Reformation & Education

By Linus Chua, Ministerial Student & Licentiate, PCC

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century revolved around two fundamental doctrines, namely, justification by faith alone and the absolute authority and sufficiency of scripture. The former is often called the material cause while the latter is called the formal cause of the Reformation. Both these doctrines are vital to the health and existence of the Church, and it is important that we be reminded of them regularly. If you’re looking for some material to help you, I would recommend the two books which Soli Deo Gloria Publications put together in 1995 – “Justification by Faith Alone” and “Sola Scriptura”.

But while we remember the central issues which caused the Reformation, we should also not forget that the Reformation had a great impact and influence on many areas of life such as family, government, economics, culture and science. In this article, I’ll like to briefly discuss the Reformation in connection with education and highlight some lessons that we may apply to ourselves.

Reformation promoted Education

History shows that there was an intimate relationship between the Reformation and education. Wherever the Reformation went, it carried the school with it and gave a strong impulse to the education of the masses. Lorraine Boettner wrote, “Wherever Calvinism has gone, there knowledge and learning have been encouraged and there a sturdy race of thinkers has been trained. Calvinists have not been the builders of great cathedrals, but they have been the builders of schools, colleges, and universities.”

The Reformers and those who followed after them recognized that true saving faith involved sound knowledge (Heb 11), that sanctification was through the truth of God’s word (Jn 17:17) and that Christians are called to love God with all their minds (Mt 22:37, Dt 6:1-9, Rom 12:1-2).

In contrast, Rome gave little emphasis to the education of the masses. Only the clergy were allowed to read the Scripture. All others were forbidden. Rome claimed that it was the sole right and responsibility of the teaching office of the Church to read, interpret and declare the meaning of Scriptures, and they cruelly persecuted those who translated the Bible into the common languages for the people to read. Thus, Rome discouraged learning and intelligent faith among the lay people. For them, one could be pious and spiritual without knowledge. All that was required from its members was implicit faith in the Church. The sacraments, according to Rome, operated ex opera operato (by the very fact of the action being performed) and did not require any understanding on the part of the recipient. They were thus viewed as far more important than Scriptures and sermons.

The Reformers opposed Rome on this and were staunch advocates of education for all. Luther proposed universal education for children of both sexes. For him, the purpose of education was to develop Christian character in children so that they would better serve God, church, state, and society. Luther influenced Christian education by translating the Bible into German, preparing a small Catechism for the general public, and calling attention to the educational needs of common people.

Calvin too gave emphasis to education. In Geneva, the very young were taught the catechism and provided with lessons in the church. The older children were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, Latin and Greek classics, together with logic and rhetoric. Calvin crowned his work in Geneva with the establishment of the Academy or university. Thousands of pupils from other parts of Europe and the British Isles sat at the feet of Calvin and carried his doctrines with them into every corner of Christendom. John Knox returned to Scotland fully convinced that the education of the masses was vital to the cause of Protestantism in his land.

Many of us would remember William Tyndale’s famous words to a visiting Clergy man, “If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” Tyndale was convinced that most of the clergy in his day knew very little of the Bible and so he resolved to give the nation a Bible that even a ploughboy could understand. In 1537, one year after he was martyred for his faith and labours, the king of England ordered that Tyndale’s Bible be placed in every parish church in the realm and made available to every man, woman, and child in the kingdom. It is estimated that 90% of Tyndale’s Bible passed into the Authorized Version which we continue to use today. Professor Herman Hanko wrote of Tyndale, “When we read the beloved words of our King James Version, we ought never to forget that these words were written with the ink of martyr’s blood.”

The Puritans, who were heirs of the Reformation, continued to give emphasis to education and learning. For them, the Bible was central to every area of life including education. Harvard University, founded by the Puritans in 1636 and named after a Puritan minister John Harvard, is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. It had as its purpose the following: “Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore lay Christ at the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”

Yale University, another Puritan institution, was founded in 1701, and demanded the same rigorous education as Harvard with the Bible as the unshakable foundation: “All scholars shall live religious, godly, and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, the fountain of light and truth; and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret.”

Three Lessons

Firstly, we learn that Christians are not to be inactive or disinterested in or disengaged from this world. The Reformers saw the need for educating the masses, and they took active steps and did what they could to promote it. It is not enough just to recognize a particular need or to be convinced that certain things need to be done or corrected, and then fail to do anything about it. Instead, we need to take active steps to bring our Christian convictions about life to bear on the issues that confront us.

Carl Henry, writing in 1947 when Evangelicalism had largely withdrawn itself from the American society, said, “If historic Christianity is again to compete as a vital world ideology, evangelicalism must project a solution for the most pressing world problems. It must offer a formula for a new world mind with spiritual ends, involving evangelical affirmations in political, economic, sociological, and educational realms…The redemptive message has implications for all of life…The Christian life must be lived out, among the regenerate, in every area of activity, until even the unregenerate are moved by Christian standards, acknowledging their force…”

Secondly, we learn that the Bible must be central to everything that we are engaged in. Martin Luther wrote, “Scripture…alone is the fount of all wisdom… Scripture alone must remain the judge and the master of all books…Whoever does not consult Scripture will know nothing whatever…Nothing except the divine words are to be the first principles for Christians; all human words are conclusions drawn from them and must be brought back to them and approved by them.”

The Reformers and the Puritans sought to apply the Bible to their vocation, marriage, family, economics, education, politics, social ethics, social action, as well as personal piety, devotion, worship, and theological study. Leland Ryken wrote of the Puritans that, “Puritanism was a movement in which the Bible was central to everything.”

Gary DeMar describes the Puritan Cotton Mather (1663-1728) as an example of a Christian who worked to apply the Bible beyond the narrow confines of Christian piety. “In fact, Mather saw the development of scientific discovery as an outgrowth of his biblical studies… He was widely regarded as the most brilliant man in New England.” As a scientist as well as a pastor, Mather “did not share the medieval belief that this world does not matter. For Mather and others like him, a worldview that had the Bible at its centre was the only way a person could make sense of the world.” We should aim to make the Bible the foundation and starting point for our lives, and we should train our children from young to have a biblical view of everything in this world.

Thirdly, we learn that there is no such thing as neutrality, particularly in the area of education and learning. The early students at Harvard were exhorted to place Christ as the foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. We too must do the same. We must not be ashamed of our Christian distinctives even in the area of scholarship and schooling. Greg Bahnsen wrote, “Every academic pursuit and every thought must be related to Jesus Christ, for Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). To avoid Christ in your thought at any point, then, is to be misled, untruthful, and spiritually dead…The Christian is completely different from the world when it comes to intellect and scholarship; he does not follow the neutral methods of unbelief, but by God’s grace he has new commitments, new presuppositions, in his thinking…neutrality is nothing short of immorality (Jas 4:4).”


May the Lord be pleased to use His Church in this generation to bring about a new reformation for His own glory.

—Linus Chua