The Reformation has been an extraordinary force for global education. The Middle Ages gave birth to the first European universities that trained a select cadre of scholars. But in the Protestant Reformation, the quest for universal education was unleashed. Martin Luther, a professor at the University of Wittenberg, early on called for the magistrates to establish schools so that children could learn to read the newly translated Scriptures and benefit from the learning of the ages. Later, John Calvin, in the French context, established the Academy of Geneva that became the center of Reformed theology.
The educational methods of the Reformers reflected their theology. The goal of general literacy manifested the Reformation principle of the priesthood of all believers—all Christians have the spiritual privilege to read and to study the Scriptures for themselves. Sola Scriptura—the Scriptures as the only infallible source of saving knowledge and true wisdom—was buttressed by pedagogy consistent with Scripture. For the laity, this was accomplished by biblical literacy and catechisms. For adults and church leaders, confessions of faith served as summaries and standards of biblical doctrine and practice.
The Reformers labored carefully to provide excellent theological content for the education of their people. Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms and the Augsburg Catechism were the early educational tools of Lutheranism. Calvin developed catechisms and confessions for Geneva.
Heinrich Bullinger of Zurich wrote the Second Helvetic Confession, which has been appreciated throughout the Reformed tradition. Early Presbyterianism was defined by John Knox’s Scots Confession, which was superseded by the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms as well as the Westminster Confession. The Continental Reformed tradition adopted the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, the last of which defines the classic five points of Calvinism. The educational value of catechisms and creeds has also been recognized by Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Reformed Baptists.
The Reformation's educational commitment has shaped education worldwide.
The Reformation’s educational reforms also affected university studies. Speculative medieval scholasticism was replaced by a biblically grounded systematic theology. A worldview shaped by a belief in a sovereign Creator who rules an orderly cosmos encouraged the investigation of the empirical sciences. Linguistic studies accelerated. Latin was dethroned as the only scholarly language, since the common tongues of Europe had become capable of scholarly discussion due to the elevation of these languages by the translation of the Bible. Nevertheless, the study of the languages of biblical scholarship—Latin, Greek, and Hebrew—increased as a trained clergy became a reality. The Reformation’s educational impact spurred the printing industry, spawning libraries and advanced study in various disciplines. Some of the renowned academic centers greatly shaped by the Reformation are the universities in Wittenberg, Geneva, Zurich, Heidelberg, Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh.
When the Puritans began their “errand in the wilderness” in New England, they carried with them a deep commitment to the educational emphases of the Reformation. For example, Harvard’s 1640 founding statement reads,
After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and led the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.
The Reformation’s educational commitment has shaped both lower and higher education across America throughout American history and worldwide through global missions. American academic centers such as Yale and Princeton are fruits of the Reformation spirit, along with countless schools, colleges, and seminaries such as Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and the recently established Reformation Bible College in Florida. International Christian missions continue to translate the Scriptures, advance literacy, and establish schools of every level in nations around the world.
Ultimately, the Reformation’s educational emphasis results from biblical obedience to our Lord’s Great Commission: “Make disciples [that is, learners], teaching them everything I’ve commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20).
Dr. Peter A. Lillback is president and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is author of The Binding of God.