A Christian Philosophy of Education

What is Christian, as opposed to secular, education? How do educational theories apply? What should Christians do?

By Mark D. Harris

I was reading George Knight’s classic Philosophy and Education on a recent flight from Charlotte to Memphis when Paul, a young man in the seat beside me, struck up a conversation. A Punjabi Sikh, Paul had been a math teacher in an all-black classroom in Memphis, and we discussed how hard it can be to motivate students, especially when cultural and racial barriers stand in the way. The hardest question to answer is “why learn?” The most obvious reply, to get a good job and make money, is effective but limited. While we all have to eat, the human spirit needs a transcendent answer, something beyond the individual, to give meaning to learning, and to life. A metanarrative is a story that provides structure to people’s beliefs and meaning to their experiences.

Secular education, with its postmodern rejection of metanarratives, can provide no answer other than for each individual to invent whatever meaning they want their lives to have. Thus, Joe’s meaning in life might be to help people, Maria’s meaning in life might be to have fun, and Ahmed’s meaning in life might be to get rich. All meanings, except violent or “intolerant” ones as deemed by the greater society, are equally valid because the individual is the final arbiter. No two individuals have exactly the same purpose for their lives, so although people may work together on common goals, their labors are ultimately by and for them alone. It is as if 10,000 people in New Jersey wanted to walk to 10,000 different places in California – some could help each other along the way at the beginning but as people spread out, less assistance would be available for everyone. Ultimately no one could help anyone else at all. Even if every traveler was completely successful, no one would end up at the same place – each would be alone.

Christians see the center of the universe as God, not man (either individually or corporately as mankind), and therefore the purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Every believer has exactly the same purpose, but every believer glorifies and enjoys the Lord in a unique, individual way. Joe might practice medicine, Maria might dance, and Ahmed might run a business, but they would all be doing so to bring glory to their Creator and to revel in Him for eternity. It is as if 10,000 people in New Jersey wanted to walk to the mission at San Juan Capistrano in Southern California – they could help each other along the way, and if everyone was completely successful, they would all reach the same destination.

Christian education, therefore, must reflect the Christian goal and the Christian metanarrative – creation, perfection, the fall, incarnation, redemption, and restoration – rather than the postmodern one – that no metanarratives are valid. Without a metanarrative the subjects, from Algebra to Zoology, are united only in whatever organic similarities they possess. For example, biological organisms are made of chemical building blocks, the components of which act according to physical principals. With the Christian metanarrative the subjects are united in every way, both organically and as parts of Creation, as revelation of their Creator, and as examples of His grace.  All truth really is God’s truth.

Plato’s Idealism stressed the primacy of mind and ideas in philosophy and subsequently in education.[1] Aristotle’s Realism focused on the importance of the physical world, of matter in motion.[2] Aquinas’ Neo-Scholasticism strove to base itself on logical (based on the natural world) and unchanging truths, and emphasized mental and personal discipline.[3] Dewey’s pragmatism cared much less for the curriculum than for the needs of the students.[4] Nietzsche’s existentialism took the student-focus to extreme individualistic ends.[5] Each of these philosophies and their educational outgrowths capture some truth, but none encompasses all truth. Even the modern educational philosophies such as progressivism and critical pedagogy have something to commend them – especially the focus on power in learning and the need for social justice.[6]

Christian education will be thoroughly Biblical, encompassing the idea-focus of John, the practicality of Moses, the discipline of Paul, the pragmatism of David, the individuality of Job, and the social justice of James. It will be utterly Christ-centered, knowing that in Jesus Christ dwells the fullness of divinity and every good thing. Special revelation, the Bible, while the most important source of truth in the universe, is not the only source of truth. General revelation, the universe, declares the glory of God as well. Christian education assigns a high value to the sciences, revealing how physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and the others work together to create an orderly and even predictable universe. They demonstrate that not only can God be known, but He wants to be known. Our Lord loves us so much that He reveals Himself to us.

Medicine reveals God. The body is an amazing creation, mind-numbing in its complexity but even more wonderful in its self-awareness. We truly are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalms 139:14). Each part of the body is dependent on every other part – the respiratory system provides oxygen to the cardiovascular system to supply the entire body, which then sends waste carbon dioxide back through the cardiovascular system to the respiratory system for final removal. When one part of the body suffers, the entire body suffers. For example, when you sprain your ankle, the other leg takes the additional body weight on itself until the injured ankle heals. The Body of Christ works the same way, as a complex, interdependent system that suffers as its parts suffer, and rejoices as its part rejoice.

History reveals the Lord. Who could have predicted in AD 50 that a tiny, persecuted sect in the Roman Empire, the Christians, would become the largest religion in the world 2000 years later? Tens of thousands of charismatic religious leaders have come and gone in two millennia, but only a few – Jesus, Mohammad, and the Buddha, have endured. Among these Jesus is supreme, an itinerant preacher and carpenter who never wrote a book, built a building, commanded an army, or ran a nation. Archaeology supports the accounts in the Bible. How else has God been working in history?

Other subjects also reveal God. Christians in literature discuss how great works communicate the dilemma of man on earth. Those in social studies debate what is a truly just society, how to achieve it, and how to keep it. Believers in the arts strive to communicate God and man in their craft. Followers of Christ in sports live out the fruits of the Spirit on the field of competition, and glorify their Lord with their bodies. The vocational arts are no exception – our Creator can be exalted and enjoyed with wrenches and hammers just as readily as with pens and paint brushes. Christian educators see everything through the filter of God, see God through the filter of everything, and help their students to do the same. Christian character, not merely knowledge or skill, is the ultimate purpose of a Christian education.

I spent 27 years in the US Army, and their theory of battle was to overwhelm the enemy, attacking him through the air, on the land, in cyberspace, in space, in the ocean, and under the sea. Senior army leaders teach junior army leaders to attack on the battle line, behind the enemy battle line, and to defend behind their own lines. While this example is far too adversarial for Christian teachers and students, it still illustrates the need to use every technique to teach, encourage, and ultimately disciple students. Professors immerse their students in the subject matter, using all five senses. World religions students can learn through lecture, discussion, reading, video, songs, foods, clothes, and visits to religious sites. Nothing is beyond consideration in our efforts to make learning a whole-body and whole-spirit endeavor.

Christian education is personal. Jesus lectured to the masses, but built His kingdom on 11 apostles and up to 120 other believers. God the Son invested His earthly life in just a few people, and changed the world. Educators, likewise may lecture to hundreds and write books for thousands, but their real impact will be in their children and the ten or fifteen people that they personally mentor in their careers. Just as good politicians win one vote at a time, so good Christian teachers mentor one person at a time in their walk towards Christ.

Finally, Christian education is a work of the Lord. No matter what a teacher does, he will win some and lose some. Some students, professors, and administrators will love him, but some will hate him. Some pupils will learn and some will not. Each Christian professor will get some publications, speaking engagements, and awards. Ultimately all followers of Jesus are called to be faithful to Him, but not necessarily successful in the eyes of the world. Late in life, we all look back over our lives, regret our failures, enjoy our successes, and ask if it was all worth it. Insofar as we trusted and obeyed God, regardless of the earthly outcome, it was. Even those times when we were not faithful, when we sinned with intent or failed with cowardice, God used for His glory and our good. Ultimately, our work really belongs to the Lord, because we have been crucified and He lives in us. This is our hope.


[1] Philosophy and Education: an Introduction in Christian Perspective 4th (Fourth) Edition by George R. Knight Published by Andrews University Press (2006), 4 ed. (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1600), 43.

[2] Ibid, 50.

[3] Ibid, 54.

[4] Ibid, 66.

[5] Ibid, 75.

[6] Ibid, 104, 130.

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