Our willingness to accept problematic falsehoods from popular pagan authors can have dire consequences. One of the most important intellectual tragedies of early medieval Christian curricular structuring in the university concerns intellectual decisions that elevated Aristotelian concepts of humanity and neglected or downplayed a key theological concept—that humans are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). In fact, I think reasons exist to believe that this failure to emphasize all humans as imago Dei, perhaps delayed the expansion of universal education for women and the poor and the abolition of slavery.
In the early medieval cathedral schools around Paris and then in the early University of Paris, thinkers were starting to work out the universal educational implications of what it means to be made in God’s image. For instance, Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141), an architect of one of the early Parisian cathedral schools maintained that we are all made in God’s image, but the fall marred this image. Thus, he claimed regarding education’s purpose, “This is our entire task—the restoration of our nature and the removal of our deficiency.” This restoration involved receiving salvation from sin through Christ, but it also involved a sanctification process that was both moral and educational. Hugh wrote about the need for all humans to discover and construct a place for Wisdom in their heart and minds that adhered to a blueprint provided by God:
Let no man excuse himself. Let no man say, “I am not able to build a house for the Lord; my poverty does suffice for such an expensive project; I have no place in which to build it”…You shall build a house for the Lord out of your own self. He himself will be the builder; your heart will be the place; your thoughts will supply the material.
For Hugh, a Christian educational institution should assist with this majestic endeavor by being God’s instrument for helping rebuild the image of God in humanity.
Unfortunately, the extent to which universities taught that all humans could engage in this universal educational and sanctifying development of Wisdom never took hold until 400 years later (longer than Harvard has existed today). The first proponent of universal education for all people, including women and the poor, was the Reformed Czech thinker John Amos Comenius (1592-1670). The basis of his argument in The Great Didactic, rested upon the theological anthropology found in the Hebrew Scriptures:
The following reasons will establish that not the children of the rich or the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school. In the first place, all who have been born…have been born with the same end in view, namely that they be…rational creatures, the lords of other creatures, and the images of their Creator….God Himself has frequently asserted that with Him there is no respect of persons…so that, if, while we admit some to the culture of the intellect, we exclude others, we commit an injury not only against those who share the same nature as ourselves, but against God Himself…
Comenius would go on to become one of the most creative educational reformers of all time who published the first illustrated children’s textbook, created graded education and introduced student-centered learning long before John Dewey. Yet, he is best known for being the first to advocate for universal education based on the simple theological truth, all humans are made in God’s image.
Why was this idea not advocated earlier within Christian universities for the earlier four centuries? One thing that certainly did not help was the incorporation of Aristotelian metaphysics and moral philosophy into the liberal arts curriculum and mindset of the society. Aristotle’s hierarchical understanding of human society that accepted slavery and other social and educational inequities as natural replaced and corrupted the more egalitarian Jewish and Christian view. In fact, his pagan writing about human identity and ethics that elevated the role of reason for obtaining virtue (without the need of God’s grace), promoted distinct social roles, and justified human inequality, Aristotole’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics became the primary course texts used in the moral philosophy classes of Christian medieval European universities for the next 350 years. The universities taught the Aristotelian part in the “undergraduate” course on moral philosophy and Christian theology and ethics in the more advanced theology faculty. Thus, “undergraduate” students educated only in the liberal arts would not build their understanding of humanity’s core moral function on the concept of the imago Dei but on Aristotle’s elitist and hierarchical understanding of humanity.
Thus, it was only when a radical higher education and curriculum reformer, Pierre de la Ramée, commonly known as Peter Ramus challenged the use of Aristotle and the teaching of pagan moral philosophy 300 years later that the way opened for revolutionary educational approaches grounded in Christian anthropology to once again bubble to the surface. For the past decade before his death, Ramus criticized the extensive use of Aristotle in the teaching of ethics
…where the boy learns a mass of impieties: for example, that the principle and ideals of “the good” are innate in every man, that all the virtues are within his own power, that he acquires them by means of nature, art, and labor, and that for this work, so grand and so sublime, man has need of neither the aid nor the cooperation of God. Nothing about providence; not a word about divine justice; in short, since, in the eyes of Aristotle, souls are mortal, the happiness of man is reduced to this perishable life. Such is the philosophy out of which we build the foundation of our religion!
Instead of Aristotelian ethics, he wanted to make Christian theology foundational to the liberal arts in both metaphysics and moral philosophy. Although his radical vision for changing metaphysics and moral philosophy had only limited influence in Reformed colleges and universities in France and the Netherlands, it was carried forward by a few significant Reformed radicals, one of them being the Ramsian Johann Heinrich Alsted. Alsted would also happen to become the teacher of a certain John Amos Comenius.
The incorporation of pagan falsehoods into our metaphysics, ethics, the university and society can have profound ramifications for our lives. Unfortunately, it would take even longer for the key idea that we are all persons made in God’s image to replace Aristotelian type ideas used to justify human slavery. There again it took Christian abolitionists to recapture the truth that everyone, including African-Americans, are made in God’s image. As the southern abolitionist Angelina Grimke argued, humanity “who was created in the image of his Maker, never can properly be termed a thing, though the laws of Slave States do call him ‘a chattel personal.’” Or as the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass proclaimed to a crowd in his famous Fourth of July speech, “You profess to believe ‘that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,’ [Acts 17:26] and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own.” Today, we still need to unpack and consider what it means to educate all humans made in God’s image and what it means to recover that image, including the treasure of God’s Wisdom. We also need to beware replacing the truth about God and about humans being made in God’s image for a lie (Romans 1:25)
- Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 52.
- Hugh of St. Victor, De arca Noe morali iv.i (PL, CLXXVI, 663B), quoted in Taylor, introduction, 171, note 132.
- Laurence Brockliss, “Curricula,” in A History of the University in Europe: Vol. II; Universities in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800, ed. Hilde De Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996).
- Gordon Leff, “The Trivium and the Three Philosophies” in A History of the University in Europe: Vol. I. Universities in the Middle Ages, ed. Walter Rüegg, 307-336.
- Peter Ramus, Petri Rami Pro philosophica parisiensis academiae disciplina oratio (Paris, 1557) https://books.google.com/books?id=rFFV082xNp0C&pg=PA2&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false. English translation is taken from Frank Pierrepont Graves, Peter Ramus and the Educational Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1912), 174-75.
- Louthan and Sterk, “Introduction” in John Amos Comenius, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, trans. Howard Louthan and Andrea Sterk (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 10.