Dare to Be Wise: The Early Reformation and Education

“When schools flourish, things go well and the church is secure. Let us make more doctors and masters.  The youth is the church’s nursery and fountainhead.  When we are dead, where are others [to take our place] if there are no schools? God has preserved the church through the schools.  They are the preservers of the church.”[1]

one_room_schoolIn this quote we hear an older Luther (1542-43) commenting on the importance of schools for preserving the Christian faith and the church.  Here we will examine the relationship between the early Reformation and educational reform.  While most Lutherans are familiar with Luther’s 95 Theses, we sometimes fail to understand that the Reformation of the Western Christian Church began as a reform of the University of Wittenberg’s curriculum, particularly, its theological curriculum.  In fact, Luther initially published the 95 Theses to call for an academic debate concerning indulgences and grace.  As Alister McGrath has noted, “Lutheranism originated within, and initially developed within, the theological faculty of an obscure German university.”[2]

Renaissance humanists’ emphasis on a return to the original sources of Greco-Roman civilization resulted in the expansion of the study of the sacred languages in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  The theologians at Wittenberg, led by Martin Luther, sought to harness this learning for the specific purpose of discovering theological truth.  This meant the close study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  In fact, Luther’s diligent examination of the Bible in its original languages and the writings of Augustine of Hippo (influential theologian from late antiquity) led to his understanding of salvation as justification by faith alone though grace on the account of Christ.   By 1517 Luther had written that this new focus on the Bible in its original languages and St Augustine’s writings was replacing the late medieval scholastics’ emphasis in their numerous commentaries on the integration of Aristotle’s ethical and metaphysical writings with the Bible and other theological writings.[3]

rodin_thinker_silhouetteIn 1518 these curricular reforms gained an important proponent in the person of Philip Melanchthon.  At the age of twenty one Melanchthon became professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg.  He quickly became an immensely popular teacher who eventually gave lectures on classical Greek and biblical texts.  A genius devoted to Greek and Latin literature, Philip signaled his desire for educational reform in his inaugural lecture to the faculty and students of Wittenberg in 1518.  He encouraged all students to learn Greek as thoroughly as Latin.  In this manner the students could read theology, history, orations, and poetry in their original languages.  Melanchthon asserted that the Christian church had become corrupt because it lacked the proper study of these subjects.  Finally, he exhorted the students at Wittenberg to “dare to be wise” through the intense and thorough study of ancient Latin and Greek authors.[4]

The publication of the 95 Theses caused a much greater debate in sixteenth-century European society than Luther had anticipated.  Indeed, from 1518 to 1521 Luther’s 95 Theses and subsequent theological writings engendered a debate that led to a theological and ecclesiastical division in Western Christendom.  By 1520 Luther focused explicitly on the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone and the interpretation of the Bible as God’s law and gospel.  During this same period, Luther and his colleagues implemented a series of curricular reforms that linked a strong focus on Greek and Latin classical texts with theological renewal.[5]

In 1520 Luther included a section on the reform of the universities in his famous treatise, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.  In this work Luther petitioned the newly-elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and the German nobility to implement a reform program.  While Luther discussed the possibility of a church council and emphasized the spiritual equality of lay people and clergy, he also addressed such issues as poverty relief and the reform of schools and universities.  Luther plainly stated, “the universities, too, need a good, thorough reformation.”[6]

In Luther’s explanation of this reformation of the universities we may observe his desire to spread the curricular reforms which the Wittenberg faculty members had already initiated at their own university.  He proposed that Aristotle’s works on nature, spiritual matters, the soul, and ethics should be removed.  These works contradicted the Bible’s teachings on these matters.  What should be taught?  Luther agreed to keep Aristotle’s works on logic, rhetoric, and poetry, and Cicero’s work on rhetoric.  These works would teach the student to speak and preach properly.  In addition to these writings, the Reformer recommended the study of the sacred languages, mathematics, and history.  Luther believed that the reform of universities would help form the future pastors and political leaders in the Holy Roman Empire.  He concluded simply, “nothing could be more devilish or disastrous than unreformed universities.”[7]

Dr. Luther exhorted theologians to focus on the Bible as their main text and reject the overabundance of late medieval commentaries that contained many erroneous opinions.  While this did not mean all other theological books should be rejected, Luther did intend for the Holy Scriptures to be the main text in universities and in other schools.  Following this section, Luther called for the establishment of elementary schools for boys and girls in every town throughout Germany.  Returning to his discussion of the theological curriculum at universities, Luther famously proclaimed, “I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme.  Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God’s word becomes corrupt…..I greatly fear that the universities, unless they teach the Holy Scriptures diligently and impress them on the young students, are wide gates of hell.”[8]


[1] Martin Luther, “Table Talk no. 5557,” trans. Theodore G. Tappert, Luther’s Works, volume 54 (Philadelphia 1967),  452. [Hereafter LW with volume and page number.]

[2] Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Oxford 1987), 59.

[3] Ibid., 32-68.  See also Idem, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford 1985), 40-53.

[4] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformation, 2nd Ed. (Oxford 2010), 88-89; Idem, The European Reformations: Sourcebook (Oxford 2000), 51; Marilyn J. Haran, Martin Luther: Learning for Life (St Louis 1997), 157-158; 172-176; Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, vol. 1, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis 1985), 279; Jon Steffen Bruss, “Melanchthon and the Wittenberg Reception of Hellenism, 1518-1526: Bonae Literae et Renascentes Musae,” Logia  17 (2008): 7-12.

[5] Harran, Luther: Learning for Life, 158-164; Brecht, Luther, 229, 275-282.

 [6] LW 44: 200; Brecht, Luther, 369-379.

[7] LW 44: 200-202. (quote on p. 202.); Harran, Luther: Learning for Life, 167-172.

[8] LW 44: 204-207.


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