This article looks at the reformers' views of education. The author first discusses the views of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Huldreich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox in general, and then the basic principles that they all had with regards to education.

Source: The Outlook, 1982. 9 pages.

Reforming Education Today in the Light of the Reformation

Although all aspects of society were affected by the Reformation, it probably is no overstatement to say that the greatest impact of the Reformation was upon education. The primary leaders of the Refor­mation, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Philip Me­lanchthon (1497-1560) in Germany, Huldreich Zwing­li (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-1564) in Switzer­land, and John Knox (1505-1573) in Scotland, were all instrumental in bringing about educational reform. These reforms were characterized by principles which still have relevance and value for all who want to stand in their tradition today.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)🔗

Of the Reformers, Luther wrote more on educa­tion than the others. His interest in education stemmed from the discovery of justification by faith alone. The church could not secure salvation of souls, but salvation was only through faith in God's Word. From the doctrine of justification by faith alone, grew two other Reformation principles: the Bible as sole and ultimate authority in matters of faith, and the universal priesthood of believers.

No longer was education to be primarily for and by the clergy, as the Roman church practiced. Instead of blind obedience to the church, the individ­ual was personally responsible to God. This em­phasis made it imperative that everyone learn to read the Bible for him or herself.

According to Luther, the primary responsibility for education was with the parents, to whom God had given spiritual and secular authority over their children. "God gave you children so you would educate them to the best of their ability."1he stated. But parents alone could not perform this task ade­quately and clergymen were too busy with other matters. Luther therefore placed the responsibility for establishing and maintaining schools on the government — the princes and councils. Thus Luther was "the first educator in modern times to make the state aware of its great obligations to society."2

Luther saw the need for universal, compulsory education. Not only because children should come to faith by reading the Bible, but also because church and state required trained personnel. In response to the radical wing of the Reformation, which stressed the importance of inner revelation and minimized education, Luther said that education was necessary to preserve civilization. Children must be educated to become pastors, theologians, lawyers, business­men, and rulers.

The school must supply the church with persons who can be made apostles, evangelists, and prophets; that is preachers, pastors, and rulers, in addition to other people needed throughout the world, such as chancellors, councillors, sec­retaries, and the like men who can also lend a hand with the temporal government.3

Both boys and girls must be trained. "...To main­tain its temporal estate, the world must have good skilled men and women ... Therefore the thing to do is to teach and train our boys and girls in the proper manner."4

Luther advocated a broad curriculum. In addition to the narrow curriculum of the late medieval school which concentrated on reading, writing, and religious study, he urged the teaching of the Bible, languages, grammar, rhetoric, logic, literature, poetry, history, music, mathematics, nature studies, and even gym­nastics. Luther had a high appreciation for all branches of knowledge.

The fine liberal arts, invented and brought to light by learned and outstanding people — even though those people were heathen — are serv­iceable and useful to people for this life. Moreover, they are creations and noble, pre­cious gifts of the Man (who is Lord over every­thing). He has used them and still uses them ac­cording to His good pleasure, for the praise, honor, and glory of His holy name.5

Luther stressed the study of languages, especially Greek and Latin, because it is the means whereby the Gospel is spread. "Although the Gospel has come and daily comes through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it has come by means of the languages, by which it was also spread abroad and by which it must be preserved."6

The purity of the Gospel is also maintained through the knowledge of languages. "How often does not St. Augustine err in the Psalter and in other expositions! Likewise St. Hilary, and indeed all of them who attempted to ex­pound Scripture without (knowing) the languages." 7

History also was a subject Luther wished to have in the curriculum. He considered world history the story of divine providence and a practical guide for life for aiding the understanding of events of this world.8

Yet, the Word of God must have supremacy in the curriculum. "Above all things, the principal and most general subject of study, both in the higher and the lower schools, should be the Holy Scriptures."9The liberal arts,

cannot give salvation ... They can never thoroughly tell us what sin and righteousness are in the eyes of God, how we can get rid of sin, become pious and just before God, and pass from death to life. Wisdom divine and art supreme are required for this; and one does not find them in the books of any jurist or worldly-wise person, but in the Bible alone, which is the Holy Spirit's Book." 10

Luther felt very strongly on this and stated that where the Holy Scripture does not rule I certainly advise no one to send his child. Everyone not unceasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt ... I greatly fear that schools for higher learning are wide gates to hell if they do not diligently teach the Holy Scriptures and impress them on the young folk.11

Luther paid a lot of attention to methodology. He had a good understanding of the psychology of chil­dren and warned against excessive strictness and severity, and also against being overly permissive. He advocated a study-work plan, incorporating classroom instruction with on-the-job training. Luther wrote several catechisms, instructing in the elementary principles of the faith, which show his high regard for correct doctrine, but also his con­cern for the personal needs of the child. He also wrote hymns especially for children.12

Luther elevated teaching to a high calling — a divine service. Teaching "is the most useful, the greatest, and the best, next to the work of preach­ing," 13he wrote.

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560)🔗

Melanchthon put Luther's principles of education into practice and thus became known as the "Teacher of Germany." Like Luther he encouraged the state to support schools. He helped plan and im­plement school plans for universities, advising town councils and princes.

Like Luther, Melanchthon supported a broad cur­riculum, including the liberal arts. Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Aesop's fables were recom­mended for study. Not for their own sake, but for the service of the Gospel and education, he said. He warned that the liberal arts are to be maintained by God for the sake of the church, and not vice versa. 14Like Luther, he held a high view of teaching languages. "Because theology is partly Hebrew, partly Greek (for we drink of their streams in Latin), the foreign languages are taught, not as dumb exter­nal things, when we guide theologians."15Clergy should study logic to help them formulate and teach correct doctrine. Melanchthon pioneered in writing a philosophical treatise of ethics.

Like Luther he stressed that all education must harmonize with the pure teaching of the church. In the reorganization of the University of Wittenberg he required all theological professors to teach in ac­cordance with and to defend the three ecumenical creeds (the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athana­sian) and the Augsburg Confession (1530).16The educational task of the church is to be governed by the Scriptures. We need the "Word of God revealed by prophets and apostles," he said. "For without the Word the human heart is full of blindness and falls miserably into the devil's snare and error and sin."17

Like Luther, Melanchthon was also concerned with methods. He seems to have been more occupied with a logical and systematic order, tending towards intellectualism and moralizing. For that reason his seven catechetical works for teaching children were not as well accepted as Luther's.18

Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531)🔗

Although his life was short, the German-Swiss Re­former made some significant contributions to edu­cation. His own education was thoroughly humanis­tic* and influenced by Erasmus. This may explain his split with the radicals of the Reformation. Unlike the Anabaptists, who shunned society and secular government, Zwingli believed that God works within the socio-political realm.19

Characteristic of the reformation which took place in Zurich was that it primarily took place through the education of the common people. In order to achieve unanimity of faith, the Zurich Council authorized Zwingli to write a catechism in 1524. The Short Christian Instructor, was both a catechism and confession of faith, to be used by pastors for their own instruction and that of their parishion­ers. The Reformer wanted to educate the church leaders who in turn were to educate the masses. To this end Zwingli set up a theological institute called "Prophezei", meaning to prophesy.

Zwingli's educational efforts were mainly directed toward adults and older youth. He divided education into three parts, corresponding to basic human rela­tionships. Most basic was the student's relationship to God. Education has its limitations, Zwingli knew. "It is only where the Spirit of God works that one can be brought to God."20This knowledge is not to make man idle, but he must learn about himself and about Christ's grace. Those who learn to know Christ by grace, must study "what services will be most pleasing to God." 21The second part of educa­tion consists of the student's relationship to knowl­edge. He must study the Scriptures and know Latin, Hebrew and Greek. He must be diligent in master­ing all branches of knowledge, including physical ex­ercises. The third part of the student's education consists of his relationship to others. He must study to be strong; only the weak retreat from the world.22The goal of education, according to Zwingli, is to teach a person to live as a Christian in obedience to Christ.23

John Calvin (1509-1564)🔗

Like Luther before him, Calvin was educated in one of the schools of Geert Groote. Educated in the humanities, Calvin studied law, the classics, and He­brew. Unlike Luther and the other Reformers, Cal­vin never wrote treatises on education and his views must be gleaned from his writings. Yet, of them all, Calvin's system of education spread through all the lands in which the principles of the Reformers found adherents, including the United States through the Puritans from England.

Like the other Reformers, Calvin wrote cate­chisms for instructing children in the principles of the Christian faith.

The Catechism of the Church of Geneva, published in 1545, explains that 'it has always been a practice and diligent care of the Church, that children be rightly brought up in Christian doctrine. To do this more conveniently, not only were schools formerly opened and individuals en­joined to teach their families properly, ... but also it was accepted public custom and practice to examine children in Churches concerning the specific points which should be common and familiar to all Chris­tians.' 24

The church had a responsibility in the prop­er inculcation of Christian truths, according to Cal­vin. This view is also expounded in Calvin's In­stitutes of the Christian Religion, completed in 1536. This theological work has influenced Reformed thinking until the present time and also shaped views on education.

When Calvin began his ministry in Geneva, he was faced with a citizenry, largely ignorant of the basic rudiments of the Christian faith. There was a dearth of ministers versed in the truths of the Gospel. The means Calvin used to reform the city were preach­ing and teaching. The first school, established in 1536, was compulsory for all children, the poor pay­ing no fees. In addition to reading, writing, arith­metic, grammar and religion, Calvin and his assist­ant, Farel, lectured daily on the Old and New Testa­ment. The education was supplemented by three weekly church services. 25

In 1557 Calvin established the Genevan Academy which became world-famous. The academy was divided into a Schola privata, for children to about sixteen years of age, and a Schola publica, the university. The latter offered only the arts and the­ology at first, and later included law and medicine. In the Schola privata, classes were graded and instruction was systematic and structured. The curriculum in the Schola publica was less struc­tured. Calvin alternated with Beza in giving Biblical expositions as part of the course requirements. 26

The academy was controlled by the church and each teacher was under ecclesiastical discipline and had to subscribe to the Confessions of Faith. The teachers were appointed by the ministers and the teachers had to supervise the students' beliefs and lives.

Like the other Reformers, Calvin held a high view of the humanities. They are among "God's natural gifts." 27

Whenever we come upon these matters in sec­ular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts.28

The liberal arts teach us God's wisdom. Those arts ... that have nothing of supersti­tion, but contain solid learning are founded on just principles, ... no doubt ... have come forth from the Holy Spirit; and the advantage which is derived and experienced from them, ought to be ascribed exclusively to God. 29

Therefore, since the Lord has willed that we be helped in phys­ics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like dis­ciplines, by the work and ministry of the un­godly, let us use this assistance.

But we should remember that all this capacity to understand, with the under­standing that follows upon it, is an unstable and transitory thing in God's sight, when a solid foundation of truth does not underlie it ... Since the free gifts were withdrawn from man after the Fall, so the natural ones remaining were corrupted.30

Calvin believed that all branches of knowledge are useful for man to study, but true knowledge of God cannot be found in nature, the liberal arts, or science, but only in the Scriptures.

Although Calvin wrote very little about children, there can be no doubt about his interest in them. In the "Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances" of 1541, Calvin shows his concern for children and frequently men­tions their need for instruction. The responsibility for bringing them to church to have them catechized rests with the fathers and there is a penalty of a fine if they are negligent. 31Young men need to be prepared for a place in life through proper educa­tion. "It is necessary to raise offspring for time to come, in order not to leave the Church deserted to our children, a college should be instituted for in­structing children to prepare them for the ministry as well as for civil government."32

Education was to be reinforced by both church and state. Calvin ordered the elders,

to discover experimentally whether the be­liever follows conscientiously ... the commandments of the Church, whether he attends preaching frequently, not merely on Sundays, whether he receives the sacraments regularly and reverently, teaches his children constantly as a Christian should do and sends them to school.33

John Knox (1505-1572)🔗

The Scottish Reformer spent four years under Calvin's instruction in Geneva. Here he became well-grounded in the principles of the Genevan Reforma­tion. Upon return to Scotland in 1559 Knox put the principles he learned into practice.

Like Calvin, Knox believed all truth came from God, Who reveals Himself through His Word. The aims of education, as Knox saw them, were to enable the people to read and discover God's Word, train youth in virtue and godliness, and prepare them for a useful vocation in the church or state. The goal should be to glorify God.

Education is first of all the responsibility of the parents, but Knox helped parents in their task. His most important contribution to education was a scheme for national education which provided for the poor and searched out the talented. Through the Scottish-Presbyterians his influence was felt in Eng­land and especially in America.

The system of education consisted of a graduated system of elementary schools, secondary schools (colleges) and universities. The elementary schools were established and conducted by the church which appointed schoolmasters and paid them. At­tendance was compulsory for boys and girls both, rich and poor, for at least four years.

The Bible was the main subject on all levels. Ad­ditional subjects were grammar, Latin, and the Catechism. At the college level, Latin, Greek, logic, rhetoric and the arts were taught. Dialectics, mathe­matics and physics were taught later. As the stu­dent passed he could enter other colleges and study philosophy, law, Greek, Hebrew, and divinity.

The parents' commitment to educating their chil­dren begins at baptism. Daily devotions are to be held and children are to be instructed in the Bible and memorize portions of Scripture. They are to be taught the church's doctrines, the Ten Command­ments and the Psalms.

The Book of Discipline, authored by Knox and five others, prescribed the organization of the schools. Great emphasis was placed on the qualifications of the staff, especially in regard to their religious and moral character.

Basic Principles🔗

Although there were some variances in emphases, there are basic principles of agreement in the Re­formers' views of education.

1. A High Regard for Education as a Means in Promoting Scriptural Christianity🔗

All the Reformers, without exception, placed a high premium on education as a vehicle to promote the faith of Scripture. In a time of social and political turmoil and prevailing ignorance of Biblical truths, they not only preached the doctrines of the Bible, but also pointed church and state to their educa­tional task.

The Reformation period was unique in time and we can hardly equate it with todays' situation, when church and state seem to have little in common. We do, like the Reformation period, live in a time of social and political unrest and instability. The phil­osophical and political ideas of Marxism/Communism are influencing many people; there is a revival of in­terest in Islam and Eastern religions; and there is no longer room for the Bible in the schools.

For the church to have an influence in the refor­mation of today's world, it ought to pay more attention to education, not only of those who are already related to the church, but especially of those who have little or no church connection. The church ought also to study the relationship between church and state in providing funds for religious instruction in public schools as well as in the financing of Christian schools. A state which provides free, compulsory education, and which has many citizens which claim Christianity as their religion, ought to receive some input from Christians and provide some benefits for its Christian citizens.

2. The Authority of Scripture in the Curriculum and the Educational Process🔗

At the core of the curriculum of the schools of the Reformation was the Bible. It was God's Book which expounded the way of salvation, but also shed light on the other areas of life. It was the supreme author­ity in whose light all other subjects were to be eval­uated. The views of the Reformers were in direct contrast with those of Erasmus. He, like the Reform­ers, placed a high value on the humanities. Yet, unlike the Reformers, who subordinated the human­ities to the authority of Scripture, Erasmus sought to reconcile faith and reason. He wanted to har­monize culture and Christianity. A union between these, Erasmus believed, "would resolve the conflict between reason and faith, work and grace, revela­tion and inquiry, self-assertion and authority."34The Reformers appreciated the humanities only to the extent that they were not in conflict with Scripture. They were insistent on this point, and especially Luther made some strong assertions in regard to schools which corrupt the Word of God and an edu­cation which places reason above faith. Calvin's views were similar to Luther's. Like Luther who held that the will is in bondage, 35

Calvin pointed to the blindness of the understanding without the re­generating work of the Holy Spirit. "We acknowl­edge man by nature to be blind, darkened in under­standing, and full of corruption and perversity of heart, so that of himself he has no power to be able to comprehend the true knowledge of God as is prop­er ... Hence he has need to be illuminated by God." 36

This principle is very important for us today when science dictates to man in all areas of life, also in the educational field. Not man and his rational thinking is the authority, but, as Calvin says, "the testimony of the Spirit (in Scripture) is more excellent than all reason. For God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word..."37

3. Education is for Life🔗

Not only is knowledge necessary for salvation, but education is to train for life. All areas of life, the home, the church, the market-place, and govern­ment, are in need of Christians who are trained to serve. A good education makes good citizens, the Reformers believed. A good Christian education is necessary for all of life, but especially for teachers of the Word — pastors and all who give leadership in the church, the Reformers stressed.

Today we still need this emphasis. A good educa­tion is necessary for good government and good citi­zenship, but it is of utmost importance for those who are to give spiritual leadership in the church.

4. The Home and Family are Primary in Education🔗

The father was held responsible for the education of the children. In the home lay the primary respon­sibility to train a child in the "way he should go." But the Reformers also recognized the communal responsibilities of the church and state in aiding parents in their task. Calvin and Knox stressed the responsibility of religious education in the home as well as in the school. The Reformed view of the cove­nant, whereby infants are incorporated into the church by baptism, makes it incumbent upon parents to bring their children up in the Christian faith

We need to stress the task which parents have in the home today. Many families are breaking up and the teachings of Scripture bearing on the home and its task need to be emphasized. The church has a task here too and must aid the Christian parents in carrying out their duties.

5. Methodology and the Psychology of the Child are Important🔗

Because of the nature of their work as Reformers, calling the church back to the Scriptures was the main task of the Reformers, and therefore the em­phasis seems to have been more on content and right doctrine than methodology. Yet in various degrees the Reformers paid attention to the developmental process of the child and the child's psychological needs. Foremost in recognizing these needs was Luther. But also the other Reformers were aware of the peculiar needs which children have. The curricu­lum they proposed sought to do justice to fulfilling all the needs, intellectual and physical. The curricu­lum was well-rounded and included art, music, and physical exercises. Calvin believed that "sculpture and painting are gifts of God," even though he re­jected images in the church. 38

It remained to later educators such as John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), to develop pedagogy as a science. Living after Copernicus and Francis Bacon, he combined the two perspectives — looking to God, and looking to man — in his educational theories.

Ever since, the pendulum has swung towards man and nature being the sources of all knowledge. Those who are involved in the educational process should be aware of this and judge methodology and psy­chology and learning theories in the light of God's revelation in Scripture.

6. Freedom of Inquiry is not a License to Prac­tice Heresy🔗

All areas of knowledge were open for inquiry and study, according to the Reformers. Yet, this did not mean students were free to practice or propagate any view they wanted. To guard against heresy and license, the church exercised strict control over the schools through its teachers. They, like the ecclesi­astical leaders, were required to register their ad­herence to articles of faith, summarized in the Con­fessions of the church.

This practice still continues in Reformed churches, especially regarding office-bearers in the church. Schools and other institutions often have as their basis, the Scriptures as expounded in the Three Forms of Unity (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt) and the Westminster Confession. 39I believe such a practice is good and wise. It preserves the purity of doctrine and gives unity to the educational process. Without such control a church or an institution could even­tually drift from its Scriptural basis and be open for all kinds of heresies.

The Reformers obviously thought true doctrine was important, for the Reformation period was a great creed-making period. Because all kinds of heresies prevailed in the church, they found it neces­sary to summarize the teachings of Scripture and teach them to the people.

7. A High Regard for Teachers🔗

The Reformers' view of the teacher was that of a calling next to a minister of the Word. They saw the teacher as the greatest influence on the student-learning process.

They were right in this and it is a principle teach­ers do well to remember. Educational theories today hold that the greatest influence, greater than any methodology, is the teacher.


We who wish to stand on the foundations laid by the Reformers do well to study their educational views. Although there are slight nuances in em­phases, their unanimity on basic principles is overwhelming. They all viewed education as the primary means for promoting the true religion; held to the supreme authority of Scripture in the educational process; viewed education as a preparation for all of life; they saw the home and family as the foundation of church and society; they saw the importance of methodology and the psychology of the child; they believed freedom of inquiry is not a license to prac­tice heresy; and they had a high regard for the teacher.


  1. ^ Quoted by Harold J. Grimm, A History of Religious Educators, Elmer L. Towns Ed., (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1975), p. 107. 
  2. ^ Harold J. Grimm, Ibid., p. 108.
  3. ^ Quoted by R. Hanko, Perspectives in Covenant Education, Fall 1979, No. 1, Vol. 5, "Luther's View on Education," p. 47.
  4. ^ Harold J. Grimm, Ibid., p. 110.
  5. ^  Ewald M. Plass, Compiler, What Luther Says, (Saint Louis, Mis­souri: Concordia Publishing House), p. 450.
  6. ^ Harold J. Grimm, Ibid., p. 113.
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 114.
  8. ^  Ibid.
  9. ^ Ewald M. Plass, Ibid., p. 449.
  10. ^ Ibid.
  11. ^ Ibid.
  12. ^  Ibid., p. 155-57.
  13. ^ Harold J. Grimm, Ibid., p. 118.
  14. ^ Carl S. Meyer, A History of Religious Educators, p. 154.
  15. ^  Ibid., p. 146.
  16. ^ Ibid., pp. 153 
  17. ^ Ibid., p. 151.
  18. ^ Ibid., p. 157.
  19. ^ H. Wayne Pipkin, A History of Religious Educators, pp. 124-5.
  20. ^ H. Wayne Pipkin, Ibid., p. 127.
  21. ^ Ibid., p. 128. 
  22. ^ Ibid., p. 130.
  23. ^ Ibid., p. 131.
  24. ^ Calvin: Theological Treatises, The Rev. J.K.S. Reid, Transl., (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), p. 88.
  25. ^ Elmer L. Towns, A History of Religious Educators, pp. 168-9.
  26. ^ It is primarily from these lectures that Calvin's Commentaries have come.
  27. ^ Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960, Vol. I, Book II, II, 14, p. 273.
  28. ^  Ibid., II, II, 15, p. 273.
  29. ^ Elmer L. Towns, Ibid., p. 172.
  30. ^ Calvin: Institutes, II, II, 16, p. 275.
  31. ^ Calvin: Theological Treatises, p. 78; cf. pp. 62, 63, 69 
  32. ^ Ibid., p. 63.
  33. ^  Elmer L. Towns, Ibid., p. 174.
  34. ^ Robert Ulrich, A History of Religious Educators, p. 95.
  35. ^ Robert Ulrich, A History of Religious Educators, p. 95.
  36. ^ Calvin: Theological Treatises, p. 27.
  37. ^ Calvin's Institutes, I, VII, .4, p. 79.
  38. ^ Calvin's Institutes, I, XI, 12, p. 112.
  39. ^ Reformed Bible College has these in its constitution and its teachers and students must be in agreement of these Confessions. 


  • Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion . 2 Vols. John T. McNeill, Ed. Philadelphia: The Westmin­ster Press, 1960.
  • Calvin: Theological Treatises. J.K.S. Reid, Ed. Phila­delphia: The Westminster Press, 1954.
  • De Jong, Peter Y. "Calvin's Contributions to Chris­tian Education." Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, Nov. 1967.
  • Hanko, R. "Luther's View on Education." Perspec­tives in Covenant Education, Fall 1979, No. 1, Vol 5, pp. 20-69.
  • Plass, Ewald M., Compiler. What Luther Says. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1959.
  • Smith, Samuel. Ideas of the Great Educators. New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London: Barnes & Noble Books, A Division of Harper & Row, Pub­lishers, 1979.
  • Towns, Elmer L. Ed. A History of Religious Edu­cators. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1975.

*The principles and culture of Renaissance scholars who studied the literature, ideas, etc. of ancient Rome and Greece.

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