VI.5 Early milestones: Reformation disputations

VI.5 Early milestones: Reformation disputations

The subsequent history of Luther's break with Rome was punctuated by a series disputations in the universities of Heidelberg (April 1518) and Leipzig (July 1519: Image 1). The same applies to the earliest history of the Swiss Reformation (Image 2).  

Image 1. Julius Hübner, ‘Disputation Dr. Luthers mit Dr. Eck (1519)’, painted 1863-66; formerly in Dresden, destroyed in WW II. Source: Wikimedia, public domain. Although of no direct historical value, this huge historical painting (3.28 m high, 6,17 m wide) dramatizes the Leipzig disputation of July 1519 using the furniture typical of an academic disputation. Luther stands behind the lectern to the right, the Bible open before him, bare-headed, bathed in light, his gaze turned heavenward as if transfixed by a moment of divine illumination, Carlstadt and Melanchthon at his feet. His opponent, the theologian and prelate Johann Maier von Eck, stands to the left, his merely institutional authority signalled by his doctoral cap, surrounded by clerics and fat monks, with a notary and a fool at his feet. While confusion reigns amongst many of the auditors, the two central figures – the dukes of Pomerania and Saxony, patrons of the university, who preside over this disputation – have turned dramatically towards Luther’s way of thinking, heralding the introduction of the Reformation into northern Germany. Similar historicist paintings were created by Carl Friedrich Lessing (1867) and Max Seliger (c. 1900).

Image 2.  Depiction of the first Zürich disputation of 1523, in a transcription of Heinrich Bullinger’s Reformationsgeschichte (History of the Reformation), c. 1600.  Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain. The Zürich city council staged a disputation, open to the entire public, on the question of which was the true religion. Such public events were typical of the manner in which the Reformation was introduced into the semi-autonomous cities of southern Germany and the Swiss Confederation. Far from bringing the practices of the medieval university into disrepute, the Reformation projected those same practices from lecture theatres into city halls.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2021)
Further reading. David Luy, 'Martin Luther’s Disputations', Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (2017), available here. Bernd Moeller, 'Disputations' (chiefly dealing with Zurich); and Hans Junghans, 'Leipzig Disputation', in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, ed. Hans Hillerbrand, 4 vols. (Oxford 1996), i. 487-9 and ii. 417-18, available here and here.