The Impact of Calvinism on Education

Basically, wherever Calvinism went, schools and Colleges were established.

Although John Calvin’s views about education were shaped by his classical education and mainstream humanism, he also introduced a number of changes that impacted education in many countries and continued to do so in the following centuries. If he was alive today, I believe he would explain his approach to education as follows (I’ve presented summaries of the material in bullet points for the purposes of the blog post format).

1. Education is for all irrespective of age, gender, or wealth.

  • Despite Calvin’s view that original sin affected every faculty from conception, he maintained an optimistic view about the educational potential of children.
  • Calvin rejected the Roman Catholic view that ignorance is the mother of piety.
  • He reformed Geneva’s public schools by rejecting the idea that education was only for aristocratic and Roman Catholic elites.
  • Calvin and other reformers made public education available to all children from a young age without respect to gender or wealth.
  • Calvin was basically the father of free public education, being one of the first to educate girls.
  • Each child was to be viewed as a gift from God that was to be developed and stewarded for God’s glory.
  • Calvin “opened the way for people to raise themselves by education and by the diligent use of their knowledge and abilities.”[1]

2. Education is the responsibility of the Church and parents

  • Calvin taught that schools were to be Reformed, with congregational oversight of the school and the curriculum.
  • The church was responsible for the whole education of the children and congregations were expected to finance the schools.
  • Calvin also insisted that education must begin with training in the home, motivating his passion to develop Christian fathers and mothers who would confirm the school lessons at home.
  • Under Calvin’s church discipline, parents were punished if they did not send their children to school.
  • Children were also expected to attend a weekly catechism class.
  • A few times every year the church’s leaders would meet with the children and their parents to examine their educational and spiritual progress.

3. Education’s goal is theological and spiritual

  • Whereas the aim of renaissance education was humanism – the study and knowledge of humanness – Calvin’s ultimate aim was the knowledge of God.
  • As no one can know himself without first knowing God, the first subject of an education was to be God, and then from that humanity can be studied.
  • He wanted children to be taught the Christian faith early, before sinful desires and acts became dominant in their lives.
  • In the constitution of his Genevan Academy, Calvin stated that the foundation of all learning was the Word of God.
  • Calvin’s doctrine of creation, providence, and God’s sovereignty meant that “there is not a single fact in the universe that is not a God-centered fact…all facts derive their significance and meaning from the mind of God.”[2]
  • “The true aim of education is to lead the child to the Christian life… The glory of God is the final aim in man’s life, and this is also the final aim in man’s education.”[3]
  • Calvin saw that a well-educated ministry and a well-educated people were necessary for the spread of Reformed truth.

4. Education is to include nature and the natural world

  • Genesis 1:26-28 is not just an agricultural command but a cultural command. “The statement means that humankind has been placed by God over the entire creation, including that part of it produced by people (usually called culture).”[4]
  • “If the human race is to have dominion over the earthly order, every sphere and act of dominion is worthy [of study]”[5]
  • “The doctrine of creation affirms the earthly order as having value in God’s sight.”[6]
  • Calvin maintained that the liberal arts are aids to a full knowledge of the Word of God.
  • “Calvin was convinced that the Reformation could grow and increase only through a study of the arts and sciences as well as that of theology.”[7]
  • Education in sacred and secular subjects had the same final aim: the glory of God.
  • “According to Calvin, science was a gift of God, created for the benefit of mankind. The real source of natural knowledge was the Holy Spirit. Whoever dealt with it acknowledged God, obeyed the call of God, and focused on God’s creation. Thus, biology was also theology.”[8]
  • One of the Calvin Studies Society papers on the legacy of John Calvin concluded:

In refusing to reject outright the contribution of the humanist liberal arts to the educational process, and in ensuring that higher education was not perceived solely in a narrow sense, even for future pastors, Calvin’s impact was significant.[9]

  • Calvinistic confidence in the unity, stability and order of of the world “could not but awaken as with a loud voice, and vigorously foster love for science.”[10]
  • The flourishing of science and scientific enquiry in the following centuries in Calvinistic counties have been traced to Calvin’s writing and teaching.

5. Education is to be carried out by gifted Christian teachers

  • Calvin saw the teacher’s job as ranking almost with that of the minister.
  • He viewed teachers as officers and servants of the church.
  • He required that they hold a theological degree, that they be of mature and good character, and that they be well enough paid so that they could accept poor children free of charge.

6. Education is to prepare students for ecclesiastical and civil government

  • Calvin’s schools all had the stated aim of preparing children for both the ministry and civil government.
  • Calvin wrote in a letter to the King of England: “As the schools contain the seeds of the ministry there is much need to keep them pure and thoroughly free from ill weeds.”[11]
  • He wanted to promote not just pure religion but the public welfare.
  • Calvin’s ecclesiology (government by lay-elders) and soteriology (each individual was responsible to seek his own salvation) required everyone to be educated rather than just a handful of priests.

Conclusion: Wider and Ongoing Impact

  • Calvin’s educational revolution in Geneva reverberated way beyond the city’s walls and continued to influence the education of children for years afterwards.
  • In 1559 The Genevan Academy was created and divided into two sections: the College (offering secondary and some primary education) and the Academy proper which was more like a university and offered higher learning in Theology.
  • J Coetzee says the Academy was his crowning achievement in his building of a Christian state.

The Academy drew students from far and near, from all over…In this way, Calvinistic teaching and learning spread over a very wide area. In 1564, the year in which Calvin died, there were some 1200 pupils in the College and some 300 in the Academy proper. Among its foreign students were many illustrious men, such as the tutor of King Henry IV of France; Thomas Bodley, the founder of the famous Bodleian library at the University of Oxford; Kasper Olevianus, cowriter of the Heidelberg Catechism; Marnix of Saint Aldegonde, a leading Calvinist in the Netherlands. In 1625 a list of famous men was drawn up at Liege and it could be stated that more than one fourth of the names so listed were of men who had studied at the Genevan Academy.[12]

  • Joel Beeke said that:

The Academy served as a model for the establishment of similar institutions in all countries where Calvinism found adherents. These institutions developed into internationally famous academies or universities from which came the most learned men over the whole of Western Europe and even the United States of America.”[13]

  • Some historians regard these schools as the “forerunners of modern public education.[14]

Basically, wherever Calvinism went, schools and Colleges were established. The old saying, “With Romanism goes the priest; with Calvinism goes the teacher,” was proven true in Europe and in America.

[1] Joel Beeke, Calvin for Today, 245.
[2] Phillip Vollmer, John Calvin: Man of the Millennium, 197.
[3] Jacob Hoogstra, John Calvin: Contemporary Prophet, 216.
[4] Leland Ryken, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, ed. David W. Hall, 97.
[5] Ryken, 98.
[6] Ryken, 112.
[7] Vollmer, 201.
[8] Engaging with Calvin, ed. Mark Thompson, 155.
[9] Calvin Studies Society Papers, The Legacy of John Calvin, 26.
[10] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 115.
[11] Vollmer, 166.
[12] Hoogstra, 211-212.
[13] Hoogstra, 212.
[14] Beeke, 242-243.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.

[Editor’s note: The URLs (links) to the original article and footnotes are unavailable and have been removed.]


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