Luther, Martin

Luther, Martin
   German religious reformer. His challenge to prevailing practices and doctrine precipitated the spiritual and social upheaval now known as the Protestant Reformation. Although in many respects he was a product of the scholastic university education he received in his youth, Luther was still a man of his generation, affected by the rising interest in ancient language and literature and expressing regret even in his later years that he had never learned to write Latin in the humanist style. After he had become a monk and had received his doctorate in theology, Luther still experimented with the humanist fashion for adopting a classical substitute for a German surname: for a time he signed letters to friends as "Eleutherius," a name with a Greek ring to it.
   Luther's practice as professor of biblical theology at Wittenberg suggests acceptance of humanist ideas of educational reform. He focused his lectures on the text of Scripture rather than on the many layers of commentary created by medieval scholarship. This textual emphasis was not due to humanist influence alone. There was already a strong biblical strain in the popular piety of Germanic Europe, and Luther's monastic superior and mentor, Johann von Staupitz, had already concentrated on the sacred text itself while he was teaching at Wittenberg. But openness to humanist ways of approaching the Bible is evident in Luther's eagerness to apply the new scholarship of biblical humanists like Lefèvre d'Etaples and Erasmus in his lectures. When Erasmus' edition of the Greek New Testament was published in 1516, Luther promptly bought a copy and made it, rather than the traditional Latin Bible, the decisive authority in his classroom teaching. Finally, Luther conceived his central theological doctrine, that man is justified before God by faith alone and not by any kind of action ("good works") done by human effort, as a restoration of the original and ancient doctrine taught by Christ and most clearly expressed in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. This desire to go back to the ancient text, and particularly to privilege the original Greek over the Latin translation, conformed to the general desire of Renaissance humanists to return to the ancient sources.
   Luther was also linked to the Renaissance by the warm and early support he received from most German humanists, even many who eventually broke with him when they realized that his movement would shatter the unity of the church. The rapid spread of Luther's ideas throughout Germany was made possible by humanist advisers to publishers who printed his early writings and created a popular image of him as a man of God. It is essentially correct to say that without the support of the German humanists in its early stages, there would have been no Reformation.
   Luther attracted the humanists in part because he was the leader in a substantial reorientation of the curricula in liberal arts and theology at Wittenberg that conformed closely to humanist ideas of educational reform. In close collaboration with the young humanist hired as Wittenberg's first regular professor of Greek, Philipp Melanchthon, he carried through a significant number of changes in the course of study. Subsequently he backed Melanchthon's work as educational adviser to German princes and city councils who wanted to introduce humanistic reform into German universities and grammar schools. Even though it is fair to say that Luther was not a humanist, his openness to humanistic ideas about theological study and general education and the positive reception he had from most humanists (especially the younger ones) make his relation to Renaissance humanism an integral part of his role as leader of the movement for religious reform.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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