VI.7 The Reformation as lecture

VI.7 The Reformation as lecture

The only educational practice more central to the Reformation than the disputation was, of course, the lecture. The medieval university lecture was a 'reading' of the text of an authority paramount within the respective discipline. Within the discipline of theology, that text -- for medieval Catholics as well as post-Reformation Protestants -- was the Bible. But the Protestant reformers increased the centralilty of the Bible to religious thought and practice in two very significant respects. 

On the one hand, the medieval Church had been founded on the twin pillars of scriptura et traditio. The Bible was the ultimate authority, but history showed that it could be misinterpretated unless guided by the tradition of the great Church Councils, Fathers, and Doctors. Luther, Calvin and the other mainstream Protestant reformers rejected this view: instead, they insisted that Scripture was self-interpreting and the source of all true Christian doctrine and saving faith, dispensing with the need for ecclesiastical tradition.

The principle of sola scriptura was complemented, on the other hand, by the princple of sola fide. In Protestant theology, salvation depended not on pious works (such as observing the sacraments) but on faith; and faith was communicated most directly by the preaching of the Word. So preaching displaced the Mass or Lord's Supper as the central act of weekly religious worship.  Protestant historiography has long stressed that the 'reading' of Scripture -- in private and as the central act of public worship -- was far more central to Lutheran and Calvinist religious practice than it had been in medieval Catholicism. They have directed much less attention to the corollary: namely, that in the academic domain, this same emphasis on the 'lecture' represented a clear continuation and indeed reinforcement of established, medieval practice, not a break with it.

Image. Fides ex auditu. Predella of the Reformation altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) in the Stadtkirche St. Marien, Wittenberg. Photo by Nick Thompson, 14 April 2009. Source: flikr. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Further images of Wittenberg by the same photographer available here.

Further reading. Donald McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (2003), esp. Fred W. Meuser, 'Luther as Preacher'.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2021)