Teaching Children

~ Adapted from email correspondence ~

There are two popular false assumptions when it comes to teaching children about the Christian faith. The first is that they are not interested, and the second is that they do not understand. They think that children are shallow and stupid.

Of course many children are not interested in the things of God — even adult reprobates are uninterested in them. But there are elect children, and they are very interested. Then, adults are out of touch with reality if they think that children cannot understand concepts like God, sin, man, redemption, atonement, marriage, divorce, sex, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, war, death, heaven, hell, and so on. Children can have some understanding of all of these by the time they are 3 or 4. If Christians assume that they are too young to understand, then the children will probably get their information from non-Christians.

All the children books that I have come across (of course, I have not read them all, and I hope there are many exceptions) either assert or assume the above two errors. And so they often either use teaching methods like stories and games, or they are very diluted. If they manage to avoid too much frivolity and dilution, they nevertheless tell the children that they should not understand what is being discussed.

One example of this is Bruce Ware’s Big Truths for Young Hearts (Crossway, 2009), a recent bestseller. The book is a systematic theology for young people that is neither frivolous nor diluted. However, the reader is repeatedly told that the topics discussed are hard to understand, although this is often preceded or followed by a clear exposition of Ware’s position. That is, even when the matter is obviously easy to understand and to explain, Ware insists that we are not supposed to find it straightforward.

On page 31, when Ware begins a discussion on God’s eternity and independence, he says, “This is a very difficult idea for us to understand, since we do not know of anything like this — and that’s because there is nothing in all of creation that is like God.” First, even when I was a child, I found the idea very easy to understand, and I think that I am not alone in this. Second, Ware’s reason for why it should be difficult is ridiculous. If God’s nature is difficult to understand because he is unique, then the first time a person encounters any object at all, he should find it equally as difficult to understand as God’s nature. Now, if learning does not come by experience, and it is my view that it does not, then every object will forever remain just as difficult to understand as God’s nature — that is, unless uniqueness is irrelevant to whether something is difficult to understand. Or, if Ware thinks that the more we encounter certain objects, or the more similar objects there are for us to encounter, then the easier it is to understand these objects, then this should also mean that the more we encounter God or information about God, or the more we think about him, the easier it becomes for us to understand him. Either way, his reason for why God is difficult to understand is arbitrary and false.

On page 35, he says, “God is all-good. Even though we are very glad that God is completely good, this is another truth about God that is sometimes hard to believe. After all, we do not know anyone who is completely and perfectly good.” First, it is not up to Ware to tell children whether it is easy to believe that God is all-good. Perhaps some children have superior faith than Ware. How dare he trample that potential? Second, if a person finds it hard to believe that God is all-good, then it is his own fault. If Scripture reveals a God that is all-good, and a person finds that hard to believe, then it is because of that person’s sinful unbelief. But Ware blames it on the situation; in fact, he even blames it on the uniqueness of God. This does not help in developing reverence in children. For all we know, children may find it very easy to believe that God is all-good, but Ware introduces his own doubts into their minds.

On page 51, he says, “When we begin to talk directly about the Holy Spirit, we face another area that is difficult to see. For on the one hand, the Bible teaches that ‘God is Spirit…’ But on the other hand, the Bible also teaches that the third Person in the Trinity is ‘the Spirit.'” I am not sure what kind of children Ware is accustomed to dealing with, but many young people are well able to handle it when one word is used in two different ways, or even five or six different ways. It is not “difficult to see,” but if we repeatedly tell them that it is difficult, eventually they might accommodate us, and we will finally have the satisfaction that we are all stupid.

On page 61, when he discusses creation, he writes, “And Hebrews tells us that we must accept this truth ‘by faith.’ Why is that? Simply because we cannot understand how someone could just speak and bring something into being without using any materials to do it.” So he wants us to tell our children that faith and understanding are mutually exclusive. You accept something by faith because you do not understand it. If you understand it, it probably means that no faith is involved. Do not dismiss my criticism as mere nitpicking — our ability to understand God and his revelation is a foundational issue in all biblical studies. And do not assume that children will not catch on or adopt this nonsense by osmosis. They can learn by explicit statements and also inferences from them, even unconscious ones. And these accumulate to form a general way of thinking by which they process all information. In any case, this is not what the Bible means by faith, but it is the non-Christian caricature of faith.

On page 72, he writes, “To say that God rules over all things, both the good and the bad, is to say that he is completely sovereign over them. This teaching of the sovereignty of God is one of the hardest areas for all of us to understand.” But unless Scripture asserts that this is difficult to understand, what gives him to right to speak for “all of us”? What gives him the right to tell my child that something is “hardest” for him to understand, when the Scripture does not say so? As it is, Ware is setting up children to stumble over the problem of evil. But I say that divine sovereignty is one of the easiest doctrines to understand. It is clear, absolute, straightforward, and amply explained and illustrated in Scripture. Doubtless some people have difficulties, but they can be helped if they will listen, because the doctrine is one of the easiest to explain and to grasp.

On page 76, he writes, “God is sovereign (he’s in control), and we are responsible (we are accountable for the actions we do). The Bible helps us see that these two things must be kept together. Although we cannot understand this fully…” He does not state exactly what it is that we do not understand about this. Is he suggesting that the two appear to contradict, although they do not? Is he suggesting that responsibility presupposes freedom? Are children born with this baseless assumption, or is Ware’s statement an illustration of how they learned it? But I say, “God is sovereign, and in his sovereignty, he has declared us responsible. Therefore God is sovereign and we are responsible, and we are responsible because he is sovereign. Don’t let anyone tell you there is even a hint of paradox or contradiction in this.” Done. It takes a theologian to mess this up, but children can understand it just fine.

On page 127, he writes, “Why God loves us is completely beyond our ability to understand. We have turned away from him, mocked him, resisted him, scorned him, and in a million other ways have slighted God.” So children are supposed to understand the ideas of turning away, mocking, resisting, scorning, and a million other ways of slighting God, and also, as implied, the idea of judgment, but they are not supposed to understand forgiveness or love in the face of sin? Is this suggestion even within the scope of acceptable Christian teaching? I think we should consider it heresy.

Then, on page 140, he writes, “Then we hear Jesus of Nazareth proclaim words almost too good to believe.” It is best to avoid using imprecise expressions and cliches when teaching doctrine, lest the child says, “Too good to believe? OK, then I won’t believe it.” Anyway, what is it that Ware thinks is “almost too good to believe”? It is when Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” So…it is too good to believe that God is faithful to his own promises? Instead, teach the children, “Then we hear Jesus of Nazareth say what stubborn unbelievers refuse to accept, but exactly what we should expect, something that is very good and easy to believe.”

I have not mentioned all the doctrinal problems in the book, since our focus is on the assumption that children cannot understand. Consider the possibility that the reason some of them seem unable to understand is because we tell them that they are not supposed to. As it is, Ware’s book inflicts tremendous damage upon young minds. Yet it is already one of the better ones. Therefore, I cannot recommend any children’s books. Instead, I would gather the best teaching materials I can find — preferably not intended for children — and adapt them myself. This does not have to take a lot of effort, and much of this can be done “on the fly.” Or, if one decides to use Ware’s book, he should teach his child to challenge the assumption: “Mr. Ware wants to tell you that this is hard to understand. But do you understand it? So Mr. Ware is wrong? Why do you think he keeps telling you that something is hard to understand when it seems so clear and simple to you? What is wrong with him?” Teach children to detect the assumption. They do not have to accept it.

1 Corinthians 2:9-10 says that, although no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him, he has revealed it to us by his Spirit. In Romans 11, Paul exclaims that God’s judgments are unsearchable and his paths beyond tracing out, but he says this after he has conclusively answered all the questions that he raised in the previous chapters, including matters concerning divine sovereignty, man’s responsibility, election, and reprobation. Thus it is in fact one of the strongest passages showing that we can understand all these allegedly difficult doctrines. His point is that there is always more to know about God, and not that we cannot know what he has just explained.

Many Christians have the idea that piety entails a stubborn and indiscriminate insistence on human finitude, and this is vigorously applied in defiance of Scripture, reason, and examples to the contrary. It seems that to emphasize our smallness is to magnify God’s greatness. But this kind of piety is false and lazy. It is even used as an excuse to reject the plain teachings of Scripture. Those who insist that God’s revelation is clear and consistent are condemned as heretics, as rationalists, and as those who deny their doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. Their tradition has been challenged, and they are made to look foolish. True piety entails faith, understanding, and obedience. Do not teach your children a counterfeit. Tell them, “You are made in the image of God. You are made to understand him. You can understand all that God tells you in the Bible. And you are to believe and obey all that he says. There is no excuse.”