Not long ago, few would have questioned whether the study of the classics, Latin and Greek, provides excellent preparation for Christian ministry. The world in which Christianity grew in its early centuries was the world of Greek and Latin history and literature interacting with the biblical culture of an already Hellenized Judaism. But the value of classical studies for Christian ministry was understood as far deeper, more intimate and organic than merely historical. Even the earliest Christians, when they saw that the church was to be resident on earth with new generations, understood that there was a responsibility to educate the new members of the Church and society. “While the Church is always more than a school,” historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “it cannot be less than a school.” And the education that was envisioned as being taught in that school was focused on culture.
It is common nowadays to use the word ‘culture’ to stand for the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture, the drug culture, counterculture. This gives the impression that ‘culture’ is something one receives at birth or by joining as one joins a club. The authentic meaning of culture goes deeper. The word comes from the Latin verb colo, which means ‘to dwell upon, inhabit, nurture, and was used in education to describe pursuit of what is excellent.
Learning “the Classics,” that is, the literature written in the ancient Greek and Latin languages in particular, has for centuries been a major act of culture from one generation to another. The epics of Homer and Vergil, the tragedies of Sophocles, the dialogues of Plato, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, the lyrics of Horace, the orations of Demosthenes and Cicero, the homilies of John Chrysostom and Ambrose, the Confessions of Augustine, to name a few, are key parts, the ‘before, during, and after’ of the Western literary culture at whose heart is the Bible.
The classics offers an unsurpassed major for students considering a vocation to the ministry. While some familiarity in Greek and Hebrew is often a part of professional seminary education, learning the biblical languages takes longer than that, and so the short-track approach can actually be counterproductive and even lead to erroneous readings. Joined with the study of philosophy and religion a solid undergraduate education in the classics, especially Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, provides a firm pre-theological education.
Those interested in pursuing seminary or theological education especially benefit from the kind of intellectual formation that focuses on the original languages and the culture to which they belonged. Advanced study of religion is undertaken well when students have the intellectual habits and skills that can be applied to any area of life. An undergraduate major in classics presents a solid foundation for appreciating all aspects of the modern world, because our modern world is still rooted in the classics.