Luther Goes To College
For all his success in his mining ventures, the father of Martin Luther was unable to rise above the social status of “local citizen makes good.” Johannes or Hans Luther was not considered a social “nobleman,” but he recognized that his adolescent son, whose academic abilities were already noted, could take the family’s financial and social status to new heights. Then, as now, a college education was de rigueur for advanced ambitions. Thus, at age 13, the Luthers sent their son to a boarding school in Magdeburg, about forty miles from the family home in Mansfield, in the region of Saxony. The senior Luther wished his son to study among the offspring of nobility and to master the language of Latin, the coinage of all advanced learning.
Students in similar financial circumstances to Luther, those with high hopes and limited capital, found local boarding with the Brethren of the Common Life. Founded in the Netherlands, the Brethren was a fraternity or brotherhood of men who lived simply and piously. Their mission was the copying and printing of books in the service of educating adults in the direction of meditation and the inner life, critical of the highly speculative spirituality of the 13th and 14th centuries. Metaxas observes that Luther’s year with the Brethren was probably his first intimate exposure to an intensely spiritual, simple, structured way of religious life.
The following year Lather transferred to the city of Eisenach, 74 miles from his family but closer to many relatives, where he would set roots for the next four years. Eisenach was something of a religious hub, containing three monasteries [Dominican, Carthusian, Franciscan] and three parishes. The Church of St. Mary—with twenty altars--claimed to possess a bone fragment of the forearm of the Virgin Mary, a relic of the arms that held the infant Savior. Eisenach was a town of 4000 inhabitants; years later Luther referred to it as a “nest of priests and an emporium of clergy.” [Metaxas, p. 18]
If Calvin Coolidge could say centuries later that “the business of America is business,” a Renaissance observer might claim that “the religion of Eisenach was religion. Whatever Luther was learning in the classroom in his high school years, which was probably some variant of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, he could not have been immune from the general unrest in the Church which inevitably found supporters and detractors in the compacted church world of Eisenach.
For starters, Luther lived with the mayor of the town and his family, through some distant family connection. The Mayor, Heinrich Schalbe, and his family were pious Catholics and leading patrons of the Franciscan monastery there. The Franciscans had been born three centuries earlier when Francis received a vision from Christ commanding him to “rebuild my house.” Franciscan spirit throughout the middle ages always carried some feature of “loyal critic” to Church lethargy and corruption; some Franciscans [notably the Spiritual Franciscans] actually did rebel and break from the Church; their apocalyptic forecasts of the coming of a “pure Church” became part of Reformation thinking years later.
Luther would probably have heard something of John Wycliffe [England] and Jan Hus [Bohemia], reformers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries respectively who ran afoul of the Church on the matter of corruption and reform. But perhaps closest to home was the advice of his host, Schalbe, who introduced him to the ideas that the love of God was more powerful than anything Luther had experienced at his churches at home, and that “there might be some daylight between God’s idea of the Church and the institution of the Church itself.” [Metaxas, p. 19] Schalbe probably introduced Luther to the plight of one elderly Franciscan monk, Johannes Hilten, who at that very moment was wasting away in an Eisenach prison cell for his pronounced criticisms of the Church.
Hilten is an interesting character in Luther’s life, for in his condemned writings he predicts that in 1516 a man would arise to fight the corruption of the Church and would succeed. Luther would write his first formal theses on the need for reform of the practices of selling indulgences in 1517, and the 95 theses are points of academic discussion, not calls for a crusade. Later in life Luther would identify with such apocalyptic predictions, but not in his high school years.
At the age of 17 Luther entered the University of Erfurt, to the delight of his father, who expected his son to obtain a law degree and assume the management of the family business among his other future ventures. At Erfurt Luther would pursued a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, after which graduates branched off into master’s programs to prepare themselves for a clerical career or a legal one. Erfurt’s schedule was not without resemblance to a monastic life; students rose at 4 AM and retired at 8 PM after a day that included periods of prayer and devotion. [All universities in Western Europe were Catholic at this juncture.] Meals were taken in silence as passages from St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible were read. Metaxas believes that Luther may have received his first inclinations to study for the priesthood during this phase. [p. 24]
Luther entered college at a time when the old order was indeed passing away and a new one was gaining momentum. Scholasticism had enjoyed its glory days in the times of St. Thomas Aquinas three centuries earlier, but by Luther’s day this system of logical thought and premises no longer inspired very many students or their professors. The adage of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” originated in the context of late medieval scholasticism.
Two new forces were in play in Catholic Renaissance European universities. The first is the trend to return to the original sources of antiquity, to recover the riches of antiquity [in the history of the Church and among pagan classics] in the original languages. Scholars of Luther’s time included Christianity’s greatest philologist, Desiderius Erasmus, known as “The Father of Humanism,” who among his other contributions to the times came to discover significant errors in Biblical texts then in use in the liturgy and academics.
Which brings us to the second major academic trend of the time, a return to the Bible. As I posted earlier this week, what we would call “Biblical study” today was, in the middle ages, a study of systematic commentaries such as those of Peter Lombard’s Sentences. The freedom to examine books of the Bible as free-standing works of literature composed by inspired thinkers for specific purposes under the umbrella of Divine Inspiration was coming into Renaissance thought and practice as Luther entered college. Given that some years later Luther would proclaim that we are saved sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone,” one can imagine that Luther did not burn his college notes.
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