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Classical and Christian? Can It Be?

Can an education be both classical and Christian? Many parents ask this question every year, unknowingly echoing an age-old query. Parents often associate a classical education with “non-Christian” content such as Greek mythology or philosophy. Naturally, they then wonder how these studies can be Christian. Tertullian, an early Church Father, was perhaps the first to consider whether these two ideas are compatible when he asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” The Church Fathers continued to wrestle with the question for centuries, most concluding that all ideas that are taken captive for Christ may be used profitably by Christians. Examining this ongoing conversation about classical, Christian education will serve to answer many of our own questions today. We will subsequently be able to perceive that our current understanding of classical, Christian education depends more on the medieval church’s idea of education than it does on the ideas of the Greeks and Romans.

From Egypt to Greece to Rome

Alexandria, Egypt served as a center of learning in the centuries following Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BC. Alexandria’s famous library attracted many scholars, so it was a natural location for some of the church’s early catechetical schools. Philo, a Greek Jew living in Alexandria, had already written many works demonstrating the unity of Greek philosophy and Judaism (The Great Tradition, 154). The Church Fathers then pursued similar arguments to link Greek philosophy and Christianity. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150–215) continued the conversation by demonstrating that the study of Greek philosophy was profitable for Christians. He described philosophy as a “preparatory science for Christianity” that would lead a person to contemplate wisdom and prepare the heart for the coming of Christ (169). Clement also concluded that philosophy prepared the mind to be precise in reasoning out issues of faith, and thus would help prevent the Christian from being deceived by false teachings. Clement also elevated rational faith over simple faith and described the well-educated person thus: “the expert is the one who brings everything to bear on the truth. He culls whatever is useful from mathematics, the fine arts, literary studies, and, of course, philosophy, and protects the faith from all attacks (171). For Clement, the study of the liberal arts (literature, history, music, philosophy) prepared the individual to possess a solid faith and to share that hope with others.

Origen (c. AD 185–250) became head of the catechetical school in Alexandria at the age of seventeen or eighteen. Educated in both the Scriptures and Greek literature himself, Origen urged others to continue this practice. He compared classical, Christian education to the Israelites plundering Egypt before the Exodus, a comparison that continued to be repeated by future generations as they pondered this form of learning. In his analogy, Origen pointed out that the gold and silver of the pagan Egyptians was used to make the holiest vessels used in the Jewish Tabernacle (178). Drawing out the lesson from the comparison, he urged students to use the treasures of the Greek philosophers and poets to build up the sacred faith of Christianity.

Basil the Great (c. AD 329–379), Bishop of Caesarea, considered the study of the ancient writers, poets, and orators to be preparatory exercises for the deep study of Scriptures: “So we must consider that a contest, the greatest of all contests, lies before us, for which we must do all things, and, in preparation for it, must strive to the best of our power, and must associate with poets and writers of prose and orators and with all men from whom there is any prospect of benefit with reference to the care of our soul” (183). He likened the exercise of our rational faculties to an athlete’s exercises. Basil asserted that culling through the wisdom of the ages—reviewing philosophies and arguments, accepting the true and rejecting the untrue—prepared a Christian to be a firm defender of the faith. In other words, if Christians are to impact the world around them, they must prepare thoroughly for that task.

Saint Jerome (c. AD 342–420), the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, was famous for struggling with his love of secular literature. In his Letter to Magnus, an Orator of Rome, Jerome added a new analogy to the conversation about classical, Christian education by comparing Paul to David and the Greek philosophers to Goliath. He examined Paul’s conversation with the Greeks in the Areopagus (see Acts 17) and demonstrated that Paul quoted lines from the Greek poets in order to convince the Greeks of the truth of Christ. With this act, Paul illustrated that “he had learned from the true David to wrench the sword of the enemy out of his hand and with his own blade to cut off the head of the arrogant Goliath” (209). Again and again, these Church Fathers demonstrated how secular learning can appropriately be used in the service of Christ. Jerome’s contemporary, Augustine of Hippo (c. AD 354–430), also received a thorough classical education before converting to Christianity and serving in the Church. In his famous work, Confessions, Augustine claimed that his readings of Cicero turned his heart toward the wisdom of God (220).

The Theme of Their Thoughts

This survey of the early Church Fathers is by no means exhaustive, but it does highlight some persistent themes that ran through their writings:

• First, because God has dominion over all, Christians can find profit in studying Greek literature and philosophy.

• Second, this study is most useful when it prepares the heart for the acceptance of Christ, and then leads an individual to develop a rational, defensible faith; a faith that is also unlikely to be susceptible to false teaching.

• Third, Christians must approach all reading carefully, pulling out that which is true and profitable and rejecting that which is untrue.

This conversation among the Church Fathers about classical, Christian education shaped the medieval schools in which the Trivium—grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric—was formalized.

At this point, one might ask: “What has all of this to do with us in the twenty-first century?” The answer is that it has a great deal to do with how we shape the education of our children. The prevalent philosophy of modern education since John Dewey has been to center a child’s education solely on the material world. This should give us serious pause as Christians. Scripture tells us that we are mind, body, and an eternal soul. Our education should be filled with conversations about humanity and divinity, body and soul, life in this world, and life in the world to come. In a medieval education, the use of tools like dialectic, logic, and philosophy led students through discovery of these big ideas that have eternal significance. In the twentieth century, Dorothy Sayers called for a return to classical, Christian education in her 1947 speech at Oxford University “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She described how the Trivium studies in medieval schools produced the best thinkers for centuries. She proposed that we cast off modern methods of education and return to these former methods. As we employ these “lost tools of learning,” we hope to strengthen our children in the Christian faith, preparing them to recognize and articulate the Gospel in all areas of life.

Classical Conversations Application

In Classical Conversations, young students prepare for these big conversations by learning the facts of history, math, Latin, geography, science, and English grammar. These academic subjects in and of themselves are not Christian subjects. However, the simple act of discussing how these facts point to a Creator can lay the foundation for a biblical worldview. With young children, this can be as simple as reminding them that 13 x 2 always equals 26 precisely because God created an orderly universe that is governed by certain rules. Seeing tiny Israel on a map can lead us into a conversation about God’s amazing plans for mankind. When children study the human digestive system, they can discuss how they are fearfully and wonderfully made.

As students mature, their thoughts and conversations also mature and grow deeper. As children enter the dialectic stage in Challenges A and B, they begin to have theological discussions each week in which they study beginning apologetics and practice the defense of their faith. In Challenges I–IV, training in theology becomes more rigorous as students refine their biblical worldview by comparing Scripture to philosophy. Logic trains students to think clearly about contemporary issues and to form persuasive arguments about virtuous, biblical choices and actions. In a medieval school, teachers and students regarded theology as the mistress science that governed all of the branches of knowledge.

In Classical Conversations, we seek to recover that understanding of theology as we train students to seek God in all areas of study, from chemistry, history, literature, and philosophy to the fine arts. Older students will study logic to form careful arguments grounded in a biblical worldview, and they will practice rhetoric regularly in order to deliver those arguments persuasively. The result of all these labors will be a deeper understanding of God’s attributes. As students comprehend God more deeply and develop a deeper relationship with Him, they will want to praise Him continually. Not only can an education be both classical and Christian, but this form of education has the potential to make manifest a rich earthly process of sanctification: human existence lived out as doxology.

CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education

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