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Christianity and Education

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Date August 13, 2002


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 write.

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 education.

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.


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 with Christ.


The Back to God Hour. The Radio Pulpit, 6555 W. College Dr. Palos Heights, IL 60463, USA

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