Who’s Your Daddy?


In Baltimore I attended a good private school. It was purely secular; and in it I learned nothing about the Bible or the great things of our Christian faith. But I did not need to learn about those things in any school; for I learned them from my mother at home. That was the best school of all; and in it, without any merit of my own, I will venture to say that I had acquired a better knowledge of the contents of the Bible at twelve years of age than is possessed by many theological students of the present day. The Shorter Catechism was not omitted. I repeated it perfectly, questions and answers, at a very tender age; and the divine revelation of which it is so glorious a summary was stored up in my mind and heart. When a man has once come into sympathetic contact with that noble tradition of the Reformed Faith, he will never readily be satisfied with a mere “Fundamentalism” that seeks in some hasty modern statement a greatest common measure between men of different creeds. Rather will he strive always to stand in the great central current of the Church’s life that has come down to us through Augustine and Calvin to the standards of the Reformed Faith.

My mother did more for me than impart a knowledge of the Bible and of the Faith of our Church. She also helped me in my doubts.

 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity in Conflict

Whatever else is implied here, and over against the prevailing notions amongst modern religionists that certain institutions have resident within them such ordained power, Machen seems to understand just where true religion is nurtured: the home. Religio-modernists will retort that they also believe this, but they quickly qualify their agreement by maintaining that what is nurtured in the home ought not to be dismantled elsewhere (i.e. school). The presumption here seems to be that if it isn’t explicitly for us then it must be implicitly against us.

But curiously absent is any hint by Machen that his “purely secular” school by definition militated against, either explicitly or implicitly, true faith. Indeed, it was still a “good” school—good enough that he was placed there by a devout Christian mother. In point of fact, it is asserted that religious instruction was unnecessary at any point during an educational vocation. It is a popular refrain these days to hear that pagan environments have the power to deconstruct what is indelibly patterned at home. While brutally tempting, the notion is patently false. Granted, anything from television to teachers to peers can have a fairly telling influence upon a child (and the experts tell us this last group can give parents a run for their money). But influence upon is simply not the same thing as creating and shaping a human being. For better or ill, that power resides within a parent.

Often the language of “high standards” is invoked by religionists who abide the presumptions of parochial day schooling. The suggestion tends to be that anyone who takes on the project of compulsory education without religious standards likely is in the business of either, at best, promoting or , at worst, committing ”low standards.” It’s also good for conveying that adjectives like “classical” or “Christian” (or both) in the world of education are synonymous with “secret gnosis on how to make sure Johnny and Suzie learn the three Rs.” But I would hazard that “high standards” might be better understood not as insulating covenant children so as to increase their comfort and ease, but rather to demand they learn how to inhabit and navigate a wider world that is anything from apathetic to patronizing to openly hostile while at the same time remaining faithful. Just as for some Christian ethics tend to be understood as one stake or another in “red state”/”blue state” squabbles instead of leading quiet and cultivating lives (1 Thess. 4; 1 Cor. 5), high standards may have less to do with weighing No Child Left Behind versus the Trivium and a lot more to do with being in the world but not of it.

P.S. If you ask me, I think Machen sure sounds a lot like some of the early writers.

This entry was posted in Education, Transformationism, W2K. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Who’s Your Daddy?

  1. Bryan Peters says:

    “Thoughtful people, even many who are not Christians, have become impressed with the shortcomings of our secularized schools. We have provided technical education, which may make the youth of our country better able to make use of the advances of natural science; but natural science, with its command over the physical world, is not all that there is in human life. There are also the moral interests of mankind; and without cultivation of these moral interests a technically trained man is only given more power to do harm. By this purely secular, non-moral and non-religious, training we produce not a real human being but a horrible Frankenstein, and we are beginning to shrink back from the product of our own hands…

    …I believe that the Christian school deserves to have a good report from those who are without; I believe that even those of our fellow citizens who are not Christians may, if they really love human freedom and the noble traditions of our people, be induced to defend the Christian school against the assaults of its adversaries and to cherish it as a true bulwark of the State. But for Christian people its appeal is far deeper. I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism. If, indeed, the Christian school were in any sort of competition with the Christian family, if it were trying to do what the home ought to do, then I could never favor it. But one of its marked characteristics, in sharp distinction from the secular education of today, is that it exalts the family as a blessed divine institution and treats the scholars in its classes as children of the covenant to be brought up above all things in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

    J. Gresham Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School,” 1933.

  2. Zrim says:


    I recall one Presbyterian scholar of American religion say that “one can find plenty of transformationalism in Machen.” This may be one reason.

    By this purely secular, non-moral and non-religious, training we produce not a real human being but a horrible Frankenstein, and we are beginning to shrink back from the product of our own hands…

    Oops. Schools don’t make human beings, homes do. And I wonder why he can call his school “purely secular” and “good” while another “purely secular” is “non-moral” and can be presumed to be making “Frankensteins”?

    I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism.

    I hear Van Til in the background here; maybe this was when he was still pleading with Cornie to come east? But I wonder if he’d characterize his own mother with such “neglect” and “abandonment”?

    If, indeed, the Christian school were in any sort of competition with the Christian family, if it were trying to do what the home ought to do, then I could never favor it.

    My concept of liberty is still liberal enough to allow for any host of kinds of day schooling for covenant children. But it is hard for me to see how the very concept of Christian schooling resists coming into competition with the family (and for that matter, how it negotiates liberty, especially when most churches take up offerings for it, etc.) when the notion seems to be that my catechizing of my children is somehow not enough.

    All in all, I think that Machen may have been perceiving a sort of transformationalism in his day in the halls of public education. But, first, meeting transformationism with transformationism isn’t an answer. Second, in 2009 it seems rather clear to me that secular schools (private or public) understand better than religious ones that homes make human beings and not schools; whatever transformationalism there was has been repented of.. Homes make, schools educate and churches save human beings.

  3. Greg says:

    The “Public v. Christian” school argument is generally framed in the terms that you described. Believing parents, who attend “Bible-believing, ethically-obsessed, experientially-focused, (pick & choose or add your own!) Evangelical churches,” have abdicated their responsibility to catechize their children (largely out of ignorance, I think; and, if you’d ask them, they’d think that they were doing a pretty good job, “after all we send our kids to Acme Christian School”), look to the “Christian” schools to “train them up in the way they should go,” never recognizing that the school won’t, because (not exhaustively or in any particular order) (1) the school is probably also operating in ignorance (moral therapeutic deism with a dash of cultural transformationalism for effect) (2) the school doesn’t want to upset anyone, so doctrine isn’t that important — anyway, we need all the students we can get ($), and (3) just maybe it’s not the schools responsibility (the school will deny this, of course. This is probably it’s best marketing point…”Training students to transform the culture for Christ!”).

    Oh, and we mustn’t forget that we don’t want our children out “in the world” (just of it!)

    Actually, all that was just a tangential point; however, there are other significant considerations to the discussion:

    The local schools (Indiana) have almost no say relative to curriculum. This is the realm of the state. A few consequences (off the top of my head):

    (1) Foreign languages may not be taught until junior high school (at the earliest). This is past the time at which languages are easily learned. Most private schools don’t teach foreign languages early either; but, at least they aren’t prohibited from doing so.

    (2) Phonics may not be used in teaching reading. This has been shown to be the most effective means of learning to read. This is a popular method in private schools. My children could read by December in kindergarten. Thankfully, they could still use it in Michigan when I was in kindergarten in the 1960’s.

    (3) The primary focus of the schools, administrators and teachers is ISTEP (Indiana statewide testing). Above all else, get the rating necessary for the school so that we can keep our jobs! (Somewhat understandable, huh? But not good for the students or our society.) Fewer teachers actually care about teaching and just put in the minimal hours to achieve the goal of passing the test. In fairness, the ISTEP is not completely to blame, i.e., problems with discipline, respect, lack of student work ethic, home issues, etc. all contribute as well. Unfortunately, some private schools have stooped to require the students to take the ISTEP (for accreditation purposes).

    (4) Administrators, teachers and parents have no influence on curriculum at the local level. The State dictates all.

    In fairness to the public schools, I believe that they offer a much broader education after fifth grade. Most private (often “Christian”) simply cannot afford the expense of such breadth.

    Wherever you send your children to school, do it for the right reasons.

    A final thought (for this post), I’ve noticed that our local Christian school focuses heavily on science and math. Perhaps this is related to certain state influences (?). Anyway, with all the talk about transforming the culture, it rings a bit hollow when such a limited attempt is made (in terms of class time) to actually understand it (history, philosophy, literature, etc.) Rather, the emphasis is on how to get a better job and make more money…”Your Best Life Now”, and after you graduate, don’t forget to donate to your “old school”. Doesn’t that seem just a bit hypocritical?

  4. Chris Sherman says:

    Is it possible that the main division between the public(government) school and the hopeful intention of the “Christian” school is that the public necessarily nurtures its progeny towards civil religion and the latter if it is doing its job in the light of Scripture is nurturing towards involvement in society as salt and light while maintaining a distinction from the world or worldliness?

    (I still cannot understand why we say “Christian” school or “Christian” music or “Christian” this or that, using that word more as an adjective than a noun.)

  5. RubeRad says:

    Oops. Schools don’t make human beings, homes do.

    But what if the home doesn’t? With the sheer amount of time a child spends in school, I think it’s more accurate to say: “If your home doesn’t make your child, then their school will.” I completely agree that home catechesis is an excellent prophylactic against whatever ills may be picked up in a public — or any other — school (homeschool?)

    And I’m not even really talking about whatever evil, atheistic, evolutionary ideas they may be taught by the local chapter of the communist NEA. My principal beef with public schools is they’re not good enough for my genius kids. Greg highlights many of the reasons above (Indiana is not alone — but my third-grader is learning Latin and Mandarin and my pre-K is learning phonics)

    Anyways, maybe the marked difference in the two Machen quotes (written only a year apart) is the difference between Machen’s own experience in an “excellent” secular private school (accompanied by excellent family catechesis), and your typical not-so-excellent secular state school (probably even back then, there was not enough catechesis in the home — why else would he had to have written Christianity & Liberalism?). Such a “purely secular, non-moral and non-religious, training” would create a “horrible Frankenstein”.

  6. RubeRad says:

    On a side note, Machen’s quote seems to conspicuously omit his father. Was he raised in a single-parent home, or was his father not Christian? Is that the reason for the title of your post?

  7. Chris Sherman says:

    Of course, you are in Michigan and I in California.

  8. Machiavelli says:

    I don’t really see any problems with christian schools. Yes, religion is for children mainly nurtured at home and yes, if they have a stable religious home, secular schools won’t be able to break it down. But a christian school can do something that a secular school can’t. Reinforce the faith, providing children with a enviroment where religion is more acceptable, more common than it problably is in a secular school

  9. Zrim says:


    Re your suggested division, I think in theory a public can certainly nurture something of a civil religion, but in reality I don’t think that actually is the case. In my own experience, public schools have no interest in nurturing ANY sort of religion. When it comes to the Christian school “…nurturing towards involvement in society as salt and light while maintaining a distinction from the world or worldliness,” that sure sounds way more affective and transformational than educational. I mean, I send my kids to school to learn how to read, not be salt and light. Their education is about their self-interests, not the interests of others.

    Re nouns and adjectives, I agree. Like I have said before, I know what Christians doing education is, but I don’t know what Christian education is (any more than a Christian salad, car, shirt or state).


    But what if the home doesn’t [make a human being]? With the sheer amount of time a child spends in school, I think it’s more accurate to say: “If your home doesn’t make your child, then their school will.”

    That is why I said “for better or ill” homes make human beings. Some make good ones, others make not-so-good ones. Homes cannot get around the reality of their power. And quantity of time has little to do with it; the 8 hours a school has a child is no match for 1 hour with mom and dad.

    More than “prophylactic” protection, I suppose I conceive parental instruction as faithful response to covenant duties. I don’t expect it will do more than it is ordained for. Good point about the main criterion to choose a school: a child’s education is primarily about his/her self-interests (not changing the world, being salt and light, etc.) The question is, Where will s/he get his/her educational needs met. When this is the question any good/suitable school will do, be it Christian (Catholic or Protestant), private, public, classical, charter, Montessori, etc.

    Re the title, I don’t know about the status of his father. I wondered the same thing. But, no, the title has more to do with the point about parental ordination—only your dad is your dad, for good or bad. Hey, that rhymes.


    Why does a parent need a school to reinforce the faith? Is a parent’s ordination not enough? Why does a student have to feel his beliefs are “more acceptable and common”? Where does Scripture teach this odd notion of creaturely comfort and ease? What has prepared him for when he moves out into the wider world—as he inevitably must and hopefully does—and finds that this isn’t the case?

    I’m not trying to be Pollyanna, I’m just asking questions that most never seem to ask. It seems like those who elect something other than Christian are demanded they meticulously scrutinize their choice while those who choose Christian assume quite a bit and are never asked such questions.

  10. Machiavelli says:

    Because it takes a village to raise a child and when, as a parent, you find it difficult to explain certain religious views it’s easy when teachers can explain those things. Because children don’t like being outsiders and (here’s a puritan reformed talking) when other kids go to a soccer/footballmatch on sunday and you’re the only who isn’t going, the kid is a outsider. When he (or she) is praying for lunch and the other kids aren’t, chances are he (or she) is being laughed at. No kid likes that and no parent likes that.

    And for being prepared for the wider world, that is certainly a reasonable criticism. It can be a flaw in a specific christian education. It doesn’t havo to though. I’ve been to christian schools ’till I was eightteen (I’m 22 now) and I have a broad circle of friends, atheists, agnostics, pantheists, evangelicals, catholics en reformed, while I have christian friends who’ve been to secular schools where the opposite is true. But admittedly, I’m more an excemption than a rule.

  11. Chris Sherman says:


    So if I understand, you maintain a strict dichotomy between children’s secular (or creational) education and their nurturing in the faith? Or?

  12. Zrim says:


    Well, they are certainly two different things. And I don’t readily know what the three Rs have to do with trusting in Christ alone. If that means a “strict dichotomy,” then I suppose I’m a radical.

    It’s not as if I don’t understand human beings are complicated and overlap is inevitable. But it’s precisely because of our complication that I think we need to draw brighter lines. It seems to me this is at bottom what two kingdom theology is all about.

  13. Chris Sherman says:

    I suppose I differ here then. I see all education as relating to a created universe, relating we who are created to a creator. Mathematics reflects this, science reflects this, writing arts certainly can, history reveals it, languages directly reveal it. What discipline does not at least have some shadow of creation contained within it? These are things that are not taught in the public arena, at least not anymore. If these disciplines are taught apart from a connected relation to a created world, don’t they somewhat risk becoming exercises in futility?

  14. Chris Sherman says:

    “connected relation” is that redundant?

  15. Zrim says:


    I don’t know if I quite grasp what you’re saying here.

    But I understand that education is a creational project, and, as such, like any other creational project, completely subject to the Lordship of Christ. “2+2=4” belongs to Jesus, but faith in him is completely unnecessary to either teach or learn this, or play out its implications. Everyone, regardless of faith, has access to all that is true, right and good.

  16. D G Hart says:

    For the record, there is a difference between a state secular school and a private secular school. I have lots of private secular schools in my neighborhood and they still have chaplains and religious exercises. I’m not saying those religious elements are good things. But there is a difference between the secular stylings of a John Dewey (public school) and a Robert Hutchins (private school). One difference could be that in the latter, the great books are taught and read. And there is lots of morality and humanism there, even if not great theology.

  17. Zrim says:


    I suppose that’s a fair distinction, given your experience (which I don’t doubt at all, of course). The private secular schools with which I am familiar growing up, though, never had chaplains/religious exercises. So I guess there are even more distinctions to be made between private secular schools. But everywhere I’ve been there is some measure of morality, as well as great books.

    The public charter school we used years ago (the local public was unacceptable and the Xian school across the street, well, wasn’t either). They made a lot hay about teaching classical virtues a la Aesop. It always struck me as odd. I realize there is an affective dimension when teaching little human beings, but the local public school seemed to have a more sensible posture when it comes to all that. I probably think that because it’s my posture.

    (Ever going to tell me what the “G” stands for? Every time I ask you never answer–must be quite nerdy.)

  18. D G Hart says:


  19. rE-source says:

    One or two pages down, you’ll find that J.G. Machen’s pa was a pious presbyterian.

  20. Joshua W.D. Smith says:

    So, wait. Machen quotes in favor of your view are great and all, but then quotes against your view are just, “Well, sure, you can find anything in Machen.” If that’s the case, then you can’t enlist “Machen” for your view of education, just that one quote. So, as far as Machen’s support for Christian or public schools, it’s a draw. As for this line:

    What has prepared him for when he moves out into the wider world—as he inevitably must and hopefully does—and finds that this isn’t the case?

    I’m sick of it. When exactly should your child move out into the world to find this out? When he’s six? That’s before most Reformed children can even come to the Lord’s Table–so they’re not prepared to join in the communion of the saints, but they should be ready to salt and light? At least feed them before sending them off to fight.

  21. Joshua W.D. Smith says:

    Also, I should point out that the family, like education, is a creational institution. So, is faith in Christ completely unnecessary to the true purpose and nature of the family? If so, what was Paul doing in Eph. 5? If not, how is the creational institution of family different from that of education?

  22. Zrim says:


    I never said I enlisted Machen. I just referenced a quote to make a point. And if you read my other comments you’d see that I am also pointing out some, what I think, are inconsistencies in both of his quotes. If Machen were sitting in front of me today I’d have no problem asking him the same questions I am now, especially when it comes to the second quote. That’s because I am not enlisting him. Calvin cannot be “enlisted” for 2K/SOTC, only employed to make the points since there is plenty theonomists and transformers can use to make their points.

    The family has a foot in both spheres. Of course, it will be utterly dissolved in the next age altogether. But for now it is employed to nurture both creational and redemptive realities for believers in ways no other institution is. Don’t ask me why education is not so ordained, I didn’t make the rules.

  23. Pingback: SBC Exodus Mandate

  24. Zrim says:

    I find the “little missonaries” argument equally repellent. My children’s education is about their needs, not the needs of others.

    And it isn’t my intention to “denigrate Xian education,” but to ask questions parochialists never seem to ask. But even more than that to wonder how Christian liberty fits in. From what I can tell, there is yet a place for legalism amongst those who seem to think legalism is ever only something about substance use.

  25. Winston Churchill says:

    Education is too important to be left to the educators.

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