Chris Coleborn on the History of Reformed Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here. Most recently, I have been looking at various reformed thinkers and seeing what they had to say about education. The introduction to this series-within-a-series is here.

Today’s article does not advance a philosophy of education but gives a very useful history of reformed and particularly Presbyterian education. In “A History of Reformed (Presbyterian) Christian Education” [The Evangelical Presbyterian (January 2011)], Reverend Chris Coleborn traces the history of education from Luther to the modern era. Because his interest in particularly in Presbyterian traditions, he starts broadly but then focuses in on the Scottish and to some degree English churches.

In his introduction, Coleborn makes two general statements about the beliefs of the reformers with regard to education:

” . . . they meant a study of human knowledge that was based upon, seen in the light of, and fully integrated with Divine knowledge.”


“Our fathers in the faith  . .  had in mind a basically broad education where our children could be made ‘fit for everything.'”

Now these two are not contrary ideas but neither are they the same idea. Coleborn goes through the reformers roughly chronologically and presents their ideas without a lot of judgment. This is very useful but it leaves me wondering if there was a shift in thinking that took place.

Not surprisingly, Calvin’s ideas were quite influential. Coleborn tells us that: “He held that theology was that queen of sciences and opened and lightened the way for all other knowledge.” I will confess that when in the past I have heard theology spoken of as the queen that I imagined a system in which one had to work one’s way up to theology because it is so big and important. The picture here is rather the opposite — all other studies flow out of theology. The quote that Coleborn keeps coming back to is: “In Thy light we see light” (Ps. 36:9). In other words, all other subjects are “united in and founded upon the revelation of God in the Scriptures.”

When he turns to the Scottish reformers, Coleborn introduces another idea: “Schools were seen as an important way to propagate Christian knowledge, and to build the Church.” This was partly a response to the Roman Catholic Church which was seen as a hotbed of ignorance and superstition, but also, more positively, it was believed that believers should be able to read the Word of God for themselves and even beyond that that our faith should be an intelligent faith. There is a practical aspect to this education. The goals are to fit the individual for his calling, whatever that may end up being, and to grow the church.

While these are noble goals, they strike me as something different than what was seen in Calvin. The ideal is not knowledge for its own sake because knowledge is of God but knowledge towards an end. Perhaps because the goals were more fundamental, the education that was provided to the majority was fairly basic — reading, writing, calculating and the basics of the faith. History, languages and other subjects were added but only beyond the elementary school level.

Another interesting aspect of the history is the relationship between the school, church, family, and state. I have written recently on the role of the school as an institution and expressed concerns about a non-biblical institution (which is to say, not mentioned in the Bible; non-biblical is different from unbiblical) potentially usurping responsibilities given to the family. The Puritans took the parental responsibility to educate one’s children very seriously and would excommunicate those who neglected their responsibility. But homeschooling as such was not the norm. Education was only done in the home when there were no other options: “The local ‘covenant’ community of believers saw the need for co-operation and helping one another in this great task of equipping all the children of the reformed community . . .” Thus whenever possible schools were established. Though they were not church schools as such, they were closely associated with the church. As someone who is fairly pro-homeschooling, I am a little chastened to think that we do need to help others in their task as well as just educating our own children. I do think, however, that there are various ways to do this and establishing church or Christian schools is not the only way to go. Coleborn at one point mentions the church being able to “teach parents their calling . . .  and to  . .  assist wherever it could.” Personally, I would like to see more discussion of how churches can help Christians educate their children apart from institutional schools which I think have their drawbacks.

Though earlier reformers from Luther on advocated schools, Coleborn makes clear that in this day and age one needs to be careful as secular governments have become more and more involved in what can be taught in schools. Involvement that starts out as support becomes financial support and then quickly becomes the government determining what can be taught and how. The result is that “sadly and grievously . . [Christian parents have] surrendered their beliefs and commitment to Christian education to the control of the state.”

Coleborn ends by saying that further study is needed to address modern issues including “State Aid, Parental Control of Schools versus Church Control and Home Schooling.” Overall, this is a very useful article though it raises more questions for me than it answers. It is a good jumping off point, however, and I now have an even longer list of people I have to read.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Christian Education” [The Evangelical Presbyterian (January 2011); see my review here], the state and church worked well together initially but over time the state began to over-exert […]


  2. […] Children should be given a broad education, covering a wide range of subjects. (A Broad Education;  Core Knowledge; CM and the Puritans on Education; History of Reformed Education) […]


  3. […] State . . . and School?;  Lockerbie on Schools; also: History of Education: Biblical Times; History of Reformed Education; History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation; Public Education in […]


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