William Flippin Jr.: Martin Luther and the Libraries: The Shaping of Sola Scriptura


Recently I had the privilege in attending the 2014 Reformation Day at Emory University. As alum of Candler School of Theology 03T, I was very proud to have a guided tour of the beautiful Pitts Theology Library, and the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection. This collection is a repository of rare and valuable documents produced in connection with the Protestant Reformation. The collection now contains almost 4,000 pieces written by Martin Luther, his colleagues, and his opponents, and printed during their lifetimes.

I wondered what Luther's position was toward and contribution to the diffusion of knowledge through library development? Even from those who were not opponents to Luther such as Frederich Paulsen acknowledge that Luther had no strong desire for learning and education.

When Luther's Ninety-five Theses were forwarded to Rome and read by Pope Leo X, the pope brushed it off as Martin Luther being a drunken German. However, through time when Luther continued his attacks on indulgences and the papacy still he was not given credit for his intellectual gifts but ten years later to the humanists Erasmus. Erasmus is given the accolades of one who "laid the egg that Luther hatched." Willibald Pirkheimer wrote "Ubicunque regnet Lutheranismus, ibi litterarum est interitus; est tamen hoc genus hominum maxima litteris alitur ("Wherever Lutheranism prevails, there we see the downfall of learning."

I disagree on this statement as we celebrate the 497th year of the Reformation this misinterpretation of Luther as being a proponent of destroying the flow of learning through the dismantling of the libraries.

We cannot discount the historical fact of Luther's act of book burning. When the bull of excommunication (Exsurge Domine) reached Luther, he proceeded on December 10, 1520, to burn it together with books of canon law and scholastic theology. This occurred at a mass meeting of Wittenberg faculty and students.

In 1539 he prefaced to an early collected edition his German works, he says:

"I would have gladly have seen all my books forgotten and destroyed. For I clearly see what benefit the fact has brought to the Church that humanity have begun to collect many books and great libraries outside Holy Scripture. I think est modus in rebus, and no harm has been done by the fact that the books of many of the Fathers and councils have by God's grace been lost."

Another argument that opponents of Luther have posed in regards to his disdain for libraries is that German universities experience rapid decline after 1517. The majority interpretation is that in parts of Germany where the Reformation was accepted much confusion was caused by the transfer from the Catholic to the Protestant beliefs, modes of worship and church government resulted in educational institutions ceasing to flourish. Even Wittenberg lost three-fourths of its enrollment.

How valid are these arguments in claiming that Martin Luther, the German Reformer was against the building of libraries? Although German institutions declined in enrollment is that a measure of being against learning or is this the impetus of what the Reformation is about in making a stand when it is not popular or conventional? He says "For had all of them remained, one would scarcely be able to go in or out for books, and yet they would have presented nothing better than we find in Holy Scripture."

As a revolutionary it is of the nature of the revolution to tear down in order to rebuild. Such rebuilding began in 1517 As Alister McGrath has noted, "Lutheranism originated within, and initially developed within, the theological faculty of an obscure German university."Rennaisance humanists' emphasis on a return to the original sources of Greco-Roman civilization resulted in the expansion of the study of the sacred languages in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. History has allowed the debates of Luther and Erasmus to get out of hand where in fact Luther was much aligned to humanist curricular reforms.

The theologians at Wittenberg, led by Martin Luther, sought to harness this learning for the specific purpose of discovering theological truth. This meant the close study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In fact, Luther's diligent examination of the Bible in its original languages and the writings of Augustine of Hippo (him being a former Augustinian monk) led to his understanding of salvation as justification by faith alone though grace on the account of Christ. By 1517 Luther had written that this new focus on the Bible in its original languages and St Augustine's writings was replacing the late medieval scholastics' emphasis in their numerous commentaries on the integration of Aristotle's ethical and metaphysical writings with the Bible and other theological writings.

By 1520 Luther focused explicitly on the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone and the interpretation of the Bible as God's law and gospel. During this same period, Luther and his colleagues implemented a series of curricular reforms that linked a strong focus on Greek and Latin classical texts with theological renewal. Luther's vision called for the establishment of elementary schools for boys and girls in every town throughout Germany. The Reformation in education came through allowing learning to be given to the masses of Germans through the development of the Bible which Luther said should be taught at home. Martin Luther we can say was the forerunner of what we now have access to digital libraries and Kindles.

We celebrate the German Reformer Martin Luther, who welcomed those moments when learning could be given to the masses in developing free thought from Sola Scriptura and the development of the priesthood of all believers. May we be people who can't sit still in the face of injustice, error and oversight. Most of all may the unwavering confidence we have in God's grace drive us to do good, loving, selfless, joyous, Jesus-glorifying things. Let it free us to serve our neighbors share our goods and, when necessary, speak our minds. Why? Because sometimes in doing so we can change the world.

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From HuffingtonPost.com/Religion