This is the 6th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church. The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (A). This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.
St. John Chrysostom strongly believed that it was primarily the responsibility of the Christian parent to raise the child as a disciple of Christ and so he directs his comments to parents. He makes little mention of any type of “church school”, rather mentioning only the parents and perhaps a slave/tutor as the child’s teachers. He strongly believed that parents could and should control both whom their children spoke with and to whom they listened. Thus he believed parents could completely control the stories and language which their children heard and also what things their children saw. Without a doubt such control today would be much more difficult considering the access that all families and children have to the culture through the mass media. In general, he did not approve of the use of fables and stories from pagan sources as he thought they would only seduce the children into approving of a false world view and life-style. Chrysostom felt it was possible for children to be influenced only by the righteous as presented by the parents and through the lives of God’s saints. He strongly believed the creative use of Bible stories, presented to children in interesting or even entertaining ways, could counteract the effects of the pagan world or of peers. He felt it even better if the children were simply kept away from such external influences.
St. John outlined specific issues which were to be addressed by parents in educating their children. He chastised parents for failing to teach the essential issues. “…no one takes thought for his children, no one discourses to them about virginity and sobriety or about contempt of wealth and fame, or of the precepts laid down in the Scriptures” (M.L.W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire, p. 94). Indeed, much the same criticism could be leveled at Christian education today. Be that as it may, Chrysostom also advocates teaching children such things as proper and respectful speech and behavior, theology, humility, courteous behavior toward all including slaves, fairness, hymn singing, self control, control of idle speech, the rewards of the kingdom of heaven, patience, generosity, non-possessiveness, and godly wisdom. In all of this we see a heavy emphasis on moral goodness, the fear and love of God, and the Divine Wisdom. St. John also specifically mentions two things that must be directed to teenagers. First, he saw children as rather tender souls. Therefore he believed that teachings about hell should not be done until the child was fifteen years or older. They could be taught the Old Testament stories of God’s judgment and anger after they were eight or ten years old, but no mention of the final and awesome judgment should be made until they were old enough to cope with this fearsome reality. The other specifically teenage issue he mentions is the sexual passions. He laments, “How shall we place a bridle on it? I know none, save only the restraint of hell-fire” ( Laistner, pp 109, 115).
St. John believed that if children were trained well from when they were young, they would keep to the path of salvation as they got older. He believed the reason children abandoned the holy way was parents failed to persevere in teaching their children. Chrysostom believed the formation of children was a work of art with the parent being the artist. Like the sculptor or painter, parents must keep a clear vision of what they want to create in their child in order to achieve the goal of good parenting. He also noted that whereas at one time he thought all should strive to make their children into monks, he eventually realized that this was neither possible nor desirable ( Laistner, pp 95-96). Basically, Chrysostom saw the training of children as the means to help them overcome their self-centered tendencies, passions and behaviors – their anger, greed, desire for reprisals, judgmentalism and generally ego-centric behavior.
Next: St. John Chrysostom (C)