A Philosophical Framework for Biblical Integration

December 14, 2010 | Applesauce
By Nate Johnson

A Philosophical Framework for Biblical Integration

The following article was written by Nathan Johnson, the former director of the NICS school in Caracas. He is now serving as Upper School Principal at Palmetto Christian Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, and has a passion for impacting the world through Christian Education by and for the Glory of Jesus Christ.

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." -C.S. Lewis


What is K-12 education?

K-12 education is an intentional and systematic attempt to present the known world to children in a developmentally appropriate way.  In order to simplify the learning, the most common methodology divides aspects of the world into categories such as physical sciences, social sciences, language, literature, and math/ logic.  It also adds expressions of and responses to learning through fine arts and physical education.  In addition, the learning is placed in a social context where students learn to make appropriate relationships.

How does an educational institution decide what to teach?

Learning is progressive in nature much like constructing a building. It begins with a foundation and then additional stories can be added. The 3rd floor should always come before the 6th floor. A student cannot learn Algebra 2 without the knowledge of addition, nor can he learn to read without first learning the alphabet. Although the foundation is indispensable, the end result is the ultimate goal and purpose of education. A teacher does not state, “I hope Johnny will know his alphabet when he grows up.” Instead she says, “I hope Johnny has a command over language, writing, and grammar so he can speak, write, and express himself in a way to communicate effectively and powerfully in society.” Learning the alphabet is merely one of the steps to the end goal. Hence, a school creates a scope and sequence, delineating the path in which the child will reach the ultimate goal. However, since the world and its ways, histories, and languages are infinite, it can be inferred that neither the goal nor the foundation is complete. Upon the realization that learning is progressive, a school must make some tough decisions as it asks the questions: “Do we teach one language or two or three? Do we teach algebra in 7th grade so we can teach Calculus in 12th? Do we integrate community service, and at what age?”

So how do schools decide what the children will learn and what they will not learn?  If the answer is based on standardized tests and SAT scores, would it imply that the reason for education is to enter college?  If the end goal is not only college entrance but also to live effectively in the world, one must ask if such tests are sufficient.  Specifically, these tests do not cover values.  But are ethics and morals required for healthy assimilation into adult living?  This leads to a question concerning fair assessment: Are ethics relative (subjective) or transcendent (unalterably objective)?  The argument of tolerance would say it is subjective, and would therefore surmise it is impossible to teach an objective class on ethics. Those of that school of thought would recommend avoidance of the subject altogether.  Perhaps a school can teach basic law in a government class, where one would learn the ethic that murder is wrong.  Ironically, one would then attend Biology class and learn that animals murder as a way of life, and humans descend from animals.  Using such arguments, it is sufficient to say that ethics would not exist if the physical world is all that there is.  In this logic, murder, genocide and even cannibalism should be as accepted on the human level as it is on the level of the chimpanzee.  If an ethic does indeed exist, it would have to be derived from a metaphysical realm, which would require a Creator of both the spiritual and physical realm.  If such a Creator exists, then the simple expression of His nature would mandate ethics. Should such a Creator ever communicate his nature and ethic to humankind, that would prove him to be personal.  So we either should avoid ethics altogether, or address the question, “How should a personal, ethic-defining God fit into our intentional and systematic attempt to present the known world to children?"

What does it signify when God is not taught intentionally and systematically?

The priorities of a school are proven through pragmatic emphasis.  If a school states that it is a math and science school, but spends more time on liberal arts, then it is not a math and science school.  If a mission states that community service is a major priority, but the school spends miniscule amounts of time in developing the philosophy and practice in its students, then perhaps it is a scholastic activity but cannot be deemed priority.  If its mission is not a pragmatic priority, it can be inferred that the institution does not truly believe that its mission is vital in achieving the ultimate goal in education: understanding the world that we live in.

In regards to Christian education, if God is mentioned during instruction; He is the same as any passing idea.  If God is the theme of a class, He is the same as another subject such as Life Science.  If God is static and only part of foundational knowledge, He is the same as mastering handwriting.

If a school intentionally does not integrate knowledge of God, then theology is part of a null curriculum.  By the absence of theology, a school neither endorses nor disputes this theme.  However, to intentionally avoid the teaching of God is the same as intentionally not teaching Antarctic history.  The absence implies the knowledge of either subject is not consequential to the school’s education goals, which subsequently would imply they are ultimately not consequential in life.

If God is truly not consequential to life, then it is acceptable to ignore integrated instruction about Him.  However, should He be the Author of all things, then He would automatically be the Authority over all things.  In Colossians, Paul states that everything is created by Jesus, and logically concludes that all things are therefore made for Him.  Paul continues to say that He is before all things and all things are held together by Him.  The first chapter of Hebrews echoes that Jesus is the Creator and that He sustains all things by the power of His word.  Should this Christian view be correct, God is not simply consequential, nor just foundational, He is crucial and central.  He is crucial to our existence in the moment, our attention, and our knowledge retention. He is also the Sustainer of science, the Giver of communication, the Logician of math, the Hand in history, the Essence of beauty and the Expression in art.

If God is absent from curriculum, there is not simply a void in one subject. The core around which every subject revolves is absent, and ultimately implies that every subject can exist alone, without God (neither as Creator nor Sustainer).  Imagine teaching the solar system without teaching about the sun.  One can teach that theories exist to explain the sun, but its existence lacks validity.  Can plant growth, the seasons, gravity, orbit and rotation, or atmospheric stability be taught… without understanding the sun?  If a school were to proclaim, “We teach the solar system, but we do not touch the subject of the sun.  That is the job of the family,” it would be ridiculed. Subsequently enrollment would crash because the statement collides with cultural conceptions of truth.

Omitting the sun from curriculum would prove to be a major gap in the student’s learning since so much of our world is influenced by it.  If God exists, how much greater is his influence on the world as we know it?  He sustains all aspects of the created earth. 

So what are the options in education for Christians?

Christians are called to be in the world but not of the world.  It is during a child’s development that he should learn this paradigm.  If a parent teaches his child that God is very consequential and then sends that child to a school where God is seen as inconsequential, the parent must be intentional in correcting the opposing world view.  Ideally (but for various reasons perhaps not possible- finances, location…), a child should attend a school that is intentional and systematic in demonstrating God as the Creator and Sustainer of all subjects. This is not to say that a child should attend any “Christian School.” Many Christian schools are neither intentional nor systematic. They are simply categorical in teaching theology through a Bible class and chapel. 

Eventually and hopefully, each Christian student reaches maturity and knowledge that she is in the world yet not of the world. At that point she should be encouraged to become more involved in secular (and perhaps even antagonistic) environments, being light in darkness just as Jesus modeled.  This maturity could appear in 6th grade or it could arrive during postgraduate studies.  It depends on the Holy Spirit’s work in each individual. Adults working in secular schools should see their vocation as a calling to reach the world.  They should be cognizant that the education they are providing to students is incomplete (in the manner of a doughnut, not like a piece of bread from which someone has taken a bite).  They should understand that secular education lacks the core that is truly the central part of all education. Accordingly, the teacher would do well to find a way to teach in such an environment in a manner that would honor her superiors and God.

For a school that has the freedom to be theological, there must be a systematic and intentional effort.  If God is simply categorized into chapels and Bible classes, then the message would be quite similar to that of a child attending a secular school and then going to youth group and church.

How can a school be intentional in implementing biblical integration?

There is not just one method to integrate an infinite God into curriculum.  The school should find a cogent, intentional, and systematic method that crosses subjects with the ultimate goal that a student:
understands that all subjects reveal knowledge of God as Creator and Sustainer, and that the student can clearly communicate this knowledge to others. 

Should this be a goal of the institution, it should be measurable in its instruction and in the assessment of students.

What are some signs of ineffective biblical integration?

- Integration randomly connects lesson themes to a Bible verse.
- Biblical integration in instruction and assessment is not measurable.
- Biblical principles are integrated without a pattern.  The principles should be connected and more concerned with “Big ideas/ Overarching understandings” (McTighe and Wiggins) that encompass the entirety of the curriculum, instead of teaching 180 disconnected ideas.
- Integration does not have the clear goal of knowing God by seeing Him revealed in creation.
- Integration does not demonstrate that the subject absolutely cannot exist without God.

What is an example of effective biblical integration?

If school is responsible for providing an education that prepares students to understand the world and equip them to live in it, then it should intentionally and systematically deal with the most important questions of life.  The following eight questions can be integrated in each grade in a developmentally appropriate way, and students can be assessed on their understandings throughout the year and formally assessed at the end of each school year.

1.  Why am I here?  What is the purpose of life?
2.  Are there real things we cannot see with our eyes?  Is there a metaphysical reality?
3.  Where did earth and I come from?  What is the origin to everything?
4.  Is there right and wrong?  What is the basis for morality?
5.  Can we know truth?
6.  What is our final destiny?
7.  Why is their community?  Why do we have/need relationships?
8.  What is the explanation for the appreciation of and attraction to beauty?

The curricula would appropriately and constantly deal with these overarching questions as they coincide with curricular themes, and the instruction would explain how Biblical scripture (not simply Biblical theory for it is the Word of God that is eternal) answers these questions and compare them to various prominent worldviews.

*Brian Hudson, Director of Covenant Christian in Indianapolis, models this example of biblical integration and uses curricula which compares Scripture with worldviews such as Deism, Naturalism/Atheism, Polytheism, Pantheism, Nihilism, Christian Separatism/Gnosticism as current and prominent opposing viewpoints (as presented in James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door).

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