Cognitive Confrontation

Written by Douglas Wilson

One of the fundamental aspects of faithful living under God is to remember that in this fallen world there is such a thing as unfaithful living. When our first parents sinned in the Garden, one of the first things that God taught them after the Fall was the reality of the antithesis between right and wrong, good and evil, the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). God promised them that the antipathy between the two sides could not be erased. This is why the prophet Isaiah pronounces a woe on those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute light for darkness and darkness for light (Isa. 5:20). It is not possible to reconcile the biblical worldview with any form of ethical or doctrinal relativism.

But remembering the antithesis between those who love God and those who do not love Him does not require constant, unremitting confrontation. The spiritual war we are in can sometimes be characterized as a “cold war,” as it is in our current cultural clashes in the United States. There are other places in the world where this is not the case and where persecution of our brothers and sisters in Christ is, in every sense of the word, a hot war. But it would be a mistake to insist that keeping the antithesis requires constant conflict. For example, Scripture teaches us this: “When a man’s ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov. 16:7). We maintain the antithesis, but we do not confuse it with being constantly quarrelsome. In order to be faithful, a man does not have to be in arguments from 8 to 5 every day. But of course, on the other hand, if he goes through the course of his entire life without ever having to give an account of his allegiance to Christ, then we probably have the opposite problem.

In his recent book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, David Wells put it succinctly and well when he said this” “When rival worldviews are in play, it is not adaptation that is called for but confrontation: confrontation not of a behavioral kind which is lacking in love but of a cognitive kind which holds forth ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15).” Cognitive confrontation is precisely what is called for as we bring up our children to think in terms of a biblical worldview. What should we therefore do? How does this apply to those who are involved in trying to recover a vision for classical, Christian education? As we consider this, we should come to realize that teaching cognitive confrontation is something that a classical Christian education is ideally suited to do.

First, remember the antithesis when it comes to the material being studied. Using a “great books” curriculum does not mean that it’s all “great,” meaning that we can turn our kids lose among the ancient pagans and not worry about it. That is not the point of classical Christian education at all. The point is to study and learn the significant literature of the West, some of it to be opposed, some adapted, and some simply appreciated and internalized. We have set ourselves to the task of teaching our children how to think like Christians, and this certainly includes instructing them on how to think like Christians as they study the material in the curriculum.

Second, Christian educators (whether in classes or homeschools) must remember the antithesis when it comes to educational curricular “packages.” If the task of education includes teaching your children how to identify and reject all that is inconsistent with allegiance to Christ, then one of the questions that is reasonable to ask all educational providers is this: “how do you teach the antithesis?” How do you bring the students to their cognitive confrontation with the world? There are classical curricula out there that are overtly secular, some that are broadly Judeo/Christian, some are evangelical Christian Lite, and some are robust advocates of a full-orbed Christian world and life view. We are responsible to remember the antithesis while in the process of researching the help available to us for teaching this importance truth to our children.

Third, we must remember the antithesis when it comes to the human heart, and we must not exempt our own. All education is conducted by fallen human beings, and some of them are fallen and redeemed human beings. Every student, every teacher, every curriculum provider, every administrator, every Internet tutor is loving God or not. They are either in covenant with God or not, and, if they are, they are either keeping covenant or breaking it. We remember the antithesis in this way by faith and not by works. In other words, there is no amount of effort you can expend, no number of textbooks to buy, no amount of educational services to procure, that will be any substitute for simply trusting God. When we are saved by grace, we do subsequently work (Eph. 2:10). But we do not work our way into a right standing with God. Rather, we are given that right standing (Eph. 2:8–9), and our children are included in that gift. We receive the gift by faith. The fundamental antithesis is not between working and not working, but rather between faith and unbelief.

If we remember these things we will be in a position to bestow wisdom on our children. Without them, we will be trying to instruct our children without the benefit of discriminating wisdom. But in a world in which right and wrong exist, and where right leads to great blessings, and wrong leads to one disaster after another, the gift of discriminating wisdom is most necessary. To educate your children in a classical Christian way is to bring them up to discernment. And discernment is for the mature (Heb. 5:14).