Preliminary observations from ongoing research into the history of theological education in the early church
Paul’s connection to the academy in Athens (Acts 17:18-20) and Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10) clearly influenced his disciples. The disciplines of careful observation of and dialogue with culture, reflective examination and application of Scripture, and informed engagement were critical to the ongoing growth of the Christian movement. Indeed, in the early part of the second century Ignatius of Antioch encourages the church in the study of doctrine.
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the Apostles, so that all things, whatsoever you do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit, in faith and love, in the Son and in the Father and in the Spirit, in the beginning and in the end, with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your elders, and the deacons who are according to God. (Letter to the Magnesians 14)
Such study, as we see, was to be done in conjunction with the leadership of the church. More explicitly, Ignatius writes to the Ephesians that the church is to continue in harmony in the teachings about Jesus Christ from the bishop and elders who were charged to ensure orthodoxy (Letter to the Ephesians 4-5). Not that these leaders had some sort of special γνωσις about Christ. Rather, they were generally more educated and could effectively teach proper doctrine (1 Tim 3:2, 5:17, cf. Gonzales, 2015:loc 177).
Polycarp also indicates that the thorough examination of Paul’s letters was an important aspect of the church in Philippi,
When [Paul] was among you, he accurately and unwaveringly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. When he was absent from you, he wrote you letters. If you carefully study them, you will find them to be the source for building you up in the faith that has been given you. Faith which is followed by hope and preceded by love towards God and Christ and our neighbor “is the mother of us all.” (To the Philippians, 3)
The word translated “carefully study” is only used by Polycarp and the writers of 1 Clement (40.1, 45.2, 53.1, and 62.3) in early Christian literature. A letter written in the 2nd c. BC describing the creation of the Greek Septuagint uses the same word once in reference to the Egyptian study of God (Letter of Aristeas 140) and at least two other times in ancient history do we meet it (Herodotus, Histories 7.152.2; Bel and the Dragon 40). It is an instructive word for in Greek εγκύπτω is derived from the prefix εγ meaning “into” and κυπτω meaning “to bend.” In a vernacular cliché, we might translate it as “to lean into.” However, the Greek holds the meaning to examine carefully so to gain an insight.
In Polycarp’s reference to εγκύπτω, the “careful study” of Paul’s letters took place in community rather than in isolation as it was as much about proper teaching as about the worship of Christ as God and the engagement of the neighbor. Faith, hope, and love, according to Polycarp, were the natural products—a beautiful result of theological education. Indeed, as Larry Hurtado points out, Christianity is distinct from other religions in its study of sacred texts (2017, loc 1911).
Even in a predominately illiterate Roman society, Christians gathered to hear the Scripture read and then corporately discussed its content and implication—how it is lived out in the community. Hurtado notes, “The early Christian emphasis on, and teaching about, everyday behavior as central to Christian commitment is yet another distinctive feature that has had a profound subsequent impact” (2017, loc 3206).
Early Christian history testifies to the fact that theological education played an important role in the continuing establishment of a better religion and philosophy in the Roman Empire. Just as with Paul at Ephesus, so we also see in the early centers of Christian studies. Justin’s school in Rome (ca. 160sAD), modeled after the philosophical schools so familiar to him, was a place where both Christian and non-Christian might explore truth together. According to Justin, a renowned philosopher in his own right, Christianity was the true philosophy and he gladly met with whomever sought truth. Only in this sense of doing theology in community can we refer to Justin as having a school. In reality, Justin met with people in his flat above a bath in Rome. In the record of his trial before the emperor, he is asked by the prefect Rusticus,
“Tell me, where do you meet, in what place?” Justin said: “I have been living above the baths of Myrtinus for the entire period of my sojourn at Rome, and this is my second; and I have known no other meeting-place but here. Anyone who wished could come to my abode and I would impart to him the words of the truth.” (Martyrium Justini 3,2-3)
Eventually, schools are formalized. The school of Alexandria famously educated many early Christian scholars. Jerome relates that the school began with Mark, and the Coptic Church holds this belief until today. The Markan tradition of the Coptics is well noted and predates Jerome’s testimony (Oden, 2011:241-245). More assuredly, we can date the school’s formation with Pantenus around 190AD. Pantenus provides one of the first instances of the missionary-scholar. The school became renowned as much for its exegetical method of allegory as for its most famous teacher, Origen.
Even so, Justo Gonzalez notes, “All this means that, even though there were some similarities between the school of Alexandria and our modern seminaries, it was different in that its main purpose was not to prepare pastors but rather to study, clarify, and explore the Christian faith” (2015:loc 246). Commenting on the leaders of the school who had been martyred, Thomas Oden notes the significance of theological education, “Teachers in the apostolic tradition were ordained to tell the truth without flinching, in such a way that the DNA of the truth remains genetically unaltered, while yet discovering ever new forms of relating to evolving cultures and languages” (2011:244).
It appears that in the first two to three centuries we have a well-established tradition of places of learning where Christianity was taught as much for the seeker as for the believer. Such schools were led by Christian philosophers and apologists like Justin, Tatian, Pantenus, Clement, and Origen in the second century. In later centuries, schools were led by Augustine, Jerome, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory the Great. All of these and many others became known as the doctors of the church. Their focus on the defense of the faith, gospel proclamation, and equipping the saints provided a firm theological foundation for the Christian church to carry on God’s mission in the world.
Gonzalez correctly relates, “[T]he distinction that we make between theological education for the church as a whole and the training of the pastorate did not exist in the early church” (loc 248). If we rediscover such an understanding of theological education, then we might very well see it play a significant role in equipping the saints to defend the faith and engage the culture with the gospel.
Michael T. Cooper is Missiologist in Residence at East West and teaches at Kairos University, Mission India Theological Seminary, Nepal Ebenezer Bible College, Asia Graduate School of Theology, and Torch Trinity Graduate University. You can contact him at email@example.com
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