In his The Responsibility of Parents to Raise their Children for God (De Pligten der Ouderen om Kinderen voor God op te Voeden, 1684), the Dutch Nadere Reformatie minister Jacobus Koelman (1632-1696) lays out guidelines for Christian parents on how to raise their covenant children in the Reformed faith. Offering different guidelines according to the age of the children, he spends one chapter (ch. 3) specifically focusing on what and how to teach children between the age of 6 and 12.
This training is broad and thorough, considering the target age range, and is intended to be taught throughout the week, although, of course, especially every Lord’s Day. The curriculum starts with Koelman’s own catechism within this book, focusing particularly on the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. This teaching also includes a reading and exposition of the Scripture proof texts given for each answer in the catechism, requiring the parent to demonstrate to the child how the doctrine in question is founded on Scripture. Although there is an emphasis on ensuring the child memorizes what is taught, yet Koelman insists that parents must ensure that, beyond mere regurgitation, their children actually understand what is taught, and recognize the doctrine’s foundation in Scripture. Furthermore, parents ought always to pray to God to bless their teaching, and that God may grant their children the ability to understand what is taught.
Next, Koelman prescribes the teaching of elementary systematic theology on eight main loci: (1) doctrine of Scripture, (2) doctrine of God, (3) anthropology, (4) doctrine of the Mediator, (5) doctrine of effectual calling, (6) doctrine of the privileges of effectual calling in this life, of grace, (7) doctrine of the privileges of effectual calling in and after death, in glory, (8) doctrine of the Sacraments or seals of the covenant of grace. The child is thus given an elementary but firm grounding in all the main loci of Reformed systematic theology.
Naturally enough, the Heidelberg Catechism is also important in Koelman’s curriculum, and despite it being taught in the schools and at church every Lord’s day, he suggests that it also be studied above and beyond the context of school and church on a Sunday. Ideally, if possible, the Heidelberg Catechism should be studied alongside the children’s catechism of Jacobus Borstius, minister in Rotterdam.
Next up, the children are to be taught biblical history, narratives, and chronology, with the assistance of Koelman’s “historical catechism” within this book. And Koelman, true to Nadere Reformatie form, insists that the learning of these biblical narratives and histories should always be accompanied by a practical application to the child. In other words, the question should always be asked: what does this particular passage or book teach me about God, and how is this knowledge of God which I gained from this text relevant to my life as a believer? The child is thus taught the practical, applicatory nature of theological doctrine from a young age. And this practical application of the doctrine to the child’s life, says Koelman, “may not be neglected.”
Once the child has gained a good grounding in biblical history, and has a solid grasp of the historical contours of the biblical narrative, the next part of the curriculum is a history of the church, which Koelman says should include teaching about the various persecutions and trials which God’s children have endured through the ages, whether by heathens or Papists, with special emphasis on martyrs and martyrologies, with the goal of setting forth the martyrs as examples of faithfulness and endurance in their faith under extremely testing circumstances. Once again, therefore, a practical dimension is in view, with inspirational figures in the church’s history acting as a “cloud of witnesses” spurring the young believer on in his or her faith. Next up, a history of the Netherlands should be taught, which should include a focus on the “Spanish yoke” and the “Antichristian Inquisition” under which the Dutch people long suffered, and from which (Koelman believes) God saved the Dutch. Moreover, children should be taught how God providentially safeguarded the Reformed faith in the Netherlands not only against the Papists, but also in the face of the Arminian threat.
After this overview of ecclesiastical and Dutch history, children should be taught what one might call Heresiology 101. They need to be taught about the “most despicable” errors of the Papacy, as well as the errors of the Jews, Socinians, Arminians, Mennonites, and (sic) the Lutherans. Yet Koelman says that the focus should always be primarily on positively building up children in true doctrines, and that these errors should only be brought up and refuted by the by, when occasion demands it. In other words, a focus on theological errors should always be aimed at elucidating the truth.
For Koelman, ordinary everyday Bible reading should undergird all of the above teaching endeavours, and, ideally, parents should have a schedule of Bible verses or passages for their children to memorize. Concerning the sermons which the children hear in church on Sundays, he holds that parents should help their children to make notes and understand the contours of sermons, so that they may more easily follow the arguments and reasoning of the preacher, and be able to discern when he is offering doctrine, admonishment, comfort, or exhortation. Children should furthermore be taught from a young age to sing Psalms and (ideally) learn to read musical notes so that they may sing without the aid of instruments, and in this way gain a familiarity with the Psalms.
Once the child is well trained in all of the above, Koelman says that he or she should advance to weightier commentaries on the Heidelberg Catechism, such as those of Petrus de Witte, Zacharias Ursinus, or Franciscus Ridderus, in order to get a firmer, more mature grounding in the faith.
In all of these different parts of the curriculum, Koelman calls upon the parent to set an example for the child on how to handle holy subjects with the requisite seriousness and piety, and to impress on the child a realization of the weightiness of the divine subject matter that he or she is learning, and to treat it with due reverence.
Finally, Koelman encourages parents to reward their children when they are diligent and make progress in their learning, in order to manifest parental love to the child and to further encourage them in their learning. Although he says that parents should employ their parental authority and exercise the necessary strictness when the child is stubborn or unwilling to learn, yet he stresses that the parent should always strive to draw the child to his or her studies with benevolence and kindness, and seek to make the learning as “sweet and enjoyable” to the child as possible.
This curriculum, which was designed for 17th-century Dutch Reformed parents to train children aged 6-12 at home, may seem, to modern eyes, an unrealistic ideal. It is loaded and very comprehensive for that age range. For most in Reformed churches today, the idea of having 12-year-olds polishing theological books as weighty as Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism is utterly unthinkable. As far as Koelman was concerned, however, this level of theological training in children was eminently attainable. In one place, while warning parents to be careful not to overload their children and expect them to memorize too much at one time, he nevertheless does comment that “ordinarily their memory can take and retain more than we typically think.” And this is most certainly true – adults often underestimate the memory capacity of young children.
In the end, much can be learned from Koelman’s curriculum as to the scope of biblical and theological teaching which Reformed Christians might want to offer their children at home in these important formative years. There is a firm grounding in the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer; there is a familiarity with the contours of redemptive history in Scripture and the memorization of Scripture; there is familiarity with the Heidelberg Catechism and elementary systematic theology focused on the traditional loci; and there is an overview of the history of the church and the child’s own place in this greater narrative of redemptive history. And all of this is aimed at teaching the child to practically know and love the Triune God ,and to live unto, pray unto, and worship him from a tender age, and from within the covenant community of believers, starting at home.