What John Calvin and Osama Bin Laden Had in Common

I enter the 19th-century castle that houses France’s largest Protestant Christian school. Immediately, I see a large student-made map of France and its surroundings with more than 2,000 dots scattered across it. Intrigued, I read that they represent the Christian schools and eight universities that John Calvin’s followers founded in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The schools closed during the persecutions that followed. But recently several dozen have started up again.

I had accepted an invitation to speak at the annual Mathurin Cordier Seminars for French-speaking Christian school teachers. But who was Mathurin Cordier? Why would a program to promote a Christian view of education be named after him? I found out that, 450 years after his death, Switzerland still honors Cordier for providing the basis of its present-day schools.

Christian teachers and professors have a crucial, God-given calling.

But I learned something more significant: Cordier was John Calvin’s instructor at the Collège de la Marche in Paris.

Cordier had left the priesthood to follow God’s calling to teach. He and Calvin soon formed a close relationship. They spent many evenings together, exploring the richness of God’s creation in history, ethics, theology, and astronomy.

One evening Cordier and Calvin, scanning the constellations, met a hermit. He told them that his wealth consisted not in the merits of good works but in the salvation of Jesus Christ as a free gift of grace. As dutiful Catholics, Cordier and Calvin said that was a heretical attack on the church. However, a seed had been planted. Gradually Cordier and Calvin began considering Martin Luther’s ideas, which had spread even to Paris.

Several years later both Calvin and Cordier joined the Protestants. Just when Calvin wrote his first Institutes, Cordier fled Paris to escape execution for his beliefs. Soon Calvin asked Cordier to teach with him in Geneva. Calvin wrote, “O Master Mathurin, O man of gifted learning and great fear of God! It was God’s will that I should have you as a teacher, in order that I might be directed in the true path and right mode of learning, so that I can now in some way profit the Church of God.”

Cordiers’ Christian Schools

Calvin believed the church would flourish only with supportive schools. So when Calvin returned to Geneva a second time, Cordier became his right-hand man to found schools and develop their programs. Cordier was an innovative educator whose programs and ways of teaching were far ahead of his time.

A gentle pedagogy replaced the then-common severe discipline and beating. Learning began with the simple and moved to the more advanced. Bible reading and study took place every day. But both boys and girls had a broad education that included languages, the sciences, and music. Some of the textbooks Cordier wrote were still used 300 years after his death, including in North America.

A well-known historian has written that Calvinist schools led to “an astonishing familiarity of Scripture, even among the lowest classes, a readiness to sacrifice for education, and a progressive spirit of inquiry and investigation.” That, in no small measure, was due to Cordier mentoring Calvin and later guiding his views about education.

Bin Laden’s Education

Now flip forward to today. Osama bin Laden, like John Calvin, was a shy, respectful student, brought up in the traditional faith of his family. Like John Calvin, as a teenager he had a charismatic and brilliant instructor, Abdallah Azzam, who influenced his life’s direction and passion.

Just as Calvin studied the Bible, bin Laden read and interpreted the Quran. His faith deepened, and he became an outcast in his own community. His relationship with his radical Islam professor led him to conclude that Islam needed to launch jihad against those hostile to his Islamic views.

And just as Calvin’s faith and emphasis on biblically based education for all helped shape Western civilization, so bin Laden was instrumental in altering our world, as became clear after Sept. 11, 2001.

Calvin and bin Laden radically differ, of course. Calvin became rooted in God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Bin Laden’s starting point became a god who sought vengeance. But Calvin and bin Laden have two things in common. First, masterful and passionate instructors shaped the direction of their lives. Second, as a result they both affected the course of history.    

Teachers and professors make a difference. They may not teach students who will significantly alter culture or history. Yet Christian instructors can and do help students become a faithful presence in the world for God, and to contribute to society and culture in positive—even if small—ways.

James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), questions whether today’s Christians, individually or communally, can change the direction of culture. Yet, he says, we can be faithfully present to others through sacrificial love. We can be faithfully present in our tasks as parents, workers, and volunteers. We can be faithfully present in our spheres of influence. We can encourage harmony, beauty, joy, security, and well-being while resisting oppression, injustice, and corruption.

In Culture Making (IVP Books, 2008), Andy Crouch goes a step further. He shows that as Christians we often copy or consume culture around us: music, advertising, iPad technology, and so on. At other times we justly critique and even withdraw from culture. But, he adds, God also calls us to be artists and gardeners who make culture, people who think and do things that make the world more welcoming, more beautiful, more thrilling.

That means, I believe, that Christian instructors have a crucial role in making students more discerning about how culture shapes us and how we respond to culture. Teachers and professors can nurture students to be a faithful and loving presence wherever God places them. They can also help them make something of their world: preparing wholesome meals within a context of positive family life or understanding the roots of poverty and helping people address it in their local communities.

Like Cordier, passionate teachers and professors can help students use the richness of God’s world to enable human life to flourish, even in a society marred by sin.

Christian schools and universities can do this explicitly based on a biblical framework. Last year I was involved in interviewing 75 grade-12 Christian school students and their teachers in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. We asked about their views of and involvement in culture, and how their school had shaped their attitudes and dreams.

In many of the schools I said to myself, “I hope my grandchildren will attend a school like this!” Why? Because many students deeply cared about the issues facing our world and our communities. Many had linked their classroom learning with hands-on experiences in shelters for the homeless or support for single teenage mothers. Many realized that their overseas mission trips benefited mainly themselves, teaching them appreciation for other cultures and how people with few material goods live with more gratitude than North Americans. Many planned to enter vocations where they can make a difference for God, for instance, developing more wholesome marketing approaches in advertising or fighting child labor and human trafficking in the developing world.

Their Christian schools, the students said, helped them identify with cultural needs and issues. In the future they intended to make constructive and significant differences.

I am thankful for Christian schools and universities that develop a mind-set for Christian service in business, in medicine, and in political life, even if the ideals surpass eventual outcomes. But the many Christian teachers and professors teaching in public institutions can also help students ask basic questions about life and culture. And at times they may be the only Christian influence on their students.  

I work for an organization that places Christian professors in secular settings with little or no Christian influence. A professor in China teaches the history and philosophy of science within the framework of a Christian worldview. Professors in Cambodia teach ethical medical practices and sustainable ecological practices. A professor in the Czech Republic teaches courses on popular culture and how that relates to a biblical worldview. Professors in Nigeria have published a widely used handbook for teaching about HIV and AIDS, as well as student textbooks about Christian faith.

God uses these professors to lead some of their students to Christ. “My life has been totally changed,” said one Chinese student. “I have completely changed the way I think,” said a Russian student in the Czech Republic. This happens through work in classrooms, in discussions in professors’ homes, and in personal mentoring. It happens by teaching and demonstrating the implications of the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commandment, and by teaching students what Christ commanded us, both explicitly and implicitly.

Christian teachers and professors have a crucial God-given calling, no matter where they teach. Their influence makes a difference for students in classrooms throughout North America and the world. They may even be teaching the next John Calvin or turn around the life of a potential Osama bin Laden. As another school year begins, let’s give them the support they need.

An Extraordinary Mission Movement

The International Institute for Christian Studies and its Canadian affiliate, Christian Studies International, aim to bring Christ’s presence and truth into university classrooms worldwide. Together the two organizations place about 45 professors in secular universities around the world. Most professors raise financial support to supplement meager or non-existent salaries. Christian Reformed World Missions has provided financial support for several individual professors.

Christian Reformed professors include Adrian and Wendy Helleman, who have taught in Russia and Africa. Roberta Greenwood teaches biology in China and also leads Bible studies and trains students to be small-group leaders. Presbyterian Tom Johnson is working to develop a modern Czech translation of the Heidelberg Catechism and make it widely available to enable the Czech people, perhaps the most secular in the world, to read about the only comfort we enjoy in life and in death.

Christian leaders like John Stott and Ravi Zacharias back IICS/CSI. Os Guinness says, “The IICS/CSI work is one of the most extraordinary mission movements in the world today. . . . It is a rare, far-sighted and remarkable work that is sowing the seeds of unimaginable significance.”

—Harro Van Brummelen

For Discussion

  1. Why would John Calvin (and so many others) see the biblical teaching of salvation by grace alone as a direct attack on the church?
  2. If good teachers have such influence over their pupils, what are the moral implications? Are they responsible for what their students go on to do in their lives?
  3. What is the difference between education and indoctrination? Which should we pursue?
  4. Discuss Van Brummelen’s assertion that “Christian instructors have a crucial role in making students more discerning about how culture shapes us and how they respond to culture.” Can you give specific examples of good and bad things in our culture that young people need to evaluate appropriately and that will affect the way they live?
  5. What advantages are there to being able to teach our youths from an explicitly biblical framework? Is that worth the large investment in Christian day schools?
  6. Can Christian teachers in public schools also provide such biblical grounding to their students? How?

About the Author

Dr. Harro Van Brummelen is executive director of Christian Studies International and professor emeritus of education at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia.

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Comments

I very much enjoyed the history lesson about John Calvin and Mathurin Cordier! Thank you for helping us understand the formation of one of the Protestant Reformation's greatest of thinkers, preachers, and teachers.

However, the comparison between him and Osama bin Laden, while done with good intentions, was still a very poor choice, and creates a logical connection in the minds of readers where there should never be. When I think John Calvin, I ought never to also think, "Oh, just like Osama bin Laden."

It would be interesting to contrast the perspective of this article with that of the school reform movement. In the latter, the role of the teacher is important, but the more significant factors for educational success lie away from the school itself, e.g. stable families, parental education, etc.

From this research, the notion that the school and teachers are the primary determiner of educational outcomes (or in this case, worldview construction) is in fact something that undercuts the assertion of parental involvement. To speak from personal experience, I have seen the impact of Christian parents and teachers in a variety of schools -- their impact is independent of the label on the door of the school. As to formation and shaping children into disciples, I've seen disappointing secular outcomes from Christian schools and faith honoring living from public settings. All this suggests that the name on the door will not guarantee one outcome or the other, but rather that when it comes to the formation of Christian worldview the church community and parents play the crucial role.

It would be nice to have the author's name on the same page as the title. [snail mail edition]

Thank you for bringing our history to life! Totally awesome--the best article about education in 33 years of faithful Banner reading.

are you kidding me that you compare John Calvin with Bin Laden, what is wrong with the Banner to print something so terrible

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