Why Blackburn Teaches the Classics
While it is certainly appropriate for Christians to handle carefully works of pagan
literature and scholarship, we do not agree that Christians should avoid the Classics
altogether. While much could be said on this subject, we will offer just a few thoughts:
First, Christianity is not an abstraction; Christ was born in Judea, in the heart of the
Graeco-Roman world, during the reign of Caesar Augustus. As Douglas Wilson has said,
“While the kingdom of God cannot be identified with western culture (and we do not
seek even to try), that kingdom nevertheless has had such an impact on the West that
the history of either since the time of Christ is incomprehensible without detailed
understanding of the history of the other.”
This close relationship is particularly evident in matters of education. Christopher
Dawson, a European historian, and author of The Crisis of Western Education (1961),
Christian culture was built from the beginning on a double foundation. The old classical
education in the liberal arts was maintained without any interruption, and since this
education was inseparable from the study of the classical authors, the old classical
literature continued to be studied. But alongside of and above all this, there was now a
specifically Christian learning which was biblical and theological, and which produced
its own prolific literature.
Until very recently, the Classics were part of any Christian education. In recent decades,
Christians (like everybody else) have stopped reading the Classics, but not for moral or
theological reasons. Therefore, while it may seem foreign for Christians to read the
Classics now, that speaks more about our peculiar age than it does about anything
else. At Blackburn Study Center, we are striving to “recover the lost tools of learning,” to
borrow the title of Douglas Wilson’s seminal book. One of the first steps in that recovery
is to restore the Classics to their former place in Christian education.
Second, there is Biblical and historical warrant for Christians to read the Classics. Paul
knew his Greek language, poetry, philosophies and culture. Paul’s co-laborer, Apollos,
was educated in Alexandria and considered an eloquent man. They were not
condemned because of their classical learning; to the contrary, as Christians, they made
it and every other thought captive to Christ. After the apostolic age, Christians
continued to stay acquainted with classical writings:
▪ Jerome put away all secular books for a time because he became convicted
that he was more “Ciceronian” than Christian, but he returned to the Classics
later in life.
▪ Tertullian drew upon his knowledge of law, classical literature, and
philosophy to defend Christianity against the pagan state.
▪ In the Confessions, Augustine (a classically educated rhetorician of the first
order) says that it was Cicero’s introduction to philosophy, Hortensius, that
turned his own mind towards Christianity. In another book, On Christian
Doctrine, Augustine argued for the lawfulness of classical rhetoric.
▪ In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin quotes from Homer,
Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Horace, Josephus, Juvenal, Ovid, Plutarch, Seneca
and Virgil, among others.
▪ The English and American Puritans knew the Classics. The earliest American
grammar school curriculum which has come down to us is that of the Boston
Latin School. Entering students were taught Latin vocabulary and
grammar. After mastering those rudiments, they learned Aesop’s Fables. As
they grew older, the students read Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Juvenal and
Third, we are not interested in following tradition merely for tradition’s sake. But when
the Church displays near unanimity on an issue over the course of two millennia,
without apparent contradiction from Scripture, we are loathe to reject its example, and
we reconsider with humility our own thoughts on the issue in light of that example.
Liberal education has aptly been described as a “great conversation,” in which we
participate “as dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants.” We want our children to be
able to participate meaningfully in that great conversation, and to take advantage of the
learning and insight of previous generations. They will only be able to do so if they
become familiar with the basic stories, names and vocabulary (i.e., the “grammar”) of
classical literature, just as childhood familiarity with Biblical names, places and stories
prepares them for a more mature understanding of profound theological truths.
Fourth, we do not read the Classics because we seek to emulate “Greek wisdom,” or
because we wish to synthesize classical concepts with Christian truths. “Has not God
made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). Our challenge, at Blackburn
Study Center and as home schooling parents, is to handle pagan literature without
teaching paganism. We strive to be Christ-centered, and to teach all subjects as parts of
an integrated whole with God and His revealed Word at the center. That means
bringing the Scriptures and scriptural truths to bear on every subject. We do that in our
own homes, we have encouraged Blackburn’s tutors to do it in their classrooms (and
they agree), and in light of the recent comments, we hereby repeat that admonition.
Finally, we reiterate our conviction that parents are and should be in control of their
own children’s education. Blackburn Study Center is designed to be a useful service to
families who wish to pursue classical and Christian education, but it is not intended to
supplant your efforts or judgment. Therefore, just as with the tutors’ weekly home
assignments, each family is encouraged to make its own decisions concerning
curriculum choices, and it is expected that parents will add their own emphases to the
curricula taught at Blackburn Study Center.
Please do not hesitate to contact the Holts, the Porters or the Thomases if you would like
to discuss these or any other matters.
Your servants in Christ,
Blackburn Study Center