Learning at the Foot of the Cross

What makes Lutheran schools distinct? Two Lutheran educators look at the philosophy behind Lutheran education.

by Rev. Dr. Joel D. Heck and Dr. Angus J.L. Menuge

If a Lutheran school can’t show us how it is Lutheran, then it has no right to exist!” That is the strong conviction of not a few Lutheran pastors and laity, and it shows that some people care very deeply about Lutheran education. They worry that market forces and pressure to accommodate to a pluralistic culture will undermine the identity, mission and purpose of Lutheran schools.

Their concerns are not addressed by statistics by pointing to the number of Lutheran schools or to their enrollment. And while they help, the inclusion of Bible classes and theology in the curriculum is still not enough. What they want to know is whether distinctively Lutheran principles are at work throughout the education Lutheran schools providein their procedures, content, emphasis and goals. But the truth of the matter is that many teachers and administrators who care deeply about Lutheran education find it difficult to articulate a Lutheran philosophy of education. They don’t understand the what, why and how of Lutheran education. Many Lutheran schools do a good job of teaching Lutheran theology but falter in applying its doctrines in the concrete daily running of the school.

How would it look in our classrooms if we made the material principle of Lutheranism (salvation by grace alone) the central focus of our education? Might we discover that our focus on practical principles of success can unwittingly foster a self-righteous moralism, thereby failing to show our utter dependence on God and our desperate need for Christ as Savior?

Or suppose we actually thought through the implications of the two kingdoms of Law and grace when administering discipline? Would we find that a tendency to “let things go” is neither recognizing sin and administering justice (Law) nor forgiving the sinner (grace) but is merely indifference? Do we take seriously the fact that Scripture is our sole authority and final norm and that it has things to say about every discipline? Or do we treat the latest, fashionable theories in our disciplines as gospel, ignoring the critical dialogue with Scripture? Imagine how much better the economy, environment and family life would be if we actually learned how to apply biblical principles of stewardship.

There are other matters of concern. Many lay people teach Sunday School and Bible class without an understanding of Lutheran theology or Lutheran education. Perhaps they never received proper training or attempted to think through how a Lutheran perspective colors the content and method of their teaching. However, it remains a problem when such teachers focus too much on living the Christian life without emphasizing the power of the Gospel or when they unwittingly place human opinions on a par with the Word of God.

What is a Lutheran philosophy of education?

It is both theoretical and practical. First, we must understand the historical and theological foundations of Lutheran education. The Reformation started at the University of Wittenberg, which embraced the study of original languages and the liberal arts, with guiding principles that are still relevant to all Lutheran schools that seek to make worthy citizens and disciples. At Wittenberg and in the writings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther and the Rev. Philipp Melanchthon, we learn again the inadequacy of reason, the primacy of the Scriptures, the liberating concept of vocation and the relevance of the priesthood of all believers.

It is important to teach the truth about Godwho He is, what He is like, how He saves and how we know Him. It is especially important to focus on God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, His work for us on the cross and His teaching content and method, including telling stories and asking questions.

We must understand the nature of taking up our cross, the reality of suffering in a world of sin and the sometimes paradoxical truths of God’s nature and His ways of dealing with humankind. We need to filter themes such as leadership, success and service through the lens of Scripture. We need to explore the nature of human beings and develop the whole person for service to the world and to the church. We need to integrate the means of grace (the Word and Sacraments) into our broader education as we develop children of God. We should strive to apply the difficult doctrine of the two kingdoms, two strategies God uses with the same final goal of salvation. Lutheran education should also prepare us for the three estates of family, church and state, emphasizing that it is our vocations in the family, so often neglected in education today, which are foundational for the well-being of church and state.

How do we put this into practice?

We have to think about how we know what we know, whether it’s from the Scriptures or from our next-door neighbor or the six o’clock news. The foot of the cross gives us a much different picture than the world gives, providing the combination of humility and courage that undergirds a distinctively Lutheran approach to learning, that although our minds are infected with sin, the free gift of the mind of Christ calls us to do our best in service to our neighbor.

We must take seriously the role of the school, the Sunday School and the Bible class in the Great Commission’s call to make disciples. When considering the proper content of Lutheran education, we should develop the student’s full potential in every area, especially the artistic creativity which is so often neglected in contemporary education. We need to think about where Lutheran education should take place, specifically considering how family, church and school should be coordinated to maximize their effectiveness. Finally, we need to think of Lutheran education as a lifelong journey, providing helpful advice for educators seeking to navigate the maze of contemporary technology.

C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” He also stated that the task of education was “to produce the good man and the good citizen,” the one whose understanding of goodness is biblically derived and who takes on a vocation of serving the God who made all people for relationship with Him. When we see both temporal and eternal goals and then develop our gifts in service to Him, we see Lutheran education as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. And that end is Christ Himself.

> Purchase Heck and Menuge’s book Learning at the Foot of the Cross: A Lutheran Vision for Education through Concordia University Press, Austin, Texas.

About the Authors:
> The Rev. Dr. Joel Heck is a professor of theology at Concordia University Texas.

> Dr. Angus Menuge is a professor of philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin.

Additional Resources from CPH

Lutheran Education: From Wittenberg to the Future
The liberal arts model has traditionally been preferred in Lutheran elementary classrooms. No other educational paradigm meets the requirements of the Evangelical Lutheran Church so well. There is no reason that the liberal arts cannot be adapted to meet contemporary needs. The question is: What should be the main focus of a contemporary presentation of the arts?

Irrigating Deserts
C. S. Lewis forged a strong understanding of the value of education in life. What he illustrated in his writings and modeled in the classroom is a passion for education in the classical tradition and a commitment to truth in the context of the Christian faith. Lewis’s defense of objective truth and the kind of curriculum that would support such truth form the foundation of his thought.

An Introduction to the Foundation of Lutheran Education
This book explores the historical context of Lutheran education by examining the events and ideas that have contributed to the development of formal educational endeavors within the LCMS. This book examines the philosophical foundations of Lutheran education through an exploration of the theoretical, philosophical and theological underpinnings of learning in a religious environment. Readers will learn more about the roles and responsibilities of the LCMS teacher, including preparation, certification, placement, satisfaction, burnout and attrition as well as the organization, governance, administration and financing of Lutheran education.

February 2012


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