We’re thinking about education today, and we’re also continuing our morning series on the Nicene Creed – one of the key early summaries of Christian faith. We’ve come to the phrase:
He [that is, God the Holy Spirit] has spoken through the prophets.
Hence my title today: God Has Spoken. So I have three simple points to make. First, the Bible is the written word of the living God. Secondly, the Bible is being marginalised in education today. And thirdly, our children need the Bible to be at the heart of their education. Let me take those in turn.
First, THE BIBLE IS THE WRITTEN WORD OF THE LIVING GOD
It’s crucial we understand what we’re dealing with when we read the Bible. So let me remind you of those verses from Hebrews 1 that we heard earlier – and which the Nicene Creed virtually quotes. This is Hebrews 1.1-4:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
The only way that we can get to know God is by God revealing himself to us. The good news is, that’s exactly what he’s done. And that’s how we know that he’s personal. A person communicates by speaking, and that’s what God does. We can know God because of all the talking that he’s done. So how has he spoken to us? In three main ways.
First, through the prophets. Hebrews 1:1 again:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets… (1:1)
In all kinds of ways God used human voices to speak his words, and he made sure they were written down and not lost. And that’s what we have in the Old Testament. But that wasn’t the end of it.
The second way that God has spoken to us is there in Hebrews 1:2:
but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son… (1:2)
Jesus revealed God not only through what he said, but through who he was and what he did. Hebrews 1.3:
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature… (1:3)
An exact, living, human and divine, representation. So now, if we want to get to know God, the way we do it has been made clear by God himself: we have to get to know Jesus. God’s revelation of himself in Jesus is comprehensive and it is final.
But do we have a reliable, God given account of who Jesus was, what he did, and what he said? If Jesus was a once for all revelation of God, that’s a crunch question.
For a start, the prophets themselves tell us a great deal about Jesus, in God-inspired anticipation of his coming. So Luke records how the risen Jesus said when he appeared to all the apostles:
“… everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…
And very significantly he added:
“You are witnesses of these things.”
That is the third way by which God speaks to us. First, through the prophets. Secondly, and supremely, in Jesus. And thirdly, through the apostles’ inspired witness to Christ and their teaching about him. They tell us what happened, and what it meant, with God’s authority. So Hebrews 2:3 says:
It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard… (2:3)
And what we have in the New Testament is the record of the teaching of the apostles.
God’s revelation of himself in Jesus is comprehensive and final, and God’s account of it is contained between the covers of this book. In these last days God has spoken to us by his Son. But this is not a dead word. Hebrews 4:12:
The word of God is living and active… (4:12)
So, for instance, right here in Hebrews, at 3:7, a Psalm is quoted - Psalm 95. Look at how it is introduced:
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (3:7)
The message of the Bible is the living word of God which God the Holy Spirit speaks today to all who have ears to hear. That’s what the Bible itself claims, with great clarity.
That’s a big claim, of course. If it wasn’t true, then the Bible would have no place in education at all, because it would be a fraudulent book. There can be no half measures on that. But it is true.
And this claim that the Bible is no less than the word of God does not belong to the wild fringes of Christianity. It is at the centre of orthodox, traditional, mainstream Christian faith. And it’s endorsed in some surprising places. So for instance David Cameron said in his Christmas message:
The Gospel of John tells us that in this man was life, and that his life was the light of all mankind, and that he came with grace, truth and love. Indeed, God’s word reminds us that Jesus was the Prince of Peace.
I’m not sure the Prime Minister understands the full implications of what he’s saying when he describes the Bible as God’s word, but that’s what he does and he’s right.
And that acknowledgement of the nature of the Bible is right at the heart of our national and constitutional life. So at her Coronation 60 years ago this year, the Queen was presented with the Bible and told:
“Our gracious Queen: … we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.”
These are the lively oracles of God. Exactly. And so also says the Church of England – hardly a way-out denomination. Article 20 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England says:
… it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.
Scripture – the Bible – is God’s Word written. That is the doctrine of the established church in this nation. So you’d think that it’s place in the education we offer to our children would be secure. But – and this is my next main heading:
Secondly, THE BIBLE IS BEING MARGINALISED IN EDUCATION TODAY
Hebrews 2:1 warns:
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. (2:1)
There is a danger of drift away from God’s word. And yet today in our education system we seem to be not drifting so much as running away from it as fast as we can. Well, in Hebrews 2.3 the warning is reinforced:
… how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (2:3)
The education that we receive in our first two decades moulds us for the rest of our lives. It’s not that we can’t move beyond it. We can. But it gives the shape to our thinking and our behaviour from which we develop, for good or ill. So it’s vital that we do our utmost to ensure that the educational moulding that we put the next generaration through – is an appropriate one. So where is the Bible in our schools today?
For centuries in this country the educational mould has itself been profoundly moulded by Biblical Christian faith. But in most schools that’s no longer the case.
Now I’m not saying that all in education is a disaster. I’m not saying that everything is always wrong unless it’s overtly Christian. I’m not saying that there’s not still in some places at least a strong Christian influence. This congregation alone is testimony to the many Christians who are amongst the thousands of teachers who work as hard as they can to do the best that they can to provide a good and Godly education for the children in their charge.
But they are now the exception rather than the rule. And the prospect of generations that know nothing of their Christian heritage and care less is frightening.
What’s happened came home to me a while ago when I was with the then head teacher of a large Newcastle comprehensive. I happened to notice some stairs down into a basement. Out of curiosity, I asked him what was down there. He said he’d show me and we went down into a huge basement packed full of the junk and detritus of decades of school life. Knowing my own concerns he said to me: ‘Somewhere down here is the old school Bible that was used in assemblies. I’ll find it to show you.’ But he couldn’t find it. The school Bible was lost amongst the rubbish. That incident has stuck in my mind ever since. It’s a graphic example of the loss of the Bible from so much current education.
The eternal, Biblical perspective is being – or has been – lost. But if we lose that, we lose everything.
One very current example of that, of course, is the Government’s bill to bring in same sex marriage. The potential impact of this on our schools is hard to overstate. In response to the query “Would redefining marriage have any effect in our schools?” Sharon James of the Campaign for Marriage says:
In July 2012 a senior lawyer and expert on religious freedom and human rights provided a report answering this question. He said that if same sex marriage were legalised schools could dismiss teachers who won’t, for conscience reasons, use stories or text books endorsing same sex weddings. Parents who object to gay marriage being taught to their children would have no right to withdraw their child from such lessons across the curriculum.
And I have personal experience of the way this agenda is beginning to work through the educational system. Following the turning down of our Clayton Academy proposal for a Christian Free School last year because of our “robust” Christian views (as they were described), and in conversation with a senior civil servant in the Department for Education, I asked “Is it the case that a free school cannot teach a traditional Christian sex ethic?” I was told that this is a complex area that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, and that there is potential for many court cases about this in the future. In other words we are now in a situation where it is not clear that Christian schools can legally teach Biblical and traditional Christian sex ethics.
Another example of drift from the Bible, even in church schools, comes from John Cox, a retired Diocesan Director of Education. He writes:
Church schools should give careful thought to the amount of Biblical material used in their worship. One head teacher realised that rather too much time in collective worship had been spent on other faiths when a pupil informed her that Jesus went around with “twelve bicycles”. The next term was spent concentrating on stories about Jesus and his disciples.
The Bible is being marginalised in education today. And yet, in a speech to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the Prime Minister said:
The Bible is a book that has not just shaped our country, but shaped the world…
… just as our language and culture is steeped in the Bible, so too is our politics. From human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, from the role of the church in the first forms of welfare provision, to the many modern day faith-led social action projects, the Bible has been a spur to action for people of faith throughout history, and it remains so today…
… we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.
He is surely right. But the Bible is not just a great and influential book. It is, as we’ve seen, nothing less than the written word of the living God. So it must follow – and this is my third main heading, and my very simple but far-reaching conclusion:
Thirdly, OUR CHILDREN NEED THE BIBLE TO BE AT THE HEART OF THEIR EDUCATION
We heard earlier the voice of God through Moses in Deuteronomy 6.6-7, which says this:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deut. 6:6-7)
That is, take every opportunity to weave God’s word into every aspect of your life with your children. The Bible should not be an optional extra. It should be the core of their education.
The historian Niall Ferguson writes in his book ‘Civilisation’ of how the Chinese elite are beginning to see the significance of Christianity for Western culture. He says:
According to one scholar fro the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences: “We were asked to look into what accounted for the … pre-eminence of the West all over the world … At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focussed on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.
To my mind that is actually a very shocking quotation. It is deeply ironic, and indeed tragic, that just as China is discovering Christianity, the West is in danger of turning its back on it, and on the Bible which is its foundation. When Ferguson at the end of his book asks the question: “What are the foundational texts of Western Civilization?”, the first book on his list is the King James Bible.
Now let me be clear. When I say that our children need the Bible to be at the heart of their education, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Bible is all the education that a child needs. In fact it’s striking what’s said about the education of Jesus himself in Luke 2.52 – one of the very few insights into what was happening during his childhood, because the Bible is mostly silent on the subject. But here the whole process of the maturing of Jesus is put in a nutshell. Luke says:
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.
So throughout his education Jesus increased: in wisdom [that is intellectual development – but it’s more, it’s learning how to live]; and stature [that’s physical development]; and in favour with God [there’s the spiritual dimension]; and in favour with men [that’s social development].
Education has to be concerned with the whole person. It needs to be high and wide and broad and deep. But, nonetheless, at its heart should be the Bible – the living word of the living God. An education that leaves God and his word out of the picture is like a portrait without the face. The background may be interesting, but it totally misses the point.
So I’m not saying that the Bible is all the education that a child needs. Nor do I underestimate the difficulties.
Teaching children is always very stretching. As I prepared for this I found in my notes a reminder of an incident when our daughters Hannah and Katy were four. One evening I was talking through a Bible story with them. Katy ended up asking, “Will I be able to have my toys in heaven?” Hannah asked “Will there be a kitchen in heaven?” Sadly I have no record nor recollection of my answer.
And it’s not just in the home that teaching is as testing for the teachers as for the learners. One group of Sunday school children were told they should try to be “like God” in all they did. Later on the mother of one of them noticed that her small son was doing everything left-handed, despite being right-handed. She asked him about it. “I’m trying to be like God,” he said. “But why everything left-handed?” his mother asked. “Well, God must be left-handed,” the child replied, “because Jesus sits on his right hand.”
Teaching is a tough assignment, for parents, pastors and professionals alike. I am not underestimating that.
Being a teacher – whether in school or church or family – is demanding. It’s difficult. At times it seems downright impossible. In one way or another, we all fail. And when we fail, we need to go to God. He’s the one who can redeem our deficiencies. He is the one who can remind parents, pastors and professional teachers alike that they too are children – his children. We can trust him.
What, then, do children need? They need a good, true and broad education, delivered by a healthy partnership of family, church, school and nation. And our children need the Bible to be at the heart of it all. We’re a long way from that in our culture today.
There’s no question that at the moment we’re fighting against a rising tide of atheistic secular humanism in the educational establishment. Sometimes it looks as though all vestiges of Biblical teaching will be swept away. But tides turn. I remember once building a sandcastle above the tide line as the sea advanced up the beach. I expected it to be washed away by the unstoppable force of the ocean. But just as the water was about to reach my castle, the tide turned.
Alone, we are powerless. But God can turn the tide. He’s done it in the past and he’ll do it again. Let’s bear witness to the truth and wisdom of his word, and pray that the tide will turn soon, for the sake of our children.