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Habit Training Part 3: A Classical Christian Understanding of Habit Training

So far in this series we have explored what habit training is in part 1, and how it is done in part 2. In this final article, we will explore the why question. Perhaps you have read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, and like me you are convinced of his thesis. Maybe this article should have gone first. I decided on this order (what, how, why) because before we could actually get to the why, we needed to clearly define what it is we’re talking about regarding habit training. It might be that even though this isn’t the first of the three articles, this will be the most important of the three. My hope is to demonstrate that habit training is not only a justified practice, but also a profound expression of our classical Christian heritage.

Habit Training – A Classical Practice

One of the factors that has led to the educational renewal movement we call classical Christian education, is the recognition that there has been an erosion of morals due to modernism’s commitments to deontological and utilitarian ethics. The Western tradition has posited the idea that virtue is central to an individual living a good life. A good society, then, is guided by this moral vision of what it means to have good character. In reclaiming a lost moral vision, classical Christian education has deemed it valuable to teach, promote and defend that which is true, good and beautiful. These things exist not merely to be observed and intellectually assented to, but to be embodied in our lives. We are shaped and guided by truth, beauty and goodness through many years of education until virtue (arete) becomes our habituation.

Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue traces the history of virtue from Homer and Aristotle, through the New Testament, to such figures as Jane Austen and Benjamin Franklin, demonstrating that virtue ethics was grounded in a narrative tradition that was rejected in modernism. He suggests that virtue is achieved through practice, and he goes to great length to define what he means by practice (see especially chapter 14, “The Nature of the Virtues”). He writes, “A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods.” (After Virtue, 190). By this we can take him to mean that we must know what a virtue or excellence is, we must submit to it in such a way that it guides our actions, and that in practicing a virtue it will produce certain intrinsic good in my life.

Therefore, habits should not be considered mechanical skills in a behaviorist sense. We are not manipulating children like Pavlov’s dogs, creating some conditioned response. Instead, habit training is committed to a moral vision guided by an understanding derived from what we might call a literary sensibility. We see virtue in our heroes, and in response we habituate ourselves to right action through imitation. Habit training is about virtuous living. Performing virtuous acts occurs through consistent training so that virtue is our second nature. Even though the classical tradition never consistently articulated one set of virtues, it has been univocal from Homer to Dickens that virtue is something we aspire to as human beings and ought to be trained in.

Habit Training – A Christian Practice

Biblical Christianity expands upon our understanding of habit training. The biblical mandate about raising children to love and serve the Lord is clear. Proverbs 22:6 advises parents, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Paul admonished fathers to “bring [children] up in the discipline (Gr. paideia) and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4) The word Paul uses, “paideia,” draws upon the classical Greek understanding of training or teaching children. The English translation is based on the Latin equivalent “disciplina” from which we get both discipline and disciple. These words help us form a picture of what it means to raise children in the love and fear of the Lord. They are disciples of Christ given into our care to be trained in the faith. The twelve disciples become a picture for us. They walked, talked and shared meals with Christ, all the while learning and practicing under the careful guidance of the master teacher.

The Christian moral vision is not incompatible with the classical understanding of virtue, even though there have been differences in the lists of essential virtues. The heart of habit training is best expressed by Paul in the call “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Rom 8:29) This call encompasses all of who we are first in the sense of our fallenness and need for regeneration before we can truly become virtuous. It also encompasses the fullest expression of virtuous humanity. What is the standard? Christ is the standard. And we are following in his footsteps (1 Peter 2:21) by daily taking up our crosses (Luke 9:23). Paul provides two analogies that help us understand more deeply the role of habit training in the Christian life. First is the analogy of clothing. In Colossians 3:12 we are called to put on such virtues as compassion, kindness, humility, patience and so forth (see also 2 Cor. 5:1-5; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:24, 6:11-15). Second is the analogy of the athlete. Paul points to boxers and runners at various points to exemplify the role of discipline in the Christian Life. In 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 he highlights that “every athlete exercises self-control in all things.” Here we have not only the esoteric virtues, but the highly practical domain of life. “I discipline my body,” Paul says so that he does not become disqualified in the Christian life. To put it another way, personal discipline brings our fallen and wayward natures into conformity to the image of Jesus Christ.

What I take from all this is that habit training as a method is highly consistent with our values as classical Christian educators. We are not behaviorists, manipulating children to sit straight and walk in line as an act of control and order. Rather we are so captivated by a vision of the Christian life – or the good life in the classical tradition – such that each action we take is an extension of this vision. Tying our shoes, putting away the dishes and speaking kindly to our classmates are basic building blocks toward a whole-life view of habit training. We are providing our students with practice in key disciplines so they have the self-control to be conformed to the image of Christ.

This series has hopefully inspired you to incorporate the method of habit training into your pedagogy. If you are interested in learning more about habit training in the classroom, check out my free eBook at We frequently write about habit training in our weekly posts, so take a look at past articles to gain theoretical and practice advice.

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