Teaching Young Children About The Reformation: It’s Complicated

As the magical date of October 31, 2017, rapidly approaches the opportunities around Reformation 500 abound. In particular, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has gone all-in and, as you can see from this article, has an opportunity with many of their ministries and programs to celebrate the anniversary. It may be a bit of overkill, but remember that their unofficial motto is now “We are not dying. We are reforming” so there is some sense to it.

Among these resources are curricula for every age group including “The Protestant Reformations” for adults, “The Protestant Reformation” for youth and young adults, and for ages 5-10 a one Sunday lesson as part of the “Growing in Grace and Gratitude” curriculum titled “Luther Learns from Paul.” That last one you can download and look at for free so I downloaded a copy and what follows are some of my thoughts about it.

Bottom line: Generally a nice, age-appropriate overview of Martin Luther’s journey and thinking that led to his work to reform the church. But, I have to add that in my opinion in constructing this curriculum they have missed an opportunity to more fully demonstrate Luther’s ideas and have perpetuated a common and subtle error. Back to that in a minute.

Now, before I go further it is helpful if I make two disclaimers that you should keep in mind as I go through this review. The first is that I am involved in higher education and not elementary education so I will be expressing my personal opinion about age-appropriate content which is not technically a professional opinion at this level. Second, my background in higher education manifested itself as “teaching up” to my own children as they were growing up and the bottom line I will come to at the end is predicated on my own experience with family discussions and what our children experienced and participated in. (We have a standing joke with good friends of ours, also involved in higher education, that “Other families don’t have these discussions at dinner, do they?”)

So with that, let’s dive in.

As I indicated above, this is a curriculum for ages 5-10. While there are some sections which refer to an activity or approach for the older or younger children, for the most part the material is the same across the whole age range. The lesson follows a traditional lesson plan with a welcoming and gathering activity, a brief worship section, the story with preparing and reflecting questions and discussion, and a selection of responding activities that are participatory for the children. The scripture passage for the lesson is Ephesians 2:1-10 with an emphasis on the portion that says “…God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love God has for us, saved us by grace.” The story tracks the life of Martin Luther from childhood, through his thunderstorm experience, his journey into the monastery, his challenge to the sale of indulgences and finally to his nailing the 95 theses to the castle church door.

The object lesson from the story and activities seems to be well presented and has good focus on the important truth that Grace is a gift from God and that there is nothing we can do to earn it or attain it by ourselves. So it strikes me as overall a nice lesson that helps to teach the scriptural lesson and historical context of Reformation Sunday.

One good age-appropriate touch to note at this point is that in one of the activities the children are introduced to three of the solas (solae?) – faith alone, grace alone and scripture alone – while in the take-home sheet for the family all five of the solas are included for family discussion. One critical point I would mention now is that the scripture lesson is from Ephesians and while it is an appropriate passage to teach that we are saved by grace alone, it is my understanding that the breakthrough in Luther’s thinking came from studying the Letter to the Romans.

Now, as I mentioned at the beginning, there are two points in the story of Luther as the curriculum tells it that really jumped out at me where the authors and editors used some license to make the curriculum age-appropriate. To me, these two points present certain historical and theological compromises that the teacher should be aware of and maybe should be addressed with the children. I will certainly admit that this is a tricky balance when dealing with complicated topics as these are: On the one hand the material must be understandable to the intended audience within the targeted time frame of the lesson. On the other hand, the question arises whether a particular incident, while complex, presents both a teachable moment as well as should be presented in a manner that won’t need to be untaught or corrected at a later date.

The first item is the classic account of Luther in the thunderstorm. The curriculum talks of him being caught in the storm and crying out to God that if he comes through the storm all right he would become a monk. The actual account is that he cried out to St. Anne, the family patron saint since his father was in the mining business.

The editorial change is understandable since the reference to St. Anne would necessitate some introduction for the children to the concept of saints, especially patron saints, and compounded even further by the fact that her identification as the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus is based upon the apocrypha. So yes, it is a complicated concept to teach.

On the other hand, this strikes me as a teachable moment as the message of the lesson is that we are saved by grace alone and not by the good works of any other except the atoning death of Jesus. And a key component of the Reformation was that we can speak directly to God and do not need to go through intermediaries like priests and saints.

I reached our to Congregational Ministries Publishing about my concerns and received a gracious reply from Dr. Mark Hinds, the publisher. Regarding this concern he says:

As you surmised, the two questions you raised highlight intentional editorial revisions based on the supposition that, in a story for children, certain details might prove to be more problematic than helpful.

In a review of children’s stories, “God” often replaces “St. Anne” in the thunderstorm story. In our view, this is a wise choice. Praying/crying out to St. Anne in our version would have introduced a detail that would have required interpretation that we weren’t prepared to include, especially given the limits of word counts and varying abilities of children to process non-contextualized data.

The second detail that jumped out at me is admittedly even more complex and in making it age-appropriate the curriculum introduces what I see as a notable inaccuracy. This is the topic of indulgences. The curriculum says:

A monk named John Tetzel began selling pieces of paper, called indulgences, that he claimed would bring God’s forgiveness. People actually used to think they could earn God’s forgiveness by buying a piece of paper.

OK, there is a lot here to unpack – I said this was complicated – so let’s begin with the nature of indulgences themselves. According to the church dogma an indulgence does not bring forgiveness, but rather the shortening or release from purgatory. The Catholic Encyclopedia online says:

[A]n indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.

Now, on top of this is the question of how the papers conveying the indulgences were worded and how Johann Tetzel promoted them. There seems to be broad agreement that Tetzel did not tell people that buying an indulgence would directly grant them personally forgiveness. The limited eyewitness accounts and later researchers agree that for the living the indulgence was to be viewed in conjunction with confession and penitence. There is however some evidence that Tetzel was outside church dogma when he promoted the indulgences for forgiveness of sins for the dead and the Catholic Encyclopedia has a good summary of that. However, a paper by J. N. Lenhart presents the argument that if Tetzel was promoting forgiveness for the dead, and not just remission of the temporal punishment, it was because that is what was printed on the indulgence.

Finally, implied in the statement is that indulgences are a thing of the past. Indulgences for acts of mercy, contrition and faith are still very much around and lists can be found on web sites like this one and this one, and they have in fact made the mainstream media. And in his article Lenhart talks of indulgences that were for sale within the last 100 years.

Looking at the 95 Theses it is easy to conclude that the purchase of an indulgence might forgive sins when Luther writes “21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.” But also among the theses is “34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.”

Again, Dr. Hinds was kind to respond to my concerns here and said:

We did not intend to affirm anything about the Textzel [sic] encounter other than Luther saw the practice as a problem, mostly about the church’s power over the poor, illiterate Christians of that era. Nor did we intend to treat the matter of indulgences beyond the story; however, the concept of earning one’s salvation is addressed in the lesson and shown to be an error.

Again, besides the problem of confusing forgiveness of sins with reduction of time or release from purgatory, is this a teachable moment? As the message of the lesson is that we are saved, and fully saved, by grace alone through Christ alone, is this an opportunity to present that message and further that no refining fire is necessary following our death?

So what are the options? On one end of the spectrum is the “all in” option and you can use the curriculum as published and figure the editorial changes are appropriate and helpful for the audience. On the other end is the option to not use the lesson, or use the lesson but drop the story. In between you have a number of options which might include using the lesson with the details more accurately conveyed with appropriate explanation for the children. Or use the story but drop those two items from the story. And for either of these latter two you could prepare a guide for the parents that goes home with the take-home sheet helping to interpret the historical and theological context of the parts that were modified.

So yes, it is complicated. I will readily acknowledge that there may not be a perfect answer to how to present this material to the 5-10 age group. I will leave it up to others to decide how they want to present it and what appropriate editorial license is useful or necessary. As you probably figured out from my thoughts above, I would lean towards an approach that, if the material were to be presented, would include some of the complexity to more tightly hold to the historical and theological details. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out the appropriate approach for your situation.

My thoughts on the topic. Your mileage may vary.

Happy Reformation 500. More to come over the next few weeks.

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