Thanks to Germany, I Can Read and Write
Should we celebrate the 500th anniversary of German Reformation on October 31, 2017? Wasn’t it a religious revolution that triggered many bloody conflicts?
In his book, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, master historian, Jacques Barzun, describes the Reformation as the most consequential revolution of the second millennium after Christ. It was the Dawn of the modern age.
It is because of the Reformation that we no longer have the Holy Roman Empire. Instead, we have independent nations such as Switzerland, India, and the USA, and churches such as Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican.
In this series of write-ups I intend to explain how the modern world came out of the Reformation. Then, the reader can decide whether or not that “Dawn” deserves to be celebrated.
Here is my point # 1:
I read and write because of the sixteenth century German Reformation. Without it, my Indian culture would not have allowed me to develop my mind.
It took several trumpet blasts from the “heretical monk,” Martin Luther (1483-1546), to bring down the walls that imprisoned the medieval mind. The most important of these blasts for educational reform were two Open Letters and one Sermon. The Sermon was also printed as an open letter for parents, but it was meant to be read by preachers. The blasts were:
(1) 1520 — An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation: Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.
(2) 1524 — To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany : That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools
(3) 1530 — Sermon “On Keeping Children in School”
Although Luther was a Professor at the University of Wittenberg (Germany), back then Europe did not have a school-system. A few young people, especially those who wanted to serve the church, went to religious institutions such as monasteries, nunneries, cloisters, and Cathedral Schools to study. Some of these institutions attracted enough teachers, students, and donations to grown into (medieval) universities. Yet, no one — neither rulers, parents, nor the church — had any interest in educating every child. In fact, for different reasons, the state, the church, as well as parents, resisted the idea of educating every child. That is why, in order to transform his world, Martin Luther had to confront the walls that European society had built up to keep people imprisoned in ignorance.
Luther blasted his trumpets against those wall because the Bible taught him that Satan enslaves people through falsehood. God liberates people through truth:
The Bible says in Revelation 20: 2-3,
“. . . he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years . . . so that he might not deceive the nations any longer.” In John 8: 32-33, the Lord Jesus Christ says, “If you abide in my word . . you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
My Hindu culture was similar to medieval Europe. It prohibited my people from studying because it believed Satanic falsehood that only a male Brahmin was entitled to study truth: he was made from God’s mouth. A female Brahmin could not study the Scriptures because her deeds (karma) in previous lives were not good enough to allow her to be born a male. The rest of the castes could not study because God created them from the lower parts of his body. They did not have the brains.
Luther’s religious culture was only slightly better. It took no interest in educating ordinary people. The state had no schools and the church thought that only the priests needed to know the truth. Therefore, Luther’s 1520 trumpet-blast for universal education relied on several key truths taught in the Bible.
His first truth was that Christ did not divide Christians in separate castes. All Christians were members of Christ’s own body. His letter to German nobility began by quoting the Bible from St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth:
“For just as the body is one and has many members . . . so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—. . . For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12 – 14)
There had been an intellectual movement prior to the Reformation. It is known as the Renaissance. Its leaders are called “Christian Humanists.” They had expressed the need for education reform. Reformers such as Martin Luther were well aware of their works. However, the Renaissance remained a chatter among the small class of educated elite. The Reformation, in contrast, became a transforming movement. That happened because Luther’s trumpet blasted another truth from the Bible. That truth is that every child of God is a royal priest:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2: 9).
One of India’s best-known low caste intellectual, Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, labels this truth as “spiritual democracy.” Luther’s letter expounded this idea also by quoting a powerful passage from the last book of the Bible. It says that the Lord Jesus Christ shed his blood to purchase Satan’s slaves in order to make them priests and kings:
“ . . . by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
In another post we will see that this truth that Luther called “priesthood of all believers,” began the global movement for human equality. It remains the most potent metaphysical foundation for modern faith that all men and women are equal.
It is easy to argue that every child must be educated; but who will pay for building the schools? How will poor parents pay the teachers? This was the theme of Martin Luther’s second Trumpet Blast. He addressed his 1524 letter to the Christian Councilmen in all German cities.
Luther was heard because his appeal came directly from God’s commandment in the Bible. He rested his case for education on Psalm 78: 5-7:
He [God] . . . appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
Luther’s Open Letter required Christian Councilmen in every city to build and maintain schools. Why? Because, in the Bible God himself is “Father.” This patriarchal worldview means that a man is more than an animal. He should not be a stud bull who impregnates a woman and goes to the next girl. A man is to be responsible like God. He watches over his children. A responsible father nurtures his children. This, in turn, enables them to know and honour their fathers and learn from them how to live.
In primitive, animal-like culture, every male is free to have sex with any woman. The children, then, do not even know their fathers, let alone have an educational relationship with them. As our Father, God’s intention is that human fathers be teachers to their children. The recipients of Luther’s letter were Christian Councilmen — city Elders. In John’s vision of heaven, there are 24 Elders who sit on thrones before God to govern God’s kingdom on earth.
In his Letter, Luther reminded them that like fathers, Elders too have educational responsibility. This is given to them by God’s own word. Luther quotes and expounds Moses’ admonition to children in Deuteronomy 32: 7:
“ask your father, and he will show you,
your elders, and they will tell you.”
Ten years after his original appeal, Luther learnt that while noblemen and councilmen were listening to his biblical appeal for education, parents were a different problem.
Poor parents could not see why a child should go to school, if his life was to be spent milking cows, catching fish, or chopping dry wood to keep the village warm.
Today, most people can see that if a child from a poor family studies well, he could lift his family out of poverty. However, five hundred years ago this was not easy to see. Back then, no educationist or ruler had made an “obvious”, tangible case for economic advantages for education. That case did not exist. That is why Luther’s 1530 appeal to parents for “Keeping Children in School” rested entirely upon his faith in the Bible as God’s word. Poor peasants were anxious about their daily needs. They wanted their children to help with family’s meagre income. Luther’s sermon challenged them to live by faith in God’s word. He expounded the words of the Lord Jesus, recorded in Matthew 6: 31-33:
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Luther was addressing parents who could not read his sermon. Therefore, he expected priests to read the sermon and then to preach it in every church. In its day, the Sermon was incredible. It asked German Christians to believe and obey God’s word, even when they had no tangible evidence that sending their children to learn God’s truth and God’s ways, will improve their economic life.
Did it work?
By the year 1600, at least 300 German cities and towns had established schools. They were so effective that as early as 1537, a Roman Catholic theologian, John Zwick, stated that if he were a boy again, he would attend a Lutheran institution. These schools imparted better education because their motivation was not to make money but to obey God.
By reforming education the Bible empowered the German speaking world. Quickly, other nations also wanted to be reformed. So, they too started translating the Bible into their languages. It did not take long for everyone to realize that seeking God’s kingdom by educating every child into God’s ways, builds strong economies. Nevertheless, reforming a culture is not easy. It was not easy for Luther either. It called for a special kind of heroism. We will examine Reforming Heroism in another article. We can conclude this by noting that changing established beliefs and old habits is disturbing. That is why some European cultures opposed translation, publication and study of God’s word. Kings and priests want to keep final authority in their own hands. Even though it is their submission to God’s truth that sets their people free.
Gradually, almost everyone bought the idea of universal education. Yet, many separated education from the God’s word. Such cultures are finding that without the Bible, it is impossible for schools to nurture citizens with a deep interest in truth or with strong character. Corruption of morals takes a heavy toll on a nation’s economy. The postmodern world is slowly learning that aspect of Jacques Barzun’s thesis in “From Dawn to Decadence.” That, however, is a topic for another post.
[Note – This piece is being published in the monthly magazine of Fontis publications in Basel, Switzerland. A group in Switzerland hopes to turn it into a 5-minute YouTube video. Please pray that I may be able to write 12-24 articles in this series and that we may be able to turn all of them into good quality videos. We will need your financial contributions for videographers]
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