All classical educators, since before Plato and extending all the way through the centuries until the progressive movement began dismantling education, have been obsessed with teaching virtue.

If their educational program didn’t produce virtuous men and women, it was effort spent in vain. This is why Plato railed against the Sophists – their goal was personal comfort and self-aggrandizement, not seeking and conforming to truth. Putting education to such uses is misusing it.

The process of education was not primarily about imparting knowledge and skill. Knowledge and skill are necessary for virtue itself. They serve the end; they themselves are not the end.

Virtue, in the philosophical sense, is more than moral uprightness in the sense of a virtuous person is a person who follows all the rules. Virtue is excellence. So the virtue of a peach tree would be the peaches. The virtue of aloe is its healing properties.

Excellence v. Perfection

In this sense, a virtuous man is an excellent man, a man who is what he was made to be. Because we are fallen and broken, we cannot be perfect, but we also are not left to devolve into the worst versions of ourselves. God grants even unbelievers the common grace potential to improve their condition. But they have to pursue it, develop it, work at it, want it.

The purpose of education is virtue. Do we know what the ancients meant by virtue? What is virtue and why should we pursue it?

The pre-Christian philosophers didn’t know about original sin, but it was obvious to them that humans both had potential toward virtue yet didn’t naturally gravitate in that direction. Growth in virtue was possible, but not automatic. Virtue takes training, education, practice.

Christian philosophers adopted the ancient categories for virtue, but now with the more full understanding given by Scripture. The Christian, God-given virtues of faith, hope, and love were added to the ancient virtues of justice, temperance, courage, and prudence.

The ancients sought the perfection of man. They observed and opined and came as close as they could without the gospel because they had a hunger for truth. Then Truth came in a person, in a perfect man, and fulfilled their desire, expanded the vision.

Jesus is the perfect man, the only fully virtuous, completely excellent man. He is the second Adam, and only through Him can we begin to approach the fullness we were created to manifest. Realized virtue is living as the image of God. Those covered by Jesus’ blood and righteousness will, in glory, attain to this level of virtue.

Sanctification takes work

But we are not called to just wait for that day to be zapped suddenly by glorification. We are called to sanctification, gradual growth by imitating Jesus and examples. We are called to walk toward, walk in, walk for virtue – as revealed to us in Jesus Himself.

So Christians must give their children a Christian education because all education trains toward virtue, toward some ideal of man. The Christian ideal is specific, revealed in Scripture, and it is negligence to give our children only truncated common grace when gospel grace is available to them.

Everything we teach is promoting some kind of value or other. That’s why we don’t have our kids in the public school system – we don’t want their idea of virtue taught to our children.

Now we live in post-Christian America, a far cry from the pre-Christian ancients. They sought veiled truth. Moderns have rejected truth. Post-Christian philosophy turns truth and virtue on its head in its rebellion. Truth, they say, is relative and up to you. That makes each individual his own god. Therefore, virtue is doing whatever you want – conforming yourself not to any external standard, but to yourself.

In other words, they have made vice into virtue. They call evil good and good evil. It’s not even subtle anymore. I don’t think I need to point out examples to prove it, do I?

Let God be true and every man a liar. They have not actually made vice into virtue. Virtue is still what it has always been – excellence according to an external standard. Man doesn’t actually change reality by his opinions, no matter how loudly or repetitiously he tries.

Virtue is a standard

Virtue, like truth, is not subjective. Virtue is now what it always has been. Faith, hope, and love remain theological virtues – virtues given as gifts of God’s grace that lead people to Himself. Prudence, justice, courage, and temperance remain cardinal virtues – the virtues required of citizens for society to function. They are gifts of common grace that are inculcated by good habits and education.

How do we, as Christians, reconcile this emphasis with Romans 3:10, which says that there is no one righteous, not even one? Weren’t the pagans wrong to think education could change a sinner’s heart?

Except the pagans didn’t think that. They were concerned with society, not eternity. They did not think education was changing the nature of man, simply developing it along good lines rather than bad, because they saw man devolves when left to himself and his own devices. Their purpose was merely earthly. How do we bring about a healthy, functioning city? Such cities are not made by proclaiming laws. We only have healthy, functioning cities when we have healthy, functioning people. As go the citizens, so goes the polis – not the other way around.

John Calvin – one known for his emphasis on the sinfulness of man – still made it clear that all men, in their natural state, have the capacity for what he called “civic virtue.” The ability to be a decent neighbor, a good citizen, an industrious provider – these are real virtues, even if they are not good works that earn us anything in God’s eyes.

Drawing on Institutes as well as Calvin’s commentaries on Genesis and Romans, David Sytsma writes, “For Calvin, God designed humanity, or as it were hardwired it, for practicing
virtues that cultivate society.” Indeed, Calvin says in Institutes II.II.13, “we observe that there exists in all men’s minds universal impressions of a certain civic fair dealing and order.”

Previous to that quote, Calvin makes a distinction between “heavenly things” which arise from and lead to a “pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom,” and “earthly things” which do not require special revelation or saving grace to understanding, including “government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts.”

He then goes on to address what is manifestly applicable to the civic realm today: “Some desire…to let their lust alone masquerade as law…Such persons hate laws not because they do not know them to be good and holy; but raging with headlong lust, they fight against manifest reason….Quarrels of this sort do not nullify the original conception of equity.” God alone has determined – IS Himself – the standard of justice. By his grace in still bearing the image of God, unregenerate men can still perceive and imitate dimly that justice, but they can in no way remake justice in their own image. We do not decide what justice means. We either seek it or resent it. Justice exists outside us, outside society, in God’s character.

Virtue applies to all

Having a general populace practiced in civic virtues is a blessing and benefit to a nation – one we are seeing the sore lack of in our nation today. We live in a society that ignores or downright hates all virtue – even civic virtue. Some believe they are remaking new virtues and therefore a new society – and the new virtues will be born out of the indulgence in all manner of vice, by a violent rejection of real virtue.

Christians are called to more than civic virtue, but we also aren’t called to less. Christians are given the ability to do good in faith and gratitude before God, so that should increase our expressions of virtue, both theological and cardinal. This is sanctification, Spirit-enabled, and therefore more satisfying and whole than any virtue expressed by unregenerate men. We live out God’s light that demonstrates righteousness to a watching world.

Yet, God doesn’t zap us out of thin air with complete civic or spiritual virtues. He uses means. His favorite means is the upbringing of faithful parents. Parents are called to train their children, to bring them up intentionally and deliberately, in the paideia of the Lord – in the culture, the social expectations, the art, the habitus of Jesus. We’re to embody and teach our children how to embody all of Christ in all of life. This is education, and it includes theological knowledge and practice as well as the knowledge and practice of the liberal arts.

Virtue is common grace

Living as Christians, walking in the Spirit, will require knowledge and habits. That is loving God with all our hearts, minds, and strength. Living in proper relationships with our fellow men will require knowledge and habits. That is loving our neighbor as ourselves.

The path of loving God is opened by the free grace of God Himself only to His people. No matter how “good” an unregenerate man behaves, he does not and cannot please God. No one is good except God alone.

The path of living rightly in society is a free gift of common grace. Men do not require special revelation or a regenerate heart to discover and apply cardinal, civic virtues. Yet when men reject God, they are rejecting common grace virtue as well as theological. Likewise, when we stand in Christ righteous before God, we are given the Spirit to enable us to walk in civic as well as theological virtues more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12).

Virtue is a standard, not a set of rules. There is no technique or quick-start guide to virtue. Growing in virtue is orienting ourselves toward the standard in love and desire. It is ordo amoris, the goal of education and of life. What we love, we will become like. What we love, we imitate. Whatever we are imitating, that is what we love most.

Education is for virtue

The purpose of education is to lead us in paths of virtue. This purpose is why education is a lifelong pursuit. There is no graduation from education. We will never reach the finish line in this life.

We ought to be holding standards of excellence out to our children and showing them how to model themselves on something better than themselves. We ought to be having our children read and think and work on material that is excellent so that it informs and shapes their imagination and thought process.

Education is the process of thinking on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and praiseworthy.

As the medievals did, so we can continue to do: Let the light of Christ shine and illuminate and inform our thinking and our practices. Then we will not simplistically reject all the wisdom and insight of the ancient world, but rather expose it and make use of what is worthy for God’s glory.

But shine our light should, not be hid under a bush. The world is watching.

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