes in search of truth. As he proceeds in this “quest,” which is more sacred than the search for the Holy Grail, he must reckon with both his finiteness and his sin. After he has carefully safeguarded himself against God, for in dialogue with God he discovers that what he needs is not knowledge but forgiveness, he can safely allow for sin. Whoever will still protest and say that sin is not sin unless it is the violation of God’s revealed law, that a propositionless law is no law, and that a law without content cannot exist, must be told that his protest itself only shows that ho is operating with a false view of God, of man, and of the truth.

Autonomous man, having disqualified the indoctrination of truth, “not because one disagrees with the conclusions being indoctrinated, and not because one fears the success of such indoctrination, but because of the false view of man and of truth that such doctrine presupposes and propagates,” can then openly and freely debate the alternatives with those who disagree with him. “He cannot silence them without betraying his own principles.”

Autonomous man, having cancelled out of the dialogue with God the Word of God that abideth forever, can safely engage in dialogue with fellow man, even with those with whom he basically disagrees. Once man has freed himself from the final and propositional truth of God and therefore need not respond in re-saying what God has said, he can safely bring alternative ways of thinking and believing into dialogue with each other. And he can do this all without forsaking his allegiances or ideals!

It should be crystal clear, however, that this theory that education is training in making decisions, but not indoctrination, makes it impossible to live the religion that is the service of a sovereign God. A god whose sole revelation to man is to tell him that he needs forgiveness need not be taken seriously. Surely not if even this minimal word of forgiveness is deleted of any “specific content.” it is a dark day indeed when in the name of a Protestant theory of education the religion of revelation ceases to be a live option. God who is thought to have revealed himself in eternal, unfailing truth cannot really reveal anything about himself, only himself. If man is “commissioned to pass on, unchanged, the truth he receives from God, his freedom as a man is gone.” Since at all costs the freedom of man must be preserved, God may not interpret, much less pre-interpret anything.

A religion of human autonomy can indeed openly discuss alternate ways of assessing data and passing judgment, provided they stay within the bounds of man’s freedom an(} right to choose or reject, to weigh and select his ultimate norms. Nothing is excluded except the way of Christian faith. Such a religion can be tolerant of an almost endless variety of religious commitments. It is intolerant only of that which commits and binds man to a God-given law and to life-long service of the Lawgiver and Redeemer.

But how religion and education are related, how the dialogue between God and man, and between man and man is related to a Christian educational theory, and how Christian education and the training in making decisions are related, will require still further study.

1. The Christian Century, September 27, 1961, “A Protestant Doctrine of Education.”

2. The summary of this educational creed states, “THAT all scholarship pursued in faithful obedience to the divine mandate will heed the normative direction of God’s Word, will acknowledge His Law to which creation in all its spheres is subject, and will bow before Christ’s Kingship over all scientific work.”