Skip to main content

When the early Church began building its own educational tradition, it faced the challenge of how developing this new Christian revelation should interact with Greek and Roman thinking. They had to ask, as the early Christian thinker Tertullian did, “What indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”1 Various Church Fathers gave three types of answers to this question. First, some rejected large parts of pagan learning as too corrupt. Tertullian’s famous quote comes from a work in which he argued that “heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy…. Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic Christianity!”2 His approach, as others like it, found Biblical inspiration in I Corinthians 1:20-25 where the Apostle Paul asked:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

Defenders of this position pointed out how human reason failed to appreciate the uniqueness of God’s plan in Christ. It is easy to find other possible contrasts. For example, the pagan liberal arts were supposed to be an education for a free man. In contrast, a Christian education is designed for people who had chosen to be “bondservants of Christ” and thus do not pursue the wealthy or leisured life of contemplation. The two purposes appear to be at odds.

A second group of Church Fathers saw certain Greek philosophies, particularly Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism (as found in later Roman writers such as Cicero), as consistent with, and even building blocks for, Christian faith. For instance, Justin Martyr wrote:

For while we say that all things have been produced and arranged into a world by God, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of Plato; and while we say that there will be a burning up of all, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of the Stoics: and while we affirm that the souls of the wicked, being endowed with sensation even after death, are punished, and that those of the good being delivered from punishment spend a blessed existence, we shall seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers . . .3

Justin contended that these similarities in beliefs stem from the fact that the human mind understands reality by participation in the universal Logos, the Greek word for both “word” and “reason.” In other words, there is a universal reason and order to the world everyone can discover. He went on to note that the author of the Gospel of John describes Jesus as the Logos, the “word” made flesh, and concluded that Christ embodied God, the universal reason behind the world.

Similar connections between the Gospel of John and Greek thinkers were made by others. For example, in the Republic, Plato described the journey to true knowledge as like one that takes you from the darkness and shadows of a cave to the glorious light of the sun. Christians found in this image similarities to John’s description of Jesus as the light of the world. Furthermore, they argued that in a student’s journey from the darkness of the cave to the light revealed by God in Christ, students had best start with pagan truth so that their eyes could learn to adjust to the bright light of revelation found in Christ (similar to the way that one is initially blinded when coming out of a cave). Thus, one finds in St. Basil’s Address to Young Men this admonition:

Just as dyers prepare the cloth before they apply the dye . . . so indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself.4

According to this approach, Christian students should actually start by studying select pagan writers and only later turn their eyes upon the full light of the gospel.

This second model found additional Biblical inspiration in the wisdom literature and the figure of Solomon. After all, they noted that Solomon, as traditionally believed to be depicted in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, used his reason to study the world, discovered wisdom by observation, and came to see the futility of a life without God and the importance of God and God’s revelation. Similarly, the use of reason, they insisted, could lead the wise pagan to such conclusions. Once convinced of life’s futility and brokenness, students would understand their need for God’s ultimate revelation in Christ.

A third view held that pagan education must be fully reinterpreted through the lens of faith if one is to truly seek understanding. Exemplifying this view in the Confessions, Augustine looked back over his life through faith and then understood the road on which God led him. God did use pagan thinkers, such as Plato and the Roman Stoic philosopher Cicero, to lead him to Christ, but he could only understand this later. Moreover, he could only properly interpret things such as his old pagan schooling, pagan thinkers and his own desires for fame, academic glory, and sexual fulfillment, after examining his life through the lens of faith.

This third model found Biblical inspiration in various teachings of Jesus but also throughout the Epistles. In letters such as Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians, the first parts of the books do not contain commands about how to live (e.g., Romans 1-11; Galatians 1-4; Ephesians 1-3; Colossians 1-2). Instead, they describe the implications of God’s story, particularly the work of Christ, for how we should understand our identity. Only by considering the world in light of Christ’s redemptive story and one’s identity in Christ, can one truly understand how to think and live. Thus, only in the last portions of those letters are instructions given about how Christians should live.

In education, those operating with this third view saw the need not merely to add Christian teaching to pagan learning but to begin education by letting the Christian story transform the whole of the liberal arts. Hugh of St. Victor, an eleventh-century Christian educator whose work will be described at length later in this book, provides an example of this approach. In the beginning of the Didascalion: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, he set forth a vision of education’s end that is shaped by the Biblical narrative instead of a political narrative (as was particularly common to the educational tradition inherited from the Romans):

This, then is what the arts are concerned with, this is what they intend, namely, to restore within us the divine likeness, a likeness which to us is a form but to God is his nature. The more we are conformed to the divine nature, the more do we possess Wisdom, for then there begins to shine forth again in us what has forever existed in the divine Idea or Pattern, coming and going in us but standing changeless in God.5

For Hugh, education in the liberal arts should help us restore the marred image of God and become fully human. Furthermore, Hugh believed that in order to recover the wisdom God can provide we need to study both God’s work of creation and redemption. After all, he wrote, “In this were the wise men of this world fools, namely that proceeding by natural evidences alone and following the elements and appearances of the world, they lacked the lessons of grace.”6 He called both the study of God’s work of creation and redemption “philosophy” (which included theology) and suggested that philosophy is the discipline which investigates human and divine things comprehensively and draws upon both natural reason and revelation for guidance. Theology in his view was the peak of philosophy and the perfection of truth. Hugh’s vision of Christian education, as well as other Christians during this time, would prove instrumental in the eventual creation of the first Christian universities, an incredible development in the history of education.


  1. Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics, 1:7.
  2. Tertullian, Heretics, 7. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, 246. 
  3. Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, trans. Roberts-Donaldson, (, ch 20. 
  4. Basil, “Address to Young Men,” in Three Thousand Years of Educational Wisdom, ed. Robert Ulich (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 154. 
  5. Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalion of Hugh of Saint Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 61. 
  6. Ibid., 35.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.