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The Reformation and Sixteenth-Century Educational Reform

Martin Luther: Learning for Life presents a clear and succinct overview of Luther's own education, Luther's educational ideas and programs, and the impact and limitations of Luther and the magisterial reformers' work on the educational enterprise and institutions of his own day to the present.

Sixteenth-Century Educational Reform

In May 1518, at a time when the [education] reform movement was still in its very earliest stage, Luther penned a heartfelt letter to Jodocus Trutfetter in Erfurt. In it he aimed to set the record straight with a former professor whom he admired. He also articulated his understanding of the process of reform, linking church and university. Thus, he wrote, “it is impossible for the church to be reformed unless canon law, the decretals, scholastic theology, philosophy, and logic as they now exist are eradicated and other studies are instituted in their place.” In his 1520 Address to the Christian Nobility he referred to universities that fail in their duty of teaching the Holy Scriptures as “wide gates to hell,” and he urged a thoroughgoing reform of their curricula.

Enduring ecclesiastical reform could only occur when the educational foundation of schools and universities was torn down and rebuilt. However, Luther did not have the luxury of implementing gradual reform, of slowly replacing the old with the new, along the lines advocated by Erasmus. He could not wait for reform to reach from the learned to the unlearned, from the universities to the parishes. While university reform remained a priority, it was not the only priority, as Luther was led to include within his horizon all aspects of society, including young and old, clergy and laity.

At the same time, as Luther’s horizon broadened, he never lost his focus on the university. He continued to turn to the universities as the source for educated and reliable pastors and teachers to preach and teach, men able to preach the Word and expound the catechism. And, no matter how many other tasks occupied his attention, Luther remained a university person, dedicated to teaching and to his students. Even more, he remained committed to his university, a commitment so strong that not even the plague could drive him from his post.

Doctrine and Practice Reform

Not in 1518 nor even in 1520 did Luther fully grasp how far and wide reform would have to extend or how difficult it would be to bring people to a genuine understanding of why the gospel necessitated changes in both doctrine and practice. As we have seen, the catechisms, postils, and hymns were efforts to provide pastors and congregations with tools and guides that could lead them to an understanding of God’s Word. Initially Luther may not have realized how extensively the clergy would need to be retrained. As his awareness grew, so too did his stress on education.

Several words of caution are necessary, however, with regard to what Luther expected from the universities and schools and from education in general. First, Luther understood reform to be a divine not a human activity, although people are called to serve as instruments of the Word. Any discussion of reform must center, as Gustav Wingren rightly notes, on individuals in relationship, both to God and to one another. Second, within that context, Luther never lost sight of the centrality of the concept of the priesthood of believers. His growing recognition of the need for a learned pastorate was not a rejection of that fundamental belief.

However, as he sought to respond to the tumult and disorder caused by the Peasants’ Revolt and to find ways to address the ignorance and confusion which the visitations had brought to light, Luther and his colleagues found it imperative to establish procedures to ascertain that those who believed themselves called to preach the Word were truly prepared to do so. These procedures were not to replace divine vocatio, but to test that the call was genuine and to assure that the person called by God to preach and teach the Word was equipped with the necessary tools. Education could not replace vocatio, but without education, without knowledge of Scripture, vocatio lacked the means to become effective.

In a time of confusion, setting standards and ascertaining who did and did not meet them became crucial, necessitating a centralized authority for ordination, for granting authority and credentials to those who were called to serve as pastors. Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession states “that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call.” While all through baptism are priests, only some are called to the “function” of the ministry, and “after 1525 Luther emphasized an objective calling through an external sign from God or through a commission by the authorities.” Precisely who was to comprise this commission, whether theologians or pastors, was debated, but the Wittenberg University theologians assumed leadership through their examinations of candidates, thereby fulfilling Elector John Frederick's 1535 order that those wishing to serve as pastors be “sent to Wittenberg ‘to our scholars of the Holy Scriptures, who have the command to ordain them and also to bestow the power and authority of their office of priest and deacon.’”

Adapted from Martin Luther: Learning for Life, pages 236–38. © 1997 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Discover insights to sixteenth-century education that are of more than passing interest and seem strangely applicable to the present educational environment.

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