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Exploring the History and Philosophy of Christian Education: Principles for the 21st Century

by Michael J. Anthony and Warren S. Benson

Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003, 433 pages.

Michael Anthony is professor of Christian education at Biola University/Talbot School of Theology, and the late Warren S. Benson was professor emeritus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In this book, the authors have presented a very helpful study of the subject of Christian education, tracing the history of the discipline from the Old Testament to the present. As the publisher’s notes on the book cover state, the subject is presented “against the backdrop of wider philosophical thought and historical events…and show how each successive era shaped the practice of Christian education today”. They show the “historical roots and philosophical underpinnings of issues relevant to current practice in Christian education ministries”.

So the authors are very concerned to relate theory to practice, and to make this book a very practical tool, as they stated:

The purpose of this book is to provide the reader with more than just valuable insights regarding the past…The emphasis of this history book is the future. We desire to review the past so that the ministry leader will be better equipped to serve in his/her future ministry location and that, having learned some valuable lessons from those who have gone before them, the readers will, in turn, be better prepared to meet the challenges that await them after graduation (page 11). Toward this end they determined that each chapter in the book would have three major emphases:

    1. Historical context. Thus each chapter is introduced with a section titled “What in the World?”, to introduce the reader to what else was happening in the world in the historical era being considered, beyond the scope of the particular chapter.

    2. Frequent summaries. The authors make frequent use of text boxes to provide a summary of the material being discussed. This will make the book a very useful tool to refer back to in the future.

    3. Contemporary relevance. The last section of each chapter is labeled “So What? Lessons from the Past for 21st Century Christian Education”. These sections draw out three or four principles or lessons derived from the particular historical era that was just discussed.

The authors state that philosophy must be addressed within its historical context. They cite the example of humanism, which is discussed in three different chapters because “it meant different things to different people at different periods of history” (page 14). They want the readers to see the development and evolution of any particular philosophical position.

The first 12 chapters examine particular historical eras, and the titles of those chapters are as follows (with Christian Education abbreviated as CE):

    1. Hebrew Origins of CE

    2. Greek Education and Philosophical Thought

    3. Roman Education and Philosophical Thought

    4. CE in the Early Church

    5. CE in the Middle Ages (500-1300)

    6. CE in the Renaissance (1350-1500)

    7. CE in the Reformation (1500-1600)

    8. European Origins of Modern CE

    9. Early Origins of the Sunday School Movement

    10. CE in Colonial America

    11. CE in the 19th Century

    12. CE in the 20th Century

Chapter 13 is “Philosophical Foundations of CE”, and it focuses specifically on the relationship between philosophy and its application to education. The authors have noted among their students an aversion to discussing educational philosophy, preferring instead to focus on what are deemed more practical needs. However, they feel this is shortsighted, as “we cannot escape philosophy because it provides the foundation for all that we do in life” (page 383), and “philosophy and education cannot be separated because each relies on the other for illumination” (page 385). Thus they begin the chapter with a helpful text box with a glossary of terms, and proceed to a discussion of the nature of educational philosophy, followed by the traditional categories of philosophical inquiry and how they relate to education. They complete the chapter with a summary of five different educational philosophies. There is a very helpful two-page chart that summarizes what has been discussed in the chapter.

The final chapter, Chapter 14, is “Developing a Personal Philosophy of Ministry”. This involves the tension between theory and practice that dates back to Aristotle. But the authors warn:

The children’s ministry director or youth pastor who (after graduation from seminary) has only enough ministry resources to last 18 months will be caught in an endless cycle of career rotation because he or she has never taken the time to analyze the philosophy of ministry… (without which) the ministry leader is unable to determine how and when changes in methodology should take place and is therefore unable to make the necessary adjustment. No ministry setting remains fixed, so at some point this inability to apply theory to practice leads to frustration and stagnation (pages 411-412).

Therefore the authors set forth seven components of a personal philosophy of ministry, and urge the readers to divide their own personal philosophy into these seven categories, and to support their views with Scripture where appropriate.

The book then concludes with an Epilogue, which attempts to pull together the lessons learned from this study of the development of CE over this long time span. It therefore ends with an 8-page textbox titled “So What? Cumulative Lessons from the Past for 21st Century Education” which contains seven points. Among those summarizing points are that God’s Word is preeminent (point 3), that the leader must learn how to exegete culture (point 5), and that change is necessary (point 7).

In conclusion, this book presents a very helpful historical and philosophical survey of an important area of ministry, that of Christian education. The use of summaries, text boxes, charts, and recaps makes the book not only a good read, but also a helpful tool to review or refer back to in the future. It should be beneficial for anyone involved in Christian education in the broadest sense and at any level. As such, it is definitely recommended.

Reviewed by:
Ron Maness

Related Topics: Christian Education