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The Christian Idea of Education1

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

It is sometimes instructive to examine the dynamism of an idea in its first origins. I propose therefore to look at the Christian idea of education in its first institutionalized form, as it took shape in this Christian School of Alexandria in the early decades of the third century.

The forehistory of the school includes the name of Clement of Alexandria (who would himself deserve a special study) and also the more shadowy name of Pantaenus. Both of them conducted what we would today call "private schools." But the proper history of the School of Alexandria, as the first officially "church-related" school, begins with Origen, the gigantic intellect who towers over the third century and indeed over the whole of Christian antiquity.

His story starts, modestly enough, in A.D. 203, when Demetrius, Bishop of Alexandria, put him in charge of the diocesan catechesis, at the age of eighteen. Doubtless the bishop had no intention of starting an intellectual revolution; that is not the sort of thing that bishops ordinarily do. But Origen happened to be a genius. And a particular moment in history had arrived. The time was at hand when the Church, still preaching the Word of God in all the simplicity of its divine wisdom, had to move onward and outward into the complex world of human intelligence where many words, pretending to be wise, were being spoken. Origen was the man who spectacularly made this crucial move.

His initial task was spiritually thrilling but not intellectually ambitious. He taught the elements of Christian doctrine to catechumens preparing for baptism in the shadow of the edict of Septimius Severus which threatened death to Christian converts. In time, however, a problem arose that was also intellectually exciting. "When I devoted myself to the Word," Origen later wrote, "and the fame of my proficiency went abroad, there came to me adherents of the various schools of thought, and men conversant with Greek learning, particularly with philosophy. It seemed therefore necessary that I should examine the doctrines of the schools and see what the philosophers had said concerning the truth." In this simple, almost casual way Origen describes the beginning of the full-scale historic encounter between Christianity and the ancient world of intellect. Out of this encounter the first Christian school was born.

We can, without excessive fancy, construct Origen's problem. The men who came to him, wanting to be Christians, were living in the seething heterogeneity of contentious cultures, philosophies, and pieties that was third-century Alexandria. They had frequented the famous Museum and its fabulous library—the twin institutions that together had made Alexandria the capital of "the creative half of the Empire." These cultivated men—Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Orientals—were troubled and confused as they heard Origen discourse on the Christian creed and on the history behind it

Their philosophy raised questions about God and immortality, the finite and the infinite, the nature of morality, and the content of the good life. Their nascent discipline of philology created difficulties about the text of Scripture and its sense. The science of the Ionian epoch had known a revival in Alexandria, and consequently these men had questions about the Christian view of the material universe. They knew history and had theories about its meaning; they would therefore want to inquire into the Christian sense of history. They were skilled in politics and law and therefore were desirous to know the situation of the Church, visible as an institution with its own structure of government, in the face of the empire. The great desire for redemption from evil that had become central in all the religions of the time had touched them, and they had questions about the Christian interpretation of evil and the Christian meaning of redemption. Their Roman masters had fixed their minds on an ideal of citizenship; but was there a relation between the service of an earthly city and a citizenship in the Kingdom of God? And did the ascetic otherworldliness of the Christian life leave a place for the art and music and literature that they had learned to love? They were men to whom Hellenism had taught the primacy of the life of reason; how then was their love of intelligence to he reconciled with the obedience of Christian faith and the acceptance of great mysteries?

In short, these men were asking one searching question. What was the relation between the Museum of Alexandria and the Church of Christ, between the human wisdom that lay accumulated in the scrolls of the library and the divine wisdom of which the books of the Bible were the repository? It was a most valid question that demanded an answer. A journey to Rome about A.D. 212 further convinced Origen that Christianity was challenging the best intelligence of the time and was in turn being challenged by it, either with hope or with hostility. Therefore on his return to Alexandria he reorganized his catechesis into a didaskaleion, a proper school, and embarked upon a new course.

Eusebius tells us that there were two levels in the new program. Origen put his average students through the general education of the freeborn Greek youth—in grammar, rhetoric and logic, in arithmetic, geometry (which included geography and some rudimentary biological science), astronomy (including what was known of physics), and music. These were the "Hellenic disciplines" (Eusebius), hegkuglios paideia, the "circle learning" of Francis Bacon, the arts and sciences that made the free man and the citizen, equipped with the intellectual tools on which civilization depends, possessed of the humanist heritage that man had so far accumulated. However, Origen struck a new note when he told his students, as Eusebius reports, "that this general education would be of no small help to them in the study and understanding of the divine Scriptures."

Origen broke the old "circle"; or, if you will, he included it in a circle of a wider sweep. He affirmed the old humanism to be valid still, but he denied its adequacy. The traditional paideia was to be retained; it was a true culture that enriched the mind. But it left the soul still in poverty, for now the materials for a higher culture were available in the doctrine of Christ. Therefore Origen's school had for its ulterior purpose the transmission of the Christian heritage of faith whose depository was the Church. And his general education stood in relation to this higher purpose; it would be "no small help" in the assimilation of Christian truth. The statement is laconic; and it raises many problems, with which Christian educators have struggled ever since.

It was, of course, no such simple matter as that of teaching people to read in order that they might read the Scriptures (itself an admirable idea). Nor was it the equally simple combination of two unrelated jobs that was recommended by the sturdy colonial American Calvinist when he said: "The Bible and figures—that's all I want my boy to know" (a better idea, at that, than just "figures"). Origen's purpose was the civilization of intelligence in order that it might be able to receive a fuller understanding of the doctrines that simple catechetical instruction by the Church had already made known to it

Christian faith can of course be received into an intelligence altogether rude; on the other hand, it does not necessarily spring up in a cultivated intelligence. It is a gift of God. But what is given is truth, and the gift is made to a human intelligence. Therefore it makes on intelligence the demand that the truth, thus given, should be understood, insofar as intelligence can encompass its understanding. In this process of understanding a civilized intelligence is "of no small help." The civilization of intelligence is a humanistic and scientific process; the understanding of Christian faith is a religious and supernatural one. The processes are distinct, but they ought to be related; for they go on within the same one mind and soul. It was therefore the essential function of Origen's school to relate them, under the primacy of the process in which faith, a higher gift than intelligence, involves the Christian. Origen wanted his students to grow into an intelligent Christianity; but to this end it was necessary that intelligence itself should grow in them. And there could be no other means of growth than the acquisition of the intellectual skills, the assimilation of the body of knowledge, and the initiation into the traditions of civility,2 that made the society around them civilized.

There was a further cognate task, reserved for those who were up to it. "When he perceived that any persons had superior intelligence," Eusebius writes, "he instructed them also in philosophic disciplines." Here Origen really came to grips with the problem of the day. Christianity, he knew, was not the Grecian art of being human, or a sentimental touch of universal brotherhood added to a Roman ideal of citizenship; still less was it an ineffable, incommunicable, self-authenticating, individual inner experience of "salvation," that stood in no intelligible relation to what the Alexandrian Museum was thinking and saying. Christianity was fundamentally a Word, a doctrine, a gnosis (so Origen called it), something that one knows, and knows to be the law of life, normative in all the problems of human thought and purpose. Christianity of its essence presumed to occupy intellectual ground; and in third-century Alexandria it found the ground to no small extent already occupied.

There was the ancient lore of Egypt and the East; there was the revealed wisdom and sacred law of the Jew; above all, there was Greek reason and "all that the philosophers had said concerning truth." The problem was not some rude dispossession of these tenants of intellectual territory. The Library of Alexandria was not to be burnt, as Justinian later thought, in a stupidity of zeal rather Vandal or Mohammedan than Christian. The question, as Clement of Alexandria had already put it, was whether there is "one river of Truth"; whether the two Testaments are finally One; whether the Logos, the Word, Who had come as Christ to be the Light of the world, was not somehow also the light that had beckoned to the soul of Egypt, burst upon the prophets, and illumined the intelligence of Greece. The question was whether Christianity, like Christ, was the Truth in which all truths are ultimately One.

This was the ultimate question with which Origen's best students were put to wrestle, and he with them as their guide. He was, as Eusebius notes, "celebrated as a great philosopher even among the Greeks themselves." And his first step with his students is described by one of them, Gregory of Neocaesarea, a lawyer and later a bishop, in the famous Panegyric of Origen that was his valedictory to his alma mater and its master: "He introduced us to all schools of thought and was determined that we should be ignorant of no type of Greek doctrine," Stoic, Pythagorean, Platonist—all except the Epicureans, who, as atheists, had no answers to the questions a Christian might ask and asked no questions a Christian had not already answered. "Nothing," Gregory writes, "was forbidden us, nothing hidden from us, nothing inaccessible to us. We were to learn all manner of doctrine—barbarian or Greek, mystical or political, divine or human. We went into and examined with entire freedom all sorts of ideas, in order to satisfy ourselves and enjoy to the full these goods of the mind. When an ancient thought was true, it belonged to us and was at our disposition with all its marvelous possibilities of delightful contemplation." This was the first task—the acquisition of an all-inclusive knowledge. But with it went a more stringent task. Origen himself, Gregory says, "went on with us, directing us, pointing out to us all that was true and useful, putting aside all that was false." This was the work of discernment and order that is proper to the Christian intelligence. It is the task of making an inclusive knowledge also universal in the true sense—that is, "uni-versum," turned into one, fashioned into a unity.

Gregory's account catches something of the spirit of the five years he spent with Origen. One feels the pulsation of that active energy upon whose release and discipline the success of the educational process depends. One recognizes the excitement inherent in the free search of the mind for truth, wherever it is to be found. But one recognizes too the greater excitement inherent in the mind's search for intellectual order, for the hierarchy in the order of truth, for the inner hidden unity that must somehow join in a many-splendored, differentiated pattern all the fragments of truth, human and divine, that the intelligence of man can encompass.

This was the highest responsibility accepted by the School of Alexandria—a responsibility for establishing intellectual order, for constituting the unity of truth, for communicating the Clementine vision that "there is one river of truth, but many streams fall into it on this side and on that." This is the Christian "view," in Newman's later sense of the word. What the human spirit endowed with Christian faith permanently needs is to view all its knowledges, acquired within the Church and within the Museum, as ultimately ordered into one. For to the Christian the word "truth," like the word "God," is a word that in the final analysis has no plural, despite all the distinctnesses that exist, unconfused, within the compass of its unconfined infinitude.

The tools for the achievement of this work of order and unity were philosophical, as the word itself was a work of intelligence. Nevertheless, this intellectual work was profoundly religious. Its ultimate dynamism was what Gregory calls "piety," a piety of intellect as well as a piety of will—a love of the truths that may he found amid all the chaos of philosophical opinion, and a will to subsume all these truths under "the Holy Word, the loveliest thing there is" (in Gregory's exquisite phrase). This love of the ordered wisdom of the Gospel, guiding intelligence—itself greatly loved—in all its free ranging, was for Gregory the glowing heart of his school experience. It remains forever the heart of the school experience, when the school is Christian.3

This brief sketch of the Christian School of Alexandria reveals, I think, the two related ideals that have traditionally been the inspiration of Christian education. There is, first, the ideal of the civilized intelligence, a certain ideal of rationality that embraces (a) a perfecting of the powers of man—his reason, imagination, and taste; and (b) a vision of things as they are, a view of reality that reaches to fundamental certainties. Second, there is the ideal of the unity of truth, a vision of the realm of truth as an order, a universe, all-embracing in its scope, unified in its character.

The first ideal was the basic inspiration of the Church's century-long efforts at popular education. These efforts began in the sixth century after the wreck of the imperial school system; they were renewed at the Carolingian renaissance, and again renewed as the Iron Age ran out under the impulse of the Cluniac reform. The efforts were slack enough at times, and always enormously hampered, not least by the stubborn other half of Aristotle's famous half-truth that "all men naturally desire to know." The Church which could not compel men to believe could hardly compel them to know. It could not even compel its priests to obedience to the canon law, whose origins were in A.D. 529, that they should establish schools in their parishes. Nevertheless, that the success was considerable is known to all except those to whom myths are important. In his classic three volumes on the medieval universities Rashdall has made it clear that the lofty apex of medieval education which was the university—populous, widespread, and, for all its limitations, vigorously alive—rested on a broad base. In the later Middle Ages, he says, even the small-town boy "would never have to go very far from home to find a regular grammar school." In fact, Leach has estimated that there were relatively four times as many schools in pre-Reformation England as there were in 1864. One of today's accrediting associations would doubtless look down its nose at them; but its nose has a twentieth-century length. They remain an impressive embodiment of the perennially vital idea first launched in Alexandria—the relation between Christian faith and the civilized mind and manner.

The second aspect of Origen's idea is even more important. The first church-related school came into being in answer to an inner need of the human spirit as it was caught in the clashing encounter between Christianity and all the knowledge symbolized by the Alexandrian Museum. This encounter is permanently joined, for "the Museum" is a permanent institution and so too is the Church. They continue to present mankind with two forms of knowledge, each of which is autochthonous, subject in its growth to its own laws and to its own dynamism. One knowledge issues from reason and the experience of the senses; the other from divine revelation and the experience of faith. And what the human spirit endowed with Christian faith permanently needs is that these two knowledges should somehow be related in a universe of intellectual order. Out of this permanent inner need there springs the permanency of the dyad, Church and school. Actually, what Origen's school sought to provide was, in modern terminology, a unity of educational experience, issuing in that unity of intellectual and spiritual life which is by definition freedom and is likewise, when shared by a people, culture. The principle of unity was the primacy of "the Holy Word, the loveliest thing there is," and the sternest too. For this Word, the whole developed wisdom of the Church, requires to be made somehow relevant to every problem of intellectual discernment and moral decision that a school exists in order to raise.

This need of inner spiritual intellectual unity is doubtless felt most sharply on what we call the higher levels of education, when the full exigencies of "the liberal life" seek harmony with the full exigencies of the Christian life in terms of that most precarious of all syntheses, a Christian humanism. Nevertheless, the inner need is always there, inescapably to be met. What makes the difference is simply the principle (stated by Whitehead, agreed to by all sensible men) that no one is to be taught more than he can think about at the time. Your Christian, be he first-grader or graduate student, has always to enter more intelligently into the Church's life of faith and into the life of thought proper to the Museum. Between the two lives there is no automatic harmony. Indeed there seems to be a certain tension (which was deeply experienced, for instance, by John Henry Newman, who was continually caught between the visions of loveliness opened by human learning and the vision of the Word, the loveliest thing there is). Possibilities of seeming conflict are forever being disclosed, which center around changing foci. In these conflicts the growing mind is inevitably caught, and it is troubled and confused, as Origen's students were. Crises of growth are recurrent. The Christian school therefore undertakes to provide an area of experience in which the Church may meet the Museum in deliberate encounter.

The school is not the Church nor is it the home. It is a sort of city—an area both of protection and of prudent exposure. Within it all youth's confusions and crises may be consciously created, not simply allowed to happen, and then faced and solved under the guidance that only piety, in Gregory's sense, can give. It is a city of freedom in which intelligence may be released freely to grow. And it is a city of order in which the growing intelligence freely gives itself to the guidance of what is lovelier than itself to be led to the higher freedom with which the Word of God makes men free.

In his Bampton Lectures, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria, Charles Bigg says of the school there: "It may be doubted whether any nobler scheme of Christian education has ever been projected." It still is the essential Christian scheme, presenting the essential Christian school-ideal—a universal knowledge, founded on a broad basis of fact, integrated by a philosophic view, this view itself being then vitally related to the organic body of Christian truth. When it comes to the realization of the ideal, the most stubborn enemy has always been the sheer nobility of the ideal itself, which—even apart from hindering circumstances— tends to defeat performance. The failures of Christian education are normally multitudinous, sometimes scandalous, and occasionally spectacular. Even at its best a school is only a school, one milieu of influence among others, able to do only what a school can do. What matters in every age is the idea that inspires its efforts, and the integrity of these efforts.



H.E.F. Guerike, De schola quae Alexandriae floruit catechetica, 2 vols. Halle, 1824–25.

W. Bousset, Jüdisch-christlicher Schulbertrieb in Alexandria und Rom, Göttingen, 1915.

C. Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1886.

W. J. Gauche, Didymus the Blind. An Educator of the Fourth Century, Washington, Catholic University, 1934.

J. Salaverri, "La filosofía en la Excuela Alejandrina," Gregorianum, at 15 (1934), 485–99.

P. Leturia, "El primo esbozo de una universidad católica o la escula catequética de Alejandria," Razón y fe, 106 (1934), 297.

G. Brady, "Pour l'histoire de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie," Vivre et penser, 2 (1942), 80–109.

G. Brady, "L'Eglise et l'eseignement pendant les trois premiers siècles," Revue des sciences religieuses, 12 (1932), 1–28.

L. Allevi, "Il Didaskaeion di Alessandria. La piú antica universitá cattolica," La scuola cattolica (1924), pp. 309–28.

P. Camelot, "Les idées de Clement d'Alexandrie sur l'utilisation des sciences et de la littérture profane," Recherches de science religieuse, 21 (1931), 38–66

G. Bardy, "Aux Origines de L'Ecole d'Alexandrie," Recherches de science religieuse, 27 (1937), 65–90.


Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, ed. Pace and Eden, 3 vols. Clarendon Press, 1936.

A. Dwight Culler, The Imperial Intellect. A Study of Cardinal Newman's Educational Ideal, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1955.

William F. Cunningham, C.S.C., The Pivotal Problems of Education, New York, Macmillan, 1940.

Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1943.

Leo R. Ward, Blueprint for a Catholic University, St. Louis, B. Herder Book Co., 1949.

John J. Ryan, The Idea of a Catholic College, New York, Sheed and Ward, 1945.

Commission on American Citizenship, Better Men for Better Times, Washington, Catholic University, 1943.


(1)A talk given at St. Louis University, 1955. Published as 1955b: "The Christian Idea of Education," in Eight Views of Responsibility in Government, Business, Education and the Church. 35–42 (St Louis: St. Louis University, 1955) and republished in this form as "The Catholic University in a Pluralistic Society," Catholic Mind 57 (May-June 1959):253-60. Excerpts published as "The Unity of Truth," Commonweal 63 (January 13, 1956): 381–82. Significantly edited and republished in The Christian Idea of Education, 152-63 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957). The version of the text published here is consistent with the fuller, 1957, printing.

(2)Murray tended to equate "the tradition of civility," "the tradition of reason," and the "natural law tradition. See his Introduction to WHTT, "The Civilization of the Pluralistic Society."

(3)Editor Note: At this point the earlier St. Louis text outlines the contemporary disunity of learning within American culture, a divorce particularly between science and theology. Murray writes "Inherent in the system is the denial of the possibility of true metaphysical experience, as a Scholastic understands the term. Also inherent in the system is a denial that religious experience can have any intellectual content whatsoever. Any effort to give an intellectual structure to Christian faith is either sheer obscruantism or mere fantasy" ("The Catholic University in a Pluralistic Society," p. 258). Murray concluded that the main task of a Catholic university is to "represent the ideal of the unity of truth," that, while such unity "is never finally constituted: all past unities have proven fragile, incomplete," in the face of contemporary "disunity, disruption, conflict" (p. 259).