In 1508 Luther was sent to teach moral philosophy at the University of Wittenberg, which had been founded in 1502. One of its founders had been Johann von Staupitz, the Augustinian who had been the first dean of the faculty of theology there. As detailed on another page of Augnet, Staupitz was subsequently a nervous mentor of the younger Luther.
The Augustinians had been at Wittenberg since 1504, and their friary (convento) was only partially completed when Luther arrived there. In comparison with Erfurt, Germany's largest city at that time, Luther described Wittenberg as being "on the margin of civilisation."
Image (above): The former Augustinian friary at Wittenberg. The central tower contained a study where Martin Luther claimed that his theological breakthrough (his Turmerlebenis, or “tower experience”) happened. On the right side of the base of the tower is the Katherinenportal (the “Katherine door’ - see next page) which Katherine Bora, Luther’s wife, arranged to have inserted there. Luther lived here in his final years as an Augustinian friar, and continued afterwards to live there with his wife and children. It is now called the “Luther House,” and is part of a series of Lutheriana that was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.
Luther in 1508 was one of an additional batch of seven friars recruited from various friaries to improve the performance at Wittenberg. All members of the Augustinian community there were teachers and scholars at the university. As had been arranged with the German Observantine Vicar General, Johann Staupitz, the Augustinians had the principal staffing obligation at the university, and had hastily to provide extra lecturers because of an increase in student enrolments. And so it was that, after only eighteen months of theological training at Erfurt, the needs of the Order saw Luther’s instruction in theology interrupted by his being called to Wittenberg University to lecture on the Nicomachean Ethics of the "putrid philosopher Aristotle" (Luther’s later description) during the autumn term of 1508.
Even with his diversion to a teaching role at Wittenberg (and the more so because of it), considering Luther’s high intelligence his academic path as an Augustinian friar was predictable. First he would study for the Baccalaureus Biblicus, a five-year course which was often shortened in the case of good students from Religious Orders. This degree qualified a person to lecture on the Bible – at the moment Luther could lecture only in philosophy, on the strength of his Master’s degree, though he had not been called on to do so.
After the biblical degree came another, two-year course leading to the crown of the theology programme; by this final degree a man was designated a Sententiarius, qualified to lecture on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, the key theology text in all theology schools, a great compilation of texts made in the twelfth century, and very widely written about thereafter. After that there remained only the ultimate academic accolade, a doctorate in theology - something which the most gifted of friars might be sent to obtain later in life. After but a single term Staupitz conferred on Luther the lowest theological degree of Bacculareus Biblicus (“Bachelor of Biblical Studies”) on 9th March 1509 so that he could extend also to lecturing on the Scriptures. Henceforth he was expected to lecture daily for one hour each on philosophy and Holy Scripture (teaching was then part of the course of studies), and for his ongoing education to continue attending theological lectures and disputations.
As well as teach philosophy and Scripture, Luther read the writings of Saint Augustine. Indeed, it was only at this time on the very eve of the Protestant Reformation that the first-ever printed omnia opera (a production in Augustine’s Latin of eleven books containing all of Augustine’s writings) was published by Johann Amerbach at Basel in Switzerland in 1506. Part of Luther's study included mystical theology, and it also appears he regularly practised interior prayer. With this prayer there was also a growing fear about divine judgment, which was exacerbated because of his intense conscience.
Images (above): (At left) The doors of Wittenberg's Castle Church today. The church was seriously damaged by fire in 1760 after a French bombardment during the Seven Years War. The church was quickly rebuilt, and later (1885-1892) further restored. In 1858, to commemorate the 375th anniversary of Luther's birth, the doors were replaced with ones of bronze with the original Latin text of the ninety-five theses. (At right) A closer view, in which can be seen the ninety-five theses topics moulded into the bronze door panels.
This was not the product of his formation in the Augustinian Order, but of his strict family upbringing as a young person and his personal tendency to examine with great detail the state of his soul. He sought sacramental confession frequently, and was never completely at peace within his soul. Late in the same year that he had become a Bacculareus Biblicus, 1509, the university authorities at Wittenberg suddenly gave Luther permission to apply for the Senteniarius degree, several years ahead of what was the normal schedule at Erfurt.
For the two degree programs of Bacculareus Biblicus (a bachelor of biblical studies) and Sententiarius (a licentiate in theology), for which a total of seven years of study could be demanded, Luther - already a Master of Arts, admittedly - had to invest less than one academic year. Some eyebrows were raised, and resentment expressed about such a precipitate promotion; it would appear that, by this accellerated program, Luther was being used by the university rather than honoured thereby, although he was probably aware of this reality, and as an obedient friar accepted it.
What rendered his rapid promotion more contentious was his recall to Erfurt after only eighteen months in Wittenberg. Luther was needed in Erfurt to teach in the friary, i.e., to Augustinian candidates not yet enrolled at the university. His process of obtaining the Sententiarius - begun at Wittenberg - was initially not accepted by the University of Erfurt, seeing that he had left Erfurt only eighteen months previously without even having the Bacculareus Biblicus. The University of Erfurt, however, were out of order and, having made their point, finally capitulated, even though some kind of contretemps occurred at the graduation ceremony. Luther thus became a Sententiarius, i.e., qualified to lecture on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He was one of the youngest possessors of the Sententiarius in all of Germany.
Luther then taught a year of theology at Erfurt, and then was sent as a travelling companion of another friar on a mission to the Augustinian Curia in Rome. He was transferred from Erfurt to Wittenberg a second time soon after returning from Italy. In the summer or early autumn of 1511 at Wittenberg once again, in addition to his duties as sub-regent of house studies (i.e., second-in-charge of the studies of younger friars in the friary), preaching and delivering theological lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, he continued his biblical reading and began the study of Greek and Hebrew.
The Augustinian observantine houses of the region held a chapter at Cologne in May 1511, at which Luther was appointed as sub-Prior (i.e., second in authority) and master of studies at the Augustinian community at Wittenberg. Thereby his responsibility for the other friars in the Wittenberg community were significantly increased, i.e., he was promoted from sub-master to master of students (young trainee friars still to attain priesthood), and Sub-Prior (i.e., second-in-charge) of the entire community. This happened when Luther himself was only in his fifth year as an Augustinian, was still en route to his Doctorate, and was lecturing two hours per day.
Here was a person who might be heading for a nervous breakdown, let alone one who had been experiencing episodes of spiritual aridity and was vulnerable to a crisis of faith. Following his journey to Rome (one month there, and four months to travel there and back by foot), Luther received the degree of Doctor of Divinity at the Augustinian Chapter of Cologne in 1512. The ceremony that then granted him the Doctor's ring took place on 18th October 1512, when he was twenty-eight years of age.
For Luther to have become a Doctor of Divinity after only seven years in the Augustinian Order (albeit he entered as a Master of Arts) - especially on the basis of the relatively few eclectic courses that he had studied - indicates how much, at least in the case of Luther and equivalent recipients, the standards of academic rigor within the Order in previous centuries had become a mere shadow of its past glory. In previous centuries, to obtain the magisterium (now called a doctorate) in places such as Paris, Oxford or Cambridge had taken as much as twenty years of study and teaching.
Whereas in the previous centuries a person was awarded a doctorate on the achievement of coordinated study and successful teaching, in the case of Martin Luther it can be asserted that he was given the baccalaureate in Scripture and the doctorate in divinity so that he was entitled to teach courses for which the Order had to fill staff vacancies. Rather than to be acknowledgement that a person was well qualified to teach a course, the possession of a degree had devolved simply to being an administrative and regulatory licence in order to have the qualifications on paper to ascend the lectern to teach Scripture and theology.
In the winter of 1512, therefore, Dr Martin Luther, twenty-nine years old, Sub-Prior of the Friary at Wittenberg, regent of studies in the friary (i.e., director of the education of the Augustinian candidates sent there for study) and Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Wittenberg, had to start preparation for his professorial lectures which would begin in the following academic year.(Continued on the next page.)
How did the town of Wittenberg look at the time of Luther? Click here to see the following image enlarged. The Augustinian church is located at position G at the right-hand end of the drawing. [AM651-2, AX311] http://thewittenbergproject.org/about/how-did-the-town-of-wittenberg-look-at-the-time-of-luther AN4390