Why Biblical Foundations for Education Still Matter, Part 3

Continues 3 Biblical Models for Grounding Education. Read the series so far.

2. Paul’s Model for Transformative Learning

Paul recognizes that in order for us to understand how best to educate people, we must understand what a person actually is. These days he has competition, however, as five major contemporary theories of learning all make significant assumptions about what a person is and how they are best educated.

Behaviorism focuses on the learners’ response to stimuli, and postulates that if you can control the environment through operant conditioning, then you can create change in the behavior of the learner. B.F. Skinner was convinced that the person was essentially an active organism that was conditioned to behavior. Cognitivism focuses on “the representations and processes needed to give rise to activities ranging from pattern recognition, attention, categorization, memory, reasoning, decision making, problem solving, and language.”22 Humanity is essentially a computing device, processing and acting based on schemas. As the educator assesses where the student is in Piaget’s four stages of development (sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, or formal operational),23 the educator determines what information and tasks are age-appropriate for the computer to handle next.

Constructivism is an empirical, Humean expansion of cognitivism that perceives that learners construct rather than acquire knowledge, not only through acquired schemas, but also through developed ones. Experientialism advances on constructivism, with Kolb’s version of learning as, “the process whereby knowledge is created by the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming the experience.”24 Finally Social and Contextual learning understands learning as occurring “only when students process new information or knowledge in such a way that it makes sense to them in their own…inner worlds of memory, experience, and response.”25

Each of these five models emphasize either a mechanist, naturalistic human nature or an egocentric learning model where knowledge is formed by the individual. Perhaps these models can be summed up in Mark Twain’s remark that, “I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts.” If we hold to a Biblical worldview, then we recognize some elements of truth in each of these models, but also must recognize that each misses the mark of factually and accurately recognizing what people are and how they learn.

Paul’s approach to education is different, because his presuppositions about humanity are different. He identifies four different kinds of people, (1) the natural person, who is opposed to spiritual things, because they are foolishness to that person, (2) the infant, who is new to the spiritual things, (3) the fleshly person, who is behaving like an infant but doesn’t have the built in excuse that an infant has, and (4) the spiritual person, who is allowing the decision making process to be governed by God’s word, and thus by the Spirit of God.26

The natural person needs new birth, to become a new creation for whom old things have passed away.27 The learning needs to be focused on the identity and work of Jesus Christ, as expressed in the gospel Paul proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures.” This is an education that is neither merely cognitive nor experiential. This knowledge must be personally applied in the act of faith – of personal belief or trust in Jesus Christ. Paul describes this as being saved by grace through faith.28 John affirms that the outcome is indeed transformative: “the believing one in Him has eternal life.”29 Paul admires the beauty of the new creation, noting that, “we are His workmanship – poema – His masterpieces, created in Christ Jesus for good works which He prepared beforehand that we would walk in them.”30 The natural person has one primary responsibility before God, and that is to become an infant in Christ.

The responsibility of the infant is simply to grow. Peter challenges believers to long for the pure milk of the word as newborn babes.31 Infants need milk to grow, and as they are growing from the milk, they are to move past the elementary principles32 and press forward to maturity. There is a caution for those who aren’t growing as they should. If they aren’t accustomed to the word, then they will remain in infancy,33 and while they should grow to be teachers, they are so immature that they are simply walking in the flesh – they may as well still be infants.34 Paul illustrates the challenge in Romans 7, describing the internal battle that happens with every believer as the flesh and the mind seek different outcomes.35

How then is a person victorious over the flesh? The solution is found in being spiritual rather than fleshly. Paul explains that being spiritual is being filled or controlled by the Spirit,36 is being transformed by the renewing of the mind,37 and is walking by the Spirit or allowing the Spirit to control our walk.38 Paul’s model for transformative learning is the model for sanctification – it is how we as believers grow more to be like Christ.

Paul’s priority is particularly important for education. He isn’t prescribing a behavioristic model – behavior isn’t the focus, but rather allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work. Good behavior is certainly a positive outcome, but it is not the central objective. Paul isn’t prescribing a cognitivist approach. The mind isn’t sufficient to resolve the problem. Only Christ can set us free from this battle.39 Paul isn’t looking toward a constructivist approach. We aren’t capable of constructing our reality, or even an accurate understanding of it. We need the God-breathed word of God that is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, and that makes us adequate for every good work.40 Paul isn’t advocating an experiential model, as his prescription is rooted in God’s revealed word. Learning is based in diligent study and rightly handling the word.41 Finally, Paul is not offering learners a social contextual methodology, as we aren’t supposed to be conformed to the context in which we find ourselves,42 but rather we are to shape our context and social interactions by purposeful engagement43 and service44 that is rooted in truth and love.45

Paul’s model for transformative learning demands a spiritual acknowledgment, that God has created us, that were are born again to a new life in which we are bought with a price, thus our lives are not our own, but they are His, and it is our job to allow Him to accomplish His purpose in us, to fulfill that purpose for which we were designed.46 In short, Paul’s model for education is less about ourselves and the educators than it is about God and His truth which undergirds real and lasting growth and change.


22 E.E. Smith, Cognitive Psychology: History, in International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, (Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science, Ltd., 2001), 2141.

23 See Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1969).

24 D.A. Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983), 41.

25 “What is Contextual Learning?”, Center for Occupational Research and Development website, 2016, viewed at http://cordonline.net/CTLtoolkit/downloads/What%20Is%20Contextual%20Learning.pdf.

26 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3.

27 2 Corinthians 5:17.

28 Ephesians 2:8-9.

29 John 6:47.

30 Ephesians 2:10.

31 1 Peter 2:2.

32 Hebrews 6:1.

33 Hebrews 5:12-13.

34 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.

35 Romans 7:21-25.

36 Ephesians 5:18.

37 Romans 12:1-2.

38 Galatians 5:16-25.

39 Romans 7:25.

40 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

41 2 Timothy 2:15.

42 Romans 12:1-2.

43 Hebrews 10:25.

44 1 Peter 4:10-11.

45 Ephesians 4:15.

46 Romans 8:28-31.

Christopher Cone 2016

Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.

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