The subject of Christian education has generated significant interest in the conservative and Reformed church over the last 50 years. Because of the increasing secularization of life, the wholesale acceptance of the naturalistic theory of evolution, and the removal of prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, Christian scholars, pastors, and parents were forced (particularly in the 1960s and ’70s) to take a close look at how Christian children were being educated in public schools.
What they found was alarming: the philosophy, methods, and content of public education were humanistic and hostile to Biblical truth at nearly every point. Some of the leading voices in calling the church to recognize the disaster of secular education and the danger that it posed to the Christian faith were men like Gordon Clark, Frank Gaebelein, Cornelius Van Til, and Rousas J. Rushdoony.1 But these men not only sounded the alarm, they also articulated the Biblical foundations for an explicitly Christian approach to education.
As a result of their work, many Christians began to think differently about education. Christians began to realize that true Christian education is based on the Word of God: the presuppositions, methods, and content of Christian education must be derived from the revelation of God in Holy Scripture. The power of such a revolutionary view of education (though in many cases only imperfectly understood) led to the Christian school movement of the 1970s, the homeschool movement of the 1980s, and the classical Christian education movement of the 1990s. All three of these expressions of Christian education, with varying degrees of success, have sought to apply Biblical principles to the theory and practice of educating children.
Those of us committed to the concept of Christian education need to take stock of where we are today. Have we been faithful to the Biblical foundations of Christian education that were articulated with such cogency and power by the men mentioned above (and others who have built on their work2)? Are we really directed by the Word of God in our educational endeavors? Are our efforts to train the next generation for service in God’s Kingdom properly focused to yield the maximum results? Are we providing our students with the foundation they will need to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ?
We have excelled in our attempts to produce a Biblically based epistemology. We have done significant work to develop a distinctly Christian curriculum and have made good strides in setting forth a Christian approach to history, science, mathematics, language, economics, civics, and the arts. But is our work done? Is the development of the Christian curriculum complete, except for fine-tuning?
To help answer this question, we can use the four commonly recognized areas of human thought: the true (epistemology), the beautiful (aesthetics), the good (ethics), and the eternal (religion). In three of these areas, the true, the beautiful, and the eternal, Christian education is well on its way; but what about the area we call the good, i.e., the sphere of ethics?
Where do we stand today on the subject of ethics? What part does ethics play in the average curriculum in a Christian school, Christian homeschool, or a classical Christian school? Is this important area of life even part of the curriculum? And if it is, does it receive the attention that the other areas of the curriculum receive? Do we teach our students, year by year, history, science, math, and language employing a progressive and comprehensive approach, but neglect to teach ethics in the same way? If we teach the subject of ethics, is it limited to a single course taught in the later years of the educational process?
Honest answers may reveal a startling lack of attention to Christian ethics as a distinct area of study in most Christian schools and homeschools. Why is this? Perhaps it is because we do not think that the subject of ethics is that difficult. Isn’t it enough that we tell our students to obey the Ten Commandments, to follow their conscience, and to let the Holy Spirit lead them? Perhaps it is because we do not think that the subject of ethics is really important for the success of our students in life. Perhaps we never considered ethics to be a definite area of thought and a part of the Christian curriculum. Perhaps we think that the subject of ethics will be covered adequately in our Bible courses.
In this article, we argue for the necessity of making ethics a distinct part of the Christian curriculum. Without a firm grounding in Biblical ethics there can be no true Christian education. If we have not taught our students a Biblical approach to ethics, and given them the knowledge and skill to make wise moral decisions in every area of life, we have failed to give them a thorough Christian education.
1. Education and Ethics. It is always good to define your terms. Ethics comes from the Greek word for morals. Morals are principles or standards of conduct that define the difference between good and evil, and right and wrong, in the sphere of human action. Ethics seeks to determine the “ought” dimension of life, i.e., what we ought to do when faced with moral decisions and dilemmas. Therefore, the study of ethics is learning how to make proper moral judgments and live righteously before God and man.
The sphere in which ethics operates is the whole of life. The very nature of ethics requires systematized moral thinking, i.e., ethics requires critical thinking that not only defines what we ought to do in each situation, but places our moral decisions in the context of a coherent ethical philosophy that self-consciously acts on the basis of a recognized standard. This is why the word ethics is commonly joined with a descriptive term to designate an ethical system, e.g., Platonic ethics, natural law ethics, transcendental ethics, utilitarian ethics, Islamic ethics, and Christian ethics.
“Christian ethics” refers (or at least it should) to the ethical system presented in Scripture, and another name for Christian ethics could be “Biblical ethics.” Christian ethics is a distinct discipline that seeks to answer the question of good and evil in human conduct in every sphere of government (personal, family, church, and state) and in every aspect of life (work, business, the arts, education, war, economics, entertainment, science, medicine, and law) on the basis of God’s Bible-revealed law.
The word education is based on a Latin term that means to lead forth, bring up, or train. Noah Webster defines education as: “The bringing up, as of a child; instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations.”3 The central idea of education is not the accumulation of knowledge and facts, or of mere technical skills. Though education includes these things, education aims to train the student in all facets of his being so that he will be prepared to live life successfully. Central to a proper education is training, as Webster puts it, in “manners.” What does he mean by manners? Manners, according to Webster, refers to “behavior; conduct; course of life; in a moral sense.”4 In other words, education involves training in ethics.
Much that passes for Christian education has not taken this aspect of education seriously enough. We want our students to have a distinctly Christian approach to science, the arts, language, history, and math, but do we also seek to give them a Biblical approach to ethics? Do we have a place in our curriculum to teach our students an explicitly Christian system of ethics? If we do not, and if we claim to be Christian educators, then we must provide a place for instruction in Biblical ethics.
This is an absolute necessity in the world we live in. The moral sphere is in near total chaos in the wider culture, and the church is not far behind. If Christians are going to live lives to the glory of God, walk a path of righteousness, and be a light to the world, they need to know how to determine good and evil and how to answer moral questions from the Bible.
Furthermore, since all of life involves moral judgments, we cannot dispense with the questions of ethics in anything we do. You cannot have a Christian approach to science, economics, or the arts without grounding the pursuit and application of these disciplines in Biblical ethics. Mere knowledge and technology may determine what we can do, but in themselves they cannot answer the question of what we ought to do; for this we must have Christian ethics, i.e., a Biblical system of ethics that can determine on the authority of God’s Word what we ought to do with our scientific knowledge and technical skills.
2. Education and Wisdom. We have defined Christian education as a process of training students to live productive and successful lives for the glory of God. This training involves the mind (knowledge) and the body (skills); but it also includes training in ethics. Ethics gives the student the moral knowledge and skills necessary to discern between good and evil and is the foundation for all that he does with his mind and body. Education aims at successful living (as God defines success), and this idea brings it into connection with the Biblical concept of wisdom.
Among the Greeks, “wisdom” primarily was speculative, while among the Hebrews, “wisdom” primarily was practical. Through “wisdom” (the power of human reason) the Greeks sought to answer fundamental questions about the world and man: what is the nature of reality? How did the world come into being? What is the nature of man’s being? What is true and good?
But the Hebrews already had these questions answered for them in the written Word of God. With these fundamental issues settled by divine authority, the main focus of the Hebrew was fulfilling his calling and living his life to the glory of God. Instead of speculation on the nature of reality, the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set their minds on how to apply the revealed truth and law of God to life.
The Hebrew word wisdom (hokma), means, essentially, skillfulness in any art. It can be used in terms of skill in technical work, but its more common Old Testament meaning is skillfulness in the art of living. It designates a man who knows how to live successfully, who knows how to meet each challenge he faces with sagacity and prudence. This wisdom is not of man’s own doing, but is based in the fear of God. Wisdom is something that God gives to man when he seeks it with his whole heart (Prov. 2:1–9).
To understand the Biblical concept of wisdom, it must be seen in relation to the fear of God. The fear of God is one of the leading designations for true faith in the Old Testament. To fear God is to believe in Him as He has revealed Himself; it is to believe in God as He is, not as a man might conceive Him to be in his own imagination. Those who fear God have seen Him, with the eyes of faith, as the almighty God and sovereign Lord of all creation. Hence, they hold Him in the highest honor and reverence, and humbly submit to His authority.
To submit to God’s authority is to obey His commandments, and His commandments are revealed in His law. This is why the fear of God and the law of God are inseparable in the Old Testament. The fear of God is one of the leading themes in the teaching of Moses in Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:13, 24; 8:6; 10:20; 13:4). According to Moses, the fear of the Lord is the starting point for wholehearted obedience to God’s law (Deut. 10:12–13). In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and selected Psalms), the fear of the Lord is also the beginning of wisdom. The connection is clear: wisdom is based on the knowledge of God’s law, and it is the skill of applying the righteousness of God’s law to every aspect of life. Wisdom is not human sagacity and shrewdness, but the expertise of using the law of God to direct all decisions, to answer all moral questions, and to faithfully serve God and man.
The Biblical concept of wisdom needs to be applied to Christian education. Education is training designed to make a man successful in life. Wisdom is skillfulness in the art of living. The skill of godly wisdom is the ability to understand and apply the law of God to life. True education, in the Biblical sense, is far more than the acquisition of knowledge or technical skills. True education is training students how to live in the fear of God and use His law as the foundation for their callings in family, church, and state; it is training on how to employ their knowledge and skills within the ethical framework of God’s revealed law. Without knowledge of God’s law, students cannot be wise; and if they are not wise, they are not educated in the Biblical sense of the term. So the Hebrew concept of wisdom demonstrates that a formal and rigorous training in Christian ethics is an indispensable aspect of authentic Christian education.
3. Education and Biblical Law. We have argued that ethics is a fundamental aspect of Christian education. Furthermore, we have pointed out that ethics needs to be taught as a system of truth and moral principles, and not simply as a footnote in other courses of instruction. The next question we have to face as Christian educators is the very important question of what system of ethics we will teach.
As it is imperative that we set forth a Christian perspective on the subjects that we teach, so it is imperative that we teach a true Christian perspective on ethics. Therefore, not any textbook or approach will do!
So what ethical system will we teach? It may be helpful in determining the answer to look at the ethical systems that have appealed to Christian teachers in the past. Some have used the ethical system of the classical writers (Greeks and Romans), i.e., natural law, to instruct their students in ethics. Others have used the ethical system of Thomas Aquinas, i.e., a fusion of Aristotelian philosophy and natural law ethics with Roman Catholic theology and the Bible. Others have used evangelical systems that blend natural law (whether classical or Thomistic versions or both) with Protestant theology and its respect for the authority of Scripture. Others have used an explicitly Biblical and Reformed approach to ethics; this approach is known in our day as “theonomy” (the rule of God’s law).
It seems incongruous that Protestant Christians, who supposedly believe in sola Scriptura, should find it necessary to go to Athens or Rome for the essence of their ethical theory. In Scripture there is not a single verse that instructs God’s covenant people to look to anywhere beyond God’s perfect revelation in the Bible for the knowledge of good and evil. Never once are believers in the Old or New Testaments exhorted to seek moral wisdom at the feet of the priests of false religion or from the books of the pagan philosophers of Greece or Rome. The law of God is the only standard of ethics in the Bible.
In the Word of God, men are commanded to go “to the law and to the testimony” to find moral light (Isa. 8:20); never are they commanded to go to “natural law” or any other source for moral direction and wisdom (Prov. 3:5–6). This is because God’s law is entirely sufficient as the basis of Christian ethics (Ps. 19:7–11; 2 Tim. 3:15–17). Therefore, the ethical system that we teach in our Christian schools must be based on Scripture alone. Scripture ought to supply the theological presuppositions and the epistemology for our system of Christian ethics, and Biblical law ought to supply its content.
In support of the proposition that the subject of ethics is central in Christian education and that Christian ethics is based on God’s law, it is instructive to note that the great passages on education in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 4:9; 6:5–9; 11:18–21) are centered in commands to parents to teach their children the law of God. It is impossible to use these Deuteronomy texts to support the notion that instruction in God’s law (Biblical ethics) is something unnecessary or something tacked on to the core curriculum of a Christian liberal arts education. According to these magisterial texts on education, the law of God is the core curriculum around which everything else must find its place.
But today it is the law of God that has trouble finding a place in our Christian education curriculum. Our Lord Jesus Christ endorsed the law-centered educational curriculum and methodology of the book of Deuteronomy in His Sermon on the Mount. He emphatically denied that He had come to loose the authority of God’s law over His disciples (Matt. 5:17–18). In fact, He said that true greatness in His Kingdom was tied to the work of doing and teaching the law of God (Matt. 5:19). Thus, true greatness in Christian education is to teach the law of God (Biblical ethics) to your students so that they will learn to follow the moral imperatives of the law in every academic discipline, in every technical skill, in every vocation, and in every sphere of life. Biblical law is the foundation of Christian education.
This neglect of the law of God (Biblical ethics) in Christian education has had and will continue to have long-term dire consequences for the church and society unless we begin to rectify it today. We will rectify it if we begin now to incorporate studies in Biblical law into the core of our curriculum. This means that teachers will have to become knowledgeable in Biblical ethics, and that we will need to produce textbooks and courses of instruction in Biblical ethics that will train Christian students in this vital area from their earliest years right through to the end of their formal schooling. Thankfully, we already have some outstanding works in Biblical ethics.5 Although these works are advanced studies, they can be used by teachers for training and lesson preparation for teaching their younger students, and as textbooks for their older students.
In Biblical history, reformation always began when God’s people returned to God’s law (cf. 2 Kings 22:8–23:25; Neh. 8:1–9:38). May we who labor in Christian education, whether it be in a Christian school, Christian homeschool, or a classical Christian school, help ignite a new reformation by establishing the study of Biblical ethics at the core of our curriculum.
1. Gordon H. Clark, A Christian Philosophy of Education (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1988; reprint of 1946 edition); Frank E. Gaebelein, The Pattern of God’s Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954); Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1971); Rousas J. Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961); Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1963); Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1981).
2. For example, Stephen C. Perks, The Christian Philosophy of Education Explained (Whitby, England: Avant Books, 1992).
3. Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).
5. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, 3 vols. (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books); Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd ed. (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 2002); Greg Bahnsen, By This Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985); Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983).