Martin Luther may be best known for his theological reformation of the medieval church, which had strayed from the pure teaching of God’s Word. Luther did not, however, pursue his theological aims in isolation from other concerns; his writings touch upon politics, social life, and the arts. He also recognized the importance of education, both for the church and for the civil realm.
In 1520—after nailing the 95 Theses but before saying “Here I stand” at Worms—Luther published “An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.” Developing the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation, Luther wrote that “the Scripture alone is our vineyard in which we must all labor and toil.” Although he encouraged the universities to teach classical languages, to assign readings in the church fathers, and (cautiously) to glean insights from Aristotle and other pagan authors, Luther above all emphasized the value of the biblical languages, and he sternly warned: “I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme.”
In 1524, Luther wrote “A Letter to the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany,” urging the establishment and maintenance of Christian schools. From Psalm 78:5–7 and Deuteronomy 32:7, Luther argued that parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. However, he also acknowledged that some parents are unable or unwilling and that the local government possesses the civic resources for operating schools. Luther presented schools as a win-win solution for training leaders in both church and state. History and literature prepare people for civil service while the Bible and biblical languages prepare people to serve in the church.
In 1530, the same year that his supporters presented the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V, Luther published an open letter entitled “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School.” Here Luther chastised parents who wished to channel their children at an early age into careers for the accumulation of material wealth. He then urged the clergy to impress upon their parishioners the value of learning, noting especially how important biblical literacy is for the advancement of the Gospel.
Although Luther’s reputation as an education reformer stems primarily from the three documents just summarized, his most widely read book, the Small Catechism (1529), also addressed the deficiencies of education in its preface: “The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach!” Luther hoped that pastors and parents would use the catechism in the church and in the home, respectively, to ensure that future generations of Christians would understand the chief doctrines of the Christian faith.
From Luther’s writings on education, we may derive answers to the following questions:
What Should Be Taught?
Luther was simultaneously a biblicist and a Renaissance humanist. The Bible, the hymnal, and the catechism served as the foundation for Christian education while Luther also encouraged the study of history, literature, languages, music, and natural philosophy (called “science” today). Leading the educational reforms at the University of Wittenberg, Luther’s colleague Phillip Melanchthon established the standard for Lutheran education in the liberal arts. When people promote “classical Christian education” today, they generally are seeking to revive this heritage of the Lutheran Reformation.
How Should It Be Taught?
In the preface to his Small Catechism, Luther insisted that lessons should be learned “according to the text, word for word … [and] committed to memory.” Rote memorization has fallen out of fashion today, but Luther prized it for two reasons. First, when the text comes directly from Scripture or a doctrinal formula based on Scripture, then every word matters. Students should learn to recognize the importance of the details. Second, rote memorization involves repetition, which provides an occasion for the student to learn the meaning more fully each time the lesson is repeated. The word “catechism” means “echo back and forth,” and Luther hoped that a simple phrasing, repeated between instructor and pupil, would lead to lifelong mastery. Those of us who still retain much of the memory work from our youth bear living testimony to the success of Luther’s method.
To Whom Should It Be Taught?
Luther pioneered what later became known as the modern movement for universal compulsory education. He wanted schools built so that every child, whether rich or poor, could receive a basic education. He also specifically encouraged the education of girls as well as boys. By comparing regional data across Europe from the centuries following the Reformation, historians have discovered the success of Luther’s efforts. In those areas most deeply influenced by Lutheranism, illiteracy vanished and the educational “gender gap” narrowed. Luther’s theology was old-fashioned (he wanted nothing more than to preserve the apostles’ teachings), but his use of the printing press and his promotion of schools for all citizens was truly modern.
By Whom Should It Be Taught?
Luther’s educational reforms went hand in hand with his doctrine of vocation—the idea that each person has a “calling” (Latin: vocatio) from God to serve his neighbors in a particular sphere. Luther recognized that pastors have the vocation to publicly preach God’s Word and administer the sacraments. Teachers have the vocation to educate their students for the mutual benefit of church and state. Parents, however, have the most fundamental vocation with respect to children’s upbringing. Luther therefore urged each of these three groups to fulfill their cooperative responsibilities, and he called upon civic leaders to support them with the resources necessary to educate the younger generation.
How Shall We Honor Luther’s Legacy Today?
By “echoing” the Christian faith to one another through the use of the catechism in both the home and in the congregation, today’s Lutherans remain faithful to the most important aspect of Luther’s educational vision. By fostering learning not simply as a means toward a higher paying job, but more especially as a tool for serving one’s neighbors in whatever calling of life God assigns, today’s Lutherans continue to promote the ideals that the great reformer expressed in his three chief treatises on education. By cooperating vocationally as parents, pastors, and teachers, today’s Lutherans serve children’s needs to the glory of God. This is how Luther would have wanted it to be, and his desire deserves our appreciation still today because, like so much else from that reformer’s mind, it came from Scripture alone.
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson
Chair, History Department
Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, MN