Academics the Wittenberg Way

Academics the Wittenberg way isn’t incidental to Lutheranism; it’s the natural intellectual and academic expression and extension of its devotion to its own source: Scripture itself.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Greg Ip assesses the World Economic Forum’s annual survey of key leaders in politics and economy as to the greatest threats facing us in the coming year. Ip’s article, “Covid, Inflation Reveal Prediction Blind Spots,”1 details how those mavens completely missed the two biggest stories of 2020 and 2021, CoVID-19 and runaway inflation, respectively.

The failure of the social and economic sciences to predict what cannot possibly be known comes as no surprise, however, to students of the Wittenberg way. Indeed, the Wittenberg way teaches an entirely different approach to the future: it approaches it by walking backwards. Its eyes are not trained on a future so misty as to be indecipherable, but alone on what can be known—the past. And its concern is less about how the now relates to tomorrow than it is about how the now relates to yesterday

This orientation emerged from and was reinforced by the interplay between the Christian Humanism of the late 15th and early 16th centuries and the Reformation. These two found in each other helpful traveling companions.

In Wittenberg, under the tremendous influence of Philipp Melanchthon, Humanism as it was practiced in the university came to be the hardwiring of Lutheran intellectual life.

Humanistic Learning under the Law

Basic to Melanchthon’s thinking is a theological determination of the relationship between humanistic learning and theology. God orients Himself toward the world in two ways: through His Law and through His Gospel.

Relying upon the biblical teaching that God works in predictable ways (de potentia ordinata—“according to an ordered power”), Melanchthon’s concept of “Law” includes not only what we think of as Law, namely, the Decalogue and its scriptural elucidations, but the very “elements” (στοιχεῖα) of the world: natural law, social law, philosophical law, rhetorical law, etc. “Law” in his way of thinking was broad enough to encompass not only how things should work, but even how things do work. “That philosophy is the law of God can also be understood from the fact that it is the knowledge of natural causes and effects, and since these are things arranged by God, it follows that philosophy is the law of God, which is the teaching of that divine order.”2 All that could be garnered from the study and practice of “Law” so conceived was just as useful for life as the study and practice of the Decalogue is for a pious life. “Just as the Christian makes pious use of the law of God, so he can make pious use of philosophy, too.”3

Indeed, “Law” so conceived is not only useful for the flourishing of human life; humans can even access it through their divinely-given natural endowment of reason. This comes out clearly in AC 18.1,4-5, where Melanchthon also cites Augustine:

Of Free Will [our churches] teach that man’s will has some liberty to choose civil righteousness and to work things subject to reason….“We grant that all men have a free will, free, inasmuch as it has the judgment of reason,…but only in works of this life, whether good or evil. ‘Good’ I call those works which spring from the good in nature, such as, willing to labor in the field, to eat and drink, to have a friend, to clothe oneself, to build a house, to a marry a wife, to raise cattle, to learn diverse useful arts, or whatsoever good pertains to this life.”

No Drunk Peasants

It may come as a surprise to contemporary liberal arts aficionados who have cut their teeth on John Henry Cardinal Newman that, for Melanchthon, the humanistic learning of the arts curriculum is useful: “The Greeks have laid down, with uniquely good judgment, in the definition of art, that it must have some usefulness for life. For all arts are tools for either preserving private life or for ruling the state.”4

On this, Melanchthon differs significantly from Newman, who argued that to tie education to external ends meant the end of real education. Newman, of course, was attempting to rescue the liberal arts from the hyper utilitarianism that threatened the higher learning of his day (which was brought about culturally by such things as the Industrial Revolution and found its philosophical proponents in John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham).

But it’s not that Melanchthon was a utilitarian. In fact, his comments on what we today recognize as educational utilitarianism can be downright vinegary. He complains, for example, of students pursuing “universally more saleable and more gainful” pursuits than the study of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and rhetoric.5 No drunk peasant, Melanchthon avoids the ditch of learning for its own sake in such a way as not to fall into the utilitarian ditch on the other side of the road.

Melanchthon’s course serves as an important example for Lutherans in the higher education context of today. In response to market forces, many colleges and universities have adopted essentially utilitarian curricula and programming. On the other side of things, those well-endowed institutions that dot the U.S. map have generally pursued a Newmanian vision—the pursuit of the higher culture for its own sake. The Wittenberg view, in the spirit of Melanchthon, walks sober down the center line.

Sober, Down the Center Line—and Backwards

The modern West operates with the assumption that, standing at the tail end of the tradition, we are in a position, time-tested though we are not, to critique (or entirely to be done with) what we have received and to gaze knowingly into a future we cannot possibly know. Even contemporary “conservatives” are susceptible to this. Anxious over a future we cannot know, we optimistically seek to control it. Thus has utilitarianism come to roost among us.

Humanism doesn’t share such an optimism. That does not mean Humanism is retrogressive—that it sees no way forward—only that, understanding itself within a living tradition, it takes its way forward by looking backward, to the sources (ad fontes). It shapes present experience not by the hubristic pretense of knowing the future, but by humbly submitting to its past and shaping the present on the basis of the best that has already been thought, written, and created. “Nothing can happen in private life or in the state of which there is not a likeness in the most wisely written histories….It is most profitable for those intending to undertake great things to look at these likenesses as in a mirror.”6 Humanism’s confidence lies not in navigating the present by an unknown future, but in embracing the tide of the tradition on which it is borne, a tradition that, precisely because in the past, may be known. Time itself sees to the movement forward.

The center line in the Wittenberg higher education is thus the Western intellectual tradition, a tradition which requires a certain orientation toward itself—for no other reason than that it is a tradition, something handed down.7 It is simply the fact that we have nothing that we have not also received. This is as true of the intellectual world we inhabit as it is of our salvation (see 1 Cor. 4:7), and it has enormous implications. A Westerner making a judgment on the intellectual tradition of the West cannot help but make that judgment on the basis of the very tradition he seeks to critique; nor can a Westerner live “as if” he were not in the tradition, for by doing so he ironically places himself firmly within it (see Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 1973).

Ad fontes!

Humanism simply recognizes these intractable facts. Hence its intellectual motto, Ad fontes—To the sources!

In Melanchthon’s day this cry was in many ways countercultural, or at least avant-garde. When he arrived at the University of Wittenberg it was hardly an ad fontes institution. Students learned Aristotle, for example, only through his high medieval interpreters, Thomas, Scotus, or Gregory of Rimini. And the trium linguarum studium (study of “the three languages”—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—the only real way to encounter the fundament of the tradition) was only in a nascent stage. That did not mean there was no way forward—for the University or for early Lutheranism—it just meant that the way forward, down the center line, under the “Law” of God writ large, was backwards on a course steered by the sources themselves.

This intellectual modus and habitus goes hand-in-glove with Lutheranism, and it has from its inception. While the parallels and interplay between theology and the particular form of Humanism practiced in Wittenberg are almost too many to mention, I mention just a couple: the primacy of Scripture—the source—in Lutheranism; the long-standing insistence on a clergy learned in “the three languages” (which today sadly only partially survives); the deference, albeit not uncritical, toward tradition.

But all of this, it turns out, is just a very biblical way of looking at the world. In the face of present anxiety over the uncertain future between now and the Last Day, Paul in Romans 8 casts his glance not to the unknown but to the known, not to the future, but to the past: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”

Academics the Wittenberg way isn’t incidental to Lutheranism; it’s the natural intellectual and academic expression and extension of its devotion to its own source: Scripture itself.

End Notes

1 The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, 30 December 2021, A2

2 Melanchthon, Philipp. Orations on Philosophy and Education. Ed. Sachiko Kusukawa. Trans. Christine Salazar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 24.

3 Ibid.  4 Ibid., 79  5 Ibid., 32  6 Ibid., 33  7 Ibid., 44, 66

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Jon Bruss

Rev. Dr. J. S. Bruss is Senior Pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Topeka, Kansas and is a trained classicist.

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