In my first posting to this blog, I would like to explicate a bold statement of Luther’s, both in terms of what it must have meant at his time and what it could possibly mean today: Ego persuasus sum, sine literarum peritia prorsus stare non posse sinceram theologiam [“I am convinced that without literary training, pure theology is not able to stand upright;” WA Br. 3.50].
Luther most likely has in mind here the study of what we today would call “the Classics.” (In sixteenth century Germany, “German literature” did not yet exist as a disciplinary subject any more than “English literature” did; there was nothing but Greek and Latin and possibly Hebrew) So “literary” here should be understood to refer to ancient texts like Aesop’s fables, Cicero’s philosophical and rhetorical writings, Terence’s comedies, Virgil’s Aeneid, and, of course, the Bible, among others. And by “training,” Luther meant the development of a set of intellectual skills that built upon the work begun in the trivium at a young age and that continued throughout the course of one’s education and life.
Ah, the trivium. These foundational elements of a traditional liberal education (careful, attentive reading; clear, sensible thinking; eloquent, persuasive speaking and writing) were seen as having practical applicability in the 16th century (just as they had had for Ambrose and Augustine and Chrysostom in the 4th) for a wide spectrum of jobs and professions that required verbal acuity. (For more on the three cornerstones of a liberal education, namely, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the reader may wish to check out a web site that I have developed on the subject. Click here.)
Luther was not a reactionary. He was interested in educational reform and attacked the cathedral and monastic schools of his own day with his customary scatological vigor. (He referred to textbooks used in monastic schools as “asses’ dung.”) And he was no elitist, either. He wanted education to extend much more broadly to all elements of society, to include most notably girls. But in other ways his reformation of education was conservative, reflecting his reformation principles in general. He did not throw out ecclesiastical elements unless he felt they were entirely out of sync with the Gospel. He reformed them. Like fellow humanists, his instinct was not to go a little ways backward but to return all the way to the historical roots, ad fontes [“to the fountainheads”].The curriculum of the Lutheran gymnasium would not have struck Isidore of Seville or Martianus Capella or Varro as all that unfamiliar.
One could describe Luther’s approach to intellectual formation as “backing into the future.” Ordinarily, humans can guess at what the future might hold, but the only thing they have a fairly good shot at understanding is the historical past. So instead of facing the blank future and turning our back on the richly detailed past, as we are used to doing today (especially in America), the “premodern” pedagogical idea was to move into the future backwards, as it were, keeping one’s eyes fixed on what could actually be seen, known, and studied, namely, the past. Over the centuries, Lutherans have learned to worship as Lutherans by singing the ancient melodies of the church in the words of David, and Ambrose, and Luther, and Catherine Winkworth. Even so, when it comes to learning how to read and think and speak, the Lutheran mind has traditionally been trained by studying the language, thought, and art of Isaiah and Plato, Paul and Cicero, Virgil and Bach, and others who have historically shaped the Lutheran tradition. This isn’t an entirely reactionary ideal, because it is only by understanding fully one’s historical identity that it will be possible to bring the past alive for the future. As Goethe put it so memorably: "Was du ererbt hast von deinen Vätern, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen” [“What you have inherited from your fathers, make an effort to possess it for yourself.”]
The significance of Martin Luther’s enthusiastic and weighty support of the liberal arts often goes relatively unnoticed. His scholarly colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, aptly dubbed praeceptor Germaniae, certainly did much more of the actual work in helping to shape the curriculum of Lutheran schools and universities along humanistic lines than Luther did. All the same, imagine what would have happened if Luther’s support for the classical curriculum had been only luke warm! He made it clear often and unmistakably that he valued the ancient languages highly. He praised the works of Virgil and Cicero and Aesop in hyperbolic terms. And he let everyone know that he cherished the art of music next to theology itself. Without his personal and public advocacy for the liberal arts, it may well be that the anti-intellectual ideology of contemporaries like Carlstadt and the Anabaptists would have won out in the 1520s.
There are, of course, a number of other ingredients besides “literary training” which Luther considered crucial for theological formation, including the generous gifts of the Holy Spirit, prayer, meditation, and, most famously, the experience of wrestling with Satan’s attacks (tentatio or Anfechtung). None of these other constituent elements, however, lend themselves as readily to the conventional classroom instruction that makes up so much of the Lutheran theologian’s formal education as literary study, an important component of the bonae artes (cf. WA TR 3.312).
So, of all the arts one could study, why should literary studies be considered so essential for sincera theologia? The Lutheran reformers were deeply concerned to distinguish their approach to theology from that of contemporary Roman Catholics or “enthusiasts” who relied far less heavily on the written word of God. Grammar, rhetoric, logic, history, and the study of languages and literature were so important to Lutherans because of their distinctive emphasis on sola Scriptura. Historically Lutheran clergy and laity haven’t interpreted dreams or heeded an inner voice or listened to the siren songs of charismatic leaders in order to discern the will of God. No, they have read, interpreted, taught, preached, and sung the written message of the Scriptures. Without the ability to read God’s word accurately and sensitively what other source for inspiration and guidance from above could a Lutheran theologian have? Without the verbal skills to expound, declare, and apply the Word of God to contemporary situations and audiences, how could a Lutheran theologian effectively function?
But, someone might object, that was then and this is now. The world has changed radically since Luther’s day and never more so than in our own lifetime. Screens have replaced books. Numbers trump words. There is a real and growing reaction in American higher education against the traditional liberal arts. Students are gravitating in ever increasing numbers to majors like Nursing and Pharmacy, demanding ever more applied courses (e.g., “Spanish for Engineering”), and they are growing increasingly impatient with coursework that does not have an obvious connection with vocational preparation. It is somewhat gratifying to discover that such indifference to literary studies or even to the life of the mind is not at all new. At Luther’s time there was a common saying: Gelehrte sind verkehrte [“the learned are crazy”] and Luther himself was keenly aware of this opposition. In his 1524 address To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, Luther bluntly described as “brutes and stupid beasts” those educational minimalists of his own day who questioned why it was necessary to teach “Latin Greek, and Hebrew and the other liberal arts” instead of just using “German for teaching the Bible and God’s word, which is enough for our salvation” [LW 45, 341 ff.]
Some might argue that Lutheran higher education is somewhat immune from the current educational trend here identified. Seminaries and schools of theology still do value the liberal arts and literary studies, don’t they? Possibly. But while it is not uncommon for Lutheran seminaries to recommend an undergraduate major in the Classics for undergraduates who are planning to study theology, how often is fundamental preparation and demonstrable aptitude in the liberal arts actually required? And no wonder, when so many second-career candidates, with an undergraduate degree in engineering or business, are admitted to seminaries with the sole proviso that they take a crash course in New Testament Greek, if that. And how seriously are the liberal arts really taken as part of the training of parochial school teachers, “directors of Christian education,” “staff ministers,” and others whose jobs will require them to deal on a daily basis with the Word of God?
These curricular suggestions sound awfully Euro-centric today. Christianity has spread to continents of which Luther wasn’t even aware. What about “literary training” in Chinese or Spanish, some might ask. Why not indeed? Suggesting the study of one set of curricula doesn’t necessarily have to be an attack on the other. Why not encourage real glossalalia? The study of Latin could be just the beginning. At the same time, realistically speaking, vita brevis est, ars longa. It is unlikely that any student could ever master more than just a couple of languages (to say nothing of bodies of literature) in a lifetime. And it is important to appreciate the serious particularity inherent in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Curricular proposals can be very broad. Learning objectives can be as sweepingly ambitious as we want to make them. But life itself is quite particular. It was to a particular region of the world, at a particular point in history, and in the midst of a particular cultural milieu that God sent his only Son to be born. Everyone has to start somewhere. Why would Lutheran theologians not start by immersing themselves in the languages, literatures, and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world in which Jesus lived and where the first apostles began their evangelical work?
This all will seem excessively “ivory tower” to some. What about all the practicing theologians today who spend little of their time in the study and must work in the bustling modern world? They manage schedules and budgets, handle difficult personalities, plan for the expansion of physical plants, etc. Maybe these untheological duties might be better delegated to others who are better trained in these areas and who are not theologians. But even so, the liberal arts don’t have to be regarded as entirely useless in this regard. Luther saw precisely this kind of education as a great “ornament, profit, glory, and benefit, both for the understanding of Holy Scriptures and the conduct of temporal government” For him, it wasn’t only about the studying per se, but also what could be done with the results of that study. A liberal education, it has been said, “desires to educate for wisdom and virtue, not power and vanity; finds tiresome the present age’s preoccupation with utility, speed, novelty, convenience, efficiency, and specialization; and refuses to justify education as a means to wealth, power, fame, or self-assertion” [see Richard M. Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, 2007), xviii]. If Lutheran theology is a theology of the cross, it is hard to imagine any education more practically suited for the development of sensitive, persuasive, and wise exponents of it than the kind Luther prescribes.
Posted by Carl P.E. Springer