Three Strikes and You're Out

The piece by David Noe on Christian education (or the lack of it) has attracted a number of heated responses and none of them give much confidence that the proponents of Christian education are going to do something that is distinctly Reformed or decidedly educational. But these responses show the real weaknesses of w-w thinking and why their days are numbered unless they come up with more compelling answers and arguments.

Strike One: Noe’s piece has received much more indignation (Kuyper is turning in his grave) than it has reasoned response. Does this mean that Christian education is not interested in hard questions, only in passing on received ideas that can never be questioned lest we upset the dead? If so, I’m not sure these people are doing something that is genuinely educational, especially when it comes to teaching subjects like Shakespeare and chemistry on which Christians might have different ideas and about which Scripture is silent.

Strike Two: advocates of Christian education do not seem to notice that their practice is only generically Christian and not distinctly Reformed. (When they appeal to Augustine and Aquinas is Van Til turning in his grave?) They like to quote Cornelius Van Til who argued for an education based on a Reformed outlook. But what college or Christian day school has insisted on teaching Reformed theology, even to the Baptists and Evangelical Free Church students who enroll? Why is it that the more tenaciously an educational institution holds to the distinctness of Christian schools, the less Reformed they become? (Does question this make Dr. K.’s brain turn?)

Strike Three: advocates of Christian education invariably quote the likes of Van Til and Machen on the import of Christian schools. But the formal principle of the Reformation — sola scriptura — teaches that we are to base our faith and piety not on the doctrines and commandments of men but on the word of God. In which case, what kind of response is it to point out that Noe may disagree with Machen or Van Til? Machen was not the pope, not even the apostle Paul. He could have been wrong. Dr. Noe could be wrong. So if the advocates of Christian education want to be Christian and even Protestant, why not make a concerted exegetical case for Christian schools and colleges from the Bible, not from dead Reformed luminaries? (By the way, a wave of the hand to Deuteronomy 6 is insufficient.)

One aspect of this controversy that has yet to receive the attention it should is the difference between Dutch Calvinism and American Presbyterianism. Dutch Reformed Protestants, from the Afscheding to Dr. K., have insisted on Christian education and this reflects at least a European perspective on schooling that is foreign to the United States where public schools were always generally acceptable among American Presbyterians. Only for a brief period in the mid-19th century did Presbyterians entertain the idea of Christian schools. But the thought quickly passed and Presbyterians went back to the public schools where a generic Protestantism (via Bible reading and prayer) prevailed. Only after the Civil Rights legislation did American Presbyterians, primarily in the South, turn to private Christian schools, at least in part to avoid desegregation of public education.

The historical experiences of American Presbyterians and Dutch Calvinists rarely comes up in these discussions because Kuyperians have dominated conservative Reformed Protestantism in the United States, as if Dutch norms are the patterns for Yankees, Rebels, Farmers, and Miners. This is, as I’ve written before, one of the important features of David VanDrunen’s big book on two-kingdom theology — to show how Dutch Calvinism has dominated discussions of natural law and two kingdoms. Sometimes we need to pinch ourselves to remember that Reformed and Presbyterian churches existed before Abraham Kuyper and that they did not always do what he did. For conservative Calvinists who think Kuyper was merely following Bucer, A Lasco, and Ursinus, the idea that differences exist between the Dutch polymath and his Reformed forebears is alarming (and the source of most opposition to a certain seminary on the West Coast). But it is true. Kuyper was not the reincarnation of Calvin or Knox. That’s why they call it neo-Calvinism.

8 thoughts on “Three Strikes and You're Out

  1. Abraham Flipse’s recent article in Church History (March 2012), “The Origins of Creationism in the Netherlands: The Evolution Debate among Twentieth-Century Dutch Neo-Calvinists” brings out some of the differences in the nature of the Creation/Evolution debate in European and American contexts given their distinctive approaches and models with respect to public/private/home schooling. One of the great points he made was about how by and large in the early 20th century the controversy was dealt with in the church courts in the Netherlands, whereas in the U.S. it has mostly been centered in secular courts (e.g. Scopes Trial).

    Here is the abstract: “The Netherlands is, besides the United States, one of the few countries where debates about creationism have been raging for decades. Strict creationism has become deeply rooted in traditional Reformed (Calvinist) circles, which is all the more remarkable as it stemmed from a very different culture and theological tradition. This essay analyses the historical implantation of this foreign element in Dutch soil by investigating the long-term interaction between American creationism and Dutch “neo-Calvinism,” a movement emerging in the late nineteenth century, which attempted to bring classical Calvinism into rapport with modern times. The heated debates about evolution in the interbellum period as well as in the sixties—periods characterized by a cultural reorientation of the Dutch Calvinists—turn out to have played a crucial role. In the interbellum period, leading Dutch theologians—fiercely challenged by Calvinist scientists—imported US “flood geology” in an attempt to stem the process of modernisation in the Calvinist subculture. In the sixties many Calvinists abandoned their resistance to evolutionary theory, but creationism continued to play a prominent role as the neo-Calvinist tradition was upheld by an orthodox minority, who (re-)embraced the reviving “Genesis Flood” creationism. The appropriation of American creationism was eased by the earlier Calvinist-creationist connection, but also by “inventing” a Calvinist-creationist tradition, suggesting continuity with the ideas of the founding fathers of neo-Calvinism. This article aims to contribute to a better understanding of what Ronald L. Numbers has recently called the “globalization” of the “science-and-religion dialogue.”


  2. Here is an example of a confessionally Reformed Christian school. The Canadian Reformed Church is notorious for being essentially inbread, but I will say this they are consistant in their neokuyperian thought….

    ”Our school seeks to unify all educational activities within the framework of a Biblical vision of life, as summarized in the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dordt. The school’s vision is summarized in the quotation on the plaque in our front hall: “…to the end that man may serve his God.”

    Maybe this just is an example of Canadian/Dutch/Frisian exceptionalism and American incompetence?


  3. Will,

    I think the problem is not the choice of classical schooling, but the unreal expectations often associated with the movement.


  4. Will, how would adopting Greek pedagogy for delivering education be any more problematic for Christians than taking the Hippocratic oath to administer healthcare? The problem actually seems to be in suggesting that Christianity implies either (the same way it implies America). Could it be that what animates Pleasant Valley Classical Christian Academy is the same thing that animates Christian America or even the health gospel?


  5. Joseph,

    You didn’t read all the fine print.

    The school also follows the curriculum guidelines established by the Ministry of Education for grades 9 to 12. Regular inspection by the Ministry ensures that we maintain minimum program requirements sufficient to allow the school principal to award credits for successfully completed courses. These credits are recognized across the province. Students who fulfill the provincial standards for 30 credits, pass the grade 10 Literacy test, and complete 40 hours of community service are awarded the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Our students are also required to earn three credits in Religious Studies. We have received Ministry of Education permission to grant provincial credits for these locally developed courses. A description of all our courses is available in our annual Course Calendar.

    That doesn’t sound all that independent or all that Lordship of Christy.


  6. It seems to me that neo-Cals tend to forget about something inherent to Calvinism…election. We confess there are the elect, and then there is everyone else. How can the “everyone else” take part in a Christian education if inherently they are not Christians? Of course, maybe they reject the visible/invisible distinction of the church.


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