Why Biblical Foundations for Education Still Matter, Part 4

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

3. Elihu’s Is/Ought Model

The final of the three Biblical models for our consideration here is what I call Elihu’s Is/Ought Model. David Hume once critiqued divine command moral systems on grounds that they didn’t earn the right to move from is (descriptions of reality) to ought (prescriptions for what we should do about reality). Hume’s critique is not entirely unfair, and quite a few moral systems crack under the weight of the Humean accusation.

However, Elihu models a different approach, and one that transparently asserts an earned prescription for human ethics and understanding. We discover the wisdom of Elihu in Job 32-37, just before God’s case-closing response to Job. It is worth noting that Elihu’s and God’s arguments are so similar as to be indiscernible, if we weren’t told who was presenting the arguments in each case. As it turns out, there is further evidence for Elihu’s positive influence, even beyond his agreement with God’s own assertions. The only main character not rebuked in the book of Job is Elihu. Each of Job’s other friends stand guilty before God (though He would forgive them), and even Job himself is rebuked, though also ultimately forgiven. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were guilty of speaking wrongly of Job. Job was guilty of ignorance, but not for long, and Elihu helped with that.

In Job 32, Elihu addresses the seriousness of the situation, and his desire that one of the older and supposedly wiser friends of Job might accurately appraise the situation. But since none of them did, Elihu must speak up. In 33, Elihu explains how Job is speaking ignorantly, making himself out to be owed something by God, and why God allows tragedies to happen at times—sometimes so that people will return to Him, pray, and be filled with joy,47 and sometimes to bring back a person from the precipice of danger.48

In 34, Elihu asserts the impeccable justice of God, and in 35, that the righteousness of God far exceeds that of humanity, and thus Job in his accusations that God owes him blessing is mistaken and speaking ignorantly. In 36 Elihu proclaims God’s power and asserts that He is a teacher like no other.49 Because of His character, and His sovereignty over His creation (the is), humanity ought to keep from evil,50and ought to exalt His work.51

Finally, in 37 Elihu illustrates God’s sovereignty over His creation and indicates three further reasons for His unfathomable activities. “Whether for correction, for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen.”52 Because He works in such incredible ways and for His own purposes (the is), people ought to fear Him.53 As we have seen elsewhere, that appropriate fear of the Lord guides us into wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, and introduces us to the associated benefits in life.

Elihu grounds the prescriptive ought in the description of reality that cannot be gleaned from our own thinking or experience. He represents God as He is, based not merely on experiential interactions, but based on how God has revealed Himself. Elihu helps us to see how we move from descriptions of reality to a proper understanding of how we should respond, and he leads us right back to where Solomon started the discussion: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Implications and Conclusion

As educators we are faced with unique challenges today, and the culture around us prescribes solutions that have some value here and there, but they don’t possess the empowerment to bring about essential and permanent life change. Solomon’s Worldview Model helps us to understand that real education must start with an understanding of who God is and what He expects from His creatures. Solomon’s approach reminds us that education of any worth must start with God’s word.

Paul’s Model for Transformative Learning helps us to understand what a person really is and how a person grows. If we begin with a materialistic or naturalistic theory of personhood, then we have no way of benefitting the learners with whom we are entrusted, except through the occasional accidental alignment with God’s pedagogical design. We work from the bases of humanistic worldviews, occasionally stumble on a profound truth of God that we borrow, and think we have come up with something grand. Like Mark Twain said, “Name the greatest of all inventors: Accidents.” These accidents ought to be our clues that His worldview is the right one, and only when we are aligned with it are we doing what we are designed to do. Likewise, only when we are teaching from His foundation is our teaching worthwhile.

Elihu’s Is/Ought Model encourages us to ground prescriptions in truth. How can we tell the next generation what they ought to do or ought to be if we cannot tell them with accuracy why those prescriptions are worthy? How can we tell them how to have peace and well-being if we can’t even tell them what they are, or who they are designed to be, and by Whom? Men and women, we have in God’s word plenty of material to undergird our educational objectives, methods, and content. In our educating, let us not treat the Bible simply as a classic. A wise man once said that a classic is simply a book which people praise but don’t read. This book is no mere classic, it is the foundation for everything we must pass on to the next generation, and if we fail to recognize that, we fail to be the educators God has designed us to be.

We may be sincere enough in our desire, but if we are not consistent in applying the Biblical foundation to our own lives and growth, then we will be rendered incapable of impacting our students as we might hope. They will see through our inconsistency, and will esteem His word as lowly as we are modeling for them to do. We will be no better than Mark Twain’s Sunday-school superintendent in Tom Sawyer. Note especially the final phrase of the description of this character.

In due course the superintendent stood up in front of the pulpit, with a closed hymn-book in his hand and his forefinger inserted between its leaves, and commanded attention. When a Sunday-school superintendent makes his customary little speech, a hymn-book in the hand is as necessary as is the inevitable sheet of music in the hand of a singer who stands forward on the platform and sings a solo at a concert—though why is a mystery: for neither the sheet of music nor the hymn-book is ever referred to by the sufferer.

This superintendent was a slim creature of thirty-five, with a sandy goatee and short sandy hair; he wore a stiff standing-collar whose upper edge almost reached his ears and whose sharp points curved forward abreast the corners of his mouth—a fence that compelled a straight lookout ahead, and a turning of the whole body when a side view was required; his chin was propped on a spreading cravat which was as broad and as long as a bank note, and had fringed ends; his boot toes were turned sharply up, in the fashion of the day, like sleighrunners, and effect patiently and laboriously produced by the young men by sitting with their toes pressed against a wall for hours together. Mr. Walters was very earnest of mien, and very sincere and honest at heart, and he held sacred things and places in such reverence, and so separated them from worldly matters, that unconsciously to himself his Sunday-school voice had acquired a particular intonation which was wholly absent on weekdays.54

As an educator is your voice different on Sundays than the rest of the week? Or does your voice provide a consistency, that is rooted in Scripture, and that is able to guide young learners to understand the foundation for their lives that will enable them to build a house that will stand the challenges of these trying days? There are greater things yet to come, for certain, and make no mistake, those greater things will be built on that same foundation that Scripture has pointed us to from the very beginning.


47 Job 33:26.

48 33:30.

49 36:22.

50 36:21.

51 36:24.

52 37:13.

53 37:24.

54 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, electronic version (Atlantico Press, 2013), viewed at https://books.google.com/books?id=ZcBdAAAAQBAJ&pg.

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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Aaron Blumer's picture


Enjoyed this paper. For me, it's been refreshing, for multiple reasons. Philosophy of education was a huge focus of my life for several years during undergrad and less and less thereafter. A deep and intense -- but brief -- visit during seminary. So it's like a visit with old friends long missed. What's great about Philos. of Ed, for Christians, is that it stands between theology and "all other subjects" and forces you to crunch through how you view truth as a whole, while denying you the luxury of being disconnected from real world questions... because it's chained to the tangible and every-day work of educating people.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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