Calvin reformed not only the church, but also the family, especially in the area of education. Although his views about education were shaped by his classical schooling and mainstream humanism, he also introduced a number of changes that impacted education in many countries for many years. Four of his major emphases in family education that we would do well to reframe for our own generation are as follows.
Education is for all, irrespective of age, gender, or wealth
Despite Calvin’s view that original sin affected every faculty from conception, he was optimistic about the educational potential of children. Each child was a gift from God that was to be developed and stewarded for God’s glory. Joel Beeke observed that Calvin “opened the way for people to raise themselves by education and by the diligent use of their knowledge and abilities.”
One of the first things that Calvin did in Geneva was to reform the public schools. He broke with a medieval pedagogy that limited education primarily to aristocratic and Roman Catholic elites, and rejected the Catholic church’s view that ignorance was the mother of piety.
He also made public education available to all children from a young age without respect to gender or wealth. He was one of the fathers of free public education, being one of the first to promote the education of girls.
Education is the responsibility of the Church and parents
In Calvin’s view, the church was responsible for the whole education of the children and congregations were expected to finance the schools and also provide oversight.
But as Calvin also insisted that education must begin with training in the home, a generation of Christian fathers and mothers had to be developed. Parents were to be disciplined if they did not send their children to school and were encouraged to confirm the school lessons in their own home. A few times every year, the church’s leaders would meet with the children and their parents to examine their educational and spiritual progress. Both parents and the church were to take responsibility for the children’s education.
Given the importance of this work, Calvin saw the teacher’s job as ranking almost with that of the minister and regarded them also 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.
Education’s goal is theological and spiritual
The aim of renaissance education was humanism—the study and knowledge of humanness. Calvin’s ultimate aim was the knowledge of God. He saw the need for children to be taught the Christian faith early, before sinful desires and acts became dominant in their lives. Education was intended to lead children into a Christian life that would be lived for the glory of God. Three fundamental ideas were at the root of this theological aim of education:
1. All facts are from God. According to Phillip Vollmer, the Calvinistic doctrine of God’s sovereignty meant that if “God created all things and governs all things by His providence, then 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 first subject is God. Fundamental to Calvin was the belief that no one can know himself without first knowing God and then coming down from that to consider himself.
3. The first textbook is the Bible. In the constitution of his Genevan Academy, Calvin stated that the foundation of all learning was the Word of God.
Calvin saw that a well-educated ministry and a well-educated people were necessary for the spread of Reformed truth and civil order. That’s why his schools all had the stated aim of preparing children for both the ministry and civil government.
Education is to include nature and the natural world
Calvin maintained that learning about secular subjects was as important as religious subjects and that the liberal arts assisted in learning the truth of God’s Word. But whether the subject was religious or not, they all had the same ultimate aim: the glory of God. In Engaging With Calvin, Oliver Crisp comments:
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…. The cognitive impact of his thinking may have contributed to the attraction and spread of his ideas in a period undergoing major developments in the natural sciences.
The flourishing of science and scientific enquiry in the following centuries in Calvinistic counties have been traced to Calvin’s writing and teaching.
Without the reformation of the family, reformation of the church and of society will not endure. Although the practical outworking of Calvin’s family education principles will look different as they are worked out in our own day and situation, they remain relevant and challenging to us all as we seek to train the next generation for time and for eternity.