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Foundations of a Philosophy of Christian Adult Educaiton

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.


Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion Radio Broadcast has likened hunting to writing. There is plenty meat in the butcher shop, why go hunting? There are already so many books, why would one want to write another? --There are already many discussions of educational philosophy to be uncovered in the recesses of forgotten hardbacks on the dusty shelves. However, in the same way that ownership is the natural result of participation, I endeavor to think through the old questions again or possibly to ask some new ones. I do have a more specific task by confining my aim to sketching a philosophy of education within the Christian community.



Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) has observed, "As a stream can rise no higher than its source, so it is probable that no educational effort can rise above the whole scheme of thought which gives it birth" (Pazmino, 1988, p. 75). Any philosophy worth its salt must either explicitly or by reference stand on the ground of a Weltshaung, a world view. Within a world view, some fundamental presuppositions are made about the nature of reality. In this sense every philosophy of education is on equal footing since it is impossible to ignore the issues which are the foundation for the "who, why, what, and how" of education.

To illustrate, consider a behaviorist educational philosophy. Taking B. F. Skinner as the most popular and articulate apostle for behaviorism consider the clear positions expressed on the nature of reality and particularly the nature of humanity. "A person's behavior is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species and by the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed" (Skinner, 1971, p. 96). Behaviorism is applied in the educational arena by "learning" to shape the learner by controlling stimuli and conditioning responses to bring about the desired outcomes of behavior. Skinner boasts, "The experimental analysis of behavior has improved education by clarifying its objectives, suggesting new practices in classroom management, and introducing instructional programming texts and other materials" (1978 p. X). Further, specific metaphysical and epistemological assumptions underlie this philosophy, namely, those which are naturalistic. Concerning "truth," Skinner says, "No deduction from a rule or law can therefore be absolutely true. Absolute truth can be found, if at all, only in rules derived from rules, and here it is mere tautology" (1980, p. 136). Overlooking Skinner's self-refutation in the last quotation, I cite these in order to demonstrate that a coherent philosophy of education must consider the deeper foundations of the nature of reality and particularly that part of reality which is doing the consideration, human beings. "Your philosophy of education must be based on your philosophy of life." It could be arranged in this way:

educational practice

educational policy

educational philosophy

philosophical world and life view

(Nichols, 1991, p. 17)

At this point the Christian must make clear her own exclusive ground. Christianity presupposes a unique foundation: the existence of the personal-infinite God and Scripture (the Old and New Testaments) as authoritative revelation from Him (Van Til & Berkhof, 1990). These two foundations are necessary for what is (metaphysics) and for what we know (epistemology). First, only the Triune God of Scripture is adequate to account for what exists. This God must be infinite to be ultimate and self-existent and triune to be personal. If God were monistic then He would have existed from all eternity absolutely alone. This would relegate personality (that most authentically human characteristic) to be non-essential or even bring to question it as an illusion. With this presupposition the world has an ontological foundation since it is dependent on this Being for its existence. Further, human beings have purpose, value, and explanation in light of this presupposition since they were made in the image of God, male and female (Genesis 1:27; Hoekema, 1986). Thus, only the Triune of God of Christian theism can adequately account for what exists.

Second, the epistemological presupposition is of the Scripture as the authoritative Word of God. Because of this epistemological foundation something can be known certainly for without a certain epistemology there is only skepticism. This foundation gives a ground for factuality since all things find their true interpretation in the mind of the God of Scripture. Otherwise, there is no ultimate basis for distinguishing order or disorder, unity or disunity. To have a certain knowledge of reality, we must have something which is absolute, a Word from God. The Bible is authoritative and thus, accurately interprets reality giving us truthful descriptions of reality and prescriptions for reality.1

Thus, a Christian philosophy of education rests on two presuppositions which are both logically coherent and tangibly applicable to reality. This important since it has been argued that a correct theology should be at the base of all Christian thought (Hayes, 1970). These assertions are bold and therefore, must be defended. Although it is not within the scope of this paper to rigorously defend these principles, I will sketch a brief defense. A number of defenses could be given from the history of philosophy by demonstrating the inadequacy of other philosophical systems or demonstrating the cogency of those premises which lead to the above presuppositions. Yet, the clearest and most acute way to clear the playing field of alternate views is to demonstrate the argument analytically. As Gordon Weaver (1990) has pointed out, the logical form of the presuppositional Christian argument is the disjunctive argument (P or Q, not P, therefore, Q).

(1) The non-Christian presuppositions are true or the Christian presuppositions are true.

(2) The non-Christian presuppositions cannot be true because they do not adequately account for what is or what we know.

(3) Therefore, the Christian presuppositions are true.

Probably the most basic form of argument to support the above second premise is the reductio ad absurdum (If P then not P). This (If P then not P) seems strange, but can be illustrated in the following way. If there is a largest integer, there is not a largest integer. This is true because you can always add one more number to an integer; thus, the concept of a largest integer is incoherent. The Christian may reason in this way:

If there is no Word of God then there is no basis for certain knowledge about anything and no basis for rationality or for our thinking to correspond to reality. Thus, God and His authoritative Word must exist. Thus, the ground in the middle is to be cleared; either there is full-orbed Christian theism or utter nihilism ("nothingism," no values, meaning or reason).

At this point the critic may be tempted to respond conceding that ultimately only two views exist, theism or nihilism, but say, "Ok, I'm a nihilist." Such a confession would end the argument in the Christian's favor since a nihilist can have no basis for communication for reality is incoherent. Nor can the nihilist have rationality since everything is random. Further, the nihilist can have no motivation for argument since there are no values. And the nihilist cannot win the argument since there is no truth to arbitrate.

This brief defense is inadequate as a full apologetic. However, I have sought to sketch a basis for confidence in the most basic Christian presuppositions which form the bedrock for a philosophy of education and finally, a philosophy of adult education.


As a result of knowing a certain basis for reality, a world view can be established. An articulated world view is an attempt to view reality as integrated. In the Christian world view, if I have reasoned correctly, no view is forced upon the world, but rather when we think correctly about the world we are thinking God's thoughts after Him. This would follow logically from the presupposition of His existence and absoluteness. Within the ark of the Christian world view, education floats. I stress these foundations before launching into the educational aspects so as to elucidate the rational coherency of Christianity and further, the use of a term modified by the adjective "Christian" (e.g., Christian education).


While this sketch is hardly more than a sketch it has nonetheless served an elucidating function in my thinking, if nothing else. I will conclude, then, by giving some principles which serve to guide the church's purposes in program planning.

The following are guidelines which will help the church apply the above philosophical sketch. This kind of outgrowth of philosophy, a kind of policy/philosophy, will hopefully bring together certain implications not previously illumined. Christian adult education in the meetings of the church should:

(1) (Prescriptional) Fulfill its biblical mandates.

(2) (Biblical) Make the Scripture foundational, central, and authoritative, and thus, relevant to life.

(3) (Spiritual) Recognize the Holy Spirit as the dynamic force within Christian education-- convicting, indwelling, guiding, and teaching.

(4) (Participational) See all believers as students actively participating in the process, whether in age-divisional or age-integrated settings.

(5) (Gifted) See all believing learners as gifted by the Spirit and contributing to the Body.(6) (Equip) Seek to equip all believers to do the work of the ministry.

(7) (Model) See the teacher/facilitator function as communicator, guide, and example, not simply giving information.

(8) (Media) Provide many means used in the education process such as programed curriculum, music, media aids (overhead projectors, boards, slides, tapes...) and books, etc.

(9) (Interactional) Recognize that much education takes place in the nonformal realms of social interaction (fellowship) and through various kinds of personal interaction and development; this should not be minimized.

(10) (Informal) Recognize much education takes place outside the organized meetings of the church.

(11) (Home) Recognize that the homes of believers should be a great format for Christian education.

(12) (Accountable) Use accountability as a means to the educational goals.


Beatty, P. T. and Hayes, M. J. (1991). Religious Institutions. In S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 397-409). San Francisco and Oxford: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hayes, E. L. (1970). Theological foundations of adult Christian education. In R. B. Zuck & G. A. Getz (Eds.), Adult education in the church (pp. 19-33). Chicago: Moody Press.

Hoekema, A. A. (1986). Created in God's Image. Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed.

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Lindeman, E. C. (1926). The meaning of adult education. New York: New Republic, Inc., (Reissued Montreal: Harvest House, Ltd., 1961: and Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, 1989).

Nichols, C. H. (1991). Building the philosophical foundation. Christian Education Journal, 11, 17-29.

Pazmino, R. W. (1988). Foundational issues in Christian education. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Skinner, B. F. (1980). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on behaviorism and society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

Van Til, C. and Berkhof, L. (Reprinted in 1990). Foundations of Christian education: Addresses to Christian teachers. Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed.

Weaver, G. B. (1990). Cornelius Van Til's theistic argument. John Brown University. (A paper presented at the 1990 Evangelical Philosophical Society Meeting).

Zinn, L. M. (1990). Identifying your philosophical orientation. In M. W. Galbraith (Ed.), Adult learning methods (pp. 39-78). Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1987, 1988, The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.


1I am somewhat concerned that I sound too bold in these assertions about a the foundation for a Christian philosophy of adult education. However, I think that it is irrefutable that education must fit within a world view that says something about the nature of man and ultimate reality, if nothing else. Many educators do not disclose their foundations. I may be wrong about my foundations. Nevertheless, someone must produce a valid and cogent argument to demonstrate such a conclusion. If others who write philosophies of education do not make clear their metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, then they have not fully articulated or integrated there education (Nichols, 1991; Van Til & Berkhof, 1990).

Further, in the history of adult educational philosophy no less than Eduard C. Lindeman (1926) was very clear to make his world view known. "Again, education is a peculiarly a kind of behavior through which organisms attempt to adjust themselves to external or internal factors which, having set up frictions, call for new adjustment" (p. 145). He asks, "...Is our scheme of education compatible with an evolutionary concept of growing personalities?" (p. 147). He is asking the very same question that I am attempting to answer--Do we have an integration between the nature of reality and our education? Lindeman recognized that our view of human beings affects our educational philosophy and practice, of course we are world views apart.

After all, we ought not to exalt reason unduly: it was undoubtedly the last of our faculties to arrive in the fitful march of evolution, and our feeling are probably still as fundamental as our thoughts....In the present state of our development these are already interdependent functions and it seems highly probable that evolution is now proceeding, not by creating new organs, but by further integrations of existing organs and functions. (p. 104)