The Spirit of Education
By David Feddes
The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him—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 (Isaiah 11:2).
Education matters to most of us. Most parents want a good education for their children because they believe an educated person has a better future. Most politicians want to be known as friends of education because they believe education is an issue that wins them the vote. But many parents and politicians who favor education don’t know where the drive for education originally came from. They benefit from institutions of learning but don’t know how such institutions got started. They say no child should be left behind but don’t know the source of the idea that education should include the masses and not just an elite few.
Not enough people know that our widespread emphasis on education grows out of Christian roots. Did you know that Christians began the movement toward education for all children, girls as well as boys, poor as well as rich? Did you know that Christians kept higher learning alive during dark times, saved many classic books from disappearing forever, and renewed learning and civilization? Did you know that Christians took the lead in starting school systems? Did you know that Christians founded most of the world’s great universities? These things may surprise you, but they are true. Widespread education might not exist at all without the influence of Christianity.
Is this news to you? Perhaps you’ve never heard these things before, and the reason you’ve never heard is that nobody told you. Your education didn’t teach you the Christian roots of education. Many institutions of education that owe their very existence to Christianity no longer speak of their Christian roots. They may even send the opposite signal and leave the impression that faith and learning are unrelated or even opposed to each other. Many public schools nowadays deliberately separate education from Christianity and say nothing about Christianity’s foundational role in education. Many universities that were started by Christians and still have Bible verses engraved on old buildings and campus monuments have classrooms that now ignore or attack Christianity. Even so, these educational enterprises owe their very existence to the influence of Jesus Christ and the cultural impact of Christianity.
Jesus the Teacher
To see why this is so, let’s begin by focusing on Jesus himself. Jesus was the greatest teacher the world has ever known. Even though Jesus was not formally educated by any of the leading teachers of his time, he showed stunning insight already as a youth. At age twelve Jesus discussed important issues with prominent teachers. “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). When Jesus became an adult and began teaching large crowds, people “were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having studied?'” (John 7:15). Some said, “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46).
Jesus wasn’t just a scholar playing games with vague ideas or bits of research. He spoke with authority. He knew the truth, and he could communicate with power. People sensed that he really knew what he was talking about. “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus knew God, he knew the world, and he knew human nature as no one else did. As a teacher, Jesus offered insights nobody else could match.
Jesus was so brilliant that he could stump the smartest scholars, but his brilliance didn’t prevent him from connecting with ordinary people. “The common people heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37 KJV). Jesus didn’t use jargon aimed only at scholars. He used stories and words that got through to less educated people and even to little children. Jesus welcomed all to hear his teaching. You didn’t have to be part of the upper class; poor people and slaves could listen too. You didn’t have to be a grownup; children could listen too. You didn’t have to be a male; females could listen too. Other teachers might bar women from learning or refuse to teach children or slaves, but Jesus taught people of every kind. No wonder the common people heard him gladly! And no wonder Jesus’ followers in later years were leaders in education for the masses and not just for the elite.
Centuries before Jesus came to earth, a prophet spoke of the coming Savior and said, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him–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” (Isaiah 11:2). Jesus, as the Son of God, was perfectly in tune with God the Father and the Holy Spirit of God. All Jesus’ wisdom, understanding, and knowledge were taught to others through the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus promised that after he himself returned to heaven, the Holy Spirit would carry on his teaching ministry. “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes,” said Jesus, “he will guide you into all truth… the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:13,15). The Holy Spirit would truly be the Spirit of education.
On the day of Pentecost, Jesus kept his promise and poured out his Holy Spirit on his followers. He gave them power to know his truth and to communicate it to others. Shortly before this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Jesus commissioned his apostles, “Go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). After telling his disciples to teach, Jesus ascended to heaven and then poured out his Spirit of truth to empower them to teach.
What were the disciples supposed to teach? Everything Jesus commanded. This included Jesus’ own words and all the words of the Bible, for the whole Bible was the message of Christ and was inspired by the Holy Spirit. The early Christians believed that teaching was necessary to change the world. They sought to conquer all nations, not through warfare, but through truth. They believed that truth, taught and applied by the Holy Spirit, is the mightiest weapon in the world. They counted on “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The early Christians didn’t just focus on feelings and rituals. They had a message to teach, a message from the Holy Spirit. This message came from their supreme teacher, Jesus Christ, and was recorded in the supreme book, the Bible.
It was important to get this message right. Teaching had to be accurate. Doctrine mattered. Truth had to be kept pure and had to be taught to others. The Bible ordered that pastors and elders must “be able to teach” and “must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith” (1 Timothy 3:2,9). These deep truths focused first of all on God’s rule over all things, on salvation through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and on how to live a godly life. By valuing truth so highly and teaching it to others, the Spirit-led Christians guided many people to faith in Christ. In the process, they also had a huge impact on education in general.
Christianity and Education
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 Jews, and they expanded it to include girls, as well as boys. They wrote instruction manuals for new Christians and for children 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 to have a solid grasp on the workings of God’s world. This led to them to establish schools. The schools focused mainly on Christian doctrine, but some included mathematics, medicine, and others subjects as well.
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. The missionaries worked hard to change this. Reading the Bible was a vital part of knowing Christ and hearing the Holy Spirit’s message, so the missionaries learned the spoken languages of these illiterate tribes and set those 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 byproduct of Bible translation. Many missionaries also established schools which not only taught the Bible but also helped people to learn more about the wider world. This process began in the early centuries of the church, and still today, missionaries bring literacy and learning to new tribes that were previously unable to read and write.
Christians haven’t been perfect, of course, and have sometimes betrayed their principles. At times church leaders fell away from the love of Christ and the love of truth. They didn’t study the Bible carefully themselves, and these leaders even tried to prevent ordinary churchgoers from reading the Bible. But whenever the Holy Spirit brought reformation and revival, people had a fresh desire to read the Bible, and preachers taught the Bible’s truths with new vigor. During the great Reformation of the 1500s, led by Martin Luther and John Calvin, there was not only a renewed emphasis on teaching the Bible in the churches but also a drive to give children a solid education.
Luther 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 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 were 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, math 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 hearty confidence in Scripture and this healthy curiosity about the world and its people.
One of history’s most important advances in education was the printing press of Johannes Guttenberg. The very first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible. The love of books and knowledge in general flowed from a love for the supreme Book that gives the knowledge of God.
Still another area of Christianity’s impact on education has been providing learning opportunities for people with disabilities. Jesus was very concerned and helpful to such people. He gave hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind. His followers didn’t have that miraculous power, but they loved the deaf and blind and made education available to them. Christians build homes for the blind. Louis Braille was a dedicated Christian, and he saw it as his God-given mission to develop an alphabet of raised dots which would make books available to blind people. A Christian priest in Paris invented sign language for school use so that deaf people could have an education and be taught the gospel. A Christian pastor opened the first school for the deaf in the United States and also established a college.
One important educational innovation after another has come in a Christian setting. The idea of education for all children arose among Christians. 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.
Checking Our Foundations
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. These Puritan Christians, strongly influenced by John Calvin’s ideas, passed a law requiring every township to 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 so as 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 very different view. They saw faith as the foundation of education and the main goal of it. After the United States gained independence, an early act 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 got started with a donation of money and books from Rev. John Harvard. The main goal of education at Harvard was this: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well 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 during 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 people from every segment of society. These early “public” schools were mostly run by parents or churches and emphasized Christ and the Bible as the foundations of education. When a movement got underway to separate schools from Christianity and tie them to government control, Princeton professor A. A. Hodge saw what was coming. 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 education 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 really hold to my teaching … you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). 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 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 tuned with God’s truth (Matthew 16:12). 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 those 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.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.