The Concern of the Reformation for Christian Education (9)

Whether believers realize the importance of Christian schools or not, the Devil and the antichristian world are well aware of it. An event in the early history of the post-apostolic Church illustrates this. In the early years of the 4th century, Emperor Constantine the Great made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, thus delivering the Christian Church from the severe persecution which she had been suffering. But in A.D. 361, Constantine’s nephew, Julian, became sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Julian renounced the Christianity which he once professed and manifested himself as a bitter, implacable enemy of Christianity. He determined to eradicate Christianity from the Empire and to restore the old paganism. For this reason he is known as Julian the Apostate. One, aspect of his all-out attack on the Christian religion was the edict that prohibited Christians from teaching in any of the schools in the Empire.¹ All teachers had to be pagans. They were encouraged, in all their classes, to inculcate the idolatry of old Rome upon the students. Julian had a two-fold purpose with this law. He intended to corrupt the Christian children that might attend his pagan schools. At the same time, knowing that the Christians would abhor such schools, he intended to drive the Christians out of the schools and, thus, deprive them of an education. This, he foresaw, would have a disastrous effect upon the Church in the future. “Julian had reason to expect that, in the space of a few years, the church would relapse into its primaeval simplicity, and that the theologians, who possessed an adequate share of the learning and eloquence of the age, would be succeeded by a generation of blind and ignorant fanatics, incapable of defending the truth of their own principles, or of exposing the various follies of Polytheism.”² In justification of his action, Julian derided the Christian faith much as the learned heathen in the universities do today, remarking that “the men who exalt the merit of implicit faith are unfit to claim or to enjoy the advantages of science and . . . if they refuse to adore the gods of Homer and Demosthenes, they ought to content themselves with expounding Luke and Matthew in the churches of the Galilaeans.”³ The almost universal reaction of the Christian parents was the withdrawal of their children from the Empire’s schools. As the historian, Gibbon, remarks: “The Christians weredirectly forbid to teach, they were indirectly forbid to learn; since they would not frequent the schools of the Pagans.”4 But they were not of a mind to permit their children to remain ignorant. They established their own schools and even wrote their own textbooks. Julian’s attack on the Church in the realm of the education of the Church’s children was abruptly ended by his death, after a reign of only eighteen months. We would be foolish to suppose that Satan’s attack in the sphere of education ended at that time also. 

An evaluation of the Reformation’s concern for Christian education must also emphasize that the Reformation viewed Christian education as grounded in the covenant. Christian schools are schools in which the children of believing parents are instructed in the fear of the Lord, because these children are included by God in the Church of Christ. For this reason, the Reformers proposed that the girls also be educated, a thing almost unheard of at that time. In this view of Christian education, the Reformers were right. A Christian school, therefore, differs radically from those educational institutions today that are set up to give instruction to a few brilliant children of wealthy parents, even though these institutions may call themselves Christian. A Christian school is no aristocratic center of learning for the intellectual elite. This smacks of the hubris of the Greeks, not of the lowliness of Christ. A Christian school exists, and is called by God, to give Christian instruction to all the children of believers, the dull as well as the bright, the future farmer, carpenter, or wife and mother as well as the youth that intends to become a doctor, minister, or teacher. Indeed, if any child is to receive special attention, it must be the slow learner. It is a fundamental law of the Kingdom of Christ that “those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need” (I Cor. 12:23, 24a). The Christian schoolteacher may not drive out, neglect, or discourage the intellectually inferior students, whether in assignments, in marking, or in the attitude shown them. He must abstain from doing this on principle: Christian education is covenanteducation. 

Because it viewed Christian education as covenantal, the Reformation had a practical, ethical goal in all its efforts on behalf of Christian education. The goal of the Reformation was not intellectually brilliant students who would astound the world with their erudition and achievements. The Reformers wanted men and women equipped by their schooling to occupy their positions in the Church and in the world as capable, faithful, obedient servants of the Lord. In harmony with this goal, they required schools which were free from licentious behavior, schools which would rear the children in the fear of the Lord also morally. The Reformation, as a spiritual movement, intuitively knew the message of the book of Proverbs, that the beginning of knowledge and wisdom is the fear of the Lord and that this true wisdom is characterized, through and through, by reverence for the Lord God and a holy walk in His ways. As far as the Reformers were concerned, any school that fostered or permitted wickedness on the part of the students could sink into the abyss, and the quicker the better, no matter how high the academic standards of that school might be. One of Luther’s basic objections to the existing schools from the beginning was his simple aversion to the moral environment of the schools. They were institutions, he wrote, “in which loose living prevails.”5 He excoriated “the scandalous and immoral life there in which many a fine young fellow was shamefully corrupted.”6. Luther had quite a different view of the Christian school from that which sees it as exclusively academic, as the institution for educating minds. He saw it as the sphere of rearing the child in the fear of the Lord—an extension of the home! Therefore, he called schoolteachers to concern themselves also with the virtue and honor of their pupils. He speaks of “honest, upright, virtuous schoolmasters and teachers offered . . . by God” who raise our children “in the fear of God, and in virtue, knowledge, learning, and honor by dint of hard work, diligence, and industry.”7 

As soon as the Christian school is no-longer controlled by this practical, ethical purpose, it ceases to be Christian. The abstracting of the education of the mind from the ethical calling upon the heart, love the Lord thy God, produces educated devils, of which we now have a world full. Ethical, or moral, training of the children in the Christian school is not something tacked on to the other instruction. Rather, it lies in the nature of the school. The school as a whole, and every subject in the school, serves the glory of God. It does this, not secretly or secondarily, but openly and primarily. By the grace of God, the effect that such education has is to lead the student to take his place in the world under God and for the sake of the glory of God in every sphere. This “moral influencing” of the child is simply inherent in the Christian school. On the other hand, the non-Christian school also has an inevitable, moral effect. That effect is not only the immorality of the hippie and the revolutionary. It is also the immorality of Machiavellian politicians; of doctors who gouge their patients for their services, mere robbers; of lawyers who unscrupulously manipulate the law and toy with justice; of common, ordinary people who live and work and play in God’s world for themselves, exactly as if it were true that man is the end of evolution, the goal of all things, and god. This is the fruit of education that leaves God out. As we now have painfully impressed on us by all that is taking place in our wretched society, this fruit is very bitter indeed, bringing misery, chaos, and destruction. 

In addition to the ethical training inherent in its nature as a God-centered, God-glorifying institution, the Christian school will also engage in moral training of a more deliberate, overt kind. The Christian school will exercise discipline. It will insist upon obedience and purity of life on the part of the students while they are at school. The standard to which the students are required to conform will be God’s law as revealed in the Bible. The school will rebuke and chastise the students for sin, so that the students will not walk in sin in the school. The Christian school will concern itself, not only with pupil’s academic advancement, but also with his attitudes, his diligence, and his behavior. The Christian school will be alert to give good, spiritual counsel to the students who show fears or weaknesses.8 All of this belongs to the task of the Christian schoolteacher. This implies, first, that parents and school boards must be interested in the spiritual, as well as academic, credentials of the Christian schoolteacher. It implies, secondly, that the labor of the Christian schoolteacher is demanding. It implies, thirdly, that the calling of teaching in the Christian school is of great worth in the Kingdom of heaven. Let Luther say it:

I will simply say briefly that a diligent and upright schoolmaster or teacher, or anyone who faithfully trains and teaches boys, can never be adequately rewarded or repaid with any amount of money, as even the heathen Aristotle says. Nevertheless, this work is as shamefully despised among us as if it amounted to nothing at all. And still we call ourselves Christians! If I could leave the preaching office and my other duties, or had to do so, there is no other office I would rather have than that of schoolmaster or teacher of boys; for I know that next to that of preaching, this is the best, greatest, and most useful office there is. Indeed, I scarcely know which of the two is the better. For it is hard to make old dogs obedient and old rascals pious; yet that is the work at which the preacher must labor, and often in vain. Young saplings are most easily bent and trained, even though some may break in the process. It surely has to be one of the supreme virtues on earth faithfully to train other people’s children; for there are very few people, in fact almost none, who will do this for their own.9

(to be concluded)

¹ The account of this event is found in Edward Gibbon’s classic work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Modern Library, New York, Vol. I, Chapter XXIII. 

² Ibid., p. 784 

³ Ibid., p. 783 

4 Ibid., p. 783 

5 An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520) 

6 Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, The Christian in Society II, “To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools” (1524), Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia, 1962, p. 252 

7 Luther’s Works, Vol. 46, The Christian in Society III, “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School” (1530), Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1967, p. 218 

8 On the calling and competency of the Christian schoolteacher to counsel his students, see chapter XI of Jay E. Adams’ excellent book, competent to Counsel, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970 

9 Luther’s Works, Vol. 46, op. cit., pp. 252, 253