Finding the Focus

The key word of this convention is balance. It gives rise to various pictures. You can find balance in a circus. The tightrope artist neatly packaged in her tights struts the wire with the precision of balance. Each careful step elicits new “ohs” and “abs” from the excited audience. The artist’s poise, skill and beauty are the occasion for spirited applause. The performer’s art of balance is a matter of entertainment for a herd of people afflicted with the disease of “bIeacheritis.”

The picture is obviously inappropriate. Board members, school administrators and teachers are not concerned with entertaining their supporting constituency. They must direct and develop the educational patterns of their communities. The purpose of our convention theme is not to teach us the art of educational tightrope walking in order to receive the praise and plaudits of tuition paying parents. I suppose the cynic could interpret the concept of “balanced emphasis” in terms of trying to satisfy the wishes of those who pay our salaries and finance our building ventures. Obviously such an interpretation implies a denial of our mandate as educators.

There is, however, another picture more descriptive of our key concept and definitive of our purpose at this convention. It is the picture of the scientist trying to discover the fulcrum about which the wheel of Christian education can turn with precision. In this essay I have chosen a figure from the science of physics. Our task at this convention is find the proper focus in our educational principles and practice. A focus is “a point at which rays, as of light, heat or sound, converge or from which they diverge.” If we are to discover and maintain a balanced emphasis in our program as educators we must find that point at which various voices which seem to contradict each other find their basic harmony. We must search for that point at which various light waves can focus to project in clear colors a theory and practice of Christian education which will produce graduates of high quality who will command the respect of their secular and relativistic contemporaries. In all our group discussions we must find the proper focus so that we can maintain a balanced emphasis in our common cause.

The Big Question

The program committee has posed a big question for us. They ask, Are we agreed on the foundations of our educational system? This is the biggest and most important question which can be raised and discussed at this convention. It concerns the quality of the education we offer in our Christian schools. This question of quality ever remains an urgent one. For a long time the problem of quantity engaged our energies. We were ever eager to establish more and more Christian schools. We wanted the communities of mature Christians to organize societies, build schools and formulate a unique Christian curriculum. All too easily the success of the Christian education movement was measured in terms of percentages. The fact that 98% of the children of a given community of Christians attend a Christian school was usually taken to mean that they are receiving a Christian education. But the products of our schools compel us to raise our eyebrows and listen to the question put by our committee. The time is on us, and has been for some time, to learn how to use our new facilities effectively so that we may turn out products impressive in Christian quality. For this reason it makes sense to raise the question as to foundations and to keep on raising it until we achieve a greater measure of unity in our theory and practice.

Are we agreed on the foundations of our educational system? There are three possible answers which can be given. Some say “yes”; others say “no”; and still others say, “In a sense ‘yes’ and in another sense ‘no.’ Those who answer affirmatively mean that all intelligent and consecrated Christian educators confess the truths which have been articulated in the Reformed tradition and formulated in the Reformed confessions. These truths about God and man, which group themselves around the basic facts of creation, fall and redemption, are woven into the foundation of our Christian educational system. Everyone assents to their validity.

With this affirmative answer we can agree. As far as I know there are no responsible Christian school teachers who deny these confessional truths. If this appraisal is too unrealistic and naive, and if you know of some who question these truths, it is your Christian responsibility to pursue the proper procedures in correcting such a tragic and dishonest situation. It is, however, my finn conviction that we all are in basic agreement as to the validity and relevance of our specific Reformed doctrines.


Others answer our big question negatively, or imply that there is but little agreement on fundamentals. One example of this position is found in the informative and interesting doctoral dissertation of Dr. George Stab. On pages 429, 430 of his thesis he writes about three philosophies of education which are abroad in the Christian Reformed community. The first school of thought places great respect on the learning and culture of Western civilization as a gift of common grace and believes that Christian education should stand in the very best of the whole tradition of human learning, informed by and placed under the governance of the Word of God. The second school of thought speaks of the development of the whole personality of the child and its major interest in so saying is to emphasize that the proper goal of Christian education is to bring the child in a right relationship to God. The third school of thought emphasizes strongly the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian learning and thought. The reading of this analysis creates the impression that there is a lack of agreement on the foundations of Christian education. Although the author does not speak specifically of a sharp contrast between these philosophies he does not indicate that there is agreement. For this reason I have used his analysis as an example of those who would answer our big question in the negative.

There is, however, a third answer to our question. It claims that in a sense there is agreement and yet in another sense there is not. This may sound like double talk spoken in the interests of trying to satisfy everyone. But this need not be the case. In actual fact this answer best describes the situation in our Christian school community. This situation is extremely complex and the only way in which we can adequately describe it is to say that in one sense there is agreement as to the foundations of our educational venture and in another sense there is an absence of agreement.

On the one hand there is basic theoretical agreement as to the truth and importance of specific Christian doctrines. We agree on such fundamental truths as: the creation of man in the image of Godly man’s status as a religiously and covenantly conditioned creature; his natural total depravity as described in the Reformed confessions; his urgent need for and the existence of redemption through the sovereign grace of God in Christ Jesus; the existence of God’s common grace; the ideal of having a redeemed humanity glorify God in every area of human endeavor. These truths and others, as described in the Reformed confessions, are given assent, wholehearted assent. It should be noted that I mention these truths as described in the confessions. Obviously there is some disagreement as to specific theoretical formulations of these various doctrines, hut then the disagreement on points of detail does not seriously prejudice the fundamental agreement which exists. A realistic appraisal of our situation leads me to say that all our educators not only give wholehearted assent to these truths but they also desire to implement them in educational practice. This wholehearted assent and this desire to apply our Reformed doctrines is present in most every case. The existence of a few spiritually displaced persons in our school system does not invalidate the thesis that in a very real sense we may and must say that we agree as to the foundations of our educational system.

But this is not the whole answer. In actual practice we have not succeeded in applying and implementing these truths in our schools. Here the phrase “in a sense the;re is no agreement” takes on its meaning. When it comes to formulating practical objectives and realizing them in the classroom we discover a wide range of emphasis which renders suspect the basic unity of theoretical assent. For example, one teacher in the interest of training a pupil to think can create an abstract intellectual situation in which the influence of the Holy Spirit and divine revelation is marked only by its absence. Such a teaching situation is no different from that found in secular schools except in the fact that it takes place in a school which is Christian in name. Another teacher in trying to correct such a tragic situation can begin to moralize in such a way that the classroom atmosphere takes on the tone of a revival meeting. Or a school board in close consultation with the school administrator in the interest of developing technical skills for life’s varied and complex vocations can easily allow the school to lose its specific educational task by transforming it into a kitchen, law office, doctor’s laboratory and a pastor’s study all rolled up in one. The problem is not so much one of theoretical disagreement on the truths of our system but rather one of bringing these truths into focus in our educational theory and practice. Therefore we can answer the big question by saying that in a sense we agree as to fundamentals and yet in another sense we do not agree.

The Big Gain

If we answer our question in this way we will have gained something substantial for the further progress of this convention. On the one hand we can carryon discussion in a spirit of mutual confidence. We can proceed by assuming fundamental agreement as to the validity and relevance of our Reformed doctrines. In the middle of our pointed disagreements no one will have warrant to challenge the Reformed or Calvinistic loyalty of the other. And in receiving criticism directed to us we need not rear our heads in holy indignation as if someone were challenging our confessional loyalties. On the other hand, if we answer our question as to fundamentals in the way mentioned above, everyone can be eager to reassess his own classroom theory and practice in the light of the criticisms offered by another. Such eagerness to reassess one’s own position is necessary. Even though we may agree as to a theoretical formulation of a certain truth this does not mean that we are allowing this truth to function in our teaching practice. We need each other and by standing together in fundamental agreement we can work on our divergent emphases in a spirit of mutual confidence which is strengthened as each constructively criticizes the other.

This would constitute a huge gain. We will be able to allay a great deal of suspicion which is now abroad and help create an atmosphere in which critically constructive discussion can take place with profit and progress. This matter of atmosphere in which confessional loyalty is not rendered suspect by genuine criticism is at a high premium in many Christian Reformed circles today. As educators you can do much to form this climate. As we assume basic agreement on foundational truths we approach each other in mutual confidence and charitable respect. As we assume a divergent range of emphasis we see the challenge for fresh, dynamic discussion which will keep us from the peril of complacency. Three days of intense activity at this convention in which you critically evaluate each other’s teaching programs in a spirit of mutual confidence and respect can do more good for the cause of Calvinistic thought in our circles than many realize.

The Big Task

Our task as delegates to this convention is to bring our commonly accepted truths into sharper focus in our teaching and administrative practices. We must search for that point in practice at which various fundamental truths converge. The various truths of our tradition must come to focus upon the teacher, the subject matter and the pupil. As we discover this focus our educational venture will take on fresh meaning and Christian dynamic. Enabled by the grace of God we can make a good contribution toward articulating a uniquely Christian or Calvinistic pattern of education.

At this point I wish to suggest a few areas of discussion in which we need to find the focus. As a keynote speaker I have the rare privilege of merely sounding the notes. It is your task as educators and administrators and directors to compose the music. I shall avoid the presumption of trying to find the proper focus in your various fields. You have the special training which this task requires. I can do no more than suggest a few matters where we must find the focus, but I do so in the confidence that everyone will work at this task with devotion and precision.

A. It is imperative to find the focus when trying to implement the truths of common grace and the antithesis. The doctrine of common grace is important for our educational enterprise. There is an activity of God’s goodness common to all men, an activity by virtue of which man’s sinful nature is restrained and by virtue of which the unbeliever can perform works which are relatively good and discover insights which are correct as far as they go. By virtue of common grace as it operates in conjunction with God’s general revelation the non-Christian possesses a great deal of knowledge about this world which is as true as far as it goes. This knowledge possesses great value for the program of Christian education.

I realize well enough that there are differences of detailed formulation in connection with this matter of common grace. There are some Reformed scholars who would avoid the term “grace” in this connection and speak rather of goodness. Others urge us to abandon the concept of civic righteousness since this betrays a highly scholastic color. But these differences in formulation do not materially alter the fact that there is basic agreement as to the existence of truth in the cultural stream of history which has been largely formed by non-Christian thinkers. The valued insights received from a thorough knowledge of the culture of Western civilization can be and should be evaluated and appropriated by the Christian educator and his pupils. A Scriptural emphasis of the fact of the antithesis in no way erects an iron curtain between sound Christian education and a thorough study of classical learning and western culture.

Those who insist that there is no basic agreement on this point are fighting straw men and battling windmills. Even Dr. C. VanTil, who is often unfairly accused of denying this truth, says explicitly: “By virtue of their (the natural man) creation in the image of God, by virtue of the ineradicable sense of deity within them, and by virtue of God’s restraining general grace, those who hate God, yet in a restricted sense know God, and do good.” (The Defense of the Faith, p. 407) In his syllabus on Systematic Theology, Van Til insists that non-Christians often have a better knowledge of the things of the world than Christians have. In articulating his views still more fully Van Til goes so far as to speak of absorbing the culture of unbelievers into tIle Christian view of things by keeping in sharp focus the biblical fact of the antithesis. Despite the efforts of Drs. Daane and Masselink to prove that Van Til denies the essence of the third point of the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924 Dr. S. J. Ridderbos of Amsterdam in his book Rondom Het Gemene-Gratie Probleem, pp. 37, 38, asserts that Van Til stands in basic agreement with the Synod of tile Christian Reformed Church.

It is not my purpose here to analyze the complex structure of these various polemics. But we must rid ourselves of the popular misunderstanding which assumes that there is basic disagreement as to the existence of much that is good and true in the broad stream of human culture. Every Christian educator must stand close to the stream of human thought and learning in order to understand the very culture in which he lives and in which he must live as a Christian. Any educator who refuses to study, evaluate and appropriate the classical cultural traditions of the human race is not only quite naive in forgetting that he himself has been shaped by that cultural tradition but also fails to allow the truth of the doctrine of common grace to function in and modify his teaching program.

But at tile same time we must keep in focus the Biblical truth of the antithesis. Having been translated out of darkness into the light of the Son of God we must ever remain critically sensitive to our unique position. The antithesis has been put into life by God as a result of his saving action. The establishment of the antithesis does not mean that the Christian takes an exclusively negative stand in life. It does not involve the pulling down of an iron curtain on training within the stream of human thought. It is not a monotonous no, no, no, to the great ideas embodied in human history and literature. It is not a barricade thrown up by fearful and insecure Christians. But it does mean that the Christian educator and student view life in specific relationship to Christ Jesus and His word. It means that the Christian must develop a uniquely Christ-honoring and God-glorifying system of thought. It means that if life and learning are to be part of Christ’s new Kingdom the educator and the educated must live under the constant stimulus of the Holy Spirit who enables us to bring every thought into the captivity of Jesus Christ. We must ever remain alert to keep the commonness involved in common grace and the difference, the radical difference involved in the antithesis in fruitful interaction and shall? focus. We must maintain a balanced emphasis at this point in our teaching and practice.

This focus is hard to keep sharp. There are some educators who accent common grace in such a way that the difference between classical culture and Christian culture is reduced to a matter of degree rather than of kind. They fail to implement the Scriptural truth of the antithesis which God has put in our world. It is not that they disbelieve the truths of total depravity, the antithesis, the need for positive affirmation and articulation of the principle of regeneration, but in actual practice these men and women fail to allow such revealed truths to function in and modify their teaching program. In acquainting their students with the products of western culture and the truths discovered by modern science they fail to nurture the spiritually sensitive critical apparatus of God’s children by means of which they are to see, evaluate and appropriate everything in specific relation to Jesus Christ and his Lordship. In this failure to relate everything to God’s glory in a meaningful way these educators nurture school products who are indifferent to or ignorant of their specific Christian responsibility. Students inspired by such teaching practice fail to show genuine spiritual concern for and love of the Kingdom of God. They are graduated with a view of life and practice in which Christ, his word, and God’s glory are more adjectival than substantive. By failing to keep the truths of common grace and the antithesis in clear and intelligible focus these teachers have unwittingly contributed to the tarnishing of the lustre of true godliness.

Other educators have seen this tragic situation. In trying to correct it they also blur the focus. In the interest of nurturing a godly concern for life and learning in the right relationship to Christ they are tempted to neglect training in the broad and fruitful stream of human learning. They are interested in nurturing a specifically Christian spirit, a uniquely godly approach to life and learning. They want every graduate to remain sensitive to their unique position as God’s children who live by grace under the governance of the Word of God. In trying to achieve this laudable goal they look askance at our western cultural heritage, or when they speak of it, they do so in terms of fear and thus fail to give an adequate and fair appraisal of it. Realizing that God’s Spirit has made them different they are afraid to live on the frontiers of learning. Their fear has created a paralysis so that they are too weak and uninformed to swim in the broad streams of life in a way which remains loyal to God and his word. As a result they turn out products who do not understand the world in which they must live the Christian life. By failing to keep common grace and the antithesis in clear focus they are not really educating their students and equipping them to make a creative contribution to the Kingdom of God in this world.

Our task is to find the focus in our practice. This is not an easy matter. It demands energy, time and searching periods of critical self evaluation. It is a task which must begin immediately and which must continue as long as we enter the classroom to nurture God’s covenant children. It is a task which no one can do alone. It must be accomplished within the fellowship of the redeemed community. If each one of us will be humble enough to admit that we haven’t reached educational perfection as yet and if we will be courageous enough to give ourselves to this task we can make real progress in our educational program. I trust that everyone here, will spend these three days of convention activity in trying to focus common grace and the antithesis.

B. We must find the focus when it comes to training the head and the hand in relationship to the heart. In this area of discussion we face the practical problem of an appropriate curriculum for a Christian school. What is the specific task of the school? Is it necessary to teach various technical skills such as sewing, cooking, driver training. wood turning and lath operation? Has not the school become the catch-all for lazy homes, demanding businesses and a highly commercialized pattern of life? Have school boards and administrators resisted these demands for more and more technical courses in sufficient measures to insure adequate intellectual training? By resisting the tendency to introduce more and more of these technical courses can we still claim that we are developing the whole child and treating him as an individual with peculiar needs and unique capabilities? If we introduce more of these subjects are we still remaining loyal to the special task of the school in disciplining the mind?

Various realistic considerations make the answers to such questions extremely difficult to give. The typical American school is a big and broad institution. In fact it is assuming more and more functions which in times of less specialization were carried on by the home, the church, and small businesses. Life is highly specialized demanding many technical skills which were not demanded of our fore bearers. Recent gains in psychological insight require the educator to remember that he must address the whole child and not some special function of the child. These and other considerations compel us to focus our program in such a way that we can train for life as it is about us and still train our pupils in such a way that they are graduated as educated human beings.

In the educational program we must focus our efforts on disciplining their minds. The school’s basic task remains that of disciplining the intelligence. It must develop their ability to read, to write, to think, to understand and test the logic of arguments which are far more subtle and complicated than those addressed to our parents in the past. The school must train God’s children to be prophets and not amuse the young goats in a spirit of fun. We are grateful that most Christian schools have not gone as far down the road of entertainment as the public institutions in our land. But we must be on our guard at this point. If the schools do not emphasize this vigorous and adventurous intellectual training our children are not going to receive it. The home is cracking under the strain of the centrifugal forces which are pulling parents and children apart. They aren’t going to receive such training there. Nor are they going to receive it in the churches for this is not their task. It remains your job to discipline their minds.

Nor does this training of the mind exclude the training of the hand. There are many pupils who need the development of the technical skills. They demand this because of the native endowment which God has given them. They demand it because they want to spend their lives in those vocations which require special training in various technical skills. But even then we must keep in focus that these pupils must learn to read, to write, to think, and test the logic of complicated arguments. If they are to be God’s prophets, and no one is excluded from the prophetic task, their minds must be properly disciplined.

Man was created in God’s image unto and for the one task with its prophetic, priestly and royal aspects. Every graduate of our schools must make his contribution to the task of articulating a Christian culture. And such Christian culture is articulated by God ordained kings. Such work can be performed because these kings are in possession of prophetic insight into the meaning of God’s Word for all of life and they arc in possession of priestly consecration to the service of God. Christian kingship rests on Christian priesthood, and Christian priesthood rests on Christian prophethood. This is the divine order. Christ first taught, then sacrificed and then ruled. And so we must keep our focus in the school program of training prophets, priests and kings, in that order, for God’s glory and human blessedness. Here again we must try to keep the focus sharp and the program balanced.

C. The Christian school teacher must find the right focus as to the pupil’s covenantal status. It is very easy to distort this position by assuming too much and by assuming too little. What does it mean for teacher-pupil contact that the child is a covenant child? Are these children in a basically right relationship to God or do they live at some half-way station? Must we train them as Christians or as children who need to become Christians? Is it consistent with our principles to speak of the goal of Christian education in terms of leading covenant youth to a decision for Christ?

These and related questions were raised at last year’s convention in Lynden, Washington. Various resolutions were adopted and sent on to the local schools. The delegates felt that much remained to be done to promote Christian living. The convention urged the Christian schools to emphasize in every way “personal piety of the life with the Lord,” “the maintenance of God’s moral and disciplinary standards in the school life of the child,” “dedication of the intellectual work of the school as work to be done unto the Lord.” (Christian Home and School, Vol 34, No. 1.)

Graduates of high spiritual quality seem to be at a premium. As educators watch more and more spiritually anemic and anonymous products leave our schools they plead for direct concern for the spiritual welfare of the child. It is urged that Christian educators must press for a personal decision for Christ. Dr. C. Jaarsma gives sharp formulation to this matter. He writes, “To lead them (covenant youth ) to a decision for Christ is the goal of Christian education (Christian nurture ), in the school as well as in the home and in the church.” He uses still stronger language. He speaks of the chief task of the Christian school as leading covenant youth to Christ in personal commitment. (Fundamentals in Christian Education, pp. 293, 294.)

Here again our task is to find the right focus. By speaking of leading covenant children to Christ the impression might be created—certainly Dr. Jaarsma does not want to create such an impression—that Christ is not present or involved in the covenantal situation. It is assumed that covenant children are not qualitatively different from the children of unbelieving parents. If a difference is mentioned it is usually spoken of in terms of external privilege, opportunity, and advantage such as Christian example, Bible reading, prayer, etc. The assumption is that all children, covenantal and non-covenantal, must be called to Christ in the same way. The teacher then devises appeals, sets up learning situations, which apply to all children in the same way.

By assuming too little we emasculate the covenant of its real content. The covenantal declaration by God in Holy Baptism may not be abstracted from the internal grace of the Holy Spirit. We must take God’s promise and declaration at its face value. They are “sanctified in Christ and members of his church.” Even though many act like undisciplined goats we may not doubt God’s word. For this reason the Conclusions of Utrecht state, “That according to the confession of our churches the seed of the covenant, by virtue of the promise of God, must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or in doctrine.” (Schaver, The Polity of the Churches, Vol. II. p. 36.) Since this is true it is ambiguous and questionable to speak of “leading children to Christ” without carefully circumscribing this appeal in terms which do full justice to God’s declaration of gracious love.

It is, however, equally true that we may not assume too much. We have no right to identify the covenant declaration of God with regeneration. Baptism is not a badge identifying regenerated children. Covenant fellowship does not take place apart from faith. There is nothing automatically biological about getting into and maintaining a right relationship to God and his Christ. We must ever urge our covenant children to the act of appropriation and commitment. They must be called to repentance and faith without ceasing. To mute this sound is to infect covenant children with the fatal disease of complacency and ease. And this remains a sickness unto death. That is why the same Conclusions of Utrecht also state, “that it is imperative in the preaching constantly to urge earnest self-examination, since only he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” (op. cit., p. 37.) We can also speak of teaching in our schools at this point.

This does not mean that educators must begin to preach. As a clergymen I wouldn’t care to see our teachers transform the school lectern into a pulpit. But you ought to devise learning situations in which the pupil is made aware of the presence of Christ in their lives as well as in the lives of the teacher. Moralistic discourses are usually cheap and quite subversive of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. But in correcting behavior patterns, in matters of motivating the children to more consecrated energy in their learning task, in explicating the revelational environment in which they live and move and have their being as God’s imagebearers, you have glorious opportunities to bring your pupils to fresh and daily commitments of faith and trust. In such ways you do not lead them to Christ, but rather make explicit the Christ-connected relationships which are already existent and important in a Christian school. These dynamic relationships which are objectively existent must become subjectively more meaningful in the life of our pupils on every level of Christian education. To fail in this regard is to subvert the very nature of Christian instruction. Here our big task is to find the focus and maintain it in our teaching practice.

In Conclusion

This big task demands the very best of everyone of us. No one has the right to leave it up to others. We have a fine opportunity to begin this lifelong task anew at this convention. In a spirit of mutual confidence and loving respect we can constructively criticize each other in the hope that we all have the Christian humility to accept and profit from such criticism and the Christian courage to go ahead and correct our one-sided emphases. We are here as members of the Body of Christ. In humble dependence upon the guidance of His Spirit, drawing freely from the spiritual resources which he graciously provides, we can go on to achieve the goal of genuine Christian education. Let us resolve anew to search for the focus, and as we help each other find it, let us ask God for strength to keep it.