An immediate question for a student of Luther is the identity of the University of Erfurt, i.e., was it a Catholic school? During the years of Luther’s studies (1501-1505) the question would not have made sense as there were no independent state schools nor schools of other religions in Western Christendom. Luther’s course of study tells us a lot: at the bachelor’s level he was required to master the seven liberal arts, enumerated and clearly explained at the Brigham Young University School of Humanities website (2014). “Liberal arts” is an umbrella term for what we might call philosophy and anthropology, and as the BYU site points out, it is the philosopher Aristotle in the pre-Christian era who provided this template for organized learning.
Bachelor students lived like monks in many respects. They rose at 4 AM for devotions and retired at 8 PM. There were six residences or bursa around the university, each with its own atmosphere and temperament. Luther settled into the Heaven’s Gate bursa, where all 150 Psalms were prayed over a two-week cycle and spiritual texts and classics were read during the meals. According to Eric Metaxas [see home page], both the texts, particularly the biblical commentaries, and the religious atmosphere in general were critical in arousing an intense intellectual and religious devotion in the young collegian. [p. 24]
Although the University of Erfurt was a Catholic institution of learning, it was not immune to the philosophies and trends of Catholic intellectuals and men of letters. Metaxas devotes a section of Luther’s biography to humanism, the emerging alternative to the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas which had dominated university education since the 1250’s. Metaxas refers to the scholasticism of Luther’s time as “a fussy, over-formalized way of instruction that was fatally removed from life’s issues.” [p. 25] In Luther’s day critics already poked fun at scholastics who would argue “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Luther’s formal instruction in theology would have consisted of dry propositions, most likely the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Systematic study of the Bible was not generally offered.
Events outside of Luther’s college classroom would have significant impact on his intellectual and theological development. About fifty years before Luther graduated with his bachelor’s degree, the great city of Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Eastern Orthodox Catholic scholars fled to Western Europe bringing with them a new method of theological study, the return to original sources, popularly known as the ad fontes movement [“return to the original source of the waters”]. This era is not called the Renaissance for nothing; it is a rebirth or rediscovery of what the earliest sources might tell us, without the obfuscating and confusing layers of scholastic addition.
The ad fontes method, officially termed Ressourcement in our time, was a critical tool during Vatican II and beyond, particularly as historical theologians revisited the earliest forms and rites of the sacraments. In Luther’s time Ressourcement led to a demand for access to the full Bible and in its most accurate translation. Scholasticism used select portions of the Bible as proof texts for decrees and texts, but the consideration of the Scripture as a whole, and in its original languages, was never undertaken as a scholastic project, at least until the Renaissance era.
Thus Luther, as an inquiring young scholar, naturally embraced the humanist quest to “go back” to what he understood as the sources of the Catholic faith. The Catholic humanist Erasmus, eventually a friend of Luther’s, mastered both Hebrew and Greek to read Biblical texts in their original languages, and in doing so discovered errors in the official Church text of the time, the Latin language Vulgate translation of St. Jerome in the fifth century. Years later, when Luther translated the New Testament into German, he used Erasmus’ Greek text, and not the Latin Vulgate, as his starting point.
As a collegian in a humanist age, Luther did not approach the more radical conclusions he would later reach, but he did find an intellectual atmosphere which left him to question whether there might be more historical-spiritual data from the past that might open new paths of spirituality and church practice. This is certainly true in his approach to scripture. The enthusiasms of the time seemed to jump start his academic intensity; he achieved his bachelors’ degree in three semesters. But Luther was determined to earn a master’s degree in theology, which he did in December 1504, a remarkable achievement for that time.
That he undertook theological studies at all is surprising, since his father had shouldered the financial burden of preparing him for a law degree. Luther prepared to begin his law studies, essentially a second master’s degree, and had purchased his Corpus Juris, the expensive text for all future lawyers. The common story of this juncture tells us that Luther, during an intensive lightning storm, made a vow to St. Anne that he would become a monk. Metaxas provides a more comprehensive hypothesis, suggesting that Luther, at this stage of his life, was impacted by a fear of the afterlife that modern day historians like Kevin Madigan have come to appreciate about late medieval and early Renaissance life. Luther may have been excited by humanist possibilities, but a deepened consciousness of the possibilities of damnation were never far from his mind, either.
In his later writings Luther would speak of his Anfechtungen, the closest translation being “to duel with.” Metaxas puts it this way: “So Luther’s Anfechtungen meant to do battle with one’s own thoughts and with the devil. But for him this was something so horrible that it’s difficult for us to fully comprehend.” [p. 28] Kevin Madigan writes that this morbid state of fear of hell was common in the northern reaches of Europe. In any event, Luther’s future battles would not be conducted in common court rooms.