THE CONCEPT OF GOD AMONG CHILDREN.
A PIAGETIAN PERSPECTIVE
By Dr. Jean-Michel MARTIN
I. INTRODUCTION TO THE
PROBLEM AND IT'S DELIMITATIONS.
In our survey, which concerns children from 4 to 15 years of age, we have tried to
understand how they perceive God through their religious education in the context of the
adventist family, school and church. This study is designed to discover how our children
integrate their concept of God in their general religious worldview and in their vision of
life. This determines their values, helping them to interpret the world around them,
stipulating to them how the world ought to be and advising them how to conduct themselves
in the world. We are aware that their image of God is not the only component of their
religious experience, but it is a constituent part of it.
We conducted our research about the genesis of the idea of God in the lifespan between
early childhood and adolescence, and to clarify our conceptual and methodological
framework, we took the Piagetian Stages from the Theory of Cognitive and Moral
development, which envisions the successive developmental periods of intelligence, each
characterized by a relatively stable general structure that incorporate developmentally
earlier structures in a higher synthesis. The age range designated for each of Piaget's
six stages in cognitive development is meant to be only approximate: individual infants
might therefore pass trough any of the stages more rapidly or more slowly than these crude
age norms would suggest. The sequence of stages, however, is believed to be absolutely
constant or invariant for children the world over. We did not deal with the first stage,
sensori-motor (0-2 years), because it is too early to get significant answers, but we
payed attention to the other stages which are mentioned in our survey according to the
representation of God by our children.
The main purpose of our study is to ascertain the existence of a great variety of aspects
in the religious life of our children, and we emphasize some differences occurring in the
perception of God for the children during their chronological development (genetical and
dynamic perspective) and also some basic differences along their gender development
(comparative and differential perspective between girls and boys).
Concerning our method, a questionnaire containing three questions was given to children in
Adventists schools and churches of the french-speaking area in Europe between 1982 and
1993: in France, the schools of Collonges-sous-Salève (Haute-Savoie) and of Valence
(Drôme), including various churches (Paris, Marseille, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Lyon,
Annemasse, Saint-Claude, Thonon-les-Bains, Saint-Julien en Genevois); in Switzerland,
various churches like Geneva, Gland, Lausanne and Renens.
Three hundred and nine children answered our questions in a
1) Who is God? (His person);
2) What does God do? (His action);
3) Where is God? (His localization).
We rejected eighteen answers, because they were directly or indirectly influenced by
another child or an adult, or because they did not mention the age or the gender of the
person. We conducted approximately about twenty personal or collective oral interviews, in
order to have an objective control of the answers, and we noticed no significant
difference. We have the following overview of the data (291 answers kept), regrouped
according to the piagetian stages and differentiating between girls (g) and boys (b):
1) the Pre-operational Stage (2-7 years): We received 42
answers, in the following categories:
- for the girls the total (t) is 19 answers, distributed as follows: 3 answers from 4
years, 2 from 5 years and 2 from 5 and ½ years; 5 from 6 years; 6 from 7 years and 1 from
7 and ½ years;
-for the boys, t = 23 answers: 1 from 3 and ½ years; 1 from 4 years; 3 from 5 years; 3
from 6 years; 13 from 7 years and 2 from 7 and ½ years.
2) the Concrete Operations Stage (7-11 years): We had 177
- for the girls, t = 90: 14 from 8 years and 2 from 8 and ½ years; 14 from 9 years and 4
from 9 and ½ years; 25 from 10 years and 2 from 10 and ½ years; 25 from 11 years and 4
from 11 and ½ years;
- for the boys, t = 87: 13 from 8 years and 1 from 8 and ½ years; 24 from 9 years and 5
from 9 and ½ years; 20 from 10 years and 2 from 10 and ½ years, 15 from 11 years and 7
from 11 and ½ years.
3) the Formal Operations Stage (11-15 years): We received 72
- for the girls, t = 42: 17 from 12 years and 1 from 12 and ½ years; 15 from 13 years and
2 from 13 and ½ years; 4 from 14 years; 2 from 15 years and 1 from 15 and ½ years;
- for the boys, t= 30: 9 from 12 years and 2 from 12 and ½ years; 9 from 13 years and 1
from 13 and ½ years; 4 from 14 years; 2 from 15 years and 3 from 15 and ½ years.
We will now expand our statistical report with a more pertinent presentation of our
children's comprehension of God, parallel to the stages of cognitive and moral development
as they occur in children: pre-operational stage(2-7 years), concrete operations (7-11
years), and formal operations (11-15 years).
This study is directed towards the cognitive and affective aspect of God's perception and
representation, under the general framework of equilibration: the process of regulating
assimilation and accommodation in order to maintain a state of internal balance or
equilibrium. Assimilation is the process of taking from the environment all forms of
stimulation and information, which are then digested and reintegrated in the organism's
existing forms and structures; Accommodation is the process of reaching out and adjusting
to conditions in the environment, so that preexisting patterns of behavior are modified to
cope with new information or situations.
II. THE CONCEPT OF GOD AMONG CHILDREN BETWEEN TWO AND SEVEN.
The pre-operational stage (2-7 years) is divided into two phases: 1) the preconceptual
phase (2-4 years), and 2) the intuitive phase (4-7 years). In the preconceptual phase the
child may recognize a triangle, a square and a trapezoid, but to put them all together
under the concept "geometric forms" is beyond the capacity of preconceptual
thought. The child achieves the capacity to form mental symbols which stand for or
represent absent things, events or persons, and these mental symbols are the
representational intelligence. Imitations become less overt and are increasingly
The intuitive phase is also perceptual because the child is feeling his way toward logical
thinking while being constantly deceived by the perceptual appearance of things. There is
not yet the notion of conservation or the ability to realize that certain attributes of an
object are constant, even if it changes in appearance.
A characteristic of the preoperational child is his egocentrism: the world is as he sees
it, and he is unable to put himself in another's position. Another characteristic of
egocentric thought is known as animism: the child believes that the world of nature is
alive, conscious, and endowed with purpose, like himself: "When it rains, God is
crying because I was unkind". Artificialism, the tendency to believe that human
beings create natural phenomena, is also a specific characteristic of that age: daddy is
responsible for the clouds in the sky because he smokes his pipe. The last characteristic
of the stage is phenominalism, the belief that there is a causal relationship between two
things or events because they occur together: when the child is naughty and there is a
thunderbolt, he would say: "there is a thunder because I was not nice".
All these anthropomorphisms are more or less present in the child vision, the girls
perceiving God's goodness, and the boys his strength or power: "He is a nice
man" (g: 4 years); "a strong man" (b: 5 years). God's figure is double: 1)
He is the creator (in his person and in his action), acting for humankind in general and
more especially for the poor and the sick; he is a man, accompanying us.
Adventist children, when they speak of their God, utilize biblical pictures and metaphors
taken from the stories they studied at home or in the church-school. The girls perceive
God with sensibility: on one hand, He has the qualities of a creator and of a father, He
provides for the basic wants and needs of his children, creating them, loving them,
supervising them, nourishing them, keeping them; on the other hand, He appears like a King
in His majesty: "He is the creator of the earth, he loves us so much, he is the king
of the world, our creator. He created us, gives us our food" (g: 4 years). God is
very often assimilated to Jesus: "He is Jesus, an angel, he created us. He loves us
and the poor" (g: 5 years); "He loves the animals. Jesus gives me to eat"
(g: 5 and ½ years).
At 6 years, the girls perceive two polarities in God's person: He is near, present (Deus
Revelatus = God's direct but limited disclosure), but also far away, distant, hiding His
face from our view (Deus Absconditus), keeping His trustworthiness because He is
concerned. The girls understand with shrewdness the position of God: He keeps a certain
distance from His creature, requesting it's respect and devotion, but He also comes near;
very close to us, because of His caring love: "He is very important. He is in the
Bible. He is protecting me, he makes me happy" (g; 6 years); "He is my father
and my friend. He loves everybody" (g: 6 years).
When they are 7 years old, the girls see God the thaumaturge and the friend, the mighty
miracle-worker and the nice companion: "He is a friend. He heals the sick" (g: 7
years); "He makes wonder" (g: 7 years). He is localized in heaven: "He is
in the sky" (g: 7 years). Some of His transcendental attributes like omniscience and
omnipotence occur (eternity and omnipresence will appear later), combined with some
personal attributes like friendship and love (His other theological qualities like wisdom,
liberty, veracity and holiness are mentioned later).
The boys also perceive the personal and creator God, but they distinguish better His
action than His own person: His handling and acts as the Creator concern not just people,
but also the world of animals, of things, the course of events. The young boys confound
God with Jesus and associate Him strongly with nature: "He is Jesus" (b: 4
years); "He is in nature. He made the animals" (b: 4 years).
God appears like a strong man to five year old boys, but it is still possible to
"tame" Him, to "win Him over", because He uses His power with softness
and His goal is what is best for all His children: God is almighty, but also very good
(all-goodness), so He cannot be the cause of war or evil: (he is a strong man. He created
the earth, the animals, the dogs, the elephants" (b: 5 years); "He is Jesus, He
is God. He created the universe, anybody. He is love, kind. He loves everybody, he is
blessing us, he can stop war and keeps the poor" (b: 5 years).
The central and non-negotiable assumption for the adventist children is that God exists
and is the Creator-source of human power, because He has chosen to reveal to humans
(individually and collectively), some traits of His nature (love, justice, holiness...)
through the created world itself, through the inspired Scriptures and through Jesus Christ
as the agent of creation and redemption.
The same description of God is found among the six and seven year old boys, but He appears
more as the life-sustainer: "he is the life. He is a man living in heaven. He gave us
nature and is our protector. He gives us life and strength" (b: 6 years); "He is
a man. He loves us" (b: 7 years); " He is a nice man. He makes miracles"
(b: 7 years); "He is the lord. He gives us the sun" (b: 7 and ½ years,
envisaging a very functionalistic God, removed from a machine like universe, which was
created and set in motion to follow endlessly the laws of nature). The Christian tenet
that shapes the adventist comprehension is the doctrine of creation: even for our
children, the created order is the result of the imagination and work of the transcendent,
loving God. The adventist perception of the doctrine of creation is supported by the
doctrine of incarnation in asserting that human being is involved in the created order: as
God honored creation by Himself becoming man in Jesus Christ, His children can honor Him
by being involved in promoting justice and love, which enrich human life and society (the
God is still in the sky or in heaven and the boys describe the materiality and the
topographic aspects of his habitation more easily than the girls: "He is in the sky,
in his golden house" (b: 5 years); "in the city of heaven" (b: 7 years);
"in heaven with his angels" (b: 7 years). These differences of appreciation are
not a surprise, because we know that girls (females in general), are sensitive to the
atmosphere, the emotional environment; therefore the boys (males in general) give priority
to the place, the space, the structure itself.
III. THE "FRIEND YOU CAN'T LEAVE" OR THE CONCEPT
OF GOD AMONG CHILDREN BETWEEN SEVEN AND ELEVEN.
In the Concrete Operations stage (7-11 years), the operational child is freed from the
pull of immediate perception: "operation " meaning the activities of the mind
opposed to the bodily activities of the sensori-motor period. The operations involved are
called "concrete" because they relate directly to objects and not yet to
verbally stated hypotheses, as is the case with the propositional operations that are
presented in the Formal Operations stage.
The Concrete Operation structures (schemas) are analogous to particular operations that
have been identified in mathematical and logical disciplines. A "Concrete
Operation" implies underlying general systems or "groupings" such as
classification, serialization, and number. Its applicability is limited to objects
considered as real (concrete). These new mental abilities, which constitute a set of
internalized actions, permit children to do in their heads what before they had to do with
their hands. Now the child becomes able to handle complex logical systems, by the process
of combination, of associativity, of reversibility and of identity. The concrete
operations are unconscious: the child does not know that he or she is employing them, and
the thought is still limited to concrete experience: so he understands God's love through
the mediation of the witness of his own parents or teachers; he (she) is not yet capable
of dealing completely with abstract thought like the mystery of Trinity, of immortality...
For the eight-year-old girls, God is still the creator-miracle-worker and a father, but he
is also the "friend you can't leave" because He is providing for your basic
needs and expressing His love: "He is the creator. He takes care for us" (g: 8
years); "He is the savior. He is listening to my prayers, and protecting me" (g:
8 years); "he is my friend whom I can't leave. He watches all I do, he forgives me
and guides me in my life" (g: 8 years).
God is involved in His creative activity and in man's creative activities, and the nine
year old adventist children have an unreserved confidence in God's purposes for them and
for the world in general: God not only provides for our basic needs (He gives life, food
and drink, the air to breathe...), but also for our more elaborate and complex needs (He
offers His protection, consolation, comfort, healing, forgiveness, safety, His presence in
loneliness...). God is acting for the child himself but also for the group (family, class,
and team) to which he belongs to: "He is our friend, our father. He works miracles,
he is protecting us and gives us consolation" (g: 9 years); "He changes my heart
and he is my savior" (g: 9 years); "He is our father. He is helping us, giving
us food and he guides us" (g: 9 and ½ years).
The ten and eleven year old girls have a more christ-centred and soteriological vision:
Christ appears as the savior, the redeemer and the Messiah; the biblical references are
more explicit, the eschatological reality (the Lord's coming) is outlined and God's
retributive justice announced. This stage of life underlines the adventist specificity as
the "people of the book and of prophecy" : "He is the Messiah. He is
preparing us a place" (g: 10 years); "He is the creator. He is preparing a place
in heaven for us to live in because he is soon coming" (g: 10 years); "He is the
messiah. He came to redeem us from evil" (g: 10 years); "He is my only savior.
He is preparing us a place and helping us" (g: 10 years); "God is a father and
more than a friend. He is watching over us and saves us from Satan" (g: 10 and ½
The teenagers mention the theological aspect of God's action against evil (evil understood
as a principle, an action and a person, which are best represented by the devil and his
involvement). The problem of the trinity appears for the first time in terms of persons
and their action, but the general picture is still imprecise. Some of the transcendent
attributes of God are mentioned (eternity, omniscience) with some of His human qualities:
(God-the-father, His love, and His holiness). Prayer is the best way to be in contact with
Him: "He is the creator of the world, the one you can trust in. He is watching over
us, and helping us in our weakness" (g: 11 years); "He is our savior and lord.
He delivers us, he is helping us and punishing the wicked" (g: 11 years); "He is
the creator and our savior. He forgives our sins, and is helping us to be kind, not to
dispute; he can help us love our enemies, he is listening to my prayers" (g: 11
years); "He is God, the Holy Spirit... He is our judge..." (g: 11 years);
"God is Jesus, the redeemer of the earth, the king of the universe, the Holy Spirit,
he is eternal. He knows anything, loves us, answers our prayers, everything depends on
him" (g: 11 and ½ years).
The localization of God is the same, except for a new quality having to do with God's
transcendent person: He is "everywhere", because His omnipresence and His
ubiquity enable Him to be in several places at the same time: "He is anywhere and
everywhere. He is in my heart, in heaven, in the church" (g: 11 years).
The boys also view God as the creator and the father, but they underline more than the
girls the strength and vigor of God's action, giving His person more importance and
majesty. The trinity is still a strange mystery: "He is the creator. He is watching
over us" (b: 8 years); "He is our father, helping us" (b: 8 years);
"He is the creator, taking care of us and sending us his holy spirit" (b: 8
years); "He is the savior, the messiah. He is healing the sick, and saving our
lives" (b: 9 years); "Jesus is a man who divided himself in three: God, Jesus,
Holy Spirit" (b: 9 years); "God is mighty, he created the earth and heaven. He
does miracles" (b: 9 years); "He is the redeemer and the creator. He punishes
disobedient people" (b: 9 and ½ years).
For the teenagers, God expresses His power in His actions as the creator and also in the
moral demands He makes of us. As the king, He affirms His reign over all creation (nature,
humankind), and He shows love in the preventative and curing care he gives us to restore
our health: "He is the master and lord of universe. He takes care of us" (b: 10
years); "He is a strong and mighty man. He reigns over all humankind" (b: 10
years); "He the greatest king. He is helping us" (b: 10 years); "He is the
savior, he can heal and resuscitate" (b: 10 years); "He is our protector"
(b: 11 years); "He is our savior, our help in danger" (b: 11 years).
The localization is quite similar to that of the girls: "God is in my heart" (b:
10 years), "in heaven" (b: 11 years); "He is everywhere, beside you, beside
me, he can be somewhere else. He can be here and at the same time in China or in
Japan" (b: 11 years). The teenagers have a real sense of humor when they talk about
their God, His place of habitation, and some of His qualities in time (eternity) or space
The last stage reveals a more personal God, interfering as a regulator and a moderator of
the tensions occurring in the more troubled stage of adolescence and youth. This period is
"value laden", God calls for an unreserved commitment to Him and for a
confidence in His promises through self-giving devotion.
IV. THE MORE PERSONAL GOD FOR TEENAGERS BETWEEN ELEVEN AND
In the Formal Operations Stage (11-15 years), the abstract operations appear: thinking
refers to all possible relationships between variables rather than to relationships
constrained by reference to particular instances. The child becomes capable of logical
thinking with abstractions; that is, with the "possible" as well as the
"here and now". Scientific thinking of the hypothetical-deductive type is
possible. The teenager can draw conclusions, offer interpretations, and develop
hypotheses. He can work out all the logical possibilities, conduct a combinational
analysis of potentialities, think proportionally, and generalize from proportions based on
one kind of content (such as water, wood pieces, markers, all liquids and all numerically
denotable quantities...). Now the adolescent's systematic mental operations have reached a
higher degree of equilibrium, his thought is flexible and effective; he can imagine the
many possibilities inherent in a situation.
In his moral development, the child received from outside himself the example of codified
rules but he imitated others with a purely individual use of the examples received. After
eleven years of age, the child is accepting coercive rules, which are regarded as secret
and untouchable, emanating from adults and lasting forever. Every possible alteration
strikes the child as a transgression. Now autonomy follows heteronomy: the rule appears to
the child no longer as an external law, sacred insofar as it has been laid down by adults,
but as an outcome of a free decision. When it replaces the rules of constraint the rule of
cooperation becomes an effective moral law and the early belief in immanent justice tends
to disappear slowly: the automatic punishment, which emanates from things themselves
(knives cut children who have done what is forbidden in their use).
To summarize, we can distinguish three broad stages in the
development of the idea of justice:
1) Up to the age of seven or eight, what is just is what adult authority
2) Between eight and eleven, equality becomes the governing principle of justice: this
period may be defined by the progressive development of autonomy and the priority of
equality over authority. Belief in immanent justice is perceptibly on the decrease and
moral action is sought for its own sake, independent of reward or punishment;
3) After about eleven, egalitarianism is replaced by equity, taking account of individual
circumstances, e.g., respect due to age or previous service rendered.
At this point we overstep the too narrow piagetan framework and come to more basic
adventist assumptions: adventist teenagers find in the incarnation and in the creation,
the double bridge which joins the transcendent and the immanent God: the transcendent God,
with His omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence and eternity is external, superior to the
world the children live in; but the immanent God (the loving father, the incarnate logos
in Jesus Christ, the nice friend...) is very near and concerned, and for the adolescent,
he becomes more and more a personal God, sharing spiritual virtues like an unreserved
commitment to Him, a great confidence in His Word; moral virtues like love, fairness, the
courage of one's convictions, integrity and a commitment to justice and love in every area
of life; intellectual virtues like a breadth of understanding, openness to new ideas,
intellectual honesty about other views, the "ability to say the right thing in the
right way at the right time", the capability making sound decisions.
God, as the teenagers see Him, is the transcendent God, 1) cause of the universe because
He is the creator of earth and heaven, 2) prime or secondary cause of some social and
material events, the direct reason of some miracles (God-thaumaturge, who interferes in
the private and collective life of His creatures), 3) cause of religious experiences and
sometimes of mystical emotions. Adventist adolescents see the immanent God as their
father: the filiation with Him implies relationship and solidarity with humankind, and
enough imagination to work out the daily problems in fresh ways. God's wisdom is the help
they need for seeing what is right, good and true.
For our children, God keeps the qualities He had before, but the perception is more
detailed: He is the creator, providing for order in the world, as a king does for his
country or as a father uses to do for his family. God is supervising the life of men and
of nature, historical events are a product of both human actions and the actions of His
supernatural power: He remains the sovereign ruler over history (even if men can
cooperate), He is in the control of the course of history, but we as human beings retain
freedom of choice. We can be transformed through redemption by the savior and redeemer,
and following His example, we ought to forgive and use compassion: "He is my creator.
He is protecting me" (g: 12 years); "He is the King of kings. He knows
everything, he sees even the secrets we try to hide. He wants to save us if we do what he
requires" (g: 12 years); "He is the almighty God, helping us in our
difficulties" (g: 12 years); "He is my friend, my savior. He gives what I need
for living" (g: 12 years); "He makes peace on earth" (g: 12 years);
"He is the creator, our lord. He punishes the wicked, he is listening to our prayers
and delivering us from evil" (g: 12 years); "He is our father, makes us free and
forgives us our sins" (g: 13 years); "He is king of kings, he is Jesus, the
holy-spirit and God at the same time, he performs miracles" (g: 13 years); "God
is our creator, our father and our hope. He is watching over us, protecting us, consoling
and comforting us" (g: 14 years); "He is in my body, because my body is his
living temple" (g: 14 years); "He is in heaven, but also beside me in what I
do" (g: 15 years).
The boys give more emphasis than the girls the acting power of a mighty God, Who is
triumphing through His justice and love. These overcome all difficulties and exalt His
glory: "He is King of kings" (b: 12 years); "God is our creator, he is our
father and the creator. He is mighty, wise. He gives life and saves from sin" (b: 12
years); "He is the creator of the earth and the universe. He is our lord. He can
cleanse the heart of thieves, of the wicked. He can make miracles. He can see us, even if
we try to hide away" (b: 12 and ½ years); "He is our savior. He is protecting
me from evil and temptation. He helps me in difficult times" (b: 13 years); "He
is the creator, a spirit, he takes care of the problems of the universe" (b: 13
years); "He has control over life" (b: 13 years).
These adventist teenagers (without being theologians) give some theological arguments in
favor of God's existence: 1) the cosmological argument: God created the world, the cosmos,
with order and methodically: "He is the creator, everything depends on him: nothing
is made by-accident" (b: 14 years). God has a sense of beauty and aesthetics (cosmos
means the created and the nice world: cosmos, cosmetics...): "He makes what is good,
well and fine" (b: 14 years); 2) the teleological argument: the created world has an
origin and corresponds to a task and purpose, the universe I live in has an aim and
follows a design: "God id the creator of earth and heaven. He helps us finding the
right way and is expecting every human being to be saved" (b: 15 years); 3) the
soteriological argument: "God is the savior of humankind. He is my redeemer" (b:
14 years). The main purpose of God is to save His creatures and to bring them to
happiness: "God is our savior and he created our world. He is listening to us and
wants us to be saved, if we trust in him. He wants every human being to be saved" (b:
The localization of God is classical: "He is in heaven"; "He is
everywhere". The boys underline more the topographic and geographic aspects:
"God is in the galaxy and in my heart" (b: 12 years); "God is in heaven, in
the New Jerusalem" (b: 14 years).
All the findings of our survey have educational implications, specifically for religious
education understood as the action exercised on the child for assisting his quest for God
and his search for meaning. Education in general can be defined as "the deliberate,
systematic, and sustained effort to transmit or evoke knowledge, attitudes, values,
skills, and sensibilities". Religious education (the art and science connecting men
to God), implies instruction, it relates to some practices (prayer, Bible studies,
attending church service...), it deals with some facts (history of salvation), it has a
set of doctrines (God's existence, the person and action of Christ, the law...). The Bible
is the main textbook, the main source of data for understanding the world in which we
live: it is the standard for truth, a criterion by which truth from other sources is
judged. Children are to be trained in the way they should walk (Prov. 22,6) and the
Scriptures are to be persistently taught to provide wisdom and salvation (2 Tim. 3,15).
V. IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTIAN EDUCATION.
A. Basic assumptions.
The Bible contains for christian the explicit mandate to prepare people (not just
children) to live effective lives in the world into which God has placed them: for
subduing and ruling the earth (Gen. 1, 28), for providing for our families (1 Tim. 5, 8),
for experiencing the maturation of faith and reason, understanding religion as a dynamic
organization of cognitive-affective-conative factors, which can be analyzed in terms of
beliefs, feelings and actions.
Mature christian religious beliefs are characterized by 1) lack of contamination by
childish wishes: our conscientiousness and helpfulness meaning a serving but not servile
manner, 2) deep involvement in the world in terms of fighting for justice and sharing
one's personal resources with others, 3) a high awareness of clear convictions, which we
call the "Present Truth", and which help faith come alive as a result of the
interplay between God's supernatural purpose and our action as the people of His covenant,
4) the conviction of the existence of a Being greater than oneself, appearing as God our
creator and father (also as our mother, as we see later) in His transcendent and immanent
aspects, comprehensiveness and articulation in a manner that serves well in the search for
meaning, and trying to achieve and fulfil God's will expressed in Scriptures.
Religious feelings correspond to a profound experience of spiritual oneness resulting on
feelings of wonder and awe, elation, freedom and gratefulness because we as christians
know that we are the creatures of a loving God.
Our actions are characterized by 1) the presence of love as a comprehensive action with
productivity, humility and responsibility as natural signs of the love expressed in
Scriptures in terms of "agape", 2) a dynamic balance between commitment and
We therefore propose a Four-fold Model of Christian Education based on God's Disclosure
and on the Nature of Biblical Revelation.
B. A Four-Fold Model of Christian Education based on God's
Disclosure and on the Nature of Biblical Revelation.
Our children have shown us that they identify a pleasant-faced God in both His person and
action (creator, father, friend, life-sustainer, king...), Who has made Himself known to
them in many ways, of which we underline the four major ones: 1) through events, 2)
through persons, 3) through the biblical picture of a father and of a mother, 4) through
propositions or principles.
Firstly God had made Himself known in certain events of history (understood as History of
Salvation): the Sabbath (creation), Exodus (Ex. 12, 37-18, 27) and Pentecost are examples.
Secondly, God has also explained Himself to humanity in the realm of personal revelation:
the culmination of this revelatory activity was in the Christ event in which humanity had
a living example of God's glory in Jesus (see Heb. 1, 1 and John 1, 1-5). Thirdly, the
Bible gives many examples of God's disclosure, perceived as a father (Mat. 6, 6), a daddy
(Abba), and a mother (this last aspect is missing in our usual perception); and fourthly,
in the Biblical narrative we find recorded the basic truth or propositions which grow out
of God's revelatory activity. For us as christians, these are the eternal truth, the Ten
Commandments of the Old Covenant and of the New Testament: the Bible has a holistic
perspective, reflecting aspects of the four elements of the model we propose: the events,
the persons (existential aspect), the biblical figure of God-daddy and mummy (parental
aspect with identification) and the rational (principles, when Scripture is more appealing
to the mind).
These different modes of God's Disclosure and Biblical Revelation, fostered by our
children's answers, have led us to a four-fold model of christian education. The history
of salvation events suggests a celebration emphasis: "Look what God has done!";
the personal dimension suggests an interaction or experiential approach directed toward
nurturing a personal link between God and the believer: "Look Who god is!"; the
parental model leads to a closer relationship between God and His children in the
brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind (family, school, church...): "Listen to what
God said!"; the principle or propositional aspect issues forth in a didactic
instruction model. This is the school aspect where what God has said is taught and
explained, in an appeal to the mind and to reason.
Consequently we have:
Knowing God through: Christian teaching model of:
|3. Biblical parental figure...... Brotherhood
1. Christian Education through Celebration.
Celebration as a model of religious education finds its initial impetus in the creation
narration with the sabbath and in the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel.
Covenant renewal, with the sabbath laying the foundations of time and God's presence midst
His people, is the major focus of Scriptures. The covenant relationship, that Yahweh would
be the God of the old and new generation of Israelites, and that they would love Him with
all their heart, soul and mind (Deut. 6, 3-7) was not for the present generation alone,
but was to be transmitted to the coming generation. The transmission function was placed
in the laps of the parents and was to be carried out in the arena of the family. Yahweh
then instructed that celebration be one of the processes of transmitting the covenant
relationship (Ex. 12, 1-4): the specific event is the exodus, which is to be remembered in
the Passover celebration. Such historical events provide meaning, purpose, direction and
identity to a people, reminding them of their mighty Creator and loving King. The
celebration is a process in which the event is remembered and the contributing factors
(God the creator in the sabbath, Yahweh in the exodus...) are extolled and praised.
In the proclamation, the present generation is nurtured in its commitment to the meaning
of the event, while the coming generations of children are schooled in the orientational
values arising from the historical event.
For the Israelites, the renewal of the covenant was nurtured by the investment of time and
energy necessary for the celebration of the Passover, and the amount of work and effort
invested in the Passover (for us in the weekly sabbath) tells the children the importance
of these celebrations. All the family is involved: both parents and children, they prepare
the house for the sabbath, each believer prepares himself for the meeting with his
creator, the mothers prepare special food, the members scrub the entire house, the mothers
wash all the linen: it is a demanding task.
In addition, the actual food and the functions of the ceremonies were (are) rich in
symbolism and instruction: the lamb's blood denoted purity. The father was to question the
children about the meaning of the ceremony. If they could not answer the questions, he
instructed them on the meaning of the event behind the celebration. Thus the covenant was
transmitted from generation to generation.
In the New Testament, we are instructed to celebrate the crucifixion in the communion
service. This is one of the specifically commanded celebrations in the church. It provides
an opportunity of nurturing our covenant with God through Christ's sacrifice. A family
celebrating worship together (Sabbath, The Last Supper, Passover...) provides an
opportunity for parents to tell their children the importance of God's actions, of
Christ's death and resurrection, and of the Holy-Spirit's working. The same holds true for
the celebration of a baptism or of a marriage: in these ways the faith once delivered to
the believers and the divine power acting efficiently can be transmitted and brought up to
date from generation to generation.
2. Christian Education through Personal Experience.
God has chosen to make Himself personally known to humanity. He met Moses on the Mount in
the giving of the Law. In the New Covenant, through Christ (incarnation), God has
presented humanity a living example of His grace and mercy (John 14, 8-9): Jesus is a
living embodiment of the personhood of God in the tabernacle of the flesh (Heb. 1, 2). It
means personal, experience-centered revelation. This is learning through personal
experience: knowing God not only involves remembering His great acts in creation and in
history, but experiencing the relationship He has desired for us. Those who had the
privilege of living with Jesus experienced in relationship with Him the mercy, the
forgiveness, and the grace of the Logos made flesh.
The same relationships live on today in the fellowship of the church which is Christ's
body here and now: today, his body, the church, embodies his spirit (John 14, 18-20). In
this way God's spirit abides in the lives of the individual Christian and in the corporate
fellowship of the church. Trough the fellowship we can experience the mercy, grace,
forgiveness and humility of god (in His immanent aspects), that Christ died to establish.
A husband forgiving his wife, a parent forgiving a child, a child forgiving a parent, the
reconciliation of long time enemies are all ways of knowing God when it is His Spirit that
enables Christians to produce such fruit.
3. Christian Education through God's figure as a father
(daddy) and mother (mummy).
The Bible not only reveals God as my Father in Heaven (Mat 6, 11-15), but also as a closer
and more concerned parent, a mummy and a daddy, which enables me to consider all creatures
as his children, as my brother and sister, in the great brotherhood and solidarity of the
human family: this is learning resulting from studying God's Word and from living in the
redemptive family of God, both at the nuclear (home) and larger congregation (church,
school, society) levels. Such a brotherhood and solidarity will be an example to those
outside the faith and will serve as an attraction to become an organic part of such
fellowship. Not only does such christian education transpire in the fellowship of the
macroscopic family of God, His Church (ekklesia and koinonia), but a more fertile
environment for such learning is the christian family, dealing very closely with His word.
Three texts reveal God as my daddy (Abba): Mark 14, 36: "And he said, Abba, Father,
all thing are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I
will, but what thou will". Jesus is alone in Gethsemane, His friends abandon Him in
the isolation of His pain and His agony. His greatest pain was to feel isolated,
misunderstood and forsaken. He needed the help and the comfort only God-Abba (daddy) could
offer Him: He was not lacking of faith, but just suffering because God seemed so far away.
In reality God is very close to us in the midst of sorrow, we just need to keep in touch
with Him, to rely on Him.
We can also mention Rom. 8, 14-16: "For as many are led by the Spirit of God, they
are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye
have deceived the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, father. The Spirit itself
beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God". So the Holy Spirit
is telling my mind: God-daddy loves you, you are His son and don't have to be afraid,
because He always wants what is best for you. So each christian child can understand that
God adopted him and that he is born again (from "above"), liberated from all
bondage of sin, fear and sadness.
Finally we should mention Gal. 4, 6-7: "And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth
the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a
servant, but a son; and if a son, then an hair of God through Christ". The Holy
Spirit enables me to recognize Him as my daddy: it requires the work of the Trinity to get
this perception and vision of God as my Abba (daddy).
God is very close and concerned and I remain His child, even if I sometimes disobey. That
is the Good News of the Gospel, discovering God's disclosure from this new biblical
perspective, helps me to overcome the hindrance to my fulfillment when I accept the peace,
the security and the forgiveness offered by God-my-daddy, but also by God-my-mummy.
He (She) gives unconditional love as my mother, sharing with me His (Her) affection,
compassion, and acceptance: Is. 49, 14-15: "But Zion said, the Lord hath forsaken me,
and my Lord hath forgotten me. Can a women forget her sucking child, that she should not
have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget
thee". I was born from God and He (She) provides for all I needs: "He that
giveth breath unto the people" (Is. 42, 5). God shows His (Her) motherlove in action
"Surely I have behaved and quieted myself as a child that is weaned of his mother: my
soul is even as a weaned child" (Ps. 131, 2). He gives His creature his real value:
"For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hest covered me in my mother's womb. I will
praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvellous are thy works; and that
my soul knoweth well... Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect..." (Ps.
139, 13-16). God can now dry the tears I shed: "as one whom his mother comfort, so
will I comfort you" (Is. 66, 13-14), and He is ready to do it at the end of time:
"God shall wipe away all the tears from their eyes" (Rev. 21, 4). God is like an
eagle protecting her nest: "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her
young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings, so the lord
alone did lead him..." (Deut. 32, 11-12). He guides me and all His people, I feel
confident and secure under Her wings of love: "Hide me under the shadow of his
wings" (Ps. 17, 8-9); "He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his
wings shalt thou trust: is truth shall be thy shield and buckler" (Ps. 91, 4). He
sets me free from my enemies and carries me to freedom: "Ye have seen what I did unto
the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagle's wings, and brought you unto myself" (Ex.
19, 4). So He (She) is acting, interfering in my life, supporting me, but respecting my
free choice; He just wants to give me tenderness and consolation, even if I sometimes
refuse: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them
which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a
hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Mat. 23, 37).
God is present, always ready to stretch out His arms of justice (as he did in the cross)
and love (like a mother embracing her kid, or like an eagle with her children), opening
His wings of reconciliation. He has both the qualities of a father (a daddy) and of a
mother (mummy): justice and love, severity and tenderness. In Him (Her), the law and the
gospel join together in harmony and balance, and He (She) is present, concerned (immanent
and transcendent), going with His child all along his way through the seasons of life:
"Even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made,
and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you" (Is. 46, 4).
4. Christian Education through Didactic Instruction.
God has appeared in history through events, appeared personally in Christ, in His Word as
a father (daddy) and a mother (mummy), and He has also revealed His will through the
written record, the Bible. Contained in this record are the principles, propositions,
commands, and abiding truths of His will for humanity. These principles and truths are
normative criteria for us as Christians, in evaluating the quality of our relations with
God and humans to determine if we are obedient to His instructions. As such, these
recorded principles such as the Ten Commandment and the entire feelings, but also his mind
and character. We referred to this as the cognitive and conative domain. This is the
objective, reason or mind-centered, or informational and aspect of God's revelatory
activity, completing the more emotional and affective aspect of His father- and
mother-like disclosure. It provides the teaching and educational enterprise with a wealth
of didactic and instructive responsibility. This specific domain issues forth in the
responsibilities of instructing the constituency of our church and family in the major
doctrines of the Bible. They need to be applied to contemporary issues facing our faith
today such as race relations, abortion, violence as we deal with an imminent century, the
energy and ecological crisis, unemployment...etc.
This is knowing God with both the heart and the mind: Jesus' commission to make disciples
of all nations: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name
of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" and to teach the believers to
observe all His commands (Mat. 28, 18-20), provides the impetus for this Model of
We have conducted a survey of our children and adolescents' concept of God parallel to the
Piagetian Stages of Cognitive and Moral Development:
1) the preoperational stage (2-7 years): God
has two dominant personae: the creator and thaumaturge, and a "mighty" man
standing beside us, helping and caring for us like a good friend. Boys see His powerful
activity and the objective aspect of His place of habitation, girls His loving person and
the tender atmosphere He establishes,
2) the concrete operations stage (7-11
years): to girls, God is the friend you can't leave, because He provides for our basic
needs (life, air, food) and also for more complex needs (protection, comfort, healing,
forgiveness). He still appears as the savior (Christ) and as one person of the trinity
(this concept is not very clear at this stage). To boys, God has the same qualities, but
once again more in His doing than in His person: He is the mighty king, the handling and
active friend, the omnipotent redeemer,
3) the formal operations stage (11-15
years): this is the time of logical thinking, of abstractions: God is more personal, and
the combination of His transcendent and immanent qualities is easier. Thinking is more
theological: God is the creator, he gives life a sense, and He saves. The religious
worldview is more autonomous.
We have seen how important the double aspect of God's disclosure is: His transcendent
qualities (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence as the creator, the life-sustainer and
the miracle-maker, the King of kings, eternity) coupled with His immanent attributes: God
the friend, the concerned father (and the loving and caring mother), God revealed in Jesus
and in creation...etc.
We followed the principle that the source of our content (epistemology) should determine
our pedagogy (educational models). The source of our christian faith is the Bible and
God's disclosure. Our research utilized the nature of biblical Revelation and the
different modes of God's disclosure to derive a four-fold model for christian education.
Its four facets are:
1. Events................................. Celebration.
2. Persons............................... Personal experience.
3. Biblical parental figure...... Brotherhood (Fellowship).
4. Principles........................... Didactic instruction.
Thus we can know God through ceremony, fellowship and brotherhood, the biblical model of
God-the-Father and God-the-mother, and instruction. This complementary approach allows us
to build a biblically based model that can then utilize the findings of the social
sciences without endangering ourselves by accepting extra-biblical pre-suppositions and
epistemologies. Such an approach we find promising for more effective religious christian
education. We know that it is not enough that we have a mastery of the content of our
programs: our children, our no more than neurotics can be transformed by just reading a
textbook on abnormal psychology. In christian education, as in psychotherapy, curative and
long-lasting transformation is effected firstly through a process of maturation through
events, secondly through a process of inter-personal relationship, thirdly through the
identification with the double figure of God my mummy and my daddy, and fourthly through
the interplay between principles understood in didactic instruction and people living them
B.J. WALSH, J.R. MIDDLETON, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian
World View, InterVarsity Press (Illinois) 1984, p. 15-30.
F. GERBER, "Des structures et des hommes. Le courant neo-piagetien
en psychologie religieuse", in Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie (Montpellier),
1988, 120, p. 195-216;
T. GROOME, Christian Religious Education. Shared Praxis from a Piagetian
Perspective, Harper and Row (San Francisco) 1980, p. 235-257; D.GUTEKUNST,
The Implications of the Piagetian Stages to Readiness for Baptism, Andrews University
School of Education (Michigan), Ph.D. Dissertation 1983, p.36-59;
B. INHELDER, Piaget's Theory of Intellectual Development, Ed. by H.
GINSBURG and S. OPPER, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs (N.J.) 1969;
J. PIAGET, The Child's Conception of Number, Humanities (New York) 1952;
J. PIAGET, The Moral Judgment of the Child, The Free Press, Glencoe (Illinois) 1960;
J. PIAGET, The Theory of Stages in Cognitive Development, C.T.B.
McGraw-Hill, Monterey (California) 1969.
A.J. DE JONG, Reclaiming a Mission. New direction for the Church-related
College, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Michigan) 1990, p.90-96;
R.L. TIMPE, "Christian Psychology", in D. BENNER (ed.), Baker
Encyclopedia of Psychology, Baker Book House (Michigan) 1985, p. 166-171;
J.D. CARTER and B. NARRAMORE, The Integration of Psychology and Theology,
"Academy Books" Zondervan Publishing House (Michigan) 1979, p.50-137.
A.F. HOLMES, The Idea of a Christian College, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing
Company (Michigan) 1993, p. 102-104, dealing with the same problem, in terms of "an
educated christian", gives us the set of his spiritual, moral, intellectual virtues,
and the set of his qualities of self-knowledge. Also see R.COLES, The Spiritual Life of
Children, Houghton Mifflin Company (Boston) 1990.
D. GRAHAM, Moral Learning and Development. Theory and Research,
Wiley-Interscience (New-York) 1972. See the interesting research presented by E.H.T.
HO, A study of the Implication of the Piagetian Theory of Moral Development for
SDA Schools: based on Comparisons of selected Schools in Hong Kong, Michigan and Indiana,
Andrews University (Michigan), Ed. D. Dissertation 1978, which indicates that SDA subjects
of the five-to-nine age group show greater moral maturity compared to their public
counterparts: that is, SDA children attain the concrete operations stage earlier than
See P.R. WAIBEL, "History", in W.D. BECK, Opening the American
Mind: the Integration of Biblical Truth in the Curriculum of the University, Baker Book
House (Michigan) 1991, p. 117-133.
M. REIMER, "Education", in W.D. BECK, Opening the American
J.M. MARTIN, "Adventisme et éducation. L'expérience religieuse des
jeunes adventistes éclairée par la psychologie religieuse et la symbolique
biblique" in Mouvements religieux (Sarreguemines) AEIMR juin-août 1986;
J.M. MARTIN, "L'idée de Dieu chez l'enfant et l'adolescent",
in Jeunesse et Famille (Dammarie-les-Lys) 1984, p. 13-18;
J.M. MARTIN, "Le développement psycho-affectif de l'adolescent et
la genèse de la foi", in Servir (Berne) 1993, n. 1, p. 22-23;
R.E. BUTMAN, "Christian Growth", in D. BENNER (ed.), Baker
Encyclopedia of Psychology, Baker Book House (Michigan) 1985, p. 164-166.
For another possible model see G.H. BUSSMANN, "A Three-Fold Model of
Religious Education Based on the Nature of Revelation", in Religious Education (New
Haven) July-August 1977, p. 400-408.
Our verses are taken from the Holy Bible, The British and Foreign Bible
For the female and mother aspect of God, see G. BILEZIKIAN, Beyond Sex
Roles: A Guide for the Study of Females Roles in the Bible, Baker (Michigan) 1985;
V.R. MOLLENKOTT, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Language of the God as
Female, Crossroad (New York) 1983.