Does Christian education matter anymore?

June 15, 2024

In a secular society where ‘faith-based’ learning institutions are often viewed as fossils of a bygone age, education today is widely considered the rightful domain of secular governments. 

Should governments even allow ‘special’ religious-based education anymore? Hasn’t religion caused so many conflicts in the past? Shouldn’t education be based on scientific facts, not ‘superstitious’ beliefs? Even believers have to ask themselves, does Christian education matter anymore?

That’s the question I have been asked to address at the Forum on Faith and Society (Forum glaube & gesellschaft) in Fribourg, Switzerland, this weekend. Over the past decade, this forum has explored the challenge of Christian witness in a pluralistic world. Former YWAM colleague Dr Walter Dürr developed the Center Faith & Society at Fribourg University to build bridges between academic theology, different expressions of Christian spirituality and the practice of the Church and social life. The forum, the centre’s annual ‘flagship’ event, convenes a wide array of faith-based movements and institutions. Speakers have included Tom Wright, Justin Welby, Miroslav Wolf and, this year, Tom Holland.  

My mandate is firstly to trace the development of education in the West to ask what the role the Christian faith has played. The truth is that that story has been overwhelmingly Christian for most of the past two thousand years. Only in relatively recent times has much of education become secularised. Compulsory and universal education is simply taken for granted. But how did we get there?

Going back even further, the first human society to value education for all was the newly liberated nation of Israel, as we read in the Torah, the books of Moses: ‘Teach (these words) diligently to your children’ – (Deuteronomy 6:6). Israel thus became the world’s first fully literate society, a rich heritage reflected in the hugely disproportionate Jewish contribution to so many fields of knowledge still today.

With its Jewish roots, early Christianity also stressed the role of teaching both in church matters and in daily living. While Greece and Rome developed a classical curriculum based on reason, education was reserved for upper classes and males. Christians, known as ‘the people of the Book’, added the biblical revelation of every person having been created in God’s image – Jew and gentile, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free – thus with significance and dignity. Hence they taught both girls and boys.

Catechetical schools spread to Rome, Ephesus and Alexandria, led by early church fathers like Clement, Origen and Athanasius. They instructed both men and women through oral question and answer sessions. Clement, for example, insisted on the partnership of reason and revelation as they had one source. 

By the early fifth century, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) had laid the foundations of education that would shape medieval learning and influence the Christian academy for centuries thereafter.    

Irish monasteries sent scholar monks to teach Europe’s newly converted peoples, becoming known as ‘disciplers of kings and teachers of nations’.

In Aachen, Charlemagne appointed the Anglo-Celtic monk, Alcuin of York, to promote education throughout the Holy Roman Empire in the early 9th century. Cathedral schools developed later in the first millennium, embedding the classical curriculum into a Christian theological framework, at least for trainee priests and civil servants.

Education remained almost entirely the church’s province until the 12th century, when scholars began to pursue learning and teaching independently of the monastery and cathedral schools. Guilds of scholars developed Europe’s universities, firstly in Bologna and Paris, then in Oxford and Cambridge (late 12th and early 13th centuries). Official titles (like provost, dean, and proctor), academic gowns, college architecture and chapel services are all reminders of the monastic origins of the university. Oxford’s motto to this day is: Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my light, Ps 27.) 

Thomas Aquinas, who viewed theology as queen of the sciences, and Johan Cele who developed the gymnasium style of high school which was to spread through Germany and France (college), are just two of many Christian names shaping education prior to the Reformation. Erasmus, Luther and Calvin insisted on making the Bible available for all, championed education for boys and girls of all classes, the latter two arguing for tax-supported public schools. This led respectively to the Deutsche Volkschule (German public school) and the Geneva Academy, which became a model for schools in Scotland, the Netherlands and America.

Francis Bacon drew on his Reformed understanding of the creation mandate to develop a vision of science and learning for ‘the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate’. His inductive method of scientific inquiry to explore God’s book of works, creation, alongside his Book of Words, extended the task of education beyond transmission of knowledge and values from the past, but to include the discovery of new knowledge. Here he also opened the door for the secularisation of education by separating faith and learning. 

From here on, more influences undermining the unity of knowledge included Enlightenment thinking stressing human autonomy, and the Industrial Revolution demanding specialisation and scientific advancement. Education focused on the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ but not on the ‘whys’ and ‘what fors’. 

Over time history, theology and philosophy became superceded by a secular rationalism unable to answer the basic question: what is the purpose of the human being? Because that purpose will define the purpose of education.

Which is why Christian education, based on the unity of knowledge rooted in God, really does matter.

Till next week,

One response to “Does Christian education matter anymore?”

  1. Thank you, Jeff, for your Weekly Word. I ‘discovered’ it in a short article that appeared in my daily newspaper of June 4, 2024 (Nederlands Dagblad).
    Since my new birth in September 1965 I try more and more to be a thoughtful and thinking follower of Jesus.
    My first encounter with Him was so overwhelming, that I feared to die. In the years that followed, I was a fervent pentecostal. After having worked as a teacher in a boarding school, I went to a Full Gospel Bible School in Belgium, married a Belgian girl and became a pastor in the town of Aalst, earning an income for our family as a translator of books.
    After nearly six years in Aalst, we moved to the Netherlands on request of the publisher of Uitgeverij Gideon, and so on.
    Over the years I came to appreciate catholics and protestants and their views, which enriched my life. And I am still a pentecostal, using the prayer language that I was given with the baptism in Holy Spirit – many times a day, strictly in private.
    With great gratitude I read about the lives of Schuman and Adenauer, founding fathers of the European Community, confessing Christians.
    And today I came across your Weekly Word – breathing that spirit of grace I came to love so much.
    I hope you and Romkje are healthy and well.
    Gerrit Hoekstra

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