Archive Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

“That the Ministry of the Gospel and the Schools be Maintained”: The Academies of Protestantism

This paper was originally delivered as a lecture to All Saints Church in Lancaster Pennsylvania on Feb. 18, 2017 as a part of a conference on church history and education. The audio from the entire conference is available here.


Like all catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism has a section dedicated to expounding the Ten Commandments. When it gets to the Fourth Commandment, however, it says something very interesting:

Question 103. What does God require in the fourth commandment?

Answer: First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear his word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor. Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by his Holy Spirit in me: and thus begin in this life the eternal sabbath.

It’s interesting what gets front billing in that answer, “that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained…” That is what God requires in the fourth commandment. Now, what schools is it talking about? Modern versions of the Heidelberg seem to direct this mostly to seminaries. They say, “that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained,” but when we look to Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on this question, the answer broadens in important ways.

In a lengthy section discussing the ways we are to “honor the ecclesiastical ministry,” Ursinus writes, “The maintenance of schools may be embraced under this part of the honor which is due to the ministry; for unless the arts and sciences be taught, men can neither become properly qualified to teach, nor can the purity of doctrine be preserved and defended against the assaults of heretics (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pg. 570). Notice that the schools that Ursinus has in mind teach “the arts and sciences.” It’s also worth noting that in the “special prolegomena” at the beginning of Ursinus’ commentary, he argues that the Old Testament prophets set up schools in which they trained and catechized the children of the Hebrews (pg. 12). That section is discussing the history of catechesis, and so the topic is religious studies, however, Ursinus is asserting a sort of public religious education given to the Hebrew children by especially designated teachers.

There’s another way to know what kind of schools Ursinus had in mind. We can look at the schools of the Reformation. When we do that, we quickly learn that they did not have “seminaries” like we do today, but instead Universities, Academies, and even hybrid high school/academies, like the schola privata and schola publica which composed the Genevan Academy. It was the medievals who tended to limit the schools to the clergy. The Reformers opened them up to the public.

Indeed, as good humanists, the Reformers made schools for the purpose of teaching a complete education, and they believed that this was essential for maintaining the gospel and the gospel ministry. So, in that spirit, we ask, “How do we keep the Sabbath?” Answer, by worshipping God rightly? Question, How can we worship God rightly? Answer, by having a comprehensive liberal arts education that allows us to read the Bible and defend its doctrine. Or, in other words, by founding and funding good schools.

Martin Luther and the Priority of Schools

To fully appreciate the Reformation’s commitment to and impact on academic institutions, we should first remember how the Reformation began. Martin Luther, at the time a professor at the University of Wittenberg, set out to engage in an intramural academic debate on the subject of indulgences. The nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church was not a particularly profound activity in and of itself. It was the ordinary way that professors carried out their debates.

Luther continued the role of teacher, even as he became the great reformer.

At the end of his Letter to the German Nobles in 1520, Luther added an appendix on the need to reform the schools. At that time he was only talking about religious schools, but he did make it clear that he wanted the children of the cities, both boys and girls, to attend those schools. Luther returned to this theme in 1524, in his letter, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” There he argued that the church-run schools of the Middle Ages had fallen into disarray and ceased educating anyone. Therefore, said Luther, the civil magistrates must create new schools and fund the education of all of the children in their land. This was necessary for civilization, to have good order and future rulers, and it was also necessary for the gospel itself. Indeed, Luther even included a mastery of the languages in this necessity:

And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the Gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which we carry this jewel; they are the vessel in which we hold this wine; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and as the Gospel itself says, they are the baskets in which we bear these loaves and fishes and fragments. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which may God forbid!), we shall not only lose the Gospel, but come at last to the point where we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German. As proof and warning of this, let us take the wretched and woeful example of the universities and monasteries, in which men not only unlearned the Gospel, but corrupted the languages so that the miserable folk were fairly turned into beasts, unable to read or write a correct German or Latin and wellnigh losing their natural reason to boot.

Hence the apostles themselves considered it necessary to put the New Testament into Greek and to bind it fast to that language, doubtless in order to preserve it for us safe and sound as in a sacred ark. For they foresaw all that was to come and now has come to pass, and knew that if it were contained only in men’s heads, wild and fearful disorder and confusion, and many various interpretations, fancies and doctrines would arise in the Church, which could be prevented and from which the plain man could be protected only by committing the New Testament to writing and language. Hence it is certain that unless the languages remain the Gospel must finally perish.

(Works of Martin Luther, Vol. 4, pg. 85, AGES Digital Library Collection, )

Luther was here mainly talking about the Biblical languages, but in other places he would include Latin and German as well. And he wanted all of the people to know these languages. Only having an educated clergy was no safeguard, as that had been tried in the past. Indeed, to preserve an educated clergy over time, a land needed an educated people.

In 1526, Luther published his “German Mass,” and in its preface he explained that he wanted to keep the Latin Mass for the school. At the end of a statement on the necessity of teaching languages to the young, Luther says this:

If it lay in my power, and the Greek and Hebrew tongues were as familiar to us as the Latin, and possessed as great a store of fine music and song as the Latin does, Mass should be held and there should be singing and reading, on alternate Sundays in all four languages-German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. I am by no means of one mind with those who set all their store by one language, and despise all others; for I would gladly raise up a generation able to be of use to Christ in foreign lands and to talk with their people, so that we might not be like the Waldenses in Bohemia whose faith is so involved in the toils of their own language that they can talk intelligibly and plainly with no one unless he first learn their language. That was not the way of the Holy Ghost in the beginning. He did not wait till all the world should come to Jerusalem, and learn Hebrew. But He endowed the office of the ministry with all manner of tongues, so that the Apostles could speak to the people wherever they went. I should prefer to follow this example; and it is right also that the youth should be practised in many languages. Who knows how God will make use of them in years to come? It is for this end also that schools are established.

(The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, January 1526. B.J. Kidd, ed. Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911, 193-202; available online here: )

By 1527, Luther and Melanchthon were writing up curricula for the German schools. As can be seen in Melanchthon’s Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony,1 the schools were to teach classical Latin, music, and then collections of literature from Aesop, Mosselanus, and Erasmus are added. Scriptural memorization and catechesis are constant throughout the curriculum as well. The more advanced students would then move on to Virgil and Cicero. All of the teaching would be done in Latin.

Finally, near the end of his life, Luther wrote On the Councils. In it, he repeated some of his strong statements about the necessity of schools: “In a word, the school must be the next thing to the Church, for it is the place where young pastors and preachers are trained and out of which they are drawn to put in the places of those who die.” (Works of Martin Luther, Vol. 5, pg. 231, AGES Digital Library Collection, ).

What we see in Luther, then, is a consistent proclamation that the schools are essential for the maintenance of the ministry. The Reformation of the Church cannot continue and succeed without classical Christian schools, and so it is the duty of all Christians to attend schools and to fund and support schools.

The Academic Institutions of the Reformation

Luther had sounded the cry–no schools no church, and his followers were listening. Several existing universities were converted to Protestant centers. Wittenberg was reformed according to Luther’s ideals in 1533. Leipzig and Tubingen followed shortly afterwards. The famous University of Heidelberg eventually became a Reformed Protestant school in 1558.2 New schools were started as well, and one of Melanchthon’s students, a man named Johannes Sturm, was the chief architect. He founded the Gymnasium of Strasbourg in 1538, which has recently received recognition as the true prototype for the later Calvinistic academies, predating the Academy in Geneva.3 Scores of schools throughout Germany were built, modeled after the Strasbourg Gymnasium.

It’s important to note the timeline we’ve been laying out. The Strasbourg Gymnasium was founded in 1538. Calvin does not even arrive in Geneva until 1536, and he was kicked out by 1538. Where did he go? –to Strasbourg. Calvin ministered in Strasbourg, working alongside Martin Bucer, for four years. Calvin returns to Geneva in 1541 and sets about reforming the city government, but he is not able to found the Academy until 1559. This was a year after the University of Heidelberg had converted to Reformed theology, and indeed 21 years after Sturm’s Strasbourg Gymnasium was founded.

The Genevan Academy would become world-famous, however. Due to a bit of luck, Calvin was able to pick up most of the faculty from the Lausanne Academy. It had been dragged into controversy and had its staff fired. Many of them, including Theodore Beza, moved to Geneva and took positions at the Academy. Beza became its president.

The Genevan Academy was actually two schools, a lower school called the schola privata, and an upper school called the schola publica. The lower school emphasized the general study of the humanities, and it quickly became the most popular. Families from all over the city sent their children there. The Academy had 900 students enrolled by its second year—not bad for a city that never had more than 10,000 citizens. Its courses were Hebrew, Greek, the arts, theology, law, and medicine. To help you understand what it considered “Grammar,” the schola privata’s curriculum was made up of Virgil, Cicero, Ovid, Julius Caesar, Isocrates, Livy, Xenophon, Polybius, Homer, and Demosthenes.4 The students would read these in the original Greek and Latin, and it is worth remembering, they were high school students.

Students came from all over Europe to study at Geneva. They took their learning back home, especially to Holland, England, and Scotland. The most important humanists in 16th century Scotland were George Buchanan and Andrew Melville. Buchanan was the elder and a contemporary of Beza’s. The two men corresponded by letter. Buchanan went on to become the personal tutor to the young King James. Andrew Melville, a second generation Scottish humanist, actually met Beza and worked alongside him. Melville travelled to Geneva in 1569 and was given a teaching position at the Genevan Academy. When he returned to Scotland in 1574, Melville was offered positions at both St. Andrews and the University of Glasgow. He accepted the presidency in Glasgow and helped repair and reform the university. He was so successful at establishing a center of classical learning in Glasgow, that Melville’s students took positions in both the Scottish kirk and the king’s court. By 1575, Melville was interested in expanding. He met with the president of the University of Aberdeen, and Aberdeen went on to adopt a nearly identical curriculum as the one at Glasgow.5

In 1579, King James decided to gift the Scottish universities with strengthened funding, and Melville moved to St. Andrews to head up St. Mary’s College, their school of theology.6 During his time there, Melville attracted the attention of Robert Rollock, who would go on to become the first principle at the University of Edinburgh. Rollock held his own, and his theology was read and appreciated by Melville and even Theodore Beza. The Genevan influences in Scotland multiplied, and they were often reciprocal.

Perhaps the greatest universities to come out of this time were the English ones, Oxford and Cambridge. Both of these schools long predated the Reformation, of course, but both were profoundly impacted by it. In 1548, Peter Martyr Vermigli began teaching divinity at Oxford, and one year later, Martin Bucer took a position at Cambridge. Cambridge especially went on to become a center of Reform and even Puritanism. William Perkins taught at Christ’s College at Cambridge from 1584 to 1594, and some of his notable students were William Ames, John Robinson, Thomas Goodwin, Samuel Ward, James Ussher, and Richard Sibbes.

It’s important to note the effect of this educational reformation. It increased overall education, especially among the clergy. On the eve of the Reformation, it was not uncommon for the clergy to be largely illiterate. Most of them did not receive formal training. Yet by 1620, 52 percent of the clergy in the rural diocese of Worcester had degrees. By 1640, the percentage increased to 84. As for the see of Oxford, a more cosmopolitan area, due to its proximity to the school, the percentage went from 38% graduates among the clergy in 1560 to 50% in 1580, to 96% in 1640.7 This is why the British clergy gained a reputation for being the most learned in the world and why Bishop Hall could say, “clerus britannicus stupor mundi”—the wonder of the world is the clergy of Britain.

Like the Genevan Academy, the universities of England attracted students from across Europe. Indeed, they attracted students from across the world. One example of this was when King James set up a scholarship for students coming from Greece. Greece was, at that time, falling to the Ottoman Empire, and so many of its churchmen went abroad for sometime. One of them, a man named Cyril Lucaris, had studied in Italy and picked up many Protestant convictions. After returning to the East he became the Archbishop of Constantinople. Archbishop Lucaris later corresponded with the English Archbishop George Abbott and arranged for two Greek students, Metrophanes Kritopoulos and Nathaniel Konopios, to study at Oxford.8 Kritopoulos, after his graduation, travelled throughout Germany and Switzerland, even visiting Geneva, before returning to the East and becoming Archbishop of Alexandria.9 Archbishop Lucaris was so grateful to the English for their education opportunities that he gave the codex Alexandrinus to James’ son, Charles I in 1627. The codex Alexandrinus is a 5th century Greek Bible, one of the most important sources for biblical textual criticism.

The Union of Church and School: The Presbyterian Office of “Doctor”

One last point worth noting is the connection between the churches and the schools among the Reformed churches. Because of Calvin’s belief that the church ought to have its own government, distinct from the civil magistrate, the strictly Reformed and Presbyterian schools had a tight alignment with the clergy. Nearly all of the professors at the Genevan Academy were also members of the “Company of Pastors,” and Calvin created the ecclesiastical office of “teacher” or “doctor” especially for these professors.

Calvin explains the office of teacher or doctor in at least two places. In his commentary on Ephesians, he argues that pastors and teachers are two different offices. “Pastors,” he writes “are those who have the charge of a particular flock” (Calvin, Commentary on Ephesians 4:11). He adds to this an explanation of teachers, “I have no objection to their [pastors] receiving the name of teachers, if it be understood that there is a distinct class of teachers, who preside both in the education of pastors and in the instruction of the whole church. It may sometimes happen, that the same person is both a pastor and a teacher, but the duties to be performed are entirely different.” Notice that the pastor and the teacher “may sometimes” be the same person, but the offices are different because the duties are different. He clarifies the difference in duties in his Institutes saying, “between whom, I think, there is this difference, that teachers preside not over discipline, or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of Scripture only, in order that pure and sound doctrine may be maintained among believers” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.3.4).

It’s tempting to think of Calvin’s “teacher” as more or less a “theologian.” Since he doesn’t have to preside over discipline and the sacraments, but he does interpret Scripture and take care of “pure and sound doctrine,” that sounds mostly like a seminary professor or public theologian. But Calvin’s teacher was more than this. Remember, in the commentary on Ephesians, Calvin had said that these teachers “preside both in the education of pastors and in the instruction of the whole church.” These teachers were expected to teach everyone in the church. Also, remember the historical circumstances. These teachers taught theology, but they also taught the humanities.

We can get a fuller understanding of this office of doctor by looking at the Scottish Church’s Second Book of Discipline. This was a book put together by the stricter Presbyterians who were led by Andrew Melville. Melville, if you recall, was a student and associate of Beza’s, and he had actually taught at the Genevan Academy. Thus when he had the chance to add the Genevan office of doctor to the Scottish church, he did. Chapter 5 of the Second Book of Discipline is entitled “Of Doctors and Their Office, and of the Schools.” It says this: “One of the two ordinary and perpetual functions that travail in the word is the office of the doctor, who also may be called prophet, bishop, elder, catechiser: that is, teacher of the catechism and rudiments of religion” (Second Book of Discipline 5.1). This sounds almost like a Sunday School teacher. But the Second Book of Discipline goes on. “Under the name and office of a doctor, we comprehend also the order in schools, colleges, and universities, which has been from time to time carefully maintained, as well among the Jews and Christians, as among the profane nations” (5.4)

If we put this together with what else we’ve learned about the Reformed educational landscape, we can see that these doctors would be men like Beza, like Melville himself, and like Robert Rollock. They would be theologians who taught classes at church but who also founded academies and served as deans and presidents of universities. They would be in charge of the schools of the realm.

It’s hard to know how successful this plan actually was. The political landscape was turbulent at the time, and funding was always crucial. That funding was usually tied up with the civil magistrate, and so as the relationship between the church and the king was strained, the schools would be in a vulnerable position. Still, the concept is clear enough, and the goal is in line with what we read from the Heidelberg Catechism at the beginning of our essay. In order to support the ministry of the gospel, we must support the schools, including the schools of arts and sciences.


When we see how the Reformers took their ideas and put them into practice, an interrelated picture appears. In order to preach, teach, and defend the gospel, pastors must be educated. They must be educated according to the best humanistic tools of learning, a classical liberal arts education. And in order for this to be consistently possible, the members of the churches, the people, needed to build and sustain rigorous institutions of learning.

And they did. In any city of size across Protestant Europe, even medium-sized cities like Geneva, world-class schools and universities were built. Their faculties were supported by the city budget, but they also sat on the governing boards of the Reformed churches, even holding a special office. These schools transformed Europe, attracted students from across the globe, and helped create the modern world.

While this is an inspirational history, our day is very different, and we face many challenges. Some of us might feel like we are living in a sort of “burned over” district of educational reform. Our great Reformed and Puritans institutions have all fallen into liberalism and apostasy. Our public education is largely a non-option. Our Christian schools are fledgling. But grateful descendants of the Protestant Reformation ought to keep the vision. If we really believe that learning is essential for well-trained men and sound believers, if we believe that God speaks through the Word, and if we believe that our Reformation forefathers were correct, then let us hold fast to that conviction. Let us think of new ways to promote this education. Let us build new schools, and new kind of schools. And let us send our best to staff those schools and our best to attend those schools.

  1. found in Luther’s Works, vol. 40, Fortress Press, 1958
  2. See Karin Maag, “The Reformation and Higher Education” in Protestantism After 500 Years. ed. Howard and Noll, Oxford University Press, 2016, pg. 124-125
  3. See Andreas Muhling, “Reformed High Schools in Sixteenth-Century Germany” in A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy ed. Herman J. Selderhuis (Brill, 2013) pg. 179-180.
  4. This information was taken from Jack C. Whytock’s An Educated Clergy: Scottish Theological Education and Training in the Kirk and Secession, 1560-1850 (Paternoster, 2007), pg. 14
  5. This is summarized from the work of Ernest R. Holloway III’s Andrew Melville and Renaissance Scotland: 1545-1622 (Brill, 2011) pgs. 155-179.
  6. see Holloway, pg. 185
  7. These statistics are drawn from Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1982) pg. 94
  8. see W. B. Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom (Cambridge University Press, 1997) pg. 201-202
  9. Patterson, 213

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.