The Christian School Impulse

This article is based on remarks made to Christian Schools International (CSI). District 8, administrators’ meeting, April/93.

The Editors

Christians are school builders. Our history as school builders reaches back many centuries and continues today. We build schools for our covenant youth close to home, and we build schools on foreign mission fields to support the work of evangelism.

Why do we build schools? What is the impulse behind this Christian commitment? The original impulse is found in the words of Jesus: Love God with all your mind. Jesus taught that our minds are not to be ignored or put to sleep, but that our minds are a gift from God that must be consecrated to His service. As sinners our minds tend to wander from God, but Paul reminds us that as Christians we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We are obligated to cultivate and develop our minds in obedience to God. Through Christian schools Christians act to develop the minds of their children to love and glorify God.

Jesus’ command to love God with our minds rests on the reality that Christianity is a Word-centered religion. At its root our religion is not primarily a matter of conduct or ritual. Rather Christianity is a matter of revelation and truth, revelation found for us in the Scriptures Christians have always regarded the study of Scripture as vital for faith and life. They have recognized the need for formal instruction based on the Scriptures.




In Old Testament times we find formal study of the Word in the synagogue which had something of the character of a school. The Scriptures were carefully read and studied. The synagogues’s focus on study had a great impact on Christian worship, making the Word central and stimulating the Christian community to study the Word.

The earliest Christian schools were catechetical in nature. As the church made converts it recognized the need to educate these converts in the essentials of the faith. Pastors developed classes to train converts and prepare them for baptism. From this same context came some of the earliest creeds of the church.

By the early third century Origen, one of the church’s most influential thinkers, began to envision schools that would go beyond basic catechetical instruction. He wanted to promote mature and thorough study of the Word. His program included the study of literature, science and philosophy as a preparation for the study of the Bible and theology. His ideal has remained the basis of all Christian colleges and universities (and most education in the West).

Origen’s vision for education was not accepted universally or without controversy. Tertullian, an older contemporary of Origen, had asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” He wondered what the Christian could learn from the non-Christian. Shouldn’t Christians exclusively study the Bible rather than secular subjects? Ironically Tertullian pressed this point with the brilliant tools of rhetoric he had learned from his pagan education.

Another ancient father wrestled with the question of the value of pagan wisdom. Jerome, the great translator of the Bible into Latin, once sold all of his pagan books fearing that the Lord might one day say to him that he was not a Christian but a Ciceronian. He later had to buy those books back to accomplish his scholarly work for the Lord.

The tension between these different ancient approaches to education is still with us in a sense in the differences between Christian liberal arts colleges and Bible colleges. It is interesting to observe that over time Bible colleges tend to change in their evaluation of education as Jerome did, and move in the direction of becoming liberal arts colleges.

Christian schools experienced great growth in the Middle Ages in Europe. The Middle Ages (roughly 600–1500) saw a great experiment in Christian civilization. While we might criticize much in that experiment, the efforts to promote Christian learning were admirable. Few were educated, but for those who were, education began with the trivium (the threefold way): the study of grammar, logic and rhetoric. (The old tendency to call elementary schools “grammar” schools reflects this heritage.) Students then went on to the quadrivium (the fourfold way): music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. After this study one was prepared for the study of philosophy which then led on to either theology, law or medicine.

Medieval education was committed to clear thinking and to truth. It led to a university system (the oldest universities in Europe were founded in the Middle Ages) that promoted a logical (or dialectical) culture. The scholastic theology of the period used logic in pursuit of truth.

The Renaissance in the fifteenth century brought a shift in the educational curriculum. Much more attention was given to languages and the study of texts. Philosophy and truth were still appreciated, but the Renaissance wanted truth expressed eloquently. Scholars believed that the ancient Greeks and Romans had achieved a better balance of truth and beauty than had the medievals. The Renaissance wanted truth effectively communicated in a way that spoke to the emotions as well as to the mind.

In many ways the tensions between medieval and Renaissance ideals of education are still with us. Those who stress a “technical” or largely scientific education today are Significantly the heirs of the Middle Ages, while those who stress the centrality of the humanities and liberal arts are heirs of the Renaissance.

The Reformation inherited elements of both the medieval and Renaissance approaches to education, although there can be no doubt that the Reformation stood closer to the Renaissance. Communication, languages and the study of texts were all basic lessons of the Renaissance that the Reformers used in the service of Protestantism. Luther wrote of the centrality of the text of Scripture to the enterprise of education: “Study Scripture! Without Scripture our schools, our families, our cities and nations, our very souls are led astray by Satan into disorder, disease and death… l would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God’s Word becomes corrupt.” About the study of the original languages of Scripture Luther wrote, “In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages…If God did not despise them [Greek and Hebrew] but chose them above all others for his Word, then we too ought to honor them above all others…And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages.”1

For the Reformers education was essential to prepare leadership in the church and the state. The ministry and the government required leaders who were thoroughly educated for their work.

Reformed Christians gave themselves to the work of education with great zeal. They reformed old universities such as Oxford and Cambridge and founded new ones: Strassburg, Geneva, Heidelberg, Leiden and Utrecht. In the new world they founded Harvard, YaJe, Princeton and others. All these at one time were Reformed schools. Reformed interest was not limited to colleges however. One scholar has observed that under the influence of the Reformation the number of grammar schools increased greatly. In 1480, ten counties in England had 34 schools. By 1660 those same counties had 500 schools.2

Reformed Christians built schools with two key goals: first, to train ministers, and second, to insure that Christians would be able to read the Bible. The greatest single motive for universal literacy in western culture was the desire for all to be able to read the Bible. The Word stood at the center of the schools built.

The Reformed impulse to build schools in the new world dominated the educational enterprise in New England. There, Puritans built America’s first college, Harvard, in the 1630s. But the difficulties of maintaining faithfulness appeared early even in that Puritan environment. By the latter part of the seventeenth century many voices were raised about the growing liberalism at Harvard. In response to these concerns Yale College was begun by Puritans in 1701. Tensions continued to arise as education developed in America.

Paul Scotchmer has traced the changes in American education in a very interesting essay entitled, “The Aims of American Education: A Review from Colonial Times to the Present.” Scotchmer suggests that there have been three dominant phases in the history of American education. The first he calls the Puritan phase. In this phase the aims of education were threefold: piety, morality and utility. The school was to encourage the student to be a devout Christian of moral life able to pursue some occupation. The Puritan ideal in education gradually gave way to what Scotchmer calls the Yankee phase. This phase aimed, Scotchmer argues, at morality and utility. The Puritan aim of educating devout Christians was dropped. Rather a general morality as well as occupational preparation became the aim of education. Benjamin Franklin and the McGuffey readers were classic exponents of this phase. The third phase is called the Liberal phase. In this phase the sole aim that remains in education is the aim of utility. John Dewey is characteristic of this approach.

Scotchmer’s analysis explains several tendencies that have been obvious in many contemporary discussions of education. These discussions so often focus on what to teach and how to teach. These are surely important issues. But following Scotchmer’s analysis we can see that the much more important issue today is why to teach. If students do not have a strong sense of the purpose of education, they will not be motivated to study or achieve. But if education is only for utility, only for job training, students will ask of many subjects, “What do l really need this for? How will I ever use it?”

In our day Christians and Christian educators need to recapture that Puritan vision of education which built on classical views of education. Students need to study to understand the world that their God created. They need to study to be able to read and understand the Word of God. They need to study to become complete (“civilized” as the ancients said), using their minds to the fullest to glorify God. They need to resist the dominant utilitarianism in education. They need the schools that are excellent in every way.

As American education progressively moved to its Yankee and then Liberal phases, many interested in Christian education came to believe that the American public schools were not schools for their children. Those interested in Christian education became more and more mainstream.

Lutherans felt that way and established Lutheran schools. Roman Catholics felt that way and founded their own parochial schools. Dutch Reformed sensed that and began Reformed Christian schools. More recently in America there has been the rapid expansion of fundamentalist and pentecostal schools. These schools represent great theological variety, but all share in a sense of alienation from the American mainstream, first of all religiously, but usually also sociologically and ethnically.

The Dutch Reformed schools of our tradition originally had a strong sense of purpose. It was well summed up in the famous motto of Groen van Prinsterer: “In our isolation is our strength.” Initially Dutch Reformed schools were isolated in a variety of ways: ethnically, linguistically and geographically. But the isolation that really mattered was ideological or theological in character. Kuyper’s idea of the antithesis became a strong expression of the Reformed conviction that in principle the regenerate and the unregenerate are utterly distinct. Dordt College in its founding gave symbolic expression to this conviction in choosing its school colors: black and white.


Today the isolation of our Reformed schools is changing in many ways. The linguistic isolation has ended. Many of our Christian schools have spread into a variety of regions of the country and are much more ethnically diverse. Our schools are also less isolated theologically. They are affected by the same theological differences and tensions that the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Christian colleges are experiencing. Our community, including our schools, is increasingly becoming part of the American mainstream. We are not outsiders as much as we once were. Nor do we seem to desire to be outsiders.

Is our new “insider” status a reflection of the fact that our Reformed world-and-life view has transformed our culture? Or have we accommodated to the mainstream culture? Who is transforming whom? Have not we in fact given up the antithesis for accommodation?

The impact of this shift in the Reformed community could be devastating for the Christian schools. If we are insiders in American culture, why do we any longer need the schools of outsiders? Already in the Christian Reformed Church voices are heard saying that the Christian school enterprise takes up too much time, energy and money in the church, resources that ought to be devoted to evangelism. Others are asking if our schools are sufficiently different from the public schools to justify their existence.

The irony of our current situation is that in many Christian Reformed communities a significant number of the Christian school teachers seem to want to be insiders as much as anyone. Some are clearly allied with the more liberal or progressive wing of the church that wants to bring the CRC into the mainstream. Yet should not all Christian school teachers logically ally with the conservative wing of the church which believes passionately in the Christian school system and provides a great deal of the money that supports the system? The unholy alliance of some Christian school teachers with progressives who do not really support Christian education needs reexamination.

Indeed the whole enterprise of Christian education needs reexamination in every generation. Each generation and every family must recapture a sense of the importance of Christian schools. The only way to do that is to return to the original impulse: a commitment to the Word of God in all its fullness. We need to be convinced anew that the Bible in all its parts and all its words is the very Word of God. We need to live out our faith that only the revelation of God can guide us in a dark and sinful world and illumine our dark and sinful minds. Only the Word of God will save our Christian schools. God will bless those Christian schools that nurture the next generation on the inerrant Word of God.


1. Cited in Mark Noll, “TheEarliest Protestants and the Reformation of Education,” Westminster Theological Journal, 43 (1980). pp. 114,128,115.

2 Paul Scotchmer, “The Aims of American Education: A Review from Colonial TImes to the Present,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 13 (1984), p. 104.

Dr. Godfrey is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA.