VI.8 Institutionalising humanist philology

VI.8 Institutionalising humanist philology

Given this overwhelming emphasis on the necessity of reading and preaching the Word, Luther’s first priority, after breaking decisively with the Roman Church at the Synod of Worms in 1521, was to translate the Bible into German, so that it could be accessible to his fellow countrymen in their native tongue. Image 1 reproduces the title-page of his first effort in this regard: the translation of the New Testament into German, published in 1522.  Image 2 represents his final installment of this work: the last edition of the complete Bible to which Luther himself contributed.

Within the universities, the most obvious effect of this increased emphasis on Scripture was deeply to institutionalise in the faculty of theology the philological emphasis of Renaissance humanism, which was redirected from the pagan classics of ancient Greece and Rome to the sacred text of the Greek and Hebrew Testaments. Within the faculties of theology, new professorships in the Old and New Testaments proliferated alongside chairs in systematic and polemical theology. These were complemented by new chairs in Hebrew and related ancient Near Eastern languages (such as Syriac and Aramaic) as well as New Testament Greek.

The Reformation also reshaped details of the university syllabus in other ways as well. The new stress on preaching increased the status of ecclesiastical rhetoric and oratory or ‘homiletics’, the art of writing and delivering sermons. Ecclesiastical history also rose in importance, emerging as a battle-ground between anti-Catholic polemics on the one hand and defenders of Church tradition on the other. Logic – sidelined by humanists in favour of grammar and rhetoric – was rehabilitated as an indispensable weapon in the fierce theological disputes of the period. Even metaphysics, banished from the Lutheran curriculum for two generations after the Reformation, eventually reasserted itself in the late sixteenth century, as Protestant theologians turned to Aristotle for terminology with which to debate their theological differences, for instance, on the precise nature of the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Virtually all of these new emphases, however, were comfortably accomodated within the established university curriculum: the main exception was history, where the reformers' emphasis on ecclesastical history complemented the humanists' emphasis on secular history. 

Further reading. Donald McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (2003), esp. Eric W. Gritsch, 'Luther as Bible Translator' and Oswald Bayer, 'Luther as Interpreter of Holy Scripture'.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2021)