Teaching like Saint Paul

My wife and I chose to homeschool our children. This immediately placed upon us the need to have a plan on how we would do this. Consequently we faced the question of what method or approach should we chose. We ended up with what is commonly called Christian Classical Education, an approach we think is best, but we have been open to other ideas, and have tried to enter into a dialectical process with other homeschoolers and educators on this topic. We also looked to the Bible to see what we might find there, and to Saint Paul, one of the Church’s greatest evangelists and theologians, we naturally turned.

I published a version of this essay several years ago. I feel it is worth republishing again, with slight modifications.

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

I doubt if Saint Paul ever developed a detailed educational foundation or curriculum or program in the way that we might today. He may have thought about the right approach in some formal way as he spread the Gospel, but he certainly didn’t lay one out in his letters.  And I doubt he ever founded a school (of course, if he did I doubt he would have used the word “classical” in its name). But still, as I ponder what Christian Classical Education is or might be, I wonder what Paul would contribute towards a philosophy of education. Without trying to turn this into an overwhelming project for which I am unprepared, I want to briefly look at only two verses from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He writes in Philippians 4:8-9:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

[Note: I’m providing three common translations to help give a broad sense of the passage.]

Consider St. Paul’s list:

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

What do we do with such a list? (Imagine going to your local school board and proposing that the district’s curriculum be revamped to begin with this list. Ha! I dare you.)

And then about this list St. Paul says to think about these things.

To think. In the minds of our modern educators, and most of the rest of us, thinking is almost tantamount to doing nothing. Ever see someone thinking? What are they doing? On the outside they are often quite still, maybe staring into the distance. In effect, they are doing nothing. And yet, they are doing a great deal. Now if they are not thinking alone, not staring placidly off into space, then they are probably in dialogue with someone. But a true dialogue can seem to be unfocused and wandering, which is also antithetical to teaching in the modern sense.

Our modern education system is partially based on a sense of urgency–we cannot afford to waste time with thinking when we have so much knowledge to get into those little brains. We have become slaves to the bullet-pointed list. It is a system that must swap dialogue with lecture. The material must be covered, we cannot slow down, and then slow down some more. But this modern system denies the existence of the human soul and its mysterious needs and movements. Is that what we want?

Paul says to think about these things.

What is thinking? I know nothing about the brain as a subject of scientific study. I know there are chemicals and electrical impulses involved, but more than that? I know nothing. However, I gather thinking is a mystery of our minds, of our humanity. I use the word mystery because I doubt science can ever, truly plumb the depths and workings of thinking. Thinking is a mystery because it is a force of great power that seems to have no substance, no true existence, no way to completely contain it and control it as a totality. We can guide it, use it, encourage it, welcome it, and share it, sometimes even fear it, but we cannot entirely subdue it. To think is to ponder, to wonder, to suppose, to engage, to meditate. More importantly, thinking is to take an idea into oneself, into one’s soul, and turn it over and over and make it one’s own, or to reject it in favor of another.

So then we ponder and wonder, suppose and engage, meditate and bring into our souls

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

Can you think of any better education? I can’t.

Paul could have left it there, but he goes on. He writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me…” Don’t pass over this. Consider that Paul is able to confidently write that the Philippians have directly experienced him in such a way that they have:

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • seen in Paul

This list is somewhat cryptic, but I think we can get a glimpse into how Paul was a teacher. First the Philippians learned from Paul. He saw himself as a teacher. He had intention. He knew what he wanted to teach them. And he taught them thoroughly enough, with enough feedback, to know that they learned. He is confident of that. Then he says they have received. This implies a giving, a handing over, and a taking in. There was something that he left with them, something they now have. He can write to them because he knows they have what he gave. In this sense they are more like Paul than they were before. One of the primary goals of the classical educator is that his pupils will one day become his colleagues. The Philippians are now colleagues of Paul; they have something that Paul has, something he gave them and they received.

Third he says they heard from him. Teaching often involves speaking and hearing, but sometimes we forget what a gift is language. If you are like me then you love Paul’s letters, but you would really love to hear him speak, to ask him questions, to sit at his feet, to get into a deep dialogue with him over beers. Paul engaged their minds as God intended, as their minds were designed to function, by using language. We sometimes hear that apocryphal story of St. Francis exhorting his followers to preach Christ at all times and, when necessary, use words. There’s a valuable lesson in that story, but Paul was not afraid to use words right up front. Preaching Christ requires using words. Speaking to another also requires presence. Paul was with the Philippians, in person, in the flesh; they heard his voice, knew its sound, picked up on nuances of meaning in the subtleties of his voice and body language. To hear in this way, that is, to listen to ideas spoken, is a profoundly human experience. We do not know if the Philippians heard Paul because he formally preached to them, or lectured them, or led them in Socratic dialogue, or engaged in casual conversation, but they heard.

Finally, and this may be the most important, they saw. Paul presented himself as an example. He lived what he taught. Or better yet, he embodied the logos. The Gospel, the good news of Christ, the content that Paul taught, handed over, and spoke, was also visible in his life and actions. Paul could rightly say, “look at me.” The best teachers embody the logos.

Can we find more about how Paul taught? Yes, I’m sure we can. But just from these two verses we get something of great depth. We find that Paul, with confidence, can say the Philippians

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • saw in Paul

And what did they learn?

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

From this alone we can know that Paul was a master teacher in the fullest Christian Classical model. How this will look in your own teaching will be unique, but there is no better foundation that I can find.

And then Paul writes:

“…practice these things…”

Paul both taught in person and was writing to the Philippians with an Ideal Type in mind, that is the complete or perfect Christian, that is Christ. Christ is the logos. We are Christians and therefore seek to embody the logos in our lives. It is not enough to merely find the idea of the Ideal Type good or fascinating or excellent. One must put it into practice. To practice is to work and persevere at imitation, it is a form of becoming. To imitate is to behold, to embrace, to take into one’s being and seek to embody the Ideal Type in one’s life and actions. True knowledge is, in this sense, incarnational. It has a form. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To put on Christ implies that when others look at us they see Christ. Ideas have consequences. Others will know us by our fruits, which are visible signs of an inner reality. Are we putting into practice these things?

David Hicks wrote: “To produce a man or woman whose life conforms to the Ideal in every detail is education’s supremely moral aim.” (Norms and Nobility, p. 47) Is this not also the passion of Paul, that the Philippians live’s would conform to the Ideal of Christ in every detail? And how are the Philippians to do this?

“…practice these things…”

Now, if you haven’t noticed, I have not defined what Christian Classical Education is or how to do it. Partly this is tactical; I don’t have a clear answer. On the other hand I will offer a quote from Andrew Kern:

Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty so that the student is better able to know and enjoy God.

I cannot think of a better, more fundamental description of what a Christian Classical Education is all about. There is a lot in there, and a lot of room for developing strategies of teaching, but if this is what we are aiming for, if this is what we are building on, if this is our longing, then consider again the words of Saint Paul:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Do that and the God of peace will be with you.

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Filed under Bible Study, Education, Family, Gospel, Homeschooling, Saints

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