The education of Martin Luther was mammoth. A lay-scholar could very easily be discouraged from attempting a similar level of theological excellence Worse still, one might consider oneself inadequate to evaluate one’s own culture or doctrinal positions critically. The mantra would be, “I didn’t have the opportunity to study, so I’ll just listen.” To not pursue in-depth theological study because it seems impossible would be a tragedy. There is no doubt that Luther was a great man who did great things. But even as we commend the academic excellence and bravery of Luther, remember that Luther read by candle light.
Luther could be bombastic and rude. While certainly on the receiving end of insults, he had no qualms about dishing out a few. He called the Pope the devil at one point (Hendrix, 2015, p. 15). Though, to be fair a Pope had called him a “wild hog” and a “drunken German,”(Sproul, 2015). Cordial, christian discourse in public seems to be a more modern thing.
Christendom is accustomed to having less than perfect heroes. For all his faults, Luther stands as a hero of the past and rated one of the most influential people in history (Hendrix, 2015). Even modern Anabaptists recognize the value of Luther’s deeds. This man who once said that Anabaptists were, “… corrupters of the sacraments,” and charged them with destroying the treasures of the faith. (Hendrix, 2015, p. 186).
But this article is not to explore the struggles between the first Anabaptists and the reformer Luther. Rather, the intention is to explore the events in Luther’s life that set him up to be so used of God, specifically his academic bent. For, like it or not, the Anabaptists owe their existence as a movement to the likes of Luther.
The Education of Martin Luther:
The specifics of Luther’s education are largely taken from the book by Scott H Hendrix entitled, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer.
Luther’s accomplishments would not have come about were it not for his education. Luther himself was aware of the treasure that he had been given, stating, “Without any doubt, I would not have come to this if I had not gone to school and become a writer,” (Hendrix, 2015, p. 21) And go to school he did.
Based on the times, Luther’s schooling may have started around the age of seven. He studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students of the day studied Latin and moral maxims from works that were around 1,000 years old, namely Donatus and Cato (Hendrix, 2015). After a short time in a place called Mansfeld, he studied in Magdeburg where he probably studied in the actual Cathedral (Hendrix, 2015). He soon moved locations again, however, and studied for several years in Eisenach. Here he studied an advanced version of the subjects already mentioned, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He also studied musical theory and apparently had a decent tenor voice, taught himself the lute, etc., but I digress. In Eisenach, Luther came into contact with many intellectuals and religious professions. Apparently the town there had fostered an academic culture with an impractical number of religious professionals, one for every ten people (Hendrix, 2015).
Luther enrolled at the university in Erfurt in 1501 where he learned some Greek and Hebrew. Hendrix credits Luther with mentioning a slew of Greek writers in his writings. The likes of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Cicero, Virgil, the younger Seneca, Terence, and Tacitus are mentioned as a start (Hendrix, 2015). Basically, Luther read old books, a ton of them. From a gritty, historical perspective, Luther’s name appears in the ledger of the university three times. According to Hendrix, the first was when he enrolled and paid his tuition, the second was when he got his Bachelor of Arts degree, and again when he passed his Master of Arts exam (2015). In all, Luther spent nine years in Erfurt and his work in academics had just begun.
Martin Luther would not have been able to accomplish what he did were it not for his education. What then is the application for a denomination that does not send its sons, usually, into theological academic pursuits, and who certainly do not glean their ministers from among an educated store of potential masters of Theology? There are many directions one may take this debate. There is the debate on possibly sending people to study theology and running the risk of their transferring to a different denomination. There is the question of opening four-year theological seminaries of our own. Granted, some now exist with the name “Mennonite” but conservatives have traditionally shied away from these. This debate is a constant among us. For those whom higher education is deemed too late, and perhaps they feel that they have no good options, there is a solution, of sorts.
Luther read by candle light. I study via the glow on my phone. Luther went to school to study the great Greek and Latin masters of the past. I just purchased the complete works of Plato on my phone for $2 here. Just as movable type assisted the propagation of Luther’s ideas, technology has given Mennonite laymen the ability to reach a level of academic prowess approaching the Divinity Majors of today. How long did Luther spend reading a document to research a topic? I have no idea, the question is rhetorical. But how long does it take to search a PDF for the section one desires? The greatest problem is not time, but knowing what to study. That advice I do not offer here. My only point is that it is available to anyone.
Luther was given opportunities by his father and utilized them to become a scholastic giant of his time. God used his education and talents to change His church forever. It was not an easy road and Luther will forever have severe marks against him. History is replete with God using educated people to defend his church, when He can find them.
Hendrix, S. (2015). Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Sproul, D. R. (2015, March 10). The Insanity of Luther. Ligonier Ministries. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2StKxMKWfbU&index=4&list=WL&t=0s