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A Lesson from Luther: the value of primary texts in the classroom

Posted by Christopher Beckham, 21 May 2020

In this extract from his article in the latest edition of Churchman, Christopher Beckham shows us Luther's commitment to the educational value of primary texts.

Luther is a worthy role model for teachers because he understood something important about curriculum: study in the core, primary texts of a discipline is often a far more rewarding and helpful experience for students than immersion in secondary works that are “about” a disciplinary subject. There is a difference between knowing about and really knowing something. A deep knowledge of a primary text is best formed by studying the text itself, not by wading through a parade of commentaries on a text. Commentaries and derivative works are helpful, but they are not good substitutes for reading the text itself.

Throughout his working career, Luther’s main responsibility was to serve as a professor of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. Once the Reformation was underway, Luther began to argue for his students to read and know the Bible itself, not only what the commenters on the Bible had written. In his era, that was not the practice, and while this would seem to be common sense, it was simply not the case. He worked to reform the curriculum at his university to bring it in line with this view of his. A clear exposition of his curricular ideas can be found in his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520).

In this treatise, Luther laid out the case for the princes to get involved in the church reform movement. Luther cited the specific ways the Roman Church had insulated itself from reform by building certain doctrinal and political “walls” around itself. Toward the end of the document, he attached 27 articles consisting of concrete steps the princes needed to take to adequately reform the German Church.  One of the necessary steps was to authorise a thorough-going curricular reform of the universities in Germany.

“The universities… require a good, sound reformation. I must say this, let it vex whom it may. The fact is whatever the papacy has ordered or instituted is only designed for the propagation of sin and error. What are the universities, as at present ordered, but as the book of Maccabees says, “schools of ‘Greek fashion’ and ‘heathenish manners’” (2 Macc. Iv., 12, 13), full of dissolute living, where very little is taught of the Holy Scriptures of the Christian faith and the blind heathen teacher, Aristotle, rules even further than Christ?” [1]

Luther did not see how evangelical reform could advance so long as the students were immersed in canon law, commentaries on Aristotle, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and the glosses on the Bible written by the Church Fathers. Study of the Scriptures themselves was far too limited, he thought. [2]  A thorough grounding in the Bible itself and an equally extensive education in the languages of the original texts of Scripture was to be preferred to extensive reading in the technical manuals of interpretation and analysis. His was the humanistic approach of returning ad fontes—going to the sources. As he put it in a later work, the Bible should be studied in the original languages by capable scholars, and that work in the text itself was more beneficial than reading commentaries and “glosses.” As he put it, “In comparison with the glosses of the fathers, the languages are sunlight to darkness.” [3]  Because there was only so much time that could be devoted to college and university study, he advocated studying the biblical languages in place of spending so much time studying the scholastic commentaries on Aristotle in the early years of the university curricula.[4] Once the languages were well learned, it was time to dig into the Scriptures, not the commentaries. “As it is, we read nothing else [but the Fathers], and never get from them into the Scriptures, as if one should be gazing at the signposts and never follow the road.” [5]

Luther knew first-hand of what he spoke. He spent years reading the commentaries on Aristotle and the commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. When he earned his Master of Arts degree, he began teaching these same commentaries to his students. But in his advanced studies, and once he began to lecture as a doctor of the Bible, he had encountered the actual text of the Scriptures, and he knew the difference between the study of the glosses and commentaries and the actual source.

Down through the years since the Reformation, many outstanding Bible teachers have repeated this call. Among them, the Anglican Bible professor, pastor and scholar W. H. Griffith Thomas wrote “the end of all Bible study is information and inspiration, and it cannot be too often stated that we shall never realize this unless we give ourselves to the Bible first and foremost, and not to books about the Bible.”[6] Martin Luther, the Bible professor, wanted his students to have the same kind of thrilling encounters with a vibrant primary text.

The “aha moments” in scholarly life seem to happen when students and teachers struggle with the original sources and think about the author’s ideas and propositions. Educational breakthroughs seldom occur when students handle pre-digested material in textbooks. This position is not always embraced, though, as many think immersion in the core texts is too difficult and best left to the experts. There are many good examples who have believed otherwise, including Luther. Luther’s wrestling with the hard texts of Scripture in the original languages prompted a world-wide movement—one sparked from reading the text of the Bible itself, not from reading commentaries on it. There may not be world-wide movements sparked in all classrooms when students are given primary texts, but there have been many small victories won where students who are sceptical about the entire enterprise of reading are re-awakened to the intellectual joys that come through their encounter with challenging books. In his own words, Luther put it this way: “We must also lessen the number of theological books, and choose the best, for it is not the number of books that makes the learned man, nor much reading, but good books often read, however few, makes a man learned.”[7]

As Marilyn Harran put it, “As a professor, Luther was deeply concerned with the quality of the education that his students were receiving.”[8]  Any good teacher should share this concern; Luther is a role model in this regard and would have teachers provide students with the best materials for their learning, even if it is demanding and difficult material.

1.  Martin Luther, “Twenty-Seven Articles Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate,” in Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, 1520, trans. C. A. Buchheim, The Harvard Classics 36, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: Collier & Son, 1910), 338.
2.  Martin Luther, Address to the German Nobility, 341.
3.  Martin Luther, “Letter to the Mayors and Aldermen of the Cities of Germany in behalf of Christian Schools,” 191.
4.  See Harold J. Grimm, “Luther’s Impact on the Schools,” in George W. Forell, Harold J. Grimm and Theodore Hoelty-Nickel, Luther and Culture (Decorah, IA: Luther College Press, 1960), 75.
5.  Luther, Address to the German Nobility, 342.
6.  W. H. Griffith Thomas, Methods of Bible Study (Chicago: Moody, 1975), 123.
7.  Luther, Address to the German Nobility, 342.
8. Harran, Luther and Learning, 32.

Christopher Beckham is a lecturer in education at Morehead State University, Kentucky.

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