A Biblical Vision of the Purpose of Education

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‘We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.’ – Martin Luther King 
(Brain, Malcolm & Clarke, 2014, p.183)

Most educators today agree that education involves more than just the transmission of knowledge and skills in relevant subject areas. It is a form of preparation for life and citizenship in a particular society. This was similar in early Greek society. Teaching was much broader than content and subjects. It meant simultaneously providing 'schooling', 'culturing' and 'character formation’. It involved a process of leading a student from boyhood into manhood, and helping him to find his true humanity and become a citizen (Cairney, 2011, p.65).

The following three definitions are expressions of current thinking about what education involves:

  1. ‘The purpose of education may be defined as preparing students for life in
 the world.’ To achieve this end, it may include studies or experiences relevant to personal intellectual, social, physical and spiritual development, work, vocation and employment, citizenship and community involvement, and creativity, aesthetic appreciation and cultural awareness (Goodlet and Collier, 2014, p.43).

  2. Lawrence Cremin defines education as ‘the deliberate, systematic and
 sustained effort to transmit, evoke or acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, or sensibilities, as well as any outcome of that effort’ (Pazmino, 2006, p.85).

  3. ‘To educate is to teach at every point the complex web of religious, moral
 and intellectual values which ultimately define the arrangements of any 
community and society’ (Pazmino, 2006, p.98).

In summary, these definitions agree with Goodlet and Collier when they say: ‘an important aim of education is the full and balanced development of persons, equipping them with the wisdom to live well’ (Goodlet and Collier, 2014, p.25).

So, we may ask ‘Why should the church be involved in education?’

Centuries of Christian involvement in schooling has been based on a fundamental
 Biblical understanding that the God of all creation is concerned with everything related to education – wisdom, truth and knowledge; the learning and teaching of understanding, virtues and habits that shape individuals, families and communities; the worth of each person; what is passed on from one generation to another; in whom and what people trust; what people hope for; and more (Church of England Vision for Education, 2016, p.1). The Bible teaching that the world is ultimately God’s world, means that Christian education should be preparing students for life in God’s world.
 Because the Bible also teaches that all people are made in the image of God, so have ultimate worth, Christians are called to responsibility towards others and to contribute responsibly to their communities – to serve the common good. Providing education has been an important way of making this contribution.

Wisdom is about ethics as well as cognition, values, purposes and facts, and above all tries to make sound judgements that do justice to the whole ‘ecology’ of life (Church of England Vision for Education, 2016).

Christian education recognises that all truth is God’s truth no matter what the source (Goodlet & Collier, 2014, p.42).

While knowledge, that can also be seen as factual or true, is far broader than that contained in the Bible, the values that underpin and are explicit in Christian Education are Biblical values. The Bible teaches the uniqueness and value of each person as they are made in the image of God, and that humans are relational, having a measure of freedom and responsibility, yet they are affected by sin and in need of redemption and restoration both with God and other people. This process of redemption and restoration involves healing, repair and renewal which all require generosity, compassion and hope. It builds trust and meaning between people and within the community. These Biblical values should be explicit in Christian Education.

No knowledge is values free. Don Carson says humans may know objective truth in the sense that they may know what actually conforms to reality, but they cannot know it objectively, that is they cannot escape their finitude and their fallenness, and therefore the limitations of perspectivilism, and thus they cannot know anything completely or from a neutral stance (Anglican Education Commission, p.23). Values are not only then embedded in the knowledge, but also in the structure of classroom learning or the pedagogy, the teacher’s preferences and behaviour, and the culture of the school. Rarely are these values made explicit, explored and questioned as part of
 curriculum in schools.

A Christian Education will focus on the whole person’s development – physical, intellectual, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic (Goodlet and Collier, 2014, p.22). It should have an impact on people’s lives and should enable them to grapple with the practical consequences of the truths studied; the social, political and economic consequences of Biblical values and faith (Pazmino, 2006, p.30); and with the fundamental questions about the meaning of life such as ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘What do I desire?’ and ‘How then shall I live?’

The Christian educator must not view the individual student as a blank slate on which he or she might draw. Each student is unique and brings with them their own culture and experience and needs to be understood and respected. As
 multiculturalism increases, our classrooms will become more ethnically and culturally diverse and rich. Speaking God’s truth in the classroom becomes a cross-cultural exercise which crosses not one but many cultures. We have much to learn from our students and we must learn to hear their stories if we are serious about them really hearing and understanding the story of Jesus. It involves genuine listening, understanding people’s needs, acknowledging their fears, hearing their questions and demonstrating one’s love and compassion for them (Anglican Education Commission, p. 20). Then we must contextualise Jesus’ story by communicating the external and unchanging truths of the gospel in understandable and appropriate terms for our students without changing it (Anglican Education Commission, p.23).

A Christian school should be an environment in which children from diverse 
backgrounds can learn and experience the Biblical values: love, joy, peace,
 patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, trust, hope, humility, speaking the truth.

As we grow our students we must prepare them for their failures as much as their successes, and also prepare them to be inducted into wider Australian society. In doing this we should not seek to squash individuality, but to cultivate it for the good of others, to the glory of God (Jensen, 2011, p.52). The practice of treating students as responsible agents but with forgiveness and reconciliation points the student to those
 sublimely human acts of embodiment by Christ himself (Jensen, 2011, p.52, 57).
 Teachers may be the only ‘Christ’ their students ever meet.

The nature, climate and culture of the classroom is determined by the teacher’s
 educational pedagogy as it reflects the teacher’s knowledge and beliefs, and the goals that shape their actions. Pedagogy will need to be distinctive and reflect the teachers understanding of what it means to be part of God’s restoration work in the world (Pietsch, 2018, p.31). Trevor Cairney claims that it is by changing the pedagogy that we are able to create a distinctively Christian approach to education and schooling (Anglican Education Commission, p.25). In his book Character Reborn, James Pietsch has written widely on the intentional use of pedagogy in the character development of students.

Good schools foster confidence, delight and discipline in seeking wisdom, knowledge, truth, understanding, know-how, and the skills needed to shape life well. They nurture academic habits and skills, emotional intelligence and creativity across the whole range of school subjects, including areas such as music, drama and the arts, information and other technologies, sustainable development, sport, and what one needs to understand and practise in order to be a good person, citizen, parent, employee, team or group member, or leader (Church of England Vision, 2016, p.6).

A Christian school connects truth to Biblical truth, wisdom to God’s wisdom, and meaning and hope to a loving God who created and sustains the world. Ruth
 Edwards claims that Anglican schools provide consistent values that are now 
fragmented in popular culture and so contribute to the stability of society (Edwards, 2014, pp.15–25).

Theological foundations

An evangelical approach to education emphasises four distinctives:

  • biblical authority as normative for thought and practice;

  • the necessity of conversion (but not indoctrination);

  • the redemptive work of Jesus; and

  • personal piety (Pazmino, 2006, pp.55-56).

Truths essential for faith and practice need to be taught and contemporary culture grappled with in the light of these truths. Christian educators are called upon to raise the awareness of persons in issues that relate to righteousness, justice and freedom as components of God’s continuing activity in the world (Pazmino, 2006, pp.55–73).

Aligning faith and teaching

We may ask the questions:

  • Should my faith change me as a teacher?

  • What is my faith’s relationship to my knowledge of schooling and its purpose, teaching and pedagogy? (Cairney, Cowling & Jensen, 2011, p.19).

  • Can my knowledge of education be supported by my theology or do they sit
 side by side?

  • Does my theology transform me and so impact how I shape my classroom? 
(Cairney, Cowling & Jensen, 2011, pp.21-22).

  • Does my theology act as a critique to help me interpret my experiences?
 (Cairney, Cowling & Jensen, 2011, p.22).

To be an Anglican school is to be a different school … in how the very institution is used redemptively by God … in the lives of students, families and the wider community (Cairney, Cowling & Jensen, 2011, p.20).

Publication bibliography

Anglican Education Commission. A Vision of Wholeness: Contextualising the Gospel in a Contemporary Anglican School. Sydney: Anglican Education Commission.

Cairney, T & Cowling, B (2011). 'Understanding the what, why and how of education.' In T. Cairney, B. Cowling, & M. Jensen (Eds.), New Perspectives on Anglican Education (pp. 7–23.). Sydney: Anglican Education Commission.

Church of England Vision for Education, Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good: Autumn 2016 (2016). London: The Church of England Education Office.

Brain, M; Malcolm, M & Clarke, G (2014). The Bible Overview. USA: Matthias Media.

Edwards, R. (2014). Challenge and Choice: Australian Anglican Schools Today. ACT: Barton Books.

Goodlet, K and Collier, J (Eds.) (2014). Teaching Well: Insights for Educators in Christian Schools. ACT: Barton Books.

Jensen, M (2011). 'A theological anthropology for Christian education'. In T. Cairney, B. Cowling, & M. Jensen (Eds.), New Perspectives on Anglican Education (pp. 43-57). Sydney: Anglican Education Commission.

Pazmino, R.W. (2006). Foundational Issues in Christian Education. USA: Baker Books.

Pietsch, J (2018). Character Reborn: A Philosophy of Christian Education. Sydney: Acorn Press.

Online Professional Learning Courses

You can learn more about a Biblical vision of the purpose of education in EdComm's online courses:

- An Introduction to Teaching in an Anglican School

- An Introduction to Teaching in a Christian School.

Both of these online courses provide 20 hours of NESA accredited Professional Development at the Proficient level and are enrolling now.