Biblical Perspectives on Education


[1] I have been invited to draft an essay regarding biblical perspectives on education.  The specific context for this essay is the preparation of a social statement on education by the ELCA.  Two qualifications need to be stated at the outset.  The first qualification is that the communities that formed the Bible did not share our modern idea of the separation of "church and state" or a split between "sacred and secular."  This is the sort of qualification that has been expressed so many times that it may sound almost pro forma.  However, when considering how the Bible should shape Christian thinking about education, this qualification cannot be stated clearly enough.  Precisely because the education system is one of the flashpoints in the current wars over how the sacred and secular should interact in our society-just think of current and recent debates over prayer in school, how biology and sex education are taught in schools, or vouchers-we need to be aware that any explicit passages the Bible has about educating the young may assume a marriage between government and faith that our society does not accept. 

[2] The second qualification is that the people that formed the Bible did not differentiate between different types of knowledge in the same ways that we moderns do.  Today, we divide knowledge into different domains such as science, social science, the humanities (of which religion is considered a part), the arts, modern languages, vocational studies, and so on.  Within these domains, knowledge is pursued by a set of rules particular to each domain-for the study of ethics, for example, data is processed under a different set of values and processes than in the study of economics.  Even within Lutheran theology (a fairly specific sub-domain to begin with), we differentiate into Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, Ethics, and so on-each discipline with its own rules and processes for pursing truth.  The ancient biblical communities certainly had categories into which they divided knowledge, but their categories were different from ours and they did not have particular rules that were different for the investigation of knowledge in different domains.  To make a distinction between theology and ethics, for example, would have baffled the ancients.

[3] The challenge that these two qualifications presents should be obvious.  On the one hand, as Lutherans, we are called and pledged to be faithful to the biblical witness and to be formed and informed by it.  On the other hand, the context in which we live assumes basic stances that present problems for those who wish to be shaped by the biblical witness.  First, our modern idea about the separation of church and state in public institutions-educational institutions are public institutions-presents a challenge.  Second, our modern ideas about how to pursue and divide knowledge-and knowledge is the subject matter of education-presents a challenge.  I was tempted to essay an analogy and say that we must attempt to "translate" the biblical witness into our own context.  But this analogy fails, because as any student of a second language knows, one always loses something in translation.  Rather, what we must do is let the biblical witness speak out of its context and we must hear it in our own context.  Neither context should silence the other.

I. A Concern for the Common Good

[4] So what is the biblical witness when it comes to education?  One place to start is with the canon itself.  The canon, after all, was collected to educate.  Because we are a people surrounded and bombarded with the written word, it is hard to appreciate properly the daring and creative act that it took to assemble a "book" in witness to God's presence.  But if we stretch our imaginations and cast ourselves back to a time when the written word was as rare as visions from God, we realize that the formation of the canon was itself brave and revolutionary action.  But toward what end?  The biblical collection-these many scrolls, poems, prayers, genealogies, stories, and letters-betrays a significant concern for the common good.

[5] Within the Old Testament, there are key passages that shed light on the formation and purpose of the Scriptures.  Three of these passages are the story of giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, the story of King Josiah's reform, and the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem following the Exile.  In each of these stories, several elements occur: the Scripture is either given newly or in a renewed fashion; communal worship takes place; and the Scripture is either forming or reforming the people.  In the story of the Exodus, what is given is the law, especially the Ten Commandments, which are the center of Israel's law and the center of its Scripture.  Following the Passover and the escape through the sea, the people go to worship God at Mt. Sinai.  God enters into a covenant with the people and makes this promise:  "You shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.  Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exod 19:5b-6a).  Then God gives the law, and the crowning jewel of the law is the Ten Commandments.  But note the focus on the people.  The law is not given primarily for individual holiness or personal morality.  Rather, the law is given as the means for the rescued mass of Israelites to become a community, a nation, a people. 

[6] The two other passages mentioned betray a similar pattern.  During the reign of King Josiah, c. 620 BCE, a scroll was found in the temple.  Scholars believe that this scroll was what we know as the central portion of the Book of Deuteronomy.  Apparently the scroll had lain neglected in the temple for some years.  Upon finding the scroll, King Josiah put in place legal and religious reforms and he commanded that the festival of Passover be celebrated:  "No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah" (2 Kings 23:22).  Following the Babylonian exile, after the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt, the scribe Ezra brought "the book of the law of Moses" before the assembled people.  "And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people. . . So they read from the book, from the law of God. . . ." (Neh 8:6a, 8a).  Scholars believe that this book of the law of Moses was what we know as the Pentateuch-the first five books of the Bible.  Following the reading, the people celebrated the festival of Booths.  Notice especially the concern in these two accounts for the formation of the people.  In the first, account, the religious and ethical reforms were put in place to shape the people as the people of God.  Likewise, following the return from Exile, the people needed to be formed-this formation was provided in part by the reading and interpretation of the law. 

[7] The concern for the communal good to which the shape of the biblical canon bears witness is also a major concern of the prophets of Israel.  As many commentators have noted, the prophets by and large do not direct their messages to specific individuals or even the "believer" as an individual person.  Rather, their focus bores in on the community, the people, the nation.  We normally associate the prophets with a call to justice.  But as the great Jewish commentator Abraham Heschel noted, the prophetic preoccupation with the larger community was so intense that at times it was itself unjust:  "If justice means giving every person what he deserves, the scope and severity of the accusations by the prophets of Israel hardly confirmed that principle.  The prophets were unfair to the people of Israel.  Their sweeping allegations, overstatements, and generalizations defied standards of accuracy."  But Heschel adds, "What seems to be exaggeration is often only a deeper penetration, for the prophets see the world from the point of view of God, as transcendent, not immanent truth."1   That is, if we examine ethical reality under a statistical microscope alone, then yes, the prophetic accusation that the community as a whole bears responsibility for social evil is unjust.  However, truth cannot be weighed by numbering predicates or subjects.  And the truth is that if the communal good is the highest value then it is the community that bears responsibility.

[8] It should be obvious that this biblical concern for the corporate good must crowd in on us when we are thinking about education.  Education must be about the common good.  If we think of education only as a means for the young to develop their skills, or to achieve their potential, or to be equipped to succeed in life, then we have seen only one side of the coin.  Rather, education must do all of that and also serve the entire society.  It must be the lungs that breathe spirit into the whole community, it must serve not just its students but all of society, it must be as concerned about responsibility to the world as it is about the rights of students.  This, in turn, means that education is by definition a moral enterprise; its focus is on not only the mind but the heart of the students.  One secular reason why for this is that the one thing a democracy cannot live without is a good citizens-and I mean good in the moral sense.  A government of the people cannot survive without good people.  Without them, the body politic will slouch on the clay feet of its own people.  The extent to which education is a moral enterprise is, of course, a subject where the Bible and the prophets have a witness that our secular society cannot hear.  This is so because for the Bible-and especially for the prophets-there is no good apart from God, no justice apart from the law of God.  This perspective also continues in parts of the New Testament, as well. 

[9] All of this bring us back to one of the original qualifications with which this essay started, namely the qualification that for the communities that formed the Bible, there was no division between sacred and secular matters.  How should a church-that now exists in a secular nation-be formed by the biblical witness about the common good, especially when the biblical witness itself cannot conceive of distinguishing between the common good on the one hand and the God who creates and sustains on the other? 

II.  The Wisdom Literature

[10] A second locus within the Bible to which we can turn for insight on matters of education is the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  Specifically, the Book of Proverbs was explicitly collected precisely in order to shape the young.  It may be the only biblical book that was written for this express purpose.  As such, its voice deserves to be separated out from the choir of biblical voices for special hearing.

[11] At the beginning of the Book of Proverbs, the collectors placed a short poem that clearly defines the purpose of the book

For learning about wisdom and instruction,
     forunderstanding words of insight
     (lit.: "for discerning words of discernment")
for gaining instruction (lit.: discipline) in wise dealing,
     righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
     knowledge and prudence to the young-
let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
     and the discerning acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
     the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
     fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Prov 1:2-7)

[12] One of the striking things about this poem is how ordinary-even basic-many of its goals are: "instruction," "understanding," "wise dealing," "shrewdness," "knowledge and prudence," "learning," and so on.  And note that the text says that everyone has something to learn about these common matters-both the "simple" and the "wise"!   Nobody is too advanced in learning to spend a little time thinking about the basics.  (Martin Luther said something very similar about the need to study the catechism.) Because this is the Bible, readers tend to weigh down these words with all sorts of spiritual baggage, or dress them up with all sorts of theological frippery.  For example, one might be tempted to turn "wise dealing" into a spiritual discipline.  But, in truth, the goals of the Book of Proverbs are really quite elementary: to pass some basic life skills on to the next generations. This is shown by the everyday nature of so many of the proverbs that follow in later chapters. For example:

A gift opens doors;
  it gives access to the great. (18:16)

 Many seek the favor of the generous,
  and everyone is a friend to a giver of gifts. (19:6)

 Laziness brings on deep sleep;
  an idle person will suffer hunger.  (19:15)

[13] These three examples (which speak of the importance of being industrious, of being generous, and of warming up a cold room with the right "hostess gift") could be multiplied seventy-fold, but they make the point.  What the Book of Proverbs means by "wisdom" is a very ordinary and practical kind of wisdom.  This is not to say that there Proverbs is devoid or theology or theological potential!  Far from it!!  Rather, the point I am making is that the when modern faith communities think about education, the Book of Proverbs reminds us that we should not overlook the importance of ordinary life and ordinary skills.  If education is a matter of learning to put one step in front of the other, then we should remember that the first steps are very basic.  It is this preoccupation with the ordinary that causes many theologians and ethicists to overlook Proverbs.  As Ellen Davis writes,

This is a book for unexceptional people trying to live wisely and faithfully in the generally undramatic circumstances of daily life, on the days when water does not pour fourth out of rocks and angels do not come to lunch.  The Israelite sages are concerned with the same things we worry about, the things people regularly consult their pastors and friends about: how to avoid bitter domestic quarrels, what to tell your kids about sex and about God, what to do when somebody asks you to lend them money, how to handle your own money and your work life, how to cultivate lasting friendships.2

[14] I used to think that the Book of Proverbs was basically a book for teenagers, because in my experience, they were the ones who were most interested in the witty quips and pedestrian proverbs that fill its pages.  Now I have learned better.  The teenage attraction to these sticky little sayings is a clue to the broader importance of ordinary life skills. 

[15] The Book of Proverbs also could teach us many more concrete individual lessons about learning to living life well.  For instance, the book is enthralled with the power of words to hurt and the sins we commit with our tongues.  It is concerned about the difficulty we have breaking bad habits.  It is worried about the power of sexual attraction to lead us astray.  It is preoccupied with the choices we make.  It teaches us to keep a tight rein on anger and our other passions.  And so on.  But in the space allotted here to think about education, at least two of the book's major concerns deserve further exploration: discipline and discernment.

[16] Discipline.  Discipline is not a topic that generally finds favor today-either in our culture, our schools or our church.  In our culture, discipline has given way to false understanding of self esteem and an incomplete understanding of egalitarianism.  In our schools, educators have lost the social standing to create a climate where discipline succeeds.  In our church, discipline smacks (wrongly) of works righteousness.  But in the biblical wisdom tradition, discipline is a treasure to lust after.  In the text from Proverbs 1, the third verse is more accurately translated:  "for gaining discipline in being wise."  That is, being wise is a matter of discipline.  The theme of discipline repeats many times in the Proverbs.  To cite one of many proverbs that reinforces this message: "Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid" (12:1).  In the biblical view, discipline is a trait that must be taught; it comes from outside of oneself.  One might almost say that discipline needs to be imposed from outside.  If this seems too strong, then at least one might say that discipline is taught or modeled.  In a world of endless choices and constant distractions, discipline is a necessary virtue.  Perhaps the church could contribute to refashioning a climate in which discipline makes sense.  Indeed, as with most sins, the church could start by cleaning its own house on this matter.  The state of biblical illiteracy is but one of the many symptoms in our church that shows that discipline has not been a virtue we Lutherans respect.  One assumes that within the broader scope of societal education, the church will have things to say about parish education.  Discipline is one clear note that the church might sound in that context.

[17] Discernment.  A second topic that deserves further exploration is discernment.  In the Proverbs 1 poem cited above, the "discerning" are told that by attending to wisdom lessons, they can acquire skill.  The same Hebrew root is used twice in v. 2, which might be more woodenly translated as "for discerning words of discernment."  Discernment is about knowing that one size does not fit all and one answer cannot suit every situation.  The discerning person knows when to zig and when to zag.  Anyone who has had a child or spent any time around children knows that no two children can be handled exactly the same.  Children-who have not yet learned discernment-come equipped with exquisitively sensitive fairness detectors.  The least injustice sparks outrage.  Israel's sages knew that life's three-dimensional experiences will not register on such one-dimensional instruments.  What is required is discernment.  Consider these two parables, which occur back to back in Proverbs 26:

Do not answer fools according to their folly,
  or you will be a fool yourself.
 Answer fools according to their folly,
  or they will be wise in their own eyes.  (vv. 4-5)

[18] The point is that the wise person knows when to apply the first rule and when to apply the second.  In others word, the wise know how to discern.  Education cannot simply be about learning rote rules, but must also be about the practical wisdom of knowing when to apply which of these rules.

[19] Readers may have already noted that I have yet to mention the important phrase that concludes the poem in Proverbs 1:  "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge."  As I have already stressed twice, for the ancient Israelites and Christians who collected the Bible, a wedge had not yet been driven between faith matters and other forms of learning.  One sees that unity of conception again here in Proverbs 1.  There was no difference between secular knowledge and spiritual knowledge, and as such the proper relationship with the Lord was the foundation upon which all learning was to be built.  Can we divorce what Proverbs says about wisdom and the ordinary things of life from what it says about faith?  Proverbs cannot imagine such a split, yet our world cannot think of life without it.

III. A Culture of Respect and Honor

[20] Given time and space constraints, I will curtail my reflections about biblical perspectives on education to one final comment.  Much more could be said, obviously, but at least one more point screams to be made:  the environment in which one learns must be thoroughly saturated with respect and honor.  From the oldest Israelite reflections on teaching the young (in Deuteronomy and Proverbs) right up through the latest New Testament writings about the roles of teachers, apostles, and leaders, it is assumed that servant leaders are among the most honored of professions.  Paul and the later Pauline writers unanimously see secular authorities as agents of God.  Consider how Romans 13 sees that state as a hand of God worthy of respect, how Ephesians portrays familial and economic authorities as extensions of God's authority, or how 1 and 2 Timothy see ecclesiastical authorities in a similar light.  Martin Luther was summarizing the biblical witness when he interpreted the commandment to honor one's parents as meaning we "must fear and love God, so that we will neither look down on our parents or superiors nor irritate them, but will honor them, serve them, obey them, love them and value them."   Luther's interpretation also clearly includes teachers; this interpretation is faithful to the broader witness of both testaments.

[21] When we compare this biblical portrait of respect for teachers and others in authority, a stark contrasted is painted between then and now.  Think of how teachers are portrayed on television and the movies.  (One of my favorite older movies is "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," in which the teachers are roundly depicted as fools.)  Think of how today's music describes teachers.  Think of how political candidates are eager to make electoral hay by thrashing the good reputation of teachers.  Even churches have been happy to pile on and heap coals of blame for today's ills upon the educational system. 

[22] But if we take the biblical witness seriously, our task includes building up the honor of teachers in order to make their job (educating our children) easier.  Part of the task set before us, it seems to me, is to help shape a culture of honor for public servants, including teachers.  It is true, of course, that individual teachers and teachers' organizations do not always make this task easy.  Yet there is no alternative.  Helping to shape a climate of respect that includes respecting and honoring teachers should be a priority for the church.

[23] One problem with this interpretation, of course, is that the foundation for honoring teachers as authorities is, in fact, the belief that these authorities are established by God.  In a secular context, this belief is problematic.  This is especially so because the society is increasingly pushing faith questions to the margins and, in places, is attempting to silence voices of faith.  Yet this problem is simply the reverse side of the issue that we have already noted several times above: How do we reconcile the irreconcilably spiritual nature of our biblical faith and calling with the uncompromisingly secular context of our society?  This, it seems to me, is the first and last question that we need to ask when seeking wisdom from the Bible for thinking about education today.

End Notes

1  Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962; Perennial classic edition), p. 15, 17.

2  Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001), p. 92.



© July 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 7