This study has been an attempt to examine some characteristic themes of Reformed epistemology in order to develop a coherent account of them and to work out something of their significance for education.
These themes are that belief in God is properly basic, that divine revelation is self–authenticating, that sin has noetic effects and that differences in worldview may be reflected within science. All of these themes are present in the writings of Abraham Kuyper, Cornelius Van Til and Alvin Plantinga. The first of them is dominant in the way in which Plantinga has so far developed his version of Reformed epistemology and has also dominated discussion of this kind of epistemology in the philosophy of religion of the last decade or so. The ideas of opposing basic presuppositions and of the sinfulness of the assumption of autonomy were particularly prominent in Van Til’s writings. The proper basicality of belief in God is perhaps less prominent in an explicit form in Kuyper’s writings although it does tacitly underlie much of his account.
To claim that belief in God is properly basic is to hold a form of foundationalism which does not necessarily require of the foundations that they be infallible, indubitable or incorrigible. It is to hold a moderate foundationalism which claims immediate prima facie justification for belief in God. This is quite different from the claim that belief in God, as a framework belief, is groundless. Belief in God may be grounded in experience without being inferred from experience. Epistemic regress is terminated in the supervening of the epistemic upon the non–epistemic and one way in which this could happen is through an immediate awareness of God. To hold that this is so is to appeal to a form of religious intuitionism. This shares with empirical intuitionism several major philosophical objections but these are not obviously unanswerable. The respects in which sense experience and experience of God differ are not epistemically relevant, i.e., they do not affect the justifiedness of beliefs grounded in one as against that of those grounded in the other. In particular, the non–universality of claims to experience of God does not render them any less justified since it is quite explicable in terms of the account being proposed. Further, it is not required for justified belief that the believer should be able to show that his belief is justified. To engage in discussion of these claims and to attempt to show their coherence or respond to counter–arguments is not to base belief in God upon such reasoning or, thereby, to deny that it is immediately justified.
The experience of immediate awareness of God is not like that of an impersonal object in the world but it is rather of a person and involves self–revelation on the part of that person. It has an immediacy in the sense of psychological directness although it may be mediated through things the person does or makes. Central to this is the role of verbal communication so that the fact that divine revelation is personal does not mean that it is not propositional. Much is made in the Reformed tradition of this revelation being mediated through the propositions of the Christian scriptures. It is claimed that this revelation is self–authenticating. This may be a matter of intuiting the revealedness of these propositions in grasping their point and in an immediate awareness that God is speaking to one through them.
The claim of the Reformed epistemologist that sin affects the intellectual life is, in part and perhaps centrally, that it consists in an unacceptable form of the assumption of the autonomy of reason. The various form of rationalism can provide bases for such an assumption and a recently developed form which has had some influence upon educational theory is that of pancritical rationalism. It claims to have solved the dilemma of alternative competing ultimate commitments and to provide an adequate response to the ‘tu quoque’ of some, including Reformed writers, when charged with irrationality in their basic commitments. This form of rationalism denies that there are logical limits to rationality by claiming that justification should be replaced by criticism and that all positions – including that of pancritical rationalism itself – can be held open to rational criticism. It is exclusive of commitment to God in response to a self–authenticating revelation. However, it seems doubtful that justification and criticism can be unfused in the way this requires or that there is not in it an underlying commitment to reason which is essentially anthropocentric. If so, this approach is not an adequate counter to the claims that belief in God and trusting response to divine revelation are immediately justified. This form of the autonomy ideal and the Reformed epistemologist’s form of an ideal of theonomy are fundamentally opposed to each other. They are mutually exclusive but the choice between them, for the Reformed epistemologist, is neither a matter of arbitrary commitment nor one of weighing up reasons and evidences. A person may freely respond to a self–authenticating revelation of God or, sometimes, he may wilfully reject it.
Development of these three themes in this way is an example of a particular strategy for the integration of faith and learning. On the one hand, it does not leave faith and learning in epistemology or any other area of knowledge lying side by side in unrelated complementary compartments. On the other hand, it does not conform to the hard–presuppositionalism of some Reformed writers which requires the reconstruction of all areas of knowledge on distinctively Christian foundations. It seeks to take a middle way in introducing Christian presuppositions into the areas of knowledge to transform them from within and the influence of these presuppositions is more evident in the forms of knowledge that are higher in the hierarchy of increasingly comprehensive perspectives they take of reality than in those which are lower down. Part of the effect of introducing these presuppositions is to set the assumptions of traditions within these areas of knowledge in a new light and to expose some assumptions which may have been hidden. These hidden assumptions may be exclusive of the assumption of the existence of a God who can speak to people through a self–authenticating revelation which requires obedient response rather than autonomous judgement. This is of double significance for education since it provides a basis for the claim that it is meaningful to talk of a Christian theory of education and also a basis for developing the areas of knowledge which are the subject–matter of education in a Christian way.
A particular debate within educational theory – and one of particular relevance to a Reformed Christian approach to education – is that about the nature of indoctrination. For this the Reformed critique of rational autonomy and the opposing to it of an ideal of trusting response to an authoritative revelation is of significance. Much of the discussion of this subject has assumed either the strong internalism of the more traditional forms of rationalism or the more recent developments of pancritical rationalism. It has therefore excluded from the outset the possibility of belief in God being immediately justified or divine revelation being self–authenticating. Indoctrination is a matter both of doctrinal content and of a method that is less rational than it could be. If this is so and belief in God is properly basic, it is impossible to indoctrinate belief in God since its justification is not a matter of inference from other justified beliefs. But to teach on the basis of a taken–for–granted commitment to reason may be so. It does not follow from this that, in relation to the teaching of a basic belief in God, anything goes. Some ways of imparting such a belief would be inconsistent with beliefs which are based upon it, such as respect for persons as being made in the image of God. Because belief in God is properly basic only under certain circumstances, a pupil cannot be immediately justified in holding it if he is not in these circumstances. An appropriate way of teaching from this perspective would be that of displaying the divine revelation as a thing of beauty and pointing to its features in the hope that the pupil will come to respond to it for himself. This could involve enabling him to understand objections to these beliefs and to respond to them rationally. It provides for rational autonomy to the extent to which it is possible within this perspective and it challenges the supposed neutrality of alternative approaches.
Christian education in a pluralist society may involve the setting up of Christian schools. The exclusivism of the claims of the Reformed epistemologist follows from his theological realism. Because he holds a cognitive view of faith and a propositional account of divine revelation, he can be termed exclusivist but this does not mean that he necessarily adheres to the hard–line exclusivism of the antithetical Reformed writers. He may instead have a more positive approach to those of other worldviews which makes much of God’s common grace to all and of the possibility of shared values and insights in spite of opposing basic assumptions. He may nevertheless and quite consistently oppose those forms of pluralism which call for a radical revision of the basic beliefs of all faiths. In accordance with this outlook he may favour the setting up of Reformed Christian schools wherein neither the commitment of the teachers nor the committed ethos of the school necessarily restricts the child’s future choices. An adequate education in a Christian worldview should face openly and honestly the potential defeaters of its basic beliefs. It will also involve study of other faiths, not so as to increase the pupil’s capacity for choice but because understanding of and communication with others is a basic Christian value. This cannot, however, extend to participation in the worship of other faiths since that would require not only understanding their beliefs but actually sharing them in respects in which they are opposed to basic Christian beliefs. A Christian school may be involved in both Christian education and Christian nurture. These are both based in Christian commitment and aimed ultimately at commitment. They differ in that education is aimed more immediately at understanding of the faith and nurture at personal commitment to Christ. Christian nurture is not possible in a school that is not Christian but a Christian teacher may – consistently with the requirements of his Christian beliefs – teach in a school which is not distinctively Christian. To be secular is not necessarily to be secularist but there may well come points at which the Christian teacher finds shared values and insights too few to be sufficient as a basis for co–operation with others in the education of children. Insofar as he does he may ascribe this to the grace of God to all and at the point where he cannot in good conscience continue to work together with others in education he may, with sorrow, put this down to the influence of sin, aware that he too is a sinful being. In a world affected by sin, an ideal and perfect education will not exist but the Christian should seek to promote the ideal within the limitations of the real.