Back in the spring I had an excellent conversation with another classical Christian educator who asked whether we were right to define our endeavors along the lines of John Milton’s idea that we were repairing the ruins of Adam and Eve so that we might love and imitate God. This educator proposed that, as Christians, although this was our goal in the Christian life, our educational goals were different. This educator posited that as Christians, we should desire the best education for our children, and what we provide in classical Christian education should be the best education. The conversation was enlightening and helpful and made me wonder whether we have established a false dichotomy between the two options. What follows are some musings I have been pondering since that time. I would love your feedback and contribution to this conversation as I work toward more formally writing on this topic in the future.
Classical Christian education is often said to be a pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Others have built upon this idea to say that we are aiming to produce wisdom and eloquence in our students. Still further, classical Christian education has been said to be an exploration and instillation of virtue.
Likely the most common statement regarding the goals of classical Christian education comes from a quote by John Milton. In fact, the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS) uses the quote as the source for its annual conference name, “Repairing the Ruins.” In his essay “Of Education,” Milton says that “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.” Others have argued similarly. Gene Fant, for example, has proposed that “the primary purpose of education is the glorification of God.” David Naugle posits that “the goal of education is to produce saints through scholarship.” The commonality in these definitions centers on how education ought to teach students to know God aright that they might glorify and love him aright.
Yet one may object that many who love God and love their neighbor well lack everything but the most basic understanding of Jesus. Certainly many of us have known or know Christians saints who have walked faithfully with God all their lives but have had precious little formal theological training about him. Would it not seem, then, that one could glorify God and love him apart from extensive theological training about him? Certainly this is true. In fact, love and fear of God appears to be the foundation, not the goal, of any knowledge. For example, Proverbs 1 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” It seems, then, that we do not understand in order to believe, but we believe in order to understand. I would therefore agree with Mark Noll in his work Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind when he argues that “coming to know Christ provides the most basic possible motive for pursuing the task of human learning” and that “evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most open-minded advocates of general human learning.”
Yet Scripture nevertheless points us towards the value of knowledge and wisdom as a goal. Although loving God serves as the foundation of knowledge, we are nonetheless called to knowledge, and this knowledge should help us to know and love God aright, and to imitate him as we are instructed. For example, Jesus’ words about loving God and loving one’s neighbor, which help serve as evidence of a Christian disciple, comes in the same context as Jesus’ command to love God with all our minds. Similarly, many Proverbs commend knowledge as the pursuit of the wise, in contrast to the fools who remain foolish in their ignorance. Although we must allow the examples of those who love God with little formal theological training, it does appear as though knowledge, pursued rightly, will lead us to God, since all truth is God’s truth. In this way, if not many others as well, the pursuit of learning in classical Christian education is to know God aright and to live in imitation of him.
Ultimately, both sides make strong arguments. Certainly our educational pursuits must have as their end the glory of God and our imitation of Christ, as this is the goal of all activities in life. But we must be careful to avoid thinking that a classical Christian education is the only means of magnifying God’s glory. One must balance the reality that knowledge can draw us close to God with the reality that one can grow close to God apart from extensive theological and educational training, just as one can grow in knowledge while walking further and further from God. Classical Christian education, then, aims at both faithful Christian discipleship and education in the seven liberal arts. It is a both/and approach, not an either/or.
Thus, the goal and purpose of classical Christian education is not only a pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, but also a pursuit of wisdom and virtue, both of which must be defined Christianly. Classical Christian education does provide the best education available for the pursuit of truth, but this pursuit has as its telos the Triune God. Since God is the sovereign creator and ruler over all things, nothing, including education, is outside the scope of our relationship with Him. Since all truth is God’s truth, good education must begin by recognizing and relating rightly to him as God in all areas of life, including all subjects in school. Only from this worldview can we pursue any discipline of study with any lasting hope of success.
John Milton, “Of Education.” Accessed March 7, 2017 at https://www.dartmouth. edu/~milton/ reading_room/of_education/text.shtml. The English actually reads: “The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.”
Gene Fant, Jr., The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 19.
David Naugle, Presentation at ACCS 2015.
Following the language of both Augustine and Anselm, along with many other Christians throughout the ages.
Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), ix-x.
Photo Credit: Association of Classical and Christian Schools, http://2018.repairingtheruins.org/