The Rebirth of Learning and the Reformation: Erasmus vs. Luther on Education
- K. Sikkema

Canadian Reformed teachers met for their annual convention on November 9 and 10, 2000, in Maranatha-Emmanuel Christian Schools in Fergus. After the official opening, Dr. Riemer Faber of the University of Waterloo received the floor to present his paper, in which he effectively contrasted the views of Erasmus (1466-1536) and Luther (1483-1546) on the need for schools and pedagogy. The speech also illustrated that ‘one’s anthropology cannot be divorced from theology,’ and Dr. Faber encouraged us to reflect on how this would make a difference in our daily practice. In this summary of the address [1] , quotes from Erasmus and Luther are italicized.

A Teachers’ Convention is a time to reflect on our practice: what makes our teaching, our methods, our manners, and our style distinctly reformed? It is well to consider the contributions of the early reformation when pondering these questions. The sixteenth century started with poor-quality schools dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, and an emerging economy in which people were encouraged to learn a trade and make money. Many parents withdrew their children from the schools to pursue a trade. Both Erasmus (the famous ‘Christian humanist’ of Rotterdam) and Luther (the Reformer from Wittenberg) deplored this development, and set out to answer fundamental questions about proper education. Dr. Faber then explored the answers Erasmus and Luther gave to these questions:

1. What is the proper definition of Christian Education?

2. What is the necessity of Christian Education?

3. What is the biblical view of teacher and student?

4. What are the best methods to employ?

5. What are the goals of Christian education?


1. "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched" , in that his thinking anticipated that of the reformers. Centuries of custom had obscured the Bible and the faith of the individual believer. Erasmus therefore advocated a return to the sources: the Bible to learn a holy life, and the Greek and Roman Classics for culture. To Erasmus, the Bible and the Classics were two sides of the same coin, and he thus strove for a combination of Christianity and humanism. This is reflected in Erasmus’ definition of education, in which the forming of an upright moral character was first, and humanistic goals (responsibility, career and life skills) followed: "The task of fashioning the young is made up of many parts, the first and consequently the most important part of which consists of implanting the seeds of piety in the tender heart; the second in instilling a love for, and thorough knowledge of, the liberal arts; the third in giving instructions in the duties of life; the fourth in training in good manners right from the very earliest years."

2. To Erasmus, education was necessary, lest barbarism replace civilization. "Remember that a man without education has no humanity at all; that man’s life is a fleeting thing; that youth is an easy prey to sin; that adulthood is afflicted with numerous cares; and that old age, which few are permitted to reach, is barren and sterile. [...] you will not allow your child [...] to waste any portion of his existence during which he may gather resources that will greatly benefit his entire life and keep it from evil." To Erasmus, education nurtures our very being and sets us apart from other creatures: people act from reason, and animals from instinct. Therefore, reason must be developed by education. Also, learning is expected to overcome the hardship of life. Erasmus preferred to focus on the value learning has to this earthly life, and not to eternal life.

3. While Luther took his starting point in the depravity of man, Erasmus started with the goodness of the teacher and the student. Erasmus believed that a child’s mind must be instructed before it gets corrupted. The child’s mind is receptive, pliable, and capable to take on any form, even (if well-fashioned by proper education) a god-like nature. To Erasmus, the seeds for life were implanted in us ‘by nature’, and teachers only need to put in a good effort to make it sprout and grow: "Every living creature learns very easily how to carry out its own functions; so also every human being can be taught virtue without any great hardship. The seeds that nature has implanted in us to attain this goal are bursting with life; the only thing that is required, in addition to this natural inclination, is the effort of a dedicated teacher." Erasmus believed that teachers were more important than school systems, as the Bible also speaks more about teachers than about a school system. With a reference to Matthew 17:5, Erasmus posed Jesus as the best model for all teachers, in whom they should see the example of patience, gentleness, and encouragement. Erasmus made the teachings of Christ the objective of all learning, and even infants must be taught the gospel. Yet, Erasmus did not stress Christ’s atonement for our sins.

4. To Erasmus, classical antiquity showed the best method for teaching. He believed that old Greek and Roman intellectual and cultural ideals could be integrated with Christian ideals. "There is no branch of knowledge, whether military, agricultural, musical, or architectural, which is not useful for those who have undertaken an exposition of the ancient poets or orators," he said about the value of humanistic education. A careful selection of pagan writings can even help to live a holy life: "I would not want you to imbibe pagan morals together with pagan writings. On the other hand, you will find many things there which are conducive to a holy life, and the good precepts of a pagan author should not be rejected..." Luther would differ here, but Erasmus saw Christianity as the best culmination of Greek and Roman accomplishments. In fact, he believed that antiquity should help in the interpretation of the Bible.

5. Regarding the goal of Christian education, Erasmus wanted to pursue learned piety. He was influenced by the renaissance in his belief that the Christian faith could not be understood without appropriating the culture and philosophy of antiquity. To him, piety comes from both civilization and the Bible. True happiness comes from studying achievements of the present and the past, with the Bible as the most important achievement, but the others are not at all excluded.


1. To Luther, there was a link between reform in the schools and in the church. After his own struggle about justification, Luther recognized that it is through Christ that people regain their full humanity: "I am afraid, however, that he [Erasmus] does not advance the cause of Christ and the grace of God sufficiently.... Human things weight more with him than the divine." In contrast to Erasmus’ humanistic focus with man at the centre of interest, Luther placed God at the centre (theocentric), and identified the gospel and the grace of God as fundamental to education.

As Luther had a different assumption about man than Erasmus, he also came to a different definition of education. Starting with God, he did not want to confuse divine and human learning. What God teaches is about justification, focusing on the inner man, and arriving through the preaching; it is for the spiritual realm. Human instruction is for the temporal realm, separate from and subordinate to divine teaching. Yet, stressing the spiritual estate of all believers, Luther recognized that what happens on earth is of importance for eternal life. Midway between the earthly and the heavenly realm, the task of Christian education is to provide Christian instruction based on the Bible, to prepare for service of God in the earthly and the heavenly realm.

2. Luther had three arguments for the necessity of Christian education. First, it had to protect the children from the devil’s attempts to take them away from God; second, if God allowed education to take place, we should not reject it; third - and most importantly - it is a command of God: see Psalm 78. While for Erasmus the necessity of education lay within humanity, for Luther it lay in God’s commands: "recall the command of God, who through Moses urges and enjoins parents so often to instruct their children that Psalm 78 says, ‘how earnestly He commanded our fathers to teach their children and to instruct their children’s children’ [Ps 78:5-6]. This is also evident in God’s fourth commandment."

3. As far as Erasmus was concerned, human intellect separated people from animals, but for Luther it was their being created in the image of God, and their task on earth. As, through the fall into sin, man has become depraved, the capabilities of the human natural will are virtually nil. Luther countered Erasmus on this, saying, "Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.... Free will after the fall exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin... The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin." Luther directs us to the counsel of God: people (including children) are fallen and depraved, and yet redeemed by God’s grace. Teachers who ignore this, ignore the gospel. The task of the teacher is both spiritual and secular. There is a union between teaching faith and the task on this earth: as Christ has only one body, education refers to this realm as well. Education must consider how this child must be prepared for the task in this life.

4. Regarding the methods to be employed, Luther was original in building from the Bible for curriculum: the gospel only shows people as depraved, and nothing else can show how this depravity can be removed. For that reason, instruction in the Bible makes the school a Christian school, and it must be a subject in itself as well as permeate all other subjects. Luther also had a new, original emphasis on the parental obligation in education. Together with Melanchthon he devised a school order which helped bring about the first public school. He emphasized the need for teachers to have a curriculum and to use textbooks, like the catechism. To Luther, the writers of antiquity were only useful as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves (as with Erasmus). The ancient world must be seen and studied in the historical context of salvation, as it led to conditions in which the gospel could be preached: "I realize there has never been a great revelation of God’s word unless God has first prepared the way by the rise and flourishing of languages and learning, as though these were forerunners, a sort of [John] the Baptist."

5. For Luther, the goal of education was to fight the devil, and, in line with 2 Tim 3:15, to know the Bible itself: "Let this, then, my dear sirs and friends, be the first consideration to influence you, namely, that herein we are fighting against the devil as the most dangerous and subtle enemy of all." Through instruction in the Bible children learn to bring glory and praise to God. By providing for public education, the temporal government has a task to promote the spiritual realm, while not neglecting its temporal responsibilities: "A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety, and strength consists rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens."

In conclusion, Dr. Faber summarized key points of his paper in a chart similar to this, encouraging us to consider on each point what our own conscious or subconscious assumptions are:

Erasmus’ view


Luther’s view


view of natural man



foundational focus

God- and Christ-centered

joined to faith

humanistic / classical learning

subordinated to faith

personal piety

goal of education

reform of the community

in harmony with Scripture

Greek and Roman classics

to be read in view of Scripture


focus of delivery of education


benefits for the individual

objective of education

education for service to God


fruits of learning

spiritual and earthly


[1] Dr. Faber has endorsed this summary without qualification as accurate, and has given permission to publish it.