A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education

Is the purpose of Christian education to isolate or immunize students, to protect them from a secular culture or prepare them for it? Is it better to organize lessons by kind of literature, by history, or by theme? Should Christian schools be governed by the church, or by an association of parents? Can a Christian school be Bible-centered without a specific Bible class? Is it good for a Christian school to use mainly Christian textbooks?

These are the kinds of questions Donald Oppewal, longtime professor of education at Calvin College, explores in this collection of his own writing over roughly the last half of the twentieth century. Probably no other scholar has written as broadly on Reformed Christian education as this author on a variety of topics: differences among public and Christian education; the perspective permeating textbooks; the relations of church, home, and school in nurturing the young; the history of Reformed day schools; methods of teaching; the purposes of Christian schools.

The three-hundred-page book has five sections, each with an editorial introduction. The first section is a series of the author’s articles on differences between government-sponsored and Christian schools, views on authority to educate children (the parents? the state? the church?), legal battles on funding, and an extensive comparison of Christian textbooks with the viewpoint permeating secular textbooks. Oppewal composes a humanist’s educational creed (56–59) from the stated themes of Humanist Manifesto (1976) to show that secular textbooks teach a religion that contrasts point-by-point with the Bible’s portrayal of reality.

All of the issues in this first section are alive in culture today: the separation of government from religion, the separation in Christian schools of piety (singing, praying, Bible-reading) from “subjects,” the shared-time programs (public school teachers teaching in Christian schools), and the purpose of Christian schools, especially the purpose of families and churches in nurturing children. D. Bruce Lockerbie in Who Educates Your Child? frames this latter issue by suggesting that the home incubates a child’s faith; the church inculcates that faith; and the Christian school integrates that faith into a worldview that is “whole and wholly Christian.”

On that point, Oppewal frequently uses a distinction from Philip Phenix in this and other sections to show three aspects of religion: the cultic, cultural pattern, and commitment (25). Essentially the first is piety, or the rituals of faith; the second is the social practices of faith, which include historical patterns, belonging to a church, and so on; the third is “the gaining of a total view of life,” which “gives meaning and direction to the life of the holder.” This is the primary province of a Christian school.

The second section deals particularly with the history of the Reformed Christian schools in America, originating in the Netherlands and mainly connected in some way to the Christian Reformed Church. The first articles describe the features of Calvinism applied to Christian education. In this second part are also articles on what the biblical teaching is, why schools should be governed by parents and not churches, and why general revelation (all of nature) is equal to special revelation (the Bible).

Within this section is a monograph titled “The Roots of the Calvinistic Day School Movement,” in which the author raises an issue that persists in North American Christian schools. He says, “There was a fear that the loss of distinctiveness is often the price for cultural adaptation” (126). Even today in Christian schools parents still question whether their schools should primarily teach students to stay separate from “the world,” assimilate into the culture, or seek to transform culture as Christ’s servants.

Oppewal has articles in this section about the methodology of teaching that are worthwhile for teachers to consider. More than four decades ago, he proposed that lessons move from a “consider” (intellectual) phase, next to a “choose” (decisional) phase, and finally to a “commit” (creative) phase. He calls this a “movement from is to ought” (150), a contrast to today’s secular teaching of “Whatever is, is right.”

The third section contains principles and practices that the author espouses, mainly in columns as editor of this journal (Christian Educators Journal) over twelve years. He recommends organizing literature instruction by theme rather than by genre or chronology, with clear examples and an analysis of the worth of each approach. He chimes in strongly in advocating the “discovery” (inductive) method as preferable to the deductive method. He strongly asserts that Christian textbooks are still necessary. He advises teachers to help young people “combat” trash in the general culture.

The last two sections, on higher Christian education, specifically Calvin College, seem more to be appendices and outside the primary topic of the book: day-school education and specifically Christian schooling.

Whenever someone sorts through articles from his/her past, problems for the reader arise: the milieu of the time of writing is hard to remember and some aspects of the articles are repetitive. For example, the author repeats at least three times his stance on general and special revelation.

However, all the articles in the first three sections have strong bearing in today’s culture. Oppewal’s writing is organized and clear. His illustrations are apt and help the reader understand concepts. His vocabulary is plain and familiar to most readers of any age. Summaries at the end of many articles help the reader remember the main points. Citations at the end of many articles give the reader access to other articles on similar subjects. The author takes stances on almost every issue, but his tone in his arguments is never strident or satirical.

Who should get this book? Teachers who care about best methods for teaching, who think Christian education is more than teaching subjects in a Christian atmosphere, or who are concerned that “knowing” has to be more than repeating even repeating a Christian concept on a test—should all explore what’s in this book. Certainly all school leaders should have the book as a really fine resource for leading teachers’ professional development. Finally, Christian college education professors ought to use this book for their students in history, philosophy, and methods classes, even if some of the students plan on teaching in public schools.

Oppewal’s collection of his writings here demonstrates his broad and steady contributions to all aspects of Christian schooling over a half a century. He raises and answers the big questions with clear argument. The best gift readers can give back is to listen to him.

Works Cited

  • Lockerbie, D. Bruce. Who Educates Your Child? A Book for Parents. New York: Doubleday, 1980.
  • Oppewal, Donald. A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education: Fifty Years of Footprints. Grand Rapids, MI: Chapbook Press, Schuler Books, 2012. (Available at <www.schulerbooks.com>.)