Wittenberg & Athens

Journal Cover Reformation 2008, Volume XVII, Number 4 Table of Contents

(Introduction by Carl P. E. Springer)

This issue of LOGIA is dedicated to answering Tertullian’s famous rhetorical question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” from a contemporary Lutheran perspective. While Tertullian would probably have answered his own question along the lines of “obviously, nothing at all,” there have been many other Christians, from patristic writers like Clement of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine, to nineteenth-century churchmen like Thomas Arnold and John Henry Newman, who have found substantial areas of commonality between the two cities and what they represent. Not all...Lutherans, including Luther himself, have endorsed Tertullian’s radical rejection of the Classics. Indeed, Lutheran higher education has, until relatively recently, participated enthusiastically in what has been called “The Great Tradition,” namely, the idea of an “education rooted in the classical and Christian heritage.”1 Luther himself praised “the languages and the arts” highly and regarded their study as a great “ornament, profit, glory, and benefit, both for the understanding of Holy Scriptures and the conduct of temporal government.”2 The relationship, however uneasy, between Athens and Wittenberg has been long-lasting and pervasive. It was by no means restricted to the time of the Reformation or limited by the borders of Germany or even of Europe. In America, too, young men preparing for the Lutheran ministry were expected not only to study biblical Greek and Hebrew, but to read the Greek and Latin pagan poets, philosophers, and historians as part of their training in the liberal arts. This practice persisted in at least one Lutheran preministerial college until 1995, when Northwestern College in Watertown, Wisconsin, ceased to exist. Every student who  went through the four years of the Untergymnasium (Preparatory School) and the Obergymnasium (College) was required to learn classical Latin (four years in high school; one in college), German (two years in high school; more in college); classical Greek (two or three years); and Hebrew (two years in college). It is true that Northwestern College was somewhat exceptional in this regard. As one of its best known professors, John Philipp Koehler, notes in his history of the Wisconsin Synod:

The Missouri schools were different from what Northwestern now set out to be. Although organized at once after the pattern of the German gymnasium (excepting that they had only one Prima, hence only a six-year instead of a seven-year or today’s eight-year course at Northwestern), they lacked a something in the study of languages that narrowed down the whole educational outlook. Walther liked to say humorously of the college study of the ancient languages that it was “the Court of the Gentiles.” Many of his students misunderstood this to mean that the only purpose of such study was to prepare the student for the reading of the Bible in the original tongues and of the Latin church fathers. Just like the misunderstanding of Luther’s saying (An die Ratsherren): As we love the Gospel, so let us cling to the study of the ancient languages. . . . These languages are the scabbard which sheathes the sharp blade of the Spirit; in them this precious jewel is encased. American and English teachers of New Testament Greek like to cite Erasmus in the same connection because he was the chief exponent of Humanism in the Reformation period, and we Lutherans, from the same point of view, might refer to Melanchthon. But the proper thing is to fall back on Luther, provided you understand him, because of his genius for language.3

In this connection, as Koehler notes, many will no doubt think first of the contributions of Philipp Melanchthon, a gifted philologist, who played a critical role in helping to shape the curriculum of Lutheran schools and universities along humanistic lines, but it would be a mistake to overlook Luther’s own enthusiastic support of the Classics. While Luther certainly was no friend of ancient philosophers like Aristotle or Epicurus, he valued the ancient languages highly, praised the works of pagan poets and rhetoricians like Virgil and Cicero in hyperbolic terms, and recommended the continued study of  logic in Lutheran schools. It is altogether possible that without Luther’s advocacy of the classical curriculum, the anti-intellectual ideology of contemporaries like Carlstadt and the Anabaptists would have held sway and Tertullian’s vision of a clean divide between the church and the academy would have won through to a belated realization. Koehler observes that it was Luther, not Melanchthon, that

penetrated into the life of the language concerned and mastered its psychology. He was not concerned only with vocables and grammatical forms but with the peculiar logic and mental processes of a people as expressed in its language. . . . He was not a pedantic scholar, but the artist and poet whose lines and colors and metaphors are true to life, and to him language was life.4

None of this is to gainsay Luther’s famous repudiation of Aristotle and his insistence on the primacy of faith rather than meretricious reason in matters theological. Luther most emphatically rejected the notion, propounded by Plato and reinforced by centuries of ascetic thought and practice in the medieval church, that, given a proper education, human beings could free themselves from the powerful grip of sin. Aristotle’s advocacy of human self-improvement through the power of moderate living runs completely counter to the Lutheran principle of sola gratia and the theology of the cross. This said, it would be a mistake to go so far in the other direction that we end up seeing Luther as some sort of proto-existentialist, teetering on the brink of irrationality or even insanity, whose truest interpreters are Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Of these last two, Jaroslav Pelikan once observed that “their insanity helped them to insights of which the normal and balanced mind is rarely capable.” In his famous assemblage of “fools for Christ,” Pelikan also includes Paul, Luther, and Bach, but admits that these last three

may not have been insane in the clinical sense of the word. But by sacrifi cing themselves to the service of God and subordinating their values to the lordship of Christ, they evidenced the madness of the Holy, an insanity that saw what sanity refused to admit.5

Luther certainly can be described as “a fool for Christ,” but, as the following articles amply demonstrate, it would not be fair to suggest that Luther was an irrationalist or that he did not highly value rationality. Everything he wrote, even his most emphatic attacks on Aristotle and Erasmus, reveals the pervasive influence of his own traditional Greco-Roman education in the liberal arts, grammar, rhetoric, music, and, yes, logic. It is true that he lived a spectacularly brave life (some would call it foolish, no doubt) in defi ance of a world “filled with devils” and the imminent threat of death and yet he thought and wrote with the utmost clarity and sanity and sense of balance about how his followers should live safely and wisely and well in a world that might very well end with the Lord’s return tomorrow. It is hoped that this issue of LOGIA may help readers to understand why Luther valued “Athens” as he did, to consider how influential his own endorsement of the Classics was for “Wittenberg,” and to think more clearly about how best to reappropriate this neglected part of the Lutheran legacy today.

Carl P. E. Springer Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Guest Editor for Reformation 2008

1. The second of Tertullian’s questions in De praescriptione haereticorum 7:9 makes it clear that he has higher education in mind: Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis? Quid academiae et ecclesiae? Quid haereticis et christianis?

2. From Luther’s 1524 address To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, as cited in Richard M. Gamble’s anthology, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2007), 374–75. Gamble addresses himself to a growing community of educators, many of them involved in the homeschooling movement, that “values liberal education for its own sake; desires to educate for wisdom and virtue, not power and vanity; finds tiresome the present age’s preoccupation with utility, speed, novelty, convenience, efficiency, and specialization; and refuses to justify education as a means to wealth, power, fame, or self-assertion” (xviii).

3. John Philipp Koehler, The History of the Wisconsin Synod, ed. Leigh Jordahl, 2nd ed. ([Mosinee, WI]: Protestant Conference, 1981), 138.

4. Ibid., 138–39. Th ere is no question that Luther understood the importance of the study of the Classics for the intellectual formation of those preparing to be servants of the word. In the preface to his study of Isaiah, he wrote: “Two things are necessary to explain the prophet. The first is a knowledge of grammar, and this may be regarded as having the greatest weight. The second is more necessary, namely, a knowledge of the historical background, not only as an understanding of the events themselves as expressed in letters and syllables but as at the same time embracing rhetoric and dialectic, so that the figures of speech and the circumstances may be carefully heeded.”

5. Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), ix. 1. The second of Tertullian’s questions in De praescriptione haereticorum 7:9 makes it clear that he has higher education in mind: Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis? Quid academiae et ecclesiae? Quid haereticis et christianis?