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The Eschatology of Education

Traditionalist educators often talk about the "end," or objective, of the educational enterprise. Every educational system and, indeed, every educational act, presupposes a particular objective beyond the educational event itself.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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Traditionalist educators often talk about the "end," or objective, of the educational enterprise. Every educational system and, indeed, every educational act, presupposes a particular objective beyond the educational event itself. Even if that objective is nothing more than the equipping of the individual with certain basic tools needed to function in a society (and even the most basic educational endeavor entails more than this), every act and system of education implies some goal or purpose. Beyond this, every education presupposes an eschatology, a view of the future and last things. This fact is often less evident, but no less certain. Eschatology, as Rushdoony once observed, is not only about last things, but about first things. Every education implies some assumption, explicit or implicit, about the shape of the future.

Secular Educational Eschatologies
Communist education, for example, includes the assumption that history is governed by impersonal laws which guarantee the eventual triumph of the communist system ("dialectical materialism"). Communist education is not designed merely for a particular "end," but also for a particular eschatology. Marx was convinced that certain historical laws dictated the inevitable triumph of the proletariat and the classless society. For this reason, among others, he considered rational argument with his ideational opponents futile, since men's reason itself is conditioned by their historical situation (he somehow did not see how this fact called into question the transhistorical validity of his own views).1 Communist education educates men not only in communist dogma, but also according to communist eschatology. Communists readily employ torture and brainwashing not primarily because they are inherently barbaric and inhumane (though many are), but because their dogma and its eschatology require barbarism and inhumanity: if man is nothing but materiality — a cog in a wheel — every aspect of his being can be externally reshaped to fit the communistic scheme, its eschatology, presumed to be historically inevitable.2

Similarly, Western humanistic education operates according to certain eschatological assumptions. John Dewey, the father of modern "democratic" education, worked toward and heralded the day when religion would be considered nothing more than a common human consciousness which all men share in striving toward an unrealized ideal. He was not shy in asserting that historic Christianity was not compatible with this eschatological vision.3 Eric Hoffer spoke of the extravagant visions of the "true believers" who observe in their mind's eye a better world and who are committed to making that vision a reality.4 The fact is, though, every religious and philosophical system and every coherent way of thinking implies some eschatological assumption — what the future looks like and how it should end. Even the most radical existentialists who deny any hint of determinism work toward a future in which men recognize their existential vision of radical human free will.

"Traditional" Education
Advocates of a return to the so-called "traditional" education (which in reality originated from merely quasi-Christian and Unitarian assumptions) hold that education should eschew any form of social engineering and limit itself to the 3 R's — reading, writing, and arithmetic. This profoundly naive notion which governs many Christian educators today fails to take into account the question of why students should be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic at all. If the answer is, to make better individuals, the immediate response must be, "But why do individuals need to be made better?" And when we begin to answer that question, we begin to uncover eschatological assumptions.

Dispensationalism and Dominionism
Closer yet to the orthodox home fires, the present educational conflict of visions issues from two mutually incompatible eschatologies — dispensationalism and dominionism. (Actually, there is a third, natural-law amillennialism, but its proponents have not been prominent in the educational endeavors with which this editorial is concerned.) The major conservative Christian educational institutions and textbook publishers are decisively dispensational and evangelical, though this is gradually changing. The dispensationalists presently own a lion's share of the Christian day school and homeschool textbook market. Their eschatology is evident throughout their curriculum, both in the textbooks themselves and in the education departments at their colleges and universities. It is not so much that they are dedicated to an inculcation of a systematic dispensationalism; rather, their dispensational eschatology pervades their entire educational system. This presupposition is most immediately evident in their history textbooks where Christendom, Constantine, Calvin, and the Puritans are given short shrift, and where the anti-dominionist Romantic revivalists like Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, and Billy Sunday are lionized. Most of them are so violently "anti-Catholic" that they refuse to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of Byzantine and medieval Christian civilization. To this imperfect though extensive Christian culture they counter hot-gospel revivalism that coincides with and contributes to the erosion of Christian culture.5 But what is true in their treatment of history is no less true in the other disciplines--their eschatology shapes their entire academic and educational outlook.

The Defeatist Presuppositions of Dispensational Educational Philosophy
These eschatological presuppositions are not merely substantive, however; that is, they are not merely disclosed within the instruction itself. In addition, the entire structure of the educational system is designed with the defeatist dispensationalist assumption in view. In the educational philosophy propounded by a leading fundamentalist university, for example, we read that the objective of Christian education is to conform the student to Christ's image.6 Such a truncated description of the educational objective is possible only on pietistic, dispensationalist, or related theological assumptions. While it is true that a single aspect of Christian education is conforming the student to Christ's image, this is only one aspect, and Christian education certainly cannot be defined in an individualistic manner as most modern dispensationalists define it. The dispensational educational system is inherently individualistic--it is concerned only with the individual as such. The statist educational system is inherently collectivist — it is concerned only with the individual immersed in the statist community (recall Star Trek's, "the Borg"). By contrast, the authentically Biblical educational system is covenantal: 7 the individual is important in his own right, but never in abstraction from God's covenantal plan, including his covenantal eschatology. This maintains a Biblical balance between the one and the many in the educational realm.8 The dispensationalist educational system, by contrast, sees the individual in isolation from God's covenant plan of history and is concerned with making him fit for heaven, or, at best, a pleasant, "separated"9 Christian, getting a few souls saved here and there and making it through this "veil of tears" the best he can until he earns his heavenly reward. It is not clear why a knowledge of academic disciplines like math, history, science, language, philosophy, and so forth is necessary based on the dispensationalists' defeatist assumptions, and this points to a glaring incongruity in most of the modern Christian educational systems and their textbooks.

Educational Schizophrenia
Because their defeatist dispensationalism fails in epistemological self-consciousness, they maintain — albeit unintentionally, of course — a small dominionist element in their educational paradigm. They are training students in academic disciplines from an avowed Christian perspective. While this perspective is often compromised and sometimes defective in their hands, it does represent a distinct antithesis to the secular humanism of most modern education. This highlights one vexing problem with which the dispensationalist educators are not prepared to deal: what happens if the distinctly Christian content of their education gradually becomes pervasive in the modern world? How should Christians act when they are the dominant rather than recessive gene in society? Because the dispensationalist educators' eschatology considers this scenario an impossibility, it shields itself from the inherent schizophrenia of its own system. Most of these educators acknowledge, at least in principle, that Christianity and humanism are antithetical systems that cannot peacefully coexist. One is constantly at war with the other. What is the implied eschatology of this conflict? The dispensationalist educators' answer is, "Increasing irrelevance and defeat for Christians." The problem, however, is that this defeatism defeats their very educational enterprise.

The very nature of a distinctively Christian education is such that it educates distinct Christians who act distinctly as Christians. But dispensational eschatology wipes out, in principle, the eventuality of the effects of any distinctly Christian education. In other words, dispensational education is at root incompatible with Christian education. The majority of today's Christian educators do not recognize this fundamental incompatibility, of course, and go merrily on their way espousing an inherently incongruous system. Its eschatological assumptions cannot sustain its educational philosophy. Its educational philosophy says, "Distinct Christianity is at war with distinct humanism (and all other non-Christian systems), and is designed to confute, confound, and supplant them." Its eschatological assumptions, however, say "Distinct Christianity is designed to become less distinct, more compromised, and eventually to be overwhelmed and supplanted by humanism and all other non-Christian systems." For this reason, most major Christian educators and their universities and colleges and textbook publishing houses are inherently schizophrenic.

Transitional Institutions
There is a good historical explanation for this schizophrenia. Most of these institutions originated between 1890 and 1950, a transitional era during which the main outline of Christian ethics still dominated American society, though the Biblical and orthodox theology on which it was based had clearly been abandoned.10 Many of these institutions are generally conservative, both theologically and politically, although their theological conservatism is no more grounded in historic Christian orthodoxy than their political conservatism is grounded in an explicit reading of the Bible. In many ways, it is merely a bland Woodrow Wilson-style classical liberalism that they maintain. These Christian colleges and universities and textbook publishers attract patrons and students disturbed by the increasing depravity of modern culture. Many of them pine for the more genteel days of post-World War II America and the Eisenhower administration, unaware that these years themselves constituted a transition from the older Puritan covenant-keeping society, to the modern flagrant "post-modernist" covenant-breaking society in which the 60s sexual revolution has secured the status quo.11 This "conservative" era for which they long was itself intensely "progressive" — an inherently unstable transitional phase from social covenant-keeping to social covenant-breaking. These Christian educational institutions are themselves transitional institutions. They arose within a historical period that had abandoned an explicitly Biblical Faith in all of life, but still enjoyed the fruits of that Faith in the wider culture. The full effects of the abandonment of the Christian Faith were not, of course, perceived at that time — not nearly as much as they are perceived today. Much like the medieval educational institutions which survived and succeeded despite their adoption of pagan Aristotelianism, but whose theologically compromised philosophy was later decimated by the epistemologically self-conscious Enlightenment,12 today's dispensationalist educational institutions cannot long survive the frontal onslaught of an epistemologically self-conscious paganism on the one hand, and an epistemologically self-conscious Christianity on the other. These dispensationalist institutions are adept at turning out nice little pietistic dispensationalists, many of whom in time often become nice little pietistic humanists. These students are often acutely aware of the depraved culture around them, but their schizophrenic education has not equipped them to respond to it properly. They either escape from it, assimilate some of it and live as compromising Christians, or adopt it altogether and become full-fledged pagans. They were never taught either by precept or example that the valid aspects of the Biblical Faith in which they were educated have a divinely built-in mechanism which resists peaceful coexistence with any non-Christian expression of faith or life. Their inherently schizophrenic education blocks from view the great billboard which every distinctly Christian educator must show his students: Conquer or Die!

The Certain Demise of Defeatist Educational Institutions
Because of this, these compromising dispensationalist institutions will not survive in the next two or three generations--at least not as compromising dispensationalist institutions. Either they will return to the full-orbed, explicitly Christian and notably Puritan Calvinistic Faith, which permits no rivals, or they will succumb to liberalism and modernism, or they will simply die. Their executives are transitional figures who were themselves trained in a transitional theology. They and their institutions are, therefore, transitory. Lord Acton noted in 1858 that, "The progress of history tends, not to reconcile opinions, but to make the distinction even greater between them, and to bring out in more naked contrast the antagonism of good and evil."13 In the middle period of this historical flow, certain irreconcilable religious and moral views are less sharp, less differentiated. As time goes on, their utter irreconcilability becomes quite evident. The institutions owing their existence to the era of amorphous transition are caught off guard when the point of full historical self-consciousness arrives. They rarely are willing to rethink the unstable foundations of their institutional theology. This would call into question the very reason for their existence. They cannot compete with the increasingly intense epistemological self-consciousness around them (both that of Christians and non-Christians) without rethinking their entire theological premise; but if they rethink their entire theological premise, they implicitly indict their founding and existence. They (their institutional heirs, that is) usually opt to surrender to the evil of the prevailing culture. Or they simply die a slow death of attrition.

Why Christian Dominionism Will Prevail
As the presuppositions of the present cultural conflict become more evident, knowledgeable Christians will not be satisfied with the makeshift, halfway measures of these educational institutions and their compromising textbooks. As it is now, most of these institutions turn out, at best, above-average students who do not grasp the radical implications of the antithesis between covenant-keeping and covenant-breaking;14 the educational program itself is not sufficiently radical (meaning, "at the root") to impel the sort of vigorous thinking and reconstructive thought which their distinctly academic disciplines actually require. Gary North is correct, therefore, to have drawn attention to the fact that the thought of Cornelius Van Til and Rousas John Rushdoony tends to attract the best and brightest Christian students--it offers them a vigorous, epistemologically self-conscious approach to the Faith which others fail to grasp or do grasp and intentionally retreat from.15 The increasingly intense warfare between covenant-keeping and covenant-breaking will not permit the continued success of these compromised dispensationalist educational institutions that have existed thus far only because the social climate in which they operate has supplied them with intellectual and cultural capital from a distinctively Christian past. These institutions have just about depleted the reserve funds.

Dominionist Eschatology of Education
It is only a distinctly postmillennial and dominionist eschatology (and this is what the Christian educational system implicitly is) that can both stand the test of time and reappropriate the territory presently occupied by Satan and his devout disciples. A consistently Christian education trains its students not merely in the 3 R's and not merely for conformity to Christ's image, but in the 3 R's and for conformity to Christ's image in the commitment to exercising worldwide godly dominion and the gradual, but relentless, advance of Christ's kingdom.16 Language is God's precious gift of communication whereby his disciples as his vicegerents or representatives extend the claims of his Son and the infallible Scripture throughout the earth. Science is a means of extending godly dominion over God's creation. History is a recounting of God's plan for man--including his plan for the future, the Christianization of all of life. Mathematics is an instrument of quantification in the dominion task.17 Every academic discipline should apply a distinct Christian eschatology — postmillennialism.18 Our Christian educational philosophy that necessarily presupposes the conflict with all non-Christian systems of thought and life equally presupposes the eventual triumph of Christianity — and every Christian's calling as God's vicegerent of, and co-inheritor with Jesus Christ over, the entire earth.19 Every endeavor of Christian education — every university, every homeschool, every curriculum, every textbook, every class, every lesson plan — should point, at least implicitly, to this dominion commission and postmillennial vision of Christianity.

It is by means of this sort of Christian education that Biblical Christianity will supplant every form of non-Christianity and the depravity of modern culture.


1. See Isaiah Berlin's classic, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (New York, 1963).

2. Mikhail Heller, Cogs in the Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man (New York, 1988).

3. John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven and London, 1934), 84 and passim.

4. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York, 1951).

5. Rousas John Rushdoony, This Independent Republic (Fairfax, VA [1964], 1978), 105-107; Peter J. Leithart, "Revivalism and American Protestantism," ed., James B. Jordan, The Reconstruction of the Church: Christianity and Civilization 4 (Tyler, TX, 1985), 46-84.

6. Collaborative authorship, The Christian Philosophy of Education (Greenville, SC, 1978), 4. A much more rigorously Biblical statement is Stephen Perks' The Christian Philosophy of Education Explained (Whitby, England, 1992).

7. Louis Berkhof, "Covenant: The Covenant of Grace and Its Significance for Christian Education," in ed., Dennis E. Johnson, Foundations of Christian Education (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1990), 65-81.

8. Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many (Fairfax, VA [1971], 1978).

9. On the errors of Protestant sectarianism, see Richard Bacon, The Visible Church and the Outer Darkness (Dallas, TX, 1992). A Biblical summary of the notion of separation from evil institutions is found in Rousas John Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come (Fairfax, VA [1970], 1978), 202-204.

10. C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1981 edition).

11. E. Michael Jones, "The Nomenklatura Calls for a Referendum on the Sexual Revolution," Culture Wars, November, 1998, 13-17.

12. Christopher Dawson, "Rationalism and Intellectualism: The Rational Elements in the Rationalist Tradition," in Enquiries into Religion and Culture (London and New York, 1933), 146-148.

13. Lord Acton, Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality, ed., J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis, 1988), 635.

14. Van Til, "Antithesis in Education," in Johnson, op. cit., 3-24.

15. Gary North, "Publisher's Foreword," House Divided: The Break-Up of Dispensational Theology (Tyler, TX, 1989), xxxviii-xli.

16. "For the Reformed believer, Christianity, by virtue of its covenantal character, is a restless, recreating principle which never withdraws itself from the world, but seeks to conquer it for Christ," Geerhardus Vos, "The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology," Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1980), 261.

17. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA, 1981).

18. Loraine Boettner, The Millennium
(no loc., 1957).

19. Andrew Sandlin, The Reign of the Righteous (Vallecito, CA, 1998).

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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