A Biblical Case for Classical Education

Trivium

Dr. Steve Jeffrey has written a guest post over at Kuyperian Commentary entitled, “A Biblical Case for Classical Education.” Here he addresses certain misunderstandings concerning classical Christian education—misunderstandings that usually come from Christians themselves. For example, many Christians struggle to see the value of an education model that comes from the so-called “Dark Ages”—a period of history that brought us doctrines like purgatory, papal indulgences, and transubstantiation. Wouldn’t it be better to simply stick with a biblical model of education?

As a matter of fact, it turns out that the classical model does have strong biblical support—and in rather unexpected ways. At the heart of classical education is the concept of the trivium, in which curriculum is divided into three stages: grammar, dialectic (or logic), and rhetoric. Each of these stages corresponds to the student’s stage of development. In the grammar stage, the focus is on rules and rote memorization. In the dialectic stage, the focus is on critical thinking and concrete application. And in the rhetoric stage, the focus is on creative and persuasive speech.

Dr. Jeffrey draws a parallel between the trivium and Christ’s threefold office of Priest, King, and Prophet (aka the munus triplex). He argues that each of these offices corresponds to a particular stage in ancient Israel’s history. The office of priest corresponds to the period that spanned from Exodus to Judges. During this time, priests were the dominant force in Israelite society. True, Israel had known prophets before (like Moses), and they also had political direction under the judges, but most of the law-code of the Pentateuch dealt with instructions for the priest. In fact, the responsibilities of the priest were spelled out in precise and exhaustive detail, so that application was primarily a matter of rote memorization. This is very similar to the grammar stage in classical education.

Then came the era of kings, spanning from the time of Saul to the Babylonian Exile. A king was charged with ruling justly and wisely on behalf of the people, and this required a considerable degree of discernment in applying biblical truth to particular and complex situations (think Solomon). In order to do this well, a good king needed critical thinking skills. Such skills are developed in the dialectic/logic stage of classical education.

Last came the era of prophets, coinciding with the era of the kings, but continuing on into post-exilic times. The ministry of the prophets was primarily one of speaking. They carried no political authority in themselves, but they served as the voice of conscience and warning to the people of God. It was their job to call the people to return to their first love, the Lord, with a heart of humility and repentance. In other words, the prophets were persuaders. This is precisely the skill developed in the rhetoric stage of classical education.

Obviously, it is possible to take these parallels too far, and a critic wouldn’t have to try too hard to find weak points here or there. But the point here is to establish general principles, and I think Dr. Jeffrey succeeds on that mark. And for fans of Dr. John Frame, I would add another parallel between classical education and tri-perspectivalism (aka the Word, the world, and the self): the grammar stage corresponds to Frame’s normative perspective, the dialectic stage corresponds to the situational perspective, and the rhetoric stage corresponds to the existential perspective. The first perspective involves rules and commands, the second involves concrete applications in the real world, and the third involves tapping into a person’s sense of creativity, imagination, and beauty. In all of these ways, it seems to me that a classical education model is thoroughly biblical and intuitive.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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