Educational Philosophy of Luther Classical College

Before the Greeks began philosophizing, when Romulus had barely built Rome, King Hezekiah “did what was good and right and true before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20), beautifying the temple and purging it of idolatry.

The following article has been excerpted from the “Educational Philosophy” section of the Luther Classical College Academic Catalog.

I. Jesus Christ is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

A classical liberal arts education pursues the Good, the True, and the Beautiful by standing on the shoulders of giants, that is, by reading the Great Books of Western Civilization. From the Great Books, students glean wisdom from the past that will instill virtue in the present as they continue the Great Conversation into the future. The Great Conversation—probing the depths of human nature and reaching toward the heights of human potential—encompasses the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy). Such an education fosters a love for learning that extends beyond the classroom and, indeed, beyond the diploma. The student is thus “liberated” (hence, the term “liberal arts”) from a slavish submission to the grueling tasks of checking off boxes to complete one’s schooling, get a job, and enter the rat race of the global economy. But where is Christ in the preceding summary?

Christianity corrects what is misaligned in secular traditions of the liberal arts not by claiming that Jesus is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful to which all scholarship should be devoted—for that would still be pagan man’s arm reaching toward God—but rather by proclaiming that Jesus was, is, and ever shall be the Good, the True, and the Beautiful from which all scholarship derives both its proper origin and its proper aim. One does not establish the Christian liberal arts simply by adding Jesus to the Greco-Roman tradition; rather, one discovers that God was there all along, albeit hidden, as Luther said, behind a mask. Before the Greeks began philosophizing, when Romulus had barely built Rome, King Hezekiah “did what was good and right and true before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20), beautifying the temple and purging it of idolatry (2 Chronicles 29).

Hezekiah endured problems still familiar today—a time when leaders of church and state alike had turned from the ways of the Lord, when an idolatrous parent was likely to murder a child and call it a holy act, a time when genuine education had been banished from the kingdom. Hezekiah studied the Scriptures, cleansed the temple, revived the Passover celebration, and clung anew to the words and promises of the coming Christ. That Messiah came with the birth of Jesus, who taught, “No one is good but One, that is, God” (Matthew 19:17). It is Jesus alone who came as God in the flesh. Therefore, He was and is and always shall be “the Good.” Jesus furthermore revealed himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). God’s people “worship the Lord in the beauty of His holiness” (Psalm 96:9), and St. Paul wrote of those who proclaim Jesus as the Christ: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:15, quoting Isaiah 52:7) Thus, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—the one God-Man Jesus Christ—pursues us, not through our own studies of the ancients, but through His called servants preaching His Word and administering His Sacraments. To be educated in the Christian faith is not to grasp for God, but to learn that He came for us (as the atoning substitute for sinners) and how He still comes to us (through His means of grace).

God comes to sinful man in a redemptive way only through Word and Sacrament, but God comes to all men in a providential way through the testimony of the conscience, the exercise of right reason, and the usefulness (at least for matters in this life) of the senses. What the Greeks and Romans accomplished in seeking goodness, truth, and beauty relied upon God’s blessing of natural revelation. While some of them rejected the Creator and committed grave sins against nature (Romans 1), others recognized the work of God’s law in their hearts and trained themselves in civil righteousness by respecting God’s gift of the conscience (Romans 2). Thereby they planted Western Civilization in the soil of history, a civilization rooted in the natural law of the Creator but bearing the best fruit only when also nourished by the Gospel of the One who alone is Good, True, and Beautiful. When the Goodness of Christ becomes the goodness of man as a gift received by faith, then the result is not merely an outward civil righteousness that even the best citizens among the pagans were able to produce in ignorance of the Gospel, but a righteousness before God that at last brings eternal comfort to the sin-struck conscience (Romans 3). The valuing of “philosophical” righteousness—of the pagan’s best efforts at goodness, truth, and beauty—as useful for this life, but the disparaging of all human efforts as useless before the throne of God, and the corresponding celebration of Christ’s own righteousness offered to the Father on behalf of sinful man (Romans 4–5)—this distinction between two types of righteousness drove Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon to reform the curriculum at the University of Wittenberg and thereby to reform the church (Apol. IV [II]). It all began with careful attention to language: “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, quoting Habakkuk 2:4). From the plain grammar and vocabulary of Holy Scripture, all else flowed: the Six Chief Parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, the distinction (but never quite a separation) between God’s two kingdoms of church and state; the equipping of the saints for vocations within family, church, and society; the cultivation of the visual arts and music; and, from a renewed perspective, the pursuit of the great learning of the past—in service to man in the present and in glory to God without end. Luther Classical College has inherited, and stands ready to cultivate, this tradition of classical, Lutheran education.

IV. The Value of Studying Multiple Disciplines

Each academic discipline brings both a unique set of methods that form the mind and a unique set of subjects that fill the mind, equipping students not only to pursue depth within that discipline but also to achieve greater breadth as one discipline is integrated with another. The disciplines are not equal partners in the pursuit of wisdom, but rather theology serves as regina scientiarum (“the queen of the sciences”), to which all other studies are subordinate. Classical languages come next in importance, because without them a student cannot directly grasp the foundational texts of Western Civilization, nor adequately understand the grammar and rhetoric even of modern English. Just as the Northern Renaissance (and the Lutheran Reformation that it fostered) focused on the studia humanitatis (“the humanities”), so also at Luther Classical College the disciplines of history, law, literature, and philosophy receive strong emphasis. The University of Wittenberg cultivated mathematics and natural science (or what then was called “natural philosophy”), even as Reformation theology encouraged the Scientific Revolution. Finally, no classical curriculum, especially not a curriculum for Lutheran students, would be complete without due attention to the fine arts. Woodcuts, paintings, and church architecture (ornamented with sculptures and stained glass) give visual expression to the “solas” of the Reformation, even as church music carries the Gospel to people’s ears and implants those saving truths deep into their memories.


Unfortunately, theology became in the nineteenth-century a pseudo-scientific discipline by selling the birthright of faith in exchange for a pottage of rationalism, from which liberalism arose in triumph: denying the miraculous, downplaying human sin, and celebrating each person’s contemplation of divine transcendence. With theology departments thus secularized, anthropology departments struck the next blow, relegating Christianity to one belief system among many in a cross-cultural smorgasbord on a menu of “comparative world religions.” The resulting separation of faith from fact, with a coincident relegation of faith to feelings, ushered in an era of postmodern subjectivism. A retreat to medieval scholasticism would at least reestablish objective truth in the realm of theology, but the rigid gaze of the hyper-logical scholastics too often missed the forest rooted in grace for the trees that bore good works.

The Lutheran Confessions approach theology differently from the prevailing medieval, modern, and postmodern alternatives. The Confessions return to Scripture alone, pursuing theology as God (theos) talking (logos) to us about Who He really is, not man talking about whom he mistakenly supposes God to be. Lutherans deploy reason as a servant to faith, not a master over faith, gathering from the plain patterns of Greek and Hebrew grammar what the Holy Spirit’s words mean. The Scriptures proclaim Christ: the Son of God who became the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. The plain words of Him Who is the Word mean that “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21), and likewise that “is means is” in Christ’s institution of the Holy Supper. The core teachings of the Old and New Testaments have best been summarized in the Six Chief Parts of Luther’s Small Catechism. Just as a heartfelt compassion for souls and the pastoral care of troubled consciences receive repeated emphasis in the Lutheran Confessions (even amid necessary and proper academic debates over the definitions of “de congruo” and “ex opere operato” and “genus majestaticum”), so also Lutheran theology simultaneously serves both the mind and the heart of man. The modernist’s choice between rationalism and pietism need not be made, because a third option, orthodox confessional Lutheranism, shall be preserved for all eternity, to be taught and preached, chanted and sung, lived and passed down the generations.

Understanding man’s First Article creation in God’s image, Second Article redemption from sin, and Third Article vocation in faith and sanctified works puts the study of any academic subject into proper perspective. What Saint Anselm called “faith seeking understanding” begins not with wishful thinking but with Biblical faith, that is, a confidence grounded in the words and works of Christ the Risen One. The true theologian’s oratio (prayer), meditatio (Scripture study), and tentatio (struggle, Anfechtung) returns each day anew to the Gospel proclamation that for Christ’s sake one has a clean conscience before God. In the divine liturgy and the historic hymns of the church, Christians across the ages are built up into one body, the Body of Christ, that confesses and sings, world without end.

Classical Languages

“Grammar” in the liberal arts trivium traditionally meant Latin. The study of Latin trains the mind like the study of no other language. Latin is precise, having noun declensions and verb conjugations that indicate exactly how words relate to one another and how they together say something about the world. Latin is consistent, having only a few irregular forms, and even those exceptions are quasi-regular. Latin is elegant, capable of concisely summarizing Caesar’s triumphs in Gaul or allowing endless wordplay in Cicero’s speeches before the Roman Senate. Latin is historical, being both the native tongue of so many foundational works in Western Civilization and also the mother tongue from which many daughter languages emerged. About 60% of all English words derive from Latin; among academic terms in law, medicine, and theology, the ratio is closer to 80%. The mastery of these professions in English requires, therefore, a familiarity with Latin.

Furthermore, the study of Latin enables a person to translate from English to English, that is, from sophisticated English to simplistic English. One cannot comfortably read great works in English—such as The Federalist Papers’ defense of the U.S. Constitution or Jane Austen’s stories of aristocratic match-makings—without a command of the higher, more Latinate, dialect. One cannot fully understand English grammar apart from recognizing within modern English the vestiges of the Latin-like subjunctive that still was expressed explicitly in Shakespeare’s well-metered verse. It was to students’ great advantage that Latin used to be required for entrance into American colleges and universities, a tradition now being revived by Luther Classical College.

Of course, English has a mixed ancestry, being derived also from the Saxon tongue—spoken today, in modified form, in Germany and Scandinavia; the interplay between the Saxons and the Normans has left its mark in nearly every English sentence. From the Normans’ Latin-becoming-French, England received words of authority (like crime, police, and justice). From the Saxons, England retained the words of the conquered tribes who tended animals (like cow and sheep) for the Normans to eat in the conquerors’ luxury (how telling that beef and mutton derive from the Norman, not the Saxon, speech). The best American orator knew how to employ both languages, but took care to keep each in its own place, referring in one breath as a Norman to the American nation “conceived in liberty” (concepta libertateconçu en liberté) and in the next breath speaking as a Saxon about the “rebirth of freedom” (Wiedergeburt der Freiheitgenfødsel af frihed). Though interwoven, the ancestral tongues of English have not been fully merged, and thus the mongrelized alternatives “conceived in freedom” and “rebirth of liberty” did not flow so readily from Lincoln’s lips.

Just as Latin provides a means for mastering English rhetoric and exploring American heritage, so also Latin provides a foundation for studying other languages and cultures. Greek grammar closely tracks Latin grammar, which means that the hard work expended in mastering Latin syntax pays a handsome dividend when the student takes up the second great classical language “as a treat,” as Winston Churchill advised. The lesson learned by struggling to align English and Latin when they never quite make a one-to-one correlation also stretches the mind to recognize that each culture, through its unique language patterns, maps the world in unique ways. Sometimes the chasm can be bridged by swapping active for passive and subject for object when translating a Latin gerundive into an English gerund. At its extreme, however, a linguistic gap results in the confusion experienced at Babel. Thankfully, the same God who judged Nimrod’s nation with division in the days of Peleg (Genesis 10:25; 11:1–9) also sends forth the everlasting Gospel for the redemption of “every nation, tribe, language, and people” (Revelation 14:6). To appreciate diversity of languages is, therefore, to participate more fully in the mystery of the Body of Christ. Latin directly connects the student to church history, while also laying a foundation for learning modern, and especially Romance, languages spoken by brothers and sisters throughout the ever-one Holy Christian Church.



History contributes to the virtue of prudence, or decision-making that is both wise and practical. History broadens one’s experience through the examination of the thoughts and actions of other people in various times and places, while seeking to identify general patterns among the circumstances and consequences of their choices. History provides the material for effective oratory, for one must not only know how to speak but also have something to say; history fills in the rhetorical topoi (topics), the facts about various subjects, necessary for responsible debate.

Although each historical epoch has unique features, all of history shares in common the humanity of its actors and the divine providence of God, who created us in His own image and still preserves us according to His mercy. Moreover, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, God Himself entered human history to redeem us fallen sinners. Even the seemingly random or destructive acts of human history fit the unfolding of God’s eschatological plan. History, accordingly, serves not only the virtue of prudence across the three estates, but also the closely related tasks of apologetics and evangelism within God’s kingdom of grace.

The student of ancient history has several starting points from which to select: the dispersion of seventy people groups from Babel (ca. 2200 B.C.), as recorded in Genesis 10–11; the chronicles of the Shang Dynasty in China (ca. 1600–1046 B.C.), as recorded on oracle bones; the Trojan War on the western coast of present-day Turkey (ca. 1200 B.C.), as told by Homer and retold by Virgil; the founding of Rome (ca. 753 B.C.), and its subsequent rise to world dominance, as told by Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch; the monumental struggles within and between the Persian and Greek empires, (ca. 536–323 B.C.), as told by Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Arrian; or, the emergence of early civilizations in Sumeria and Egypt, often said to have occurred some 1,000 years before the Biblically established date of Noah’s Flood (ca. 3,500 B.C. versus ca. 2,400 B.C.), as told by present-day archaeologists.

The Biblical account alone comes by inspiration of God and contains no errors. The Old Testament’s historical narratives serve as a grand prologue to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the New Testament traces His life, death, and resurrection and the early spread of His Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. To learn more about that ancient world, secular sources also must be consulted. When seeking to understand aspects of the ancient world that are not recorded in Holy Scripture, Christians properly turn to extra-Biblical sources, but always with a measure of caution. Every secular account of ancient civilizations has been colored by its author’s motives and limitations. Each text continues to be reinterpreted according to the proclivities of present-day readers. Reading those texts well requires a pious even if precarious balance between humility—as one learns from one’s elders—and skepticism—as one remembers that (excepting only God’s prophets, evangelists, and apostles) even the best scholars of antiquity were not infallible.

A classical education in the Western tradition privileges the Greek and Roman authors above the insights from ancient China or the theories of present-day archaeologists. This Greco-Roman emphasis does not imply that those other sources lack importance, but rather that they lack relevance to the particular aim of the classical, Western tradition, particularly when pursued by Lutheran scholars: to rediscover the rise and fall of a civilization that became, in varying stages, the cradle, the nemesis, and the sponsor of the New Testament church whose fathers authored the three ecumenical creeds. The fall of the Roman Empire and its replacement by the Papacy’s “Holy Roman Empire” supplies the necessary factual background for understanding the Lutheran Reformation, a theologically focused but politically transformative event of epic proportions. Moreover, through a courageous act of intellectual fiat (“let there be…”) by influential thinkers of the late 1700s, Greco-Roman antiquity also became the cornerstone of ordered liberty for the world’s longest-standing republic, the United States of America. The living legacies of the Lutheran Reformation and the American Revolution teach us still today that when people learn well the lessons that ancient Greeks and Romans offer, great and wonderful things become possible.

In brief, those lessons center upon the natural relationship between virtue and liberty—a mutual dependence that can be ignored only at great peril to both oneself and one’s nation. Tacitus and Suetonius found this fact of human nature revealed in the contrast between the despotic emperors Tiberius through Domitian and the more temperate, at times even benevolent, rulers who preceded and followed them; Gibbon extended those accounts of the first century into the fifteenth century, the eve of the Lutheran Reformation. Burke repeated the analysis in his comparative evaluation of the two great modern revolutions: the American (favorable) and French (unfavorable). The saga continues to our own time. How better to understand Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong in the twentieth century than to study Claudius, Nero, and Domitian first? Similarly, how better to understand Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, than to study Cicero, Constantine, and Justinian first? Human nature, both at its worst and at its best, is the same the world over and changes not with the centuries, but nowhere do we find vices, virtues, and their far-reaching consequences more instructively recorded than in the works of ancient Greece and Rome. Later authors—Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare among them—resound with echoes of those same ancient truths. The time for producing great works has not expired, but for those seeking to lead the way forward, the first step must—however paradoxically—be backward, “ad fontes,” return to those ancient sources!


According to its theological use, lex semper accusat (“the law always accuses”). Nevertheless, according to its civic use, the law curbs, educates, and protects. The Augsburg Confession pays respect to “lawful civil ordinances” as God’s Romans 13 blessing to all people (AC XVI, 1). Just as the two marks of the church are the pure preaching of the Gospel and the pure administration of the sacraments (AC VII), so also the two marks of legitimate civil authority are the punishment of evil doers and the protection of the innocent (Romans 13:3–4; 1 Peter 2:13–14).

While different societies may have different laws and even different systems of political order, all civil governments must bear those same two marks if they are to lay claim to Fourth Commandment authority; conversely and perversely, to punish the innocent and protect the evildoer is to become a false state, an establishment of Satan under Revelation 13 rather than an establishment of God under Romans 13. So concluded the Lutheran confessors at Magdeburg who withstood a year-long siege by Papal-Imperial forces, an apostate church united with an illegitimate civil authority. So concluded the courageous Lutherans Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany and Eivind Berggrav in Nazi-occupied Norway when they exercised political resistance against tyranny. Frederick the Wise’s protection of the “outlaw” Martin Luther was no different; the ramshackle edict from the Diet of Worms had no proper claim within the divinely established civil government of Saxony.

As seen from the preceding examples, Lutheran theology and Lutheran history together provide guidance for evaluating and responding to civil authorities. Generally, a subject is called to obey. Simultaneously, a ruler is called to serve as God’s own representative of justice. Rarely, a lesser magistrate may need to interpose on behalf of the people against a tyrant from the top. Occasionally, a pastor may need to preach from the pulpit that Caesar has wrongfully claimed what is God’s, or that a wayward church leader has wrongfully claimed what is Caesar’s. God alone draws the line between the Two Kingdoms, and all are called to respect His ordinance above all others. Whether as ruler or subject, as soldier or civilian, each person has an office within the civil realm. Likewise, within the church, pastor and laity have distinctive callings from God. Through those individual vocations, as well as those within the home, each person navigates between the Two Kingdoms in appropriate ways that diminish neither kingdom but instead serve one’s neighbors in accordance with God’s will within each kingdom.

Within the broad contours of Lutheran political theology, various political philosophies can be critiqued and, to greater or lesser degrees, adopted. Plato’s Republic criticized democracy and championed aristocracy, but Aristotle’s Politics argued instead that monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy each have their characteristic virtues and vices. Cicero cherished the Roman Republic but even more so celebrated the natural law, which is unique to no society but foundational to all of them. Augustine, Aquinas, and Melanchthon each articulated a Christian philosophy of natural law and on that basis sketched out principles for political order, including also a moral framework for waging a just war. Indirectly, the Lutheran Reformation led to the American Revolution; more directly, the Lutheran Reformation encouraged healthy civic participation by all Christians according to vocation. Lutherans neither joined the Anabaptists in eschewing marriage and property ownership, nor joined the Papacy or the Calvinists in commingling church and state into one estate. Rather, Lutherans cultivated all the good and Godly institutions of home, church, and state, each as given by God.

God providentially causes kingdoms to rise and fall, and He places each person within a particular society to serve as a channel of His blessings to the people in their midst. Politics is the chief tool by which they do so within the Kingdom of the Left. The American Experiment has offered unparalleled opportunities to forge a just society, but also unique challenges. While armchair political philosophy has a vital role within the academy, students ultimately need to be prepared for where the rubber hits the road within their own communities. God does not call anyone to love humanity in the abstract, but He does expect each one of us to love our actual, concrete neighbors as ourselves, exactly as we encounter them within our vocations.

Economics relates so closely to politics that often the term “political economy” appears in the modern Great Books. In them, the student finds a wealth of examples demonstrating the profound importance of beginning with the proper foundational principles. What rights, and what responsibilities, apply to property ownership? Is the possession of wealth itself a sign of injustice? Or, is a free market sufficient for justice? Are humans mere animals, best to be governed by a powerful zookeeper? Or, are humans angels, not needing to submit to any earthly authority? Given that people with power seldom use it benevolently for long, what sort of constitution best protects subjects not only from one another but also from their rulers? Recognizing both the dignity and the depravity of man—created in God’s image and fallen into sin—Christian social thought provides a sound pathway through these perennial puzzles. People have natural responsibilities (love your neighbor as yourself by obeying legitimate authority, protecting innocent life, respecting genuine marriage, and preserving each other’s property) and corresponding rights; governments properly exist to protect those rights.

But civil government is not alone in addressing people’s economic needs; nor is the state the primary institution for doing so. Entrepreneurs, as they provide for their families, their workers, and their customers, fulfill a station in life distinctive of the modern West, in which those blessed with capital have the duty to serve those whom God has placed within their economic care. Trade and commerce flourish when well-crafted laws foster ordered liberty among a virtuous people who use the market as a mode of match-making rather than as a tool for opportunism.

Oeconomia historically referred to the household, not the society, for the home is the true foundation of the state, and the householder is the original entrepreneur. The church, too, has an interest in promoting charity to support the needs of the poor. When the state oversteps the work of the family or restricts rather than supports the work of the church, the results will be unavoidably uneconomical—contrary to the home’s (oikosoecoeco) natural order (nomia). Recognizing the distinctive vocations that each Christian has within the family, the church, and the civil realm lays the groundwork for addressing the challenges of fostering a humane political economy. Preparing faithful citizens for this work is a great gift that the home and church can together foster, guiding the state to take up its role in turn.


Epic poems and sonnets, tragic plays and comedies, novels and short stories all stir the imagination toward a rediscovery of the same truths revealed by the great works of nonfiction—histories of hope and despair, of conquest and defeat, of friendship and loneliness, and of everything else that fills and empties the human heart.

“What is man, that You are mindful of him? ” asks the Psalmist of God, to which all of the world’s great literature attempts an answer. To understand man, of course, one must also understand his Maker, and so literature never drifts far from theology. Even pagan literature has redeemable value. Martin Luther remarked that by reading Virgil’s Aeneid he learned the fundamentals of poetry that enabled him to write Christian hymns. Philip Melanchthon, for similar reasons, encouraged the study of the Roman playwright Terence, albeit with caution against the vulgar content. The Lutheran Reformation did not cherish all pagan works, but rather selected those which by either form or substance could be useful to the vocations of redeemed children of God.

Advancing the English Reformation, John Milton transformed Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which told of capricious gods and goddesses who meddled in the affairs of ambitious and blood-thirsty men, into a monumental retelling of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin that concluded with a preview of Christ’s redemptive work. Milton’s Paradise Lost demonstrates by poetic elevation that even the lowest depth of humanity is not so far gone that God cannot reach down, indeed come down, to save. Those who refuse God’s gift of grace find themselves in Dante’s Inferno, a hell in which their own sins come back, amplified, to visit them for eternity.

In addition to exploring the connection between God and man, literature also links each person to his neighbor. Literature properly belongs to that branch of study called “the humanities,” for in both poetry and prose one finds something that people of all cultures have in common, but something which none of them have in common with brute beasts. Cicero maintained that the human capacity for language marked mankind as unique. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides deployed that gift to write tragic plays for a specifically Athenian audience in the fifth century B.C., but the plumb line that their dramatic scripts stretched across human life measures true for all time. Modern psychology has penetrated no deeper, and often far less clearly, into the human psyche than they. A generation after Euripides, Aristotle attempted to codify the elements of drama—plot, character, hubris, and so forth. His categories provided the scaffolding for Renaissance playwrights, most notably William Shakespeare.

While Shakespeare at first reading seems quaintly out of date—replete with thees and thous—the patient twenty-first-century reader soon is rewarded with a re-discovery of the roots of modern English. “Love at first sight,” “to thine own self be true,” “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” “all the world’s a stage,” and “off with his head!” come word for word from Shakespeare. Like all great literature, his writing exhibits an excellence of form in a manner accessible to the common man, such as those of the lower-middle class who paid a penny for admittance to the yard at Globe Theatre.

In more recent times, the Russian novelists Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have continued to outshine social scientists and literary critics alike, in revealing the secret motivations of the human heart while demonstrating both the opportunities and the limitations of human achievement. “All happy families are alike,” wrote Tolstoy, but “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” To learn this difference, to practice through reading what one hopes to accomplish by living, one must keep turning the page. “Learning to love is hard and we pay dearly for it,” writes Dostoevsky. “It takes hard work and a long apprenticeship, for it is not just for a moment that we must learn to love, but forever.” This yearning for eternity recurs frequently in the great literary works, and why shouldn’t it? After all, “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).


As recently as the early nineteenth century, nearly every subject was a branch of “philosophy.” The college president customarily taught a capstone course to the graduating class called “moral philosophy” (now called ethics, taught relativistically rather than objectively, offered as a freshman elective rather than a senior requirement, and taught by an adjunct while the president is busy fundraising for athletics). Other courses included “mental philosophy” (later to be replaced by cognitive psychology). “Natural philosophers” studied the physical world and its varied kinds of living beings, while also reading Latin literature, memorizing English poetry, and contemplating beautiful paintings; after dropping those “arts and letters” pursuits in order to become specialized, they became known as “scientists.” What, then, of philosophy? What formerly had been the common pursuit of inquiry became marginalized into the ghetto of general education electives. Overlooking what the “Ph” in “Ph.D.” stands for, a person now may attain a doctoral diploma without taking a single philosophy course. Caricatures of Socrates conveniently dismiss philosophy as annoying at worst and irrelevant at best. But despite its superficial critics, philosophy remains the vital hub of collegiate conversation among those who continue the Great Conversation.

What is truth? Does God exist? What’s the difference between right and wrong? Are human actions pre-determined, or do people have free will? What makes for a just society? What does such-and-such mean, and how can its definition be clarified for the sake of a more fruitful conversation? It is not so much, as Socrates suggested, that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” but rather that the unexamined life is no life at all; humans intuitively philosophize. Children ask “why?” and “how?” constantly. Adults also would be wiser if they continued rather than abandoned that quest. Philosophy is not merely fun but also productive. “Socratic questioning,” pursued as recorded in Plato’s dialogues, does not merely mean “teaching by asking questions” or “maximizing group participation,” but rather seeking to discover both whether something is true and also the reason why it is true. To answer neither question is to remain ignorant; to answer only the first question is to have knowledge but still lack understanding. Philosophy promotes both knowledge and understanding, which together lead to wisdom—something to be desired among all the other academic disciplines and to be applied in all of life’s pursuits.

In the realm of philosophy, Christians have a clear advantage, for they are keenly aware of human limitations, of the clouded understanding that results from original sin, of the conniving deceit animating a will turned away from God, and yet they know the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ, God incarnate. Saint Paul cautions against “philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men,” even while encouraging “philosophia kata Christon” (“philosophy according to Christ,” Colossians 2:8). Christians, therefore, may fruitfully ask the big, perennial questions of philosophers, and in critiquing the answers offered in the past, they have opportunity to “cast down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The resulting acclamation of truth and rejection of error is well modeled by the “affirmativa” and “negativa” of the Formula of Concord, even as the Formula’s caution not to press mysterious matters of the faith too far also models the humility appropriate for finite humans, creatures who inquire into the ways of their Creator with a spirit of awe rather than of arrogance. Who better than Lutherans, therefore, to be philosophers? Where better to study philosophy than at a college of the Lutheran church?

Mathematics and Natural Science

The church confesses in Luther’s Explanation to the First Article of the Apostle’s Creed that “God has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.” Therefore, Christians approach the study of God’s creation with optimism: their faculties of sight and thought have the potential to align with the world God has created. However, the church confesses in the Third Article that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” Therefore, Christians recognize that scientific endeavors have limits: our eyes may deceive us, our thoughts may stray from logic, and, in any case, God surpasses human reason even when it functions at its best. Strictly speaking, science neither proves God’s existence and attributes, nor persuades anyone to have saving faith in Him. At the same time, science remains useful for Christian apologetics because nature points to its Creator even while our gracious God remains hidden, as if behind a mask. It is simultaneously true that those who deny the Creator are without excuse, since nature itself bears witness, and that apart from faith worked by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament no one can believe in Christ. Science and faith are paradoxically related.

The Scientific Revolution and the Lutheran Reformation occurred nearly simultaneously—a chronological correspondence that resulted not from mere coincidence but from historical interactions. The via moderna, or “modern method,” of philosophy challenged the Scholastic reliance on Aristotle’s metaphysics and summoned empirical investigations of nature. Nominalism, the new philosophy that Luther learned as a university student, rejected received traditions of physical natures whose properties were deductively predictable, inviting instead a “look and see” approach to discover by observation and to confirm by experiment how nature in fact is. For Luther, nominalism became an encouragement to look at the text of Scripture and see what God’s Word really teaches, rather than just trusting church officials’ pronouncements. For others, it meant looking at the Book of Nature to discover what God had created and how it worked.

The Lutheran doctrine concerning the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper allowed for mysterious notions of space and time—how can Christ be eternal and omnipresent and yet also be found here and now to be eaten and drunk? The Lutheran insistence upon neither adding to nor subtracting from Scripture, and the corresponding willingness to leave paradoxes unresolved, prepared the Lutheran mind to ponder either an earth-centered or else a sun-centered universe. It was a Lutheran named Andreas Osiander who wrote the preface for Copernicus’s work from which the Scientific Revolution got its name—De revolutionibus, or Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies. Although Luther himself ridiculed Copernicus in an off-handed comment during one of his Table Talk sessions, Philip Melancthon’s more rehearsed response was to encourage the study of this new theory at the University of Wittenberg. In fact, no one took as much interest in Copernicus as the Lutherans. A Lutheran mathematics teacher named Johannes Kepler refined Copernicus’s theory by substituting ellipses for circles. Lutherans took keen interest in other sciences, too. A century after Kepler, a Lutheran botanist named Carolus Linnaeus introduced scientific nomenclature for all that God had created. We have called ourselves Homo sapiens ever since.

If science is good, and Lutherans promoted science, then Lutherans must be good, too—but such reasoning is unsound in so many ways. First, science so easily can be turned for evil, whether to promote thoughts that war against the Creator (consider Darwinism) or actions that war against one’s neighbors and their Creator (witness today’s dilemmas in bioethics). Second, Lutherans themselves have struggled to find the proper relationship between faith and reason, with Kepler, for example, hesitating to affirm all that the Formula of Concord said about Christology because some of it did not conform to his mathematical ways of thinking. As to even more basic questions, such as whether and, if so, how nature can be known by man, the children of Lutherans have profoundly disagreed. Immanuel Kant, raised in a Lutheran home but shaped by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, concluded that the mind is structured in such a way that no rational person can experience the universe except in terms of space and time, cause and effect. Søren Kierkegaard, also raised in a Lutheran home, went the other direction, concluding that reason is too small of a box to contain either God’s nature or our own. A leap of pure faith, not a necessity of pure reason, lays the foundation for what we know about ourselves and the world around us.

What, then, is the proper Lutheran approach to science? The Lutheran Confessions have much to say about epistemology, that branch of philosophy dealing with fundamental questions of knowledge and certainty. Ultimately, however, the Confessions appeal to both reason and experience in a manner that also rises above those realms. For example, Article I of the Formula of Concord deploys Aristotelian notions of essential and accidental properties, while also insisting that orthodox theology cannot be reduced to the categories of human thought. The pursuit of science remains, then, forever a pursuit—one that the Christian is freed to engage within his vocation, even while taking care not to claim too much certainty in his conclusions. “This is most certainly true” never quite fits the natural sciences, but instead finds its triple “Amen” in the three articles of the Apostle’s Creed.

The problematic quest for certainty in science does not diminish the utility of scientific knowledge, for even if facts are sometimes mistaken or older theories become replaced by newer ones, the provisional understanding that science affords often enough suffices for the needs of this body and life. Science thereby serves as one of God’s many blessings in our midst, a blessing that the state rightly protects and even sponsors for the benefit of the family. When the state instead wields an ungodly adulteration of science as a tool of oppression against the unborn, the elderly, or the infirm, or when government schools deny the Creator, His gift of the two sexes, or the natural law of chastity, then the church rightly objects that Caesar has abused the realm God assigned him and the voices of Christian fathers must be heard again.

If education is to serve the whole person in preparation for a range of vocations within the home, the church, and the state, then scientific education, too, must be broad rather than narrow, and must include philosophical criticism of its own treasured assumptions, methods, and results. Rather than memorizing the latest menu of “facts” from “settled science” and accepting without question the prevailing theories of “scientific experts,” a classically liberating education centers upon a return to the old enterprise of “natural philosophy,” namely, a free inquiry into physis—the nature of the universe—an inquiry that in the Christian tradition also requires that one seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before his God (Micah 6:8).

Fine Arts


Within the liberal arts, music fills an important role among the “quadrivial,” or quantitative, disciplines: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. “As the eyes are framed for astronomy,” wrote Plato, “so the ears are framed for the movements of harmony,” each of them manifesting geometrical relations in concrete ways (Republic, VII, 530d). For any two tones separated by one octave, the higher one vibrates at exactly twice the frequency of the lower one; for a musical fifth, the ratio is 3:2, and for a major third or major fourth, it is very close to 5:4 or 4:3, respectively. “To possess the art of recognizing the sounds that can or cannot be blended is to be a musician,” explains Plato. “If one doesn’t understand that, one is unmusical” (Sophist, 253b). Coming to grips with the “very close to” aspect of those ratios led to competing theories of how best to tune instruments; splitting the difference, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier presented fugues in all 24 major and minor keys without needing to re-tune between them.

However, the greatest resonance between music and other disciplines is not to be heard in mathematics, but in theology. “After the Word of God,” remarked Luther, “music deserves the highest praise.” Birds sing, but only man composes, arranges, and conducts—not to mention invents instruments that can be played well only after years of practice. To be created in God’s image meant, originally, to have true knowledge of God and live in righteousness, but even after the fall into sin, a vestige of God’s image remains in the creativity that humans alone among His creatures exhibit. Where is this more obvious than in music? And where is it more edifying than in church music?

It was the hymnals of Lutheran homes that preserved the Reformation faith when the tumult of the Thirty Years’ War often prevented people from gathering for public worship. Luther’s chorales, because they were nothing other than the Gospel set to music, had “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), converting the people of Magdeburg in the weeks before Luther’s own arrival to preach his first sermon there.

What hymns offer for the proper occasions of the church year, the ordinaries of the liturgy provide for all time—not merely for the constant element common to each Sunday throughout the church year, but also for a constant testimony year after year, so long as the church militant endures. Through ancient words chanted to ancient melodies, members of the Body of Christ, here and now, join the song of the saints that went before them, there and then, as they sing of the great and gracious deeds of the eternal God, world without end. With good reason, Johann Sebastian Bach is often ranked as world history’s best composer. His Saint Matthew Passion and Mass in B Minor, plus over 400 chorales, carry into the ears and the heart the words and promises of Christ: the greatest words set to the greatest music afford the greatest benefit to all who hear.

No appreciation of the Lutheran Reformation would be complete without music history, and music history requires familiarity with music performance—both on man-made instruments and with the God-made human voice—as well as music theory. While future parish musicians derive obvious practical benefits from such pursuits, everyone else benefits, too. Congregational singing has always been the hallmark of the Lutheran church, and family singing of Lutheran homes. Both of these life-preserving activities flourish best in a culture of a memorized core of classical chorales: the Lutheran Kernlieder tradition.

Music, argued Aristotle, requires hard work but also brings virtuous pleasure—an ennobled rather than reckless leisure—that is necessary for any community to prosper (Politics, VIII). As Christians know best, the truest and most lasting pleasure is to be found not in human leisure for this life, but in divine salvation for the life to come, wherefore Bach signed his manuscripts “SDG” for soli Deo gloria (“to God alone be the glory”).

Visual Arts

To the radical reformer Andreas Karlstadt, church art was idolatrous; while Luther was secluded in Wartburg, Karlstadt persuaded the Wittenberg City Council to decree that images should be removed from local church buildings. Violent mobs soon saw to it that statues and paintings were demolished. Luther responded with a series of sermons and pamphlets, calling for the preservation of church art for its pedagogical value. By this, Luther did not simply mean that art helps people to learn, but more specifically that Christian art points to Christ the Savior.

Woodcuts illustrated Luther’s catechism and provided means to mass produce clever depictions of the Pope’s deviations from Scripture as the clumsy work of a spiritual jackass. Like music, the visual arts served as a carriage for the Gospel, as altar painting portrayed the Means of Grace. What Luther’s German translation of the Bible accomplished for the literate, church art made accessible also for the illiterate.

Just as the study of Scripture became more careful and fruitful in the wake of the renewed attention to primary texts and original languages fostered by Northern Renaissance Humanism, so also the Italian Renaissance brought Christian art to new heights by first rediscovering and then extending the pursuit of beauty from classical antiquity. Greek sculpture and architecture depicted man at his best, indeed, even better than life, by mathematically calculating ideal proportions. Renaissance realism, too, brought vivid paintings of Bible history to the eyes of the beholders. Still today, eyes, minds, and hearts marvel at the works of Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, … and the list goes on.

Art history serves both as a canvas and as a mirror, revealing the mentalité of each succeeding age. While beginning as a mild abstraction that softened without erasing realism, impressionism soon gave way to post-impressionism and, before much longer, to post-artistic attempts at securing government art funding for non-art. The medium itself became the message, when neither the artist’s intention nor his technique mattered as much as the audience’s self-oblivion. Man, who began by turning away from God, soon discovered that he had turned away also from himself, a creature made in the image of God. To forsake the Beautiful leads also to an abandonment of the True and the Good, but even in the nadir of postmodern despair, God’s arm remains long enough to reach down and save. A return to classical models may provide artists both in and beyond the church with a rebirth—another Renaissance—yet to be appreciated.


If the aim of education is to empower graduates to get a job, and the purpose of a job is to make money, then rhetoric must be reduced to the art of persuasive communication, for persuasion leads to both employment and profitability. People who thought this way in Socrates’s day were called “sophists,” appearing to be wise while underneath their words lurked an embarrassing combination of charlatanism, ignorance, and ugliness—quite the opposite of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

While Plato’s dialogues tore sophistry apart, it fell to Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian in successive generations to build up a genuine rhetoric, the object of which was to “speak well” in the fullest sense. The ideal speaker could address any audience, concerning any topic, on any occasion, in a manner that served rather than sidestepped truth, justice, and (although it was not yet called so) the American way. Form served not the speaker but the content, which means that the rhetorician required a well-rounded education in all subjects.

In the “trivial” arts, grammar came first while logic and rhetoric sometimes rotated between second and third. Regardless of the sequence in which these arts were listed, the relative emphasis between logic and rhetoric shifted at Wittenberg under the leadership of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. While the medieval scholastics had perfected the art of logical discourse, the Lutheran reformers restored an appreciation for the nuances of language: figures of speech, rhetorical tropes, and also the broader outline of how a discourse flows. To read Scripture not primarily as a source book for propositions that could be injected into syllogisms, but rather as a divine literary masterpiece now drew renewed attention to the Holy Spirit’s own leitmotivs. Melanchthon’s Loci and Commentary on Romans, and Luther’s catechisms, sermons, and treatises, accordingly brought to the forefront of theological discourse the interplay between Law and Gospel. Rhetoric expressed what grammar and logic had discovered in Holy Writ: the literally crucial, cross-centered, difference between Law and Gospel that, when properly distinguished, reveal God’s salvation of man apart from man’s own works, as well as the distinctions between the Two Kingdoms and the Three Estates that reveal where and how man’s good works fit within God’s plan.

Students at Wittenberg progressed to the master’s degree by learning the art of disputation, crafting arguments that properly accounted for opposing viewpoints while not surrendering to indecision or relativism. Wittenberg, Leipzig, Magdeburg, and Jena became centers for publishing the rhetoric of Lutheran theologians: Bibles, hymnals, catechisms, commentaries, sermons, and treatises. Breaking from hagiographic traditions, Lutheran scholars invented a new genre of literature known as church history, even as Lutheran pastors reclaimed pre-scholastic models that restored the sermon to a proclamation of forgiveness in Christ. Good writing, beautiful writing, true writing edified God’s people once again. The church and state require nothing less today, best to be provided by colleges that read Cicero’s clever turns of phrase in Latin, sing Luther’s hymnological masterpieces in German, and practice the art of public disputation so that the light of truth may expose the folly of error for the health of hearts, minds, and souls everywhere.

Table of Contents for This Issue of Christian Culture

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Dr. Ryan MacPherson

Dr. Ryan MacPherson is the Academic Dean of Luther Classical College.

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