Public Square & Theology 101

How the Reformation Changed Education Forever

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“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,” writes Mark Noll in the opening of his classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind published in 1995. He goes on to lament that even with all the success evangelicals have had on a popular level they have failed “in sustaining serious intellectual life.”

This past weekend, I was at an event with thousands of people who would agree with Noll’s assessment and are working to do something about it.

They are part of the homeschooling movement, which, based on U.S. Department of Education statistics, educates around two million students or about 3.4 percent of the students in the U.S. And while the percentage of nonreligious students is on the rise, the overwhelming majority of today’s homeschool students are in Christian families who wanted their children to have a Christian education either through homeschooling or private Christian schools.

The idea of homeschooling and Christian education is not new. In fact, until the late 19th century in the U.S., homeschooling was common and most students received a Christian education. Home education had been the norm since the founding of our country.

However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states started passing compulsory school attendance laws and we witnessed the rise of secular public education championed by people like John Dewey. Some have named Dewey’s progressive, anti-Christian influence on public education as one of the contributing factors that moved Western culture from a once Christian culture to our current “post-Christian” culture.

Christian Education Roots in the Reformation

The idea of the importance of Christian education was firmly established by leaders of the Protestant Reformation such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. The book John Calvin, Theologian, Preacher, Educator, Statesman, explains that Luther and Calvin both disagreed with the medieval church’s view that “ignorance is the mother of piety,” teaching every believer needed to be able to read and study the scriptures for themselves.

The reformers’ interest in education did not stop at literacy. They were interested very broadly in the “what” as well as the “how” of education.

I’ve summarized the great research by David Murray and R.B. Peery on this topic in the following list—here are five educational reforms initiated by the reformers that significantly changed the face of education and still impact our educational system today:

1. Universal Education

Before the Reformation, education was the privilege of only wealthy aristocrats and priests, but the reformers argued that it should be made available to all. Their schools were the first to educate girls and saw the importance of developing the potential of every child for the glory of God. The later reformers like John Calvin “opened the way for people to raise themselves by education and by the diligent use of their knowledge and abilities” writes Joel Beeke in his book Calvin for Today. Finding their full potential through education and applying it to their work enabled the rise of what would be called the Protestant work ethic, which would positively shape Western Civilization for centuries.

2. The Church and Parents Are Responsible for Education

The reformers believed that the primary responsibility of educating children fell upon the church and parents (with possible infrastructure support from the state). Luther personally started numerous schools in existing churches. Congregations were expected to provide the necessary funding and oversight. Parents were also expected to play an important role, not only making sure their children attended class but also reinforcing instruction at home. Church leaders would shepherd the instruction process and assess a student’s progress by meeting with students and parents during the school year.

3. The Goal of a Child’s Education Is Both Theological and Applied and Includes Study of Nature and the Natural World

The reformers’ doctrine of God’s providence and sovereignty over all creation impacted how they approached the study of all topics, not just religion. As Jacob Hoogstra writes in his book, John Calvin: Contemporary Prophet,

…there is not a single fact in the universe that is not a God-centered fact…all facts derive their significance and meaning from the mind of God.

And the following excerpt from Mark Thompson’s book, Engaging with Calvin, shows the importance the reformers placed on studying the natural world:

According to Calvin, science was a gift of God, created for the benefit of mankind. The real source of natural knowledge was the Holy Spirit. Whoever dealt with it acknowledged God, obeyed the call of God and focused on God’s creation. Thus, biology was also theology.

The reformers believed that their movement would grow through a study of the arts and sciences seen through the lens of scripture.

4. Good Education Requires Gifted Christian Teachers

The Reformers saw the job of the teacher as extremely important. They viewed teachers as “officers and servants of the church” and required that they not only be trained in the subjects they would teach but also obtain a degree in theology and “be of mature and good character”. They also argued that teachers’ pay should be generous enough to allow for poor children in their classroom who could not afford to pay for their schooling.

5. Education Should Prepare Students to be Good Citizens of the Church and of the State

John Calvin started the Genevan Academy, which would become the model for colleges and universities for hundreds of years. The Academy was a university that offered higher learning in a number of subjects, including theology, training pastors and those preparing for other vocations. The school also saw their job as raising up those who would be prepared to serve in the church and in government.

Beeke, among other historians, tells us that wherever the followers of the Reformation went, they founded churches, schools, and colleges. Many of our early colleges like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton were originally based on the model of the Genevan Academy.

Clearly, the Reformation sparked needed change in more than the church. Education was just one of its beneficiaries, but those benefits have spanned eras and continents as a result of the concerns and guidance voiced by Luther, Calvin, and other reformers.

(If you can read this, thank the Reformers!)

Editor’s Note: Check out IFWE’s high school homeschool curriculum on economics (Biblical Foundations for the Economic Way of Thinking) and on calling (Understanding God’s Calling) in the IFWE bookstore

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