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§ 27. Luther as Professor till 1517.

Luther was suddenly called by Staupitz from the Augustinian Convent of Erfurt to that of Wittenberg with the expectation of becoming at the same time a lecturer in the university. He arrived there in October, 1508, was called back to Erfurt in autumn, 1509, was sent to Rome in behalf of his order, 1510, returned to Wittenberg, 1511, and continued there till a few days before his death, 1546.

He lived in the convent, even after his marriage. His plain study, bed-room and lecture-hall are still shown in the "Lutherhaus." The lowliness of his work-shop forms a sublime contrast to the grandeur of his work. From their humble dwellings Luther and Melanchthon exerted a mightier influence than the contemporary popes and kings from their gorgeous palaces.

Luther combined the threefold office of sub-prior, preacher and professor. He preached both in his convent and in the town-church, sometimes daily for a week, sometimes thrice in one day, during Lent in 1517 twice everyday. He was supported by the convent. As professor he took no fees from the students and received only a salary of one hundred guilders, which after his marriage was raised by the Elector John to two hundred guilders.154154    "Wäre es nicht geschehen," says Luther, "so hatte ich nach meiner Verheirathung mir vorgenommen, für Honorar zu lesen. Aber da mir Gott zuvorkam, so habe ich mein Leben lang kein Exemplar [he means, of his writings] verkauft noch gelesen um Lohn, will auch den Ruhm, will’s Gott, mit mir ins Grab nehmen." Jürgens, II., 248 sq.

He first lectured on scholastic philosophy and explained the Aristotelian dialectics and physics. But he soon passed through the three grades of bachelor, licentiate, and doctor of divinity (October 18th and 19th, 1512), and henceforth devoted himself exclusively to the sacred science which was much more congenial to his taste. Staupitz urged him into these academic dignities,155155    Luther remembered the pear tree under which Staupitz overcame his objections to the labors and responsibilities of the doctorate. He thought himself unable to endure them with his frail body, but Staupitz replied playfully and in prophetic anticipation of the great work in store for him: "In Gottes Namen! Unser Herr Gott hat grosse Geschäfte; Er bedarf droben auch kluger Leute; wenn Ihr nun sterbet, so müsset Ihr dort sein Rathgeber sein." and the Elector who had been favorably impressed with one of his sermons, offered to pay the expenses (fifty guilders) for the acquisition of the doctorate.156156    See K. F. Th. Schneider, Luther’s Promotion zum Doctor und Melanchthon’s zum Baccalaureus der Theologie, Neuwied, 1860 (38 pp.). He gives Luther’s Latin oration which he delivered in honor of theology on the text: "I will give you a mouth and wisdom" (Luke 21:15). The expenses of the promotion to the degree of the baccalaureate, Luther never paid. The records of the dean note this fact: "Adhuc non satisfecit facultati," and Luther afterward wrote on the margin: "Nec faciet, quia tunc pauper et sub obedientia nihil habuit." Schneider, p. 6. Afterward in seasons of trouble Luther often took comfort from the title and office of his doctorate of divinity and his solemn oath to defend with all his might the Holy Scriptures against all errors.157157    See his utterances on the importance of his doctorate in Mathesius (I. and XV.) and Jürgens (II., 405-408). Jürgens points out and explains (p. 424 sqq.) the inconsistency of Luther in his appeal to human authority and overestimate of the official title. Every step in his public career was accompanied by scruples of conscience which he had to solve the best way he could. He justified the burning of the Pope’s Bull in the same way. But the oath of ordination and of the doctor of theology implied also obedience to the Roman church (ecclesiae Romanae obedientiam) and her defence against all heresies condemned by her.158158    Köstlin says (Engl. transl. of the short biography, p. 65): "Obedience to the Pope was not required at Wittenberg, as it was at other universities." But it is implied in obedience to the Roman church. The university was chartered by the Emperor Maximilian, but the Elector had not neglected to secure the papal sanction. See Jürgens II. 207.

With the year 1512 his academic teaching began in earnest and continued till 1546, at first in outward harmony with the Roman church, but afterward in open opposition to it.

He was well equipped for his position, according to the advantages of his age, but, very poorly, according to modern requirements, as far as technical knowledge is concerned.Although a doctor of divinity, he relied for several years almost exclusively on the Latin version of the Scriptures. Very few professors knew Greek, and still less, Hebrew. Luther had acquired a superficial idea of Hebrew at Erfurt from Reuchlin’s Rudimenta Hebraica.159159    This book, published at Pforzheim, 1506, at the author’s expense, is the first Hebrew grammar written by a Christian, and broke the path for Hebrew learning in Germany. So far Reuchlin was right in calling it a monumentum aere perennius. The Greek he learned at Wittenberg, we do not know exactly when, mostly from books and from his colleagues, Johann Lange and Melanchthon. As late as Feb. 18th, 1518, he asked Lange, "the Greek," a question about the difference between ajnavqhma and ajnavqema, and confessed that he could not draw the Greek letters.160160    DeWette, I. 34: "Petimus a te, Graece, ut controversiam nostram dissolvas, quae sit distantia inter anathema per epsilon, et anathema per η ... Nescio figuras literarum pingere." In his Table Talk he says: "Ich kann weder griechisch noch hebräisch; ich will aber dennoch einem Griechen und Hebräer ziemlich begegnen." Comp. on his linguistic studies and accomplishments, Jürgens, I. 470 sqq.; II. 428 sqq. His herculean labor in translating the Bible forced him into a closer familiarity with the original languages, though he never attained to mastery. As a scholar he remained inferior to Reuchlin or Erasmus or Melanchthon, but as a genius he was their superior, and as a master of his native German he had no equal in all Germany. Moreover, he turned his knowledge to the best advantage, and always seized the strong point in controversy. He studied with all his might and often neglected eating and sleeping.

Luther opened his theological teaching with David and Paul, who became the pillars of his theology. The Psalms and the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians remained his favorite books. His academic labors as a commentator extended over thirty-three years, from 1513 to 1546, his labors as a reformer embraced only twenty-nine years, from 1517 to 1546. Beginning with the Psalms, 1513, he ended with Genesis, November 17th, 1545) three months before his death.

His first lectures on the Psalms are still extant and have recently been published from the manuscript in Wolfenbüttel.161161    He had the Latin text of the Psalms printed, and wrote between the lines and on the margin his notes in very small and almost illegible letters. Köstlin gives a facsimile page in Luther’s Leben, p. 72 (Engl. ed. p. 64). The whole was published with painstaking accuracy by Kawerau in the third volume of the Weimar ed. (1885). They are exegetically worthless, but theologically important as his first attempt to extract a deeper spiritual meaning from the Psalms. He took Jerome’s Psalter as the textual basis;162162    The innumerable references to the Hebraeus are never intended for the original, but for Jerome’s Psalterium juxta Hebraeos. Paul de Lagarde has published an edition, Lips., 1874. the few Hebrew etymologies are all derived from Jerome, Augustin (who knew no Hebrew), and Reuchlin’s Lexicon. He followed closely the mediaeval method of interpretation which distinguished four different senses, and neglected the grammatical and historical interpretation. Thus Jerusalem means literally or historically the city in Palestine, allegorically the good, tropologically virtue, anagogically reward; Babylon means literally the city or empire of Babylon, allegorically the evil, tropologically vice, anagogically punishment. Then again one word may have four bad and four good senses, according as it is understood literally or figuratively.163163    Luther illustrates this double four-fold scheme of exegesis by the following table (Weimar ed. III. 11):

   Litera Occidens

   hystorice terra Canaan



   Allegorice Synagoga vel

   persona eminens in eadem

   tropologice Justitia phari-

   saica et legalis

   anagogice Gloria futura

   secundum carnem


   SpiritusVivificans de corpore

   hystorice populus in Zion exis-

   tens Babylonico Ecclesiastico



   Allegorice Ecclesia

   vel quilibit




   Tropologice Justitia fidei

   vel alia excellen ...

   Anagogice gloria

   eterna in celis.


   Econtra Vallis Cedron per oppositum.

Sometimes he distinguished six senses. He emphasized the prophetic character of the Psalms, and found Christ and his work everywhere.164164    This fanciful allegorizing and spiritualizing method of interpreting the Psalms by which they are made to teach almost anything that is pious and edifying, is still popular even in some Protestant churches, especially the Church of England. Comp. e.g. Dr. Neale and Dr. Littledale’s Commentary on the Psalms from primitive and mediaeval writers. London, fourth ed., 1884, 4 vols. The celebrated Baptist preacher, Spurgeon, has written a commentary on the Psalms, in seven volumes, which is likewise full of allegorizing interpretation, but mostly derived from older Protestant and Puritan sources. He had no sympathy with the method of Nicolaus Lyra to understand the Psalter from the times of the writer. Afterward he learned to appreciate him.165165    Hence the saying: "Si Lyra non lyrasset, Lutherus non saltasset." He followed Augustin, the Glossa ordinaria, and especially the Quincuplex Psalterium of Faber Stapulensis (Paris, 1508 and 1513). He far surpassed himself in his later comments on the Psalms.166166    Ed. by Dr. Bertheau in the fourth vol. of the Weimar ed. (1886). It was only by degrees that he emancipated himself from the traditional exegesis, and approached the only sound and safe method of grammatico-historical interpretation of Scripture from the natural meaning of the words, the situation of the writer and the analogy of his teaching, viewed in the light of the Scriptures as a whole. He never gave up altogether the scholalistic and allegorizing method of utilizing exegesis for dogmatic and devotional purposes, but he assigned it a subordinate place. "Allegories," he said, "may be used to teach the ignorant common people, who need to have the same thing impressed in various forms." He measured the Scriptures by his favorite doctrine of justification by faith, and hence depreciated important books, especially the Epistle of James and the Apocalypse. But when his dogmatic conviction required it, he laid too much stress on the letter, as in the eucharistic controversy.

From the Psalms he proceeded to the Epistles of Paul. Here be had an opportunity to expound his ideas of sin and grace, the difference between the letter and the spirit, between the law and the gospel, and to answer the great practical question, how a sinner may be justified before a holy God and obtain pardon and peace. He first lectured on Romans and explained the difference between the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of works. He never published a work on Romans except a preface which contains a masterly description of faith. His lectures on Galatians he began October 27th, 1516, and resumed them repeatedly. They appeared first in Latin, September, 1519, and in a revised edition, 1523, with a preface of Melanchthon.167167    See the first ed. in the Weimar ed. of his works, vol. II. 436-618. This commentary of 1519 must be distinguished from the larger work of 1535 which has the same title, but rests on different lectures. They are the most popular and effective of his commentaries, and were often published in different languages. John Bunyan was greatly benefited by them. Their chief value is that they bring us into living contact with the central idea of the epistle, namely, evangelical freedom in Christ, which he reproduced and adapted in the very spirit of Paul. Luther always had a special preference for this anti-Judaic Epistle and called it his sweetheart or his wife.168168    In December, 1531: "Epistola ad Galatas ist meine Epistola, der ich mich vertraut habe, meine Kethe von Bora." Weimar ed. II. 437. Melanchthon called Luther’s commentary the thread of Theseus in the labyrinth of N. T. exegesis.

These exegetical lectures made a deep impression. They were thoroughly evangelical, without being anti-catholic. They reached the heart and conscience as well as the head. They substituted a living theology clothed with flesh and blood for the skeleton theology of scholasticism. They were delivered with the energy of intense conviction and the freshness of personal experience. The genius of the lecturer flashed from his deep dark eyes which seem to have struck every observer. "This monk," said Dr. Pollich, "will revolutionize the whole scholastic teaching." Christopher Scheurl commended Luther to the friendship of Dr. Eck (his later opponent) in January, 1517, as "a divine who explained the epistles of the man of Tarsus with wonderful genius." Melanchthon afterward expressed a general judgment when he said that Christ and the Apostles were brought out again as from the darkness and filth of prison.

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