11 August 2006

covenant education and nurture

As a follow-up to some of the comments on the previous post, I thought it might be worth pointing out how Presbyterians used to think about the nurture of covenant children, drawing upon what's actually a fairly late example, representing Old School piety.

The view being expressed is that by baptism, covenant children are part of the church visible, recipients of God's promises in Christ, and thus should be raised up in the faith accordingly, in hopeful assurance of God's grace toward them. It is through this covenant nurture that we should expect God's promises to come to fruition as the children steadily grow up into a trusting aknowledgement and love of Jesus Christ as their savior.

The following quotation is from Joshua H. McIlvaine, “Covenant Education,” from The Princeton Review (April 1861) 248-249. I've added several paragraph breaks for easier reading. I also wish to note that, by providing this quotation, I don't wish to cause offense to any of our Baptist brothers and sisters, but rather to indicate the way in which Presbyterians have traditionally distinguished their piety from that of wider patterns of evangelicalism. Nevertheless, 19th century rhetoric was sometimes a bit overblown.

McIlvaine began by explaining Reformed traditions of education of covenant children and the thorough-going character of such education in the spiritual formation of children through the church, the home, and the parish school. He continues by noting how the sectarian character of the American church, with its proliferation of denominations and with the rise of religiously "neutral" public schooling, has had the effect of disrupting older patterns of parish education. He attributes the difficulty of covenant nurture in America partly to such influences.

From there he continues, however, to cite what he sees as some further detrimental influences upon the shape of Reformed and Presbyterian piety when it comes to the education of our baptized youth:

But there is one particular sectarian influence in the same direction which ought not to pass unnoticed here—the rise and rapid growth among us of the Baptist denomination, with their peculiar view of the relation of children to the Christian church. A similar conception also was deeply embedded, as its subsequent historical development has proved, in the principles of the Puritans, when they emigrated to this continent; and the great influence of New England has done much to extend it throughout the country.

But strictly taken, it is a Baptist idea, and its consequences are most legitimately chargeable upon that denomination of Christians. For our Baptist brethren, strenuously denying the church membership of infants, that is to say, denying the covenant of Abraham as the true and final basis of Christianity, could not fail to lose the significance of the divine prescribed means, or instrumental agency, through which the blessing of that covenant must be realized. In their view, religious education and discipline could not remain a Divine ordinance, to which the promise of regeneration and salvation for their children was sealed by covenant engagements resting upon the faith of God. Whatever the education of children might be, they must still be regarded and treated, not as Christians, but as “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise,” until they should come to years of moral accountability, should, on the evidence of regeneration, be introduced into the church by baptism.

The influence upon education of this sorrowful denial of the covenanted rights and privileges of children, has been, and still is, very great. For it has penetrated deeply into the ideas of almost all other branches of the church, until it may be said to predominate over their own original views. Even Presbyterians, in no inconsiderable numbers, have fallen away from the principles of our Confession of Faith, with respect to the children of the church, which are drawn purely out of the Abrahamic covenant; and are powerfully influenced, often without being aware of it, by Baptist ideas and tendencies.

Hence, instead of regarding and treating their children as presumably of the elect, instead of reckoning with covenant assurance upon the regenerating grace of God for them, and aiming thereupon to train them up in the way they should go to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, they assume—a fearful responsibility!—that they are not in the church, not “in the way,” not “in the nurture.” How widely this view prevails among us, can be measured by the general currency of the expression, “to join the church,” as applied to baptized children, when they come to their first communion.

Thus it is that religious education and discipline, the Divine ordinance, to which the promise of regeneration and salvation for the children of believers is sealed by covenant engagements, resting upon the faith of God, and the great means prescribed by God for the realization of the covenant blessing, has been extensively supplanted by spasmodic efforts, in revivals and otherwise, to bring a sudden marked and sensible change of religious experience.

To obviate misunderstanding, it can hardly be necessary for us to state that we do not hold to the possibility of salvation for the children of believers, any more than for others, without that instantaneous change wrought in them by the Holy Spirit, which is commonly called regeneration; nor have we any sympathy with that view which ties this grace to the moment of time when baptism is administered. But we hold that this gift of grace is to be assumed as a covenant grant, by the faith of the parents.

To us it seems plain that the Pharisees never shut up the kingdom of heaven against their disciples more effectually, than we do against our children, whilst we harp upon the one string, that they cannot love their Saviour until they are regenerated and born again—images of spiritual things which it is impossible to explain to children—instead of teaching them to count upon God’s covenanted work on their behalf, whilst we seek to win their hearts to Jesus by opening their minds with what manner of love he has first loved them. It does not lie within the scope of these remarks to exhibit the evils of the departure from the principles of our faith; otherwise it would be easy to show that it has borne the apples of Sodom and the clusters of Gomorrah in the American churches.