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), the largest organization of classical Christian educators, 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. We 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, indicated above 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.
Thus, the goal and purpose of classical Christian education may better be defined as a pursuit of wisdom and virtue, both of which must be defined Christianly, because we believe it to be the best education available for the pursuit of truth, a pursuit which 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.
Head, Heart, and Hands
If we are training students towards wisdom and virtue, then classical Christian education cannot merely be about the mind, about filling up one’s intellect with knowledge. But neither, as we argue in the previous section, is wisdom and virtue an exercise apart from knowledge. What we need is a holistic Christian education, one that instructs the head (intellect), the heart (orders our desires), and our hands (doers of the word, and not hearers only). Put another way, it seems that classical Christian education must be an education that focuses on how all truth is God’s truth (the head), how to rightly order our desires toward the kingdom (heart), and how these come together in faithful discipleship in the present (hands). At School of the Ozarks, we possess a rich heritage of this notion. One can see that our early school seal says “menti, manui, et animo”—head, hands, and mind (heart). And to extend the rich heritage further back, Deuteronomy 6, of which Jesus quotes in Matthew 22, reminds us to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength.
As mentioned earlier, we are aiming to produce students of wisdom and virtue. Classically, seven virtues have stood at the forefront of education and life: Fortitude, Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Faith, Hope, and Love (or, Charity). The first four are called the Four Cardinal Virtues, or sometimes the Natural or Pagan Virtues. Such a name may give many Christians pause, but it remains a helpful reminder that many of the things that are commonly referred to as “pagan” nevertheless reflect Christian truth. We should be cautious not to throw away something simply because it is called “pagan,” but we should instead take time to assess its truth claims and see whether it presents truth, and then consider whether it reflects also the good and the beautiful.
Augustine provides a helpful reminder of this task in his book On Christian Doctrine. In Book II, Chapter 40, Augustine uses the analogy of the things the Israelites plundered from Egypt in the Exodus and the way in which these things could be “turned to the service of Christ.” A brief consideration of Scripture shows that these four virtues certainly have been and can continue to be used in the service of Christ.
The last three—Faith, Hope, and Love (or Charity)—are known as the Three Theological Virtues (cf., 1 Cor 13) and are specifically Christian. In many ways, these three virtues are the foundation upon which Fortitude, Justice, Prudence, and Temperance are built, and as 1 Corinthians 13 suggests, the greatest of these is love. Hence, one ought not be surprised to find that when Jesus taught about how Christians should live, he taught them to love God and to love their neighbor as themselves. Love thus stands as the foundation of Christian discipleship and holds together and sets forward these seven virtues as a worthy model and goal of our education in our pursuit of wisdom and virtue.
True, Good, and Beautiful
The phrase, the good, the true, and the beautiful, has become something of a motto in classical Christian education. The phrase, rightly understood, has much to commend itself and serves as a helpful reminder for Christian educators. Emphasis on the true, the good, and the beautiful is neither new nor uniquely Christian. These three concepts are known as the three great transcendentals, abstract nouns that we can all speak about and know about but literally cannot lay hold of and touch. These three great transcendentals serve as a foundation for all that exists—that is, everything that exists does so to the extent that it is true, good, and beautiful. That which is false, evil, and ugly, therefore, has no existence in its own right, but is instead a distortion, perversion, or corruption of that which is true, good, and beautiful.
Not only do we aim to teach students to see the good, the true, and the beautiful in the world, but desire for them to learn to create it themselves. Part of educating for formation and not merely information is teaching students to evaluate that which is good, to think critically and to discern truth amidst untruth, and to discover and create beauty in a world that is increasingly controlled by what Louis Markos calls the “Cult of Ugly.” Others have used a metaphor of a river. We are not trying to (nor could we ever hope to) teach students all about the river; rather, we are teaching students how to navigate the river for themselves that they might find the good, the true, and the beautiful on their own.
But for many students, we expect they do not understand what we mean when we tell them to embrace the good, the true, and the beautiful. Therefore, we think it is helpful as educators to explain this terminology if it is our hope that they will live this way. Mortimer Adler has argued that beauty is a synthesis, a kind of combination of aspects of the true and the good. “I think it is more like this, that truth and goodness come first and are coordinate with one another; and that beauty is somehow derived from these two or somehow dependent on these two. Somehow beauty is not of the same order as truth and goodness.” Stratford Caldecott argues similarly, suggesting that “beauty is the radiance of the true and the good, and it is what attracts us to both.”
This suggests several things about Christian education. First, we must put significant emphasis on the truth. As Arthur Holmes has argued, all truth is God’s truth wherever it is found, so we need not fear where the truth will take us. The Christian worldview alone allows us to look objectively at reality because we are not afraid of what we will find in any discipline. Second, we must include in our education an emphasis on the good. We must communicate biblical truth about morality. Morality, like truth, is not subjective; there is objective moral truth, and there is one place it is grounded—in the character and nature of God Himself. Any other attempts to ground morality fail to provide any objective standard, and students must understand both this truth and its attendant implications and consequences. One helpful guide of what is good is reflected in the seven virtues discussed above. Finally, we must teach students about beauty, and we must ground it in the true and the good.
That beauty is rooted in the true and the good has significant implications, especially for the Arts, for if beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder, then it lacks truth in any objective sense. But a faithful Christian education, we suggest, must maintain that beauty is not an entirely subjective concept. As Christians, we must maintain that beauty is an objective standard, though we can certainly allow for individual preferences and tastes. That is why we can consistently agree on literary works that are classics, without all enjoying them equally (e.g., a preference for British over American literature). Although space does not permit further discussion here, the implications of an objective understanding of beauty are far ranging and worth exploring.
Ultimately, Markos sums it up well when he writes that “the good, the true, and the beautiful are all action words that call us to take a quick glance backward and then trudge on with hope toward the distant land that is our true home.” May we set our eyes on what is true, live our lives according to the good, as we wait for the revealing of true beauty in our King and the coming Kingdom.
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.
We recommend James K. A. Smith’s work Desiring the Kingdom, for a lengthier discussion of how we are homo adorans (loving beings) and homo liturgicus (liturgical beings), and how these conclusions point us towards a more holistic education.
Find exact quote and page number for this.
See for example Augustine’s discussion of evil in The Confessions, Book VII, Chapter 5. He also writes in Book XI, Chapter 9 of The City of God: “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’”
Markos, Restoring Beauty, 33.
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization, ed. Max Weismann (Chicago: Open Court, 2000), 156, 153.
Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, 31.
By the Arts, we mean things like visual art (drawing, painting, sculptures, etc.), music, theater, dance, architecture, and related disciplines.
We would recommend Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, IVP Classics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006); Jerram Barrs, Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013); Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007); Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, Turning Point Christian Worldview Series (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990); among many other good works on the topic.
Markos, Restoring Beauty, 11.