‘Christianity is Taught Not Caught’

Without a sound Christian nurture, the experience of conversion can be presented as degradingly inadequate.

The task of Christian nurture, then, is to provide children and young people with Biblical thought-forms, an intellectual framework which is Scripturally informed, so that the message will be neither meaningless nor misunderstood by its being presented on a different cultural wavelength. That they recognize the difference does not necessarily follow, and this fact accentuates the problem of communicating the Gospel to the teenage generation of today.

 

Today more than ever attention focusses on young people. Newspaper headlines of their activities feature everything from revolution to drugs, student sit-ins to the generation gap, hooliganism to hijacking. Not that the news media are unfair or disproportionate: in a year or two the average age in America will be twenty-four. Most of these young people will be educationally superior to their parents, and an alarming number will be morally weakened by drugs or drink or both. In spiritual matters the vast majority will be isolated and confused on account of a culpable neglect by church and home with regard to their upbringing. These are facts which the Christian Church has chosen to ignore for some considerable time, and the implications are disastrous.

What, then, constitutes a ‘Christian upbringing’? Attendance at Sunday worship, Sunday School, evangelistic campaigns, and youth rallies are part of contemporary evangelical culture. But it is open to question whether any of these, or even all of them together, constitute a biblically-grounded Christian upbringing. Their appeal is far too confined and their emphasis, all too often, is emotional and volitional rather than educational. Basically, they assume the presence of a Christian nurture. Consequently, the effect on evangelism is frustratingly demoralizing; on the young it is one of catastrophic disillusionment. Without a sound Christian nurture, the experience of conversion can be presented as degradingly inadequate, a kind of psychological relief from feelings of insecurity, dissatisfaction, or, for that matter, any ‘complex’ which happens to be fashionable among young people at the time.

The task of Christian nurture, then, is to provide children and young people with Biblical thought-forms, an intellectual framework which is Scripturally informed, so that the message will be neither meaningless nor misunderstood by its being presented on a different cultural wavelength. That they recognize the difference does not necessarily follow, and this fact accentuates the problem of communicating the Gospel to the teenage generation of today.

It may be hard to admit that ‘the problem of communication’ is not just the fantastic creation of liberal theologians. The fantasy arises in the synthetic solutions which non-biblical thinking proposes, such as modifying the message and relying on human ingenuity. From a consistently Biblical standpoint, the evangelical is bound to reject such superstitions. That is the negative contribution he makes, and it is a necessary one, although not always recognised or practised today. Positively, the answer lies in presenting the same message to this generation in terms it can understand, and doing so with unqualified dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit. As a direct contribution to bridging that gap between the message of the Gospel and this word­-conscious generation, the Bible advocates the fostering of a Christian nurture.

Basic to this important aspect of the Christian faith is the principle that ‘Christianity is taught and not caught.’ The Christian message comes to man through his mind, often buttressed by acts of kindness or a show of genuine friendship on the part of Christian contacts, but no less through the mind because of them. In their commendation of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms ‘To the Christian reader, especially heads of families,’ the seventeenth-century Puritan divines put the matter this way:

The two great pillars upon which the kingdom of Satan is erected, and by which it is upheld, are ignorance and error; the first step of our manumission [liberation] from this spiritual thraldom consists in having our eyes opened, and being turned from darkness to light, Acts 26:18. The understanding is the guide and pilot of the whole man, that faculty which sits at the stern of the soul: but as the most expert guide may mistake in the dark, so may the understanding, when it wants the light of knowledge: without knowledge the mind cannot be good, Proverbs 19:2; nor the life good, nor the eternal condition safe, Ephesians 4:18.

In this ‘battle for the mind’ truth does not find virgin soil, a sort of no-man’s-land through which it can advance unopposed. Original sin involves men in delusion as well as darkness. In this holy war for man­’s soul there is no neutrality. This makes a Christian nurture doubly necessary, as the same divines insist:

Corrupt and unsavoury principles have great advantage upon us, above those that are spiritual and sound; the former being suitable to corrupt nature, the latter contrary; the former springing up of themselves, the latter brought forth not without a painful industry. The ground needs no other midwifery in bringing forth weeds than only the neglect of the husbandman’s hand to pluck them up; the air needs no other cause of darkness than the absence of the sun; nor water of coldness than its distance from the fire; because these are the genuine products of nature.

What another Puritan, Richard Baxter, summed up neatly in the phrase, ‘Ignorance is your disease, knowledge must be your cure,’ his Westminster colleagues expound more fully: ‘A most sovereign antidote against all kind of errors, is to be grounded and settled in the faith: persons unfixed in the true religion, are very receptive of a false; and they who are nothing in spiritual knowledge, are easily made anything. Clouds without water are driven to and fro with every wind, and ships without ballast liable to the violence of every tempest. But yet the knowledge we especially commend, is not a brain-knowledge, a mere speculation; this may be in the worst of men; but an inward, a savoury, an heart knowledge, such as was in that martyr, who, though she could not dispute for Christ, could die for him.’

Here was the excellence of Christian nurture: under the blessing of God it led to saving knowledge of Christ. The work is initiated in the mind, it carries the day over the will, and brings delight to the affections. The quotation highlights what has come to be called ‘Pre-evangelism’, which is merely a modern term for the more traditional phrase ‘Christian nurture’. Be that as it may, the neglect of it has had seriously detrimental effects on twentieth-century Christianity.

Responsibility for Christian nurture falls upon two important agencies: the family and the church. It is not difficult to trace the Biblical basis for this essential ministry, indeed Scripture abounds with references to the vital task of Christian nurture, an indication of the solemnity and magnitude with which it was regarded in Biblical times. Abraham’s blessing was assured because God had every confidence ‘that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.’ (Gen. 18:19). By way of contrast Eli was reprehensible for the neglect of this ordinance: ‘I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.’ (1 Sam. 3:13).

Religious nurture was recognised practice in the Jewish Church. The Passover was to be commemorated not only by festival, but also by instruction, Exodus 12:26-27, ‘when your children shall say unto you, what mean ye by this service ?. . . ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover.’ The grand body of the law, as well as its introduction, was to be rehearsed to the children, Deuteronomy 4:9, ‘keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons.’ Especially solemn was the recital (twice daily by pious Jews) of the ‘Shema’, Deuteronomy 6:4, solemnly concluding with the injunction, ‘These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.’ The practice found expression in the conviction of Proverbs 22:6, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’

Coming to New Testament times, two notable instances of religious upbringing are Paul, Acts 22:3 (‘I am verily a man which am a Jew. . . nurtured according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers’), and Timothy, who ‘from a child’ had known the holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15) which had brought him to the same ‘unfeigned faith. . . which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice’ (2 Tim. 1:5).

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