The Concern of the Reformation for Education (1)

From the very beginning, the great Reformation of the Church in the 16th century concerned itself also with the education of the children of believers in the schools. It condemned the existing schools and their education of the children, and proposed new schools in which the education of the children would be in harmony with the truth of God’s Word, as the Reformation was proclaiming that truth anew. As was the case with almost every aspect of the Reformation, it was that mighty man of God, Martin Luther, who first called the people of God to the reformation of their children’s education. 

Luther sprinkled many of his writings with remarks on education. But he also wrote two works that were devoted specifically to the subject of the education of children in the schools. In 1524, he wrote the work entitled, “To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” (The original, German title was: “An die Radherrn aller Stedte deutsches lands: dass sie Christliche schulen auffrichten und halten sollen.”) In 19530, he wrote a longer work, ‘”A Sermon on Keeping Children in School.” As the titles indicate, the earlier work called for the establishment and maintenance of Christian Schools, while the later work admonished (very vehemently) parents to make use of the schools that did exist by sending their children. 

It is worthy of note that Luther concerned himself with Christian education so soon after the Reformation began. He wrote “To the Councilmen” in 1524, a mere seven years after the Reformation began, that is, after the posting of the 95 theses in 1517. This is evidence that Luther viewed Christian education as something vital, as something essential in the Reformation itself. But Luther wrote about the need for a reformation of the schools even earlier than 1524. Already in 1520, less that three years after he began the Reformation by publishing the 95 theses, Luther expressed some thoughts on the education of children. He both condemned the un-Christian nature of the existing schools and set forth Christian principles to govern the Christian Schools which should be established. These thoughts were included in Luther’s famous, world-shaking work of 1520, “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.” The following quotations from this “Open Letter” show the Reformation’s urgent concern with education, at this early date

The universities also need a good, thorough reformation—I must say it no matter whom it vexes—for everything which the papacy has instituted and ordered is directed only towards the increasing of sin and error. What else are the universities, if their present condition remains unchanged, than as the book of Maccabees says, ‘Places for training youth in Greek glory,’ in which loose living prevails, tile Holy Scriptures and the Christian faith are little taught, and the blind, heathen master Aristotle rules alone, even more than Christ?” 

“In truth, much depends upon it (that is, the reformation of the schools—DE); for it is here that the Christian youth and the best of our people, with whom the future of Christendom lies, are to be educated and trained. Therefore I consider that there is no work more worthy of pope or emperor than a thorough reformation of the universities, and there is nothing worse or more worthy of the devil than unreformed universities.”

“But where the Holy Scriptures do not rule, there I advise no one to send his son. Everyone not unceasingly busy with the Word of God must become corrupt; that is why the people who are in the universities and who are trained there are the kind of people they are . . . I greatly fear that the universities are wide gates of hell, if they do not diligently teach the Holy Scriptures and impress them on the youth.

The fundamental reason why Luther and the other Reformers, including Luther’s colleague, Philip Melanchthon, and John Calvin, so earnestly struggled for education that was Christian was their understanding that the children of believers belonged to God’s Church and covenant. As members of God’s Church, which membership was signified in their infant baptism, these children had to have an upbringing that was Christian. At the same time Luther realized keenly that an education which was un-Christian was one of the Devil’s most effective weapons for attack upon the covenant children. That Luther viewed God’s covenant with believers and their children as the basis of the Christian School is evident in his work of 1524, “To the Councilmen of Germany.” Luther gives reasons (“considerations”) why the councilmen should establish Christian Schools for the children:

The third consideration is by far the most important of all, namely, the command of God, who through Moses urges and enjoins parents so often to instruct their children that

Psalm 78

says: How earnestly he commanded our fathers to teach their children and to instruct their children’s children.

Ps. 78:5-6

This is also evident in God’s fourth (fifth—DE) commandment, in which the injunction that children shall obey their parents is so stern that he would even have rebellious children sentenced to death.

Deut. 21:18-21

Indeed, for what purpose do we older folks exist, other than to care for, instruct, and bring up the young? It is utterly impossible for these foolish young people to instruct and protect themselves. This is why God has entrusted them to us who are older and know from experience what is best for them. And God will hold us strictly accountable for them. This is also why Moses commands in

Deuteronomy 32

(:7), “Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders, and they will show you.”

The Christian School arises from the duty of believing parents to instruct their children, that is, from the covenant calling of believing parents. Although there are other “considerations” for having Christian Schools, this one “is by far the most important of all,” according to Luther. Because God uses Christian instruction as the means of safeguarding the children from the Devil, “none among the outward sins so heavily burdens the world and merits such severe punishment as this very sin which we commit against the children by not educating them” (“To the Councilmen of Germany”). 

The Devil is the great foe of Christian Schools, Luther taught. For he knows that the Church of Christ is built up from the children of believers, who are given Christian instruction. Therefore, the Devil was responsible for the ungodly schools of the Pope before the Reformation. These schools were “the great gates of hell,” because the Devil “went to work, spread his nets, and set up such monasteries, schools, and estates that it was impossible for any lad to escape him, apart from a special miracle of God” (“To the Councilmen of Germany”). Luther was not surprised that the Devil continued to work, after the Reformation, to make some parents neglect sending their children to the. Christian Schools:

It is not surprising that the wicked devil takes a position in this matter and induces carnal and worldly hearts thus to neglect the children and young people. Who can blame him for it? He is the ruler and god of this world

John 14:30;

how can he possibly be pleased to see the gospel destroy his nests . . . in which he corrupts above all the young folks who mean so much, in fact everything, to him? How can we expect him to permit or promote the proper training of the young? He would indeed be a fool to allow and promote the establishment in his kingdom of the very thing by which that kingdom must be most speedily overthrown, which would happen if he were to lose that choice morsel—our dear young people . . . (“To the Councilmen of Germany”).

It would be a mistake to isolate this concern of the Reformation for Christian Schools. The Reformers were not interested in Christian Schools only, but in the total Christian upbringing of the precious children and youth. Christian Schools were part of this upbringing. Luther preached not only the Christian School, but also, and above all, the Christian home: Luther was correct when he said that no one from the apostles’ time did more for Godly marriage and home and Godly training in the home than he. In 1522, for example, Luther wrote “The Estate of Marriage,” in which he described the importance of the instruction of the children by the parents in the home:

But the greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labor worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve him. In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls. Now since we are all duty bound to suffer death, if need be, that we might bring a single soul to God, you can see how rich the estate of marriage is in good works. God has entrusted to its bosom souls begotten of its own body, on whom it can lavish all manner of Christian works. Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal.

From this zeal for Christian instruction in the home, zeal for the same Christian instruction in the school naturally flows.

(to be continued)