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Robert Alan Sorensen Conference on Faith and History ? October 8, 2010

Philip Melanchthon and Classical Christian Education

In an insightful 2009 article, Thomas Albert Howard commended the Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) as a fruitful conversation partner for contemporary American evangelicals.1 Melanchthon's ideas, Howard argues, may provide a helpful perspective from which to address certain weaknesses in evangelical scholarship and to broaden evangelical scholarly engagement. One specific area Howard identifies as particularly fruitful for engagement with Melanchthon is his advocacy of liberal arts education. In this essay, I will attempt to apply Howard's analysis to my own small segment of evangelical scholarship: the classical Christian education movement.

Classical Christian Education Classical Christian education is a small, but growing, movement of educational renewal. In its broadest sense, it is an attempt to revive the traditional Greco-Roman tradition of education as a means of cultivating wisdom and virtue through a rigorous study of the classical liberal arts. As a self-consciously Christian endeavor, classical Christian education differs from other neo-classical approaches in its attempt to use this Greco-Roman educational model in the service of Christianity.2 Although it is a diverse movement, there are several broad characteristics that most classical Christian schools share. First, they tend to adopt a pedagogy based upon a distinctive interpretation of the medieval `trivium' ? a term originally used to describe the three basic components used by medieval schools in order to inculcate a thorough knowledge of the Latin language: grammar, dialectic (or logic), and rhetoric. The pedagogical model used by classical Christian schools is drawn from Dorothy Sayers' 1947 essay "The Lost Tools of Learning."3 In this essay, Sayers argues that while modern education may succeed in communicating

1 Thomas Albert Howard, "Philip Melanchthon and American Evangelicalism," Pro Ecclesia 16 (2009): 162186.

2 On neo-classical education movements see Gene Edward Veith and Andrew Kern, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America (Washington DC: Capital Research Center, 2001) and Lee T. Pearcy, The Grammar of Our Civility: Classical Education in America (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005). A good brief summary of the classical Christian education movement is Peter J. Leithart, "The New Classical Schooling, " Intercollegiate Review 48 (2008), 3-12.

3 Available online at


factual content, it fails to teach students how to think clearly or how to learn things for themselves. A curriculum based on the trivium, she argued, would address the shortcomings of modern education, giving students access to the `tools' necessary to think well. Sayers conceives of the trivium as more than just the study of language, but sees it as a model by which any discipline can be taught. For Sayers, grammar is the first step in learning any subject, and involves the rote memorization of facts. Dialectic, which follows, involves the use of reason to analyze those facts. The final stage, rhetoric, develops the skills of expressing one's knowledge eloquently and persuasively. Furthermore, Sayers points out, these three steps of learning correspond neatly with the intellectual development of the child, with the grammar stage corresponding to the youngest students, dialectic to middle-grade students, and rhetoric to older students. Sayers' essay was particularly influential on Douglas Wilson, whose 1991 book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning describes a concrete educational model based upon Sayers' essay.4 Wilson's book has become one of the most influential books on classical Christian education, and is often listed as recommended reading for parents by classical Christian schools.

A second feature of classical Christian education is its commitment to the liberal arts as the center of the curriculum. For classical Christian schools, education is not properly about training for the job market, but rather serves to induct the student into his or her culture and to develop wisdom and good intellectual habits.5 Thus classical Christian schools eschew vocational training and computer classes and instead emphasize disciplines such as literature, history, and philosophy. Most classical schools adopt some form of `great books' curriculum in order to introduce students to the cultural heritage of western civilization. This typically includes both Christian and non-Christian sources. In fact, the great Greco-Roman authors are almost always given a place of prominence in the curriculum.

A third characteristic shared by many classical Christian schools is the inclusion of Latin, and very occasionally Greek, in the curriculum. They often tout the practical value of learning Latin ? things like

4 Douglas Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education (Wheaton IL: Crossway Books, 1991).

5 See, for instance, Wilson, 83ff; also Leithart, 3-4.


improved English vocabulary and higher standardized test scores. Few schools have been successful at developing real fluency in the classical languages, though.6

At first blush, Melanchthon seems to be a natural conversation partner for the classical Christian education movement. After all, Melanchthon shares a great many of the movement's concerns. He is an advocate of the liberal arts and a defender of the place of the pagan classics in the Christian classroom. He was one of the most significant and influential educators of his generation, and a pioneer in the development of Protestant schools. He was known during his lifetime as praeceptor Germaniae, and at the time of his death had advised, organized, or helped to found nearly every important school in Germany.7

His influence has not been felt in classical Christian schools, however. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that Melanchthon is not generally well-known outside of reformation-studies specialists. It is also true that classical Christian schools tend to be heavily influenced by Calvinist scholarship than by Lutherans. But even within the small community of Lutheran classical educators, Melanchthon's name is seldom heard.8 This paper will suggest that classical Christian schools, both Lutheran and non-Lutheran, would benefit from engaging with Melanchthon's writings on Christian education. I intend to focus on three broad areas of Melanchthon's thought that bear directly on the concerns of the classical Christian education movement. First, Melanchthon's division of the curriculum into developmentally appropriate levels; second, Melanchthon's discussion of the role of the liberal arts in Christian education; and third, Melanchthon's vision of teaching as a Christian vocation.

Melanchthon's Visitation Articles and School Plan for Saxony In the early 1520s, the reformation appeared in some ways to be hostile to formal education. The reformers' criticism of scholasticism, combined with their advocacy of the priesthood of all believers caused many of their adherents to think that learning was not necessary for Christians. Enrollment in universities

6 Leithart, 7. 7 Although quite dated, the most thorough account of Melanchthon as an educator is still Karl Hartfelder, Philipp Melanchthon als Praeceptor Germaniae (Berlin: A. Hoffman, 1881). The best and most complete English biography is Clyde L. Manschrek, Melanchthon: The Quiet Reformer (Nashville, Abingdon, 1958). 8 There is, for instance, no reference at all to Melanchthon on the website of the Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education []


plummeted, and Erasmus famously quipped `wherever Lutheranism reigns, knowledge perishes.'9 The reformers had to reaffirm their commitment to education and encourage the development of distinctively Protestant educational structures.10 One way that Melanchthon did this was to reform the school system in Saxony.

In 1527, the Elector of Saxony sent out teams of scholars and clergy to inspect the schools and churches throughout Saxony. Melanchthon and Luther helped to draft the instructions for the visitation committees, and Melanchthon himself headed the group that inspected the churches and schools in Thuringia. The inspection revealed the poor conditions of the Saxon schools. A discovery that was particularly galling to Melanchthon was that many of the schoolteachers were poorly educated and ignorant of the Evangelical faith.11 Upon his return to Wittenberg, Melanchthon prepared a set of instructions for the reform of churches and schools throughout Saxony which have become known as the Visitation Articles.12

In the Visitation Articles, Melanchthon instructed that students be divided into groups based on the students' intellectual development. The first group consisted of students who are still learning to read. These students were to be drilled in the basics until they should learn to read well. The second group focused specifically on the skills of grammar, and students in this group began to read certain classical texts, including Aesop, Terence, and Plautus. When students had thoroughly mastered Latin grammar, they entered the third group, where they took up Virgil and Ovid, and where they began to compose poetry and to practice the arts of logic and rhetoric. It was vital, according to Melanchthon, that students be properly trained in the foundational skills before they were allowed to move on to higher tasks. Furthermore, he is acutely aware of the importance of tailoring the curriculum to the developmental level of the child. Thus he cautions teachers

9 Cited in Manschrek, 132. 10 Mark A. Noll, "The Earliest Protestants and the Reformation of Education," Westminster Theological Journal 43 (1980), 97-131. 11 Manschrek, 136 ff. 12 An English translation, by Henry Barnard, of the Visitation Articles is in Frederick Eby, Early Protestant Educators: The Educational Writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin and Other Leaders of Protestant Thought (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1931), 180. See also Carl S. Meyer, "Melanchthon's Visitation Articles of 1528," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 23 (1972), 309-322.


to not burden younger students with too much reading, and notes that the older students can be given more difficult work.13

This school plan, like classical Christian education, recognizes that education works best when it proceeds in a natural order, and that education can only be truly successful when pedagogy is tailored to the developmental level of the students. There is a strong correspondence between what Douglas Wilson describes as teaching `with the grain' of student development14, and Melanchthon's systematic organization of primary schools into classes based on student development. The key difference, however, is terminology. Melanchthon would not recognize the way in which Wilson, Sayers and the classical Christian education community use the terms `grammar,' `dialectic,' and `rhetoric' to describe different stages in educational development. For Melanchthon, these terms described discrete subjects rather than methods. Classical Christian schools, however, can look to Melanchthon as an example of an educator who agrees with their threefold division of the school.15

Melanchthon and the Purpose of the Liberal Arts Classical Christian educators should easily recognize in Melanchthon a fellow advocate of the liberal arts. Melanchthon was tireless in his support for the classics and in his insistence that a humanities-centered curriculum was the best possible foundation for higher education. He developed a systematic theology of liberal arts education that both justified the use of the pagan classics and explained how the liberal arts were related to the mission of the Church. This systematic grounding of the liberal arts in Christian doctrine gives Melanchthon's educational writings a unity and coherence that other advocates of classical education sometimes lack.16

13 Eby, 180-187. See also Meyer, "Melanchthon's Visitation Articles," 319-320 and William Harrison Woodward, Studies in Education During the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924), 215-216.

14 Wilson, 92. 15 One of the interesting developments in classical Christian education during the last five years has been a growing disagreement about whether Sayers' interpretation of the trivium is correct. Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans, Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning (Wheaton IL: Crossway Books, 2006) suggests that the trivium is best understood as content rather than method ? an approach that is much closer to Melanchthon's understanding of both the disciplines of the trivium and his assessment of student intellectual development. 16 Clyde Manschrek, "The Bible in Melanchthon's Philosophy of Education," Journal of Bible and Religion 23 (1955), 206.


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