Trinitarian Foundations for Education, Full Paper

Read the paper in three parts here, here, and here, or read the full paper below.

In the history of educational theory a dichotomy or paradox has arisen between two separate goals. Since the Enlightenment, educational theorists have battled with the friction between the individual and the collective. The question is rather simple: Ought educators to set as their goal the making of autonomous, independent individuals, or ought they to make the formation of contributors to the greater collective their desired end? The answer, however, is not quite as simple as the question. This is more than a question merely touching the education of individual children, but a question also concerning the greater welfare of the society at large. The question this paper seeks to answer is even more foundational than the one posed above, though: What is the ultimate source and model of the natural, relational character of all human beings? Offering biblical and historical evidence, this paper demonstrates that the doctrine of the Trinity is foundational in the education of human beings, insofar as they bear the image of a triune God.

Rousseau’s False Dichotomy

Near the end of his life, enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a treatise on the education of children. In so doing, he formed as his founding premise a peculiar view of the natural state of man. His natural man was fully autonomous, whole, and complete in his unique individuality. It was this individual spirit that Rousseau contested ought to be nurtured in all pupils in any proper education.[1] Rousseau, known to be somewhat of an introvert,[2] was dogmatically anti-institution and anti-society. He quipped, “These two words, country and citizen, ought to be expunged from modern languages,” and, “I do not regard as a system of public instruction these ridiculous establishments called colleges.”[3] Such institutions compromised the integrity of the natural man in Rousseau’s eyes; they did not promote it. For Rousseau, man must be autonomous, or he ceases to be a man. Once the goal of education becomes the formation of a functioning member of a society complete with a sense of civic duty and commonality, the pupil has ceased to be a man and become nothing more than an unnatural citizen. A citizen is never complete, never whole. Rather, he is only a fraction of a whole. One must choose in the very beginning of the educational endeavor what is the desired product: a man or a citizen, a complete unit or a fraction of a unit.[4] For Rousseau, there is no other option. Search as one may, there is no solution to this paradox: “I am waiting to be shown this prodigy in order to know whether he is man or citizen, or how he manages to be both at the same time.”[5] This is not only a stumbling block for those endeavoring to determine the proper foundation for education. It is also a major source of friction for those seeking to establish other social conventions, such as governments. One issue that the fledgling democracy in America faced was the question of how to bring a sense of solidarity to an overly individualistic society. One early French observer of the American experiment, Alexis de Tocqueville, suggested that one remedy the founders discovered was to use the common desire for the perpetuation of personal liberty as a source of common solidarity. He called this the doctrine of interest.[6] This basic idea, which Tocqueville had discovered in the ideas of America’s founders, was a larval form of utilitarianism. Tocqueville was convinced that early Americans truly believed that “man, in helping his fellow men, helps himself, and that his individual interest is to do right.”[7] This notion of common interest is the most basic tenet of utilitarianism. However, hindsight shows that this is not the proper fix to Rousseau’s paradox. Though the spirit of American rugged individualism still persists in certain corners of the now 236 year old nation, and even provides a sense of solidarity among those for whom it is still worth dying, it has started to wane under growing Socialistic sentiments and calls from the masses for the sacrifice of individual freedom at the altar of the common good.

Paul, Institutions, and Individuals

How then ought individuals to learn to function in societies? More pertinent to the current subject, how ought people to be educated to function in societies? Should they shun their unique identities, uniformly integrating into greater institutions, forsaking their wholeness and becoming mere fractions of other whole units? Should they be taught to forsake the impositions of societal institutions and pursue Rousseau’s natural image, one that is self-complete and fully independent in its sovereignty? In his teachings on marriage and the church, the apostle Paul provides his readers with an apt picture of the uniqueness and commonality necessary to remedy this seeming dichotomy: the Trinity. Marriage In 1Corinthians 11, Paul is writing to the church at Corinth and admonishing them to restore proper order in the church. In specifically addressing the issue of submission and headship among men and their wives, Paul draws on some rather gripping imagery. Paul writes, “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (vs. 3).[8] Paul’s word choice immediately draws the reader’s mind to a parallel between the complementary roles within the Trinity and the complementary roles God has instituted to exist within marriage. Within the Godhead, there is a positional hierarchy, though the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all the same in essence. The Baptist Catechism (1693) describes the Trinity as such: “There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one God, the same in essence, equal in power and glory.”[9] The Second London Baptist Confession further expounds on one aspect of the unique roles within the Trinity: “The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son.”[10] So it is that Baptist churches have historically affirmed both that the Persons of the Godhead are equal in essence and glory while there is a definite subordination of roles. This equality of nature and subordination of roles is what lies at the foundation of the biblical, complementarian view of marriage. The head of Jesus is God. Paul is not suggesting that Jesus is of a lesser nature than God; He is of the same essence and nature in totality. Rather, Christ submits Himself to the Father in His incarnation and becomes fully obedient to Him,[11] even to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:8). In like manner, women are called to submit to their husbands, not as a sign that they are not equal in essence or nature with their husbands, but as a sign that they are being transformed more and more into the image of Christ (1Pet. 2:21-3:2). Men and women do not arrive at the institution of marriage as two natural, complete wholes, as Rousseau might suggest, both insisting that the integrity of their individual natures be given superiority over the union. Rather, they are united in essence and in goal. Similarly, men and women are not to see one another, as the egalitarians suggest, as having uniformity in function. They both offer unique and glorious contributions to the relationship. In their unique roles, they image forth the glory of the subordinate nature of the Godhead. As Gordon Clark writes:

“The hierarchy here is God, Christ, man, and woman. God and the Messiah are equally divine, but there is a subordination of function; so too, man and woman are spiritually equal, but one ranks above another in function.”[12]

The foundation of the principle of headship in marriage is the principle of headship within the Trinity. Paul states this emphatically so that in drawing agreement from his readers on the issue of divine headship, they would be forced likewise to agree with him on the issue of marital headship.[13] Furthermore, in making his case, Paul demonstrates that the principle of marital headship is first and foremost a creation ordinance, not merely an ordinance for the church (1Cor. 11:7-9, 12).[14] As descendants of Adam and Eve, those who violate the principle of marital headship are guilty before God, regardless of their relationship to the church. They are guilty of marring the image of the triune God, which God Himself has placed within them (Gen. 1:26-27). The Church Churches also are to have within them certain structures that are put in place to image forth the Trinitarian nature of their loving God. Such structures are fitting inasmuch as the churches have been redeemed and assembled through the cooperative work of each Person of the Trinity. “The Lord Jesus calls out of the world unto Himself, through the ministry of His Word, by His Spirit, those that are given unto Him by His Father.”[15] Based upon this understanding of the redemptive work of their triune God, the apostle Paul encourages the church at Ephesus to image forth Trinitarian uniqueness and unity. After having shown each Person of the Trinity at work in each of the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul opens the second half of Ephesians by making mention of them as well. He reminds the church at Ephesus that the godly character and Christian unity to which they have been called (vv. 1-3) are rooted in the identity they enjoy as worshippers of one Spirit (vs. 4), one Lord (vs. 5), and one God and Father of all “who is over all and through all and in all” (vs. 6). In vv. 7-16, Paul commences to paint a word picture of a body (vv. 4, 12-16) in which each member is uniquely gifted (vs. 7) and plays a unique role (vs. 16). Yet, each member is part of the same body which is being built up into one mature man (vv. 11-14) the head of whom is Christ Himself (vs. 15). In stark contrast to Rousseau’s egoism, William Hendriksen insists, “It is exactly unity that is promoted when all become busily engaged in the affairs of the church and when each member eagerly renders service for which the Lord has equipped him.”[16] This process in no way diminishes the unique and valuable identity of the persons involved. Rather, they each find their true value and identity as they use their unique gifts in contribution to the overall work of the body of Christ. “Christ, the head, unifies the body and causes it to grow, in which process every member has some part.”[17] In Ephesians 1:1-4:16, Paul provides the church with some of the most vivid imagery of the Trinity by merely holding up a mirror. He demonstrates how, when every person in a local church is functioning properly, they will image forth the triune God who has called them into this glorious communion. Charles Hodge explains: “There are many passages to which the doctrine of the Trinity gives a sacred rhythm, though the doctrine itself is not directly asserted. It is so here. There is one Spirit, one Lord, one God and Father. The unity of the church is founded on this doctrine.”[18] This exposition can be taken a bit further, though. The doctrine of the Trinity not only provides churches with a foundation for their unity, but it also provides individuals within those churches with a foundation for their dignity. It is with the foundational understanding that each Person in the Trinity supplies a unique contribution to the work of the Godhead that Christians also come to understand that the whole body of Christ is “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part” (vs. 16a). “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1Cor. 12:17).

Made in the Image of a Triune God

This Trinitarian image in all men is precisely the reason teachers could never truly train up their pupils in the way that Rousseau proposes in Emile. Adults having been raised and educated in such a way would never be able to formulate any truly beneficial and productive relationships or operate in any meaningful way in a society comprised of other adults similarly reared and educated. In such a society, each individual part would ultimately drift away from the others as driftwood is carried by the current from the wreckage of a sunken ship. The foundation for this doctrine does not originate with Paul, though; it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When God created man, He created him in His very own image:

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26-27).

Many have warned against making an instant leap from the plural personal pronouns God uses in reference to Himself in this passage to an assertion of Trinitarian theology. It certainly is not enough to make a full argument for the Trinitarian nature of God. However, it is quite worth noting how quickly the passage goes from saying, “Let Us make man in Our image,” to saying, “in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” For all of the speculative conjecture that has come in the thousands of years since the creation in answer to the question What is the image of God? few seem to have taken notice of the very next thing Moses writes: “He created him (singular); male and female He created them (plural).” Man was created unique and man was created to be united in fellowship with others. Man was never created to be an island unto himself. In fact, before God created woman, He saw fit to vocalize this truth: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), and after she was created, Adam saw fit to vocalize this truth: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). As such, man images forth the Triune God who created him; man and woman image forth the Triune God who created them (1Cor. 11:7, 12). “To understand the image of God primarily in terms of relationship, is to see it as not only a gift from God—as he calls us into relationship with himself—but as a task to be undertaken, a destiny to be followed.”[19] In coming to understand this truth more fully, parents, pastors, teachers, and professors will come to have a more firm foundation upon which to build a proper theory of education.


In contrast to the false dichotomy Rousseau has erected in education theory between the training up of men and the training up of citizens, the Bible demonstrates that men find their unique and invaluable identities in working within God-given institutions toward united goals. Paul demonstrates this reality in the way that he instructs Christians to live and function within marriages and churches. The foundation for this view is the image of God in man, insofar as the triune nature of God is foundational for understanding and operating within all human relationships. Married couples, churches, and all of mankind would greatly benefit from studying the doctrine of the Trinity and the implications it has for all of life and godliness. Having done so, they will have a rich and firm foundation for the education and instruction of those who come under their tutelage.

[1]Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. William H. Payne (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2003), 5-6.
[2]William H. Payne, “Introduction by the Translator,” in Emile (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2003), xxii.
[3]Rousseau, Emile, 6-7.
[4]Ibid., 5.
[5]Ibid., 6.
[6]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Stephen D. Grant (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 219-222.
[7]Ibid., 220.
[8]All citations of Scripture are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) except where otherwise noted.
[9]William Collins, “The Baptist Catechism,” in The Baptist Confession & the Baptist Catechism, ed. James Renihan (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010), 94.
[10]Nehemiah Coxe and William Collins, “The Baptist Confession,” ed. James Renihan (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010), 7.
[11]Paige Patterson, The Troubled, Triumphant Church : An Exposition of First Corinthians (Dallas: Criswell Publications, 1983), 178.
[12]Gordon Clark, First Corinthians: A Contemporary Commentary (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1975), 169.
[13]Charles Hodge, First & Second Corinthians (Carlisle, PA.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 206.
[14]Clark, First Corinthians, 169.
[15]Coxe and Collins, Baptist Confession, 56.
[16]William Hendriksen, Ephesians, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 199.
[17]Gordon Clark, Ephesians (Jefferson, MD.: Trinity Foundation, 1985), 144.
[18]Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (New York: R. Carter, 1856), 209.
[19]David John Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11 : The Dawn of Creation, Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 39.

6 thoughts on “Trinitarian Foundations for Education, Full Paper

  1. Pingback: Questions for the Current Trinitarian Debate | CredoCovenant

  2. Pingback: Studies in The Baptist Catechism: Section Three – The Decrees of God (Q.13) | CredoCovenant

  3. Pingback: Studies in The Baptist Catechism: Section Three – The Decrees of God | CredoCovenant

  4. Pingback: Studies in The Baptist Catechism: Section Three – The Decrees of God (Q.13) | Reformedontheweb's Blog

  5. Education Without Salvation is Damnation – the chief end of education is for the individual to seek for salvation. Mark 8:36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Having contributed so much to the society, where is Gandhi today? Where is ……? O professors of education, for why will ye die?

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