Truth is from God – Augustine on learning

posted in: classical education | 0

Augustine, doctor of the church, protected the church against heresy and also gave the church a rich heritage of philosophy and theology.

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Not only did he receive and use a classical education of the first caliber, he also had thoughts about education and for students as well.

Today we’ll look at some of his advice to scholars, excerpted from The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being.

What Augustine had to say about education - both classical and Christian

Matters of study, matters to study

Remember that a main question of the early church was what to do with the education in philosophy they’d inherited from the Greeks and Romans. Should it be abandoned or could it be adapted and used for the gospel?

In that context, Augustine gives this admonition to students:

Accordingly, I think that is is well to warn studious and able young men, who fear God and are seeking for happiness of life, not to venture heedlessly upon the pursuit of the 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 to discriminate among them.

Augustine was all for a liberal education, but not without discernment or caution.

What branches of learning are beyond the pale? Oh, he names them: “especially if they involve entering into fellowship with devils by means of leagues and covenants about signs.”

Special gnostic knowledge, particularly if gained by questionable spiritual practices, is not a part of Christian education.

Yet is there legitimate education material we can learn from the pagan past? Augustine says there is, and in particular mentions several:

  • information about objects, past or present
  • discoveries that rely upon bodily senses
  • experiments and conclusions in mechanical arts
  • sciences of reasoning and number
Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.

So, beyond observable knowledge, we can even study philosophy from nonbelievers, so long as we are grounded in and filtering it through God’s revelation of truth.

Here is where Augustine elaborates on the metaphor of plundering the Egyptians, which we have already seen predated him. The saying is not here in it’s pithy form, but in these paragraphs Augustine outlines the concept, taken up again by Aquinas and others later that “all truth is God’s truth.”

Here’s a brief, excellent article on that slogan from R.C. Sproul: “All Truth Is God’s Truth.”

Whatever may be the riches he brings with him out of Egypt, yet unless he kept the Passover, he cannot be safe.

But Augustine doesn’t dwell too long on these concepts before moving on in his thoughts on what to study.

He also weighs in on the multa non multum conversation:

And in regard to all these we must hold the maxim, “Not too much of anything”; especially in the case of those which, pertaining as they do to the senses, are subject to the relations of space and time.

In other words, we must be careful to study not only factual knowledge, but also revealed knowledge of God and His work.

We are eternal beings and though we cannot look to the heathen for religious knowledge, neither can we neglect that which is not subject to space and time – eternal truths.

Augustine then basically puts in a plug for textbooks.

He says that commentaries are good and useful, and as we have them on Scripture, so we should also produce them on branches of knowledge, the more easily to spread knowledge and study for general breadth without having to research individually and minutely.

Augustine is arguing for a breadth of study that is not itself pagan and that is not one-sided or specialized.

He desires a liberal education for scholars.


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