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THE EARLY CHURCH
Christian education began with Jesus himself who was educated in the religious life of Judaism. His teaching ministry is described in the New Testament Gospels where he is lauded as the master, and teacher of the New Torah, also known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus welcomed and taught many types of people, including the rich, the poor, the outcast, women, and children. Through parables, questions, and object lessons, he challenged traditional wisdom, inspired radical change, and recruited followers.
Christianity spread by the 12 disciples closest to Jesus as well as larger groups of disciples who were commanded by Jesus to teach others. Teaching and learning were crucial dimensions in the development of Christian communities as recorded in the New Testament book of Acts. Early church teachers and traveling prophets who instructed members of the Christian communities were gradually replaced during the first century by apostles, presbyters, and deacons. As Christianity spread, the need for teachers to instruct about the Christian faith increased. This led to the beginning of the catechumenal schools in the first century. The purpose of the catechumenal schools was to prepare new adult converts for baptism. These candidates for baptism spent 2 to 3 years listening to sermons and instruction in Bible doctrine and the Christian disciplines of prayer, fasting, confession, exorcism, and Christian lifestyle. Following baptism, ongoing instruction in Christian living occurred through the bishop's sermons during weekly celebrations of the Eucharist. The catechumenate served as the major avenue for Christian education until the end of the fourth century.
THE MIDDLE AGES
By the middle of the fifth century, the catechumenate was no longer needed due to the emerging practice of infant baptism. The rise in infant baptism, due in part to the fourth century legalization of Christianity, and the decline of the catechumenate brought about the need for godparents who, along with parents, were responsible for teaching the faith. Since most adults and priests were poorly educated, church teaching centered on moral instruction, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostle's Creed.
Other formative forces of Christian culture included popular practices of piety such as holy days, processions, wayside shrines, pilgrimages, and adoration of saints. The Christian faith was also communicated through stained glass windows and other medieval visual art, referred to as "the Bible for the poor." During the Middle Ages, schools of asceticism (the practice of self-denial or even self-punishment) and Christian life known as monasteries emerged to preserve and develop instruction in the Christian faith. Guided by moral and religious purposes, monks, priests, children of nobility, and sometimes children of the poor were instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, singing, and the elements of Christian doctrine. Monastic training in the East was moral and ascetic, while monastic instruction in the West had a more intellectual focus emphasizing the necessity of reading and devotion to scripture. There were often two departments in monastic schools, one for interns, those intending to be monks, and one for externs, those intending to return to secular life after completing their education.
Charlemagne, emperor of the Roman Empire in the early years of the ninth century, ignited an educational renaissance through his efforts to improve the education of clergy and by insisting that every monastery and cathedral establish a school. Cathedral schools were intended for all people in the community and served as places of worship and social gatherings for young people. Instruction included Christian religion, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.
Religious movements such as the Brethren of the Common Life promoted pious religion of the heart and made religious instruction a high priority. Educating schoolboys of the common people contributed to the gradual transition from medieval ecclesiasticism (church leadership) to scholasticism (school or educational leadership).
Church leaders brought about the scholastic movement by efforts to synthesize Christian theology and secular philosophy. The scholastic movement appealed to the intellectual interests of the time and influenced the development of medieval universities. Scholastic philosopher Peter Abelard (1079-1142) encouraged students to think for themselves through a process of questioning and doubt, and held that faith must be based on reason. Another leading scholastic thinker, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) developed the basic doctrinal framework of the Catholic Church through a masterful work, Summa Theologica. For Aquinas, faith was superior to reason.