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Humanism and Luther

                     Humanism and Luther


In each of the major countries of the north there were three generations of humanists.

[1] “pioneers” — they acquired classical learning and absorbed a classical mindset.

[2] “consolidators” — they integrated and developed the rich materials the pioneers unearthed,

creating the high point of humanist learning.

[3] “doers” — they were a younger generation who cherished humanism not so much for its

intellectual excellence as for its providing tools for social change.


Between 1510 and 1520 many of these third generation humanists gathered around L., eager to do something about abuses in church and society.  These people were the “runners” who disseminated L’s Ninety-Five Theses throughout Germany .


Luther profited from a humanist environment but was not especially humanist trained (despite having attended Erfurt U. ) and was never interested in humanism as such.  Yet there were discernible affinities between Luther and the humanists.


[1] rejection of scholasticism:

H: scholastic theology is unnecessarily complex, obscure, unintelligible; a more elegant

theological formulation is needed.

L: scholastic theology is intelligible — and therefore should be recognized readily as anti-



[2] desire to return to patristics:

H: Patristics is a simple, understandable statement of Christian faith, devoid of fruitless

speculation and incomprehensible scholastic Latin.

L: Patristics is closer to the NT era than is the mediaeval period, less distorted, less

warped by a non-biblical logic.

Note: since the humanists esteemed antiquity, no one father was to be elevated (exception: Erasmus

and Jerome.)  For the Wittenberg theologians, Augustine was pre-eminent.


[3] desire to return to scripture:

H: sola scriptura = “not without scripture”

L: sola scriptura = “scripture as unnormed norm” (singularly used by the Spirit

to acquaint us with the living Lord Jesus Christ.)


[4] interest in rhetoric:

H: an interest in eloquence as a cultural excellence.

L: an interest in preaching the gospel.



After 1520 the Reformation stood out in starker contrast with humanism.   Humanists finally realized that their purposes and the Reformation’s were not the same.


But note: non-humanistically trained pastors were the foot soldiers of the Reformation, dutiful church functionaries.  Yet they never provided intellectual or organizational leadership for the Reformation. Subsequently they became the most rigidly scholastic Protestants, re-introducing an utterly scholastic mindset only with a Protestant vocabulary.


Humanist education remains crucial in the formation of Christians and clergy.

V. Shepherd