Ohne Humanismus keine Reformation (without Humanism no Reformation) is the conclusion of one German scholar. On this Reformation Day, a day that bids us stop and reflect, the question, “Would the Reformation have occurred without humanism?,” seems pertinent. Many scholars have focused on the influence of humanism upon Luther, Zwingli, and Clavin, concluding that these three prominent Reformers came to their conclusions through the use of humanistic methods. Without ad fontes there would be no sola scriptura or sola fide. Yet, there is another side to the coin.
Unfortunately, the adage Ohne Humanismus keine Reformation stressed too much, signifies the notion that humanistic ideals and education were in the stages of decline in the mid-16th century, a decline that was precipitated by the Reformation return to Christian piety. This Reformation of piety, some say, valued theology over the arts curriculum and even sought to stunt the spread of a liberal education, fearing pagan authors would distract the youth from the importance of the sacred text. Against this notion are the examples of the Reformers themselves and those with whom they associated.
Lewis Spitz has done a tremendous service to Reformation scholarship with his work on education at the time of the Reformation and, particularly, his publication of the essential pedagogical writings of Johann Sturm. The research of Spitz and many others (including Barbara Tinsley and Karin Maag) has led scholars (such as Erika Rummel) to reverse the question of how humanism influenced the Reformers and ask, “How did the Reformation influence Humanism?” Spitz, in “The Importance of the Reformation for the Universities: Culture and Confession in the Critical Years,” points out that although Erfurt and Leiden Universities were influenced by traveling humanists such as Rudolph Agricola and Mutianus Rufus, genuine humanistic reform did not occur in these schools until 1519.
New humanist translations of Aristotle were to replace the medieval Latin texts. Instruction in classical Latin, poetry, rhetoric, lectures on Cicero and Virgil, and the study of Greek were added to the curriculum. (Spitz, in Rebirth, Reform, and Resilience, p. 50)
The same type of Reform in the classical arts occurred at Heidelberg in 1522, in Tübingen in 1525, and Cologne shortly after. At the University of Wittenberg humanistic education flourished under Luther and Melanchthon due to the protection of Elector Frederick and the distance of Wittenberg from the older centers of learning – in the older universities humanism had to battle with scholasticism and church tradition. Elector Frederick appointed Philip Melanchthon as professor in Greek, against Luther who suggested Peter Mosellanus. Elaborating on Luther’s and Melachthon’s humanism, Spitz notes:
Although no humanist theologically speaking, Luther was, nevertheless, a protagonist of the humanist curriculum on the arts level. He understood that the reform of theology in the advanced faculty of theology would be impeded and perhaps even impossible if the students’ arts training was exclusively in traditional dialectic and Aristotle in Latin commentaries and if they lacked education in poetry, rhetoric, languages, and history, subjects he deemed necessary for Biblical exegesis and the theological disciplines. He took an active role in promoting these subjects with the Augustinian colleagues and especially with Melanchthon after his arrival in 1518. Melanchthon’s draft of the statutes for the Faculty of Liberal Arts in 1520 eliminated everything that had referred to scholasticism. Melanchthon’s inaugural oration, De corrigendis adolescentia studiis [On the correcting of adolescent studies], was programmatic for Wittenberg, decrying the loss of learning, the ignorance of Greek language and culture, and the schoolmen’s dialectic, and urging the university to turn to the studia humanitatis for new light. The various reform statutes adopted between 1533 and 1536 … completed the symbiosis of humanism and reformation. Melanchthon, praeceptor Germaniae, labored for a reform of education from top to bottom. His role in the educational reform of the secondary schools was of critical importance. He took the initiative in encouraging the establishment of gymnasia in Nuremberg and many other cities, and his influence reached through Johannes Sturm in Strasbourg to Roger Ascham in England and Claude Baduel in Nimes. (ibid., 51.)
Through the influence of Wittenberg, humanistic reform came to other universities throughout Europe and even reaching England. Spitz slightly exaggerates the influence of Melancthon in this article. For instance, Johann Sturm was mainly influenced by the Brethren of the Common Life, through his education at the College of St. Jerome in Liege. Yet, no matter who influenced whom, it is a proven fact that were it not for these pivotal figures humanism would not have advanced in European centers of education. Even such a staunch biblical theologian as John Calvin worked to implement a humanist curriculum at the Genevan Academy, mainly under the influence of Johann Sturm’s Strausburg Academy. Therefore, on this Reformation Day we should all remember the humanism of these great church Reformers and instead of saying Ohne Humanismus keine Reformation (without humanism no Reformation) we should say, Ohne Reformation kein Humanismus (without the Reformation no humanism).