The Accommodating Teacher
“What is truth?” Pilate’s question (John 18:38) resounds through the ages. As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), but as Christian teachers, we face many challenges in explaining this truth to our students. To take just one such challenge, we may struggle to articulate how the truth revealed by God in Christ relates to the truth claims of science, philosophy, and our surrounding culture.
The Church Fathers also wrestled with the question of how non-Christian culture and philosophy related to the revealed truths of Christianity. In particular, there was an acute interest in the extent to which truth could be found in the classical writings of the pagan Greco-Romans, and how those writings should be taught to Christian students. In his “Address to Young Men,” the famous fourth-century defender of theological orthodoxy Basil of Caesarea articulated an influential and lasting approach to this issue.
Basil starts from the premise that students who lack maturity will need true knowledge, but this truth must be accommodated to their present capacity for understanding. It must, moreover, be presented as personally meaningful and relevant to the unique needs of the learners. The Bible, Basil admits, is a difficult book, and its call to fix our eyes on heavenly things is often particularly challenging for youths and adolescents who are less reflective about life’s ultimate end and its impending conclusion. What then can we do? Basil suggests an intriguing idea: we must accommodate our presentation of truth to meet our students where they are at.
Specifically, Basil suggests that students need analogies that can serve as “a preliminary training to the eye of the soul” and pave the way for later instruction in the mysteries of the Christian faith: “Therefore, just as dyers first prepare by certain treatments whatever material is to receive the dye, and then apply the colour, whether it be purple or some other hue, so we also, in the same manner, must first, if the glory of the good is to abide with us indelible for all time, be instructed by these outside means, and then shall understand the sacred and mystical teachings; and like those who have become accustomed to seeing the reflection of the sun in water, so we shall then direct our eyes to the light itself” (“Address” 2). In effect, Basil is claiming that there may in fact be more accessible, relevant footholds for initially accessing truth than the Scriptures themselves, which can be more daunting for students to interpret correctly and apply in meaningful ways to their lives. To be clear, these analogies do not replace Scripture, nor are they equal to Scripture, and yet they can make the study of Scripture easier.
The ability to accommodate, or to adapt one’s teaching to one’s audience, was a major emphasis of classical rhetorical training. The church fathers extended this principle to God himself, whom they describe as adapting his revelation to human limitations. In the same way, then, Christian teachers of Late Antiquity such as Basil recognized that some aspects of Christian theology are more readily accessible and capable of being comprehended than others and that some truths must be mastered before moving on to others. We see this with Paul, for instance, who in his preaching to the pagans of Lystra pointed them towards belief in the one creator God as a necessary first step before they would, presumably eventually, be able to receive the fullness of the gospel (cf. Acts 14:15–17).
Given this understanding of the need to accommodate one’s teaching to the capabilities and maturity of one’s audience, Basil suggests a process of preparation, in which students receive this “preliminary training” for “the eye of the soul” so that they are prepared for “the greatest of all contests,” the Christian life of progression toward God (“Address” 2). Basil will go on to argue that it is the pagan literature of classical antiquity that will serve this role of training young people for their eventual induction into the sacred mysteries of the Scriptures.
For Basil, truth is found in both the Bible and the pagan literature of classical antiquity. In preparation for the study of the Bible, Basil suggests that students “must associate with poets and writers of prose and orators and with all men from whom there is any prospect of benefit with reference to the care of our soul” (“Address” 2). As Basil goes on to explain, just as a tree, which has the purpose of producing fruit, is additionally clothed with beautiful leaves, so the soul, which has the purpose of producing a life lived in conformity with biblical truth, may in fact also be adorned with the wisdom of pagan literature. There are, in other words, two purposes for this outside wisdom just as there are for leaves on a tree: protection of the truth and beauty in its own right (cf. “Address” 3). Thus, pagan literature not only serves to prepare the soul to receive the mysteries of Scripture, but it also has value and meaning in its own right; even secular writings, therefore, can contain what is beautiful, good, and true (cf. Phil 4:8).
To justify this perhaps surprisingly positive view of classical Greek literature, Basil appeals to the examples of Moses, who excelled in the wisdom of the Egyptians (cf. Acts 7:22), and Daniel, who mastered the learning of the Babylonians (cf. Dan 1:4). In both cases, Basil argues, these Old Testament saints proceeded from their mastery of secular learning to the contemplation of God and his “divine teachings” (“Address” 3). For Basil, pagan writings are clearly viewed as inferior to those of the Christians, and yet they nevertheless need not be viewed as the enemies of Christian formation when used wisely.
Basil’s reference to “beautiful” fruit also alerts us to his appreciation for what in the surrounding culture is not simply true but also characterized by beauty and goodness. What, then, is objectively true, good, and beautiful about the subject matter that you teach? How does your curriculum point students to things that are eternal? How can you help your students begin to appreciate those things that will lift their eyes beyond themselves and the vulgarities of much of our present culture to the things of God? In so doing, you will help your students gain a deeper appreciation for the reality that, as Augustine famously observed, “All truth is God’s truth.”
This blog post is excerpted and adapted from Kyle R. Hughes’ Teaching for Spiritual Formation: A Patristic Approach to Christian Education in a Convulsed Age (Cascade, 2022). For more on Basil of Caesarea’s pedagogy, see chapter 4, “What Are We Teaching? Basil of Caesarea and Training in Virtue.” The book is available now.