Chapter 3: Excellence as <I>Paideia</I>

To Understand God Truly
by David Kelsey

Chapter 3: Excellence as <I>Paideia</I>

There is a fourth, nontheological factor that pluralizes "theological schools." Ironically, often it brings with it a temptation to find an underlying unity that will overcome the pluralism of theological schools by showing that they all share the same essence. We have just seen that, far from unifying them, the fact that theological schools are theological makes them irreducibly different from one another because of different theological judgments about the nature of the Christian thing, what it is to understand God, and what sort of community a theological school is. But the next question must be: How shall that school go about schooling?

Concretely speaking, schooling requires accepted conventions by which it is organized and governed, however informal they may be. Schooling is inherently an institutionalized set of practices. What shall those institutionalized conventions be? How shall the distinction between "students" and "faculty" be specified? By what criteria, and why? Which disciplines should be exercised in the struggle to understand, and why? And how shall the network of interactions among students and faculty be structured and ordered? To what ends, and why?

Answers to these questions have always been borrowed from the larger host culture within which theological schools are placed. Cultures tend to adopt some model of schooling as the standard of excellence in schooling. Christian theological schools have always aspired to meet the going standards of excellence. That is to say, theological schools have characteristically acted in this regard as though they acknowledged a responsibility to be part of a larger public cultural life and to be accountable to its standards.

Late-twentieth-century theological schools in North America, however, exhibit the strain of trying to appropriate two quite different models of excellent schooling, both of which are by this time traditional in our cultural setting. One, paideia, which has its roots in the ancient Greco-Roman world, was unquestioned until the eighteenth century. It is an integral part of every tradition of Christian schooling, whether that tradition is on the road from Nicaea or Trent or Augsburg (or Geneva, or Northampton, etc.). The other model of excellence in schooling is the modern research university, for which we may let the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810 serve as the emblem. Each model brings with it different criteria by which "faculty" are distinguished from "students," different principles governing how faculty and students relate to each other, and different assumptions governing how a school's common life ought to be run. No accredited theological school in North America escapes the probably unresolvable tension created within its common life by trying to assimilate itself simultaneously to both models of excellence and their inconsistent demands. However, theological schools vary considerably in the ways in which they attempt to negotiate between the two. The way any one school does negotiate the two is a major factor making it the concrete particular school it is. Every theological school grows up at the intersection of the Berlin Turnpike with one or more of the roads: Trent Road, Augsburg Road, and so forth.


In current discussions of the nature and purpose of theological education Edward Farley has invoked the older of these two models of excellence in schooling when he describes his book Theologia as an essay "which purports to promote a Christian paideia." [1]. This model is rooted in an understanding of schooling already at least four centuries old by the time Christian churches appeared on the scene. It was the understanding of schooling dominant in the Hellenistic host culture of the earliest churches outside Palestine. The Greek word paideia meant at once "schooling," "culturing," and "character formation." Although, as we shall note, it underwent important changes between the fourth century B.C. and the fourth century A.D. the concept of paideia retained important continuities through this history. Its aim was to form in the souls of the young the virtue or arete they needed to function as responsible citizens. In its earliest form this schooling had focused on athletics and on the study of the poetry ascribed to Homer. The assumption was that by simultaneously subjecting the bodies of the young to physical discipline and their souls to the traditions and customs of ancient Greece as conveyed by literature, they would emerge deeply shaped by those dispositions or habits, that is, virtues, that make the good citizen. At the same time it meant that the ruling class were all genuinely "cultured" in the same way so that, whatever their differences of judgment on particular matters, they were unified by a shared picture of the good life and of what was to be most valued in it.

This was the manner in which educated, Greek-speaking Christians from the very beginning had been schooled, whether they were from pagan families or from Jewish families that had become assimilated into Greek culture. Fragments of quotations from Greek authors and adaptations of conventional Greek rhetorical devices and literary forms by the authors of some New Testament writings, notably the Acts of the Apostles, testify to this. Even more striking is the explicit use of the traditional concept of paideia in a letter written in A.D. 90 by the bishop of Rome, Clement, to the church in Corinth, which was badly divided by controversy. Werner Jaeger, who has written the classic history of the idea of paideia,[2]pointed out in a later book on Early Christianity and Greek Paideia that Clement not only uses literary forms and types of argument calculated to sway people formed by paideia but, beyond that, he explicitly praises paideia in such a way as to make it clear that his entire epistle is to be taken "as an act of Christian education."[3] What early Christians inherited was both a practice of paideia and a body of literature about paideia. Central to the literature about paideia were Plato's writings, especially the Republic which, along with some of his shorter dialogues, can be read, so Jaeger urges, as a proposal for the reform of ancient Athens' paideia. Indeed, Jaeger points out, it was in Plato's time, in the fourth century B.C., that Athens developed humankind's first "conscious ideal of education and culture."[4] In Athens"a 'higher culture' grew up with its own representatives, the Sophists, whose profession was 'to teach virtue.' But . . . despite all their hard thinking about educational method and styles of teaching, and despite the bewildering multiplicity of subjects embraced in their higher culture, none of them really understood the assumptions on which his profession was based."[5] To solve these problems, Plato proposed in the Republic a reform of paideia that was inseparable from a reform of the social structure and governance of the polis. This generated a differentiated proposal of reformed paideia, with significantly different modes of education for persons filling different functions in the city. In particular, it led to a proposal that those responsible for the protection of the city, the "guardians," be "cultured" in a way that inculcated civic traditions and virtues particularly needed for their tasks, especially courage. By contrast, those responsible for ruling, the "philosopher kings," were to be "cultured" in a way that formed in them the "philosophical virtue" that was grounded in knowledge of the Good itself and not, as were the guardians' virtues, simply trained into them by custom and practice. Plato retained the traditional pattern of understanding paideia in terms of political goals.

Of course Plato's utopian proposals were never adopted by early Christian churches and were not part of the practice of paideia inherited by them. But at least four interrelated themes in Plato's proposals about the education of ideal rulers took on a life of their own and did shape ordinary paideia as the Christians knew it centuries later. First, Plato argues that, instead of focusing on disputes about which virtues are the needful ones and how they are to be distinguished one from another, it is more important and fruitful to attend to what they have in common and inquire into what Virtue is in itself -- the essence of virtue. To know that is to know the Good. Hence, to be shaped by arete simply is to know the Good.

The next theme concerns the nature of the Good. In Plato's analysis, the Good is the highest principle of the universe. Greek philosophers before Plato were accustomed to calling the highest principle "God" or "the divine." Plato's followers assumed that he had been founding a new religion. The understanding of Plato that early Christians inherited assumed that the goal and deep foundation of paideia was knowledge of the divine.

The third theme has to do with the teacher of paideia. Taking his own teacher Socrates as the ideal teacher, Plato argues that, strictly speaking -- virtue cannot be taught. The Sophist proposed to teach virtue by conveying information about what other thinkers had taught about virtue and by training in techniques of rhetoric and argument. But what is needed in order to be shaped by virtue is "to recognize one supreme standard, which was binding on all alike because it expressed the innermost nature" [6] of human beings. Knowing the Good involves not only knowing the divine but also a deep knowing of one's own humanity. Like Socrates, who always had claimed that he had nothing to teach anyone, the teacher of virtue can at most serve as a midwife for someone else coming to that knowledge of self which is at the same time knowledge of the divine, that is, knowledge of the Good. It comes through contemplation that yields intuitive insight or gnosis of the Good.

The final theme has to do with the student. Paideia requires conversion, "the wheeling around of the 'whole soul' toward the light of the Idea of Good, the divine origin of the universe" [7] Conversion has to happen in order for one to have intuitive insight into the Good. It comes as the culmination of a long educational process like "slow vegetable growth." [8] Like vegetable growth, it requires a climate and nutrients that, Plato believed, must be provided by the social atmosphere of the city. Unlike the Sophists' highly individualistic view of paideia, Plato stressed its inherently social nature.

It is important to note one feature of Plato's "self~conscious ideal" of paideia: It is the result of the hunt for the essence of the subject studied in paideia "the Good." Plato thought that one could show the underlying unity of the apparent plurality of the virtues by discovering something that was identically the same in all of them, the Good, the essence of moral virtue. It is one and the same thing in all of the virtues, even though the virtues themselves differ from one another. It is the one subject that we seek to understand better through paideia. Hence, although particular, concrete occasions of paideia, the actual practices of paideia, we might say, appear to be both many and enormously diverse, they are "really" all identical with one another because they are practices through which people are shaped by one selfsame reality, the Good.

This is not to say that the idea of paideia itself logically requires that one adopt the view that there is one essence underlying a plurality of occasions of paideia. That was Plato's contention. His was not the only "self-conscious ideal" or theory of paideia; the Sophists had their own. But Plato's was the way of understanding paideia that historically most deeply influenced Christian theological schooling. In consequence, the hunt for the essence of paideia's subject matter came to seem perfectly natural.

In the century and a half between Clement of Rome's letter to the Corinthians and Clement of Alexandria's Christian school of the Catechetes, Christian spokesmen went from perhaps unself-conscious reliance on traditional pagan paideia (in order to make their cases persuasive to both pagans and fellow Christians) to a self-conscious ideal of Christian paideia for its own sake. It was, we might say, in third-century Alexandria, in the time of Clement and his successor Origen, that there first developed the conscious ideal of Christian education and culture as something integral to the Christian thing itself. This is the crucial point: Paideia was built into the very way the Christian thing was construed.

Of course, the received practice of paideia had itself undergone major changes between the rise in fourth-century B.C. pagan Athens of the "first conscious ideal of education and culture" and the rise in third-century A.D. pagan Alexandria of the first conscious ideal of Christian education and culture. What remained unchanged was of utmost importance: The aim of paideia is to shape persons in such a way that they are literally "in-formed" by virtue. However, the governing interests guiding the practice of paideia had decisively shifted from political to religious interests.

Within two generations after Plato the political autonomy of the Greek city-states, which had been the original context of paideia, had been destroyed by the relentless spread of Alexander's empire from Macedonia to India. Alexander recognized the value of Greek culture as a unifying force in his cross-cultural empire and encouraged the spread of Greek paideia in non-Hellenic cultures, but not to the end of culturing virtuous self-ruling citizens! During the social and political turmoil of the centuries following Alexander's death -- in which his empire was dismembered, the "members" seemed continuously to war with one another, and then were largely absorbed into Rome's growing empire -- the practice of paideia continued to be the dominant force shaping the educated classes. But by the third century A.D. it was a practice focused not on shaping virtuous political agents, but rather on preparation for that conversion of soul which would bring religious knowledge of the divine. Plato's contentions that virtue is knowledge of the Good, that knowledge of the Good is at once knowledge of one's own humanity and knowledge of the divine, and that it comes only through a conversion of the soul had all been separated from his contention that the proper home for such knowledge is public life in the polis.

By the third century A.D. the practice of paideia treated all the classical philosophical traditions -- Stoic, Epicurean, Aristotelian, but most of all Platonic -- with religious interests. Using them, teachers "led their pupils the way to that spirituality which was the common link of all higher religion in late antiquity."[9] Furthermore, it was increasingly stressed that in undergoing paideia one needed divine assistance one could not expect to accomplish conversion and come to knowledge of God on one's own unaided resources.[10] Paideia had to do with the interior and entirely private life. "Greek paideia," writes Jaeger, itself "became a religion and an article of faith."[11]

This was the frame of reference in which it was unavoidable that educated Greek-speaking Christians would understand the Christian thing from the late first century (cf Clement of Rome) onward. It was not only an effective device in commending and defending the Christian faith to pagans -- "See, Christianity is paideia too, aiming at the same goal, but superior in the way it does so" -- no, more deeply, it was the Christians' own way of taking Christianity. In their view, the

Christian thing is not "like" paideia; it does not merely make use of received paideia, as Clement of Rome had done. Rather, as claimed by Clement of Alexandria and, with much greater intellectual power, Origen, his pupil and successor as head of the Alexandrian Catechetical school, Christianity is paideia, divinely given in Jesus Christ and inspired Christian scriptures, focused in a profound conversion of soul, and divinely assisted by the Holy Spirit.

As paideia, the Christian thing is inherently a school. In the fourth century under Origen's leadership the Catechetical school in Alexandria was the most influential institutionalization of this school. It provided schooling, not principally for future clergy, but first of all for those who wished to be baptized, and even for those who wished merely to inquire into Christianity. We may let it serve as the symbol for the rise of paideia as the model of excellence in theological education.

Paideia requires texts as its subject matter. In ancient Athens the subject matter had been Homer. Here we touch on a second major change that slowly took place in the practice of paideia before Christian churches appeared on the scene. The subject matter had slowly expanded to include Greek poetry at large. Then paideia had come to mean Greek literature as a whole. "Only relatively late were the more rational branches of education added... and the system of liberal arts, invented. . . ; finally philosophy was added,"[12]above all, from the second century on, "divine Plato." Ironically, Plato's dialogues, intended as a challenge to the notion that paideia would be accomplished by ways of conveying information, were themselves included in the mass of information conveyed in the name of teaching knowledge of the Good. It needs to be stressed that the interest in which the "liberal arts," including literature and culminating in philosophy, were read was religious. These texts were studied in the conviction that doing so would lead to deeper knowledge of the divine. Now, the central subject matter of paideia in Christian schooling was the literature of the Bible. Origen applied the traditional forms of Greek scholarship to the biblical texts, producing critical editions, commentaries, and scientific treatises. However, this was done in the service of something else. The dominant interest in studying scripture was to come to know God through that conversion of the soul that yields gnosis, intellectual intuition of God. That was also the interest in which pagans read Greek literature. It required them to move from literal interpretations of the texts to allegorical interpretations in which the religious insight of the texts was uncovered. Origen followed suit, interpreting biblical texts allegorically with a power that made itself felt for centuries thereafter.

Alongside commentary on scripture, Origen formulated the subject matter of Christian paideia in a second way. He wrote more or less systematic reflections on the implications of the content of scripture regarding human nature, the predicament that requires conversion and how that predicament could have come about, the conditions under which one can be saved from one's predicament, and what all this implies about the nature of God. He produced the first great "Christian philosophy" which dealt, not with all the branches of traditional Greek philosophy (e.g., "logic," "physics," "politics"), but only with what was customarily called "theology," reflection on divine things (although Christians of the time avoided the term "theology" because in their setting it usually had to do with pagan gods). This too, secondarily to scripture, was part of the subject matter of Christian paideia, as the writings of pagan philosophers were in pagan paideia.

Furthermore, Origen insisted that Christian paideia had to be practiced in conversation with the pagan paideia dominant in the church's host culture. In his view pagan paideia was "the gradual fulfillment of the divine providence,"[13] culminating in the paideia which was Christianity. Accordingly Christian paideia had to include schooling in the best of pagan philosophy. That paideia became the model for excellence in theological schooling was simply inherent in the way the Christian thing was construed by Christians and pagans alike in a Hellenistic culture that understood itself to be paideia

As a schooling, Christian paideia must be seen as a process of slow ("vegetable") growth requiring a climate and nutrients. Plato had taught that they must be provided by the social atmosphere of the polis. By the time Christian churches appeared on the scene, "polis" was no longer a living concept. Within two generations after Origen the intellectual leadership of the Christian churches in Cappadocia were calling for the churches themselves to develop that "atmosphere" by developing a distinctively Christian literature in the broad sense. Gregory Nazianzen and his younger contemporary Gregory of Nyssa, both bishops, worked very self-consciously to write and to encourage other Christians to write in the finest literary fashion of the age. Gregory of Nyssa's explicit rationale for this lay in his view that educational activity and the work of the creative artist, painter, and sculptor were essentially identical in the shaping of the human person.[14] In his view, excellent theological schooling is in conversation with its host culture not only by learning from it but also by contributing to the host culture's arts and letters. In this way Christian paideia, like paideia in Plato's day, bore on the public realm, but in a quite different sense of "public." For the tradition to which Plato had been heir, paideia was as essential to the well-being of the public realm as of the political realm, by forming virtuous citizens capable of filling political roles wisely; for fourth-century Greek-speaking Christians paideia, while it aimed to shape persons' private interiority rather than their public political activity, contributed to the well-being of the public realm as a cultural realm accessible to any literate, educated person, Christian or pagan.

Because the construal of the Christian thing of which it is an integral part is not only the earliest construal but has been historically much the most influential one, paideia has been the most influential model of excellence in theological schooling. Jaeger holds that this model "...can be pursued through the Middle Ages; and from the Renaissance the line leads straight back to the Christian humanism of the fathers of the fourth century A.D. and to their idea of man's dignity and of his reformation and rebirth through the Spirit." [15]


Theological schooling as paideia is ruled by a religious interest to know God by gnosis, an immediate intellectual intuition. That is compatible with at least three of the senses of "understanding God" we sorted out above (contemplative understanding; discursive understanding; affective understanding) and perhaps with some versions of the fourth (understanding in and through action). Even when, as with the Protestant Reformers, knowledge of God is reserved for the eschaton and theological schooling focuses on faith, schooling remains a practice of paideia -- notably, in Calvin's academy in Geneva. Furthermore, it is compatible with the various construals of the subject matter of theological schooling (Word of God, Christian experience, Christian tradition -- paideia as "Christian culture" - or various combinations of these). When the institution of the university developed in the Middle Ages and the writings of Aristotle were rediscovered, theological schooling stressed far more than it previously had discursive reasoning, technical logical skill, and academic specialization. Nonetheless, it continued to be a type of paideia, governed by paideia's characteristic religious interest. With the Renaissance, theological schooling among Protestants and Roman Catholics alike began to

emphasize literary-critical studies of scripture and other texts, but still as a practice of paideia. Paideia proved compatible both with the more social understanding of human personhood that marked medieval life and with the more individualistic assumptions about personhood that marked much Renaissance culture.

In all these settings, theological schooling that meets paideia's standards of excellence exhibits four features in particular. First, it is ruled by a religious interest in coming to better understanding of God. This religious understanding comes in gnosis, immediate intuitive understanding. As we have seen, this means that at bottom all the senses of "understanding God" which we have sorted out can be and were understood as the fruit of paideia.

Second, theological schooling on the model of paideia requires divinely assisted conversion of the one who learns. This has implications for who can teach and what teaching is. It means that the identification of who is qualified to teach and the character of the relationship between "teacher" and "learner" are very complex matters. In principle, the relationship must be indirect. No one can directly give another person gnosis of God by teaching. In part this is because, as Plato held, knowledge of the Good cannot be taught. Additionally there is the theological reason that the condition of having gnosis is that one undergoes a conversion which finally only God can give. At most, the teacher "teaches" only indirectly by providing the context in which the student may be graced himself or herself to come to that combination of immediate self-knowledge and God-knowledge which is the aim of paideia. Among the factors that make that "context," of course, are those texts and practices whose study is believed to lead to understanding of God, that is, scripture and the practice of the way of the Christian life, including but not limited to worship of God.

Accordingly, there are two quite different sorts of capacities that qualify one to be a "teacher" in theological education as paideia. One is unusual learning in regard to the relevant texts and practices, that is, the subject matter. As we have seen, this holds true for all of the various construals of the Christian thing that we have sorted out. The other sort of qualification necessary for being a teacher is the possession of personal gifts for the indirect "teaching" that, as a midwife, helps another come to gnosis. It has always been difficult to hold the two together in balance. If the former is stressed, "teaching" becomes direct communication of information and ceases truly to be life-shaping paideia. If the latter is stressed, technique becomes dominant, the substance by which the student is to be "molded" is lost, and again schooling ceases truly to be paideia.

It follows, third, that theological schooling as paideia focuses on the student because it supposes that for the student to understand God some kind of shaping or forming of the student is required. Theological schooling thus tends to be individualistic.

Finally, theological schooling in this model is, in a qualified way, public schooling. Because understanding God cannot be achieved directly, it is sought by studying material whose study is thought to lead to understanding God. That subject matter, whether sacred texts only or inclusive of other "extra-Christian" or "secular" texts, is understood to be publicly available and publicly explicable. Furthermore, as paideia, theological schooling generates its own writings that are intended not only for use within Christian communities but also as contributions to the cultural life of the communities' host societies.

However, this is "public" schooling only in a qualified sense. It is open to and engaged in a "public" cultural life broader than the common life of the communities for whom the schooling is undertaken. But because its governing interest is "religious," theological schooling on the model of paideia has characteristically been disengaged from the public realm in the sense of the realm of political, social, and economic power, its arrangement and its management. This is not to say that the Christian churches have necessarily been disengaged in this way. To the contrary, whether they should be so engaged and, if so, how, has been a continuing point of disagreement among them. But theological schooling, even when undertaken by a Christian community itself committed to vigorous engagement in the public realm, has not itself been rooted in such engagement. Indeed, it has not on principle. Its model of excellence is an ancient paideia that once was so engaged because in ancient Athens it was ruled by political interests. But it came to be ruled by religious interests when the social conditions for the political interests were destroyed along with the social reality of the polis. The very idea of paideia became privatized and entailed economic, social, and political interests, that is, "public" interests, in one sense of the term, incommensurate with its religious interests.

It cannot be stressed too much that paideia as a model of excellence in theological schooling continues to be very powerfully influential in theological schooling today. There is a historical reason for that. From the second century on, the Christian thing has been understood as a kind of "forming" of persons' lives on the model of education as paideia. Every construal of the subject matter of theological inquiry and of what it is to "understand" God simply assumes the validity of this model. The idea that Christianity is some type of paideia has come to be so deeply built into all construals of the Christian thing that the two are inseparable. It would be sheer self-deception to suppose that one could reconceive theological schooling by abandoning paideia as a model of excellent schooling. Indeed, recent books about how best to understand theological education include proposals by both Edward Farley, in TheoIogia, and Charles Wood, in Vision and Discernment, [16] paideia as the central model quite deliberately and self-consciously. However, as we shall see in the next chapter, in the modern world it is not possible simply to settle for paideia as the model of excellent education. There is a second model that is as unavoidable as paideia. The two cannot be synthesized. There are different ways to negotiate between them, and that fact constitutes the fourth major factor that pluralizes theological schools.


1. Farley, Theologia, p. xi.

2. Werner Jaeger, Paideia, vols.., trans. Gilbert Higher (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1939-63), vol.11; idem, Earty Christianity and Greek Paideia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961).

3. Clement, furthermore, refers to the "paideia of God" and the "paideia of Christ" and closes with a prayer thanking God for sending us Christ "through whom thou hast educated and sanctified us and honored us.," In this Clement echoes the frequent use of paideia by the Septuagint and by Ephesians. However, Jaeger argues, "it is clear that he applies it in a much wider sense in his letter and, while using Scriptural testimony, he himself conceives of paideia as precisely that which he offers the Corinthians in his whole letter ......... There can be no doubt that what he takes over in his letter from a great philosophical tradition and from other pagan sources is included by him in this comprehensive concept of divine paideia, for if it were not so, he could not have used it for his purpose in order to convince the people of Corinth of the truth of his teachings." Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, p.25.

[4] Paideia, vol.11, p.5 (emphasis added).

[2] Ibid., p.123.

[6] Ibid., p. 125; for this entire paragraph, cf. ibid., chs. 4 and 5, passim.

[7] Ibid., p.295

[8] Ibid., p. 228.

[9] Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, p. 46.

[10] Ibid., p .88.

[11] Ibid., p.72.

[12] Ibid., p.91.

[13] Ibid., p.67.

[14] See ibid., p.87.

[15] Ibid., p.100.

[16] Charles Wood, Vision and Discernment (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985)