Even a brief survey of the far-reaching effects of the Reformation on education and the arts must recognize its antecedents. For one thing, the Reformation was closely related to the Renaissance. While Luther’s testimony at Worms was as Carlyle said “the greatest moment in the modern history of man,” it was also the culmination of the spiritual ferment of the several centuries preceding Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers. Nor may the results of the Reformation be confined to Protestantism; they are found as well in Catholic thought and life.
Two great principles were basic to the influence of the Reformation on education and the arts: the final authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of the believer.
For Luther and his colleague Melanchthon, who had so much to do with education in sixteenth-century Germany, it was a spiritual necessity for the individual to read the authoritative Word of God. Therefore, great numbers of elementary schools were needed—a requirement called by Professor William K. Medlin of the University of Michigan “the most important educational development in European history since ancient times.” And such it was, because in the long run it led to public schools.
The other principle, that of the priesthood of all believers, led in the same direction, for it “took the responsibility for education out of the hands of the priestly hierarchy and, practically speaking, placed it upon the rulers and ultimately upon the people” (Clyde L. Manschreck, Melanchthon: The Quiet Reformer, p. 132). Luther himself wrote in his “Sermon on the Duty of Sending Children to School” (1530): “I maintain that the civic authorities are under obligation to compel the people to send their children to school.… For our rulers are certainly bound to maintain the spiritual and secular offices and callings, so that there may always be preachers, jurists, pastors, scribes, physicians, school-masters, and the like.…” In all this, Melanchthon was at one with Luther, and so extensive were his educational endeavors that he “provided the foundation for the evangelical public school system of Germany” (ibid., p. 143). Melanchthon also profoundly influenced secondary education through what he did in shaping the German “gymnasium” and was instrumental in the development of the university throughout Protestant Germany.
Aside from insisting with Luther on the responsibility of secular authority for education and the necessity of educating all children (and Luther was far ahead of his time in providing for the education of girls as well as boys), Melanchthon held a concept of an integrated Christian education similar to that which has recently been rediscovered by Protestant educational philosophers, evangelicals not least among them. He “put into the curricula of his schools, especially the higher schools, those subjects which would contribute most to an understanding of the scriptures” (ibid., p. 146) and justified the various subjects, including physics and astronomy, by their relation to God. His was an integrated curriculum, centering in the principles of “back to the sources” and “knowledge of Christ.”
But the educational influence of the Reformation spread far beyond Germany. Along with the Lutheran there is the Calvinist influence. Like Luther, Calvin was committed to the extension of learning. Calvinism affected education in the Netherlands, where the Synod of Dort in 1618 required every parish to furnish elementary education for all and where the Protestant Christian school reached its fullest flowering and set the pattern for the Christian day school movement in America. In Scotland the educational impact of Geneva came through Knox, and in 1646 the Parliament required a school in each parish. Education in France and Switzerland was mightily affected by the Reformation. “No one,” said Calvin, “is a good minister who is not first a scholar.” In an essay entitled “The Reformed Tradition in the Life and Thought of France” (Theology Today, I, 349), Emile Cailliet stresses the essential democracy of the French Reformed movement: “The new Christian learning stayed in close contact with the people. In France as in Geneva, every Reformed church was bound to have a school. Mothers would learn to read so that they might be the first Bible teachers of the children.… It was a Protestant, the philosopher, Pierre Ramus, who at the time of the Renaissance organized higher education in France.” Moreover, in the nineteenth century many French Protestants were educators, Guizot being a pioneer of the public school system.
To be sure, educational progress under the impetus of the Reformation was not an unbroken development. There were setbacks and lapses into formalism. But the indestructible seed had been sown.
Americans are well acquainted with the fruition of that seed. At its beginnings in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, education in this country was rooted in Puritanism. That our colleges and universities and also our free schools are generically among the educational fruits of the Reformation is not arguable. If America has the most extensive system of education the world has known, this is in large part the result of the Reformation. According to the distinguished educational historian, Edward P. Cubberly, “The world owes much to the constructive, statesmanlike genius of Calvin and those who followed him, and we in America probably most of all” (The History of Education, p. 332).
Even so rapid a sketch of the educational results of the Reformation as this would be incomplete without some reference to Roman Catholicism. To the extent that the Council of Trent was the result of the Reformation, so the Reformation may be said to have influenced the improvements in Catholic education. Loyola and his followers assimilated into their own Jesuit system the best educational thought of the time, borrowing ideas from the College of Guyenne (headed by Cordier, Calvin’s teacher), the colleges of Geneva, and Johann Sturm’s school at Strassburg.
Through all the ebb and flow in education since the sixteenth century, the most productive event was Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Setting the pattern for the German language, it also reached far beyond the confines of Germany. (William Tyndale, whose translation contributed so much to the King James Bible and who had visited Luther at Wittenberg, was greatly influenced by Luther’s German Bible.) Among Luther’s highest achievements was his giving the people God’s Word in their everyday speech. And it was Calvin who went on to develop from Scripture the great system of Reformed doctrine.
Let these things be kept clearly in mind, as our survey moves from education to another field. For the recovery of the Bible and the priesthood of the believer are at the roots of the influence of the Reformation in the arts as well as in education.
Two of the greatest arts—music and painting—must suffice to illustrate the aesthetic results of the Reformation, which also exclusively affected the other arts. Luther himself was a good musician. Through his emphasis upon the use of the chorale and through liturgical changes, he gave Protestant worship the inestimable gift of congregational singing; “Luther provided for liturgical forms that gave the congregation opportunities for direct participation in the service …” (Howard D. McKinney and W. R. Anderson, Music in History, p. 302).
In his love for music, Luther was a true child of sixteenth-century Germany, which was “bursting with song.” Zwingli, who was also a musician, banned music from the church as unworthy of sacred use. But Luther knew better. “The devil,” he said, “has no right to all the good tunes,” and his view prevailed. Calvin was not himself musical. Yet contrary to uninformed opinion, he did not object to the use of music by Christians but considered it among “the excellent gifts of the Holy Spirit.” In the Reformed tradition, the use of music was narrower than in Lutheranism; yet it had its place, chiefly in the musical setting of the psalter. And the Church is permanently indebted for some of its enduring hymns (“Old Hundredth” among them) to such a composer as Bourgeois, who lived and worked in sixteenth-century Geneva.
If Calvin’s attitude toward music has been misunderstood, that of the Puritans has been slandered. In a definitive study, Percy Scholes, whom the great musicologist Alfred Einstein calls “an unimpeachable British witness,” has demolished the persistent misrepresentation that the Puritans hated music (The Puritans and Music in England and New England).
But to speak of Reformation influence in music is to bring immediately to mind that most towering of musical geniuses, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was no isolated phenomenon. He came from a family so musically eminent that in Erfurt musicians were known as “Bachs,” even when no members of the family were there. He also had great Protestant predecessors, such as Buxtehude and particularly Schütz, who wrote some of the most spiritual of all music.
Bach is the man who in a single work, The Well-Tempered Clavichord, “opened up all the wealth of later music, with its absolute freedom of key change,” and who in his church music, notably the B minor Mass (a thoroughly Lutheran work, the form of which makes it impossible to use in the Catholic service), the St. Matthew Passion, and the cantatas, expressed the essence of the Reformation faith. The historian who said that in the course of three hundred years only one German ever really understood Luther, and that one was Johann Sebastian Bach, may have been guilty of a degree of overstatement, but he came close to the heart of the matter.
To trace the influence of Bach in musical history would require calling the roll of the great composers who succeeded him with the possible exceptions of Gluck and Berlioz. Although Bach was far from unknown to his major successors like Mozart and Beethoven, it was Mendelssohn who had much to do with the rediscovery of his choral music. At the age of twelve, Mendelssohn read an autograph of the St. Matthew Passion in the Royal Library at Berlin and did not rest until years later he had given the work its first performance since Bach’s death. Thus wide recognition of Bach’s church music came late. Today this music still stands supreme. At the heart of this supremacy is the man himself, the devoted Lutheran Christian, who could not view the passion of Christ as a spectator but only as one who was personally related to the Lord whose suffering he so poignantly portrayed in tone.
Side by side with Bach stands another great Protestant musician, Handel. Professor Carl J. Friedrich of Harvard says, “The crowning glory of baroque music, in which it reaches the pinnacle that transcends all limitations of period and style, was achieved by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and Georg Friedrich Händel (1685–1759) …” (The Age of the Baroque, p. 87). It was Handel who took the oratorio, which had originated during the Catholic Reformation in the Oratory of Philip Neri in Rome, and made of it such a glorious work as The Messiah, the libretto of which is derived in every detail from Scripture. Different from Bach in the acclaim that came to him during his lifetime, which was largely lived in England, the man who wrote The Messiah could say that he hoped to die on Good Friday that he might rise with his Christ on Easter Day. Among the successors to his biblical oratorios, which also include Israel in Egypt and Samson, there stand Mendelssohn’s masterpieces, Elijah and St. Paul, as well as many later works, such as Stainer’s Crucifixion.
The chief glory of later Protestant music is the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms, a convinced Lutheran, of whom one biographer says, “The Christian teaching which he received from Pastor Geffcken, who prepared him for confirmation, laid the imperishable foundations of his love for old Protestant church music and its uncorrupted original melodies” (Brahms, Walter Niemann, p. 182). “People do not even know,” Brahms once said, “that we North Germans long for the Bible every day and do not let a day go by without it. In my study I can lay my hand on my Bible even in the dark.” Thus it is not surprising that for his Requiem Brahms himself chose the Scripture passages.
The Protestant spirit in music has many manifestations. Yet whether it be in the religious masterpieces of Bach or Brahms, or in the less known treasures of Moravian music rediscovered within recent years in the United States, the devotion to Scripture and the sense of the believer’s priesthood that are at the heart of the Reformation find musical expression. For the deepest strain in Protestant church music is that of spiritual inwardness.
These same principles carried over into painting, where they brought a new measure of freedom. The magnificent achievement of the great Italian Renaissance masters has enriched humanity, and the world can only be grateful for their work. Yet their art was largely aristocratic rather than of the people. It portrayed the Christ, the Virgin, and the saints with the utmost mastery of line and color. And perhaps some of it also tended to a kind of artistic docetism in which the essential humanity of Christ was submerged.
But the Reformation was not aristocratic. Nor did it encourage the Church to dominate art. In Protestantism, gorgeous ritual and the churchly display of magnificent painting gave way to the direct access of the believer in all his weak and fallible humanity to the Lord who was true man, “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Thus the Reformation, particularly in its Calvinistic phase, worked in painting to free it from the patronage of the Church and to make it more accessible to all men everywhere (see chapter v of A. Kuyper’s Calvinism, the Stone Lectures for 1898 at Princeton Theological Seminary).
The tendency to bring Christ close to man in the reality of his divine manhood is evident in such works as the Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald, the most powerful of all portrayals of Christ’s suffering. Standing on the threshold of the Reformation, Grünewald shows with unforgettable pathos that it was man as well as God who hung and suffered on the Cross. In a new book, Jane Dillenberger says of this picture, “The miracle is that through the intensity of physical suffering speaks the atoning sacrifice of ‘the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world’.… The early years of the Reformation and the early twentieth century [Roualt] have both given us notable images of a Christ who died in order that the Christian believer may live and die in him” (Style and Content in Christian Art, p. 149).
The most representative of all German artists, Albrecht Dürer, spanned the transition from the Renaissance to the Reformation. He himself was deeply committed to Luther and his cause, and he “might have become the artist of the Reformation had not death intervened not too long after his crisis of the spirit” (Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 125).
But it is to the Netherlands, that most Calvinistic of Protestant countries, that we must look to find the painter who is the epitome of the Reformed influence in art. That man is Rembrandt. From his mother he gained great familiarity with the Scriptures. (One of his earlier portraits shows her reading her Bible.) His small library of only fifteen books contained, according to the catalog inventory of 1656, “een oude Bijbel” (an old Bible), in which he was deeply read. A man of the people who was not always on good terms with his church, Rembrandt reflects most profoundly the environment in which he lived. If he was, as Paul Jamot says, “the most religious of the painters,” it was because “he was religious and human at once.”
It is perhaps not generally recognized that Rembrandt was chiefly a painter of biblical subjects. His religious works greatly exceed every other category, totaling 850, whereas the next largest group (portraits) numbers about 500 (Dillenberger, p. 194). Furthermore, it is significant that none of his commissioned religious paintings was done for churches. They were essentially an “unchurched” kind of religious art, presenting Christ for every man and thus similar in spirit to some of the religious painting of our own day. Not only did they have scriptural subjects; they also showed deep insight into biblical truth. Rembrandt’s portrayal of Christ is far removed from the conventionalized and sentimental picture Protestant America seems to have taken for its own. Rather is Rembrandt the graphic presenter of God’s majesty and Christ’s tenderness. The Lord he depicts is “richly human. His face seems worn and its expression is inward, as if the words spoken were given rather than proclaimed.… The authority with which this Christ teaches and proclaims the good news and speaks of the forgiveness of sins is of divine origin. And yet he is wholly human” (ibid., pp. 186,187).
Rembrandt occupies a place in painting comparable only to that of Bach in music. With him the Reformed tradition finds its deepest pictorial expression.
Music and painting are among the most subjective of the arts. By insisting that every man is a priest before God, the Reformation freed the individual Protestant musician and painter to participate in the creative outburst of activity loosed by the recovery of the Word of God for the individual.
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