Little Hans Receives Letter from Father, Martin Luther

WITTENBERG, GERMANY — Last Thursday, Hans Luther, four-year-old son of Dr. Martin Luther, received a special letter from his father. Hans’ tutor, Jerome Weller, had written to Dr. Luther to inform him of his son’s good progress in his lessons. In response, Dr. Luther wrote the following to Hans:

GRACE and peace in Christ, my dear little son.

I hear with great pleasure that you are learning your lessons so well and praying so diligently. Continue to do so, my son, and cease not. When I come home I will bring you a nice present from the fair.

I know a beautiful garden, where there are a great many children in fine little coats, and they go under the trees and gather beautiful apples and pears, cherries and plums; they sing and run about and are as happy as they can be. Sometimes they ride on nice little ponies, with golden bridles and silver saddles. I asked the man whose garden it is, ‘What little children are these?’ And he told me, ‘They are little children who love to pray and learn and are good.’ When I said, ‘My dear sir, I have a little boy at home; his name is little Hans Luther: would you let him come into the garden, too, to eat some of these nice apples and pears, and ride on these fine little ponies, and play with these children?’ The man said, ‘If he loves to say his prayers and learn his lessons, and is a good boy, he may come; Lippus and Jost also; and when they are all together, they can play upon the fife and drum and lute and all kinds of instruments, and skip about and play with little crossbows.’ He then showed me a beautiful mossy place in the middle of the garden for them to skip about in, with a great many golden fifes and drums and silver crossbows. The children had not yet had their dinner, and I could not wait to see them play, but I said to the man: ‘My dear sir, I will go away and write all about it to my little son Hans, and tell him to be fond of saying his prayers, and learn well and be good, so that he may come into this garden; but he has a grand-aunt named Lehne, whom he must bring along with him.’ The man said, ‘Very well: go write to him.’

Now, my dear little son, love your lessons and your prayers, and tell Lippus and Jost to do so too, that you may all come to the garden.

May God bless you. Give Aunt Lehne my love, and kiss her for me.

Your dear father, Martinus Luther
In the year 1530
[Coburg, June 19th.]

We marvel at the ease with which Luther speaks to his four-year-old son, Hans. We’re delighted with the vivid image of the garden. But what’s most striking about this letter is that Luther doesn’t say whether the garden is the world that opens up to the diligent student, or whether the garden is the paradise of Christ. Which one is he talking about? Does a good education usher one into a realm of earthly wonder? Or does a good education usher one into eternal life?

Luther apparently doesn’t see any need to split hairs in this matter. A good education will do both things: it will bring delight to earthly life and bring the student into the delight of eternal life.

The question is, why have the earthly benefits of education and the eternal benefits of education become separated in our day? Many parents suppose that preparing their children for eternal life and giving their children an education can (or should!) be considered separately. School and Church have become divorced, time and eternity have become divorced, concern for the body and concern for the soul have become divorced.

And yet the student has a body and a soul, together, right now. Why would we treat him as two separate things when God has made him a unified whole? We would do well to treat our children as God has created them, and that means giving our children an education that simultaneously opens up worlds of wonder on earth and prepares them for eternal life. 

For more on this topic, you may read a pair of articles concerning “The Goal of Education,” beginning with The Goal of Education Part I: Educating for Mammon?

Lippus (short for Philip) was the son of Philip Melanchthon, and Jost (short for Justus) was the son of Justus Jonas. Lippus and Jost were about the same age as Hans; Melanchthon and Jonas were colleagues of Martin Luther. In the painting, Luther sits in the center; his eldest son, Hans, stands at the far right; Melanchthon sits behind and to the left of Luther.


  • How would you explain to a child the benefits of a good education?
  • Rather than ushering children into a beautiful garden, into what do secular government schools usher them?
  • Why is it harmful to the Christian student when parents and teachers treat education for earthly life and education for eternal life separately?

Painting: Luther Making Music in the Circle of His Family by Gustav Spangenberg, 1828-1891

Quote: C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917. [names lightly edited for consistency]

Egyptian Man Parades Coffin at Dinner Party

MEMPHIS, EGYPT — Our field correspondent Herodotus, always looking to save us some money by inviting himself to parties instead of racking up receipts at the agora, recently attended a gathering at the home of a certain Egyptian man named Garai. The meal being concluded and the guests fully sated, the time came for the after dinner entertainment. Yet rather than an oration by a rhetorician or a song accompanied by the sweet music of the lyre, a man brought around what appeared to be a corpse, and began speaking solemnly to the guests.

Herodotus was not at first within earshot, and began asking those around him what this meant. While Apollodorus (our skiagraphos) painted a picture of the scene, Herodotus compiled the following account about the dinner customs of the Egyptians:

And at the gatherings among their wealthy, whenever they have finished supper a man brings around in a coffin a corpse made of wood, represented in greatest detail both by painting and carving, about a cubit or two in length. And as he shows it to each of the guests he says, “Look at this, and drink and enjoy yourself, for you will be such when you die.” These things they do at their parties.

When the man bearing the coffin came around to Herodotus and had spoken the usual words, our stalwart reporter looked death in the face and said, “Funny, I always thought it would be larger”; after which he drained his chalice and, grabbing Apollodorus by the cloak, quickly headed out to find a late showing of one of Aristophanes’ plays.

Herodotus writes about this Egyptian dinner custom in Book 2, §78 of his Histories (the entire second book is about Egypt). While the practice may seem a good way to cast a pall on an otherwise enjoyable evening, contemplation of death has its place. For the pagans, reflecting on death was supposed to heighten present enjoyment, not diminish it.

Contemplation of death has its place for Christians as well, though not in the same way as the pagans. The resurrection of Jesus has changed death for us. Thus Paul writes, “If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). If the dead don’t rise, then sure, let’s get in our kicks now.

But the dead do rise, either to eternal life or eternal death. And we consider this — indeed, we think on hell itself — but this contemplation spurs us to a more temperate life, not a more dissolute one. John Chrysostom puts this well:

For if merely looking at a corpse wraps up our mind in this way, how much more will hell and the unquenchable fire? How much more the undying worm?  If we always consider hell, we will not quickly fall into it. For this reason God has threatened punishment. If thinking about it did not have some great advantage, God would not have now threatened it. But since remembrance of it is able to effect great things, therefore, like a saving medicine, he designed the threat of it for our souls.

Let us certainly not overlook such an advantage that is produced from this; rather let us turn to it continually, at our dinners, at our suppers. For conversation about pleasant things does not benefit the soul at all, but makes it more relaxed; whereas conversation about distressing and gloomy things cuts away everything runny and loose that the soul has, and turns it back, and tightens it up when it becomes slack.

He who converses about theaters and actors has not profited the soul at all, but has the more inflamed it and made it more reckless. He who is anxious about things belonging to others, and who meddles, many times has even inflicted dangers on his soul from this futility. However, he who converses about hell will not have any danger, and makes his soul more temperate.
(Homilies on 2 Thessalonians, Homily II)

Apollodorus was a Greek painter in the 5th century BC, and a contemporary of Herodotus (though I have no idea whether they ever met). Apollodorus was dubbed a “skiagraphos” (Greek for “shadow-painter”) because of a style of hatching/shading which he introduced.


  • Why do you suppose our culture avoids serious or frequent talk of death?
  • What profit does a Christian enjoy from contemplating death and hell?
  • How does a proper understanding of death, resurrection, hell, and paradise influence what students need to learn?

Painting: An Egyptian Feast (detail) by Edwin Long, 1829-1891
Scripture quotation is from the King James Version.
Other translations are my own.

Natural Science: God’s Second Book

While not numbered among the seven liberal arts, natural science has long been part of a classical education. At its core, natural science involves observing the world around us as God has created it. Now because we believe that the world is a creation wrought through the Word of God, our understanding of natural science will differ from the secular view, both in what we seek to learn from the world and what we do with our knowledge of it.

The Church has long understood nature to be God’s second book – second, that is, to the Holy Scriptures. While nature does not tell us that God is Triune, or that the Son of God gave his life for us, nature is by no means silent about its great Artificer. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” David sings in Psalm 19, “and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4).

And what is it that nature says? When commenting on the folly of idolatry in Romans 1, Paul notes how the created world testifies to the true and living God – not just to Christians, but to everyone: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” The creation teaches us that there is a God, and that he is powerful, and it even shows us some of his unseen qualities. Let us reflect on a few of the things which we learn from nature.

God’s Eternal Power

One of the first things we learn from nature is God’s eternal power. Reading his second book is and ought to be a humbling experience. Such study leads us to ask: Who has founded such a world? Who stretched out the heavens over us as a tent? Who sets the clouds on high and looses stores of rain and snow and hail? Who carved the great canyons of the earth, and with what arm and graving tool did he do it? Who spread out the seas, and who can plumb their depths? The roots of the mountains and the sources of the deeps are still a mystery to us, yet certain creatures have strength enough to inhabit such realms; how much greater their Maker?

Which of us can look up at a mountain without feeling small? Which of us can weather a storm without feeling powerless? Which of us can turn on enough lamps or light enough fires to drown out the darkness of night? Which of us can escape the heat of summer or the cold of winter? Or does the thermostat make us demigods of our minuscule plots on the earth’s surface? Many prefer the indoors. It’s easy to control things there. It’s easy to feel big there. It’s easy to forget about God there, and pretend to be God there.

But God’s book of nature is never silent. We are creatures ourselves, and there’s no hiding that behind drywall and siding. And so Tertullian wrote in Carthage in the early third century AD, “God will never be hidden, God will never be absent: he will always be perceived, he will always be heard, and he will be seen in whatever manner he wills. God has his witnesses: this entire creation, which we are and in which we live” (Against Marcion, Book I, ch. 10).

Now God’s power may seem an odd starting point for the study of natural science. It sounds more churchy and less sciency. Perhaps I can clarify by defining what science means. The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, and simply means “knowledge.” Natural science, then, means “natural knowledge.” Now the fact that God is the “Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, tells us how we should approach natural science. Science is not something that we manufacture. Science is not man’s way of imposing his will on the world. But because God is Almighty and we are his creatures, therefore science is a gift that he gives and we receive. The study of natural science begins with turning a receptive eye to nature and seeking knowledge from someone greater than we are. The study of natural science begins by taking the world as it is, and not as we want it to be. The study of natural science begins with thanksgiving to the Creator, not with an effort to change the creation.

Orderliness and Providence

The next most obvious thing we might learn from nature is the orderliness of its Designer. The earth revolves on an axis and follows an orbital path. Every day the earth makes a full revolution on its axis – or rather I should say that because every revolution of the earth takes the same amount of time, we can have a standard of measure called “days.” The same can be said of our yearly circumnavigation around the sun. Likewise, the other heavenly bodies stay on their axes and paths, such that outer space resembles a very elegant ballroom graced with very coordinated dancers.

The seasons come and go in predictable cycles. Seeds produce the same kind of plant whence they came, so I can plant a bean and know that I’m going to get a bean plant, and not a dandelion or an oak tree. In this way the second book bears witness to the first: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself upon the earth: and it was so” (Gen. 1:11, emphasis added).

This orderliness shows us God’s providence. We can practice agriculture on the earth: we can plant seeds in the spring, knowing what kind of crop we can expect from them, and we can count on the early rains to water the earth and make it fruitful. We can rest securely, knowing that we’re not going to drift closer to the sun or have a ninety-seven hour day, either of which would wreak havoc on our fields (to say nothing of other catastrophes). We can assume that our crops will be safe from blizzards in the middle of July. We can rely on the maturing of the fruits of the earth, and the cool autumn that invigorates us for harvesting and completes the growth cycle and readies the earth for winter.

We see this same orderliness with animals, and again the second book testifies about the first: “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:25, emphasis added). Animals are made according to their kinds. A bird gives birth to a bird, and not a goldfish. A cow brings forth a calf, and not a lion. Again we see God’s providence in that we can practice animal husbandry.

Darwin’s Imagination

And here also the book of nature stands with the book of Scripture in denouncing evolution. Louis Agassiz was a brilliant natural scientist of the nineteenth century, to whom Charles Darwin sent a copy of his book On the Origin of Species. Agassiz critiqued Darwin’s work, and his critique carries the weight of a man who has actually spent a great deal of time looking at the world as it is, such that he can spot others who speak of the world as they wish it to be.

Agassiz wrote an article in 1874 for the Atlantic Monthly called “Evolution and Permanence of Type,” which still serves as one of the most concise and poignant reproaches of evolutionary doctrine. There are excellent quotes throughout his article; I’ll cite but a few of them:

[Darwin’s] doctrine appealed the more powerfully to the scientific world because he maintained it at first not upon metaphysical ground but upon observation. Indeed it might be said that he treated his subject according to the best scientific methods, had he not frequently overstepped the boundaries of actual knowledge and allowed his imagination to supply the links which science does not furnish….

[T]his book [On the Origin of Species] does but prove the more conclusively what was already known, namely, that all domesticated animals and cultivated plants are traceable to distinct species, and that the domesticated pigeons which furnish so large a portion of the illustration are, notwithstanding their great diversity under special treatment, no exception to this rule. The truth is, our domesticated animals, with all their breeds and varieties, have never been traced back to anything but their own species, nor have artificial varieties, so far as we know, failed to revert to the wild stock when left to themselves….

It is not true that a slight variation among the successive offspring of the same stock, goes on increasing until the difference amounts to a specific distinction. On the contrary, it is a matter of fact that extreme variations finally degenerate or become sterile; like monstrosities they die out, or return to their type.
(read the full article: ‘Evolution and Permanence of Type’)

Here is a natural scientist who actually gets his science (knowledge) from nature. While Darwin did include a great amount of natural science in his book, the links that string the science together into the doctrine of evolution are, as Agassiz says, products of Darwin’s own imagination. Plants and animals are firmly fixed in their kinds, and we praise our Creator for making the world an orderly place. This orderliness allows us to cultivate plants and animals. Indeed, the entire scientific endeavor depends on and assumes order, without which we could learn nothing absolute.

Beauty and Reality

Besides God’s power and orderliness, we also learn from nature that God is beautiful, and that there is such a thing as objective beauty. The Greeks called the world the κόσμος (cosmos), related to the verb κοσμέω (cosmeo), which means “to adorn” (it’s the same word from which we get the English word “cosmetics”). The world is “the adorned place.” It is decorated and beautified, and unlike the Greeks, we can name the God who did the beautifying.

The world’s adornment is objectively beautiful, not merely beautiful subjectively in the eye of the beholder. Who has ever watched a sunset and called it ugly? Who has ever thought fireflies twinkling in the dusk looked repulsive? People flock to islands and mountains and beaches and forests and lakes because these places are beautiful to behold. Going to them is like stepping into a glorious painting in which one can reach out and touch the brushstrokes.

The beauty of the world inspires us to wonder, to stand in awe of God. Man can only manufacture poor spectacles in comparison with the spectacles that God has given us in nature. A single maple leaf changing colors in autumn is a more wonderful sight than anything man can devise, and there’s no substitute for holding the leaf yourself. Man-made spectacles tend to serve false gods – simply consider what happens in stadiums and movie theaters. The Church has long combatted idolatrous spectacles, preferring instead the spectacles of nature, which put us in awe of the one true God.

There is a certain treatise called De Spectaculis (On the Spectacles), attributed to Cyprian of Carthage, who lived early in the third century AD. The treatise argues how unseemly it is for Christians to love the world’s spectacles: the races and games and theatrical productions. We would do well to be as guarded against the world’s entertainment, which is much the same today as it was in the third century.

Toward the conclusion of the treatise the author writes about the true and beautiful spectacle of nature:

The Christian has better spectacles, if he wants them. He has true and profitable pleasures, if he will recognize them. And, to say nothing of the things which cannot yet be contemplated, he has the very beauty of the world, at which he may look and wonder:

He may behold the rising of the sun, its setting back again, as it recalls days and nights by reciprocal interchanges; the sphere of the moon, as it marks out the courses of the times by its waxings and wanings; the choruses of glittering stars, and those that continually flash because of their supreme mobility, their greatest members divided on high through the changes of the whole year; and the days themselves, along with the nights, divided across the lengths of the hours; the balanced mass of the earth with its mountains; and the flowing rivers with their fountains; the outspread seas with their waves and beaches; meanwhile, agreeing equally with the highest harmony and the bonds of concord, the air, spreading out in the midst of all, enlivening all things with its delicacy – now pouring forth rains from its densely gathered clouds, now calling back serenity with restored spaciousness; and in all these places their proper inhabitants: in the air birds, in the waters fish, on the earth man.

These, I say, and other divine works, should be the spectacles for faithful Christians. What theater, built up with human hands, can be compared with these works? Though it be built up with a great heap of stones, the crests of the mountains are loftier; and though the paneled ceilings be resplendent with gold, they will be surpassed by the flashing of the stars. Never will he wonder at human works who has recognized himself as a son of God. He throws himself down from the height of his nobility who can admire anything besides the Lord.
De Spectaculis, §9

Thus natural science makes us become bored and disaffected with our screens and theaters and arenas, and draws us outside to marvel at what is really marvelous. Natural science delights us with genuine beauty, and gives us to admire things made without human hands. Natural science brings us out of our virtual realities, in which perception is filtered through dots-per-inch and sampling rates, in which mind is over matter, in which a man can self-identify as a woman – natural science, I say, brings us out of virtual reality into actual reality, where vision and hearing are unmediated, where matter doesn’t care what our minds think, where a bull is a bull no matter how much he wants to be a milk cow. The real world is a beautiful place, and natural science frees us from our garish fabrications by directing our wonder outside of ourselves toward the mighty and beautiful and true works of God.

Natural Science and the Classroom

From God’s second book we can learn of God’s existence, his power, his orderliness, his beauty, as well as his providence and the true nature of reality. The question now is, how do we study natural science in the classroom? We start by looking at things in the real science classroom: the outdoors. Natural science is about observing nature, receiving knowledge from that observation, and drawing conclusions from that knowledge based on the assumed orderliness and predictability of the world.

But there’s more to the study of natural science than simply glancing at things and pontificating. Learning how to read God’s second book properly means that we also listen to the voices of the great observationists who have come before us, just as when learning how to read letters on a page we seek help from those who know how to do it. And so we pick up some of the writings of Agassiz or Isaac Newton’s Principia, or, going further back, the Geography of Strabo, and even Herodotus’ notes on the weather and terrain of various countries in his Histories.

Through guided observation and through the voices of natural scientists, the teacher instructs students in the art of science. The teacher shows students what to look for, perhaps using pictures and diagrams, more often pointing and saying, “Look!” The teacher trains students to use observational technology, such as binoculars, telescopes, and microscopes, and how to experiment and test hypotheses. All of this teaches the students to discover order in the world. The teacher also continually reminds students what they can and cannot conclude from their observations (a skill sadly lacking in much pop-science, which, like Darwin, misuses both science and imagination).

Godless Science

In secular schools, children are taught about things like the seasons and the water cycle and the circulatory system. But they’re not taught to marvel and wonder at them, because that would mean acknowledging some Designer behind all the orderliness. Instead, teachers lie to their students – or rather engage in Orwellian double-think – by saying that all the orderliness, all the evidence of God, is not designed (to the great confusion of any pupils who actually happen to live in the world), but is in fact the bastard child of some purposeless force called evolution. There is nothing of the existence of a great Architect: his power, his providence, his beauty. Even if the science teacher himself is a Christian, he is forbidden from teaching as if God existed, meaning he is forbidden from teaching science as it is meant to be taught. In the secular science classroom there is simply empowering ourselves and enslaving knowledge in a great effort to recreate the world to our own liking.

Now if there’s a Christian student sitting in this classroom who knows that this is all bunk, he still will not escape unscathed. He may still believe that this is all bunk by the end of the class, but nevertheless the whole scientific undertaking has been compromised from the start. He has not learned the proper study of science (as much as he has still received some knowledge, insofar as he has accurately observed nature). Instead he has learned that knowledge is power, and the person with the most power gets to decide how the world works. This perversion of science does nothing more than mimic the ancient serpent, saying, “Ye shall be as gods.”

Learning to Read

So let’s teach our children actual science. Let us observe the world with them and discern God’s existence and power and order and beauty. Let us be content to be creatures instead of aspiring to play God like the rest of the world. Let us use our science, our knowledge, in a way that accords with the Scriptures and serves our neighbors. Let us step outside and read God’s second book.

Painting: Landscape with a Shepherd Playing Flute by Laurent de La Hyre, 1647

“Evolution and Permanence of Type” by Louis Agassiz first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, January, 1874.

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Translations of Tertullian and Cyprian are my own.

The Nature of the Student, Part IV

So far we have heard the modern view of man (part 1) and the Christian view of man (part 2 and part 3), and we’ve seen that these two views are not compatible. What remains is to examine the classical view of man. We’ll get to the key question concerning man’s nature in a short while. But since we’ve heard the modern view and the Christian view of the origin of man, we should begin similarly with the classical view. Therefore, let us ask Hesiod, Apollodorus, Ovid, Aristophanes, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch: what is the origin of man, and is man by nature good or evil?


According to the Greeks and Romans, man can trace his source to the gods, though there’s some cloudiness regarding the exact manner in which man came into existence. Hesiod’s Theogony is one of the oldest documented classical origin myths (700 BC), and partway through he suddenly begins speaking of man as a race without any explanation of whence man came. Not long before the birth of Christ, Apollodorus wrote in his Bibliotheca, “And Prometheus, after forming men from water and earth, also gave them fire” (Bibliotheca, 1.71).

Ovid (born 43 BC) includes a similar account of man’s creation in Book I of his Metamorphoses:

Man was born: whether that crafter of things, the beginning of a better world, made him with divine seed, or the ground, young and recently parted from the lofty sky, yet retained seeds of kindred heaven, which, being mixed with rain waters, the son of Iapetus [i.e. Prometheus] fashioned into the image of the gods who regulate all things. (Metamorphoses, I.78-83)

While in Ovid’s Metamorphoses there’s a rather high view of man, in the older account man seems a mere pawn and afterthought on the stage of the gods.


Thus far the creation of man. Now what of man’s relations with the gods? According to Homer’s Odyssey (which, along with the Iliad, was the equivalent of the Bible to the ancient Greeks), man rebelled against the gods. When Odysseus journeys among the dead in book 11 of the Odyssey, he sees a woman named Iphimedeia, of whom it says:

And she bore two sons, but they were both short-lived,
Godlike Otus and far-famed Ephialtes,
Whom the budding earth brought up by far the tallest
And much the fairest, after glorious Orion.
For at nine years old they were both nine cubits
Broad, and nine fathoms tall;
Who indeed did even threaten against the immortals on Olympus
To raise the battle cry of furious war.
They endeavored to set Ossa upon Olympus, then upon Ossa
Pelion with its quaking leaves, in order that heaven might be scaled.
And they would have accomplished it, if they had reached the measure of hardy youth.
But the son of Zeus, whom fair-haired Leto bore, destroyed
Them both, before the first whiskers under their temples
Bloomed to cover their cheeks with blossoming down.
Odyssey, XI.307-320

The boys purposed to stack two mountains, one atop the other, and so ascend to Mount Olympus, the realm of the gods, and raise war. Apollo nipped that in the bud, and killed the two lads. They perished for their rebellion. Yet did their rebellion affect them alone?

In Plato’s Symposium (Greek for “drinking party”), a man named Aristophanes gives a discourse on man’s original state, and how it changed at this rebellion. Aristophanes rather humorously describes man as originally having four hands and four feet, one head with two faces – in many ways rather like two people joined together. Man could walk on his legs, like we do; or alternatively, using all eight limbs as something like spokes on a wagon wheel, could roll around at great speed. Aristophanes says, “Now fearful was their strength and might, and they had great thoughts, and they attacked the gods” (Symposium, 190b).

As the punishment for man’s insolence, Zeus decided to cut everyone in half, and he assigned Apollo the task of patching up the severed bodies of mankind. The result was the present human form. While we might giggle at Zeus’s threat to halve people again and make them hop about on one leg should they attempt another uprising, we nevertheless see how, according to at least some Greeks, that first rebellion against the gods had drastic consequences for man’s physical nature. After that attempt on Olympus, man was never the same again.

Divine Intervention

Now this isn’t to say that the gods hated mankind. Some gods and goddesses took a particular liking to certain people. If grey-eyed Athena hadn’t felt sympathy for Odysseus, he would still be stuck on an island with the nymph Calypso. And if Athena had withdrawn from Odysseus, Poseidon would have eagerly obliterated the poor sea-tossed man. But Athena did have sympathy, and was a bulwark for Odysseus throughout his journey.

So Close…

In all of this we see how close the classical authors come to the truth in some cases. Now since we have the real truth in the Scriptures concerning God and creation and original sin and our heavenly Father’s steadfast love toward us, we therefore do not hold the classics as reliable sources regarding our origin, nature, standing in the world, or value in the eyes of God.

But the classical authors do have this over modern man: they’ll at least open their eyes and take an honest look at the world. Something made us. We are creatures, not accidents of nature. There is also something wrong with us. We long to be whole; we yearn for a restoration to some former way of things, even if, left to our own devices, we can’t figure out exactly what that former way of things was. There is some being in the universe who is greater and more powerful than we are, to whom we owe our obedience and willing service, of whom we can inquire, and to whom we can pray.

Christians share some ground with the ancient Greeks and Romans (even if we often find ourselves having to correct them). We share some ground because we have dwelt in the same world, which itself testifies to God, as it says in Romans 1:20, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

Meanwhile the “advanced” secular humanist has advanced all the way to a Neverland that exists only in pseudo-science and wishful thinking, and that can only be seen on the backs of his eyelids. It turns out, historically speaking, that we’re not the odd ones: believing in a divine creator, worshiping, holding religion as an integral part of what it means to be human. The infantile voices of John Dewey and his ilk find themselves drowned out by the booming chorus of antiquity.

The Nature of Man

But now what of the real question of man’s nature? We’ve heard what Aristophanes said about the changed physical nature of man. But, according to the classical world, is man by nature good or evil?

We have one of the clearest answers to this question in Plato’s Republic. In Book 4, Socrates and Glaucon dialogue about what have come to be known as the cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice). Here follows part of the conversation about temperance, with Socrates doing the bulk of the speaking:

S: Temperance is a sort of order and control over certain pleasures and passions. As they say, ‘He is quite a master of himself,’ I know not in what manner, and other such phrases, by which one picks up its tracks, so to speak. Is it not so?
G: Most certainly.
S: Then is not the phrase ‘master of himself’ absurd? For he who is master of himself would doubtless also be the slave of himself, and the slave the master, for the same man is addressed in all these phrases.
G: Undoubtedly.
S: Rather, this phrase seems to me to want to say that there is in the same man, regarding his soul, a better part and a worse part, and whenever the part that is better by nature is master of the worse part, the phrase ‘master of himself’ expresses this – it is praise indeed! But whenever, by bad upbringing or certain company, the better part, being smaller, is overcome by the magnitude of the worse part, the saying censures this with a rebuke, and also calls the man who is thus disposed a slave of himself and undisciplined.
Republic, 4.430e-431b

Socrates speaks of man much in the same way we speak of regenerate man. There is an internal battle between good and evil, which we recognize as the Holy Spirit warring against our corrupt flesh. Now to be clear, the classical authors were not regenerate men, and there is no “better part” of unregenerate man. Nevertheless, this pagan Socrates rightly recognizes that there is an evil part of man, and that evil part is to be resisted.

Objective Morality

Fundamental to Socrates’ thinking is his belief in objective right and wrong. As Christians, Romans 2:14-15 helps us to understand why pagans still believe in right and wrong:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

The law of God is written on the human heart. Now after the Fall, that writing is blurred in some places and can only be known in its fullness from the divine revelation of the Holy Scriptures. Still, objective morality remains largely intact. While modern man generally tries to silence the voice of conscience as it reads that law on the heart, the ancients generally heeded conscience and the law of God, even if they didn’t realize why they called right right and wrong wrong.

The ancients believed in the objective nature of morality, and they were honest enough to say that acting morally upright did not come naturally, at least not for most. And so Socrates and Glaucon and others conversed about virtues, and how to instill them. Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, in which he expounded the Golden Mean and showed that we can stray from virtue by two extremes. For example, when commenting on courage, or fortitude, Aristotle notes that an excess of fear makes one cowardly, and that an excess of fearlessness makes one rash (III.vii). Aristotle also shows the danger of vice: while we can voluntarily form ourselves in a habit of vice, that doesn’t mean we can voluntarily stop. A man can throw himself into a pit, but he can’t throw himself out (III.v).

Besides the philosophers, the ancient historians also focus on morals, and they wrote their histories with a view of turning their readers away from vice and toward virtue. Herodotus does this very well, although Plutarch’s Lives is the most masterly example of moral history. In the course of history we see that the same vices accompany the downfall of man again and again; whereas men are honored for the same virtues generation after generation.

Now you only care about instilling sound morals if you believe that there’s something in man that you must hinder or correct (or bolster). However, if you believe that man is just right as he is, then all you’ll care about is self-affirmation, and entertainment, and silencing the voice of conscience (and the voices of those who agree with your conscience). Here we see very clearly how the view of man’s nature determines his education.


Well now, what have we learned from all of this reflection on man’s nature? May I put it bluntly? We have learned that the modern approach to education is based on a lie about man’s nature: the lie that man is the result of unguided evolutionary change and is by nature neither good nor evil. This is false and wrong, and Christian parents should think twice about entrusting their children to such liars who will deaden their consciences and teach them to affirm sin.

Man is by nature evil, and it is only by the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ that we are anything other than that. But thanks be to him, he has saved us through his Gospel and given us his Holy Spirit, who fights against the sinful nature. This means that there is a great battle being waged within every Christian, including Christian children.

Our war-torn Christian children need the shield and soothing balm of God’s Word. When our children go to school, they should be like Solomon dwelling securely within the walls of Jerusalem, and not like Uriah forsaken on the front lines and left to die.

Even though they were pagans, and even though, when it comes to religion, they had ugly stick figures compared to the beautiful portrait of Christ in the Holy Scriptures, the ancient Greeks and Romans do have masterpieces on morality and ethics and language that can be of great use to us in raising our children.

So let us give our children God’s Word, and employ a selection of the Greek and Roman classics. Let us give them Christ, and sound instruction in right and wrong. Let us treat them like what they are; let us treat them according to their nature. And let us forsake the lie.

Painting: The School of Athens by Raphael, 1511

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Translations of classical authors are my own.

Thank you to Dr. Christian Kopff for pointing me toward Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, and to Rev. Christian Preus for introducing me to Hesiod’s Theogony.

The Nature of the Student, Part III


In the second part of this series on the nature of the student, we heard how according to the Christian view, ever since his first sin in the Garden of Eden, man is by nature evil. We must all sing:

Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly o’er me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper still I fell;
My life became a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.
Lutheran Service Book, 556:2

But notice the use of the past tense. This hymn stanza is not the full story. The Lord was not content to sit idly by while the pinnacle of creation – made in the image of God – threw himself headlong into death and hell. And therefore our song continues:

But God had seen my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation,
And mindful of His mercies great,
He planned for my salvation.
He turned to me a father’s heart;
He did not choose the easy part
But gave His dearest treasure.
LSB, 556:3

The heavenly Father’s dearest treasure is his Son, Jesus. Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. And Jesus has died on the cross and risen from the dead for our salvation. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans. 5:6-8).

Jesus’ death saved us from sin, because Jesus took up all our sins from us, bore them in his own body, and crucified them in himself on the cross. Jesus’ death defeated death, because while death laid claim to us sinful mortals, it could not lay claim to the sinless Son of God. Jesus’ death conquered the devil, because by his death Jesus redeemed us from the devil’s kingdom and unraveled all of the devil’s schemes. And Jesus’ resurrection has restored to us the hope of everlasting life.

Simul Iustus et Peccator

This salvation is an excellent gift. Even though we are corrupt flesh, Jesus has had pity on us and redeemed us, and he has promised us a glorious resurrection on the Last Day, in which our bodies will no longer be sinful by nature, but will have once more the native righteousness originally bestowed on man in creation. And yet Jesus has not made us wait until the Last Day for our renewal. Certainly our renewal is not complete until then, but even now Jesus has baptized us with water and the Word, cleansed us, and given us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us.

This means that even though we still have a sinful nature that inclines away from God and toward everything contrary to his commandments, we as Christians now also have the Holy Spirit, who fights against our depravity and gives us new desires and impulses: directing us toward Christ, toward good, and away from evil.

The presence of both the sinful nature and the Holy Spirit means that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator, Latin for “simultaneously saint and sinner.” The Christian has two conflicting things within him, as St. Paul comments: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:17). The Christian is at war – and it is not primarily a war waged within the world, but a war waged within oneself. The war will cease with the destruction of the sinful nature at death, but until then, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, we fight against our evil passions.

I. Teach the Word of God

What does all of this mean for education? First of all, if we’re educating Christians then one of the chief goals of education is to keep the students Christians. If faith in Christ is what makes one a Christian, and faith comes through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17), then the student must hear the Word of God daily, and hear it pure and unadulterated.

This means that a child should hear the Word of God at home each day with his parents in life and conversation, learn to pray, and have family devotions. This also means that Christian parents should send their Christian children to schools where the teachers complement and reinforce the family devotion to God’s Word. Christian schools should ideally have chapel every day, conducted by a faithful pastor. Teachers in Christian schools should know how the Word of God relates to their areas of expertise, and, in addition to instilling knowledge, should instill a love of God’s Word. Students should expect harmony between the home, the church, and the school: a common worldview (to use a popular term), or, more specifically, a common language, namely the language of the Scriptures.

Now this emphasis on God’s Word does not mean that all children should become pastors or deaconesses. Any vocation is a holy calling when a Christian carries it out. The interest in God’s Word is not for the sake of conferring a marketable skill, but for the sake of the salvation of the students. Again, the Word of God is not the topic of discussion every minute of every day; in fact, chapel, prayer, and catechesis don’t even occupy a majority of the day. The Word of God is rather the common tongue of parents, students, and teachers. The nature of the student as simultaneously saint and sinner means that we give students the Word of God, which alone strengthens the saint, rebukes the sinner, and gives eternal salvation.

II. Teach Virtue and Vice

Second, if the Christian student has within him the Holy Spirit warring against the sinful flesh, then the student should learn to practice virtue and learn to avoid vice. This is not for the sake of earning salvation, but for the sake of living according to God’s will, avoiding God’s displeasure, serving the neighbor, and giving no opportunity to the flesh, lest it enslave us once again to sin.

Virtue is summed up most succinctly in the Ten Commandments. It is a virtue to have the right God. It is a virtue to honor one’s father and mother. It is a virtue to be content with what God has given you (and conversely, a vice to covet what belongs to your neighbor). These virtues are not works of the Law when a Christian does them, as if we only did the right thing because God was cracking a whip or threatening hell. No, when a Christian does these works of virtue, the works are properly speaking fruits of the Spirit.

A document in the Lutheran Confessions called The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord puts it this way:

[W]hen people are born again through the Spirit of God and set free from the law (that is, liberated from its driving powers and driven by the Spirit of Christ), they live according to the unchanging will of God, as comprehended in the law, and do everything, insofar as they are reborn, from a free and merry spirit. (Solid Declaration VI.17)

Christians are glad to do what is right in God’s sight (virtue) and cheerfully avoid whatever displeases him (vice). One might then wonder why we should teach Christian children virtue and vice. There are two main reasons.

a. Instruct the Saint

First, the saint wants to know what God’s will is and live according to it. While we do have the law of God written on our hearts, ever since man’s fall into sin, that image of the law on the heart is not a perfect image. We must receive instruction from God’s objective Word in order to have a complete understanding of his will. Without this instruction in the commandments it becomes all too easy to devise our own works and declare them to be precious virtues in the sight of God, while at the same time neglecting that which he has commanded.

Besides this, the Christian student lives in a world that calls virtue vice and vice virtue. There will be confusion and uncertainty about the right course of action unless we teach the young saint what is truly right and wrong, virtue and vice, pleasing and displeasing to God.

The words of the commandments teach this will of God clearly enough. The saint also finds it useful to hear illustrations of God’s pleasure toward those who do his will. Take, for example, Joseph the son of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, and Joseph resisted her advances. But then Potiphar’s wife said that Joseph had tried to seduce her, and he was thrown in prison on this false accusation. At this point a student might wonder, “Did Joseph do something wrong? Was God displeased with him?” But then we hear how Joseph prospered, even in prison, and then became second in command over all Egypt. We learn that even if we must suffer for righteousness’ sake, nevertheless God is pleased with those who do his will, and he shows us favor even in the midst of suffering, and he will yet vindicate us and change our fortune. The saint needs these illustrations, both for the strengthening of faith and for instruction in virtue.

b. Curb the Sinner

So that’s the first reason why we teach virtue and vice to Christian students, namely, because the saint wants to know his Father’s will. The second reason is because the Christian student is not only a saint, but a sinner. Christians only do the will of God from a free and merry spirit “insofar as they are reborn.” The Solid Declaration puts this very pointedly:

For the old creature, like a stubborn, recalcitrant donkey, is also still a part of them, and it needs to be forced into obedience to Christ not only through the law’s teaching, admonition, compulsion, and threat but also often with the cudgel of punishments and tribulations until the sinful flesh is completely stripped away and people are perfectly renewed in the resurrection. (Solid Declaration VI.24)

Whereas the Christian as a saint does the will of God because, by the Spirit, he wants to, the Christian as a sinner only does the will of God because he has to. He must hear “admonition, compulsion, and threat.” The sinful flesh must hear such things as, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

But like the saint, the sinner learns particularly well through illustration. He might want to misuse God’s name, but when he hears how the Lord ordered the son of Shelomith to be stoned to death for that offense (Leviticus 24:11-16), he will think twice about doing it. The sinful flesh will grudgingly refrain from sin (sometimes) simply because it doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of sin. Therefore, to aid the student in the war against the flesh, we curb the flesh with the fear-striking examples of God judging other sinners.

God also curbs the flesh “with the cudgel of punishments and tribulations.” In other words, if we insist on sinning, God will let us have the consequences. He disciplines us, not seeking our destruction, but seeking to turn us away from evil. So it is with teachers. If words aren’t enough to curb the flesh, then there’s always clapping the erasers, wearing the dunce cap, writing sentences. Modern education sees these things as harmful to the student’s self-esteem, and as a result, not only is there no discipline in the classroom, but the students never learn that the consequences of offending against God are far worse than a slight blow to self-esteem.

Christians don’t care about self-esteem. It’s too close to the great vice of pride. We care about having a gracious God who made us in his image and gave his own divine Son to redeem us. There’s real esteem! Now if the sinful flesh is seeking to turn us away from this gracious God by despising his Word and going its own way, then we hinder it however we rightfully can. If it takes a little public shame, then so be it. Better the flesh be ashamed than be in control.

c. Mind the Simul

Now the teaching of virtue is not only for the saint, and the teaching of vice is not only for the sinner. Not only does the saint want to know what to do to be doing the will of God, but also what to avoid so that he does not grieve his Father. Not only is the sinner compelled by the threat of punishment; he is also enticed by the hope of the earthly reward that accompanies virtue. We can draw a distinction by saying that delight in the law belongs to the saint, and terror of God’s wrath belongs to the sinner. But I want to make it clear that we teach the full teaching of God’s law to the Christian as he is both saint and sinner.

Learning virtue and vice is good for the Christian as he is simul iustus et peccator because hearing God’s law brings to light our sins and our need for Christ, and, thus despairing of ourselves, the Gospel comes along and gives us refuge in Jesus. To put it succinctly, teaching God’s law shows the student his need for a Savior. Therefore, training in virtue and vice also serves the purpose of keeping Christian students Christian, not by making them hope in their works for salvation, but by showing them that their works are a false hope for salvation.

III. Teach Love

So, when teaching Christian students we teach, first, God’s Word, second, virtue and vice; and third, we teach the Christian student how to love and serve his neighbor. The sinful flesh may be incurvatus in se, but as a new creation in Christ the student is turned out from himself. The saint desires to love his neighbor, and so a Christian education makes the Christian student a knowledgeable and skillful servant to those around him. You can read more about love as a goal of education here.

Educate Christian Children according to Their Nature

The Christian view of the Christian student is that he is simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. Educating this Christian according to his nature, we instruct him in God’s Word, teach him virtue and vice, and give him the knowledge and skills necessary to be of service to the world wherever he is needed. This Christian education is far different from modern education, because Christian education has a far different view of the nature of the student when compared to modern education.

We ought to educate our children according to what they are by nature, not according to a lie about man’s nature. Modern education is not for us, nor for any human being. Now the question remains: is classical education any better suited to the student’s nature than modern education? Read The Nature of the Student, Part IV.

Painting: Crucifixion by Peter Gertner, 1537

Hymn quotation: Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice by Martin Luther

Quotes of Solid Declaration are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

The Nature of the Student, Part II

Incurvatus in Se

Is man by nature good or evil? We’ve seen the modern view. While it rejects the idea of being morally good or evil by nature, it nevertheless treats man as if he were naturally good.

Yet consider this: parents and teachers must instruct children to share, but no one ever had to teach them to be selfish. Parents and teachers must make children learn to follow directions, whereas children never needed anyone to teach them to say, “No,” and then do whatever they want instead of what they were told. Parents and teachers must instill in children the consideration of others, but children seem to have been born knowing the perverted maxim, “Look out for number one.” The theological term for this inherent selfishness is incurvatus in se, Latin for, “turned in on yourself.”

This is not how man was made to be. Man has become corrupt. And this leads up to the Christian view of the question, “Is man by nature good or evil?”

Native Righteousness

In the beginning God made man in his image and likeness. Man had a native righteousness. Man was perfect in virtue. Man naturally inclined away from himself, toward God and toward his fellow man. In Paradise Lost, John Milton captures this beautifully as he describes day six of creation, the day on which man was created:

There wanted yet the master work, the end
Of all yet done; a creature who, not prone
And brute as other creatures, but endued
With sanctity of reason, might erect
His stature, and upright, with front serene,
Govern the rest, self-knowing, and from thence
Magnanimous to correspond with heaven;
But grateful to acknowledge whence his good
Descends, thither with heart and voice and eyes
Directed in devotion, to adore
And worship God supreme, who made him chief
Of all his works…
Paradise Lost, VII.505-516

Man has reason, is self-knowing (that is, has consciousness), does not go about on the ground like a beast, but stands upright. These are all facets of being made in the image of God. But being made in the image of God also means that man himself is not God, and so man sought to know the true God and delighted to worship him.

Thus in Paradise Lost, when he recounts the day of his creation, Adam tells how he rose from the ground – “rais’d / By quick instinctive motion up I sprung” – and spoke:

Thou sun, said I, fair light,
And thou enlighten’d earth, so fresh and gay,
Ye hills, and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?
Not of myself; by some great Maker then,
In goodness and in power pre-eminent;
Tell me how may I know him, how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live,
And feel that I am happier than I know.
Paradise Lost, VIII.273-282

By nature Adam sought his Creator. Adam also sought one like himself, a fellow human being, a neighbor to love. But among the livestock and the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field no suitable helper was found. The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, took a rib from his side and formed a woman, and brought her to the man. “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). The man loved the woman as his own life – more than his own life. Together they adored God. Each one loved the other. They were by nature selfless. They were by nature good.

Paradise Lost

But then man ate from the tree of which the Lord had commanded him not to eat. At the serpent’s goading man sinned, and corruption followed. This corruption is so deep that by nature we can only recognize it superficially. So fallen are we that we are numb to our fall, like a man who has plunged from a great height, and who lying paralyzed on the bedrock feels but a small fraction of his painful injuries. The Scriptures alone reveal the full depravity of our nature.

The Depth of Our Depravity

Do you want to know thyself? Then listen to David cry out in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). The prophet Jeremiah declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). But Jesus gives the clearest description of our perversity: “That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mk. 7:20-23).

Based on these passages of Scripture (and others like them) the Evangelicals confessed at the time of the Reformation:

That not only is original sin (in human nature) such a complete lack of all good in spiritual, divine matters, but also that at the same time it replaces the lost image of God in the human being with a deep-seated, evil, horrible, bottomless, unfathomable, and indescribable corruption of the entire human nature and of all its powers, particularly of the highest, most important powers of the soul, in mind, heart, and will. Ever since the fall, the human being inherits an inborn evil way of doing things, an internal impurity of the heart, and an evil desire and inclination, so that we all by nature inherit such a heart, mind, and way of thinking from Adam. Following its highest powers and in light of reason, this fallen heart is by nature diametrically opposed to God and his highest commandments. Indeed, it is hostile to God, particularly in regard to divine, spiritual matters”
Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article I, §11

Similarly, when recounting the consequences of man’s original sin, Milton writes:

… innocence, that as a veil
Had shadow’d them from knowing ill, was gone,
Just confidence, and native righteousness,
And honour from about them naked left
To guilty shame…
Paradise Lost, IX.1054-1058

And again:

… nor only tears
Rain’d at their eyes, but high winds worse within
Began to rise, high passions, anger, hate,
Mistrust, suspicion, discord, and shook sore
Their inward state of mind, calm region once
And full of peace, now toss’d and turbulent:
For understanding rul’d not, and the will
Heard not her lore, both in subjection now
To sensual appetite, who from beneath,
Usurping over sov’reign reason, claim’d
Superior sway…
Paradise Lost, IX.1121-1131

In short, man turned away from God. Man turned away from fellow man. Man is incurvatus in se, turned in on himself. Man is a slave to the passions and desires that rage within him.

Original Sin and Education

So is man by nature good or evil? Man was created good, yet by his sin brought deep corruption on all mankind, such that now man is by nature evil. Shall we make the child’s instincts and powers the starting point for all education, as John Dewey would have us? That would be like giving an alcoholic a bottle of vodka and expecting he will use it to serve his neighbor, or giving a serial killer a knife and supposing he will whittle toys for children and make an honest living. Man is by nature evil.

Yet this is not the full Christian answer to the question. Continue reading: The Nature of the Student, Part III.

Painting: Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake, 1795

Quotes of Solid Declaration are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.


The Nature of the Student, Part I

A Diagnostic Question

Is man by nature good or evil? Some might try to give a nuanced answer, “Man is mostly good, with the occasional evil impulse.” Others might say, “Both. Man has good and evil fighting within him.” Still others might object to the question entirely, “Good and evil are social constructs, and therefore man can’t be either one of them by nature.” For this last group we might rephrase the question this way: Can man in good conscience indulge his impulses and desires, with the assumption that if they arise naturally then there can’t be anything wrong with them? Or should a man regard his natural impulses and passions with suspicion, as if they have been corrupted in some way and should more often be met with resistance than indulgence? This is what I mean when I ask, “Is man by nature good or evil?”

The answer to this question has immediate consequences for education. For example, if man is by nature good, then he will naturally incline toward good things and desire good things. The teacher should simply stay out of his way, offer guidance as necessary, and facilitate this good man’s exploration of the world around him and his pursuit of whatever seems good to him. Hindering this good man’s passions and impulses – saying, “Stop taking your pen apart and parse this Latin verb” – would be nothing short of oppressive.

But if man is by nature evil and corrupt, then the teacher is duty bound to exercise discipline in the classroom, instill virtues and show their good fruits, rebuke vices and reveal their harmful consequences, and curb the corrupt passions of the student. In this case the teacher should also dictate what the curriculum is going to be (since the student shouldn’t be creating a curriculum based on his whims), and point the student toward objective texts – good words and thoughts that come to the student from the outside, not the inside. Giving free reign to this corrupt man’s passions and impulses would be like standing idly by while a child walks ever closer to the edge of a cliff, listening apathetically to his terrified screams as he hurtles to his death, and then awarding him a diploma.


This article will have four parts, examining the way that three groups answer the question, “Is man by nature good or evil?” First we’ll examine the modern view of man; second, the Christian view of unregenerate man; third, the Christian view of regenerate man; and fourth, the classical view of man. Each answer suggests a particular approach to education; therefore, when we determine the nature of man, we will thereby also determine the sort of education that man ought to receive. At the same time we will recognize and reject any form of education that is contrary to man’s nature.

The Modern View of Man

So, is man by nature good or evil? What does the modern world have to say? The prevailing view in many fields, including the realm of modern education, is that man is the result of evolution, has no soul, and is neither good nor evil by nature.

There’s an important document from 1933 called the Humanist Manifesto I that summarizes the modern view of man in this way: “First: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. Second: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process. Third: Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.”

The Humanist Manifesto II, signed in 1973 by such people as author Isaac Asimov and behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, expanded on the point: “Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the ‘ghost in the machine’ and the ‘separable soul.’ Rather, science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces.”

The Humanist Manifesto III, signed in 2003 by Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew, two dozen Nobel Prize winners, and many others, puts it very succinctly and affirms the views expressed in the previous two Manifestos: “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.”

This series of Humanist Manifestos is important for two reasons that relate to the topic at hand. First, the Humanist Manifestos summarize a widely-held modern worldview. And second, Humanist Manifesto I is of particular note because it was signed by none other than John Dewey, sometimes called The Father of Modern Education.

Through his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey reformed education in America. He aligned teaching methods to the tenets of humanism, thereby influencing all who passed through the public schools. And control of such things as schools was the stated goal of humanism: “Thirteenth: Religious humanism maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life. The intelligent evaluation, transformation, control, and direction of such associations and institutions with a view to the enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism” (Humanist Manifesto I, emphasis added). Or in other words, humanism, under the guise of “the enhancement of human life,” turned schools into centers that act on and instill a secular humanist worldview.

Man: Amoral and Good?

Thus far we’ve seen the modern view of man, and how it found its way into the schools. But what of the initial question, “Is man by nature good or evil?” While the modern view doesn’t speak of man in terms of inherent morality, nevertheless there is great optimism about man and his capabilities. In the modern view there is no fall into sin or corruption of the way we were made, and therefore man is exactly the way he is “supposed” to be, with the caveat that there is no “Supposer,” and so any implication of divine purpose must be excluded. Man is also the most superior life form that we know of (having abandoned belief in a God or gods), and therefore man is man’s own greatest hope. So in short, even though the modern view rejects such labels as “naturally good” and “naturally evil,” it ends up treating man as if he were naturally good.

John Dewey makes this plain enough in My Pedagogic Creed (1897):

The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. (Article I)

In his later writing, Experience and Education (1938), Dewey contrasts traditional schools with the new progressive schools:

If one attempts to formulate the philosophy of education implicit in the practices of the new education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles amid the variety of progressive schools now existing. To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal… (pg. X)

In both of these writings Dewey extols “the child’s own instincts,” “his own initiative,” “free activity,” and acquisition of skills as they make “direct vital appeal” to the student. And now after several generations of this approach to education, what can we say about it? Have “the child’s own instincts” been as good as we thought? Has the student’s “own initiative” led to a love of learning that was absent in traditional schools? Or has the student’s own initiative initiated boredom and aversion to learning? Have children felt “direct vital appeal” for the things that they need in life? Or have they felt direct vital appeal for things that don’t matter at all – or worse, things that are harmful to themselves and others?

The Dark Reality of Man’s Nature

Anyone who has ever been a human being can likely guess the answers to these questions, especially those who have had contact with public schools. Our “own instincts” don’t often lead us to desire the good of others, or to love learning what is best for us to know, or to pursue virtue. Our own instincts often lead us to be lazy, selfish, mean, fascinated with gimmicks and bored with real substance. Our own instincts seek immediate pleasure in this present moment with little thought to the future or the consequences. Our own instincts abuse “free activity.” And as for the activities that make “direct vital appeal,” we would be ashamed of them if our own instincts knew how to blush.

In the opening section of The Silver Chair (book six in The Chronicles of Narnia), C. S. Lewis notes the real results of modern educational reform:

It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym. She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was ‘Co-educational,’ a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a ‘mixed’ school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked best was bullying the others. All sorts of things, horrid things, went on which at an ordinary school would have been found out and stopped in half a term; but at this school they weren’t. Or even if they were, the people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the main result was that you became rather a favorite than otherwise. (Chapter 1, pgs. 1-2)

Good: What Man Isn’t

So is man by nature good or evil? The modern world rejects the validity of the question; and yet the modern world treats man as if he were by nature good. If the modern world would but open its eyes, and use the power of observation, and examine the empirical evidence that it claims to love so much, perhaps it would see the true nature of man. Perhaps it would see that we are far from good.

Continue reading: The Nature of the Student, Part II

Painting: Mythological Portrait of the Family of Louis XIV by Jean Nocret, 1670.  The artist has depicted the family members as various gods in the Greek pantheon.

The Humanist Manifestos are from the website of the American Humanist Association, tagline,“Good without a God.”

John Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed” is from “School Journal” vol. 54 (January 1897), pgs. 77-80

Libyan Tribe Declares War on Wind

ISCINA, LIBYA — Our field correspondent Herodotus has sent word of a most intriguing story. Last Wednesday he was supping with some Nasamonians, and inbetween bites of mutton and couscous one of them related the following tale:

And adjacent to the Nasamonians are the Psylli. They utterly perished in the following manner: The south wind had blown against them and dried up their water tanks; and all their country, being within the Syrtis, was waterless. So after they had taken counsel, by common agreement they marched their army against the south wind (now I’m only saying what the Libyans say), and when they came into the sandy desert, the south wind blew and buried them. Since they utterly perished, the Nasamonians have their land.

When Herodotus asked if the Nasamonians had searched the desert for the remains of this unfortunate tribe, a certain chieftan named Siwa spluttered tea all over the guests in his laughter and replied, “Of course not.  Don’t be Psylli!”

This account comes from Herodotus’ Histories, IV.173 as he tells of the various tribes that inhabited Libya. We might be inclined to view the tale of the Psylli with some skepticism; even Herodotus felt compelled to note, “I’m only saying what the Libyans say.” Yet Herodotus included the story because of its moral value.

The simple fact is, there are certain things that we as human beings can’t trifle with, things we must simply accept as they are. If the wind dries up our water stores, we can’t get retribution, we can’t change the wind, we can’t even make the wind care that it “wronged” us. If we ignore these facts and try to take on the wind, we shouldn’t be surprised when our war against nature ends with our own destruction.

Some things are beyond us. Making nature bend to our will is one of those things. The Greek adage, “Know thyself” comes to mind: know what is within your grasp, and know what is beyond you.


  • What should the Psylli have done instead of going to war against the south wind?
  • Are public schools teaching that man must accept nature as it is, or that man can change nature as he sees fit? Think in particular of the current debates over sexual orientation, gender identity, and restroom policies.
  • The ancients considered that presumptuous acts against nature, such as the Psylli committed, were a form of impiety, that is, offense against the gods. Why would defying nature be offensive to God?

Painting: Egypt 1903, Storm-driven by Robert Talbot Kelly (1861-1934).

Herodotus’ Histories, IV.173 translated by Andrew Richard, 2017.

Local Thief Bites Mother

MESAMBRIA, THRACE — The place of execution offered more than the usual excitement this past Friday as a young man, dripping red at the mouth, loudly berated his mother before going to his death.  She stood nearby, and eyewitnesses noted that she appeared to be bleeding from the side of the head. The bewildered crowd did not know what to make of the scene. After talking with the mother and one of the boy’s fellow students from grammar school, we were finally able to piece together a full report:

“A boy from school filched his classmate’s writing-tablet and brought it to his mother. And not only did she not punish him, instead she praised him! The second time he stole a garment and brought it to her, and she praised him all the more. The boy advanced in years and became a young man. By now he was attempting to steal even greater things. But eventually he was caught in the act, and with his hands tied behind him he was led away to the executioner. Now as his mother followed after him and beat her breast, he said that he wanted to whisper something into her ear.  And as soon as she came to him, he laid hold of her ear and bit it off.  Then she accused him of impiety: As if he were not satisfied with the offenses he had already committed, he also mutilated his mother! To which he said, ‘But before, when I had first stolen the writing-tablet and brought it to you, if you had punished me I would not have come to this, being led away to death.’ The saying is clear: That which is not corrected at the beginning will increase all the more.”

When the judge heard what had happened, he had a mind to punish the mother. But wisely recognizing that parental neglect is its own punishment, the judge decided not to waste his time with a trial and instead took his wife to lunch.

“The Boy Thief and His Mother” is one of Aesop’s fables, and the moral of the story varies slightly depending on the version. Laura Gibbs has, “if you are wise, you will tear out vice by the roots, in other words, at the very beginning of sinfulness and other wickedness, so that the severing of the root will cause the branches to wither away.” A 1484 version by Caxton says, “And therfore chastyse wel youre children / to thende / that ye falle not in to suche a caas” (And therefore chastise well your children to the end that ye fall not into such a case). Joseph Jacobs concludes with Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart therefrom.” But the point remains basically the same: a bad beginning left unchecked leads to a bad end, whereas correcting the bad leads to good.


  • Are children by nature inclined toward good or evil? (see Genesis 6:5, Psalm 51:5, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:10-18)
  • What happens to a child when vice goes uncorrected?
  • Secular schools do not agree with Christian definitions of virtue and vice, in some areas (especially the realm of sexual morality) completely reversing the two. Modern educational theories also regard children as basically good by nature. What effect should Christian parents expect such erroneous views to have on their children?

Woodcut by Heinrich Steinhowel, from the book Vite et Fabulae, 1479.

“The Boy Thief and His Mother.” Greek version: Ésope Fables by Émile Chambry, #296. Translated by Andrew Richard, 2017.

The Goal of Education Part II: Fides et Charitas

In The Goal of Education Part I we saw the foolishness of Educating for Mammon, that is, bringing up children with the primary goal of turning them into moneymakers. But what is the alternative? Fortunately, as with so many things, we don’t have to invent a solution. Educating for Mammon has long been a problem, and the Church has often addressed it.

Educating for Mammon was a problem in the fourth century when a pastor named John Chrysostom was preaching through the book of Ephesians. He came to Ephesians 6:4, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and here’s part of what he said:

How long are we going to be mere flesh? How long are we going to hunch over the earth? Let all things stand in the second place for us when compared with taking forethought for our children and bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If he learns to be a lover of wisdom from the first, he has acquired riches greater than all riches, and a mightier glory. You will accomplish nothing so great by teaching him a craft, and the outward training through which he will acquire possessions, than if you teach him a craft through which he will despise possessions. If you want to make him rich, do it like that. For the rich man is not he who binds himself with many possessions and surrounds himself with many things, but he who has need of nothing.

Discipline your son in this, teach him this – this is the greatest wealth. Do not seek how you will make him renowned in outward lessons, and make him glorious, but consider how you will teach him to despise the glory that is in this life. Thence he would become more radiant and more glorious. These things are possible both for the poor man and the rich man to do. One does not learn these things from a teacher, nor through craft, but through the divine sayings. Do not seek how he will live a long life here, but how he will live a boundless and endless life there. Give him the great things, not the little things.
(Ephesians, Homily XXI)

Nor was the problem of Educating for Mammon limited to the fourth century. In the sixteenth century Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism:

Nor is it recognized how very necessary it is to devote serious attention to the young. For if we want capable and qualified people for both the civil and the spiritual realms, we really must spare no effort, time, and expense in teaching and educating our children to serve God and the world. We must not think only of amassing money and property for them. God can provide for them and make them rich without our help, as indeed he does daily. But he has given us children and entrusted them to us precisely so that we may raise and govern them according to his will; otherwise, God would have no need of fathers and mothers. Therefore let all people know that it is their chief duty – at the risk of losing divine grace – first to bring up their children in the fear and knowledge of God, and, then, if they are so gifted, also to have them engage in formal study and learn so that they may be of service wherever they are needed.
(Large Catechism, I.170-174)

Fides ad Deum, Charitas ad Vicinum

With one voice Chrysostom and Luther lambaste the practice of Educating for Mammon; they unite also in the remedy. They point us to the two marks of the Christian life: faith and love. Throughout all of Scripture, faith and love characterize God’s people. And each is directed toward someone. Faith is directed toward God; we trust in Him and expect to receive every good thing from Him, which he gives freely for the sake of Christ in spite of the fact that we don’t deserve any of it. Love is directed toward the neighbor; good works are the fruit of faith, and we don’t use these works to earn anything with God, but to serve our fellow man. Put faith and love together, and we have a fine motto to keep us mindful of the goal of Christian education: Fides ad Deum, charitas ad vicinum, “Faith toward God, love toward the neighbor.”

Faith toward God

Let’s examine these two marks of the Christian in more detail. First faith. Faith is not something that we can manufacture within ourselves. Rather, it is something God works in us by his Word; as it says in Romans 10:17, “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Thus Chrysostom returns to the language of Ephesians 6:4 again and again, “bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” meaning, teach them the Word of God, the “divine sayings,” as Chrysostom puts it. Luther likewise tells parents to teach their children God’s Word, saying that if they do not bring up their children in the fear and knowledge of God they risk losing divine grace, because this is the chief duty of parents.

Education should have faith as one of its goals. Education should treat a child like he has a soul, and not like mere flesh hunched over the earth. Education should delight in Christ, and the redemption that He has accomplished, and the words that He has spoken.

Love toward the Neighbor

Flowing from faith, the second mark of the Christian is love. Only one who has received the love of Christ can properly love his neighbor. Apart from Christ’s love we cannot love others. We can hate them, we can use them for our own ends, we can behave decently to avoid punishments, we can feel compelled by the general morality of those around us – but of ourselves we cannot love anyone else. Like faith, love is a gift of God. And indeed, wherever there is faith, there is love, just as wherever there is fire there is light and heat.

Education should include instruction in God’s Commandments and Christian morals. But more fundamental than teaching children to behave rightly, is the Christian attitude that we do not live to ourselves but to others. An education that teaches children to look to their own wants and needs is no education for a Christian. But when love is a goal of education, then the student learns to say, “How can I be of service to those around me? Teach me things so that I can better care for my neighbors.”

Chrysostom and Luther both stress that children should learn useful knowledge and skills – not useful for earning Mammon, but useful for the neighbor. So Luther said that the purpose of giving children a formal education is “so that they may be of service wherever they are needed.” Chrysostom comments at length, showing what a wonderful gift a Christian is to the world:

Thus the more he is renowned in this life, so much the more is this discipline necessary for him. For should he be brought up in palaces, there are many heathens and ‘philosophers’ and those puffed up with the present glory, just like some place that has been filled with dropsical people. Of some such sort are all the palaces: all are puffed up and inflamed, and those who are not are zealous to become so. Think, then, how great your son is, going in there like the best physician: entering with the instruments that are able to reduce the inflammation of each, and approaching each one and conversing, and making the sick body healthy, applying the medicines from the Scriptures and pouring out the words of philosophy…

And if you want to know, he will be a more serviceable man even in the world itself. For all will revere him because of those words when they see him in the fire, though not being burned nor desiring power. And at that very time he will be ready for it – when he does not desire it – and he will be still more revered by the king, for such a man will not be able to escape his notice. For among many healthy people, the healthy man will escape notice. But among many sick people, when one is healthy, the report will be spread quickly, and into the royal ears, and he will set him over many nations. Therefore, knowing these things, bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
(Ephesians, Homily XXI)

The True Goal

What is the goal of education? Not the acquisition of Mammon. The goal of education is Fides ad Deum, Charitas ad Vicinum, faith toward God, love toward the neighbor. Or as Chrysostom very nicely sums it up: Χριστιανὸν αὐτὸν ποίησον: Make him a Christian.

Painting: Christ Blessing the Children, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1545-1550

Quotes of Large Catechism are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Translations of Chrysostom are my own.