Vizzini: Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?
—William Goldman, The Princess Bride (1987)
Sometimes They Do Say, “A Squirrel”
It was Christmastime. Around our table sat some of our school’s brightest graduates. “What do you remember best from high school?” I asked them. Something from Biblical Theology, I supposed, or maybe Systematics. They were all good Bible students. But the first answer I got was Rachel’s: “You remember the squirrel that runs up and down the World Ash Tree? That!”
The World Ash Tree: Yggdrasill, the cosmic axis of the Nine Worlds in Norse mythology. I don’t remember the name of the squirrel. Yes, I teach mythology—Egyptian, Greek, Norse, and Germanic.1 It falls in World Literature, a junior/senior class. In addition to my lectures, we read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Aeneid. We read a little from the Elder and Younger Eddas, early sources for Norse mythology.
I’m not sure why the Norse squirrel stuck in Rachel’s memory: probably because the idea was a bit quirky. I do know that Rachel has an excellent knowledge of Scripture and of systematic theology. We spent a few weeks here and there with mythology: we spent four years with the words and doctrines of Holy Scripture. Quirky squirrels to the contrary, Rachel and her classmates are not classicists, but they are Christians. And they know their Bibles well.
Christian Education at the Crossroads
Education is inescapably religious. Like all things human, it will be directed in the service of the triune God or in the service of some idol. But “service” implies not only a transcendent authority—a Lord who must be obeyed—but also a revelation from that authority that includes specific requirements. (“Service” also implies sanctions.2) If we are going to serve God in our teaching and learning, we have to know what He has revealed and what He requires. We have to know what God has said. Then we have to submit to it. This means we must bring our educational beliefs and practices captive to the Word of God, to Holy Scripture.
Today, however, there are voices within the Christian community—or at least, just outside its walls—that are finding God’s revelation, God’s will, in high human tradition, in Aristotelian logic, or in the pagan classics. If we want to humanize and civilize our young, they say, we must begin with the Greeks.3
Now, Paul knew Greek philosophy and culture. He had read the Stoic poets. He could quote them from memory.4 Yet he pointed Timothy, not to the local academies, but to the inspired Word of God that was able to make him “perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:14–17). As far as Paul was concerned, the classical world was morally corrupt, epistemologically bankrupt, and religiously demonic (Rom. 1:20–32; 1 Cor. 10:19–21). The classical world needed the gospel.
The issue at stake here is not whether we should read Homer and Plato. The issue is how we should read them. How will we analyze or make use of what we find there? Will we begin from Scripture, with its doctrines of divine transcendence and sovereignty, of total depravity and sovereign grace, and let Scripture critique and condemn Greek humanism? Or will we begin with Greek humanism and try to baptize it with some bland moralisms in the name of Christ? Will Scripture be our foundation or our afterthought? If we are going to serve Jesus, the answer shouldn’t be difficult.
From the beginning, however, Satan has challenged the Word of God. His “Hath God said?” in Eden was quickly followed by, “Ye shall not surely die.” God, he told Eve, knows something you don’t know: He is lying to you. So Satan proposed a test of God’s Word concerning the forbidden Tree. In effect, Satan asked Eve to step out onto the theoretically neutral ground of her own autonomous heart and mind and there put God’s Word to the test. But such a test was hardly neutral: it was blatant unbelief. For the Tree was God’s creature through and through. So was Eve. So was Adam. They were His image, and He had spoken to them plainly. Their being resonated to His Word. To pretend otherwise was an act of incredible rebellion and folly. But if they were going to decide good and evil for themselves, it was a necessary folly. Adam and Eve could maintain their own autonomy only by presupposing that God the Creator did not and could not exist. Man has continued in that folly ever since.
From Polytheism to Natural Law
Satan’s “Ye shall not surely die” implied other forces in the universe as ancient and, in their own spheres, as powerful as God. Satan spoke for cosmic evolution and for polytheism, the existence of many gods, of whom Jehovah was but one. But many gods means many law-orders and many truths. For polytheism, every tribe, nation, and city-state was its own cosmos, defined in terms of its own god and its own religion. When nations went to war, their gods went to war. The defeated god would be incorporated into the pantheon of the victor … as a subordinate. Every military defeat was a religious defeat, and the victorious god was a new truth for a new day.
The Greek philosophers tried to rationalize and naturalize their theories of knowledge and learning. They abandoned the myths and exalted Reason, the divine quality shared by man and “God,” whatever he might be. But for all their talk of transcendent absolutes, the Greeks could not escape the notion of an immanent absolute—the state. The polis, the city-state, was the incarnation of the divine.5 “Man is by nature a political animal,” Aristotle wrote, “and he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a State (polis) is either above humanity or below it.” This is not secularism as we know it; it is religious humanism, and it is the context for everything that Plato and Aristotle wrote. It completely conditioned the Greek conception of education: education was for, by, and through the polis; that is, one’s own polis. For Plato and Aristotle, that meant Athens.
But when Alexander’s conquests transformed the world into a Hellenistic empire, the polis failed as educator and absolute, and Hellenistic philosophy wrestled with meaning and law in a cosmopolitan world. The Cynics and Epicureans assumed a divine disinterest in the affairs of man; they retreated into a rabid individualism. “Yet the old idea, that man owed an allegiance to the order of relationships supporting his existence, was too deeply rooted, and it fell to the Stoics to work out a new formula for membership.”6 The Stoics tried to root law in Nature, in the divine intelligence or logos inherent in the cosmos itself. Here it would be accessible to all right-thinking human beings. “For there is one universe made up of all things, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, one common reason in all intelligent animals, and one truth …”7 So wrote the philosopher-king, Marcus Aurelius, persecutor of Christians.
Now comes some theological sleight of hand. Since God reveals Himself in creation—since every man is the image of God with the “work of the law” written in his heart—can’t we conclude that Stoic philosophy stumbled upon a Biblical truth? Aren’t general revelation and natural law the same thing? And isn’t this, at last, common ground? For eighteen centuries, Western civilization and Western education have rested on this assumption.8 Of course, no one talks about total depravity.
Common Ground Education
In The Classical Teacher Cheryl Lowe writes,
In the Western tradition, education has always been synonymous with classical education. It began with the Greeks and Romans, was preserved and expanded by Christians during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and continued unabated until well into the twentieth century.9
“Preserved and expanded”: the assumption is a basic continuity between Greek and Roman paganism and “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). That is, there is a natural law to which both pagan and Christian can appeal, and thus a neutral plan of education fit for both—at least as long as everyone is reasonable.
Discussing the Great Books curriculum, E. Christian Kopff writes in terms of a similar assumption: Western culture is the product of an ongoing conversation and debate carried out in the great works of Western literature. This conversation began with Greece, and the Iliad is the first book in the canon. This conversation, Kopff tells us, “extends from Homer through Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas.”10
However, handing down the torch of human understanding is a risky business. Cicero made Greek thought live in great literature in Latin. The genius of Augustine and Aquinas assimilated Christian perspectives into the living reality of Plato and Aristotle. That tradition, also by means of humane assimilation (and genius), survived through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But one generation may drop the project or run off towards a cul-de-sac.11
It seems that the Greek and Roman authors were having a conversation about important matters, and Augustine and Aquinas managed to find room in that conversation for Christians who had something useful to say. Renaissance humanists were the next to come to the table. But, for Kopff, the Enlightenment writers dropped the project: they rejected tradition and nearly brought the Great Conversation to an end.
Once again there is an assumption of philosophical neutrality and of human autonomy. Christianity enters the classical conversation as (maybe) an equal participant, but certainly not as the representative of the holy Creator sent by Him to call all men to repentance. The church must yield up her prophetic voice, and frame whatever she has to say in terms of the common ground of neutral reason and natural law.
Kopff completely misunderstands the Enlightenment as well. While Enlightenment writers tried to edit Christianity out of the Great Conversation, they had no problem at all with Greek rationalism or with the esoteric and occult strains that pervade classical thought.12 The Enlightenment was classical thought rushing headlong toward maturity.
But humanism is self-destructive. When men do not “like to retain God in their knowledge,” God gives them over to a reprobate mind, a mind void of judgment (Rom. 1:28ff). The ethical consequences are profound and horrible. Jesus says, “[A]ll they that hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36b). There is no common ground, no concord between Christ and Belial. There is only life and death, heaven and hell. We have to serve somebody: it had better be the Lord.
Scripture as History and Story
Now if we as educators want to get serious about beginning our work from Scripture, we will likely have some practical problems. Let me illustrate the first. See if you recognize this:
So Inigo killed the six-fingered man. Wesley had been mostly dead all day. Buttercup jumped into eel-infested waters. There was a mighty duel: both were masters. But they survived the Fire Swamp, for “This is true love.”
Yes, this is The Princess Bride. No, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s full of gaps and out of order. Now try this:
So David killed the giant with a sling. And Jesus rose from the dead. Noah built an ark and the animals came on, two by two. Elijah ascended into heaven, but Judas betrayed Christ. And Daniel survived the lion’s den, for “God so loved the world …”
This also doesn’t make much sense. Yet many of us have learned the Bible this way—in bits and pieces with no evident connection and in no particular order. The plot is missing and so are the thematic connections. We are left with a handful—often no more—of odd supernatural tales after the fashion of The Arabian Nights or a few moralistic stories like those in Aesop’s Fables.
But consider: the Bible is a book. This may seem obvious, but it is actually profound. The Bible has a beginning and an end: it has a plot and a purpose. For the most part, it is history—and not dry, dull facts, but fascinating and lively story—story that begins in Creation and the Fall, moves through God’s covenant with the patriarchs and with Israel, and culminates in the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. In short, the Bible is about Jesus: “[T]he testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10d). If we don’t understand all the pieces in terms of Him, we really won’t understand much of anything. And if we don’t even know the pieces, and in order at that, we won’t know Him very well either.
Young people have no trouble learning the ins and outs of the Star Wars saga or the complex history and geography of Middle-earth.13 There is no cognitive reason that they can’t master the Bible’s story just as well. Any teenage student of Scripture should be able to tell the story of redemption from Creation to the Cross—and in some detail. The books of the Bible, the six days of Creation, the Ten Commandments, the seven covenants of promise, the Levitical offerings and festivals, the floor plan of the tabernacle and temple, the succession of the kings, the prophecies of Daniel: these are all things that a good student can learn easily, even quickly—especially when they form the framework for the greatest story ever told. But if our students are going to learn them, we who are educators must learn them first.
Scripture as Theology
Now let me illustrate a second problem. The next time you go to a Christian educators’ conference, take a look at the book tables. Count the number of books on systematic theology and doctrine you see there. In my experience, it’s somewhere near zero. There may be some books on worldview and probably some on educational philosophy or psychology. There may be some devotionals for teachers or some counseling helps. There will probably be some Christian biographies. Books on doctrine you won’t find.
Here’s another assignment. Take out your school’s or church’s statement of faith. Read it through carefully. Now explain how each of its propositions relates to your curriculum as a whole and to particular subjects or lessons more particularly. What, for example, does the doctrine of the Trinity have to do with language and communication? with painting? with feudalism or federalism? Or how should our belief in God’s providence affect our understanding of economics and law? of gravity or the scientific method? What does the doctrine of the Incarnation have to do with the birth of Western civilization?
We should be able to answer these questions. But, first, we must understand the faith. Jude speaks of the faith “once [for all] delivered unto the saints.” Paul writes, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” There is a doctrinal unity to Christianity. Scripture contains a system of truth, a consistent, objective self-revelation from the living God. To understand, apply, and defend that system is the work of systematic theology. Systematics emphasizes the unity of the faith, its internal coherence. It shows how all of God’s truth stands together, and it summarizes that truth in an orderly and useful manner.14 It works from Scripture: it works in terms of the creeds and confessions of the church, and those creeds and confessions are the product of the faithful church doing systematic theology under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can begin our studies using the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed as study guides. We can move on to the Formula of Chalcedon or the Athanasian Creed.15 Then there are the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. We can read Calvin, Turretin, or Berkhof and find still greater treasures. At every step, we will learn there is much more to learn and that it is all profitable for an education in godliness.
Scripture as Law and Life
This brings us to a third practical problem: we must not reduce the study of Scripture to an academic exercise. It is Christ we encounter in Scripture. We must come ready to hear and obey. He speaks to us infallibly and with authority. He teaches us and commands us. He grants us grace and power. His words are truth and law, Spirit and life. We must believe every word, and live by all of them. Practically, this means that any lecture or discussion may easily turn to issues of faith and godliness. We will find ourselves talking of God’s law as we rise up and lie down and walk by the way. Of course, this is exactly what our Lord commands (Deut. 6:4–9).
“Thy Words Were Found, and I Did Eat Them …”
Scripture is the inspired Word of God. That makes it valuable beyond reckoning—more precious than gold, more vital than our necessary bread. Furthermore, Scripture is about our Savior and our salvation. It ought to be the joy and rejoicing of our hearts. We really should work at knowing it better, understanding it more deeply, and applying it more broadly. There is a place for the Greeks and the Romans, and even for quirky Norse squirrels. But that place is not at the heart of our learning or teaching; it is not at the foundation of what we call Christian education. Jesus has told us how to build: we must hear His sayings and do them. Nothing less will do.
1 Some of my lectures on Norse mythology are currently on YouTube. They seem to be the most popular of my posted lectures. Sad, that.
2 Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).
3 See, for instance, Cheryl Lowe, “Why Read Homer’s Iliad?”, The Classical Teacher, Spring 2008, 19.
4 He quotes from Aratus and Cleanthes in Acts 17:28; he also quotes the Cretan poet Epimenides there and in Titus 1:12.
5 Any educator who feels the lure of ancient Greece needs to sit down and read chapter 4 of Rousas J. Rushdoony’s The One and the Many.
6 Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 67.
7 Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, VII, 9.
8 North, Political Polytheism, xxi.
9 Lowe, “Why Read Homer’s Iliad?”, 18.
10 E. Christian Kopff, The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001), 92.
12 On the place of the occult and esoteric in revolutionary Enlightenment thought, see James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1980), especially chap. 4.
13 I can still tell you the title and plot of any episode of the original Star Trek within its first four seconds—a hangover from my youth.
14 Greg Uttinger, An Introduction to Systematics (Anderson, CA: 1994), 1.
15 R. J. Rushdoony’s Foundations of Social Order is an invaluable tool for this sort of study.