In the preface to The 95 Theses, Martin Luther identified himself as both “Reverend Father” and as “Lecturer” on sacred theology. In 1517, the University of Wittenberg, where Luther lectured, was a start-up college. It was only fifteen years old, having been founded in 1502. Compared to the Universities of Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, or even German universities, such as Erfurt, Wittenberg, was the new kid on the block. The town of Wittenberg was home base for Frederick the Wise, ruler of Saxony, Germany. Upon his father’s death and Frederick the Wise’s ascension in 1486, the town had a castle, the Castle Church, and St. Mary’s Church. Frederick the Wise also wanted his town to have a university.
While at the monastery at Erfurt, Luther was sent to the fledgling University of Wittenberg as a student. He returned to Erfurt to lecture. The faculty at Erfurt was suspicious of his credentials—Wittenberg was simply too new. Soon Luther went back to Wittenberg. From 1512 until his death in 1546, Luther held two main posts: lecturer at Wittenberg and preacher at St. Mary’s Church. In 1517, he took on the role of Reformer. In 1525, he took on the roles of husband and, the next year, father. It’s Luther as lecturer that warrants some attention here.
It was said of Luther that, “He taught that Bible as if he wanted his students to feel it.” It would have been all but impossible to be around Luther and not immediately see his passion. Luther also sensed an urgency in his day, an urgency that lent boldness and courage to his teaching. Dr. R.C. Sproul calls Luther a battlefield theologian. On top of all this, you can add Luther’s competency and skill as an exegete and as a theologian. Year after year, the students at Wittenberg benefited from all that Luther brought to the lectern.
We also need to bear in mind Luther’s colleagues. A cadre of world-class scholars joined him at the University of Wittenberg. Nicholas Von Amsdorf enrolled in the very first class at Wittenberg. By 1511, he lectured there in theology and stood shoulder-to-shoulder alongside Luther in the throes of the Reformation. Justus Jonas, like Luther, studied and taught at both Erfurt and Wittenberg. After the Diet of Worms, he was with Luther in Wittenberg for the crucial years of 1521-1524. And, again like Luther, Jonas wrote hymns. He went on to establish the Reformation at Halle—which had been a stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church. Johannes Bugenhagen, of Poland, was converted upon reading Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Bugenhagen said of Luther, “The whole world is blind. This man alone sees the truth.” He lived another dozen years after Luther’s death and faithfully served in Wittenberg at the university and in the pulpit at the Castle Church. Luther called him his pastor. Lastly, there’s the scholar Phillip Melanchthon. In 1518, as he was turning twenty-one, Melanchthon published a Greek grammar. The faculty at the University of Wittenberg were scholars and battlefield theologians all.
Luther and the other reformers took their case directly to the people. They made their case for reform from pulpits and in print. They also made their case in the classroom. Their students multiplied their efforts. We might not know their names, but we can be aware of their impact—and we can be thankful for it.
Dr. Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College.