The Third Rail

Two-kingdom doctrine correctly maintains that there is no more a thing called Christian politics than there are Christian salads. At first blush this contention seems quite bold in the light of the fact that American religion, for all its official mantra about the “separation of church and state,” really does believe religion is relevant to statecraft. In the midst of both soft and hard Constantinianism wherein politics are moralized and religion is politicized, it is no small thing to suggest that Christianity implies nothing about the cultivation of society.


But I’ll see that controversy and raise an eyebrow.


In his book A Secular Faith, Darryl Hart concludes his running argument that Christianity really is just as interested in the commonality of all created humanity as it is in a rigorous orthodoxy by making reference to Daniel’s education:


“It is the account of the Jewish prophet who learned the literature and wisdom of the Chaldeans and excelled in it to such a degree that he emerged as the wisest of the pagan king’s counselors. This learning was not simply the liberal arts, as John Calvin tried to explain it, but a language and literature that was infused with false and idolatrous ideas and beliefs, from the perspective of Israel’s cult. Just as for the Jewish people, throughout the ancient Near East cult and culture were so thoroughly intertwined that to learn a foreign language and literature was in some important sense an entrance into the religious beliefs of a different God…The fuller account of Daniel, then, the one before and outside the lion’s den, is of a man who had assimilated the ways, culture, and customs of a nation whose religion was false from the perspective of the Jewish people.”


In many instances two-kingdom doctrine seems to grind to a screeching halt when it comes to matters of education. Those who would otherwise contend that Christianity has no direct bearing on or obvious implication for matters common still seem to draw the line at the school house doors. Nose around long enough in the literature of a church which maintains that true religion—to the chagrin of David Kuo—ought not to be in the business of faith-based  initiatives and one will invariably trip across equally vigorous dogma charging believing parents to the moral (yes, moral) duties of so-called Christian education. Dissenters beware—invoking liberty here seems to suggest immorality. But if Christianity has nothing to say about the making and maintaining of culture generally, it can’t possibly have anything to say about education specifically. 


It is understandable why this may be the last frontier even amongst two-kingdomites.  It is one thing to discuss categories that feel impersonalized or don’t seem to immediately affect us, like politics. But we can’t get any more immediate than children, those in whom we find caught up all our beliefs, values, aspirations, hopes and confidences. As parents we are duty-bound for their nurture and protection. Indeed, they are members of the covenant, and promises have been made to them. Yet, true as that may be, none of it seems to make up for the fact that the only thing needed for any common endeavor is natural law.


Could it be that the more immediate and delicate a thing is the more inclined we may be to pull the trigger on the conflation of law and gospel? Could it be that the more indelible a project the more tempted we are to forget that the only institution ordained to make human beings, for better or ill, is the family—not the media, not the state, not the church and not the school? When such a high view of the home is brokered to others simply because they have our children eight hours a day, it is easy to see how education remains the third rail even amongst those who would champion the notion of an expansive common sphere.


But if we want to be cautious to not over-realize what certain created institutions can yield, it is not immediately obvious why education should be given a pass. If politics, for all its potency and inherent power, can’t save the world but can only imperfectly regulate and maintain a proximate justice, then education, for all its influence and effect, cannot shape and create human beings. Just as the salvation of the world comes by the hand of God alone, it would seem that the making of human beings comes only by those whom he has ordained for such work. This seems to suggest that the moral imperative on Christian parents may be less to cut checks to parochial educators and more on them to perform their created and redemptive duties. Maybe where their children are educated is much more open to liberty while their parental charges become more strident.













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9 Responses to The Third Rail

  1. sean says:

    Sigh, I expect to hear you’ve been thrown out on your ear any day now. Remove any more rocks and what will there be left to do. I know your emphasizing the role of the family, but it puts the role of the church in bold relief for me.

    It’s only in this narrowness that the hope for what the church can be comes into focus. It’s really quite exciting but I fear it’s also terribly foreign to most of our experiences. I imagine there would be a huge winnowing effect followed by a resurgence. If as Scott Clark says we’re now so divorced from evangelicalism as to be left to our own evangelistic efforts, here, in this narrowness and specificity is where our broad appeal will be. Here there is hope. Here there is transcendence. Here we have the gospel unencumbered. This is the job to be done. This is what we have to offer, here is food for the soul. Man, I pray for this. This has to be our heartbeat.

  2. adam says:

    Steve, I think in theory you have a good point if the schools bought into the concept of sovereign spheres. In contrast, at least in my local district the school sees their mission as much more expansive than merely teaching kiddies the three r’s. So when faced with a government that obliterates the distinction between kingdoms, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable reaction for Christian parents to remove their kids from that environment.

  3. Zrim says:

    Sean, great point, one I think is a natural result of mine. Funny how roles become much clearer when they are actually defined.


    I would say that is a big “if,” but it always seemed to me that pagans understand sphere sovereignty better than many believers.

    Remove him and put him where? In an environment that equally may “obliterate” the kingdoms?

    It seems to me that one must allow for the occassional mis-step. Proximate justice, remember. But is it fair to charge a mis-step with “obliteration”? And even if is, is it realistic to think that going to a parochial school (I assume that is where he is being removed to) will keep the kingdoms distinct any better than a public school? It does seem to me that Christians are way too quick to cry foul against the pagans when they mis-step but give lots of room when Christians, for example, do things like smuggle ecumenism in through education. (I’d rather mine learn what it means to slog through the common sphere, occassionally stopping to deprogram, than deprogram all that seems to labor against a confessional Reformed orthodoxy in most Christian schools.)

  4. Adam says:

    Hi Steve, a couple follow up thoughts:

    1. I agree that there are plenty of bad parochial schools too, ones that I’d avoid like the plague. Also, I think the choice of schooling falls under the category of Christian liberty and every family ought to be free to make their own decisions without the Church condemning or applauding any option.

    2. I start my decision making process with the assumption that putting a child in a position where dad and mom have to contradict the teacher who functions as an authority figure and/or an authoritative textbook should be avoided as much as possible. So, little Johnny’s teacher or textbook telling him that there is no God, he’s a grown up germ and that the Bible is a lie are the sort of ideas coming from an authority that that as parents we ought to protect our young kids from. I don’t believe our kids are to function as missionaries and they certainly shouldn’t be put in situations where most adults would crash and burn.

    3. When the state says to my daughter that the correct answer to the question “who made you?” is ultimately swamp water, chance and electricity they’ve jumped spheres. When they authoritatively teach to my son or daughter what constitutes a family or what is and isn’t a sin they’re doing theology.

  5. sean says:

    “When the state says to my daughter that the correct answer to the question “who made you?” is ultimately swamp water, chance and electricity they’ve jumped spheres. When they authoritatively teach to my son or daughter what constitutes a family or what is and isn’t a sin they’re doing theology.”

    Just an observation. In teaching kids, I’ve found it much easier to counter blatant atheistic naturalism than biblical moralism and works righteousness theology. The latter still does a job on me half the time.

  6. sean says:

    I should clarify; a works righteousness theology passed off as the christian gospel

  7. Zrim says:


    1. Quite agreed, of course.

    2. Agreed. But your example proves too much (“…little Johnny’s teacher or textbook telling him that there is no God, he’s a grown up germ and that the Bible is a lie.”). Maybe I have lived in a bubble, but as a life-long student in PE in various settings, I was never told such insidious things, and in all my adult life in education with a wide array of perpsectives I would have to say that coming across such blatant discourse, either implied or explicit, is quite rare. I think you are basing much of what you think may happen in secular schools on caricature and innuendo.

    3. Again, I just have never had an experience as a student, teacher or otherwise where I heard a child told he or she must dispense with their religious beliefs.

    Moreover, your comments seem to assume that what happens in secular education all day is that kids are made into Darwinianists and Egalitarians, etc. I will leave the fact that in most places on most days most teachers are teaching what most kids need to learn (read: “the 3 Rs”) and not carrying out the fanatasical and sensationalistic assumptions of most conservative Christians. But what about Christian kids being made into ecumenists, Dispensationalists, Arminians, Revivalists, Anabaptists and just generally broad Evangelicals? Again, why is it that secular educators are held to such high standards when it comes to the potentiality of “doing theology” and Xian educators can get away with various forms of all things un-Reformed?

    It seems to me that no matter where one is he will have to combat and de-program something. As Sean ably points out, it is far easier to “counter blatant atheistic naturalism than biblical moralism and works righteousness theology.”

    Countering that God didn’t make us is a cake-walk compared with having to disentangle moralistic, therapeutic deism rampant in Christian cult and culture (including parochial schools where, in my experience, it is nurtured). Indeed, I think the case can be made that we do our covenant children a favor by staying out of circles that only perpetuate bad Christainity. Praying to the one God before the day begins doesn’t seem to make up for that.

    I should balance that with another standing point of mine. Here is the dirty little secret about education: it doesn’t matter what kind or what setting a school is. As long as they are doing what all education is about (read: natural law), a student will get what he or she needs. A child may attend a public, Protestant-Christian, Catholic, private, charter, Montessori, home, whatever…if they are doing education well then the rest is peripheral. I would send mine to any of those as long as I felt that the baseline was happening well. I’d combat bad Christianity in the CSI if the local PS was sub-par. When our local PS was unacceptable, we combatted “character education” in the charter school we opted for.

    BTW, Adam, good word on the missiological approach many Xians take in PE. School is about a child getting his/her educational needs met, not meeting the spiritual needs of others; burdening children with being missionaries instead of students is quite inappropriate. The missiological view is quite misguided and I have no use for it.

  8. john cummins says:

    Several problems with your stuff zrim: 1) yes they are turned into egalitarian marxists, 2) yes there are different flavors imputed by various parochial schools that you might not like HOWEVER, these private and homeschools are not systematically violating the 9th amendment like the atrocious state, governmental schools that thieve from the general public. Also, there is NO natural law, period, God’s law rules and what we call common or natural law is simply a by product of that, plain and simple. I really couldn’t exactly follow the article as a whole. Was it pro R2K or anti? I am assuming pro R2K heresy??

  9. Zrim says:

    John, yes, pro R(obustly Reformed) 2k heresy.

    How are public schools violating the 9thC and thieving from the general public?

    Agreed that natural law is also God’s law. But then what do you mean there is no natural law?

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