Chapter 5


Moving into the three chapters of Part Two of this thesis, we step back from the three themes of Reformed epistemology and the focus of the study moves to the significance of all this for the theory of education.   Immediately, the subject of the relationship between a Reformed Christian (or any other) worldview and the construction of theories in education (or in any other area of knowledge or life) comes to the fore.

In fact, the relationship between Christian commitment and theory construction is of threefold relevance to this thesis.   First, it has to do with the whole enterprise of describing a particular approach to knowledge as ‘Reformed epistemology’.   A common objection to doing this is to the effect that epistemology is epistemology and it does not make sense to talk of it as Reformed or Christian or Humanist or Marxist or whatever.   Secondly, this thesis is concerned with the educational implications of Reformed epistemology and therefore, presumably, with some notion of Reformed Christian education.   But, again, for many, not only is it the case that epistemology is epistemology but also that education is education and there is no such thing as a distinctively Christian view of education.  So to talk of the educational significance or implications of Reformed epistemology also brings to the fore the question of the relationship between Christian commitment and theory construction.   And a third way in which it is relevant is in that education theory is not only itself theoretical but also a theory of theories in the sense that it has to provide for the teaching of the theories of the different disciplines in the curriculum.   So it would seem that to talk of Christian education or of Reformed education could involve a distinctive view of the content of education in the various disciplines.   And here again, for many, talk of Christian or Reformed Christian mathematics, physics, geography, economics, art or the like is just as mistaken as talk of Reformed epistemology or of Christian education.

In view of this, it is important to get clear on what exactly is being proposed about the nature of this relationship between Christian commitment and theory construction so that we can ascertain whether it is meaningful to talk of Reformed epistemology or of the educational significance of Reformed epistemology.   It is one thing to put forward an approach to epistemology or education or a school subject and give it a label like Christian or Reformed but it is another to show that the particular view is logically linked with the particular Christian or Reformed Christian commitment of the person putting forward such an approach rather than simply being a view  which happens to be held by some Christians.

I shall attempt to outline the main details of a spectrum of views on this subject along with what I take to be their strengths and weaknesses.   I shall then take the one I find the most adequate and outline how it can make sense of the ideas of Christian education and Reformed epistemology.   And to get into this project I shall start with a particularly forcefully put example of an argument which attacks the notion of ‘Christian education’ as being a kind of nonsense.   This is the argument Paul Hirst presents in his paper ‘Christian Education: A Contradiction in Terms?’.1


Hirst claims that the idea that there is a distinctively Christian form of education is just as much a mistake as the idea that there is a distinctively Christian form of mathematics, of engineering or of farming.   He maintains that in all these pursuits it is now thought possible to attain knowledge on “autonomous, independent, rational grounds” rather than by appeal to Christian scriptures or Christian tradition.2   The principles that govern matters in all these areas are “neither Christian nor non–Christian, neither for Christianity nor against Christianity”.3

Hirst describes what he terms a “primitive concept of education” whereby “whatever is held by the group to be true and valuable, simply because it is held to be true and valuable, is what is passed on so that it comes to be held as true and valuable by others in their turn”.4   He contrasts this with a “second, sophisticated view of education” which is concerned with passing on beliefs and practices “according to, and together with, their objective status”.5   He continues:

“On this second view the character of education is not settled by any appeal to Christian, Humanist or Buddhist beliefs.   Such an appeal is illegitimate, for the basis is logically more fundamental, being found in the canons of objectivity and reason, canons against which Christian, Humanist and Buddhist beliefs must, in their turn and in the appropriate way, be assessed.   When the domain of religious beliefs is so manifestly one in which there are at present no clearly recognisable objective grounds for judging claims, to base education on any such claims would be to forsake the pursuit of objectivity, however firm our commitment might be to any one set of such beliefs.   Indeed an education based on a concern for objectivity and reason, far from allying itself with any specific religious claims, must involve teaching the radically controversial character of all such claims.   An understanding of religious claims it can perfectly well aim at, but commitment to any one set, in the interests of objectivity it cannot either assume or pursue.”6

Hirst’s argument is two–fold.   He holds that the controversial nature of religious claims renders them unacceptable as a basis for a rational and objective theory of education.   An adequate basis for a theory of education would, it seems, have to be in a concern for objectivity and reason which is – or ought to be – fundamental to religious claims as well.   Not that the canons of reason are applicable to both education and religion in the same ways for Hirst goes on to say that his whole argument is based on “the autonomy thesis … that there exist vast areas of knowledge and understanding using concepts and canons of thought, objective in character and in no way connected with religious beliefs”.7

So it is not simply that religious beliefs are less objective or more controversial but – and this seems to be the real thrust of Hirst’s argument – that they belong to a logically distinct area of understanding with its own concepts and canons of reason even though these latter may not yet be clearly established.   Education is, for Hirst, directed to the development of reason in all its forms and these include mathematics, science, history and the like and the autonomy of these forms is such that they are necessarily free of religious presuppositions.   It is not that education is itself a form of knowledge or understanding but that education is education in the various forms of knowledge.   Education in religion can only be in religion insofar as religion is rational for, as Hirst says:

“… in education in this sense, no commitment or belief or faith is sought beyond the grounds or reasons or objective basis for the claims concerned.   Faith can thus be rational but it can also be a–rational, non–rational, irrational, anti–rational, unreasonable.   Only the first of these has a part in ‘education’.   In so far as objective grounds for Christian beliefs, or any other religious beliefs, can be given, such beliefs have a place in ‘education’.   It seems to me that at this moment we have to accept that such grounds do not exist.   If that is so, Christian beliefs must at present be regarded as a matter of faith that is not objectively defensible, and commitment to it cannot therefore at present properly figure in education in the sense I am defending.   That does not mean that Christian beliefs necessarily run counter to anything that is rationally defensible, for they may consistently complement what is rationally known.   But that provides no objective ground for their truth as religious claims, for other systems of belief also do that.”8

Again, the two issues of the autonomous forms of knowledge and of the rationality and objectivity of religious beliefs are woven together and this is accomplished by Hirst’s linking of his concept of education as the development of reason with the idea that reason takes several different autonomous forms.   I propose to separate these two ideas because neither logically requires the other.   The issue of the rationality of religious belief is one that has been to the fore in Part One of this thesis and to which I shall return in the next chapter in considering the subject of indoctrination.   That of the autonomy of forms of understanding in relation to religious belief is the issue that concerns us here.

In the last extract quoted above, Hirst suggests that religious beliefs may complement beliefs in other areas of understanding.   The complementarity of beliefs in different areas is an idea that has received considerable attention in recent decades and which can take various forms in the hands of different writers.   And even where the idea of complementarity takes the same form, religious belief may be given different status by different writers.   Some, like Hirst, seem uncertain whether religion can even be accorded a place among the forms since they take them to be forms of knowledge and they are reluctant to allow that religious propositions can be known to be true.   Others put religious beliefs on all fours with beliefs in other autonomous areas.   And still others give religious beliefs – or certain religious beliefs – a more basic role without thereby infringing the relative autonomy of other areas in relation to one another.

One way to subdivide complementarist positions is according to whether they see different areas of understanding as dealing with different parts of reality or different aspects of reality.   These two kinds of position could be termed ‘regionalist’ and ‘perspectivalist’.9

A classic example of regionalism is the mind–body dualism of Descartes.   He saw the person as being composed of two completely different substances – ‘res extensa’ and ‘res cogitans’.   The former belongs to the material realm where mechanistic explanations are appropriate and potentially complete whereas in the case of the latter such forms of explanation are totally inappropriate, the mind being spiritual rather than material.   Difficulties in accounting for the interaction of these two kinds of substance have made this form of dualism rather less popular in the present century than formerly although it does still have its contemporary advocates.10 Another form of dualism assumes a dichotomy between a supernatural realm of spiritual forces and miraculous acts of God and a natural realm of cause and effect which apply equally to mental events as to physical events.   Some phenomena, on this account, cannot be naturally explained since they are caused supernaturally.   Everything that happens iseither an act of God or a natural occurrence and nothing that happens is both.   This kind of dualism tends to restrict God to the gaps in human knowledge.   There are also difficulties in accounting for the relationship between these two realms or regions of reality, e.g., in the case of a miracle, between supernatural causes and natural effects.   These problems with the definition of interrelationships do not in themselves show that dualism must be mistaken but they do produce a sense of unsatisfactoriness about this kind of account.11

The perspectivalism of such as Donald MacKay12 sees forms of understanding as being concerned not with different parts of reality but with different aspects of it.   Whereas the Cartesian dualist insists that physical science is competent only to study certain regions of reality, the perspectivalist allows it to deal with the whole of reality but only with certain aspects of that whole.   The perspectivalist says that physical science tells us only one of several complementary ‘stories’.

MacKay illustrates the notion of complementarity by an example of the use of lamps to signal from ships at sea where, in one sense, all that is coming from the ship is a series of flashes of light but the trained observer sees a message being sent ashore.  The message is related to the flashing of light, not as an effect is to a cause, but rather as one aspect of a complex unity is related to another aspect.13   Here the illustration is of a complementarity between the physical and the non–physical or, at least, the non–purely–physical.   Another oft–quoted illustration of the idea of complementarity comes from within physics itself in the practice of taking the wave and particle models of the behaviour of light as being complementary rather than contradictory.   A similar thing can happen within mathematics where, for example,  two definitions of probability which are not equivalent may nevertheless give the same results in situations where they both apply.

This idea of complementary perspectives can be used in an attempt to resolve the mind–brain debate without appeal to dualism and without falling back on the reductionist alternative which MacKay terms the ‘the fallacy of nothing–buttery’.14   Different aspects of the same events can be described in complementary ways in personal terms (the ‘I–story’) and in neurophysiological terms (the ‘brain–story’).   The former is human and indeterministic whereas the latter is mechanistic and deterministic but there is no contradiction.   As one writer who adopts this kind of approach puts it:

“With respect to the question of freedom, it is important to distinguish between people and brains, because it is people – not brains – who are free.   Conversely, it is brains – not people – which may be machines.”15

This resonates with the distinction made by many philosophers between reasons (for actions) and causes (of events).   It also echoes something of the context of Gilbert Ryle’s discussion of the idea of a ‘category mistake’.16   Such a mistake results from attempting to combine more than one of a set of complementary perspectives in a single description of some phenomenon or, in Wittgensteinian terms, using more than one ‘language–game’ at one time.   For the kind of complementarist in question, to speak of people – rather than their brains – as machines is to make just such a mistake.   In a similar way, it can be argued that it is a category error to talk of conflict between the assured results of psychological research into religious experience and religious or theological accounts of such experience.17

The complementarist picture is of different language domains with different contexts which bring with them different purposes in the use of language.   To oppose them is to commit a category error and it is, I think, such an error that Hirst sees in talk of Christian education.   And D. Z. Phillips sees a category error in the whole idea of Reformed epistemology.   He suggests that it takes place in an apologetic context when, as he says, it should rather be that the philosopher is “the guardian of grammar” while the theologian is “the guardian of the Faith”.   He takes this to be a conception of philosophy and epistemology which is neither for or against religion and to understand which is to see why attempting to establish a Reformed epistemology is “still to remain captive to an apologetic conception of epistemology”.18   A similar kind of argument from different contexts and purposes is brought by opponents of what has come to be called ‘creation–science’ when it is claimed that the Bible tells us who made the universe and why he made it but not how or when he made it.

Complementarism has much to commend it and not least, in relation to the nature of man, in its stress on the holism of the person in all his aspects.  Against materialistic reductionism, it asserts that man is more than a mechanistic brain and, against dualism in at least some of its forms, man is not a mysterious conjunction of different substances, a soul temporarily housed in a body.   All aspects of the person – spiritual, psychological, biological and the like – are given their places in the differing perspectives that can be taken of the single reality which is the human being.

But, at the same time, this approach is not without its problems.   Perhaps the chief of these is similar to that which is perceived as a major weakness of dualism: how to relate together the different aspects or perspectives.   This is of particular importance in cases where it is not clear whether two accounts of the same phenomenon are complementary or contradictory.   If they are complementary then contradictions are apparent rather than real.   It may be quite clear, for example, that there is no real contradiction between the descriptions of ship–to–shore signalling as flashes of light and as messages.   But it is by no means as clear that the deterministic brain story and the indeterministic mind story are not incompatible.   To appeal to the notion of complementary perspectives in such a case may be merely to assert that they are compatible.   William Hasker says that some complementarists take the problem of apparent conflict, add the word ‘complementarity’ as “a verbal embellishment” and then present the problem over again as its own solution.19   To be fair to MacKay, he gives much space in his writings to attempts to show that the contradiction between mechanistic and teleological accounts is not real.   Nevertheless, some respondents feel that his position is still basically determinist and that he may be reinterpreting the mind story in order to bring it more into conformity with the mechanistic brain story.20  So it can at least be argued that it is not obvious that there is no conflict between the two accounts which are proposed as complementary.   And in such situations it seems that there may be a tendency for one perspective to become dominant at the expense of another.


A possible view of the relationship between complementary perspectives is that they are held to be so completely autonomous in relation to one another that they are strictly incommensurable.   It is not a matter of a statement being true simpliciter but of a statement being true in science or true in religion or true in some other form of human understanding.   If a statement is true in religion then it is neither true nor false but meaningless in other forms of understanding.   ‘The Resurrection has occurred’ is either true or false in religion but being a religious statement – a statement of theological truth or falsity – it cannot be regarded as either true or false in history.   If it is true, it is a spiritual truth and not a historical truth.   On the other hand, ‘the empty tomb has occurred’ is not a religious statement but a statement which is either true or false in history and neither true nor false in religion.

According to this way of thinking, there is strict incommensurability between religious statements and statements about the past.  This seems to be part of what is entailed by saying that religious language is “logically odd”.   I. T. Ramsey suggests that it belongs to its own domain and has its own logic so that it is possible to assert that the empty tomb occurred and deny that the Resurrection did and even to assert the latter and deny the former.21   This means that it is possible that the bones of Jesus of Nazareth could be mouldering away in a middle eastern tomb and that it be nevertheless true that the Resurrection has taken place.

But all this seems very strange.   The statement ‘The Resurrection has occurred’ certainly seems to be a statement about the past.   Granted it means more than that certain historical events have taken place – the tomb is empty, Jesus of Nazareth has returned to life from death, and the like – but it does not follow from this that we can go on to say that it means other than that they have taken place.   The problem here is that both historical and theological statements seem to be about a single reality viewed from different perspectives rather than a dualism of realities.22   They may indeed be made from different perspectives and they are certainly not equivalent in meaning to one another but it scarcely follows from this that there is no relationship between the truth of one and that of the other.   The same could be said of neurophysiological accounts of the brain and teleological accounts of human action so that it may be that if a certain event has not taken place then a certain action has not been carried out either.

Indeed, to separate differing perspectives in the way that strict incommensurability would seem to require is something that is not presupposed in much of our use of language.   Statements in physics, for example, make frequent use of mathematical concepts and rules without being guilty of any kind of category mistake.

The way in which one form of understanding makes use of ideas and rules from another suggests the possibility of a hierarchy of levels of description.   What is written on this page could be described from a number of perspectives each with its own level in a hierarchy.   It could be described in terms of marks transferred from carbon film to paper.   It could be viewed as letters of the English alphabet together with spaces and punctuation marks.   At a higher level, it could be viewed as sentences using the words and rules of the English language and making grammatical sense as does, say, the sentence ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously by my book for eating apples every other Christmas Eve’.   A higher level would be that of making semantic sense and beyond that there is the level of making logical sense as an attempt at a philosophical argument.   Other possible points of view include that of literary style, that of the psychology of the writer  and that of personal significance to the writer or, were it addressed to him in particular, the reader.   It could also be viewed as an attempt to do something which is morally good or as an attempt to serve God.   And doubtless there are other possible perspectives as well.   For example, if it were hand–written, the graphologist might well view the shapes of the letters and other such features as expressions of the unique personality of the writer.23

But if it is right to suggest that there are higher and lower levels in a hierarchy like this then it is of interest to look for some principles of ordering.   Lower level descriptions are presupposed by higher levels.   Description of what is written on this page as letters of the alphabet, spaces and punctuation marks presupposes that there are marks of some kind on the paper – although not necessarily transferred from carbon film by the printer of a word–processor.   It is the particular kind of marks that are made that makes it possible to describe them as letters and the like rather than blobs, drawings, doodles or something else.   This means that the higher level description is more comprehensive.

Comprehensiveness is one of two criteria proposed by Stephen Evans for what he terms ‘metaphysical ultimacy’.   The other is uniqueness and he sets the two side by side with reference to the example of a written poem:

“That perspective in which the poem is seen as a poem, a literary creation, is most comprehensive.   It incorporates all the other perspectives by presupposing them and going beyond them.   The perspective in which the poem is experienced as a poem also scores highest on the uniqueness criterion.   There are molecules which do not form ink marks, there are ink marks which do not form letters, there are letters which do not form words, and there are words which do not form poems.   Only when a poem is read or heard as a poem does its uniqueness – its character as a poem – stand out clearly.”24

Evans goes on to suggest that the personalistic perspective upon human beings is more comprehensive than, say, a materialistic account and that it shows the uniqueness of human beings.   Here again he sets the two criteria side by side but it seems to me that there is really here but one basic criterion – that of comprehensiveness.   If an account or perspective is more comprehensive than its alternatives it follows that it does more justice to the uniqueness of that of which it is an account or upon which it is a perspective