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May 2019 Credo

One of the most important features of Christianity is its emphasis on teaching, or, to put it differently, its didactic character.

Writing to his protégé Titus, Paul exhorts him to ‘teach what accords with sound doctrine’ (Titus 4:1). In similar vein, Paul admonishes another young pastor, Timothy, to ‘follow the pattern of sound words (or sound teaching) … in the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ’ (2 Timothy 1:14).

The Commission that Christ gave to his disciples does not only involve baptising converts in the name of the triune God, but also ‘teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20).

Teaching is central to Christianity because it is a religion that is established on the truth that God has revealed in Jesus Christ, truth concerning the world, the human predicament, and God’s eternal plan for the creation he has brought into being. The Church has always seen teaching as an essential part of her mission to the world.

Christian instruction can come in many forms – preaching, the exposition of the Bible, catechisms, seminars – and it can take place in very different settings – Sunday worship, Sunday schools, Bible study groups, and small groups. But the fundamentals of Christian education remain the same.

What are these fundamental principles? What is Christian education for? And how should it be conducted? We turn to the great bishop and theologian of the fifth century, Augustine, arguably the most eminent Doctor of the Latin Church, for illumination and guidance.

Augustine was a prolific author whose writings have influenced both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. Although we can learn much about Christian education from his vast oeuvre, Augustine’s views on teaching the faith are clearly set out in three important treatises: On Catechising the Uninstructed (De catechizandis rudibus, AD 405), On Christian Doctrine (De doctrina Christiana, AD 397), and On the Teacher (De Magistro, AD 389).

For Augustine, the chief goal of Christian education is to enable the Christian to love God more deeply and, by natural consequence, to demonstrate authentic love towards one’s neighbour. In On Christian Doctrine Augustine puts this across plainly but compellingly: ‘Let it ever be your supreme thought that you must love God and your neighbour: God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself’.

The Christian should never see the mere acquisition of knowledge – even theological and spiritual knowledge – as the chief end of education. The knowledge of God, if it remains only at the cognitive and intellectual level, is, in Augustine’s understanding, deficient and incomplete – it is in fact not even true knowledge. True theological knowledge has to do with the kind of knowing that brings us ever deeper into a transforming relationship with the God whose very nature is love.

Christian education is about the pursuit of the truth which Augustine repeatedly emphasised can ultimately be found only in Jesus Christ, the supreme revelation of God. For Augustine, then, faith is the means by which the Christian appropriates truth concerning God, the world and salvation. True faith has a noetic aspect in that it is creates a faculty that enables the believer to perceive God’s revelation and trustingly accept it to be true.

This, however, does not mean that reason has no role whatsoever to play in our knowledge of God. Augustine presents a profound relationship between faith and reason in his writings premised fundamentally on his theological anthropology, that is, his understanding that God has created man in the divine image as rational beings.

Thus, while human beings come to know God by faith (Credo ut intelligas – I believe in order to understand), there is also a profound sense in which they are able to find God in the truths that they encounter in the world by the use of reason (Intellige ut credas – I understand in order to believe).

This conception of the relationship between faith and reason in our knowledge of God – which privileges the former without in any way denigrating or marginalising the latter – is the basis for Augustine’s understanding of the place the Bible and what may be broadly described as ‘pagan’ literature in the education of the Christian.

There can be no doubt that Augustine recognises the infallible authority of Scriptures in which the doctrines and practices of the Church must be grounded. In his famous letter to Jerome (Letter 82, dated 405), Augustine declares quite categorically that ‘I have yielded this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error’.

However, Augustine emphasises that the Christian’s reading and interpretation of Scripture must always be done under the tutelage of the Church. In On Christian Doctrine, he writes:

As to those who talk vauntingly of Divine Grace, and boast that they understand and can explain Scripture without the aid of such directions as those I now propose to lay down … I would such persons could calm themselves so far as to remember that, however justly they may rejoice in God’s great gift, yet it was from human teachers they themselves learn to read …’

What about the writings of pagans like Plato, Plotinus and Aristotle? Is there a place for them in the education of the Christian that is primarily grounded in Scripture and the authoritative teaching of the Church?

Augustine’s answer to this question is a qualified ‘Yes’.

We recall the fact that before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was a philosopher and rhetorician. Following theologians who have written before him – Clement, Origen and Athanasius – Augustine believed that all truths come of God, and that secular or pagan philosophies do contain some nuggets of truth, albeit always commingled with and obfuscated by error.

The Christian, Augustine insists, must take an interest in these truths and excavate them regardless of whether they come from the pen of Plato or Cicero. ‘Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to the Master’, he writes.

But Augustine never tires of stressing that the Christian’s perusal of pagan literature should never be naïve and uncritical; it should always be marked with caution and sound judgement. He writes:

I think that it is well to warn studious and able young men, who fear God and are seeking for happiness in life, not to venture heedlessly upon the pursuit of branches of learning that are in vogue beyond the pale of the Church of Christ, as if these could secure for them the happiness they seek; but soberly and carefully discriminate among them’.

Such judicious sobriety is needed because Christian learning is not to satisfy our intellectual curiosities or carry us on flights of speculation, however titillating they may be.

For Augustine, the purpose of Christian education is spiritual formation, which is here defined as a life of holiness and obedience that flows out of the Christian’s ever-deepening knowledge of and relationship with his Creator.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.