The Mis-education of Origen

The Christian Curmudgeon wonders about the so-called “Christian world and life view.”

 Hurrah and hallelujah.

But is it really true that if the Curmudgeon’s case is proved true that “…we will still need Christian schools, to counteract the stupidity and irrationality of the state schools, to bring up our children in the context of Christian morality, and to add the Bible classes and chapels to ‘regular’ courses”? If W.A. Strong’s account Children in the Early Church is true, the early church didn’t think so. So in response to Curmudgeon’s adapting a former Nicotine Theological Journal piece of his, I’m re-posting an old blog post from here.

For good reason, it is somewhat commonplace to appeal to the primitive and early church to make a case for one thing or another. It is an interesting course if only because these ancient alleys were a mixture of graceful and sinful ways. The Apostle Paul’s letters were precipitated not only by the need for commendation but also by behaviors that demanded rebuke and correction. But in an age marked more by a quaint nostalgia for things gone by than a tutored reach back into the past, I suspect much of the time the reach is as much a function of romance as anything more soberly Protestant. This obviously isn’t for a moment to suggest that looking back shouldn’t be done; but rather it would seem that the employment of historical precedent requires more care in a time which either disregards it, or perhaps worse, utilizes it in a less than helpful way.

For example, it is especially common to hear appeal to the early church when attempting to draw parallels between the phenomenon of “infant exposure” and our more current debates surrounding abortion. How often do we hear references to the Didache: “You shall not kill a child in the womb, nor shall you slay it when born” (Did. 2.2), or appeals to Justin Martyr as he breathed against the practice of exposure, claiming it as one of the Christian virtues that believers did not practice such things (1 Apology 27)? Unfortunately for the contemporary cause, typically overlooked is the fact that such imperatives were directed at Christians only. Insofar as Martyr’s words were in sync with the Apostle’s ethic to mind our own hushed and sequestered business (1 Cor. 5), much of the modern appeal really has little to no relevant application to how our powers-that-be should legislate anything at large. Moreover, as perfectly sound as such ethical directives to believers may be, as I pointed out in a previous post, the contemporary justification for the church raising her voice within so as to be heard in the present controversies without is yet fraught with difficulties scarcely contemplated. It would appear, once again, the mad dash to be relevant eclipses a better prudence.

But there is another controversial topic these days: education. Curiously absent the legalistic arguments amongst those who would that public education is anything from “ill-advised” to synonymous with “handing one’s seed over to Molech”—which usually co-exist amongst those who point to early church history to justify the church’s meddling in the world’s legislative affairs as above—is the sort of history recounted by W.A. Strong in his Children in the Early Church. If the Didache and Martyr are invoked to gird the loins of today’s natalist culture warriors, the postures of Tertullian, Origen and Chrysostom are quite overlooked with regard to how those at once ex utero and members of believing households ought to understand their cultural vocations by way of education. Since it so closely complements my own two-kingdom advocacy for secular education in both theory and practice, I’d like to quote at length Strong’s brief historical account and interpretation:

“The early Christians lived in a society whose values were inimical to them in many respects. The pagan society around them was underpinned by a religion which they considered false, if not demonic; it was characterized by moral values they could not share; and it was entered into by an education steeped in paganism. So we might expect the early Christians to try to protect their young by providing some alternative form of education which would keep them free from the temptations and snares of the pagan world in which they lived. They had, after all, the example of the Jewish synagogue schools. But, rather surprisingly, the Christians did not take that course for several centuries. There was no fiercer critic of paganism than Tertullian (c. 160-c.225), but even he accepted the necessity for young people to share in the education on offer at pagan schools. His chosen image to describe the Christian pupil’s situation as he read the pagan authors whose work formed the ancient syllabus, was that of someone offered poison to drink, but refusing to take it (On Idolatry 10).

“The young Origen (born c.185 AD)…is said to have received extra instruction in the Scriptures from his father, Leonides, each day before he set out for his secular schooling (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.2.7f.)…Here was a devout Christian father, later to be martyred for the gospel, who was nonetheless willing for his son to attend school, and follow the normal curriculum of the pagan classics. Origen himself became an enthusiast for secular education as a preparation for Biblical study, and in later life urged it on those who came to him for instruction (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.18.4: NE 192).

“We hear of no Christian schooling outside the home in the early centuries. A century after Clement had written to Corinthian fathers and husbands to ‘instruct the young in the fear of God,’ the same pattern of family responsibility can be seen in Origen’s Alexandria. Christian parents were still content for their children to share a common education with their pagan neighbors, and the church was slow to copy the synagogue in providing an alternative pattern of schooling. Even when John Chrysostom (c.347-407) wrote the first Christian treatise on the education of children (On the Vainglory of the World and on the Education of Children), he addressed himself to parents, and said nothing about sending children to specifically Christian schools. The first Christian schools seem to have been those founded by the monasteries from the fourth century onwards (Marrou 1965 472-84).

“It is worth asking why Christians did not take the opportunity to create their own schools. If we take the comparison with the Jewish community, one reason must have been that there was no need for Christian children to learn a sacred language; their Jewish contemporaries had to learn Hebrew. Those who spoke Greek could read the New Testament in its original language, and the Old testament in Greek translation. And the New Testament Scriptures were rapidly translated into the various languages of the Mediterranean. Further, Christians did not see themselves as culturally distinct from their neighbours. An anonymous writer of the late second century expressed eloquently how Christians were in the world, but not of it:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country, or by speech, or by dress. For they do not dwell in cities of their own, or use a different language, or practise a peculiar speech…But while they dwell in Greek or barbarian cities according as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the land in clothing and food, and other matters of daily life, yet the condition of citizenship which they exhibit is wonderful, and admittedly strange…Every foreign land is to them a fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign land. (Epistle to Diognetus 6.1-5: NE 55).

“To set up their own separate educational provision would have been to withdraw from the common life they shared with their pagan neighbours. And, while they recognized the dangers and allure of paganism, the early Christians saw no need to do that. They let their children ‘share in the instruction which is in Christ’ (1 Clement), and they allowed them access to education for the wider pagan society. They were not trying to create a Christian ghetto, but to be salt and light in their world. Their attitude to their children’s education was an expression of this open yet critical attitude.”

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Christian Curmudgeon, Education, History, Quotes, Transformationism, Two-kingdoms. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Mis-education of Origen

  1. Paul says:

    Zrim, who wrote this? Yikes. Stuff like this, “Unfortunately for the contemporary cause, typically overlooked is the fact that such imperatives were directed at Christians only,” is demonstrably false.

  2. Paul says:

    The more I think about this, the more silly it becomes. First, I can supply quotes of criticisms directed at unbelievers. For example, renowned early church historian Everett Ferguson says early Christians thought abortion was murder and thought it should be punished with death. Since they didn’t perform capital punishment, this means they thought the state should. Similar examples can be made from other moral issues. Second, the very claim is self-refuting, for if the community says that it should not do x, y, z, …, because those things are immoral, that’s an implicit condemnation of those who do engage in those things. We know the early church weren’t relativists who thought the things they said they should not do were wrong *for them*, hence even on the author’s own standards, his point is self-refuting. Third, we shouldn’t *expect* a lot of vocal condemnation of the secular state and society at this early stage in church history. These were not stupid, backwoods peoples. They knew it would be death for the church if they were to get all uppity. They had to meet and worship often in secret. If they did this, it would be to impute irrationality to them, for why would they hide the fact that they were Christians only to go and announce it?

  3. Zrim says:

    Paul, first, the point that is bothering you really is sort of introductory and tangential to the main post.

    Second, maybe the letter of the point was a little overstated. But the spirit remains: moral imperatives are reserved for those enjoy spiritual indicatives. Is that really so controversial? I suppose it is for those who think the church is to a greater or lesser degree the world’s moral beacon. But I think the only light the church is called to hold forth to the world is spiritual, which is to say the gospel.

    Third, we shouldn’t *expect* a lot of vocal condemnation of the secular state and society at this early stage in church history. These were not stupid, backwoods peoples. They knew it would be death for the church if they were to get all uppity. They had to meet and worship often in secret.

    But if the church has some sort of mandate to be a moral guide to the wider world then it would seem to me that her minority status in the early years should be moot. I mean, she is mandated to spread the gospel, baptize and disciple (i.e. Great Commission). Doing so gets her into trouble, but I don’t understand that fact to be grounds for shyness. In point of fact, I see only boldness attending the charge of the GC.

    So I don’t expect a lot of vocal condemnation of the secular state and society at any point in church history. I only expect to see boldness in the GC. I expect her to be shy about condemnation of the secular state and society because she isn’t called to it, not because it would get her into trouble.

  4. Paul says:

    Zrim,

    “Paul, first, the point that is bothering you really is sort of introductory and tangential to the main post.

    I don’t find slipping in falsehoods under the guise of supporting 2K to be tangential. In fact, I don’t consider falsehoods to be irrelevant.

    “Second, maybe the letter of the point was a little overstated. But the spirit remains: moral imperatives are reserved for those enjoy spiritual indicatives.”

    I don’t get this, can you elaborate?

    “But if the church has some sort of mandate to be a moral guide to the wider world then it would seem to me that her minority status in the early years should be moot.”

    a) First, note that I never said there was *no* indictments. So the counter is moot.

    b) Second, this is just simplistic (and I’m putting aside the rhetoric, like “moral guide”). (i) First, there are *degrees* one can affect things. (ii) It’s is obvious that higher obligations can set aside lower obligations. This is basic ethics. Read some W.D. Ross. (iii) More sophisticated versions of that which you seek to critique (e.g., say, D.A. Carson’s) have pointed out that the extent a Christian can get involved, or the obligation he or she may have to do so, is dependent upon other factors. For example, I don’t expect a Chinese believer to have similar obligations or roles as an American believer. The great commission will look different in, say, Afghanistan than England. I have friends who are missionaries to Muslim countries. They have obligations to their family, church, people, etc., not to engage in the sort of activities we might here. You have to do what you can. Thus I find your one-size-fits-all refutation simply out of touch with the real world, failing to take into account the warp and woof of life in a fallen world.

    Savvy?

  5. Zrim says:

    I don’t get this [“moral imperatives are reserved for those enjoy spiritual indicatives”], can you elaborate?

    Paul, what I mean is that when it is said, “You shall not murder” that it applies in a unique way to those of whom it has also previously been said, “I am the LORD your God.” I understand that there is a moral law in place for unbelievers, but if we don’t make this important point about indicatives and imperatives then I don’t see how we don’t end up with some form or another of mere civil religion or cultural Christianity.

    As to the rest, I’m not sure what it is you want to say. You seem critical of the suggestion that explicitly made moral imperatives are for those who enjoy explicitly spiritual status. I don’t see why this is such a problem.

  6. Paul says:

    Zrim,

    “Applied in a unique way” doesn’t by any stretch mean “reserved only for.” I’m also not getting how stating a blatant falsehood somehow is supposed to bolster 2K ideas. Anyway, your elucidation was just as cryptic as the initial statement.

    As to the rest, the first problem is that I still don’t know what you’re getting at. You yourself admit moral laws are for unbelievers, so why do you take away with one had what you give with the other? Anyway, my point was to undercut your claim about “‘the mandate’ being mooted by minority status.” Here’s the convo:

    Z = The early church said nada to those outside the community

    P = This is a blatant falsehood, want some sources?

    Z= Well, never mind the use of falsehoods, for my a prior principle is still true, and besides, if Christians should criticize the immoralities of the secular city why didn’t they do this more back then?

    P = Well, they did; but not as much given their status in the world. God uses ordinary means, like using your noggin and figuring out when it’s not wise to offend the world with the law, thus doing what Machen said was required for getting the gospel out.

    Z= What’s circumstances got to do with it? Shouldn’t they be 100% all the time no matter what?

    P= I don’t know where you get that simplistic idea, there’s obviously many instances of overriding concerns. For example, if I promise to meet you at the story, then all things considered, I should, otherwise I break a promise. But if my son injures his foot and needs to go to the hospital, I am released from my obligation to you by a higher obligation. You know, considerations like these. You want a easy, black-n-white world, with no ambiguities, tough decisions, and grey areas. That’s what triumphalist 2K gets you, as opposed to the more moderate, cross bearing 2K someone like myself holds to. You’re not radical 2k, for that’s offensive. Rather, it’s more like prosperity gospel 2k, i.e., PG2K.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s