Why Lutherans Need Classical Colleges

Today, the great classical preoccupations—the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—are not just theoretical ideals. They are survival skills, especially for Lutherans.

The importance of classical education for Lutherans is enshrined in the Confessions themselves. Luther’s explanation of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism sets forth the duty of parents to educate their children, and, in the Latin version, to educate them in a specific way:

Let every one know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God, and if they are talented, have them learn and study something, that they may be employed for whatever need there is [to have them instructed and trained in a liberal education, that men may be able to have their aid in government and in whatever is necessary].1

“Liberal” education is a synonym for classical education, referring not at all to progressivism but to the Latin liberalis, which means “befitting free men.”2 This goes back to the Greco-Roman distinction between the wide-ranging intellectual education necessary to equip a free citizen and the purely utilitarian education designed to equip—but also to limit—slaves. The inclusion of this line in the Large Catechism shows that Luther and the other early Reformers strongly favored classical education. 

Classical Education and the Reformation

It is no exaggeration to say that the Reformation grew directly out of the recovery of classical education that was the catalyst for the Renaissance. The University of Wittenberg was founded to promote the Renaissance approach to learning. The liberal arts principle of studying original sources (ad fontes) led to a focus on the Bible rather than scholastic commentaries. The rediscovery of the Greek language led to Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament in its original language. A Wittenberg professor, preparing for his lectures on the Bible, realized the significance of “the just shall live by faith.” He posted 95 Theses that he sought to defend in an academic disputation, a staple of the classical university. He would go on to translate the Bible from its original languages. The Renaissance emphasis on rhetoric, as opposed to the medieval emphasis on logic, equipped pastors for a new emphasis on preaching. 

The Reformers wanted every Christian to have access to God’s Word, which necessitated the opening of schools, with the goal of universal education. The schools they opened were not just Bible reading schools. Rather, they were Renaissance classical schools, offering an education for freedom, which soon led to unprecedented social mobility and, eventually, to political freedom.

Thomas Korcock, in his history of Lutheran education, goes so far as to define the Lutheran educational tradition as classical education combined with catechesis.3 He also shows how the theological conflicts that Lutherans faced manifested themselves also in conflicts over education. The Enthusiasts wanted neither the liberal arts (considering them too worldly) nor catechesis (opposing the emphasis on doctrine rather than personal experience) and called for schools that simply taught how to read the Bible. The Humanists thought the liberal arts were sufficient to cultivate virtue and religion, so that catechesis was unnecessary. The Pietists would also consider the liberal arts to be too worldly and the catechism to be too doctrinal, calling for schools that taught the Bible and also prepared young people for a vocation. Later, the Rationalists would oppose both the liberal arts and catechesis in favor of a “scientific” education. But in each controversy, the orthodox Lutherans would insist on liberal education combined with Christian catechesis.

So What Happened?

The decline of the classical university can be traced to two of the greatest arch-nemeses of confessional Lutherans: King Friederich Wilhelm III of Prussia—best known for the Prussian Union, which forced Lutherans and Reformed into one state church, resulting in the emigration of confessional Lutherans who would found the Missouri Synod—and Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology.

The King, a patron of Enlightenment rationalism, resolved to create a new kind of university, and he asked Schleiermacher, among others, to put together its curriculum. The result was the University of Berlin, the first of what would become known as the “German university model.” The organizing principle would be Science. (Never mind that modern science grew out of classical education.) The purpose of the institution would not be so much teaching as research. Whereas classical education sought to transmit the wisdom of the past, the new German universities would focus on the new. Whereas classical education was wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, the new German university education would be highly specialized. Faculties would be organized into specialized departments. Students would choose a specific major and minor.

Theology was an accepted subject, due to the need to prepare pastors for the new state church, but the emphasis was on research, not piety. Theology had to be taught “scientifically.” Thus, the Bible had to be studied like any other ancient text, without reference to miracles, the supernatural, or divine revelation. In this way, the higher criticism of the Bible and liberal theology were enshrined in higher education, including the education of pastors.

Classical universities—such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale—held out for a while. But the new universities being started in the United States—both private schools, such as Johns Hopkins (the first to adopt the German model) and the University of Chicago (founded by John D. Rockefeller), and the new state land-grant institutions—adopted the German model. 

Before long, even the universities and colleges that still called themselves “liberal arts” institutions adopted the structure and educational philosophy of the German universities, with their majors, minors, and departments.

In the 20th century, most of the schools organized around the German model—now called “research universities”—recognized that the specialists they were turning out also needed a wider-ranging education and instituted so-called “liberal arts” requirements.

Sometimes that combination worked well, but often the “liberal arts” were reduced to the “humanities” and taught as unconnected specialized courses. Since students could pick and choose from a long menu of classes, the liberal arts curriculum typically lacked coherence, which is the genius of the classical liberal arts, in which different subjects are connected and build on each other.

Meanwhile, the rise of “progressive education,” following the philosophy of John Dewey, put forward the notion that primary and secondary education is also a “science.” So-called “Normal Schools,” or Teachers Colleges, were founded to train teachers for the new educational philosophy.

Lutheranism and American Education

The religious refugees from King Friedrich Wilhelm’s reign kept up elements of the Lutheran educational tradition of classical education combined with catechesis, at least for a while. They brought over from Germany the Gymnasium, the classical secondary school, as invented by Melanchthon. This was two-years longer than the American high schools, overlapping with what Americans considered college years. The early Concordias were Gymnasia. As the German immigrants assimilated, the education they offered in their parochial schools became more like that of other Americans, though catechesis was still emphasized.

Even then, Lutherans believed that pastors, at least, should still have a classical liberal education. They needed to learn Greek and Hebrew in order to study the Scriptures, as well as Latin and German to study Lutheran theology. They needed to be able to handle philosophical discourse in order to be effective theologians. They needed to develop rhetorical skills in order to be good preachers. They needed a broad background in the whole range of disciplines in order to understand and communicate with their parishioners.

Up through the middle of the 20th century, young men who wanted to be pastors attended the Concordia Gymnasia to prepare for seminary. As the church tried to fit its institutions into the Procrustean bed of the American educational system, the Gymnasia began to be described as “a boarding high school plus junior college”—language missing the genius of Melanchthon’s institution. A classical “finishing school,” a “senior college,” was opened at Fort Wayne, Indiana, one hailed for the quality of its curriculum. But it became a casualty of the rise of Schleiermacher’s theological liberalism in the synod, and, after the schism of the 1970s, the Concordias were restructured to be like other American colleges.

I am not disparaging the Concordias—I taught for most of my career at Concordia University Wisconsin, once the Gymnasium known as Concordia Milwaukee, and I prize my time there. It was there that I learned about the liberal arts and had the opportunity to teach them in a distinctly Lutheran context. But today we live in a new intellectual and educational climate, as the modernist emphasis on science has devolved into the postmodernist emphasis on relativism and subjectivity. 

As a result, contemporary education on the primary, secondary, and collegiate level is declining academically. If truth is relative—either a personal construction or an imposition of one group’s oppressive power over others—education is reduced to the cultivation of subjective feelings and political indoctrination. This is why even many college graduates can scarcely read or write, know little about the world outside themselves, and remain essentially uneducated.

Today, both pastors and laypeople must learn how to “think like a Lutheran.” Lutherans must still think in terms of objective truth. They must be able to handle ideas, such as those that express the church’s doctrines. They must know the legacy of the past, recognize its wisdom as well as its mistakes, in order to receive and carry on their spiritual heritage. They must recognize that morality is not just a matter of personal choice or cultural preference, but that God’s Law is a transcendent reality. They must appreciate beauty—of music, of liturgy, of the arts, of language (in hymns, sermons, devotions, and Scripture)—as an antidote to the shallow stimulations and distractions of pop culture. Today, the great classical preoccupations—the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—are not just theoretical ideals. They are survival skills, especially for Lutherans.

The good news is that Lutherans are rediscovering their educational heritage, their combination of liberal education and catechesis. This is happening in parochial schools—as in the membership of the Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education—and it is happening on the collegiate level. A number of Concordias are building up their identity as both Lutheran and liberal arts institutions.

And I am excited at the emergence of Luther Classical College, a school wholly dedicated to bringing back the Lutheran educational tradition.

End Notes

1 F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau, trans., in Concordia Triglotta (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), p. 631

2 See the entry for “liberal” in The Online Etymological Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=liberal

3 Thomas Korcok, Lutheran Education (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011)


Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

Dr. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. is a writer, retired literature professor, and member of the Board for the Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education (CCLE)

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