This past week I had the opportunity to attend the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island. The final paper I attended was not only one of the best of the conference, but also led to some further reflection that I think is helpful for our endeavors in classical Christian education.
The presentation was given by John Dickson and it was entitled “‘Creeds’ as Educational Epitomes of the Gospel.” In this presentation, Dickson suggests that several of the so-called “creeds” of the New Testament (e.g., Phil 2:6-11; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Cor 15:3-5; etc.) are in fact better understood as educational epitomes. The common notion in scholarship revolves around the idea that passages such as those mentioned above are early Christian hymns and creeds that developed in the context of gathered worship. Dickson, however, although not denying that may have been used in such contexts, makes an excellent case that they may in fact have been developed as educational epitomes. In the interest of brevity, I’ll give only the most basic outline of this argument. Dickson first explores an ancient Egyptian artifact that provides an educational catechism of the chreia, one of more than a dozen elements of the ancient progymnasmata (preliminary rhetoric exercises). He then goes on to describe the framework of the Epicurean school, noting that Epicurean teaching was summarized in a list of 40 sayings that were themselves summarized by the first four, and these four were themselves summarized in a short creed-like epitome known as the tetrapharmakos. Essentially, then, a student could recite the tetrapharmakos, then expand with the four sayings, and then with the forty sayings. It was a creedal epitome of an epitome of an epitome of Epicurean teaching. All students then, would have the same memorized summary of Epicurean teaching, but could presumably expand upon these initial sayings.
Likewise, Dickson argues that a passage like 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 functioned similarly. Students would memorize 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, but they could presumably expand upon this short statement with ease. Thus, when reciting that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, students would be able to express where and how the Old Testament spoke to Christ’s death. When reciting that he appeared to the twelve, they could expand with stories of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. This short verbal epitome of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, then, served as an educational tool that would summarize larger groupings of theology and stories with which the students would also be familiar. These verbal epitomes, Dickson argues, were themselves expanded into larger verbal epitomes such as the Apostles’ Creed, which itself could be expanded into the Athanasian Creed.
Dickson’s argument is convincing and provides promise for New Testament and early church studies, and I am looking forward to him publishing and expanding on this work. For my purposes here, however, I merely want to suggest that this presentation suggests a strong biblical foundation for the practice of catechesis and verbal epitomes in classical Christian education. I think it would be highly valuable in our schools to expand memorization beyond the grammar stage. Many schools, such as my own, do this through Scripture memory, the Apostles’ Creed, and poetry and speech recitations—these should continue. But I think it may prove helpful for us to create longer, more detailed epitomes to follow some of the basic memorization practices of our grammar school. Certainly many are already on this path, and I would love to hear how other schools have implemented this kind of idea.