Luther on Classical Education

G.R. Evans (Problems of Authority in Reformation Debates, Cambridge UP, 1992) notes that Luther’s reformation break-through was made possible by his training in the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), which emphasized attention to words. Evans has a great quote from Luther:

“I am persuaded that there can be no sound theology (sincera theologia) without expertise in the arts of language (sine literarum peritia) … I see that there has never been a notable (insignis) opening up of the Word of God, except where languages and letters have sprung up and flowered like so many John the Baptists to prepare the way. I do not wish … young people to be denied the opportunity to study poetry and rhetoric … These studies make them able first to grasp holy things, and then to treat of them skilfully and felicitously. So I pray you … if my request carries any weight, to ensure that your young men practise as industriously as possible in poetry and rhetoric (ut strenue et poetentur et rhetoricentur). As Christ lives, I am often furious that I was not allowed to study poets and orators sometimes at that age … I would have given much for a Homer so I could learn Greek,” (16).

Is it purely coincidence that the great reformers were all formed by some sort of classical education? As Simmons shows in Climbing Parnassus, the emphasis was on learning the classical languages (with Hebrew added into the mix by the northern humanists). These men were armed with the basic tools of exegsis, and did not simply rely on the latest commentaries from formerly orthodox publishing houses. As professor Frank James said once in a lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary, we need more humanist pastors who really know Greek and Hebrew! In the good old days, you had to know Greek and Latin before being accepted to seminary!

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