Philosophy, Education, and Certainty, by Robert L. Cooke

Philosophy, Education, and Certainty, by Robert L. Cooke, Ed. D., Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This book has already been much discussed also in Reformed circles, and has met with unstinted praise and recommendation. The reason for this is to be found in the subject, the aim the author kept before his mind in treating the subject, and the way he treats it. The author proposes to expose the failure of philosophy to supply us with a firm basis for the education of our children and youth, and defends the proposition that only the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ can give us the certainty philosophy has utterly failed to establish.

In a “Preface” the author writes: “This book is intended to serve a double purpose: first as a college text in the philosophy of education and for courses in the history of education, the seventeen chapters of approximately equal length lending themselves well to a semester course in either field; second, for informing the youthful reader, whether or not he is actively engaged in the practice of education, as to the significance of some present-day developments in the educational field. It should be of special value in liberal arts colleges and in other schools where a survey of the subject that is not committed solely to the glorification of human achievement is appreciated”.

The bulk of the book is devoted to “a comprehensive and sympathetic survey of the whole field of educational philosophy,” from the time of the Greek philosophers before Christ, through the early church fathers, Augustine, the Schoolmen, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the philosophers of the ‘”Enlightenment,” down to present-day currents in educational philosophy. It covers, therefore, a wide field and is very comprehensive.

He shows that philosophy’s quest for certainty has failed.

In a final chapter he offers the conclusion that the only way out for education is the application of the principles of Christianty to educational philosophy. I quote:

“Twice in the recounted history of educational philosophy, it will be remembered that something appeared that made a bold and arresting contrast to the tentative proposals and confusing doctrines of humanly conceived programs. That something was Christianity, with all that it promised both for education and for philosophy. Here we meet with ‘thus saith the Creator,’ not ‘thus reasons the creature;’ we are hearing now, not the man-made dogmas of an ecclesiastical body nor of the tenuous etherialism of an equally man-made religious idealism—not of the pious but utterly futile faith in the spread of good-will among men—but of that true and living philosophy offering assurance here and security hereafter, which is nowhere to be found but in the inspired pages of the Old and New Testament Scriptures. (Here, in spite of man’s long neglect and willful scorning, are the perfect answers given by Supreme Intelligence. Here we are pointed to the One who alone is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life!” p. 372.

What, according to the author’s conception, is that Christianity whose principles should be applied to educational problems? I quote:

“Let us see, then, what this Christianity may be that we would consider for the clarification of educational confusion. If it be not the Christianity of Scolasticism, or the Christian humanism of the somewhat later years; if it be not the modern version of that Christian humanism which present-day religious idealism seeks to promote, the school has the right, if only because of its past disappointments and long misguidance, urgently to demand a clear statement of what this Christian philosophy of education may be, this which claims to be the answer to all the world’s eager seeking. Let us, then, in the words of no ecclesiastical creed or dogma, but in the light of nothing other than the unequivocal statements of the infallible Scriptures themselves, seek to examine it.

“The facts stand out clearly: True Christianity when it was given to the world came not as a program of ethics or a system of worldly institutions, not as a religion of rigid rules or of mere definitions, certainly not as a collection of ‘cunningly devised fables’, and not even simply as a ‘way of life’ for us to live; but it came as a life and that the supremely unique life of the everlasting Son of God. This Good News, this Gospel, was not another worldly philosophy nor another gospel by man—for man has no gospel; it was the gospel of God Himself. Here, now, is not man feeling after God, but God stooping down to man. Here is not man seeking to make a better man but an offer to him of a divine induement of power, without which he is helpless; most certainly here is not a man undertaking to make for himself a god of his own fashioning, for not such is the God of the Bible. Here is not even the cooperation of God with man or of man with God, to the uplifting of an individual or race—the creature must be nothing; God must be all. The gospel, then, is solely and uniquely ‘the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth’ and only by sincere repentance and humble acceptance of the finished work of Christ, each individual for himself, is the miracle of the new life wrought in the experience of anyone on earth,” pp. 372, 373.

We are, of course, very much in agreement with the positive stand the author takes in favor of Christian education. Because of this positive Christian standpoint and because of the author’s uncompromising exposure of the vanity of philosophy and its failure to establish a basis of certainty, we recommend the book to those of our readers that are interested in the subject of education, and are able to read a book of this kind. It is hardly a book for the general reading public, of course.

It is refreshing to read a book of this caliber by and American author.

However, this does not imply that we agree with everything the author offers. On the contrary, we have a few points of rather serious criticism. First of all, we must differ with the author with respect to his evaluation of the historical development of dogma. In his historical survey he does not only treat the various philosophies that have been offered as a solution of the most fundamental problems, but also offers a partial history of dogma, an evaluation of the doctrines of faith which in the course of time the Church established on the basis of Holy Writ. The two, the survey of educational philosophy and of doctrinal development are intertwined. The Greek philosophers are placed on a par with the early church-fathers; the Reformation and the Renaissance are treated in one breath; Luther and Calvin are discussed in one line with the philosophers of the “Aufklarung”. This I consider a serious weakness in the work of Dr. Cooke. He forgets that, even though there may have been and admittedly was with the early church-fathers, Augustine, the Schoolmen and the Reformers a tendency to syncretism, the fact remains that there is a positive line of dogmatic development, that should be and easily can be distinguished from the false philosophy of the human mind. I do not know in how far Dr. Cooke is competent to pass a well-founded judgment on the dogmatic development of the past, but certain it is, that he should have considered this part of his survey not as a philosopher but as a theologian.

In the second place, and in close connection with the preceding, I must differ emphatically with Dr. Cooke in many instances of sweeping condemnation of the dogmatic results of the labor of the Church in the past. I will quote some passages that may illustrate the instances I have in mind.

In connection with some of the early church-fathers and their work (the Apologists) Dr. Cooke passes the following unconditional verdict of condemnation: “And so in the process of refuting Gnosticism and other doctrines antagonistic to Christianity, there was gradually formulated a body of dogmas that has itself been called a betrayal of Christianity but which the early church accepted as the authoritative guidance for faith and practice,” p. 81.

On p. 83 we find the following statement: “Indeed, we may safely characterize the attitude of all these early church fathers, in spite of their enthusiasm for the Scriptures, as strongly rationalistic. For ‘their great Platonic maxim that nothing is to be believed which is unworthy of God, makes reason the judge of revelation.’”

Mostly quoting from secondary sources the author gives us the following picture of Augustine: “‘In philosophy he had the merit of being the first to synthesize the best elements of pagan inquiries into a coherent system of Christian thought’. He was called ‘greater than Origin, in whom again the Christian and the ancient world meet in new and richer combination.’ The Catholic Encyclopedia says that as a student before his conversion to Christianity ‘neo-Platonic philosophy inspired him with genuine enthusiasm,’ and that after that event in 386 he was ready ‘to devote himself to the pursuit of true philosophy which, for him, was now inseparable from Christianity.’ From then on Augustine gradually became acquainted with Christian doctrine, and in his mind the fusion of Platonic philosophy with revealed dogmas was taking place,’ so that ‘the threads of Christian and neo-Platonic thought, the ideas of Origin and Plotinus, unite in his philosophy.’

“As to the importance to the world of Augustinianism, the evidence is overwhelming. ‘The whole life of the medieval Church was framed on lines which he has suggested. . . . it was in its various parts a carrying out of ideas which he cherished and diffused. Nor does his influence end with the decline of medievalism; we shall see presently how closely his language was akin to that of Descartes, who gave the first impulse to and defined the special character of modern philosophy.’ ‘He so moulded the Latin world that it is really he that has shaped the education of modern minds.’ Quoting Harnack, ‘Even today we live by Augustine, by his thought and spirit; it is said that we are sons of the Renaissance and the Reformation, but both one and the other depend upon him.”

The author reaches the following, rather amazing conclusion with respect to Augustine’s philosophy: “Therefore, ‘the great inheritance which Augustine left the world was along the philosophical line of intellego ut credam’ (of knowledge as the basis of faith instead of faith as the basis of knowledge). This dictum had an overwhelming influence on Scolasticism, as will be seen,” pp. 85-87.

The Reformers are pictured as “humanists,” and although “in theological matters the syncretizing tendencies of the Protestant leadership was rendered largely innocuous, it was sadly not so in matters other than religious,” p. 110. And, according to the author, there can be no doubt “that official Protestantism from its inception completely failed, in spite of the spiritual heights achieved, to do for the world of mind what it did for the world of spirit. Thus by that failure was (should be: were, H.H.) there poured into the headwaters of the stream of modern educational thought, the worldly intellectual poisons of paganism,” p. 114.

Summarizing the results of his survey in a later chapter, Dr. Cooke characterizes the attitude of the “ecclesiastical man” to the Gospel in the following words: “Then almost immediately mankind was offered a second and supremely perfect alternative in the light that shone from a lone Cross on a lonely hill. It has been recorded how ecclesiastical man in general responded to that opportunity, neither by open refusal nor yet by free acceptance, but in a subtler way that had vastly more potentialities for future confusion than even a complete turning away would bring. In effect he said, ‘I will gladly receive all that is acceptable to my intellect; that which does not satisfy, need not be rejected, but rather let it be modified to meet the criteria of my reason!” p. 351.

And in the same summary the Reformation is evaluated as follows: “In the midst of the glittering intellectual tinsel bordered by dark shadows of social wrong and philosophic blindness came the protestant Reformation. And we have seen how this latter movement, which once more, as at the start of Christendom, gave promise of putting before the minds of men the truth as revealed from a higher Source than this world, had its Opportunity destroyed just as effectively as had been true of the early Catholics and for the same reason, For here again, though in the schools alone this time, was man’s wisdom allowed to vitiate the Higher, by means of that humanism which had been the chief characteristic of the Renaissance and which was ultimately to prove just as disappointing in this new syncretism as it had previously been ineffectual when guided by intellect alone.”

In his Preface the author informs us that the use of secondary sources instead of the works themselves of the men discussed is done “in pursuance of a well- considered purpose.” Nevertheless, I believe that if the author had made a careful study of the early fathers, Augustine, and the Reformers, he would have been spared the error of the one-sided verdict he expresses upon them now. Besides, in my opinion, the secondary sources he employed are hardly reliable to serve as a sole basis for a historical survey,

Finally, and again in close connection with the preceding, the conclusion to which the author finally arrives can hardly be sufficient to serve as a new basis for educational philosophy. If I understand the author correctly, he wants to get away from ecclesiastical doctrine, and simply return to the pure gospel as revealed in the Scriptures. But, in the first place, it is quite impossible for anyone, and also wrong, to ignore the positive guidance of the Holy Spirit in the past. And even in application to educational philosophy the principles of the truth as found in the Word of God will have to be definitely stated. And, secondly, the attempt to ignore the doctrine of the Church in the past will ultimately mean only that the author will apply his own view of the Gospel to education. And just how this is to be done the author fails to point out. It seems to me that the historical and negative part of the book is rather in disproportion to the positive and constructive part.

Then, too, I believe that the attempt to Christianize public instruction is hopeless.

After all, the only proper solution is the free Christian School.

Nevertheless, the book is valuable, refreshing because of its Christian standpoint, worthy to be studied by all that are interested in Christian education.