Christianity, Protestantism, and Education

Two themes would play an important role in shaping Protestant ideas about education: the breakdown of the sacred/secular divide, and the priesthood of all believers.

But the Protestant emphasis on an educated clergy and the priesthood of all believers on the one hand, and the reduction in the sacred/secular divide on the other, made widespread education, including higher education, more important in the Protestant world than in much of the Catholic world. That education was intended not just for piety but for politics and other areas of life as well. For example, in New England, Puritans promoted literacy so that people would know the Bible well enough to hold their legislatures and governors accountable for the biblical basis of their laws.


The Legacy of the Reformation

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, we are surveying some of the ways in which Protestantism has influenced culture and built on the earlier Christian tradition. In the previous articles dealing with private life, we noted two key themes within Protestantism that had wide ranging implications for culture: the breakdown of the sacred/secular divide, and the priesthood of all believers. These two themes would play an important role in shaping Protestant ideas about education.

Medieval Backgrounds

Throughout its history, Christianity has valued education. Monasteries, especially in Ireland, preserved education as the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the early middle ages. Monastic and cathedral schools reintroduced education into Europe, and in the 12th century, cathedral schools began to evolve into universities. Education was so closely associated with the Catholic Church that university students were considered members of the clergy.

By the late Middle Ages (14th-15th century), literacy was growing, especially in the cities. In northern Europe, much of the basic education was provided by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay religious order started in the 14th century by Geert Groote in the Netherlands. The Brethrens’ piety was built around the structured meditation on the Gospels, and on reading and studying the Bible and early Christian writers.

To follow this program, you obviously needed to be literate, and so the Brethren began opening schools in the Netherlands and what is now Germany, spreading literacy and interest in religious reform. It is no accident that the two most important reformers of the early 16th century, Erasmus and Luther, were both educated in schools run by the Brethren of the Common Life.


It is also no accident that in this climate of growing literacy and interest in religion, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable metal type. The growth in literacy created a demand for written material, without which there would be no market for mass-produced books. And the religious focus explains why Gutenberg’s first major publication was the Bible. Gutenberg himself had a strong religious motivation for producing his Bible. As he put it:

God suffers in the multitude of souls whom His word cannot reach. Religious truth is imprisoned in a small number of manuscript books which confine instead of spread the public treasure. Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.

Reflecting on the fact that his printing press was adapted from the wine press, which was associated with drunkenness, Gutenberg further remarked:

Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men. Through it, God will spread His word; a spring of pure truth shall flow from it; like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light hithertofore unknown to shine among men.

Protestant Translations and Vernacular Treatises

The schools of the Brethren of the Common Life thus prepared the way for both printing and Protestantism. Luther agreed with Gutenberg on the importance of putting God’s word in the hands of the people, but he took it one step further. He and the other Protestant reformers believed that the clergy should not have a monopoly on the sacred text, but that all Christians should have access to it in their own language and so be equipped to fulfill their role as priests with direct access to God. Luther thus translated the Bible into German, in the process laying the foundation for the modern German language. Other Protestants, such as Tyndale, followed suit in other languages.

Along with his translation of the Bible, Luther also wrote theological tracts and treatises not just in Latin, the language of scholars, but also in German. Calvin would do the same in French, making high-quality theological works available for the first time in that language.

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