Listening to His Law

Bret Saunders

Editor's Note: This is the final post in this series. Part 1 [available here] introduced the connection between a biblical understanding of education and that of fatherhood. Part 2 [available here] explored the storytelling aspect of education. Now the author turns to the second aspect, Law, and offers a conclusion. 

As subcreators, tasked with extending dominion in the form of culture, fathers have the responsibility to prescribe and enforce their community's boundaries, specific norms, and overarching rhythms of life. Again, the heavenly Father is the prime example of this. His speaking of creation into existence can be seen as legislation, as prescribing the boundaries of a cosmos carved like an island out of Chaos.[1] From elsewhere in Scripture we know that these boundaries (beginnings and ends) are the Son himself as logos, the creative and sustaining speech-act of the Father.[2] The Son's legislation just is his speech/self; similarly, fathers are called to create and rule with speech backed by action. 

God's natural law is not an impersonal means of managing cosmic machinery; rather, his creating-sustaining word extends from himself as the superstructure of things (Jn. 1:10, Col. 1:17, Heb. 1:3).[3] Nor does he tyrannize his creatures like Allah or Hammurabi, with a list of norms that he wields from on high without manifesting--and giving--his nature. Rather, he is intimately involved with his creation and his human pieces de resistance. He has, as the song says, the whole world in his hand. His law is the means for distinguishing his people from the nations by marking them with his name (Deut. 7:6; 28:9-10). Thus structured, thus sanctified by obedience to law, we can flourish and be filled.

The root of steadfastness (cult) and steady fruitfulness (culture) is adherence to law, and fathers are (to paraphrase Aristotle) the "ensouled law" of their families.  A father who loves God's law and attends to it, the way some fathers attend to sporting events, will be strong and life-giving. He will be structured, ordered, capacious, and full--brimming with cultural energy for those around him, whether family, co-workers, or fellow church members. He will shape and fill those around him. He will be strong because he is humble, and a leader because he follows.

The Proverbs highlight the importance of law for Christian living and the father's role in teaching law (1:8; 2:6; 3:1-2). In Proverbs 6:20 the images of bondage and adornment are striking: "My son, keep thy father's commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother: Bind them continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck." This is a paradox totally incomprehensible to the modern mind: The way to beauty, flourishing, selfhood, and the free flow of creative energy is to have the law of a parent hanging over you, to have the parents voice in your head.

More important, though, is that all these passages highlight the father's role in giving instruction as law. Of course both father and mother receive the law, and mothers need to speak law and be a kind of strength, especially in the father's absence (II Tim. 1:5). But the father comes first and more often in these proverbs because he is primarily responsible to speak law and model joyful obedience.

Teaching the law and being an ensouled law do not mean grim obedience out of painful duty. In this regard we naturally think of David's words in Psalms 1 and 19. But the most profound biblical meditation on the law in relation to the godly man is surely Psalm 119. The Psalmist delights and rejoices in the law.[4] He loves and obeys it, fixes his mind on it, plants it in his heart, studies it wholeheartedly.[5] He depends on it for his flourishing and safety.[6] It anchors his hope for Shalom.[7] 

Though God's word will stand forever, His law has come on hard times. In  churches today, it is not unusual to hear praise songs of the "personal-relationship-with-God" type. Yet songs about loving God's law are harder to find, as are songs featuring the fear of God. And while we may hear talk about knowing Christ and the Spirit, we hear less about the seemingly more distant and fearsome Father. But if religion is the root of culture, then this neglect means that many Christian parents and teachers are being shaped by and antinomian and un/anti-patristic worldview. When pastors, elders, family-fathers, teachers and city-fathers abdicate their paternal responsibility (especially with regard to discipline, standards, accountability), a culture declines to emotionalism, chaos, and banality. Spinelessness, conformism, and shallowness migrate from church to classroom, from classroom to popular culture, from culture back to church.

To prevent this, it is not enough to promote male leadership in church and school. I have seen Christian K-12 school culture slump, not because it lacked male leadership, but because it lacked biblical fatherhood. Father-figures must love, study, and lean on God's law. Paul expresses a longing for his church folks to be "stablished" in their faith and walk (Col. 2:5-7), and he boldly offers every church a list of do's and don'ts; but he can teach and lead like that only because he himself stands on and in Christ.

To put this all together, if we think back to the creation story and the baptism of Christ (Matt. 3:16-17), we find four elements of paternal authority within education.[8] A father discriminates (divides the waters, states "this is my son"), evaluates ("saw that it was good," "in whom I am well pleased"), and commissions or delegates, ("have dominion", "hear him")--all within a context of the self-giving, nurturing presence that transmits stories, fosters loyalty, and invites imitation.

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The aim of this three-part series has been to outline biblical education as enculturation, with a focus on the role of fathers. To succeed in shaping a culture and impressing it on future generations, education as paideia requires the attentive, firm, imaginative presence of fathers. But how might this discussion shape our view of curriculum and pedagogy?

The curriculum rightly, though not absolutely, distinguishes humanities (qualitative) from math-science (quantitative) subjects. Logic, geometry, algebra and physics impress us with the lawful ordering of reason, space, and abstract quantity itself. When taught rightly, as the ingrained cumulative skills of calculative structures worth knowing for their own sakes, these disciplines can mold the students into images of their divisive Creator, into cosmopolitans fit for taking dominion through analysis, classification, and design. I say these studies can do so, because much depends on the teacher, whose humility, love for all forms of law, along with the weekly liturgies of school, home, and church--project an atmosphere that allows these "subjects"--they are more like worlds we inhabit--to permeate a pupil's soul. 

Here we see that the distinction between law and story, dividing and filling, doesn't map neatly onto that between so-called right- and left-brain subject areas. Math and science teachers give their own personality to their students, their own story, so that the subject, however apparently impersonal and abstract, may manifest the Creator's personality. The teacher gives figures and formulae, theories and laws, a "local habitation and name," as creatures worth knowing because, apart from the middle-class lifestyle one might achieve by applying them, they make known their Maker. The math-science curriculum of a consistent Christian education will also make room for the patristics and founding-fathers of a discipline's tradition. Students need the stories of mistakes, chance encounters, antagonism, courage, and paradigm-shifting insight; they need the flaws, ethical dilemmas, and eccentricities that shaped the messy narratives of incarnate knowers. 

The overlap continues in the humanities subjects. Here we find a host of structures, definitions, and "rules" governing sentence construction, poetry, philosophical claims, and decision making. More profound are the criteria for culture and life operative behind any subject, whether literature or writing or art: the nature of reality, man, God, truth, beauty, goodness, true religion.

Despite these overlaps, the form-filling distinction remains legitimate the case that God created a cosmos with various subordinate "worlds" and filled it with characters endowed with the power of action--a recipe for stories. Christian education entails the study of stories, but especially foundational stories. These epics and novels and short stories--chiefly the Bible itself as the key to all others--are "great" or "classic texts" because they are responding to something real. C. S. Lews wrote that good readers, no matter how scholarly, retain the capacity of responding to the central appeal of great texts, and great texts, in turn, whether pagan or Christian, are those that respond to the central appeals of the world God made. These stories have been passed down over the generations, and they function as a kind of touchstone, teaching us our nature and God's, our purpose, the virtues and vices common to human beings, the conflicts between common and private good in political life, and showing us heroes to emulate.[9]

Now, what makes a classic text? More to the point, why, as my students wonder every fall in Ancient Literature class, is the Iliad a book worth reading? The answer brings us back one more time to the centrality of fatherhood in education. 

Obviously, I read the Iliad and, based on various criteria outlined above, I judged it a profitable fit for the curriculum given my goals for the course, degree, and program. 'Very well,' someone might say, 'your students are trusting you as a guide through father Homer. But that only pushes the question further back: why did you read Homer in the first place?'

The answer may seem cavalier: I read Homer because my parents made me go to class, and I trusted them and cared and went and read Homer. And they in turn trusted a great burly bard of a man named Wes Callihan--trusted him to have me read great books and learn to respond rightly to the good and bad in them. And, beyond Mr. Callihan, the Great Thinkers in the great books are also father-figures, because we trust that we can benefit from Homer like Spenser did, from Spenser like George Herbert did, from Herbert like C. S. Lewis did, and from Lewis like R. C. Sproul did.

Though all of us are students becoming parent-teachers (Matt. 6:40), there is no wholly neutral ground where we discard all allegiance, all dependence, and weigh our options with a set of detached criteria. Our bonds to fathers are the main, though not only, criterion in biblical-classical education. "What you have learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do," Paul says (Phil. 4:9). Youngster, shut up and listen to the law of your father, says Solomon. We receive, we open the book, we discard the carping of critical theory jargon, and we listen to the father-texts that "we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us."

Paul adjures us to grow up, to stand in a sense on our own (Eph. 4:14); but, a few verses later, he calls us to "imitate Christ like dear children" (5:1). To be educated in the biblical and classical sense is to inhabit the paradox of always maturing while ever remaining a child, of becoming like--even surpassing--some of our fathers, while always trusting those fathers. 

Previous Posts in This Series

1. Education and Fatherhood

2. Known by His Works

[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost 7.212-17, transfers to the creation account the words of Christ's pacification of the storm (Mk. 4:39).

[2] Jn. 1:1-10; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 1:8, 17.

[3] The quantitative physical relations are in some sense projections of God's "body" (Is. 40:12; 48:13).

[4] vs. 14, 16, 24, 47-48, 54, 77, 92, 97, 167, 174.

[5] vs. 11, 15-16, 31, 34, 69, 78, 80, 92, 94, 97, 99, 112, 119, 145, 148, 159, 167, 174, 176.

[6] vs. 25, 37 50, 77, 88, 93, 175.

[7] vs. 165.

[8] I am following Wilson, Father Hunger, ch. 1.

[9] I haved discussed the importance of studying and telling stories at greater length in Bret Saunders, " 'Listen to the Stories': the Importance of the Art of Storying in Education and Life." Cultural Encounters 14.1, Winter 2019, 56-67.

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

Related Links

Fathers, Sons, and Daughters [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Liberal Arts for the Christian Life, ed. by Philip G. Ryken & Jeffery C. Davis

Art for God's Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts by Phillip G. Ryken

Cultivating a Christian Worldview [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]