The Concern of the Reformation for Christian Education (7)

The Reformers did not propose schools in which the children of believers would receive instruction exclusively in the Bible. Rather, they called for and established schools in which capable teachers would give instruction in every branch of human knowledge.

According to Luther, foreign languages had to be taught, especially Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Instruction in the languages was mainly for the benefit of those young men who would preach and teach the Scriptures. In the schools of the Reformation, Luther also demanded the teaching of the “liberal arts,” a traditional, medieval description of seven subjects, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. He wrote, in his work, To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools:

For my part, if I had children and could manage it, I would have them study not only languages and history, but also singing and music together with the whole of mathematics . . .

How I regret now that I did not read more poets and historians. . .

The breadth of Luther’s view of Christian education is apparent when, in his Sermons on Keeping Children in School, he speaks of schools that educate men for “the fields of medicine and the other liberal arts,” for being “jurists,” and for the work of writing. He advocated studies in the natural sciences, the knowledge of the creation and “the creatures in the creation. With typical insight, he pointed out both the nature and necessity of such scientific study by the believer: “. . . by the grace of God we already recognize in the most delicate Dower the wonders of divine goodness and omnipotence. We see in His creatures the Power of His Word.”¹ It is not without humor that just as Luther assailed Erasmus’ conception of grace, so he also gibed at Erasmus’ view of nature: “Erasmus passes by all that (that is, God’s goodness and power in the creation), takes no account of it, and looks upon external objects as cows look upon a new gate.” He insisted on the teaching and enjoyment of music in the schools, both vocal music and instrumental music. Jokingly (some school teachers will hope), he made musical ability a qualification for teaching: “A school master must be able to sing, otherwise I will hear nothing of him.” Luther did not limit education to the training of the child’s mind. He saw a place for gymnastic exercises. This, he thought, “produces elasticity of the body and preserves the health. But a great reason for (its) practice is that people may not fall into gluttony, licentiousness, and gambling, as is the case, alas! at courts and in cities. Thus it goes when such honorable and manly bodily exercises are neglected.”² The physical education department in the Christian school has a staunch supporter in Luther, pictures of him to the contrary notwithstanding.

A glance at the subjects prescribed for the schools by Luther’s colleague, Philip Melanclithon, will show how far removed these schools were from “Bible schools.”³ In the schools for the youngest children, in addition to Biblical studies, the children had to study the primer, which contained the alphabet; read Donatus; gain a good vocabulary from Cato’s verses; learn grammar, including etymology, syntax, and prosody; read Aesop’s fables, the dialogues of Mosellanus, the colloquies of Erasmus, the works of Terrence, Plautus, Virgil, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, and the Letters of Cicero; write Latin verse; and study dialectic and rhetoric. In the schools for older children, the youth learned the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages; dialectic; rhetoric; mathematics; and cosmology. In the University of Wittenberg, the faculty of the liberal arts consisted of ten professors, who taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew literature; ethics; mathematics; physics; philosophy; dialectic; and rhetoric.

The same broad view of the scope of education for the children of the Church is evident when Luther pleads for the creation of good libraries. Among the books which he recommends for inclusion are copies of the Bible in all languages; good commentaries on the Bible; books of poets and orators, whether pagan or Christian, that are helpful in learning the languages; “books on the liberal arts, and all the other arts”; “books of law and medicine”; and the vital “chronicles, and histories.”4

It is obvious that the Reformation did not construe Christian education as instruction only in the Bible. Nor did the Reformation have a narrow, suspicion-ridden view of Christian education. On the contrary, it conceived of Christian education as embracing the whole, vast sweep of God’s creation.

That which makes this view of Christian education all the more weighty is the fact that it was held by the leading Reformers in the face of vociferous objection objections from within the Church. Some objected that knowledge of the Bible was sufficient, because this is all that matters for salvation. Others objected to the proposed schools in these terms: “Ha, if my son can read and write German and do arithmetic, that is enough. I am going to make a businessman of him.”5 Against all such objections, the Reformers insisted on full orbed, Christian education.

This emphasis upon Christian schools was not a peculiarity of the Lutheran Reformation. John Calvin was in basic agreement with Luther, in this matter Calvin himself was a learned man, whose writings are sprinkled with references to the noted, secular authors. He was a friend of the arts and sciences, as long as they are subject to God’s Word, which indeed is their only proper place.

. . .natural perspicacity is a gift of God, and the liberal arts, and all the sciences by which wisdom is acquired, are gifts of God. They are confined, however, within their own limits; for into God’s heavenly kingdom they cannot penetrate. Hence they must occupy the place of handmaid, not of mistress: nay more, they must be looked upon as empty and worthless, until they have become entirely subject to the word and Spirit of God. if, on the other hand, they set themselves in opposition to Christ, they must be looked upon as dangerous pests, and, if they strive to accomplish anything of themselves, as the worst of all hindrances, and are much to be dreaded.6

Calvin took pains to dissociate the movement of the Reformation from those “fanatics” who were suspicious of all learning, who regarded all science as “science falsely so called,” and who condemned out of hand all philosophy as “vain philosophies of men.” Commenting on I Corinthians 8:1, after he has warned against that knowledge which lacks love and which, therefore, puffs up, Calvin writes:

At the same time, knowledge is not by any means to be blamed for this, any more than a sword, if it falls into the hands of a madman. Let this be considered as said with a view to certain fanatics, who furiously declaim against all the liberal arts and sciences, as if their only use were to puff men up, and were not most useful means and instruments, both for the knowledge of God, and for the conduct of common life. Now those very persons, who defame thorn in this style, are ready to burst with pride, to such an extent as to verify the old proverb—”Nothing is so arrogant as ignorance.”

Also Calvin worked to carry out his thoughts on Christian education in the establishment of a Christian school. In1559, the Academy of Geneva was founded, largely as the result of Calvin’s efforts. At its founding, the Academy “consisted of two parts: a primary school, the college or scholia private, divided into seven grades and designed to serve all the youth of Geneva (the top-most class had 280 pupils that first year, and an extra teacher had to be hired at once); and a more advanced Academy or scholia publica, which was intended primarily to provide advanced training in theology.”7 Calvin and Beza taught in the seminary. Ten capable professors taught in the college. The subjects taught in the college included grammar, logic, mathematics, physics, music, and the ancient languages. The statutes governing the college were drawn up by Calvin. They prescribed the study of the famed, secular authors, Caesar, Livy, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Herodotus, Xenophon, Homer, Demosthenes, Plutarch, and Plato. At the dedication ceremonies, the Academy was dedicated “to science and religion.”8 

(to be continued)

¹ Quoted in Luther on Education, F.V.N. Painter, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1889. 

² Ibid. 

³ These curricula are found in Heroes of the Reformation: Philip Melanchthon, J. W. Richard, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, 1898. 

4 To the Councilmen of Germany 

5 Martin Luther, A Sermon on Keeping Children in School 

6 John Calvin, commentary on I Cor. 3:19 

7 E. William Monter, Calvin’s Geneva, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York * London * Sydney, 1967. 

8 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1892, p. 805.