A Philosophy of Christian Education
Education starts with the interpersonal relation of the Educator and the educated, the Divine and the divine image bearer. When searching for answers concerning any given thing, one must search out its source and cause, as Aquinas notes when considering first principles. For education, one must return to archetypal wisdom—the God after whose image humanity is created.
This philosophy of education will expound on four aspects of education: (1) the first principles of education (i.e., the source, the what, and the why), (2) the teacher, (3) the student, and (4) the nature of the learner (i.e., the how). Due to the limitations of this essay, some foundational scriptural truths will be presupposed, while others will be explained via footnotes, and still others will be left out entirely.
God is the wellspring, fount, and end of all education. Apart from the Divine, education is a phantom notion—making meaningless existence appear meaningful. Because God’s essence is archetypal wisdom, education exists in the cosmos. As Moses writes: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. From His all-wise speech, the foundation and structure of the universe stood a meaningful constant—the classroom of the Divine. This is the source and foundation of all knowledge. This same all wise speech spoke: let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. The wise archetypal dynamic Being created humanity as His ectypal dynamic beings. As qualitatively distinct from all creatures, humanity is the image of God: rational-relational-responsible being.
God created humanity as His image bearers in order that they might bear His image, particularly through wise-rule over the ארץ, meaning earth. This wise-rule is summarized in Scripture by two commands: love God and neighbor. Here lies the first principles of education, which answer the what and the why question: education is the development of humanity in love of God and neighbor (i.e., the what) for the purpose of God’s glory expressed through wise-rule over creation (i.e., the why). This means that proper education consists of the knowledge of God and His works, which ought to result in genuine love for Creator and creation.
Education is the term used to signify God’s instrument of conveying wisdom to His image bearers. The teacher and student alike are perpetually under God’s sovereign instruction where God conveys the knowledge of His word in creation and special revelation by His Spirit. In educating others, the teacher is communicating what God has revealed to him or her, whether or not the teacher is cognoscente of this fact. Hence, the quintessential role of the teacher is an ordained means of conveying knowledge that cultivates and empowers wise-rule. The teacher is a means of God’s common grace to the student, which indicates that the office of teaching is fundamentally a stewardship.
Three essential principles are here disclosed regarding the teacher: (1) the ectypal teacher is always under the archetypal Teacher (i.e., the positional aspect); (2) the teacher is a communicator of God’s word in creation and special revelation (i.e., the role and substance/content); and (3) the teacher is a means of common grace (i.e., the responsibility/stewardship). This means that the teacher’s role is ordained by God, an inherently ethical task, and invaluable to God’s redemptive purposes. With these objective aspects of the teacher’s office and role, there come a few subjective aspects to consider on the basis of the teacher’s unique personhood.
As noted, the teacher, as an instrument of God’s grace, ought to serve and impact students in such a manner that the students might better glorify God. On this foundation, the teacher is subjectively free to steward the classroom and students in the wisdom of God. That is, the teacher’s particular methodology is open to the teacher’s discretion and unique personhood. The teacher ought to lead students in a manner suited to his or her personhood and gifting as well as keeping in mind the unique personhoods and gifting of the students, which would include various learning styles, temperaments, ambitions, etc. In other words, the approach a teacher takes in the classroom must be qualitatively unique to the teacher, i.e., not a mere mimic of other teachers or data compiled and schemes learned. In addition, the approach must be organic due to the organic environment of unique learners, which morphs year after year. Practically, the teacher ought to teach from the foundation of God’s Word through various teaching methods or approaches while subjecting these approaches to the apparent needs and environment of the classroom. This is essential. The Word is not subject to the changing environment, but the approach; God’s immutable Word stands over and is conveyed through mutable theories of learning and learning environments.
The students, like the teacher, are both under the objective aspects of education by virtue of God’s design in creation as well as the subjective aspects by virtue of the distinctiveness of the teacher and the students’ own distinctiveness or unique personhoods. A philosophy of education must keep these two aspects in mind. While each student’s overarching objective is to grow in the knowledge of God so as to apply it through wise-rule over creation (i.e., loving God and neighbor), each student most perfectly accomplishes this mandate through his or her unique design.
Each student is qualitatively different and this serves God’s ultimate purposes for His image bearers in caring for creation. So, the role and responsibility of the student is to steward the knowledge of God communicated through his or her teacher in a manner that would maximize the student’s personhood, talents, and increase his or her love for God and neighbor. Thus, education is process oriented, never stagnate; students are the image of God yet through proper education students are becoming more apt and aware of how to bear God’s image rightly and more significantly.
Although many students may not come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ and receive the empowerment of the Spirit, which produces actual growth in the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18), these students (i.e., the unbeliever), like the believer, may grow in the knowledge of God’s word in creation thereby producing qualitative growth in wise-rule. This is all by virtue of their nature as image bearers. In other words, although humanity is fallen in Adam, God’s Spirit sustains humanity from utter ruin and grants insight to all image bearers according to God’s purposes; and this insight begets a life more apt and aware of how to maximize one’s nature in wise-rule over the earth.
Whether or not students assent to the truth that they are image bearers, they are still personally developing in their nature and gifting by virtue of receiving and applying truths about creation and self (i.e., natural revelation). Even though unbelieving students may grow in personhood and skills as image bearers, it is a biblical certainty that apart from personal faith in Christ such development only results in condemnation on the day of judgment. This is because the motives, which ignited the heart in learning, are perpetuated by self-glory rather than the glory and praise of the divine Teacher and all wise-Ruler.
In turning from the role and responsibility of the learner, the nature of learning will be observed. Learners are never mere passive receivers because God’s image in humanity is dynamic; humanity is always inclined—choosing to hear or not hear, to obey or not obey, to raise a hand or speak out of turn. So, whether the content comes in the form of modernity’s information-to-be-memorized scheme or post-modernity’s guide-the-learner/journey methodology, learning occurs most effectively and properly when the student desires the material or content (i.e., curriculum). This is of highest importance in understanding the nature of the learner and the process of learning.
The greatest learner is one whose disposition is in a receptive posture, desiring wisdom (i.e., the how). If the student lacks an understanding of why education matters and how it fulfills his or her unique life purpose(s), the student will also lack in the capacity to absorb the curriculum. This is because, by nature, the student is a rational-relational-responsible being whose growth is contingent upon his or her attitude; the attitude or disposition enables effective and transformative absorption of content; i.e., humans are not merely thinking beings but willing and attitudinal beings. If students understand the ultimate good and goal of the learning experience, both for self and their place in the grand scheme of life, they will in turn focus and channel higher degrees of effort and energy toward the learning process.
The learner’s attitude is informed and motivated by good reason. Without foundational biblical truths, the attitude will be left wanting and the student’s focus will follow suit. On the other hand, with good reason informing the student’s affections, the student’s learning experience will not simply show on report cards, but will result in a transformative learning that striving toward achieving life purposes on a solid ethical foundation. This biblical approach turns learning from the world of the mind to the world itself—the student seeks to live out the knowledge poured in—being not a hearer who hears but a hearer who does. When the student grasps these biblical truths, namely that he or she is created to contribute to society as a wise-ruler and to do so according to his or her unique gifts and talents, the student may participate in a goal-oriented learning that fulfills the deepest and truest longings of a rational-relational-moral being: a divinely purposed learning that excites the intellect, enriches the individual and his or her place in the community, and beckons moral responsibility.
The source and foundation of a Christian philosophy of education is the all-wise triune God who created humanity to rule over the earth according to His likeness. This is the goal of a Christian education—to equip students with the knowledge and tools necessary to fulfill one’s personhood—learning and applying how to bear God’s image more significantly in wise-rule. This goal ought to be the teacher’s fixed aim: stewarding the knowledge of God in creation and special revelation so as to result in maximizing the student’s fulfillment and joy in wise-rule. While the hope for students is that they come to a saving faith in Christ, the primary task of the educator is not to save students. The primary task is to faithfully represent and present God’s Word to each and every student that they might taste and see that the Lord is good and, in the least, that they might grow in the common grace of God, which sustains and blesses the individual, society, and culture.
Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. New York: Modern Library, 2001.
Aquinas, Thomas. Thomas Aquinas Select Writings. Edited by Ralph Mcinerny. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1997.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Freedom of the Will. Vancouver: Eremitical Press, 2009.
Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: a systematic theology for pilgrims on the way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
 “Note that we ought always to take the question back to the first cause.” Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas Select Writings, Ed. Ralph Mcinerny (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 5. Cf. Aristotle’s Physics Book I. 184; Aristotle impacted Aquinas’ approach; Aristotle writes, “For we do not think that we know a thing until we are acquainted with its primary conditions or first principles, and have carried our analysis as far as its simplest elements. Plainly therefore in the science of Nature, as in other branches of study, our first task will be to try to determine what relates to its principles.” Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 218.
 In so far as wisdom is understood as right action; God’s being might be understood as the essence of wisdom. Put another way, wisdom is identical with God’s being as God is pure and absolute wise act; creaturely wisdom is ectypal, mirroring the wisdom proper to the Godhead alone; cf. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: a systematic theology for pilgrims on the way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 259-60.
 From this basis, the natural sciences exist as actual and meaningful fields of study. This means that physics, biology, geology, chemistry, etc. are the observation, exploration, and theorization of God’s creative intention, power, and divine attributes. Cf. Rom. 1:20; Prov. 3:19-20; Jer. 10:12.
 The term dynamic is used in contrast with static. God always does/acts; whether God actively or passively wills events, He is acting according to His permissive will or intervening will; hence, He always acts. His being and essence are one; there is no abstraction in God; God is an eternal dynamic being where His will is one with His love, justice, mercy, omniscience, etc. This is important for understanding the nature of the learner because humanity is created in God’s image; hence, humans do not have a static existence; there is therefore no such thing as passivity in learning – the learner is always responding to the curricula whether positively or negatively.
 The Spirit enlightens all of humanity to perceive and understand (Jn. 1:9). Those who resist God’s Word in special revelation (Scripture) are still perceiving, responding, and choosing to resist the truth therein. Thus, they are still under his divine instruction, yet responding as rebellious students of the Divine and the curriculum of His word. Furthermore, the student might absorb the truths of God’s Word (both in creation and Scripture), yet resist to acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior (e.g., the religious leaders of Jesus’ day). Thus, the student might grow in wisdom, yet only on a faulty foundation that will be swept away in future judgment. This form of wisdom might be defined as practical knowledge drawn from and controlled by the subject’s experience in creation.
 There is not enough room in this philosophy of education to elaborate on the fall of humanity in Adam (Cf. Gen. 3; Rom. 5). Hence, the reader must assume the true historical and plain narrative of Scripture in order to have a proper footing for understanding this philosophy of education.
 If the teacher is a cognitive-logical processor, then she might implement this strength through various modes of learning suited to her students (e.g., learning through doing, hands on projects/tasks, examples from analogy, direct instruction, sense-oriented learning, etc.). If the teacher is a visual learner par excellence, then he might channel this mode of learning through various other modes of learning that accord with student needs; for example, he might present a critical thinking task via implementing a visual aid or video; etc. The communication of knowledge is multifaceted and elastic. The methodology for communicating the wisdom of God is best done as the teacher teaches through his/her strengths in view of his/her students’ strengths. And by virtue of implementing a variety of models, both the teacher and student will be continually confronted with engaging and understanding learning styles not as apt or readily suited to one’s own, which also brings about development through strengthening weak points.
 There is not enough space in this philosophy of education to elucidate details and particular examples (See footnote 13 for a simple example of methodological freedom and the organic nature of the classroom).
 An important distinction needs to be made between postmodern methods and contents. While the methods are beneficial, the contents are not. The postmodern epistemology leads to a kind of perpetual skepticism, an all-things-subjective approach to education. Thus, this should not be open for debate as a Christian educator because it denies the reality of objective truth and/or humanity’s innate capacity for knowing and interacting with truth objectively. This is contrary to a biblical worldview: God founding and structuring a meaningful existence and creating humanity to interact meaningfully with existing things (i.e., God, neighbor, and creation). Technically, it is not that postmodern curriculum and practices (critical theories) reject the truth but merely switch the starting point of truth from God’s Word to the subject’s word thereby rejecting any certain foundation for truth certainty with exception to the “truth” of uncertainty (hence, an education without biblical starting points leads to a contradiction of terms, a learning that undoes learning).
 To this point, Jonathan Edwards writes, “… the Will always is, as the greatest apparent good is…” Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will (Vancouver: Eremitical Press, 2009), 14. What Edwards means by this statement is that one’s will and in effect decisions are always toward that which is perceived as most beneficial or agreeable to the mind, i.e., to one’s reason. In our context, the excitement of the will toward learning is contingent upon the students understanding or perception of learning; when the student perceives the true value and personal-interpersonal benefit of learning, then the student’s will and attitude in learning will be in a more receptive posture.
 The term biblical truth is employed here generally as inclusive of general revelation and special revelation. The Bible speaks to and teaches of the importance and place of general revelation in shaping human development.