CHRISTIANITY AND EDUCATION
The early Christians believed in basic teaching for every church
member, whether a child or a new convert
by David Feddes
Jesus and most of his early followers were Jewish. Many Jewish families emphasized
education and wanted their sons to learn a trade in order to earn a living,
as well as learning to read and study biblical writings. The early Christians
carried on this emphasis and expanded it They expanded it to non-Jewish
people as well as to Jews, and they expanded it to include girls as well
as boys. They wrote instruction manuals for new Christians and for children
in order to prepare them for church membership. Christians may have been
the first to teach both sexes in the same setting, and in this they were
simply following the lead of Jesus himself.
The early Christians believed in basic teaching for every church member,
whether a child or a new convert. They also wanted church leaders to be
well educated in God's Word and to have a solid grasp on the workings
of God's world. This led them to establish schools. The schools focused
mainly on Christian doctrine, but some included mathematics, medicine,
and other subjects.
In fact, when the Roman Empire fell apart, much of classical learning
might have vanished without the activity of Christians. Thomas Cahill's
popular book "How the Irish Saved Civilization" doesn't just
tell how Irish people in general saved civilization but how Irish Christians
saved civilization. In a time of cultural chaos, collapsing civilization,
and contempt for learning, when illiterate tribes were looting cities
and destroying books, some Irish Christians preserved not only the Bible
but also many books of history, philosophy, legal theory, science, and
literature. They labored to make copies of these books for future generations
and made possible an eventual revival of education and civilization.
Throughout the centuries, as Christian missionaries carried the gospel
to various people of different languages, they found that many were illiterate.
It wasn't just that people had not learned as individuals to read and
write. In many cases, the language itself had no writing at all. Missionaries
worked hard to change this. Reading the Bible was a vital part of knowing
Christ and hearing the Holy Spirit's message, so missionaries learned
the spoken languages of these tribes and set the languages to writing
so that the people could have the Bible in their own language and be able
to read it for themselves. In tribe after tribe, in language after language,
literacy and education came as a by product of Bible translation. Many
missionaries also established schools which not only taught the Bible
but also helped people learn more about the world. This process began
in the early centuries of the church, and still today missionaries bring
literacy and learning to tribes that were previously unable to read and
Christians haven't been perfect, of course, and some at times have betrayed
their Lord's principles. At times church leaders have fallen away from
the love of Christ and from the truth. They haven't studied the Bible
carefully, and they've even tried to prevent ordinary churchgoers from
reading the Bible. But whenever the Spirit brought reformation and revival,
people have had a fresh desire to learn the Bible, and preachers have
taught its truth with new vigor. During the great Reformation of the 1500s,
led mainly by Martin Luther and John Calvin, there was not only a renewed
emphasis on teaching the Bible but also a drive to give children a solid
Luther urged a school system and said that it was "shameful and
despicable" for parents not to make sure their children got a good
education. Luther may have been the first to press for public schools
funded by government and to insist that every child should have access
to a good education. At the same time, Luther said, "I am afraid
that the schools will prove the very gates of hell, unless they diligently
labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the hearts
of the youth."
John Calvin promoted elementary education for all children, including
reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and religion. Calvin also led a
movement toward establishing secondary schools to train people for leadership
in church and government. Calvin believed firmly in the Bible as God's
Word and as the only final measure of faith and life. At the same time,
Calvin saw that people who did not follow Christ or believe the Bible
sometimes made important contributions to knowledge, and he believed Christians
should learn these truths as well. All truth is God's truth, even if some
truths are discovered by people who don't know God. As Calvin put it,
"If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we
shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall
appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God." Calvin insisted
that Christians could learn much about law from lawyers, philosophy from
philosophers, speech from orators, medicine from doctors, maths from mathematicians,
astronomy from astronomers, and so on - whether these people knew Christ
and believed the Bible or not.
The Christian approach to education combined a rock-solid confidence
in the Bible with an eager curiosity to learn about the world and a glad
willingness to learn from many different sources. This was a way to honor
the Spirit of God as the source of all truth. Education flourished wherever
people had this confidence in Scripture and this curiosity about the world
and its people.
One important educational innovation after another has come from the
Christian setting. The idea of a child moving from one grade level to
another arose among Christians. So did kindergarten. Christians began
Sunday schools to help poor non-Christian children who had little access
to a good education. More recently, Christians have been pioneers in the
home schooling movement. Some of these innovations may be better than
others, but they are all evidence of the fact that Christians are constantly
looking for better ways to teach and learn.
CHECKING OUR FOUNDATIONS
If we zero in on education in Canada and the United States, we find that
the foundation has been Christianity Education was a high priority in
North America from the time the first Christian settlers arrived. The
Puritans, strongly influenced by Calvin's ideas, passed a law that every
township provide an educator who could teach children to read and write.
The law became known as the Old Deluder Act, because it spoke of "the
Old Deluder, Satan," whose main goal is "to keep man from the
knowledge of the Scriptures." North America's first schools were
established to enable everyone to read the Bible and thus to defeat Satan's
lies and to know the truth of Christ.
Nowadays it's common to separate faith and education, but earlier generations
had a different view. They saw faith as the foundation of education and
the main goal of it. After the U.S. gained independence, an early of Congress
declared in 1787 "Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary
to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means
of education shall forever be encouraged."
It's odd when universities and professors despise Christianity or see
it as an obstacle to learning, when the fact is that the world's great
universities were established by Christians. Bologna, Oxford, Paris, Cambridge,
Heidelberg, and Basel were started by Christians and focused on Christian
thought as their chief subjects. D. James Kennedy points out that "almost
every one of the first 123 colleges and universities in the United States
has Christian origins."
Harvard University began with a donation of money and books from Rev.
John Harvard. The main goal of education there was this: "Let every
student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well that
the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which
is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ... as the only
sound foundation of all knowledge and learning."
Yale University began in 1718 with a donation from Elihu Yale, who was
urged on by Rev. Cotton Mather. Yale's purpose was that "Youth may
be instructed in the Arts and Sciences, who through the blessings of Almighty
God may be fitted for public employment both in Church and Civil State."
Much of the push to make schooling humanistic instead of Christian came
from John Dewey, an education professor at Columbia University in the
early 1900s. Dewey was a humanist who rejected Christ, but that doesn't
change the fact that Columbia University, the place where Dewey spread
his anti-Christian ideas, was originally built on a Christian foundation.
One early advertisement for Columbia declared, "The chief thing that
is aimed at in this college is to teach and engage children to know God
in Jesus Christ"
Princeton University was also started by Christians. An early president
of Princeton, Rev. John Witherspoon, said, "Cursed be all learning
that is contrary to the cross of Christ."
Many universities later betrayed their Christian foundations, and so
did public schools. Public schools were originally called "public"
not because they were government controlled but because they were open
to the public, to every segment of society. These "public" schools
were mostly run by parents or churches and emphasized Christ and the Bible
as the foundations of education. When a movement began to separate schools
from Christianity and to tie them to government control, Princeton professor
A. A. Hodge saw what was corning. He wrote in 1887, "I am as sure
as I am of Christ's reign that a comprehensive and centralized system
of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed,
will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian
and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual,
social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen." Education
is not an end in itself. It must have a solid foundation and a sound purpose.
Otherwise it teaches people to live by Satan's lies instead of by the
Spirit of truth.
The best foundation for pursuing education is the conviction that there
is such a thing as truth and that truth is worth knowing. If there is
no truth or if truth doesn't matter, then education is pointless. But
if truth is real and precious, then education is important. This is why
Christianity has been such a powerful force in education. People who know
Jesus are certain that truth matters more than anything else in the world.
Jesus himself said, "I am . . . the truth" (John 14:6). "If
you hold to my teaching you will know the truth, and the truth will set
you free" (John 8:31-32). When Jesus walked this earth, he had "the
Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord." Now that Jesus
reigns from heaven, he gives that same Holy Spirit, "the Spirit of
truth," to guide people to the Savior and to live by his truth.
Jesus compared God's kingdom to yeast that changes an entire lump of
dough (Matthew 13:33). One way this has happened is that the Christian
commitment to truth has resulted in the advancement of education in general.
But Jesus also warned of another kind of yeast, the yeast of false teaching,
of education that was not in tune with God's truth (Matthew 16:11-12).
Now that we've looked at the impact of Christ and his Spirit on education,
let's give thanks for these blessings. At the same time, let's not squander
these blessings by accepting godless education. And let's never make the
fatal mistake of thinking that formal learning is more important than
living by faith in Christ and in God's Word, the Bible. Education is a
byproduct of Christian influence; it's no substitute for a personal relationship
The Back to God Hour. The Radio Pulpit, 6555 W. College Dr. Palos Heights,
IL 60463, USA