The Covenant of Grace and our Christian Schools

It is surprising and distressing but true. The doctrine of the Covenant of Grace as basic to our Christian schools has come under sharp attack.

Most outspoken in this attack is some correspondence that appeared in this very magazine last March (pp. 19–20). The main thrust of this assault is that our schools should be based on educational principles and not theological ones. A few quotations from this correspondence make quite clear that the Rev. Hugh A. Koops for one is quite ready to discard the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace as foundational to our Christian schools.

“…Mr. Geerdes1 has looked for a foundation for a separate school system in the wrong area. He has turned to Christian theology and come up with the doctrine of the covenant. Is Christian education so bankrupt that it must turn to another discipline to find a foundation for our schools?”

“Wisely, our educators consistently refuse to build a school system upon the doctrine of the covenant. Occasionally the doctrine is mentioned; this occasional reference is also the product of their discretion.” “It does not grieve me that our theologians can find no theological ground for the establishment of a separate school system. It does grieve me that an educator like Mr. Geerdes can find no educational ground for our school system, and must take recourse to what must he shaky ground for him. I certainly hope we can soon find some basis for our Christian schools.”

Mr. Gecrdes has already mad e appropriate rejoinder to these rather amazing statements. Fur the r comment now is unnecessary except that one can hardly refrain from registering his astonishment especially at the last sentence quoted above. It is hard to believe that these are the words of responsible evaluation. When one has been close to the Christian school movement and has had intimate association with many of its devoted and intelligent supporters, he feels this particular statement has an implication that is most unkind and not a little presumptuous. Even if Mr. Koops means to say no more than that Christian school supporters have failed to express their convictions in an intelligent and effective statement of Christian educational philosophy, the thrust of his remark is still quite ill-deserved.


As we move into our precise area of discussion we must take note of the strange disjunction expressed in the above quotations between theological reasons for our Christian schools and educational reasons for their existence. In fairness to Mr. Koops it must be said that possibly he uses these words in a highly technical sense, a sense somewhat unique for his own purposes.

However, it is hardly helpful to push these terms so far out of their usual context of discussion that they become unintelligible to us. He seems to mean more than that Christian educators should be so well grounded ill the principles of Christian education that we no longer need the professional theologian to tell us what Christian education is or means. We are told that to find the foundation of our Christian school system in Christian theology is to find it in the “wrong area.” And therefore, since the doctrine of the covenant is a theological something, it cannot serve as the basis of our separate system of Christian schools.

A kindred spirit pervades the articles on “The Roots of tho Calvinistic Day School Movement” by Donald Oppewal appearing in The Reformed Journal (Sept., Nov., Dec., Jan., 1958–59). He finds an “ambiguity” in the relations between the Christian Reformed Church and the Christian schools maintained by her member· ship. This “ambiguity” shuttles between the school’s independence of the church’s control and even of her creedal formulations on the one hand, and subservience to church control and theological formulation on the other hand. In the latter extreme he sees the threat of “parochialism.” It should be noted that he finds this threat not only in the possibility of actual church control of the schools, but also in the school’s expressed allegiance to church creeds. Oppewal does not seem to push the distinction between theology and education as far as Koops appears to do. While calling for less dependence on the church’s creeds on the part of the Christian schools, he still wants the educational principles that govern these schools to be “Reformed principles.” However, this still leaves one wondering. Are not “Reformed principles” rooted in Reformed theology, Reformed statements of belief? Cannot a school declare its basic allegiance to certain Reformed statements of belief and on that basis develop an adequate and satisfactory set of “Reformed principles” to govern the business of education, Christian education? Is the “bogey” of parochialism properly raised here? I think not.

Now let us take notice. It is precisely in this context where he raises the threat of parochialism that Oppewal makes this statement: “It is in this view of the school that the doctrine of the covenant as the theoretical justification for separate non-public schools comes to be most strongly emphasized” (Reformed Journal, Nov. 1958, p. 13). This can hardly go unchallenged. Oppewal has just quoted a statement from The Banner which hints at a movement to make our schools parochial. In this Banner statement parochialism plainly means what it usually means, namely, church control of the schools. If we let parochialism have this commonly accepted meaning, then we must insist that it is very, very doubtful that the doctrine of the covenant is to be tied especially to a parochial view of the schools. The promotional materials of the National Union of Christian Schools clearly revea1 a strong allegiance to the covenant doctrine as basic to our Christian schools. Surely no one would accuse the National Union of desiring official church control of its schools. Professor Louis Berkhof delivered a notable address before the National Union Convention of 1929 on “The Covenant of Grace and its Significance for Christian Education.” This address contains no hint of parochialism. The present writer spent several years go i n g through the United States and Canada as spokesman for the National Union of Christian Schools, always speaking in terms of the covenant. He has never felt that such espousal of the Christian school cause in terms of the covenant involved a leaning toward parochial· ism. How he feels on this score is made quite plain in his booklet What School For Our Children?, pp. 19ff.


However, much that is said in the previous paragraph might be challenged as hardly meeting the point made by Oppewal. He has his own idea of the meaning of parochialism, as already indicated. To him it appears that we have the spirit if not the essence of parochialism when a Christian school society declares in its constitution that its program is based on the three “Forms of Unity” of the Reformed churches. A man has some liberty to define his own terms, to be sure. But it hardly needs argument to declare he is going beyond the meaning of parochialism as it has been understood in the Christian school movement. Supporters of our Christian schools have looked at the Roman Catholic schools and the Lutheran schools as parochial (parish) schools, schools under the official control of the governing body of the local church. The case for the free non-parochial school is well stated in Oppewal’s own quotation from De Wachter of June 22, 1892: “The Christian school requires a life-sphere of its own, with its own rationale, not as concerns principles but as concerns administration (italics–E.H.). That statement appeared in a debate over changing the schools of the Christian Reformed Church from their parochial status as of that day to the status of free society schools. Bearing this fact in mind, this quotation aptly states that the basic principles of the school are not to be essentially different from those of the church. The distinctive life-sphere of the school is to lie in administration.

Is this argument only a matter of words, of definition of terms? No, there is something more serious involved. Koops asks for educational reasons for the existence of our Christian schools rather than theological reasons. Oppewal speaks of “the failure to root the school consistently in either church creeds or ‘educational creeds’ based on the Bible” (Reformed Journal, Dec. 1958, p. 14; italics–E. H.). Please notice that there is more here than a rejection of the authoritarian role of the preacher or theologian in matters educational. This is not just a matter of the educator’s jealousy for his prerogatives in his field of specialization. He as Christian educator should be jealous for these professional prerogatives and should not be willing to leave the development of educational principles and criteria to preachers and theologians. But that isn’t the point here. Here we are confronted with an either-oreither theology or education, either church creed or “educational creed.” It is this division, this disjunction that must be called into question.

The very genius of our Calvinistic way of life has been that our basic religious and theological principles are regarded as permeating our entire life. And this is the very genius of our Christian schools. It is not the addition of Bible reading and prayer that makes our schools Christian, we have always insisted, but rather the infusion of every subject with the principles of our faith. We cannot be satisfied wit h Oppewal’s intention that his “educational creeds” be “based on the Bible.” Correct, to be sure. But what understanding of the Bible would be used as material for these “educational creeds”? As a Christian of Reformed persuasion the educator in our schools could do nothing other than base his “educational creeds” on Reformed statements of faith.



The serious element in this either or between theology and education is that this is in essence the spirit of secularism that we have all decried in modem life and education. Secularism is that spirit, that attitude toward life in which God and our religious faith become more and more irrelevant. It seems inescapable that the distinctions made by both Koops and Oppewal play right into the hands of the secularist. Yes, it is a refined secularism, but secularism nonetheless.

In a spirit that has become somewhat too common in our Reformed community some one might respond by saying, “What do you mean? Are you telling us that the educators have to do no more in solVing their educational problems than to recite a sentence or two from the Heidelberg Catechism?”

Such would be the language of caricature, not that of sincere discussion. The writer of these lines would be the last to plead for a deadening obscurantist spirit in Christian education which prompted teachers and students to utter religious and theological phrases without rich and dynamic significance for the educational task. He would be the last to enunciate the theological realities basic to our schools if he did not believe that these fundamental principles could and do sustain a program of Christian education that is biblically true and educationally rich.

On the other hand, our theological creeds may not be pushed back into a place where they are regarded as solely the stock-in-trade of the organized. church and the seminary classroom. To do this is to betray a first demand of our rich heritage, namely, that our beliefs, our theology, shall furnish the life-blood of meaning and direction to all of life, also to the educational endeavor. Have we permitted the impression to grow among us that theology and creed are terms that speak more of sterile dogma than of pregnant, living truth? Can it be that we have failed to keep faith with our splendid heritage by failing to give vivid articulation to our basic beliefs in all Significant areas of life and interest, also education? Such failure can further the growth of the refined kind of secularism herein called to judgment.

Theology defines the .basic dimension of life, that of our relation to the living God. Without that dimension, life has no real meaning or purpose. Without that dimension, the educational enterprise loses its way in the wastelands of humanism and pragmatism. Therefore education needs theology as its very breath of life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace. How utterly faulty it is to say that “the covenant belongs in the church, not the school; in theology, not education” (Koops). The covenant belongs to life; life in its totality belongs in the way of the covenant. And our life in Christ belongs to God.

In the next issue we hope to make clear just how and why the covenant of grace is basic to our Christian schools.

1. Reference is to article entitled “The Future of Our Christian Schools” by Raymond J. Geerdes, Torch and Trumpet, Sept. 1958.