(Reprinted from Modern Reformation, July/August 2010, by permission. I am the author)
As a homeschooling mother of eight, I have always found the concept of unit studies fascinating. Find a subject of particular interest to the children and incorporate the curriculum into this study. The original interest will keep the children motivated. It makes perfect sense. Actually, this method is not a prerogative of homeschooling situations. I used it as an elementary teacher many years before homeschooling became a popular word. It is really a form of integrative or interdisciplinary teaching.
My dilemma was how to adopt this integrative method with my children while retaining a cohesive educational program. As I went from the Pythagorean theorem to Victorian poems to Baroque music, my children’s knowledge seemed scattered and their perception of history departmentalized and vague. I thought, If they have to study history in a chronological order anyhow, why don’t we incorporate all other subjects into that order?
I bought a huge poster board and drew vertical lines to indicate the major eras of human history. Then I drew horizontal lines to organize this history into the different school subjects—art, music, literature, math, and science. Influenced by Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live, I added philosophy and theology. Whether we agree with Schaeffer’s steps or not, the relation between all these disciplines is obvious.
Children love to learn about the past and are naturally drawn to adventures and stories. It was easy to use this natural interest and build a corollary of other studies around it. It was fun to immerse ourselves in each era and understand, as much as possible, what motivated people to act and think as they did. Soon I realized that a deeper understanding of the past, even at a young age, fostered a deeper understanding of the present and of the treasury of notions normally stored in our contemporary minds. In particular, a deeper understanding of the history of the church and Christian thought fosters a deeper understanding of the doctrines, methods, and liturgies we follow today.
There are several reasons why studying the development of Christian thought can be useful to children. I will mention some, not in any particular order.
First, by studying church history, children will develop a respect for Christian tradition. One of my original concerns was that many of our covenant children (mine included) didn’t seem to have a grasp of the continuity of the progress of God’s people throughout the ages. There was, in a sense, a gap between the biblical accounts and our lives today, with a few inspiring stories of some individual Christians interspersed between the two. I felt the need for a sense of continuity. Augustine, Luther, Calvin—and many other great men and women of
church history—were not isolated voices but drew from the tradition of the church before them, and we must do the same.
Second, children will develop a sense of belonging to God’s church throughout the ages. One of the first things that impressed me as I came to Reformed theology was the covenantal relationship of church membership and family, and the strong sense of belonging it fostered in children. How
meaningful it is for all of us to recite together every Sunday the creeds formulated in the first centuries of church history and repeated by Christians throughout the ages! What an honor it is to sing God’s praises as they have been sung by this great cloud of witnesses! As Dr. Robert Godfrey, president and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary
This point is really connected with the first. When children become aware of their participation in the historical progress of God’s people, they develop a deeper appreciation and respect for their tradition and an active desire to preserve it.
Third, studying church history will teach our children to deal honestly with questions and doubts. It will show how men and women of all times have faced great questions regarding God, faith, and salvation. My hope is that, as they read about Calvin’s struggle to leave a church and belief system he had been upholding for years, or Augustine’s intense battle of wills, they will realize the weight of their choices and the importance of taking seriously the same questions and struggles.
Fourth, as they learn church history, children will realize the inadequacy of simplistic answers. If a child has no idea of the church’s continuous and conscious effort to examine and refine its theological thought throughout the centuries, he/she will think that choosing a belief system is as simple as choosing a hairstyle or a favorite football team. The best choice will be whatever sounds good. Some years ago in a homeschooling office, I overheard two mothers talking about religion. “What’s an Arminian?” one asked. They looked it up in the dictionary and found something like this (I don’t know what dictionary they used, so I am quoting Merriam-Webster): “Of or relating to Arminius or his doctrines opposing the absolute predestination of strict Calvinism and maintaining the possibility of salvation for all.” They closed the dictionary and said, “Okay, we are Arminian.”
How efficient, I thought. They were able to solve in two minutes a question that serious theologians have debated for centuries. Today, most people don’t have time to think. They can
find most answers on Google or Wikipedia. It’s important for our children to realize that the Reformation didn’t simply start by nailing a piece of paper on a church’s door.
Fifth, a study of church history and tradition fosters a critical mind. As children examine different views (including the different heresies and the answers the church has provided), they will consciously or unconsciously compare different thought systems, instead of accepting blindly and lazily the beliefs passed on by their parents. C. S. Lewis explains this well when he writes:
Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books....Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them. (C. S. Lewis’s introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius)
Sixth, a study of church history and tradition fosters a tolerant mind. I could also say “a catholic mind,” because this is the meaning I am inferring from the word “tolerant” in this
context. When we read the great theologians of our past, we are often impressed by their thorough knowledge of the Christian tradition, including the apostolic and church fathers and the medieval writers. We should teach our children the humility to recognize that we need the wisdom of the ages, a humility that can function as an antidote to our natural arrogance and from the present attraction to simplistic “just-me-and-my-Bible” solutions. As many have pointed out, sola Scriptura is not solo Scriptura. “An appreciation of history, and of the doctrinal struggles of the church throughout history, are surely crucial to the avoidance of a narrow sectarianism and self-righteousness in the present” (Carl Trueman, Reckoning with the Past in an Anti-Historical Age).
Finally, a study of church history can foster a realistic view, dispelling romanticized ideas of past golden ages. There was hardly a time when God’s church was not plagued by disunity, heresies, and inner struggles. As we impart this realistic view to our children, in the study of history as well as in our lives, we can teach them to turn their eyes on Christ who has preserved his church in spite of its human frailties. As the Jew told Giannotto in the second fictional story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, after seeing the terrible corruption of the church in his day (in the fourteenth century): “[Seeing] that your religion continues to spread and to acquire even brighter radiance, I think I am right to see that the Holy Spirit is at work in it.” Of course, we will not agree with every Christian thinker in our past, but if we respectfully consider their views, we will realize with Lewis that “what is left intact despite all the divisions still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity” (C. S. Lewis’s introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius).
The study of history in general is typically considered alien to the American mindset. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, our nation has “been more hungry for its future than addicted to its past” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition). Carl Trueman agrees:
We live at a time when innovation is of the order of the day and tradition is at a discount. Whereas in the sixteenth century the very novelty of Luther’s ideas was what made them so suspect and, one might add, so likely to be wrong, nowadays, it is the traditional which is likely to be considered wrong and the novel which is likely to be regarded as more likely true. (Carl Trueman, A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning?)
This is just one more area where we have to train our children to go in a direction that is countercultural. While homeschooling is a convenient way to teach church history to children, it is not the only way. It can be taught in informal conversations or included in family worship.
A chart can still be useful to give an idea of the chronological progress. Try also to read some portions of writings from each time period. It might surprise you to discover how simple some of these can be. Presently, I am reading the Letter to Diognetus to my children, a jewel of Patristic literature. To quote Lewis once again (the whole On the Incarnation by Athanasius is worth reading in this respect), “The great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”
Looking back, I wish I had learned church history at a young age. It would have helped me to face other truth claims with a more objective frame of mind and prevented me from ever believing feeble attempts at reinventing the theological wheel.