This blog series is a preliminary look at the views of a few Post-Apostolic and Patristic writers on the topic of the teaching ministry of the Church, Christian Education. It gives special attention to two writers of ancient Christianity who wrote a lot about education: Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom.
By looking at some of the patristic writers we can glean a few ideas or ideals which they held concerning Christian education. Christianity came into a world which was on the verge of great change and Christianity itself was to be a catalyst to that change. The religious world view was about to shift from what has been described by historians of religion as an archaic perspective to an historic one. This followed the axial period of religious development which had occurred some 500 years before the birth of Christ. This shift in perspective is not unlike the one in which (at least according to some interpreters of culture) we are currently experiencing (the shift from what has been termed the modern world view to what is being called post-modern is for some the new axial age). The early Christians were able to distinguish a theology of education with specific goals and methods which were different from that of the pagan world which surrounded them. This is something which we must continue to do today in the changing world in which we live.
The Patristic period resisted a mass approach to education, rejecting a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Instead they emphasized the need to shape the educational endeavor to the individual needs and capabilities of their varied students. Though their methodology focused on holiness and wisdom (a practical and practiced approach to Christian education), the bottom line goal was to know God. A good amount of the training was practical, experiential, taught in the forum of a few disciples learning from their Master (even when it was children learning from their Christian parents). Learning from example, imitation of the Lord and of the Saints, role modeling, and learning virtuous living from the lives of the saints (story telling), were all used to help attain the goal.
The task for Orthodox religious educators today remains discerning what are the methods, goals and underlying theology which we need as we face the Twenty-First Century. What can we learn from the early centuries of Christianity which will help us in our current situation? This means not simply imitating their methods but gaining the wisdom to know which methods to use today at the appropriate times, and also determining when creative solutions are called for.
This blog is based upon an article I wrote in 1998 which itself consisted of a few excerpts from a much longer paper I wrote on Christian education years earlier. I hope in the near future to be able to “translate” this longer manuscript into a blog series. Blog bytes are more digestible to most than long articles. Bullet points might be even more acceptable to a greater number of people but I haven’t learned Power Point to be able to reduce all information to that level.
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.
We will now consider St. John Chrysostom, the famed preacher and bishop of both Antioch and Constantinople (d. 407 A.D.), who is one of the greatest teachers in Church history. His volumes of sermons and writings inspired Orthodox Christians from his day to our own.
As a great thinker and pastor, St. John was concerned with the educational upbringing of his flock. He constantly exhorted his people to know God and live according to God’s teachings and commands. Chrysostom, like other Patristic writers believed salvation was achieved within the Church community “through the process of making the kingdom of God present to an unbelieving world” (Vigen Guroian, “Family and Christian Virtue in a Post-Christendom World: Reflections on the Ecclesial Vision of John Chrysostom”, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol 35, No. 4, 1991, p. 330) As Chrysostom said:
“When we teach our children to be gentle, to be forgiving, to instill virtue in their souls, we reveal the image of God within them. This then is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment seat?… How can we be worthy of the kingdom of heaven?” (St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life, tr. Catherine Roth & David Anderson, p. 71).
St. John Chrysostom’s ADDRESS ON VAINGLORY AND THE RIGHT WAY FOR PARENTS TO BRING UP THEIR CHILDREN cannot be dated with certainty. Historians now generally agree that it was written sometime around 400 AD. It is one of few Patristic documents directly envisioning the goals and purposes of education, though it is limited by its focus on the responsibility of parents in educating their children.
Chrysostomus Bauer, St. John’s Twentieth Century biographer, has written of this work:
“In its substance, the little book enjoys the distinction, from the first page, of being a history of Christian pedagogy. It is actually the oldest comprehensive teaching on Christian education which is not exclusively directed to Christian children…. It may well be that other writers have incidentally inserted shorter or longer discussions of children’s education in their writings; but no one had yet supplied a complete and independent treatise on this subject.
So this little book occupies a special place of honor in the history of Christian catechetics. The author has brought together in his treatise (Chapters 39 and 43) two standard catechisms for children, in order to demonstrate to parents, by means of these two examples, how they should train their children from early youth onward in the Holy Scriptures….” (Chrysostomus Bauer, John Chrysostom and His Time, p. 172).
St. John’s main theme, which he repeats three times, is “We are raising an athlete, let us concentrate our thought on that” (M.L.W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire, p. 112). He envisions education as a great training process in which we form and condition the Christian. From Chrysostom’s point of view this task is not an easy one and requires diligence and perseverance on the part of parents. St. John places heavy emphasis on studying the Scriptures and teaching virtues. His methodology is repetition and storytelling. St. John is quite compassionate toward children and is very concerned about their sensitive souls.
This is the 4th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church. The immediately preceding blog Clement of Alexandria (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. This is the conclusion of the blog looking at Clement of Alexandria (d. 215AD). Clement was one of the first Christians to write enough about education as to give us a sense of what he saw as the goals of Christian education. Basically Clement argued that we follow Christ by learning to live virtuously.
The content of religious education for Clement is the virtues, carefully taught and applied to each learner in each unique set of circumstances. His plan is to form a system of wise discrimination in which each Christian’s failures are diagnosed and then the appropriate remedy in the form of training is applied (Geraldine Hodgson, Primitive Christian Education, p. 131). Ultimately for Clement, the Christian community itself is the schoolhouse for learning. Everything we see and experience and learn about in the Church becomes an encounter with Christ who is the Word of God, the right reason of the Father, and the true Educator of mankind (Hodgson, p. 129).
Christ’s chief goal is to train and form our inner being (Clement, Christ the Educator, p. xiv). In Clement’s own words,
Let us call Him (that is Jesus), then, by the one title: Educator of little ones, an Educator who does not simply follow behind, but who leads the way, for His aim is to improve the soul, not just to instruct it; to guide to a life of virtue, not merely to one of knowledge…. As Teacher, He explains and reveals through instruction, but as Educator He is practical. First He persuades men to form habits of life, then He encourages them to fulfill their duties by laying down clear-cut counsels and by holding up, for us who follow, examples of those who have erred in the past (Clement, p. 4).
He (The Word) educates us in fear of God, for this fear instructs us in the service of God, educates to the knowledge of truth, and guides by a path leading straight up to heaven…. The education that God gives is the imparting of the truth that will guide us correctly to the contemplation of God, and a description of holy deeds that endure forever…. so the Educator, in His concern for us, leads His children along a way of life that ensures salvation (Clement, p. 49-50).
According to Clement, religious education must not only instruct souls, it must form and improve them as well. True education leads to virtues, not simply intellectual knowledge. It must provide not just facts but examples of how to live. Education teaches us the fear of the Lord in order to lead us to heaven. Its goal is the salvation of souls. Clement was not alone in his understanding of Christ the Educator in terms of virtuous living. Writing almost 50 years before Clement, St. Justin the Martyr (d. ca 165AD) in his Apologies had taken the viewpoint that
“Christ is preeminently the Teacher who enables his disciples to live rationally. Taught by Christ, they become chaste (chapter 15), gentle, patient and free from anger (chapter 16), and obedient to civil authorities (chapter 17)” (Robert Sider, The Gospel and its Proclamation, p. 70).
In Clement of Alexandria, we see several of the goals for education found in the Holy Scriptures being emphasized. Clement strongly believes instruction should focus on the fear of God, obedience to God’s teaching, and on holiness. All of this results from the (new) relationship we now have with God in Jesus Christ.
While no one Patristic writer left us a theology of education, we gain some insight from their writings about the purpose for religious education. “The term `Christian education,’ was first used by Clement of Rome (A.D. 96) in his letter to the Corinthians: `Your children should partake in Christian education.'” (Elias Matsagouras, The Early Christian Fathers as Educators, p. 27) It has already been noted that the first Christians did not establish specifically Christian schools for teaching their children. They relied more on the community and life itself as the school for learning God’s ways. They believed there was a certain knowledge which was specifically Christian. This knowledge is to be conveyed by life in the Church community.
Not until about 200 A.D. does another Clement, this one of Alexandria (d. ca 215AD), give us a vision for Christian education. He focuses on the title frequently given to Christ in the New Testament – Teacher. He wrote his book, THE EDUCATOR, to help form a person totally in the image of God.
Clement of Alexandria believed that anyone can be trained to regulate his thoughts, will, emotions and actions according to the teaching of Christ. (Igino Giorgani, The Social Message of the Early Church Fathers pp. 186-187; see also Clement of Alexandria, p. 91). However, before this training can take place, every human soul must be healed of the sickness of sin.
“In fact, if a person is sick, he cannot master any of the things taught him until he is first completely cured … Just as our body needs a physician when it is sick, so, too, when we are weak, our soul needs the Educator to cure its ills. Only then does it need the Teacher to guide it and develop its capacity to know, once it is made pure and capable of retaining the revelation of the Word.”(Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, p. 5)
For true education to take place, there must be first the healing of the human made sick by sin. This notion is found in the Old Testament.
When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against You, when they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin because You afflict them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your servants, Your people Israel, that You may teach them the good way in which they should walk; and give rain on Your land which You have given to Your people as an inheritance. (1 Kings 8:35-36)
No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” says the LORD. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me with Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You. (Psalms 51:12-13)
In each of these passages, we find first a forgiving encounter with the living God, and only then an ability to learn from the Lord. This healing is accomplished in Jesus Christ, the true Educator. Human nature itself is healed by Christ, in addition to the inner being of each person. Christ Jesus, the Word of God, does not limit his activity to healing that which is infirm in us. Christ the Educator, being perfect God, heals us by forgiving our sins. Then as a man, Christ educates us in how to avoid sin (Clement, p. 9). For us, “Salvation is the following of Christ” (Clement, p. 27). Education becomes that sound training that teaches us how to follow Christ by living a virtuous life (Clement, p. 17).
This is the 2nd blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church. It is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.
The Christian community with its full sacramental/mystical life was seen as living proof of the Divine revelation. For the early Church, education was based on the revealed truth. This revelation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit was the content of their teaching. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386AD) says, “Do not believe me unless you have a proof of what I proclaim from the divine Scriptures. For the saving power of our faith does not come from clever arguments but from proofs from the divine Scriptures… ” (Robert Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church, p. 104). Proofs of the faith were to be experienced and discovered within the revelation of God proclaimed by the Church. St. Augustine (d. 430AD) exclaimed to his listeners, “Let us hear the Gospel as if the Lord were present… ” (Robert Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church, p. 129). We must teach and proclaim the Gospel in our communities in this same manner. Our congregations should feel the presence of the Lord in our teaching ministry. It is in this encounter with the Living God that people’s lives are changed. It is here that we learn the truth of God.
Keep in mind that in the scriptures, the apostles were sent out as witnesses to the truth. In other words they were to speak about that which they personally experienced. Their call to faith was not an appeal to believe in something that cannot be proven, but to believe their witness that Jesus is risen and He is the Son of God, Christ and Savior. Somehow it was their very life that was the confirmation of the Gospel. In that sense what was on trial was not their message (and could they prove it), but could they live the life that would convince others that they themselves were believers. The crux of the argument was not abstract issues between faith and reason, but the effectiveness of their own witness (and thus in effect their own lives and lifestyles). This means for us today in doing our educational ministry, can we convince others that Christ is risen or that Christ is in our midst?
In teaching this revelation, the Fathers insist that instruction cannot be impersonal. Christianity is God reconciling each one of us to Himself. It cannot be taught by creating one lesson plan for all learners. The Fathers all recognize that each person progresses spiritually at a different pace. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 391AD) explains, “It does not belong to everyone… to philosophize about God…. It is not appropriate to discuss God at all times, nor with all people, nor all aspects of the subject, but there is a proper time, the right people, and a sufficient extent.” (Robert Sider, The Gospel and its Proclamation, p. 227). Each person requires personalized instruction to bring him or her to the full knowledge of the truth. This is certainly evident in Proverbs where seemingly contradictory bits of wisdom follow one after the other (see for example Proverbs 26:4-5). Christian instruction is lived out daily by each person in a unique circumstance. Any lesson might prove harmful for a person of a different level of maturity. This is not to say that ethical truth is completely situational. Truth is truth. The teacher’s job is to know the learner in order to know what to teach and when. The learner’s duty is to learn the lessons and to learn discernment – the wisdom of when and how to apply the lesson. As Matsagouras notes:
“The educational task according to the Desert Fathers, was not an easy routine which could be applied in the same manner to all Disciples, but it was a laborious process, involving many methods, which were to be applied in various manners, according to the nature of the Disciples. This does credit to the Desert Fathers who, living in a period when little attention was paid to the individual, emphasized by words and actions, the necessity of individualized education. The variety of teaching methods, and the organization used by the monks were two of the most important characteristics of the monastic educational system.” (Elias Matsagouras, The Early Christian Fathers as Educators, p 66)
What does this mean for our own work in Christian education? It means the design for our educational programs must incorporate a system structured to support numerous levels of spiritual development. One-lesson-fits-all curriculums cannot satisfy the goals nor the methodologies of the early Church or of our work today. Before sharing the Gospel, some learners may need more preparatory work than others to be ready to receive the message. Remember, St. Gregory the Theologian taught that humans originally fell into sin because they had not gone through the educational stages God intended for them. They were not mature enough to deal with the knowledge for which they reached out. The knowledge of good and evil was a necessary part of the education of humans; they prematurely took hold of the knowledge and suffered the consequences. (Constantine Tsirpanlis, Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology, p. 50). For modern Christian educators, this lesson ought not be forgotten. As John Erickson wrote,
…Chrysostom, who regularly emphasizes the good judgment and tact demanded of the preacher/teacher, and by Gregory of Nazianzen, who insists on the need `to give in due season to each his portion of the word.’… `since the common body of the Church is composed of many different characters and minds…, it is absolutely necessary that its ruler should be at once simple in his uprightness…, and as far as possible manifold and varied in his treatment of individuals…’ The spiritual gift of discernment and a proper sense of `economy’ are essential for the exercise of the Church’s `teaching office. (John Erickson, The Challenge of our Past, p. 59)
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
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!