Education and Fatherhood

Bret Saunders

Editor's Note: This is the first part in a series on the relationship between education and fatherhood. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for part two!

"One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters." -- George Herbert

"I write not these things to shame you, but as beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me." -- I Cor. 4:14-16; KJV

I have long been acquainted with the phrase in loco parentis ("in a parent's place"). It is often applied to Christian school teachers, though for a while I considered it little more than hyperbole for a special kind of supervisor. Then I started rethinking another familiar expression: "fathers . . . bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4 KJV). I had always taken this verse as a biblical theology of education in general, distilled in a few clear drops. The words for "nurture" and "admonition" overlap somewhat, but suggest two main actions in education: Instruction (telling) and enculturation (showing). In this case, fathers are responsible for the showing and telling that shapes character.

What I began to realize--possibly because the arrival of my third child instilled a new pressure to consider the implications of fatherhood--was how much biblical education is intertwined with the theology of fatherhood. At the same time, I began to see how Ephesians 6:4, far from being a Pauline innovation, was really a summary of God's fathering of his covenant people throughout the Old Testament. Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised; the more we see things in light of the Word, the more they "hold together" (Col. 1:17). 

In this series, I will work backward from more familiar passages in the New Testament to less charted passages in the Old, all in order to examine some crucial intersections of fatherhood and education. My goal is to persuade you of the importance of fathers and father-texts within a biblical theology of education. Although I let readers draw their own practical conclusions, I believe many criticisms of education and culture in our father-hungry age will become obvious.

At the outset, it is worthwhile to notice that Paul relates paternally to his churches (I Cor. 4:15-17; Gal. 4:19-20), while emphasizing the ultimate fatherhood of God (Eph. 6:4), and that his epistles generally present doctrine before practice. We have to know who God is and who we are before we can work on being what God wants us to be. This does not mean that Paul is evangelizing to obtain "buy-in" from his children; he is teaching them as his children because they have already been "begotten through the Gospel" and therefore believe. God made Paul a father by the Spirit through the work of Christ, and so he instructs. In the Christian view, the basis for teaching is the Spirit waking dead hearts to the glimmers of truth. A father's nurture or enculturation begins with the conversion, the renewal of the heart, then spreads to the mind, imagination, body, relationships--the rest of a complete human life. The work of a father--whether pastor, teacher, or family father--begins with God. 

Richard John Neuhaus used to say "culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture." Culture sprouts from "cult," which is simply right worship. And yet only God can sow this seed (Ex. 7:16). Biblical education nurtures, trains the sprouts from the heart in a multitude of directions, sounds, motions, shapes, and desires--all of which form the total identity of a person. Only then does instruction--"fathers, train your children; wives, love your husbands; children, honor your parents"--sprout in this garden, in a heart already aimed at "one God and father of all." Fathers work out what God has worked in.

If we look to fathers to educate, and if God is the "one father of all" (Eph. 4:6), then we should look to God for the basic pattern of education. And we find this pattern in the creation story. God begins with formless and void matter, takes it in his "hands," imposes order on it, and fills it with life. In a six-day ritual God divides (1:4, 6, 7, 9, 14, 18) while also naming to distinguish, to mark out, the differences in cosmic order. Thus God's dividing, his distinguishing and ordering, is the structuring of world-making. The cosmos is a hierarchy of rule and service. Sun and Moon are distinguished, appointed to divide the two main time-phases, just as Man is marked out from the other creatures for rule (1:16, 26). [2]

The Creator doesn't leave us with a formal-yet-void cosmos; he enables creation to engender new forms, to self-divide and swell with new life. So the earth brings forth grass, the waters fish and fowl, and woman is divided from man, completing him. Distinction without separation seems to be the guiding principle as God shapes and fills. Sun and Moon distinguish the times; God distinguishes man from the other creatures and the Sabbath from the other days. 

When God made man, he divided his matter from the ground; when God made woman he divided her matter from man. Division leads to multiplication (2:24); one merges with another to bring forth fruit (Jn. 12:24); structure makes fullness.

Man's vocation was dominion for the sake of fruitfulness. We know this because God gave man the same blessing he had given the other creatures (1:22, 28), and so when he appointed man to rule, he was delegating responsibility for creation's fullness. The training ground for man's vocation was the garden, a microcosmos (2:8-10) that springs of water symbolically designated to be the source of man's dominion practice. The garden was the first schoolroom, the first nurture and instruction. 

And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (2:15-17)

God comes to man, touches and handles him, divides him from the others, favors him with the gift of authority and purpose (protecting and adorning the garden). God acts for, nurtures, hovers over his son, and on that basis follows law, guidance, instruction. A structure is imposed to which man must conform. To obey, freely and repeatedly, is to embed the structure in oneself, to take shape, gain strength, and increase in capacity.

Education, therefore, is just this: shaping and filling, admonition and nurture, law and story.




[1] In the wake of the 60's cultural revolution, we take a dim view of authority in general and paternal authority in particular. For an excellent discussion of the result, see Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012). Mary Eberstadt makes a striking albeit somewhat intuitive case that identity politics is a symptom of father hunger. See "The Primal Scream of Identity Politics." The Weekly Standard. October 27, 2017. Accessed July 8, 2019.

[2] James Jordan first called my attention to the pattern of structuring-filling in his book Primeval Saints (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), ch. 1. 


Bret Saunders is Associate Professor of Humanities at John Witherspoon College.