The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church

Ss Athanasius, Cyril, Ignatius

This blog series focuses on educational goals which can be gleaned from some of the writings of the ancient church.   I originally wrote this in 1998, and it has pretty much sat in my computer’s memory unread since then.  I decided it was time to bring it up out from under the bushel and see if it provides any light.

Though no one Church Father wrote a theology of Christian education, many Patristic writers were both involved in and concerned about the educational practices of the Church.   The early Church was very involved in catechesis and other forms of education by which the Faith was handed over to the new generation of believers.  This paper is a brief look at the writings of a few early Church fathers who directed some of their comments to the teaching ministry of the Church.

Christianity emerged into the religious and educational world of First Century Pales­tine.   The values of that era and ar­ea of the world were shaped by the Jews and their conquerors, specifically­ the Greeks and Romans. Naturally, the early Church’s vision for education was shap­ed by and against the culture into which she emerged.

Christ’s teaching method was that of the Master with his disciples, which had its roots in the Jewish rabbinical ex­perience.  The Master trained his disciples to be like himself   (Mark 10:24-25).    This Master and disciple relationship would shape the later monastic experience as well.  The Master-disciple methodology is one normative means by which the early Christians also trained their converts and children.

Christianity did not long remain a purely Jewish phenom­enon.  It quickly spread among the Hellenic Jews and pagans as well.  This inter­action wi­th other cultures challenged the first Christ­ians to move beyond a limited, parochial and Jewish cul­tural viewpoint.  It is beyond the scope of this text to examine this cultural interaction.  However, it is impor­tant to rememb­er that Ch­rist­ianity had different goals from those of Greco-Roman pagan religions.  The Christian Vision of their mission guided and shaped their educational ministry.

Greek philoso­phy in the Roman form “concerned itself chiefly with life in this world.  The problem that it attempted to solve was how one should live so as to get the most satisfaction out of life” (Frank Groves, A History of Education, p. 281).   Education for pagans assumed that life was an end in itself.  Christianity, on the other hand was concerned more with transfiguring this life and with attaining the Kingdom of God which was both here and yet to come.  The Church concerned her­self with teaching the way of life needed for a soul to attain salvation.    The early Christ­ian Patristic writers always focused

Theology: Mother of All Sciences

their teaching on Christ­ianity as a way of life. (Frank Groves, A History of Education, p. 279-280).      They did not teach the facts of salvation history apart from an experience of the Holy Trinity.  Their main focus was:  KNOW GOD!  A Christian lives his or her theology daily.  The “know­ledge” to be acquired by Christians was an experience of the revealed truth of God.  This truth was available to all in the doctrine, worship and sacra­ments of the Faith.  Early Christian teachers believed the revealed truth of God was en­countered in life itself, especially in the life of the Christian com­munity – the people of God.  Consequently they, for the most part, did not set up for themselves special schools  (H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, p. 317).   Life within the Christian community – in its worship and charity – was the school for the first Christians (see Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35).  The lesson of Ananias and Sapphira Acts 5:1-11 is recorded as a communal lesson – one never to be forgotten and hopefully never to be repeated!

Next:  A Curriculum Geared Toward each Believer