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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 5 — History of Protestantism in Germany to the Leipsic Disputation, 1519

Chapter 2 — Luther's college life

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Erfurt – City and University – Studies – Aquinas, etc. – Cicero and Virgil – A Bible – Bachelor of Arts – Doctor of Philosophy – Illness – Conscience awakens – Visits his Parents – Thunderstorm – His Vow – Farewell Supper to his Friends – Enters a Monastery

IN 1501 Luther entered the University of Erfurt. He had now attained the age of eighteen years. [1] This seat of learning had been founded about a century before; it owed its rise to the patronage of the princely houses of Brunswick and Saxony, and it had already become one of the more famous schools of Central Europe. Erfurt is an ancient town. Journeying from Eisenach eastward, along the Thuringian plain, it makes an imposing show as its steeples, cathedral towers, and ramparts rise before the eye of the traveler. Thirsting for knowledge, the young scholar came hither to drink his fill. His father wished him to study law, not doubting that with his great talents he would speedily achieve eminence, and fill some post of emolument and dignity in the civic administration of his country. In this hope John Luther toiled harder than ever, that he might support his son more liberally than heretofore.

At Erfurt new studies engaged the attention of Luther. The scholastic philosophy was still in great repute. Aristotle, and the humbler but still mighty names of Aquinas, Duns, Occam, and others, were the great sovereigns of the schools. [2] So had the verdict of the ages pronounced, although the time was now near when that verdict would be reversed, and the darkness of oblivion would quench those lights placed, as was supposed, eternally in the firmament for the guidance of mankind. The young man threw himself with avidity upon this branch of study. It was an attempt to gather grapes of thorns and figs of thistles; yet Luther profited by the effort, for the Aristotelian philosophy had some redeeming virtues. It was radically hostile to the true method of acquiring knowledge, afterwards laid open by Bacon; yet it tried the strength of the faculties, and the discipline to which it subjected them was beneficial in proportion as it was stringent. Not only did it minister to the ripening of the logical understanding, it gave an agility of mind, a keenness of discrimination, a dialectic skill, and a nicety of fence which were of the greatest value in the discussion of subtle questions. In these studies Luther forged the weapon which he was to wield with such terrible effect in the combats of his after-life. Two years of his university course were now run. From the thorny yet profitable paths of the scholastics, he would turn aside at times to regale himself in the greener and richer fields opened to him in the orations of Cicero and the lays of Virgil. What he most studied to master was not the words but the thinking of the ancients; it was their wisdom which he wished to garner up. [3] His progress was great; he became par excellence the scholar of Erfurt. [4]

It was now that an event occurred that changed the whole future life of the young student. Fond of books, like his father, he went day by day to the library of the university and spent some hours amid its treasures. He was now twenty years of age, and he reveled in the riches around him. One day, as he took down the books from their shelves, and opened them one after another, he came to a volume unlike all the others. Taking it from its place, he opened it, and to his surprise found that it was a Bible – the Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Holy Scriptures, by Jerome. [5]

The Bible he had never seen till now. His joy was great. There are certain portions which the Church prescribes to be read in public on Sundays and saints' days, and Luther imagined that these were the whole Bible. His surprise was great when, on opening the volume, he found in it whole books and epistles of which he had never before heard. He began to read with the feelings of one to whom the heavens have been opened. The part of the book which he read was the story of Samuel, dedicated to the Lord from his childhood by his mother, growing up in the Temple, and becoming the witness of the wickedness of Eli's sons, the priests of the Lord, who made the people to transgress, and to abhor the offering of the Lord. In all this Luther could fancy that he saw no very indistinct image of his own times.

Day after day Luther returned to the library, took down the old book, devoured some Gospel of the New or story of the Old Testament, rejoicing as one that finds great store of spoil, gazing upon its page as Columbus may be supposed to have gazed on the plains and mountains of the New World, when the mists of ocean opened and unveiled it to him. Meanwhile, a change was passing upon Luther by the reading of that book. Other books had developed and strengthened his faculties, this book was awakening new powers within him. The old Luther was passing away, another Luther was coming in his place. From that moment began those struggles in his soul which were destined never to cease till they issued not merely in a new man, but a new age – a new Europe. Out of the Bible at Oxford came the first dawn of the Reformation: out of this old Bible at Erfurt came its second morning.

It was the year 1503. Luther now took his first academic degree. But his Bachelorship in Arts had nearly cost him his life. So close had been his application to study that he was seized with a dangerous illness, and for some time lay at the point of death. Among others

who came to see him was an old priest, who seems to have had a presentiment of Luther's future distinction. "My bachelor," said he, "take heart, you shall not die of this sickness; God will make you one who will comfort many others; on those whom he loves he lays the holy cross, and they who bear it patiently learn wisdom." Luther heard, in the words of the aged priest, God calling him back from the grave. He recovered, as had been foretold, and from that hour he carried within him an impression that for some special purpose had his life been prolonged. [6]

After an interval of two years he became Master of Arts or Doctor of Philosophy. The laureation of the first scholar at Erfurt University, then the most renowned in Germany, was no unimportant event, and it was celebrated by a torch-light procession. Luther saw that he already held no mean place in the public estimation, and might aspire to the highest honors of the State. As the readiest road to these, he devoted himself, in conformity with his father's wishes, to the bar, and began to give public lectures on the physics and ethics of Aristotle. [7] The old book seems in danger of being forgotten, and the Reformer of Christendom of being lost in the wealthy lawyer or the learned judge.

But God visited and tried him. Two incidents that now befell him brought back those feelings and convictions of sin which were beginning to be effaced amid the excitements of his laureation and the fascinations of Aristotle. Again he stood as it were on the brink of the eternal world. One morning he was told that his friend Alexius had been overtaken by a sudden and violent death. [8] The intelligence stunned Luther. His companion had fallen as it were by his side. Conscience, first quickened by the old Bible, again awoke.

Soon after this, he paid a visit to his parents at Mansfeld. He was returning to Erfurt, and was now near the city gate, when suddenly black clouds gathered overhead, and it began to thunder and lighten in an awful manner. A bolt fell at his feet. Some accounts say that he was thrown down. The Great Judge, he thought, had descended in this cloud, and he lay momentarily expecting death. In his terror he vowed that should God spare him he would devote his life to His service. The lightning ceased, the thunders rolled past, and Luther, rising from the ground and pursuing his journey with solemn steps, soon entered the gates of Erfurt. [9]

The vow must be fulfilled. To serve God was to wear a monk's hood – so did the age understand it, and so too did Luther. To one so fitted to enjoy the delights of friendship, so able to win the honors of life – nay, with these honors all but already grasped – a terrible wrench it must be to tear himself from the world and enter a monastery – a living grave. But his vow was irrevocable. The greater the sacrifice, the more the merit. He must pacify his conscience; and as yet he knew not of the more excellent way. Once more he will see his friends, and then – He prepares a frugal supper; he calls together his acquaintances; he regales them with music; he converses with apparent gaiety. And now the feast is at an end, and the party has broken up. Luther walks straight to the Augustinian Convent, on the 17th of August, 1505. He knocks at the gate; the door is opened, and he enters.

To Luther, groaning under sin, and seeking deliverance by the works of the law, that monastery – so quiet, so holy, so near to heaven, as he thought – seemed a very Paradise. Soon as he had crossed its threshold the world would be shut out; sin, too, would be shut out; and that sore trouble of soul which he was enduring would be at an end. At this closed door the "Avenger" would be stayed. So thought Luther as he crossed its threshold. There is a city of refuge to which the sinner may flee when death and hell are on his track, but it is not that into which Luther had now entered.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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