Liberal education and Christian truth

If one were to design a system by which to crush whatever is uniquely human in man, and therefore highest and most important, it would very closely resemble modern public education in the United States. While causation is difficult to discern, there is undoubtedly a correlation between the secular atmosphere in public schools and their obsession with technical training. When humans are stripped of their ability to ask the ultimate questions, the inevitable result is a reduction of man to the level of mere laborer; he is a beast of burden with slightly better planning abilities but significantly less strength. Vice versa, the beast of burden does not ask where he comes from, where he is going, and how he is supposed to get there. This is the state of crisis in which Christians find ourselves in the realm of education. How we respond to this modern challenge is of the utmost importance to the future of mankind. The answer, however, is not further innovation, which possesses the potential to lead us even further astray, but rather in a return to our foundations; the answer has already been bequeathed to us in the heritage we have derived from our earliest forebears and heroes in the Faith.

Pope Benedict XVI succinctly summarized both the problem and the solution in a homily given at the Cathedral of Munich in 2006. Addressing his remarks to teachers, he advised,

… it is no easy thing in schools to bring up the subject of faith. But it is hardly enough for our children and young people to learn technical knowledge and skills alone, and not the criteria that give knowledge and skill their direction and meaning. Encourage your students not only to raise questions about particular things … but above all to ask about the why and the wherefore of life as a whole. Help them to realize that any answers that do not finally lead to God are insufficient.

The sort of education to which Benedict XVI points here is a liberal education, the same sort of education pointed to by early Christians, and for precisely the same reason.

St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromateis, for example, calls upon Christians to learn philosophy which, he says, “is a useful guide towards reverence for God.” Clement believed that philosophy “is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” Philosophy prepares the soul to encounter, understand, and give assent to the truths of Scripture. Later in the same work, Clement claims of philosophy and other elements of liberal learning that “in the course of these studies, the soul is purified from its sense perception and rekindled with the power of discerning the truth.” Rather than training the student to rely only upon his “sense perception,” as does technical training, thereby imbuing in him the presupposition that he is a merely sensual being, liberal learning instead directs him to the powers of the human mind and soul, powers which far exceed those of the sensual. Through the development of these faculties, the student learns to love and desire truth and is equipped with the tools by which to seek after it with zeal.

As Clement presents us with the theory of education necessary to a renewed Christian education in the modern world, the process of education used by Origen in the intellectual and spiritual formation of his students presents us with the practical model to be followed. In a speech address to his teacher, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, a disciple of Origen, describes this process and the results to which it led him. According to Gregory, Origen “urged me to study the philosophy of the Greeks, and persuaded me by his own moral example both to hear and to hold by the doctrine of morals.” Through this steady regime of liberal learning coupled with demonstration of a life of virtue, Gregory was “won over” to Origen’s school and its ideas. Origen insisted that his students focus upon and attain to the famous motto of ancient Greek philosophy: “Know thyself.” Gregory continues, “while the soul is exercised in beholding itself as in a mirror, and reflects the divine mind in itself, if it is worthy of such a relation, and traces out a certain inexpressible method for the attaining of a kind of apotheosis.”

Origen’s system led his students through liberal learning to the truths of Christianity. If the purpose of an education is not to make beasts of burden, but is instead, as it should be, to make saints, the example of Gregory is the finest example from early Christianity of the sort of education we should seek to return to. It is an education in the highest thing which leads children finally to the Highest of all.

Against the Gideons

While on a recent vacation I stayed for several nights in a room at a hotel owned by a major hotel chain. In the drawer of the nightstand near the bed in that hotel room was a copy of the Bible that had been placed there by The Gideons International, an organization known throughout the world for its distribution of free Bibles to hotels, hospitals, servicemen, school students, and others. While there is undoubtedly much that is commendable about their mission to provide a copy of the Scriptures free of charge to all people, this practice should, on close and thoughtful observation, evoke some apprehension as well. As apparently praiseworthy as the idea may be, the practice of freely distributing Bibles reflects an approach to the Scriptures that is too simplistic and does not take into account the nature of either Scripture or of the human mind.

Scripture is notoriously difficult to interpret and even says as much of itself in the famous exchange between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch recorded in Acts 8. When Philip sees the eunuch reading the Bible, he asks him, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” (Acts 8:30, King James Version). The eunuch responds, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:31). The clear message of these verses is that a new reader needs an experienced interpreter to guide him in order to open up the Scriptures to his understanding.

Another example of the early Church’s understanding of Scripture and its interpretation emerges in its yearly liturgical cycle. An intriguing pattern in the lectionaries used in various locations in the early Church is that the Gospel of John was read during the Paschal season, beginning with the opening verses being read at the service which began on the Saturday night preceding Easter.1 Interestingly, in the early Church, “baptism except in cases of emergency was normally [performed] at Easter.”2 The reason that these newly-baptized Christians would only now be exposed to the Gospel of John is evident when the words of the Church Fathers concerning the nature of that Gospel are taken into account. St. Clement of Alexandria, for example, wrote that after seeing that Matthew, Mark, and Luke had written about the “plain” facts of the life of Jesus in their gospels, St. John decided to write his own “spiritual Gospel.”3 Clement’s student Origen went even further and asserted that there are things in John which are not literally true at all, but that “the spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in the material falsehood.”4 It is evident, then, that this Gospel was considered suitable only for those who had already been catechized and entered the Faith through baptism.

That so many of the Fathers, including Origen, saw fit to write extensive commentaries on the books of the Bible is also evidence of their recognition that these books are often difficult to interpret. Fathers like St. Augustine of Hippo and St. John Chrysostom wrote volumes of commentaries, often commenting verse-by-verse, on books of the Bible. Augustine even wrote his On Christian Teaching largely as a guide for biblical interpretation. In that work, he recommends especially “experience strengthened by the exercise of piety” as the key element in correct biblical interpretation.5

A look at modern handlings of biblical interpretation presents a similar picture. There is a popular legend that Bibles were chained to pulpits in medieval churches to prevent non-clergy from taking and reading them. Martin Luther, so the legend goes, fought to change this and to make the Bible available to all people. Although this legend is, ultimately, just a legend, there is something to be said for the work of Martin Luther and other early Protestant Reformers in popularizing the Scriptures and making them more accessible to the masses. Arguably, Luther and his ilk did almost as much to Christianize Europe as did the early medieval missionaries like Ss. Patrick of Ireland and Augustine of Canterbury.

They also, however, created a situation in which it was more difficult than ever to interpret the Bible. As Roger Lundin explains,

By taking the question of interpretation out of the framework of ecclesiastical authority and locating it in the transaction of the reader and the text, Protestantism increased the need for principles to guide interpretation. In the absence of institutional authority, there arose a clear need for rules [of interpretation].6

This is precisely the point at which we find the Bible placed by the Gideons. In a hotel room late at night, a bored guest opens the nightstand drawer, pulls out the Bible that has been placed there, and begins to read. All that is present is “the reader and the text.” Not only is there no “institutional authority” but there are also no “rules” for this uninformed reader. Imagine a reader, and there are a growing number of them even in our own midst, who is entirely unfamiliar with the history and tradition of Christianity and with the various approaches to biblical interpretation; could this reader possibly reach conclusions consonant with an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith?

While the Gideons have taken upon themselves a mission that seems appealing to a Christian at first sight, the consequences of their actions may be a cause for concern. These randomly placed or given Bibles are equally as likely, and perhaps more likely, to produce a new brand of heresy or unbelief as a result of reading by an untrained, unguided individual as they are to produce real, salvific faith. A reevaluation of the Gideons’ tactics in the light of these considerations is in order.

1, (accessed 8 October 2013).

2 Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 785.

3 Euesbius Pamphilius, Church History, 6.14.7.

4 Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 10.4.

5 Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 3.24.

6 Roger Lundin, “Hermeneutics,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 152-3.

Personhood in Medieval Philosophy (Personhood Part VI)

The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.

One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.

Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75 


69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.

71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, (accessed 20 April 2013).