History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently looking at the history of Christian thought on education using D. Bruce Lockerbie’s A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994). Thus far we have looked at biblical times, the early church, and the Middle Ages. Today we are looking at the rise of humanism and the Protestant Reformation.

We saw last time that at the end of the Medieval Period some began to question the teaching method known as scholasticism. This question-and-answer format had become rigid, a matter more of memorization than original thought. The desire for more openness and more critical thinking was part of a larger movement that had a few different prongs to it.

Humanism may have a bad ring to it these days, but early Christian humanists were acting on a good idea. There had been an overemphasis on the spiritual and a neglect of the bodily, physical world. The physical creation, as God made it, was “very good.” We know as well that our bodies are not temporary; they will be raised and we will have them on the new earth. Though we are made of parts — body, soul, mind, and heart — these parts are indivisible.  Humanism brought more mundane aspects back into the equation. Ordinary people were more valued, ordinary subjects came back into the mix. One result of this was a democratization of education. Education was valued not just for the elite and those who could pay for it but for all classes on society, even, a little later, for females (gasp!).

Up until this point the papacy had controlled education. With the Protestant Reformation, this hold was broken (as least in countries where the Reformation thrived). There was a return to the biblical text, and the need for ordinary people to be able to read the Scriptures in their own languages led to a new justification for education. That the ordinary person can and even should read and understand the Bible for themselves was a radical idea. Education at this period was almost entirely for religious reasons. People must learn to read so they can learn doctrine. This motivation seems to have been nearly universal at the time. Erasmus argued that learning other, “secular” subjects also instills discipline and virtue, but no one seems to have advocated learning entirely for its own sake.

Erasmus, while certainly a proponent of education, still kept the parents in the picture. He was close friends with Thomas More who educated his own children which perhaps had an influence on Erasmus’ perception. Certainly, Erasmus allowed that if they were able parents could and should educate their own children. If unable, they should work to “qualify themselves to this task” (p. 134). If they were still unable, they might hire a master to teach their children though this in no way relieved them of the ultimate responsibility for the job. They were to visit the schoolroom often and “they themselves will share the penalty” if their children are not brought up aright (p. 133).

The reformers  — including Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox — seemed to all agree on the need for formal schooling. With the Pope out of the picture, the state, working with the church, took an interest in education. Luther’s opinion was that most parents were unqualified to educate their own children. This may perhaps have been true at the time, the parents themselves having grown up in a different, pre-reformation world in which little education was likely available to them. Certainly, Luther is probably correct when he says that most parents would simply have to work too hard to have the time to educate their own children. Luther placed the responsibility for education on the political leaders.  This was a different time and place, one must remember, when many of the German princes would have been supportive of the church. [1] As we saw when we looked at Chris Coleburn’s article, “A History of Reformed (Presbyterian) 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 its authority and push the church out of the picture.

With Calvin we begin to see a little more appreciation for knowledge in its own right. As seen in the example of Bezalel and Oholiab, artisans who worked on the tabernacle, God gives all kinds of wisdom. God’s common grace means that we may even learn from the knowledge of non-Christians. So, Calvin says, “if 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” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, chapter 16; as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 153).

Lockerbie does not provide selections from Knox, but the article by Coleburn, mentioned above,  gives a more thorough picture of schooling under Knox among the Scottish churches as well.

For the first time in this era we see the education of children, not just of teens and adults, as a paramount concern. For Luther this meant formal schooling and the focus was on being able to read and understand the Scriptures and on learning Christian doctrine. Erasmus allowed for and even encouraged more of a role for the parents. Calvin, while still very concerned with education as a handmaid to religion, begins to open the door to the study of “secular” subjects as valuable in their own right.


[1] For more on  Luther’s views of education, see Marilyn J. Harran, “Reflections on Martin Luther and Childhood Education,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (Jan. 1, 2004).

5 responses to this post.

  1. […] « History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation […]


  2. […] came in the Renaissance through the rise of humanism with its emphasis on the individual (see also this earlier post). When people began to actually look at Aristotle for themselves, they were disappointed. Dialectic […]


  3. […] Education is for all people, male and female, those whom society deems exceptional or average or backward. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation) […]


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


  5. […] had been the work of the Roman Catholic Church and Luther and others sought to break it free (see this post on the history of education during the Reformation). The Protestant emphasis on reading the Scriptures led to a desire for not just an educated clergy […]


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