Mr. Alwyn Terpstra
In a previous article titled Reformed Education – Scripturally Compelling, I made the case that even though there was no direct mandate in the Bible to establish reformed schools, the case for establishing and maintaining them was, scripturally, very compelling . In this article I want to look at the element of reformed education through the lens of history to see what we might learn from what happened before, and how we might apply that in our time.
The Great Reformation
Reformed education has its origins in the Great Reformation, predominantly through the strong advocacy of John Calvin. Calvin, along with other reformers, was driven by a number of convictions in relation to reformed education. In the first place he was highly critical of the Roman schools of his time. Calvin’s grievance against them was, “that they darken the grace of Christ in every kind of manner” . In the second place, Calvin and others were convinced that the good work of the Reformation would be lost to future generations without there being soundly reformed schools. He saw the schools as being of vital importance to the preservation of the church. In the third place Calvin and others saw that reformed schooling was important for society as a whole.
As to the character of reformed education, Calvin held that it was of importance for all children, “as a calling from God … to … know their heavenly Father, know Him in all the works of His hands” . Calvin held that “instruction should be founded from beginning to end on the Word of God”  and that the various subjects taught should be “subservient to the one purpose: to promote the true knowledge of God” . As aim for reformed education Calvin held “that the child become a true Christian” and that “the children be taught to live in conformity with God and His Word” .
From Geneva to Dordrecht
The concept of reformed education, as outlined by Calvin, was formalised in a decision of the Synod of Dordrecht in 1578, which mandated churches to work towards establishing reformed schools. The task of the church involved the appointment and training of teachers and the supervision of the reformed character of the education given .
Synod of Dort 1618 – 1619
The Synod of Dort revisited the matter of reformed education some 40 years later. The synod agreed to a three way instruction approach, in the homes by the parents, in the schools by the teachers and in the church by the ministers and elders .
In the latter sessions of this synod, attention was given to a Church Order and the matter of instruction was taken up in the Church Order of Dort. Article 21 formulated the arrangement as follows:
All consistories shall see to it that there are good school masters who not only teach the children reading, writing, languages and liberal arts but also train them in godliness and in the catechism.
So, a rather unique situation developed in The Netherlands. The Reformed Church worked together with the reformed dominated Dutch government to arrange matters surrounding education. The government covered the cost of schooling and the church supervised the reformed character of the education given. For quite some years, The Netherlands had a system of reformed public education. School teachers had to be members of the Reformed Church. Education was based on the Bible, while the Heidelberg Catechism was used as a confessional guideline.
The establishment of neutral public schools
Not surprisingly, the situation as outlined did not last. By the end of the 18th century, in part due to the French Revolution and the French invasion of The Netherlands under Napoleon, church and state became separated. In 1806, a new law was passed, incorporating a neutral public school designed to cater for the whole population. Children were to be educated in all Christian and social virtues instead of being raised in the reformed doctrine .
The fight for private schools
The 19th century saw two secessions in the Reformed Church of The Netherlands, the first in 1834 and the second in 1886. The secessions can be characterised as a rejection of the spirit of the Enlightenment that impacted church and society. It’s not that difficult to appreciate that those who had separated themselves from false teachings in the church, found it hard to swallow that their children continued to be influenced by these teachings in the schools they attended. Establishing private schools, however, was forbidden and when an attempt was made, it was forcibly stopped .
In 1848 this all changed and room was created in the Constitution of The Netherlands for individuals and groups to establish private schools. The government would maintain supervision over the schools but would not finance any of its operations. Despite the onerous guidelines and the lack of financial support a number of reformed schools were established. They became known as The School with the Bible, and were established and maintained by lowly citizens with few financial means .
The struggle for full freedom to establish private schools continued till 1917, at which point new legislation was passed that maintained some government supervision over all schools and full subsidy for public and private schools . Reformed parents, surprisingly, needed considerable prompting to engage with The School with the Bible. Dr K Schilder, for example, saw it necessary to urge parents to get behind the reformed schools arguing that parents should see to it that their children received consistent messages in accordance with God’s Word .
On the 11th August 1944, members of the Reformed Church in The Netherlands, separated themselves from this church to establish what became known as the Reformed Churches (liberated). This was the culmination of many years of discussion and debate, in particular about children, their place in the covenant and the meaning of baptism. It soon became clear that a separation in the church would have consequences for the school. J Kamphuis writes: “It should not escape our attention that the struggle that resulted in the Liberation concerned the highly significant matter of the covenant … The covenant, which, in Christ, encompasses us and our children. …” .
It took time before reformed schools connected to the newly liberated churches were established across the country. In some areas it was possible to continue co-operatively, with some clear agreements in place as to the composition of the Board and what teachers had to avoid in their discussions with the children. In other localities, members of the liberated churches were no longer able to serve on the School Board and even not invited to attend member meetings . Over time the conviction grew that the reformation that had taken place in relation to the church needed to be carried through into education too. So, in the late 1940’s and through the 1950’s reformed schools were once again established, connected to the reformed church, founded on God’s Word and the Confessions. “Schools born from necessity but also schools where the pure doctrine of the church could be taught to the children, where without restraint, reformed education could be given in all subjects of the curriculum” .
The late 1940’s and 1950’s saw many people from The Netherlands, including those of the liberated churches, migrate to find a new home in Australia, Brazil, Canada, and South Africa. Here they established reformed churches as well as reformed schools. These schools followed closely the model of reformed education. In Australia we have seen the establishment of the John Calvin Schools in Armadale first of all in 1957, in Albany in 1962 and then in Launceston in 1965, with other schools being established in Kelmscott, Byford, Rockingham and just recently in Capel.
A number of common threads run through this story. The first is the importance of having our children taught consistently in accordance with the Bible and the Confessions. The second is that reformed education extends support to the bigger cause of knowing God and serving him. The third is that reformed education is important for the future of the church. The fourth is that the cause of reformed education has been taken up by lowly people who sought nothing more than to raise their children in faithfulness to the baptism vows made, and who were prepared to make many sacrifices for this. The fifth is that compromise just doesn’t cut it. The sixth is that God continued to bless the faithful activity of our fellow believers in Christ.
What a beautiful story, what wonderful examples to follow.
May we be motivated to continue in this wonderful tradition in the 21st century, even in the face of difficulties and possible sacrifices.
Alwyn Terpstra is member of the FRC Armadale; he works as Principal of the Office of Reformed Education.
- Terpstra, A., Reformed Education - Scripturally Compelling. Una Sancta, 2019. 66(1): p. 16, 17.
- van ’t Veer, M.B., First Principles of Calvin’s School Establishment. Una Sancta 34(3).
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- Acta Nationale Synode van Dordrecht in 1618 - 1619. 1987, Den Hertog B.V: Houten, The Netherlands.
- Church Order of Dort (1619). Available from: http://rscottclark.org/2012/09/church-order-of-dort-1619/.
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- Kamphuis, J., Ten Geleide, in Door Hem Het Amen. 1974, De Vuurbaak: Groningen, The Netherlands. p. 7 -10.
- Veldman, H., De gevolgen van de Vrijmaking voor het christelijke onderwijs in Zuidhorn, in Kinderen Van De Kerk. 1994, Gereformeerde Schoolvereniging te Zuidhorn: Zuidhorn, The Netherlands.
- Veldman, H., Het lager onderwijs, in Door Hem het Amen. 1974, De Vuurbaak: Groningen, The Netherlands.