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.”