After taking a year-long graduate course called “History of Classical Education” and reading some of the greatest works on Christian education throughout history, I have been able to confirm that Augustine is considered the Father of Christian education. Even though some of his basic insights have been developed further by others, some of his core educational insights still stand as the source of Christian education and continue to inspire Christian educators. One of those key insights is Augustine’s understanding of a student’s Seven Steps to Wisdom. He expands the biblical truth that the “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov 9:10) into seven steps.
1. Fear of the Lord. Fearing the Lord is like what Jesus said about the first quality of a true Christian: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” A student needs to humbly acknowledge that he is broken before God, spiritually, morally, and intellectually, and that without God’s mercy, we cannot expect to grow.
2. Piety. For Augustine, piety means utter trust and submission to the authority of God, specifically to God’s Word. Education is first and foremost a matter of authority. Whose authority am I going to trust and follow?
3. Knowledge. This is what most people understand as education: pursuit of knowledge. But Augustine is saying that we cannot know things properly and rightly, if it is not founded upon fear of the Lord and piety. Regarding what to learn, Augustine calls us to “plunder the Egyptians” and recover God’s wisdom in secular learning (the “arts”), but only to the extent that it helps us understand Scripture better, and to order our loves toward God.
4. Fortitude. Proper relationship with God and knowledge must lead to a hunger for right action, to order our loves. “One turns away from deadly delight in passing things and turns instead to love of eternal things.” Students will be trained to love God with their “strength,” not just their heart and mind.
5. Mercy. When a student gets to this point, they can easily become proud and think they are better than others. But this is when they begin to realize that God was training them to love and serve others, and to show others God’s mercy.
6. Purity of Vision. At this stage, a student will be presented with many temptations of the world, such as prestige and power. He or she will be restless and be tempted to gain appetite for inferior things. But the only way to overcome these base appetites is to find the true appetite in the truth, goodness, and beauty of Christ. So, the educational training involves strengthening our deep delight in God, intellectually, morally, and culturally.
7. Wisdom. As a result of all the previous stages, the student will encounter in a deeply personal way Christ, who is the Wisdom of God. They will experience Christ in a quiet but unshakeable way, even amid the storms of life, and filled with understanding and unspeakable joy.