Aristotle’s theories on the telos, or end, of humanity and on acquiring the virtues should play a major role in modern Christian education. In this paper I will show how Aristotle’s view of human nature works with Christian teachings, how his writings on the virtues are fitting in a Sunday school environment, and how his writings are useful in shaping our students.
Three hundred to four hundred years before the first Christian missionaries began telling the “good news,” Aristotle and his students were contemplating human nature. Human nature, Aristotle concluded, makes humans distinct from animals and plant life in their ability to make deliberate choices and to inquire theoretically (Runes). The telos of all humans then is to reason and to contemplate the truth (Runes). From the Christian perspective, Jesus is the truth, or the fulfillment of all truth. Our primary task as Christians is to contemplate the truth so that we can give reasonable answers about what we believe. First Peter 3: 14 – 16 says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have …” (Bible Gateway). The main task for Sunday school teachers, therefore, is to not only provide Biblical instruction, but to develop their students so that they will be prepared to give an intelligible answer for what they believe rather than just giving “pat” answers such as “the Bible says so.”
As a Sunday school teacher, I have heard several complaints about how boring Sunday school is from people who have not attended church very much. Because I grew up in the church and enjoyed Sunday school, I wondered how this could be and began to think about how the adult Sunday school classes were taught in several of the churches that I have attended. The successful ones were full of discussion where not everyone agreed. The teacher, or someone in the class, was able to pull all of the arguments together and weigh them against each other and against Biblical truth. People responded well to the challenge of thinking and coming together in making reasonable decisions about their faith. The less successful classes, the ones where I can honestly look back and say that I was bored, depended heavily on preset curriculum. The members of the class tended to agree on everything that was presented and class commentary revolved around regurgitating what was presented in the curriculum. Each type of class has its place in the schema of Christian education because there are those who only want to reconfirm what they already believe. However, the class filled with rational discussion will probably appeal to those who are trying to apply their faith to the world in which they live. Aristotle’s writings can be used in this setting.
Because of a Christian’s desire to be holy before God, application of Christian faith fits with Aristotle’s exploration of the virtues. Aristotle’s definition of virtue is “wider than moral virtue” and so is that of Scripture (Irwin, 353). A virtuous person, to Aristotle, would show excellence in his or her craft (Irwin, 353). In Colossians 3:23, Paul encourages Christians to “do everything with all of your hearts as working for the Lord and not for (people)” (Bible Gateway). This Scripture and thoughts from “Nicomachean Ethics” can be used to encourage our people to perform their work with excellence so that they can show the love of Christ. Small group discussion could follow concerning how each person could show Christ’s love relative to the work they do. Class members could pray for each other on these matters. A class could also discuss moral issues that arise in the workplace and how they might address those issues in a virtuous way.
“(Aristotle) distinguishes being good at something from being a good person; the good person is the person who has the virtues aiming at fine and right action” (Irwin, 353). In reference to the virtue of generosity, Aristotle said that the virtuous person will “give to the right people, the right amounts, at the right time” (Irwin, 50). To perform any virtue in the right amounts at the right time is characteristic of a virtuous person; it should also be characteristic of a Christian. Christians are called to “be holy as God is holy” (Leviticus 11: 44) and Christian virtue is considered a part of holiness. In his paper on Christian Virtue: John Wesley and the Alexandrian Tradition, David Bundy defines Christian virtue as “that structure of desirable behavioral patterns developed to be congruent with the professed religious values … virtue is not contributory to, but is reflective of human divinisation (the process of becoming like God in total experience) or sanctification (the process of becoming conformed to God in this life)” (Bundy, 1).
Thus, contemplation and practice of the virtues as defined by Aristotle can be part of our curriculum for a vital Sunday school.
In the Sunday school environment, it is not enough to simply read the Scripture about being a “cheerful giver” in 2 Corinthians 9:7, for example, accept it and move to the next passage, the teacher must encourage the class to think rationally about what a “cheerful giver” is and how a cheerful giver gives so that the class can begin practicing that virtue effectively. The section on generosity in Nicomachean Ethics gives a clear outline of what a generous person is. Questions could be tailored in the Socratic sense in order to help students arrive at Biblical conclusions. Scriptures such as the story of Jesus and the widow who gave two mites in the Temple and the aforementioned verse about cheerful giving, fit well with Aristotle’s theme of generosity.
In contemplating the virtues, Sunday school classes must also measure virtue against Scripture by asking questions about what God or Jesus is like and drawing conclusions from their observations. Many Christians might hesitate at the thought of using a Greek philosopher who did not know Christ as a reference in the classroom, but Catholic theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas thought that Aristotle’s writings were useful for Christian education. Aquinas reasoned that “something could be learned from any author, if only mistakes to be avoided” (McInerny). Fortunately, Aristotle’s writings are not full of mistakes from a Christian viewpoint. They are full of useful instruction and methods for teaching.
Emphasis on practicing the virtues as Aristotle understood them is a much needed ingredient in our Sunday schools today. Contemplation of the virtues must be weighed against Scripture and their practice in daily life should be encouraged. Discussion about the virtues that is based on real life experience will help shape our students into people who follow Christ effectively and will help prepare students to give reasonable answers about what they believe. Nicomachean Ethics can be used as a guide in our discussions because of its compatibility with Christian virtue as found in Scripture.
BibleGateway.com, keyword search “answer,” http://www.biblegateway.com (accessed Aug. 30, 2008).
Bundy, David, “Christian Virtue: John Wesley and the Alexandrian Tradition,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/26-30/26-5.htm (accessed, Aug. 30, 2008).
Irwin, Terence, translator. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999
McInerny, Ralph, O'Callaghan, John, "Saint Thomas Aquinas," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/aquinas/ (accessed, Aug. 30, 2008).
Runes, Dagobert D., ed. Dictionary of Philosophy: Ancient, Medieval, Modern.
http://www.ditext.com/runes/a.html, 1942 (accessed Aug. 30, 2008).