Issues of Early Christian Education

In this post, we will look at two issues that Christian education had to address during the period of AD 300-900. These two concerns are the debate between Christian learning and Greek thought and the teaching capacity of educational leaders.

Faith & Hellenism

With the growth of the Christian church within the Roman Empire was a corresponding tension between Christian thought and Greek philosophy. Church leaders were split over whether Christians should study Greek thought along with church teachings.

This debate continued and perhaps grew when the Christian church had firm control of education within the empire by the fourth century. In general, the divide over the inclusion of Greek thought in the education process was split between those who said avoid Greek thought and those who said embrace it.

For the anti-Greeks, they had a strong example of what happens when a Christian studies Greek teachings in the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (331-363). Julian’s exposure to the classics of Greek thought (and Neo-Platonism) as a student, led him into outright involvement with mystery cults and magic. To further compound matters, Julian attempted to reestablish paganism as the religion of Rome before his untimely demise at the age of 32. Julian was the last emperor to openly oppose Christianity and his actions were all the evidence anti-Greek Christians had that the writings of Plato and Aristotle should be avoided.

For those who supported the study of ancient Greek writers, their argument rested in caution and temperance when reading the classics. One Christian educator warned against hating worldly sciences and that the ideas of these authors should be supplementary to scripture. Julian’s problem was an intemperate and uncritical study of Plato and his peers.

This debate over faith vs Hellenism has continued for the pass 800-900 years. However, there is not as much objection to studying secular thought as there used to be as Christian education has mostly accepted it with the strong exception of several highly controversial ideas (sexual orientation, creation, etc.).

Teaching

As time continued, monks and priests began to educate the young. Unfortunately,  the education that they provided was considered of low quality as they generally focused only on teaching the trivium (Grammar, logic, and rhetoric) in terms of knowledge. Quadrivium was rarely taught if at all.

In addition, the monks and the priest were in need of education themselves. It was common for these men of faith to a lack of a formal education in the position in which they served the church. As such, they were frequently not much ahead of the students in terms of their learning. This led to a push for formal training and education of priests and monks in the 7th and 8th centuries.

In terms of the teaching style, there was a move from the discussion-oriented style of the Greeks to a focus on memorization. This was not done simply to stifle the critical thinking of the students. Rather, the price of parchment rose drastically during this time period, which made it difficult to write things down. The only way to learn now was to memorize large amounts of material because there was no other cheap way to retain knowledge.

Conclusion

There will always be differences and issues that challenge education. The purpose is to examine how others have addressed problems in order to learn from their successes and failures. To this day, Christian leaders struggle with the role of secular thought tin the education of its members. In addition, there are still issues with the qualifications of teachers and the style of teaching tat is employed. As such, a look to the past will simply confirm that problems never change.

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