An Interview with Martin Luther On Classical Education

by | Classical Education, History | 1 comment

The Protestant denominations trace their origins back to Martin Luther, the Christian reformer. His reforms touched on many things, not the least of which was education. Here, cast into the form of an interview, and using his own characteristically forceful and animated words, we gather Luther’s views on the importance of classical education and his thoughts on how it should be reformed.

Questioner: Dr. Luther, we are familiar with the liberal arts, particularly the basic trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. What place do you see for these things in education?

Luther: “Many educated men are needed in the … liberal arts. … Where are the preachers, jurists, and physicians to come from, if grammar and other rhetorical arts are not taught? For such teaching is the spring from which they all must flow.” (3)

Q.: You mentioned grammar. Just how important do you consider the study of the classical languages?

L.: “These languages [Latin, Greek, and Hebrew] and these [liberal] arts are agreeable and useful alike, sources both of honor and profit, throwing light upon the Scriptures, and imparting sound wisdom to rulers….” (2)

“No man understood the reason why [in the 16th century] God caused the [classical] languages again to put on bloom and vigor, until now, at last, we see that it was for the sake of the gospel…. Now, since the gospel is so dear to us, let us hold fast to the languages.” (2)

Q.: So do I understand you correctly, that you think the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is important to the preservation of the gospel?

L.: “We may not be able to retain the gospel without the knowledge of the languages in which it was written. For they are the scabbard in which this sword of the spirit is sheathed…. Indeed, should we overlook all this, and (which God forbid!) let go our hold on the languages, then we would not only lose the gospel, but would finally fall away to that degree, that we should be able neither to speak nor to write either German or Latin. In this, let us take a lesson and a warning by the sad example of the universities…, where they have not only let the gospel slip away from their grasp, but have also either lost or corrupted both Latin and German so that the creatures have become but little better than brute beasts, knowing, neither how to read nor write, and, more than this, have well nigh lost even their native intellect too. … Hence, we may conclude that, where the languages do not abide, there, in the end, the gospel must perish.” (2)

Q.: How does knowing the languages protect the gospel?

L.: “To do battle against heretics and errorists, this can never come about, except with the help of the languages.” (2)

“The languages are of the first necessity to a pure Christianity….” (2)

“In order to follow Paul’s precept, in First Corinthians 14:29, to the effect that we must judge of every doctrine of Christianity, we must, of necessity, first learn the languages … else we shall have nothing to guide us.” (2)

Q.: What do you see as the role of a classical education?

L.: “To provide able and competent men to govern us. And in this the heathen might justly put us to shame and confusion of face, for they, the Greeks and Romans especially, gave diligent heed to the teaching and training of boys and girls, to fit them for all the various stations of temporal trust and authority….” (2)

Q.: So, are you saying that the type of education you are advocating will build leadership on all levels of society?

L.: “But surely we know, or ought to know, how necessary, how proper and how pleasing in the sight of God it is, for a prince, a lord, a magistrate, or any one in authority, to excel in learning and in wisdom, so that he may discharge the duties of his office in a Christian manner. … Men to pilot state and people safely and to good issues; women to train up well and to confirm in good courses both children and servants.” (2)

Q.: What would you include in this curriculum?

L.: “Above all, in schools of all kinds the chief and most common lesson should be the Scriptures….” (1)

“Instruct them in the languages, arts, and histories, they would thus become familiar with the great deeds and the famous sayings of all times; would see how it fared with such a city, kingdom, province, man, or woman, and would bring before their eyes, as it were in a mirror, the whole world from the beginning, with all its character and life, its plans and achievements, its successes and failures: by all this they would shape their sentiments, and to all this conform the course of their life in the fear of God.” (2)

“From the same histories, too, they would gain wit and wisdom, and learn what to pursue and what to avoid in life, and so, by and by, be able to counsel or to govern others.” (2)

“I would teach them not only the language and history, but singing likewise; and with music I would combine a full course of mathematics. … I read so few of the poets and historians when I was young…. In their place I was compelled to flounder in all manner of vain philosophies and scholastic trash, … with much cost and care, and vast detriment besides, so that I have had enough to do ever since in undoing the harm they did me.” (2)

Q.: What are your thoughts about books?

L.: “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 in the Scriptures and pious.” (1)

“Bear in mind the importance of sparing neither trouble nor expense, to the end that good libraries may be founded…. For if the gospel, together with all the [liberal] arts and sciences, are to be perpetuated, they must be enclosed and bound up in books and writings.” (2)

“A jackdaw never hatches a dove; neither will a fool make a wise man. Such is the reward of our ingratitude in not using diligence in the establishment of libraries, and in leaving good books to perish, while we have cherished and preserved useless ones. But, my advice is, that you do not carry home all sorts of books, without distinction, thinking of numbers only. I would have a choice exercised in this matter…. Nay, I would banish all such muck and mire, and provide me a library that should contain sterling books, books commended to me by learned men.” (2)

“In the first place, the Holy Scriptures should be there, both in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German…. Next, I would have those books which are useful in learning the languages … to learn grammar and style. Next, there should be books pertaining to the liberal arts; and likewise treatises on all the other arts, and on the sciences. And lastly, books on jurisprudence and medicine; though here, too, a cautious choice is to be exercised. But, foremost of all, should be chronicles and histories …, for these are of singular usefulness, to instruct us in the course of the world, and in the art of government; and, in these, too, we may see the manifestation of God’s wonderful works.” (2)

“There is danger that it may finally come to this, … that, through the agency of the devil, good books, which have been restored to us by the art of printing, shall be submerged under a flood of dissolute and pernicious works, in which there is neither sense nor reason; a flood that shall pour in again, as aforetime, and fill every nook and corner of the land. For the devil is surely plotting to bring back the former state of things, … so we shall again be ever learning, and never coming to the knowledge of the truth.” (2)

“[We should not bring] Aristotle back again, together with other pernicious books, which serve only to lead us ever further away from the Bible….” (2)

Q.: You mention Aristotle. Tell us more about Aristotle.

L.: “Now, my advice would be that the books of Aristotle, the Physics, the Metaphysics, Of the Soul, Ethics, which have hitherto been considered the best, be altogether abolished, with all others that profess to treat of nature, though nothing can be learned from them, either of natural or of spiritual things. …Much time has been wasted and many noble souls vexed with much useless labor, study, and expense. … as if we had not the Holy Scriptures to teach us fully of all things of which Aristotle had not the slightest perception. Yet this dead heathen has conquered, and has hindered and almost suppressed the books of the living God…. Then there is [Aristotle’s] Ethics, which is accounted one of the best, though no book is more directly contrary to God’s will and the Christian virtues. Oh that such books could be kept out of the reach of all Christians! Let no one object that I say too much, or speak without knowledge. My friend, I know of what I speak. I know Aristotle as well as you or men like you. … I would, however, gladly consent that Aristotle’s books of Logic, Rhetoric, and Poetry … might be usefully studied in a condensed form, to train young people in speaking and preaching….” (1)

Q.: What do you think of the universities?

L.: “The universities also require a good, sound reformation. …. What are the universities, as at present ordered, but … “schools of ‘Greek fashion’ and ‘heathenish manners,” 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)

Q.: What do you think of diploma mills?

L.: “The universities … where their only concern is numbers and where everybody wants a doctor’s degree. … I advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not the rule. Every institution where God’s word is not studied unceasingly must become corrupt; and so we see what manner of men there are now in the universities. … I greatly fear the universities are nothing but great gates of hell, unless they diligently study the Holy Scriptures and teach them to the young people. (1)

Q.: Thank you, Dr. Luther, for sharing with us your exceptional views on education.

1. An Address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520)
2. A Letter To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (1524)
3. A Sermon on Keeping Children in School (1530)

1 Comment

  1. Amy

    Thank you for the great read! I have been thinking about Luther, with Reformation Day coming up next month, so this was well-timed for me. I was most interested in the part of the preservation of the Scriptures by knowing the ancient languages. Honestly I had never thought of that before. I expect my pastors to know those languages, but I never really considered the importance of everyone knowing them. Thank you so much for linking this up to Trivium Tuesdays!


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