Wanted: A Christian Philosophy of Education!


With mounting interest and concern I have watched the recent exchange of views in The Reformed Journal and in Torch and Trumpet. When the article of Professor Henry Stab, “Note to a College Freshman,” appeared last Fall in the Journal it aroused certain misgivings in my mind as in the minds of others. In that article, it will be recalled, the college freshman was first advised that he must set himself to leave behind his own narrow world of personal prejudices and to “reach out for the broader mind of Man” as it found its expression in the world’s great thinkers, writers, artists, etc. Then he was told that “There is a higher level of education still, and another Mind to be attained.” It was not merely the mind of Man he should desire, but he must “attain the mind of Christ.” He was told that this “movement from the second to the third does not involve the abandonment of the second, but the inclusion of it within a larger perspective _.”



What aroused misgivings about this way of presenting the Christian educational aim was that it seemed to set the mind of Christ along side of, although, to be sure, far above the universal mind of man as a sort of “higher” level, and no account seemed to be taken of the way in which God’s Word presents the mind of man in general as fundamentally in opposition to the mind of Christ, teaching us that “the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be; and they that are in-the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:7, 8; compare also I Cor. 1 and 2 where the “mind of Christ” is similarly sharply opposed to the natural man and his thinking.) In other words, there seemed in this bit of writing to be no account taken of the enmity between the mind of the natural man and the mind of Christ, or of the fundamental fact of sin, and the process of Christian education was presented as a kind of movement through pagan thought up to Christianity without any sharp negations or repudiations involved, in much the . way that a Modernist might present it. To be sure, an effort was made at the end to show how necessary it was for the student to reach this last level and that it could be reached only by the grace of God, but that did not alter the previous description of the mind of Man and the suggested Christian evaluation of it.

Now this is stating the case rather bluntly, but it will serve to make plain the kind of misgivings the article aroused and the way in which it aroused them. Although the article seemed open to such serious criticism, it seemed likely that it had been written rather hastily and presented a fragmentary and inadequate notion of Professor Stob’s true point of view. In the last Reformed Journal Professor Stob has replied to criticism of the article in somewhat the vein that one might anticipate, giving us a more extensive presentation of his philosophy of Christian education as well as a reaction to the criticism of the article. This carefully formulated statement of his view of education is on the whole reassuring and invites hearty agreement.

Yet when one reflects upon it in the light of the original “Note,” it still leaves certain questions in the mind of the reader. We are told that these principles, “endorsed by Reformed people everywhere,” have governed his “Note to a College Freshman” and that “It was squarely upon the basis formed by them that the Note was laid.” Therefore, in spite of a generally well formulated statement of educational principles, we are still faced with the problem of attempting to reconcile this “Note to a College Freshman” with our Christian Faith and Reformed principles, the more since Dr. Stob in this more extensive and carefully considered article emphatically endorses the position taken in his original article.

Dr. Stob endeavors to help liS by a rather involved argument. He points out, for example, an ambiguity in the use of the word “Mind.” Although we read in the Scriptures “the mind of the flesh is enmity against God,” he tells us that “There is not an absolute antithesis between the Christian and the non·Christian mind.” “There is an unqualified and absolute antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate heart.” He has told us in the Note “You must leave behind the subjectivity of your narrow self and reach out for the broader mind of Man. It is the purpose of a liberal…education to…make you kin to the large-minded men who have created our art and science and have become the teachers of our race. With this mind in you, you can enter appreciatively into the thought and labor of the Platos, and Goethes, the Shakespeares, etc.”

But now he explains, “This doesn’t mean that we must have Plato’s mind. Plato’s mind was a mind inseparable from and affected by Plato’s apostate heart, and thus quite incapable of adoption by a Christian.” In spite of his extensive efforts to place a true construction upon the Note, I am still confused. I still have difficulty in seeing how the original Note with its high evaluation of the universal human mind can be harmonized with Professor Stob’s own now expressed principles, with the Scripture teachings already mentioned, and with such statements of our Confessions as those of the Canons of Dort that man revolting against God “became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment;” and that although there remain in man “since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light,…he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.” (Canons, Ch. III and IV, Art. 1 and 4)

It seems to me that Professor Stob in these articles raises a fundamental issue which unfortunately he attempts to straddle. I have tried to formulate this issue in my own mind in the form of this question: Is the unbeliever’s system of knowledge, as a result of God’s common grace, basically true (although because of sin it contains errors), or is the unbeliever’s system of knowledge, as a result of sin, basically false (although because of God’s common grace it contains relative truths)?

The original note of Dr. Stob evidently assumes the first position while much of his explanation and amplification evidently assumes the latter. It is trying to maintain both positions that seems to create the confusion one experiences in trying to follow his argument. If the unbeliever’s system of knowledge is basically true, the position of the Note is correct; there is no sharp negation or repudiation involved in moving from the universal min(l of Man to the mind of Christ. Then in our Schools, to quote from Prof. Stob’s 10th principle, “the Christian student should be formed and informed not only by the Word and Spirit, but also by the funded wisdom and experience of the race, the two operating always in indissoluble union, a union in which the Word is the sovereign norm and corrective.”

If, on the contrary, the unbeliever’s system of knowledge is basically false, as the Scriptures, our Confessions, and many of Dr. Stob’s own excellent explanations would indicate, it is hard to see how one could generalize about it in so favorable a way as the Note does, or even how one can speak of “the funded wisdom and experience of the race … operating always in indissoluble union” with “the Word and Spirit…a union in which the Word is the Sovereign norm and corrective,” without some rather drastic further qualifications. If the “funded wisdom of the race” or the “universal mind of man” mean the unbeliever’s system of thought and are as wrong as the Scripture teaches they are, they will by no means cooperate “in indissoluble union” with the “Word and Spirit;” they will have to be recognized and combatted as enemies and have to be beaten into subjection, in somewhat the way the apostle describes in 2 Cor. 10:5 where he speaks of “casting down imaginations (A.S.V. margin, “Reasonings”), and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”

The issue raised by these articles aroused my interest partly [or personal reasons. For some 12 years I had to struggle with the problems raised by the daily clash between training in an utterly irreligious public school system and that in a Christian home and church. Trouble always arose when one tried to put the two types of thinking together. Later when I had the privilege of attending Calvin the problems seemed less troublesome owing largely to the influence of Christian teachers—but I fear that in most cases they were by no means eliminated. As I look back it seems that much of the educational method in as far as it faced the problem of integration of our Christian faith with the world of knowledge in general, faced it somewhat along the lines of Professor Stob’s Note. It assumed that the two could be brought together without serious difficulty.

I do not recall much emphasis as a rule being placed upon “the antithesis.” There were occasional criticisms, to be sure, but I do not remember many indications of an attempt to set up a Christian system of interpretation over against an unbelieving system of knowledge which as a system must be characterized as false. The result of this educational procedure was for the most part not an integrated system of knowledge, however much we may like to talk of one in theory, but all too largely a patchwork, full of question and inconsistencies. The old clash between an unbelieving system of knowledge and the Christian was not solved by Christian teachers ignoring its existence; it was merely covered up.

With the lapse of years I have gradually come to realize that the solution to the old personal problem (and the whole Church’s problem in arriving at a Christian philosophy of education) must be sought in an entirely different direction. Beginning squarely upon the basis of the Word of God we must recognize that the unbeliever’s system of thought, in the light of which one must view his productions and opinions, is not, thanks to God’s common grace, a true system with only occasional errors due to sin, which can therefore be incorporated almost intact into a Christian world and life view. That was the mistaken assumption of the Medieval church and of the Roman Catholic church down to the present day, as well as of most Protestant thinkers, and even some among us. Instead of making this false assumption, we must begin by recognizing that the “mind of the flesh is enmity against God” and the natural man’s systems are fundamentally false.

Does that mean we cannot appreciate and use his productions? Certainly not! We must recognize that these systems of thought, thanks to God’s common grace, contain relatively true elements as they deal with God’s world. As Professor Stob aptly expresses it, the Christians assimilation of this knowledge should be one “in which facts are shorn of spurious interpretation put upon them by the non-Christian, and set in framework differing at the root from that employed by those who are not in Christ.” When these two presentations of the case are placed side by side, the difference is, I believe quite apparent. It should not be difficult either for any Christian to see which one God’s Word endorses. It would appear to be impossible, however, to try to combine the two or to try to maintain both. Trying to do that only produces confusion.

If this were only a matter of an unhappily phrased article it would not be worth all of this discussion.

And if it were only a matter of personal interest, I should not feel it necessary to trouble the public with it. I do not want to be a fault finder. I realize that all of us express ourselves rather inadequately at times. I dislike keenly to attempt argument with Professor Stob. I sincerely believe, however, that these articles bring to light one of the most fundamental problems of our whole growing educational system. If the position presented in the Note is correct, if the unbeliever’s system is basically right, if “There is not an absolute antithesis he tween the Christian and the non-Christian mind,” then it would appear to be open to question whether we ought to or even can have a really distinctive Christian system of education at all! If the believer’s system is basically wrong, as I believe the Scriptures plainly teach, then a separate and distinctive Christian system of education is a necessity.

Professor Stob after carefully stating his view of education in on the whole acceptable terms would have us dismiss his Note as “a little thing,” “expressing a commonplace idea.” That is precisely what disturbs me and many others in the Church. This “little thing,” this “commonplace idea,” whose correctness is still maintained, appears as an unusually striking example of the kind of phenomena that are making many of our people apprehensive about the state of affairs at our school. It is little things of this kind, together forming a pattern, that, if I am correctly informed, produced student criticism at our last synod about the lack of positive Christian emphasis at Calvin, and that provoked a petition with a good many signers to the same effect. It is little things of this type that have aroused requests for investigating committees, and that at one local classical session alone gave rise to five overtures relative to Calvin. It is such “commonplace ideas” that seem to be reflected in the complaint of a Calvin-trained teacher to me recently, “When you come out of Calvin you don’t know how to teach your subject material from a Christian point of view.”

I have a keen appreciation of Calvin and the highest respect for many of its faculty. They have done much to make it the finest Christian college in the country, but I am not blind to its problems or its weaknesses, and it appears to me and to many others that a good share of them are traceable to the kind of idealogical confusion which this Note seems to reveal. I fully realize that to formulate a Christian presentation of a college course is a fantastically difficult problem especially when one has had to get his own training for teaching it in non-Christian institutions, and we must be sympathetic rather than critical toward the many teachers who are consciensiously trying to face the problem and who confess to seeing difficulties in carrying it out. But we must at all costs wake up to the fact that there is such a task that must be done if we are to have a really Christian school at all. If we work with the assumption that we can incorporate uncritically large masses of the unbelievers’ productions as “constitutive elements in a Christian science of reality,” it is safe to say that we shall never get a really Christian system at all, hut will rather have a mass of contradictory material which we can never expect to command the respect and enthusiasm of the Christian student and which certainly will not challenge, attack, and overcome the self-sufficiency of the unbeliever and in that way be used to promote the coming of the Kingdom of our Lord. It is only on an avowedly, exclusively, and consistently Christian basis that we can hope by the grace of God to do that.

If this evaluation of the articles and the point of view they express is wrong, I hope the error will be exposed and corrected. If it is right I hope it may serve as an added prod to better minds to work, by God’s grace, on what we so urgently need in our growing church and school system, a really consistent, clear-cut and truly Christian philosophy of education.


Seatlle, Washington