The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

My Big Fat Greek Education

In Ephesians 6, the apostle instructs fathers to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  Paul did not speak English, so instead of ‘nurture’ and ‘admonition’, he said paideia and nouthesia.  These Greek words carried the weight of their culture in their meaning and usage, just as ‘nurture’ and ‘admonition’ hold a cultural connotation for us.  Off the top of my head, ‘nurture’ reminds me of ‘promoting life and growth via food and warmth’.  It reminds me of gardening just as much as child-rearing.  The word ‘admonition’ comes across as stern and rigid.  When I’ve been ‘admonished’, no one has to be there holding a dictionary for me to know it.

Since God did not reveal himself in English, we have to translate, and that’s not a problem in and of itself.  God likes translation.  Jesus taught in Aramaic, so I’ve been told, and the gospel writers wrote in Greek.  Therefore, the original texts of the gospels are themselves translations.  Some translations are simple, like when Jesus was called ‘Rabbi’ and the gospel writers had to tell us that meant ‘teacher’.  The translation requires very little work when it comes to ‘common stuff’ like: dirt, fire, water, or donuts. “This means that” and the translator could point to it. However, some words require a little more background to understand, not merely because they’re antiquated, but because the meaning is not as superficial.

One word of this sort in Ephesians 6:4 is ‘παιδείᾳ’.  Paideia has been translated nurture, training, discipline, or chastening in the English, and some interpreters render it ‘education’.  If we were speaking to a 1st Century Greek person and were able to communicate what we meant by education, they would respond, “Yes, but… there’s so much more than scope, sequence and Mortimer J. Adler’s book list.”  Then, if they’d seen the 1st Century version of My Big, Fat Greek Wedding they would refer us to Gus Portokalos.  They would say that paideia is more like Gus than it is like our term ‘education’. Mr. Portokalos remembered that paideia is about culture.  It’s about Greek words, Greek food, Greek school, a Greek flag on the garage door, Greek baptisms, 27 Greek first cousins named either Nick or Nikki, more Greek food, Greek derivations of Japanese words, and one big, fat Greek wedding.  He understood that παιδείᾳ was about total immersion in one’s culture.

On a more technical level, Douglas Wilson puts it this way in his book, The Paideia of God,

Werner Jaeger, in his monumental study of paideia, shows that the word paideia represented to the ancient Greeks an enormous ideological task. They were concerned with nothing less than shaping the ideal man, who would be able to take his place in the ideal culture.  Further, the point of paideia was to bring that culture about. To find a word of comparable importance to them, we would have to hunt around for a word like ‘philosophy’.  To find a word of comparable importance in our culture, we would have to point to something like ‘democracy’. The word paideia was as central to the thinking of the Greek as the proletariat is to the Marxists, or cash to the televangelist. It was not a take-it-or-leave-it word like whatever the original Greek word for shoelaces was.

So the word paideia goes far beyond the scope and sequence of what we call formal education. In the ancient world, the paideia was all-encompassing and involved nothing less than the enculturation of the future citizen. He was enculturated when he was instructed in the classroom, but the process was also occurring when he walked along the streets of his city to and from school. It included walking by the temple for the gods of his people.  That too was part of the process.

If we bring this down into the present what it would mean to us, paideia would include the books on the best-seller list, the major newspapers, the most popular sit-coms and networks, the songs on the Top 40 list, the motion pictures seen by everyone, the architectural layout of most suburban homes, and out of the periphery, the fact that all our garden hoses are green.  When we look at our current governmental support of our paideia, we see that the classroom activities of the government schools would certainly have to be included and placed at the center of the process. In those classrooms, the message of ‘tax-supported anything but Christianity’ comes through loud and clear.

For Mortimer Adler and folks who follow in his train, paideia is considered a better educational model than others in the pedagogical marketplace, and they’re right. If the manner in which we are to raise our children was left open to various ‘proposals’, then I would probably study Mr. Adler for all he’s worth.  However, that is not the case at all.  Paideia is God’s revealed will concerning the education of our covenant children.  And Ephesians is not the first place that He mentions it.  Here’s Dr. George Grant on the covenantal enculturation of our children,

God has, from the beginning, called upon His people to live out lives of beauty, goodness, and truth, so as to insure covenantal succession; to disciple the coming generations; to bestow upon them the richness of the gospel legacy, the transforming work of the good news in every arena of life, so that not one discipline, not one area, not one smidge of life is left untouched by the regency of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We can go all the way back to Deuteronomy, chapter 6, and there find in the shemah, the great declaration of faith in the Old Testament–the beginnings of classical, Christian education.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.  Ye shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your might.  Here we see, right from the beginning, that the bequest that we entrust to the coming generations, to our children, is to be a bequest that begins with a theological bias.  The Lord God, Himself, is the center-point, and ultimately the integration point for all other things.  Moses goes on to declare, “These words shall be on your heart.”–a literary bias.  And “you shall teach them diligently to your children”–a didactic bias. “And you shall talk of them when you sit, and when you walk, and when you lie down and when you rise up”–a covenantal bias. “And you shall bind them to head and hand and house and gate”–an aesthetic bias.  And then concluding the whole long section, Moses says to the people of Israel, “Now in times to come, when your son comes to you and asks, ‘What is the meaning of these commandments and statutes and testimonies, that the Lord your God has commanded you?’ Then you shall say to your son, ‘We were once slaves in Egypt.’ And you shall tell your son the great and mighty works of the Lord,” across the ages, and in time and in space, and in your lives.–an historical bias.

From the time of the shemah in Deuteronomy 6, all across the ages, through the tumults of Jewish history, and into the age of the New Covenant and the birthing of the church, there was this sense that centered on the Lord integrating all things in our knowledge and understanding of Him, His purposes, His providence, and His goodness. We are to convey the truth that words matter; that diligence is required; that the covenant is the means and the way that covenantal succession is to spread to the ends of the earth; that there is an aesthetic that is objective–beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, and that this can all be understood through the lens of history. This has been passed on from generation to generation and this is the essence of classical, Christian education.”

God has been doing paideia for quite some time, and He revealed this gift to His people long ago while they were traveling away from the bondage of Egypt toward the liberty of the Promised Land.  These things have been given to us as examples so that we too will be baptized, but not into Moses, for the Prophet greater than Moses has come.  They have been written down as examples that we should all eat the same spiritual food and drink the same spiritual drink that they did, for the Rock that followed them was Christ (1 Cor. 10). God, through Moses and eventually Paul, did not say that covenant enculturation, i.e. paideia and nouthesia, was to apply to every moment of every day except for when God’s people are assembled for covenant renewal.  Ever since God created us in His image, families have been counted as one and as many.  Holy parents and their holy offspring offering a holy sacrifice unto the Lord.  Children taught, through the patterns of worship established by God, that WE were once slaves, and now WE are free.  Free in Christ. Free to work and free to rest; free to eat and free to drink; free to grow up and free to marry, and free to one day raise their own children up as members of Christ’s holy kingdom.

The bequest that we pass along to the coming generations—to our children—may begin with a theological bias, but it will not come to pass by merely acknowledging that bias.  It must shape us; rather, it must reshape us. It must reshape our household’s culture and the Church’s culture if we are going to have anything worthwhile for our children to inherit.  So now that we know that paideia is so much more than scope and sequence and book lists, what are we going to do?  Well, while you mull it over, I’ve got to run.  One of my kids pulled a muscle, and I have to go spray some Windex on it.

Gus Portokalos Windex


The Paideia of God and Other Essays on Education, by Douglas Wilson is available through Canon Press for a super-cheap price here.

The Dr. George Grant quote is from his lecture, “The Begats: The Genealogy of Classical Christian Education”, available as a free download here.

Special thanks to Dr. Roy Atwood, who inspired this essay through a lecture he gave at Classical Conversations‘ “Toward the Quadrivium” conference in Marietta, GA last Saturday.


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4 thoughts on “My Big Fat Greek Education

  1. Written by? Matt?

  2. Marc Hays – I see now.

  3. Hebrews 12 describes how the Lord’s paideia of his people is a model for how we paideia our own children. And Paul points out in 2 Timothy 3:16 something most folks miss in explaining the source and purpose of Scripture: the word of God itself is for paideia: 2 Timothy 3:16 ESV
    All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
    or as the Greek puts it,
    πασα γραφη θεοπνευστος και ωφελιμος προς διδασκαλιαν προς ελεγχον προς επανορθωσιν προς παιδειαν την εν δικαιοσυνη

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