Luther on education and theology

I found this quote from Martin Luther on the Between Two Worlds blog:

I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters [literature] have declined and lain prostrate, theology too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless he has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists. . . . Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily.

(Martin Luther, Letter to Eoban Hess, 29 March 1523. Werke, Weimar edition, Luthers Briefwechsel, III, 50.)

If this is true how does this affect our “doing of theology” in a functionally illiterate culture.

Or, as in many parts of South Africa, where people are illiterate.

Is theology really so intricately linked to poetry, rhetoric and literature studies as Luther is seems to be implying?

What hope does that provide for Africa where many Christians are living in poverty?  Never mind access to books or education, many Christians throughout the world do not even have access to food and clean water.

Is this a very modern, Eurocentric type statement?  Or am I missing the point?


~ by John on June 24, 2009.

7 Responses to “Luther on education and theology”

  1. This is a tricky one. On the one hand I want to say that it is a very modernistic and eurocentric statement. On the other hand it does seem to me that the gospel has flourished in periods when literature was freely passed around and understood (i.e. the advent of the prinitng press coinciding with the reformation period or the hellenistic world coinciding with the early growth spurts of the faith). The old testament does seem to place at least a noteworthy amount of emphasis on ‘the written word’ and not just ‘the word’ in a more general sense. So to be honest I’m not really sure. Perhaps that means that developing literacy should be an important of ministry in Africa.

  2. One more thought. I wonder what social media (a contemporary form of literature) is doing to the current worldwide movement? I just wonder if when someone, in 100 years time, pens a book about the western church planting movements of the early 21st century he might not include a chapter on the role of social media (particularly blogging) in advancing the movement?

  3. I think that Luther is absolutely correct here. The Bible is a book which contains all sorts of rich uses of language and without a good grasp of these it will be hard for a person to grasp Scripture. Although there are cases where people are blind and can’t read, still they must be aware of what the Bible is saying and different uses of language and literature. So I think that Luther’s statement is still valid even in that case. As with regards poverty and not getting an opportunity to study etc., I think that gives us all the more reason to strive that people are educated in reading literature, especially the Bible…

  4. Benjamin I am uncomfortable with what is implied in your statement that people must be educated before they can understand the Bible properly.

    1. I think this undermines the doctrine of the perspecuity of Scripture; i.e. the Bible speaks plainly enough so that anyone can understand it without the need for professional elite interpreters – although gifted teachers may add depth to their understanding.

    2. In my experience it often happens the other way around that as people are faced with the richness and depth of the Bible it leads to a hunger for greater education and knowledge. A love for God and his word leads to a hunger for education not vice versa mostly.

    3. What really counts is not Bible teaching but Bible learning and doing and in my experience it is often those with a “simple faith” who are best at Bible doing whilst those with much knowledge spend way too much time discussing the knowledge and not engaging in the mission.

    4. As a consider Africa it seems crazy to say that the most urgent need is education in literature – (what literature by the way – Africa is full of song, poetry and rhetoric?) when HIV ravages our continent and children die of starvation.

  5. Stephen how do we reconcile this with the reality that most Christians never even had their own copy of the Bible until way after the invention of the printing press?

    At the very least we have to reconsider what we call education and the role that community plays in that. And what is considered being educated for a mission in a particular community?

    Is there a problem when we define education as a objective, amorphous, abstract concept? Will an educated African look different to an eduated European?

    And how does this affect how we read the Bible and engage in mission?

  6. “Stephen how do we reconcile this with the reality that most Christians never even had their own copy of the Bible until way after the invention of the printing press?”

    Exactly and there are a whole lot of dark patches in the churches history spiritually and morally – I wonder if the two don’t at times coincide for a reason.

    I don’t think we have to turn people into professors to have a Christian revival but I do still think there’s something to the written word.

  7. Hmmmm not sure if you are considering all the info – what about great moments like the Welsh revivals among poorly educated/illiterate miners or the miracle of the Chinese underground church where few have had access to the written word – certainly in an individual sense. Perhaps as a community they would have owned a Bible – but that brings a different dynamic into play than simply education (defined as literacy and text based)

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