Martin Luther: Training Children in the Home
Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Martin Luther loved children! His Table Talks are filled with remarks on children. "Children are the most delightful pledges in a loving marriage. They are the best wool on the sheep." Or again, "How great a joy posterity affords a man! It certainly is the most delightful joy of parents."
That Luther could make such statements is amazing, since the first thirty-eight years of his own life were lived under the conviction that as a monk he had to remain celibate. It was not until Luther was forty-two years old that he married a former nun named Katherine vonBora. She was twenty-six at the time. In the next few years Katherine gave birth to six children, two of whom died at birth. As busy as Luther was he always had time for his own children and others. In fact, in another of his Table Talks, he is recorded as saying, "The Jews highly esteemed children. Our women almost detest them. The reason: one does not want the burden of bearing and educating children; women only want leisure."
Not only did Luther have a personal love for children, but he also saw their importance in the church. For that reason he emphasized in many of his writings the need for the instruction and nurture of children. This care for children must take place in every sphere: in the church, in society (Christian day schools), and especially in the home. It is striking that in all the doctrinal debates that Luther carried on during his lifetime, he never forgot to write concerning this all-important task. Even while living the life of a celibate monk he recognized the importance of sound Christian pedagogy that began already in the home in infancy. Writes Luther concerning this, "Here again we are plagued by the miserable fact that no one perceives or heeds this truth. All live on as though God gave us children for our pleasure or amusement ... only to gratify our whims, ignoring them, as though what they learn or how they live were no concern of ours."1
What made Martin Luther's view on child-rearing unique in his day was its doctrinal basis. We must recall that in the days prior to the Reformation, Pelagianism had become an integral part of the theology of Rome. The Pelagians maintained that children were not born with the inherited corruption of their parents. The depravity of Adam and Eve was not passed on to their posterity. The will of man therefore was not in bondage to sin. Instead, a child was born with the freedom of will to choose either good or evil, right or wrong. That Luther opposed such a notion not only reveals itself in his love for the writings of Augustine, but in his commentaries and writings on education.
Luther's pedagogical thought rests like his anthropology on the bedrock of his image of man as a fallen sinner. "For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." This line of
defined for him the innermost corruption of all human instincts and the impossibility of changing these by rational argument or humane appeal. It also identified the psychological source of that irreversible egotism that he saw as the all pervading symptom of human perversion. Not merely "inclined to evil" (in malum prona), but evil in substance, evil through and through. In principle, Luther was therefore forced to deny conventional educational wisdom along with the traditional anthropology of the schoolmen.2
The truth that man is a fallen sinner should guide parents in the way they view and deal with their children.
From this truth there are two important principles of child-rearing that parents must bear in mind when setting themselves to the task of training their children.
First, parents must remember that their children are depraved from birth. Children from birth have derived corruption from their original parent by the propagation of a vicious nature. Passed on to them according to their first birth is blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, wickedness, rebellion, stubbornness and impurity (Canons of Dordt, Third and Fourth Heads, Articles 1, 2). That tiny infant who lies asleep in mother's arms a picture of contentment and peace, that infant who so often fills mother's and father's heart with overwhelming love and emotion, that infant is a depraved sinner. It may be hard to believe. We may not want to believe it. But we as parents have passed along to our children our corruption. We must recognize and deal with the sin that is found in our children from infancy on.
The second truth Christian parents must keep in mind in training their children is their need for the cross of Jesus Christ. This does not mean, of course, that as parents we must attempt to convert our children. It does not mean that our children are without Christ until later in life. We certainly baptize our infant children with this assurance in mind, "... for as they (our children—WB) are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ."3 Parents, however, are called to instruct their children concerning their daily need for sorrow over sin and forgiveness in the cross of Christ. Children must be trained to bow in humility before God and confess their sins. They must be reminded constantly to seek for their righteousness not in themselves but in the cross of Christ alone. Likewise, children must be taught to walk in daily conversion before God, mortifying the old man of sin and putting on the new man in Christ. From infancy on, a child must be trained to hate sin and to live a life of thankfulness before God.
That this was Martin Luther's view of the training of children comes to light in the advice he gives parents concerning the method of training their children. Though Luther spends time on many different aspects of Christian pedagogy, we concentrate on only three of them.
In the first place, Luther presents instruction to parents which we, who live in an age of prosperity and affluence, do well to heed. Parents must not spoil their children. Parents can do this in various ways. They can, when their children are young, ignore their wrongs (sins) and, instead of reprimanding or disciplining them, pass off what they do as minor or even cute. Luther spoke these appropriate words in a sermon on the fourth commandment,
The first destroyers of their own children are those who neglect them and knowingly permit them to grow up without the training and admonition of the Lord. Even if they do not harm them by a bad example, they still destroy them by yielding to them. They love them too much according to the flesh and pamper them saying: They are children, they do not understand what they are doing. And they are speaking the truth. But neither does a dog or a horse or a mule understand what it is doing. However, see how they learn to go, to come, to obey, to do and leave undone what they do not understand. ... These parents will, therefore, bear the sins of their children because they make these sins their own.4
A parent must never allow his children, no matter what their age, to do wrong and view it as mere ignorance of what is right. Only by means of instruction and discipline will we teach children what sin is in their lives — and that even at an early age while their concept of good and evil is developing.
This coddling of children reveals itself in another way: when parents, due to an overabundance of wealth and affluence, give to their children the means to live the high life, allowing them to do whatever they please. This is a fault that we find in today's modern society and within the church as well. Parents will give everything to their children, then allow them to go out unrestrained to enjoy the pleasures of this wicked world. In another sermon on married life Luther declares,
Nothing can more easily earn hell for a man than the improper training of his own children; and parents can perform no more damaging bit of work than to neglect their offspring, to let them curse, swear, learn indecent words and songs, and permit them to live as they please. Some parents themselves incite their children to such sins by giving them superfluous finery and temporal advancement so that they may but please the world, rise high and become wealthy.5
Here is a word to which the church of Jesus Christ does well to take heed today! Are not our own children often spoiled because of our wealth and comforts? With our wealth we allow our young people to purchase CDs on which are recorded indecent songs. We allow them to rent videos in which are portrayed the godless life-styles of the wicked, and which make evil seem good and good evil (Is. 5:20-22). It is little wonder that cursing and swearing can be heard from the mouths of some of our children at sporting events or conventions. It is little wonder that they walk in the ways of the ungodly. "Woe to them that are at ease in Zion!" (Amos 6:1).
Luther reminds us of a third way that children can be spoiled by parents: when parents allow young men and women to sit around the house with idle hands. Because there is no hardship from a financial point of view, children are given everything they desire without having to work for it. They are taught to be lazy. Such children grow up thinking that everything is owed them. The fame, position, and money of their parents are theirs simply by virtue of their birth. Luther writes in his typical forward manner, "Proud jackasses develop out of the sons of heroes who boast of the virtue of their fathers but make no effort to imitate it, dreaming instead that they, too, are heroes because they were born of heroes."6
A second area of Christian pedagogy that is necessary in the life of covenant home and family is that of discipline. Luther was not weak on this subject either. He recognized that sin is bound in the heart of a child. The rod was necessary at times, therefore, to train and discipline children in their knowledge of right and wrong. Writes Luther in his Works, "Just so a father can perform no act that is more unfatherly than sparing the rod and allowing the little child to have its own wanton way."7 Admonition and discipline by the rod is a necessity in the life of a child because it teaches him what sin is, and that sin will be punished. The child is trained by discipline to understand that God holds man accountable for sin and God will punish it in His justice.
At the same time, Luther had a deep understanding of the purpose of discipline. It must be used to teach, not to harm. It must be used to lead our children to Christ, not to cause them to cower beneath a raging parent or fear a vengeful God. In an early sermon on the commandments Luther proclaimed, "With the greatest care a child should be trained to have the right fear, to fear what is to be feared, but not to be timid. Some parents are satisfied if only their children are timid. But this is very harmful for later life." Luther railed upon abuse of the child by means of discipline. Parents were never to "vent their furious temper" upon their children, unconcerned that discipline was to be used to expose sin and lead to the cross of Christ. Luther insisted that when this was done in infancy it would cause irreparable damage in later life.
A third area which Martin Luther addressed as regards the training of children in the home was that of instruction itself. Luther placed heavy emphasis on this aspect of home and family life.
Formal catechizing did not, of course, exhaust a parent's teaching responsibilities. By daily example and counsel he was to guide his children's steps on their Christian journey. "This duty makes parenthood immensely rich in good works," Luther said, "for God has given this estate the care of souls upon whom parents may lavish a great plenty of Christian works. Fathers and mothers are apostles, bishops, and pastors to their children as they raise them in the knowledge of the holy gospels. No greater or nobler power exists on earth than that of parents over children, for it is a power both secular and spiritual."8
Luther's plans for reform in Germany included not only religious training of children in the church but in Christian day schools as well. Also a part of this plan was daily study in the Bible in the home. Parents must see to it that wife, children, and servants gathered evenings and mornings for a time of memorizing and reciting Scripture. Luther wrote his Shorter Catechism to be used in homes and families in order that children might learn the doctrines of the church.
Luther was genuinely concerned with life in the home. He took a special interest in parents and children. We find in Luther a steadfast Reformer, a powerful preacher, an untiring writer, but also a man of the people. This is what made Luther so great. He was close to the people in their needs and cares. He was deeply aware of the struggles in their homes. He had a keen insight into the way God's truth might be preserved among the faithful. This made Luther a man fit by God to ignite the flames of the Reformation.
1. Luther's Works, Weimar edition, vol. 1, p. 156.
2. Strauss, Gerald, Luther's House of Learning. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, p. 33.
3. Form for the Administration of Baptism used in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
4. Exposition of the Fourth Commandment in November of 1516.
5. Luther's Works, Weimar edition, vol. 2, p. 170.
6. Ibid, vol. 44, p. 421.
7. Ibid, vol. 51, p. 206.
8. Strauss, Gerald, Luther's House of Learning. p. 124.