In Non posse stare on this blog Carl Springer gives a lively defence of Luther’s estimation that “real theology cannot stand without knowledge of literature.”
Luther’s quip was not an isolated judgment, a one-off, an exception that just proves another rule. It was, rather, a crystalized echo of the entire Wittenberg educational endeavor, that schema in which the Reformation was born and given its shape. Far from being viewed by the Wittenberg Reformers as window-dressing on a theological education, a finishing touch in the formation of theological dandies, the arts provided the intellectual framework in which to do any sort of serious theological work. Without them, conversely, the theological project was bound to fail.
Here I draw attention to one of the several pieces from Melanchthon’s hand fundamental to understanding this key element in the Wittenberg educational plan, his Oratio de philosophia (CR 11.278–284). Many of these orations have been handsomely translated, edited, and published in Philip Melanchthon. Orations on Philosophy and Education, Sachiko Kusukawa, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), a highly recommended volume for everyone interested in the Wittenberg educational project. What follows here is a handful of “greatest hits” from the 1536 Oratio de philosophia delivered at the conferring of the M.A. in that year.
I ask you...to be warned not only to flee the foolish judgements of those who do not believe that the Church needs liberal education at all...but also to execrate those people themselves like the most loathesome pests and fearful monsters. [Kusukawa, 127]
Altogether the most prevalent in an Iliad of evils is ignorant theology. [ibid., 127]
Since, therefore, ignorant theology has so many ills, it is easy to judge that the Church has need of many great arts. [ibid., 128]
there is a certain cycle of arts [orbis quidam artium] by which they are all bound together and connected, so that in order to grasp individual ones many of the others have to be taken on. Therefore the Church has need of the entire cycle of sciences [quare ecclesiae opus est toto illo doctrinarum orbe]. [ibid., 129]
I entreat you, for the sake of the glory of God, which we must set before all other things, and for the sake of the welfare of the Church, which must be most dear to us, to resolve that the most excellent disciplines that philosophy contains are to be safeguarded, and to devote yourselves to them with greater effort, so that you may obtain for yourselves teaching that is genuine and useful for mankind. [ibid., 131]
So let us defend with great spirit the study of letters, and let us consider ourselves put in our position by divine providence, and because of that, let us do our duty with greater care, and let us expect the reward for our toils from God. I have spoken. [ibid., 132]