“Advocates of Christian education have always maintained that the Christian school is an outgrowth of the covenant idea…They are convinced that the Christian school, as well as infant baptism, finds its main support in the doctrine of the covenant, and are therefore unalterably opposed to the tendency of some to slight this doctrine and to relegate it to the background.”
One who stood very much in the middle of the Reformed community that maintains our Christian schools spoke the above words. It was Professor Louis Berkhof speaking to the 1929 convention of the National Union of Christian Schools. His words were timely thirty years ago. They surely are timely today.
All supporters of Christian education would do well to read or reread the lecture from which the above quotation is taken. ] Professor Berkhof gives his ideas as to the precise significance of the covenant doctrine for Christian education. We shall not repeat these points here. worthwhile as they are. Rather, acknowledging a debt of gratitude for this fine treatment of the subject, we move on to a somewhat expanded discussion of the significance of the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace for Christian education, more specifically for our Christian schools.
IS THE DOCTRINE ESSENTIAL?
A preliminary question must be faced. The question arises from the fact that there are Christian schools, quite a number of them, that are not avowedly based on the doctrine of the Covenant. Does not this fact tend to undercut somewhat the claim of fundamental importance for this doctrine?
It might seem to do that. But a few observations are in order at this point. a. Though the doctrine of the covenant may not be consciously recognized or expressed in these schools. this does not mean that the covenant is not present as living fact. In a similar way the Christian who “can’t see” the doctrine of election is nonetheless elect. though missing the rich blessings coming with conscious acceptance of the doctrine. b. Many of these Christian schools that are not based on the doctrine of the covenant are parochial schools and thus subject. as we see it, to certain limitations on their educational program by the specific task of the church assigned to it by Christ. c. A different notion of the nature of Christian education commonly pervades the instruction in these schools. The school is often looked upon as mainly an evangelistic agency with the resultant tendency to develop a false division between nature and grace. between religion and culture. and also a very restricted notion of the Christian’s calling. An extreme illustration of the point came to the writer’s attention a few years ago when he was reliably informed about a teacher who spoke somewhat as follows after spending a few months in a certain school, “I’ve gotten all the children to accept Christ as their personal Savior. Where do I go now to teach? d. It is a well-known fact that many of these schools have not come into being out of regard for the inherent requirements of the Christian faith. but rather out of discontent with existing schools.
Also bearing on the importance of this doctrine is the rather frequent charge that the precise educational significance of the Covenant of Grace is often claimed but rarely demonstrated. There may be some truth to that charge. But those who make the charge should temper their criticism at this point with an appreciation for two things. In the first place the matter is complex, more so than is commonly realized. And in the second place we are dealing with something that can never be wholly encased in a nice doctrinal statement. This is the case because in the covenant we are dealing with life. spiritual life, life lived in the gracious fellowship and friendship of God. It is for this reason that many a humble Christian school supporter, with his heart and mind governed by the Word of God, can speak earnestly of the Covenant of Grace in its important relation to home, family, school, church and the whole of life. without being able to supply an adequate intellectual statement of that important conception.
DOCTRINE OF GOD BASIC
Is the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace the only doctrine basic to our Christian schools? To that question we would have to say no. Most basic is our doctrine of God. Always in our Christian thinking and living we come back to Cod, the living and sovereign God, Creator of heaven and earth. Creator of man in his own image. The secret of life for man is to live in fellowship with Cod in love and obedience. It is in God that “we live, and move, and have our being.” Apart from him life in its every dimension is wayward, frantic, empty and lost. Apart from God the educational enterprise is a sometimes fascinating and exciting journey into meaninglessness and vanity. In all phases of experience to know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent is life, yes, life eternal. Knowing God and living in loving and obedient fellowship with him is that supreme wisdom of which Proverbs speaks in these trenchant and heart-searching words, “For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favor of Jehovah. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul; all they that hate me love death.”
It is precisely at this paint that the crucial importance of the doctrine of the covenant appears. A tremendous gulf exists between God and man, between the Creator and the creature. God is terrible in majesty, wholly sufficient unto himself, needing nothing to fulfill his life and being. He dwells in a light unapproachable. How can man, mere creature that he is, have meaningful fellowship with God?
The answer to that question plainly presents itself. Man can have fellowship with God only by an arrangement made by God himself. This manner of hating dealings with a sovereign is plainly reflected in every instance in Scripture in which some facet of the covenant is presented. Always it is God who establishes His covenant on His terms.
THE SIMPLE COVENANT IDEA
This then is the simple basic covenant idea. It refers to the arrangement made by God for his image-bearing creature to have fellows hip with him, the Lord of life and truth. When God created man with capacity for such meaningful communion with his Creator, God did not in deistic fashion turn man loose in the wide reaches of creation to work out a manner of life for himself. No, God immediately laid down certain terms for his life. Man was placed under a command, a sweeping command that has been called the “cultural mandate” (Genesis 1:28). From the very start it was plain that man’s life must be lived in obedience to God in the full range of his life in and over the created world. This broad mandate has never boon abrogated or reduced. It stands today as the original and abiding directive from the sovereign Creator to his rational-moral creature. Man’s relation to God would always stand in a setting of intelligent contact with and mastery over God’s created world.
This rational-moral creature is just that and not a machine operating with mechanical obedience. His obedience must flow from the center of his life, from a loving and devoted heart. It must be a conscious obedience, one consciously and freely accepted. Does man thus humbly and gladly bow before the rule of God over the whole of his life? That man might freely declare himself before God and himself and history, God concentrated the principle of obedience as the rule of man’s life in a single specific command, the probationary command, as it is commonly called. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.”
Then came the fall of man. Man failed in this phase of God’s covenant dealings, a phase commonly called the Covenant of Works. Thus fallen Adam always stands as the symbol of the failure of all purely humanistic schemes of life, or all notions of life that are oriented to the idea of human perfectibility. The first Adam declares to all history that the good life and the full life will never be a human achievement. The first Adam declares for all time that man simply as man cannot gain the fullness of life in intelligent, fruitful and masterful rapport with God’s entire creation simply because life at its center has been ruptured.
“There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.” (Canons of Dort, III–IV, 4. Italics E.H.)
What now? Does God leave to death this being with whom he has covenanted? Not at all. God institutes a new phase of his covenant dealings with man. God seeks out the shameful, cowering sinner. He points his finger down the stream of divinely ordered history to the second Adam, Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the seed of David, the seed of Mary. Henceforth central to the full and meaningful life of man before God in God’s world would be the reality of grace. Now man would find his life by surrendering it to the Christ of God, in whom alone is that perfect obedience which is the imperishable and unchanging demand of the living God.
In considering these facts of sin and grace in the life of man, something of importance is not to be overlooked. Before the fall all mankind was represented as one in Adam. After the fall the house of mankind is divided, split down the middle. There is to be enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. There will be those who accept the terms of God’s covenant and those who reject them. There will be those who believe and those who do not. There will be the line of Seth and the line of Cain. There will be those of the church of Christ and those of the synagogue of Satan. An antithesis exists in the human family, and this fact affects all that makes up the life of man. The people of God are to live out of the taproot of grace-given faith in the Christ of God. This gives the whole of their lives a distinctive quality which they must struggle to maintain against the pressures of man-centered ways of life and thought. The complex and strategic business of molding a human soul for vital covenant life requires that men be trained from the very start in this distinctive way of life and for the struggle to maintain it. This surely is an important aspect of covenantal education.
DIVINE—BUT ALSO DIVINE—HUMAN
This covenant in its origin, institution and terms is wholly divine. It is monopleuric, to use an older term. God always speaks of “my covenant,” But in its realization in history it is divine-human. It is a faulty statement of the covenant doctrine to speak simply of being in the covenant to enjoy its blessings and assurances and to ignore the tremendous spiritual, personal and familial requirements of that covenant. Essential to the actual historical reality of the covenant is the rich spiritual content of love, obedience and faithfulness that must be poured into it from the human side in response to the just demands of the covenant God. When the covenant child is presented for baptism to receive the mark of membership in God’s gracious arrangement of promise, a pledge of such obedience and faithfulness in the rearing of the child is exacted from the parents. And the responsibilities of the child as he grows to maturity are made clear in the language of the liturgical form used with the sacrament. Yes, such response is by the grace of God, but God’s grace does not reduce but rather underscores the reality of human responsibility. When God came to Abraham to declare formally the establishment of the covenant, God prefaced his declaration wit h the s: e meaningful words, “I am God almighty; walk before me, and be thou perfect.”
THE COVENANT AND LIFE
The covenant is not an abstraction. It is not an academic plaything. At an car Her point in this discussion we have said that the covenant represents life. Yes, indeed, it is filled with the breath of life, so much so, we have seen, that the covenant in its actual living reality must always elude complete encasement in a fine doctrinal statement. The covenant represents life in fellowship with God. This life is not something removed from the actualities of historical existence. In the formal establishment of his covenant with Abraham and his seed God declared that this covenant shall be “throughout their generations.” This is the language ·of life, of moving history, not of abstraction. Here is biological life, physical life, spiritual life, social life, life in every meaningful facet of human existence.
What specifically are some of those things that declare the covenant to be a living thing? In the first place God stipulated a visible, tangible sign to reinforce the reality of his covenant. In the Old Testament this sign was the bloody operation of circumcision. In the New Covenant this sign is the non-bloody symbol of baptism with water.
At the very center of this covenant life that moves from generation to generation is the family. Observe God’s wondrous ways, way s that blend the natural things and the spiritual things into the fabric of covenant life. In the covenant God uses his own original and basic unit of social life, the family. How utterly narrow is the view that . looks upon the covenant as belonging “in the church, not the school; in theology, not education.” The Christian family is first of all and always a covenant family. This marks its entire life. At the same time the wail of babies, the chatter of children, the strong voice of the father, the loving services of the mother—all of these things contribute to the reality of the covenant. For the children of God covenant life is family life, and family life is covenant life. These things are inseparable. Indissolubly wrapped up in the intimacies and vivid experiences of family life is God’s covenant.
Closely related to the above is a third item that underscores the vital actual character of the covenant in the full fabric of life. Easily the most important and determinative human relationship is that between parent and child. For good or for ill no human relationship determines life so much as this one. In a thousand and more ways the parent is constantly molding the life and character of his offspring. What the child shall be tomorrow is largely determined by the interaction that takes place between him and his parents today. This crucial determinative force in inter-human relationships is also obviously involved in this covenant that moves from generation to generation. And, note this, this powerful factor in the molding of life always operates (in a truly Christian home) in awareness of the fact that God’s claim on the child takes precedence over the claims of parental love. The child is to be reared at every step for God’s sake and not to satisfy the claims of parental love or ambition.
In the fourth place still another very real historical force is involved in the covenant life. This may come as a surprise to some. Yet, the point is obvious enough. The covenant moves from generation to generation. This cannot occur, of course, except through one of the most powerful forces that God has created in man. The sex function is implicit in the life of the covenant. This function implicates so much of man’s physical, emotional and spiritual life, as many studies have abundantly revealed. Also this important area of life God lays claim to in the realization of his covenant from generation to generation.
It is precisely this fine interplay of God-created natural facts and forces with spiritual realities that makes the covenant such a strategically important thing. Indeed, the writer is disposed to doubt that this fusion of the “natural” and the “spiritual” can be more tellingly demonstrated at any other point of Christian truth and life. And this makes good sense. For the covenant is the God-ordained scheme in which and by which life in its totality is to be lived in fellowship with God. To seek to relegate the doctrine of the covenant to “theology,” to the church as something limited to these supposedly restricted areas of concern, is simply indefensible.
THE RESPONSIBLE PARTY IN EDUCATION
Because of this whole complex of facts and forces present in the divinely instituted covenant it is obvious that the responsible party in the total program of training the covenant young is the parent. It is he who must see to it that this total program shall always have God in Christ at the center of it. This is plain from the covenant structure as such. The parent stands under the love and discipline of God’s covenant. It is in the parent-child interaction day by clay that the pattern of life and character is formed. Childhood is the seedtime of life. In this seedtime the person must be brought under the love and discipline of God in Christ. Through the loving discipline of Christian parents and family life the individual must grow in the penetrating knowledge that his egocentric energies must be directed, not toward self, but toward God and his glory. Through the loving training of the parents he must grow in the knowledge and experience of the love of Christ and unto living in love for his Master. With all that this entails for the whole of life nothing in man’s total education is more important than this. This is the living heart of the covenant of grace.
If the above discussion has made clear what the writer had hoped to demonstrate, then the following points should be plan:
a. Covenantal education is not narrowly religious education. With the cultural mandate always in the background and with the requisite that life in its fulness believed in meaningful fellowship with God in Christ, it is a very faulty notion of the covenant to think that its requirements can be met by what in some church circles is called “religious education.” The orientation of the covenant is not simply soteriological, having to do with salvation in the narrowest sense of the term. The range of the covenant is as broad as the life that man is called to live before God in Christ, the God of all creation and history, the God of all culture and science.
b. Covenantal education at its core is redemptive and must always be. Christ must stand at the center of it. Only as we are redeemed in Christ can we live in fellowship with God. And only in that living fellowship through Christ can we live meaningfully in God’s world.
c. The doctrine of the Covenant of Grace appears to the writer to be the best “instrument” we have for the wedding of religion and culture, which is the essence of Christian education and full-orbed Christian living. This is the case because of the peculiarly rich way in which “natural” and “spiritual” factors are blended in the covenant life. To this we add the fact that in the covenant we stand at the point of highest educability. At this point we have the child standing in the most important and determinative relationship in life on earth, and at this point we have that which must be the very essence of Christian education, namely, man with all his native powers under the love and discipline of God directed toward the service of God in Christ in the full sweep of his experience in God’s world. Any downgrading of the doctrine of the Covenant therefore must result in damage to this wedding of religion and culture and thus in damage to both religion and culture. With secularism threatening to engulf us this is not a time to place a question mark behind the importance of the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace for our Christian schools. Rather this is a time to place an exclamation point behind this blessed gift of God by exploring with fresh insight and enthusiasm the educational riches inherent in it.