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University and Reformation

Without University, no Reformation with international influence

Universities are – with the papacy – the oldest institutions in Latin Europe (Photo: pixabay)

Universities are – together with the papacy – the oldest institutions in Latin Europe. Their original “setting in life” were urban cooperative societies of masters and scholars, which arose in the 12th century and served the acquisition of higher education and organized graduations due to imperial and later to papal privileges. With their help, the graduates were able to take up influential positions in the ecclesiastical and the state administration. The "expertization" of public life, proceeding since the 11th century, the need to substantiate demands or intentions with scientific or legal arguments and logic, made academically trained scholars often indispensable. The rise of the universities was closely linked to the processes of differentiation in the contemporary society.

Monk, preacher, professor

The historically primary "setting in life" also of the Reformation was the university. The thesis “No Reformation without university” has not been refuted until now, which is probably due to the fact that its plausibility is obvious: Luther was employed on behalf of his order as a theology professor in Wittenberg; the thesis paper on the indulgence trade –the so-called. „Ninety-Five Theses“ – which became the trigger of his conflict with Rome, was destined for an academic disputation; the support Luther had from colleagues of his university constituted a prerequisite of his "coming forward" as important as the amicable relations he had to his religious order. 

Luther was – as he stated himself in retrospect, in reference to Augustine – one of those who didn't make progress “at a stroke”, but in “hardship” and “contestation” "when writing and teaching". He thus progressed in painful academic work and teaching processes. Whatever might have been the real significance of the often exaggerated legendary "tower experience" – the crucial point is that is was about an insight experience, that the university teacher Luther acquired through his elementary daily routine, the preparation of an exegetical lecture. Luther interpreted the Bible also for the pulpit, but primarily for the teacher's desk. His early lectures show a professor of theology who is tentatively moving forward and growing into his profession, who tried to be scientifically at the state of the art of his time, who naturally used the exegetical-philological tools of humanism and who also used thoroughly the medieval and patristic commentaries available to him. Luther – an irreproachable monk, a commited preacher, but also and foremost: a conscientious professor.

unversity of Marburg
The old unversity of Marburg was founded in 1527 (Photo: Nikanos/Wikimedia)

Students as carriers of the Reformation's body of thought 

That Luther and his colleagues discussed their theological discoveries at first with their students, before they appealed to a wider audience, thanks to the invention of the printing, was decisive for the further course and dynamic of the Reformation. Because the students of Wittenberg, whose number rose abruptly after the Leipzig Debate and who really shook up the sleepy little residence and university town “in the margins of civilization”, proved to be mobile actors, ready to engage in conflicts. They traveled across the country and disturbed sermons; they stole from a bookseller traveling to Wittenberg several copies of the theses written by Johannes Tetzel und Konrad Wimpina to refute Luther and they burned them on the market square; they persecuted Eck, wherever he appeared; they brought the reformatory prints from one place to another and spread them further ; they wrote down the Luther's sermons and sold the manuscripts to enterprising printers; after Luther burned the Papal Bull of Excommunication they continued to play with fire; in Erfurt they threw an edition of the Papal Bull of Excommunication into the river Gera. This „student Reformation“ was the earliest of all, much earlier than the ones which would then follow – the Reformation of the cities, of the peasants, of the territorial lords, of the knights etc. – and altogether they created this unique conjunction, which is still called most appropriately the Reformation.

Scholarship = wrong?

That the Reformation came out of the university was an important point in many respects: Regarding the evolution of the intellectual culture and discourse of the reformatory-theological thoughts; in view of the self-evident proximity to the cultural practices of reading, writing and particularly printing. But the rootedness of the Reformation in the University was also of crucial importance because of the relationship between the lecturers and their students. Their conclusion was to get rough, before Luther would approved this. The provocations carried out by his students Franz Günther and Thomas Müntzer who appeared as agents provocateurs in Jüterbog near Magdeburg were aimed at fomenting conflicts and increasing the pressure to make decisions. Luther had first and foremost unleashed the student's genies, he could not get rid of.

In the tumultuous-revolutionary stage of the Wittenberg Reformation, between the summer of 1521 and February 1522,  when doctor Martinus tarried on the Wartburg , it seemed doubtful, that the close relationship of the university and the Reformation would have a future. Mind-driven prophets, who garnered support also among the students, where fundamentally calling into question the value of higher, scholarly education. The widespread saying "the scholars, the wrong people" ("Die Gelehrten, die Verkehrten") also became popular in reformatory circles. The double Doctor in Theology and Law, Karlstadt, dressed in a gray peasant's skirt and was called "brother Andres";  the conversion of a discredited erudition to the holy Simplicity, proximate to the Spirit of God and able to grasp the genuine sense of the Scripture, could not be expressed more clearly.

Philipp Melanchthon
Philipp Melanchthon (Photo: © epd-bild / akg-images / Sotheby's)

Enabler of an European event

Luther and his devoted educator and ingenious science organizer on his side, Philipp Melanchthon, had to spend some effort to calm things down and to create in succession of the humanistic reform of the University, begun in 1517/18, a university of the Reformation. In it, the Biblical language and the interpretation of the Holy Scripture was paramount; the Fathers of the Church also became regularly an object of study; the system of graduation was restituted, because the Protestant church would also need doctorates. In the artistic faculty, the canon was completed with humanistic subjects; Aristoteles was as important as ever. The Latin language remained pivotal – an important prerequisite for the rapid internationalization of the Wittenberg student body, which now converged from many European countries, to draw the "true doctrine" from the pure source at the "white mountain", the Leucorea. 

Without the university, the Reformation would have hardly been an European event. Everywhere it was victorious, the universities were reformed or new ones were created, for example in 1527 in Marburg, since 1559, with highly visible radiance, in Geneva. In the history of protestantism, the universities, the academic theology have remained an "agitation", that has been driving the church – much more so than in catholicism, for which a Magisterium is suited. To be aware of the cultural relation of the reformatory Christianity to the university, could not be the worst service that the commemoration of the Reformation would offer to the clergy tending to an anti-intellectual and antit-heological hustle and bustle. 

Thomas Kaufmann
Thomas Kaufmann
(Photo: epd-bild)

Prof. Dr. Kaufmann is a Professor for Church History (Reformation period and Modern Church History) at the University of Göttingen and Chairman of the association for Reformation History. He is also a member of the scientifc advisory board „Anniversary of the Reformation 2017".  

This text has appeared in the magazine for the theme year 2016 of the Luther Decade, "Reformation and One World", published by the Evangelical Church in Germany. The magazine can be ordered for free at the Church Office of the Evangelical Church in Germany (Herrenhäuser Str. 12, 30419 Hannover, Germany,  e-mail: