The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth. (Is. 38:19)
Humanism is the worship of man. It is the belief that man is supreme and hence autonomous. It can lead to the extremes of anarchy, where every man is supreme, to statism, where the collective voice of men is supreme, or to many variations between the two. It stems from our parents' desire to "be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). It has been a strong trend in human thought throughout history because man, as a rebel against the true Sovereign of the universe, desires to declare his own autonomy. Man the sinner wants to say about some area of his life, "I am in charge." Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, and other ideas are thinly veiled guises by which humanism has been brought into Christianity. All these views share the idea that man — not God — ultimately decides his destiny.
The great opponent of human autonomy in the church was John Calvin. Instead of free will, Calvin taught man's will was freed to repent and believe by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.
Belief in human autonomy continues to be the predominant thinking in Christianity in the West, however. This has had definite consequences in the understanding of the Faith and in the instruction of our children, which is our primary concern in this article.
Human autonomy in salvation is inconsistent with covenant theology, the belief that God's promises were not merely to individuals but to families ("thy seed after thee"). The old covenant rites (circumcision and Passover) involved children who were to be included as partakers of the promises to "thy fathers before thee." The Hebrew people themselves were referred to as the children of Israel (Jacob). The expansion of the promises to the gentiles must therefore be taken as an expansion of the covenant promises to the larger, more inclusive heirs of Abraham. Believers are not only, after Paul, the children of Abraham, but part of greater covenant promises as the adopted children of our Heavenly Father and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.
The covenant does not deny the sin nature of those within its scope, however. It is not a substitute for profession of faith, but it does involve an understanding of how we view God's promises to believers and how we convey those promises to our children. We must not deal with children of believers as autonomous decision-makers who must rationally decide for themselves matters of eternal consequences. They are to be instructed in the things of God as they are to be instructed in an understanding of the principles of gravity. For example, we do not wait until children are ready to understand gravity, inertia, and the acceleration of falling objects before saying, "You must not jump off the bunk beds." In time such instruction is valuable and necessary, but they must understand rules and limitations before any understanding is even expected.
It is the same with the laws of God. Children must be taught "do's and don'ts" before they can even understand right and wrong. Thinking of our children as covenant children makes such an approach natural. We want our children to have the same attitude toward violating God's commands as they would jumping off a cliff. We want them to think, "Only a fool would do that!" If we assume man is the autonomous decision-maker we must assume that decision cannot be made anytime before some vague "age of accountability." The child is then viewed as being in a "holding pattern" prior to that time. Grace is thus denied when reason is exalted. Failing to heed the basic rules imposed by the limitations of gravity will likely cause a child great physical harm before he understands physics; failing to heed the things of God will likely cause his sin nature to run rampant to his spiritual harm.
The Scripture speaks extensively of the parents' responsibility to instruct covenant children. In the year of jubilee the entire law was read to "men, and women, and children" and foreigners "that their children . . . may hear, and learn to fear" (Dt. 31:12, 13). When Joshua read the law after the destruction of Ai, we are told all were assembled, even "the little ones" (Jos. 8:35). The father was commanded to prepare an answer for the children as to the meaning of the Passover (Ex. 12:26); and he was told to "show thy son" the meaning of the feast of unleavened bread (Ex. 13:8). He was to teach God's commandments to his children (Dt. 11:19) during everyday activities, such as sitting, walking, resting and rising (Dt. 6:6-9).
David invited, "Come ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord" (Ps. 34:11). Solomon said his proverbs were to give "to the young man knowledge and discretion" (Pr. 1:1), because we must "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Pr. 22:6). And Paul, having glorified God for the faith of Timothy's grandmother and mother reminds him that "from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures" (2 Tim. 3:15).
A tragic result of the belief in human autonomy in salvation and the denial of the covenant of grace is that this false idea carries over into all areas of the Faith. Thus, more often than "Thus saith the Lord," we hear, "I think. . . ." But understanding the Faith in terms of the covenant presupposes God's grace. Our duty to our children then is to teach them about God's grace in saving sinners, not their own prerogative. Thus we must teach "Both young men, and maidens: old men, and children: Let them praise the name of the Lord: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven" (Ps. 148: 12-13). Perhaps no better exhortation can be given to begin this at the earliest age than was given by Isaiah: "Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little and there a little" (Is. 28:9-10).
A further indication that the covenant is to be viewed as carrying promise to and hence a responsibility toward young children is the references in Scripture to multi-generational faithfulness. God tells us to speak his words "in the ears of thy son, and of thy son's son" (Ex. 10:2; Dt. 4:9). "For he established a testimony . . . he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children" (Ps. 78: 5-6). "Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation" (Joel 1:3). We must believe and instruct our children and grandchildren that we serve not just our own personal Lord and Savior (though he is that) but "the God of all the families of Israel" (Jer. 31:1).
Teaching the covenant is not a guarantee of God's regenerating grace. Teaching God's salvation does not do what only the Holy Spirit can do. There were many examples of faithlessness under the old covenant as there are in the new covenant in Christ's blood. Teaching the covenant must always presume God's sovereignty in man's salvation. Israel reduced the covenant to salvation by racial descent from Abraham. Those who have professed covenant theology have also at times acted as though belonging to a good church and praying before meals would convey the covenant promises to their children. They do not. Salvation is only of God's grace, but our greatest weapon against Satan is the word of God which does not return unto him void. The education of children must begin with the rudiments of the Faith. We must meet the challenge of Isaiah — "the father to the children shall make known thy truth."