An apology for Classical Christian Education
Have you ever wondered what Classical, Christian education is? Why do some Christians encourage their children to read about pagan gods and culture? What as the Western Canon to do with God’s Canon? Who cares what happened in ancient Greece? Maybe, with that that 3rd century Christian author Tertullian, who’ve asked, “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Athens here represent Hellenistic culture and Jerusalem represents biblical culture.
This is a broad and important question. Does ancient pagan culture – literature, art, etc. – have any value for a Christian? There are so many good books written by Christians – why should we waste our time with anything else? There are so many modern authors? Why do we need ancient, pagan ones?
Augustine had a ready answer for Tertullian on this important question. Augustine called studying classical Hellenistic culture “Plundering the Egyptians,” taken from the Exodus account.
Exodus 3:21-22; 12:35-36 I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and it shall be, when you go, that you shall not go empty-handed. But every woman shall ask of her neighbor, namely, of her who dwells near her house, articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing; and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.
Later, as the Israelites gather materials for the building of the Tabernacle, God’s house, they are well equipped with rich raiment.
Exodus 25:1–7 The LORD said to Moses,  “Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me.  And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze,  blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair,  tanned rams’ skins, goatskins, acacia wood,  oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense,  onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. (ESV)
Israel plundered the Egyptians to build a beautiful, portable cathedral to God’s glory.
There are several examples of the Apostles using their plunder, their classical education, to construct the word of God. The Apostles used truth and methods created by pagans.
First, the apostle Paul himself sets an example of familiarity with pagan literature that is used for the glory of God.
Acts 17:24–29 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,  that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,  for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. (ESV)
In v. 28, Paul, on Mars Hill, he quotes from two pagan Greek poets. “In Him we live and move and have our being” is from De Oraculis, a work by the 7th century B.C. Cretan poet/philosopher Epimenides. And the next line, “we are also His offspring,” is from The Phenomena, written in the 3rd century B.C. by Aratus. The same line is found in the Hymn of Zeus by Cleanthes. Notice that Paul is clear about what he is doing – “as also some of your own poets have said.” Paul has no problem knowing and using Pagan poets while arguing for the validity of biblical truth. But note, he denies the validity of idolatry in v. 29. Paul uses the same strategy in the Pastoral epistles.
Titus 1:12–13 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  This testimony is true (ESV).
Paul again quotes the De Oraculis, in making a point about the wickedness of certain deceivers, and says in the next verse, “this testimony is true.” All truth is God’s truth.
1 Timothy 6:10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (ESV)
The phrase that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” is a quotation from a Greek philosopher – Diogenes the Cynic. Some may remember Diogenes as the one who went around in broad daylight with a lantern – looking for an honest man. That is a metaphor that can be validated by all Christians.
This method of studying the wisdom and literature of pagans to use against them is exactly what Moses did.
Acts 7:22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. (ESV)
Moses studied these things, not to worship Isis, but to destory Isis. This is precisely what Daniel did, as well.
Daniel 1:3–6 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility,  youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans…Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. (ESV) Daniel 2:27–28 Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked,  but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: (ESV)
Daniel studied and learned and when it came time to answer Nebuchadnezzar, he could articulate the failures of the Babylonian intelligentsia while promoting true biblical wisdom – the fear of God.
Much later, this is exactly how Calvin argued in his masterwork, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which we observe how willingly he quotes secular authors – Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Cato, Cicero, Horace, Josephus, Juvenal, Lucretius, Ovid, Plautus, Pliny, Plutarch, Seneca, Suetonius, Virgil. Christian writers of Calvin’s day had more of a grasp of what plundering was supposed to look like. And it wasn’t to bow to idols but to destroy them. The doctrine of common grace, means that some men will discover the truth, Pythagorean theorem for example, even if they are not believers in the living God.
To return to the New Testament authors, we can see how their classical education equipped them to be God’s mouthpiece. As Ben Witherington III articulates in his work New Testament Rhetoric;
“The dominant paradigm when it came to words and the conveying of ideas, meaning, and persuasion in the NT era was rhetoric…in terms of both structure and content, most NT documents look far more like rhetorical speeches.”
These speeches are the exordium, narratio, propositito, probatio, refutatio and peroratio, as developed by Aristotle, Cicero and the Greek rhetoricians. Examples abound thoughout the sermons of Acts, the book of Philemon, the epistles, and the gospels.
Take the Chreia of Mark in Mark 1:1-6, which meets all the rhetorical criteria of the basic exercises of beginning rhetoric. It is pithy and concise, ending with a memorable saying in v. 4. This also ends the first major division of Mark’s Gospel. Mark has a sense of rhetorical development, leading the reader from one summit in the narrative to another. It helps makes Mark’s gospel so unique. The art of Rhetoric was stolen baptized and used to tell the glorious, good news of the Lord Christ.
The Apostles were instructed in the classical forms of argumentation and persuasion and so, if we understand these forms, we can better understand the NT. This will equip us how to articulate the faith in the same well-reasoned, impassioned, and pithy style of the Apostles.
Reading Old Books
C.S. Lewis, the medievalist Oxford don and Christian thinker, wrote an essay called the Reading of the Old Books, in which he argued;
“A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed ‘at’ some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”
Context matters. This is true in reference to farming practices in Ruth, the competing Sanhedrin and Pharisee parties of first century Palestine and the Classical metaphysical term “logos.” Context matters when reading Spurgeon or Athanasius. But it is even truer when reading parenting books by the Pearls, or Karl Barth’s systematic theology or studying the doctrine of Lesser Magistrates or listening to Crosspolitic. Let the fresh sea breeze of orthodoxy blow the chaff from your mind. And that healthy sea breeze is found in the reading of old books.
Now, as classical Christian education continues to grow and flourish, the question of what to do with “the gold” from what we’ve plundered, must be considered. Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures are thoroughly pagan, after all, and we don’t want any nonsense about he the “noble savage.”
We must be weary. There is an old adage, “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” And this truth comes to us from a Roman poet named Virgil, in reference to the Trojan Horse. Learning how to discern gifts that bring destruction from gifts that bring wisdom is crucial to the education of our children. There are plenty of modern examples in entertainment; sports, movies, Netflix, books and much more – that are trojan horses of worldview rolled to our front door all day. Learning how to engage in the best and brightest of human thought, the “Great books,” is the best way to detect subtleties and errors in our own day.
We can all agree that the Iliad is objectively better than the Hunger Games. We know that Shakespeare is objectively better than J.K. Rowling. But why? Shakespeare is often thought to be highly suspect because of his use of pagan mythology. But context matters. He was a thorough going Protestant. But given the censorship laws, he used the popular device of substituting “Jove,” for Jehovah. Jove, being Jupiter, the King of the heavens in Medieval cosmology. Context matters and learning that context has shaped the greater thinkers and artists of the modern era.
To couple this with Lewis’ idea about old books, how do we articulate the obvious qualitative differences between Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen? Or Nickel Creek and Nickelback? The greatest Christian poem is, arguably, either Beowulf or Dantes’ Inferno. Well, its Beowulf, but why? 😉 And what has that got to do with our choice of worship music?
A thorough going classical and Christian education prepares our children to take on the ideas of western culture, old or new, from a biblical perspective.
Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, the most influential Christian thinker outside the bible (we are all Augustinians, whether we know it or not) argued that we “plunder the Egyptians,” to use the achievements of pagan society to construct God’s house and city. This is tricky, since the ideas we find in Plato, Virgil, Aquinas or Kant must be “baptized” – cleansed and converted. There is conflict here. But the kind of mental conflict, or wrestling that God intends for his Children.
Ephesians 6:12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (ESV)
It requires sticking close to God and His word, the measuring rod for our faith and practice. But with care and wisdom, our children can be greatly enriched, even from pagans, just as God intended.
Proverbs 13:22 A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous. (ESV)