Christianity had plenty of chinks in its doctrinal armor in the early days, when its creeds were still solidifying and state-sponsored persecution was buffeting it on all sides. The pesky intrusion of Gnostic heresies in particular, with their many creative ways of divorcing the physical from the spiritual, would do hundreds of years’ worth of damage. The church is still fighting them today; efforts to dismiss portions of Jesus’ teaching as outgrowths of his “sinful” human nature, for example, smell strongly of Gnosticism.
The heresies borrowed heavily from Plato and other ancient Greek thinkers, which is why Jesus-followers in the first and second centuries feared they were playing with fire if they spent too much time dwelling on the ideas of Athens. Ever since, the pendulum has swung back and forth on how much good Christians should allow pagan thinking to form their understanding of God and the world. At one extreme: the book burnings of the Middle Ages and the compact-disc burnings of 1990s church youth groups. Perhaps at the other extreme: our obsessive search for spiritual themes in every installment of the Star Wars and Marvel movie franchises.
Current debate over the place of classical Western thinkers has, like everything else, taken on additional political undertones. How much should many-centuries-dead white men continue shaping the West? Can moderns or progressives still study Western civilization and all its colonialist, slaveholding, promiscuous baggage?
Into this milieu rises the ever-expanding world of classical Christian education. The movement, by now, is well established and has traveled some distance from its beginnings in the 1980s. CT has covered it along the way, from the controversial statements of its founder, Douglas Wilson, to the growth of classical Christian higher education institutions.
But the movement has become mainstream enough that we chose to reintroduce it to our readers on the cover. It is growing rapidly among homeschool circles and in the charter school industry. And it is no small irony that the liberal arts now count among their most vocal defenders some of the most religiously and socially conservative groups in America.
It may be too soon to tell exactly which direction the pendulum is swinging on the role of the Western intellectual tradition in 21st-century America. But if proponents of the classical Christian approach are correct—that God, through general revelation, has tucked glimpses of himself into the folds of all civilization—then presumably we can expect to find him at least partially in whatever tradition prevails. Even if, as Plato taught, we see only the shadow and not the thing itself.
Andy Olsen is managing editor of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @AndyROlsen.