Luther's defective, unmethodical, cursory, and partly self-acquired theological training is more understandable in view of Staupitz's own superficial preparation. After Johann von Staupitz had been entered the Augustinian Order at Tubingen in 1497 as already a Master of Arts, on 29th October 1498 he began a biblical course, and a little more than two months later on 10th January 1499 began to deliver theological lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.
Further duties came Luther's way at the Chapter of the German Observantine Augustinians that took place in Gotha in May 1515, when Luther, at the age of thirty-one years, was appointed as the Augustinian Rural Vicar (i.e., regional vicar) for the Augustinian observant communities in Meissen and Thuringia.
Image (above): The Katherinenportal (the "Katherine door") was commissioned by Luther’s wife, Katherine von Bora in 1540. The whole building is now called the Luther House (German: Lutherhalle or Lutherhaus) in Wittenberg, Germany, and is the most important and Reformation museum in Germany. It is located in the Augustinian monastery where Luther lived, first as a friar and later with his family and as its owner. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/germany/wittenberg-luther-house
This gave Luther supervisory responsibility over eleven Augustinian communities in his area, and made him a sub-agent (a so-called Rural Vicar) to the Vicar General, Johann Staupitz. The obligation to visit and oversee the religious observance of eleven other Augustinian houses was the last thing that the overworked and stressed Luther in any way needed. His responsibilities as Regional Vicar could sometimes - but not always - be conducted by letter. In one instance on 25th September 1616 he wrote to the friary at Neustadt/Oral to depose a Prior, and to order the community to elect a new one. It was not an easy thing to do. The opening paragraph of the letter is one of admonition. Quoting the Rule of St Augustine, he stated that the community was not "of one mind and one heart." Another letter from Luther as Rural Vicar earlier in 1516 was addressed to his friend Johann Lang O.S.A., just after the latter’s appointment as Prior at Erfurt. Luther had been there on an official visitation and on his return to Wittenberg wrote to Lang about the friary's guest house. Luther suggested it some were using it too much as a convenient hotel, and that Lang might want to keep a tally of exactly how much was eaten and drunk there each day.
Describing his workload at Wittenberg at this time, Luther wrote to his friend Johann Lang at the Augustinian priory in Erfurt: “I could use two secretaries. I do almost nothing during the day but write letters. I am a preacher, a reader at meals, director of studies… overseer of the fish pond at Litzkau, referee of the squabble at Torgau, lecturer on Paul, collector of material on the Psalms... I rarely have times for the canonical hours and for saying Mass, not to mention my own temptations with the world, the flesh and the devil. See how lazy I am!”
During 1515 Luther found his measure in preaching. In the previous year he had begun to preach to the populace at the parish church of St Mary in Wittenberg, three or four minutes’ walk from the Cloister. At first he had been asked to stand in when the regular preacher was ill; he was so much liked that the City Council invited him to be the regular assistant. It was a task that Luther liked, but nevertheless was a further demand on his time. Yet beneath his voluble busy exterior, enormous concerns were brewing within his spirit, and his fellow friars saw something of what his hectic life was costing him. On more than one occasion he took his duties so seriously that he fell very badly behind with the recitation of the obligatory psalms of the friar's Divine Office — and not just one day's psalms, but weeks of them.
He then shut himself up in his cell with neither food nor drink, and read the required texts until he reached the end of the complete tally. So strongly did he feel the obligation imposed by Canon Law that he could not hold himself excused for any reason. The consecrated man felt he could not face his superiors or his God if he had not fulfilled the rules, as if God were trapping him by asking him either for perfection or for the impossible.
Here was a friar overworked and overwrought, especially when this probably was also the same year (1515) to which some scholars attribute Luther with a life-changing "Tower experience" - his theological breakthrough moment - while studying St Paul's Epistle to the Romans in his office in the tower of the Augustinian Priory at Wittenberg. After Luther received his doctorate in theology in 1512, he had assumed the position as Theology Professor at Wittenberg University. He gave lectures on the Psalms (1514-15), Letter to the Romans (1515-16), Letter to the Galatians (1516-17), and Letter to the Hebrews (1517-18).
Images (above): (At left) The statue of Martin Luther in the town square at Wittenberg. (At Right) The cover of the a printed copy of the papal bull, Exsurge Domine, dated 15th June 1520, which condemned some of the teachings of Martin Luther. This time is characterised by Luther's grappling with theological understanding. His decisive religious enlightenment is said to have come during his intensive study of the Letter to the Romans, when he realized that people receive justice through the grace of God, and not through good works: "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith." (Romans 1:17) Luther himself stated that he came to this decisive realization in the study room of the Wittenberg monastery. When precisely this happened is disputed; it is also known as the Tower experience (Turmerlebenis). It might be mentioned, however, that although Luther's education left much to be desired, his three principal professors, Paltz, Nathin, and Bartholomew von Usingen were all holy and learned Augustinians and, it appears, remained so throughout their lives.
Again, it is generally supposed that Luther was exceptionally brilliant; in reality, however, it seems that reason was very weak in him. If by intelligence we mean capacity to grasp the universal, to discern the essential, to follow humbly the wanderings and refinement of reality, then he was not intelligent but shallow -- stubborn especially. But he had the understanding of the particular and practical to an amazing degree, and an astute and vigorous ingenuity, skill to detect evil in others, the art of finding a thousand ways out of a difficulty and of crushing his opponent.
Luther's inadequate knowledge of the writings of St Augustine is evident. In passing, however, Luther might be quoted briefly: "St Augustine often erred: he cannot be trusted. Many of his writings are worthless. It was a mistake to place him among the saints, for he had not the true faith." And again: “The Fathers knew nothing about the text of Saint Paul concerning widows who have broken their first faith - primum fidem. Augustine thinks that by primum fidem, the apostle means the vow of chastity; but I understand the text better than a thousand Augustines. This Father should have been sent to school; the Fathers are blockheads who have only written fooleries upon celibacy..."
Scholasticism at this time had declined from its golden age in the thirteenth century, and at best the Scholasticism with which Luther was acquainted was then in a state of decadence, having lost all its vitality and freshness. Known only under the unending subtleties and disputatious distinctions of the nominalist Occam, Scholasticism did not appeal to Luther. That the education of the clergy at that time was poor was recognized by the Council of Trent when it for the first time provided for the formal education of ecclesiastical students in seminaries as we now understand that term.
There is very little known with regard to Luther’s inward development and the manner in which he practiced the virtues of the religious life during the first four or five years at Wittenberg up to 1517, with the exception that the process of his falling away from the Church's teaching was already accomplished in Luther’s mind before he began the dispute about indulgences with the Dominican friar, John Tetzel; secondly, a certain moral change, the outlines of which can be identified, went hand in hand with his theological views, indeed, if anything, preceded them; the signs of such an ethical change are apparent in his growing indifference to good works, and to the aims and rules of conventual life, and in the quite extraordinary self-confidence he displayed, more especially when disputes arose.
It seems that Luther’s spiritual life depended almost exclusively on sensible consolations and, whenever these failed him, he was constantly plunged into the depths of despair because he considered these as an end in themselves rather than as merely a means to the end. And it also appears that Luther relied too much on his own strength to attain to Christian perfection and not enough on grace, with similar disastrous results. With such zeal did he throw himself into his daily round of assigned duties that he found it increasingly difficult to spare enough time from his duties to perform the ordinary spiritual obligations incumbent on his state in life. As a result his religious practice underwent an unfortunate decline. In so great an urgency was he to attend to his business that he neglected his meditation, self-examination, spiritual improvement, the recitation of the Divine Office in choir, the Breviary and the celebration of Mass; or if he did occasionally perform them, he did so with undue haste and irreverence. Luther's excuse of lack of time was in direct contradiction to the Augustinian Constitutions which demanded that "spiritual exercises, especially in the case of a religious superior, took precedence of all other duties, and it was for him to give example to others in the punctual performance of the same."
Certainly in all of the above there is seen a friar who, after many years of sincere observance of the rules and practices of the monastic life, turned from his pristine fervour and through his busyness gave too low a priority to the spiritual life set up for him by Augustine's Rule and the Constitutions of the Order. The main blame for this must go to Luther himself, but do the Augustinian superiors who permitted Luther to indulge his exceptional aptitude for work to his neglect of his spiritual duties and practices also have to bear some burden of criticism?
Luther was sent to Rome to petition the Augustinian Curia as one of two German delegates in a German Augustinian dispute. He spent four weeks there during the winter of 1510-1511. He was shocked by examples of low morals and the poor formation of some clerics he encountered there. Appointed permanently to Wittenberg in May 1511, Luther in October 1511 was made the regent of studies in the monastery (i.e., director of the education of the Augustinian candidates sent there for study) and sub-prior (i.e., second-in-charge) of the community.
As previously mentioned, further duties came Luther's way at the Chapter of the German Observantines Augustinians that took place in Gotha in May 1515, when Luther, at the age of thirty-one years, was appointed as the Augustinian regional vicar for the Augustinian observant communities in Meissen and Thuringia. This gave Luther supervisory responsibility over eleven Augustinian communities in his area, and made him a sub-agent (a so-called Rural Vicar) to the Vicar General, Johann von Staupitz. The obligation to visit and oversee the religious observance of eleven other Augustinian houses was the last thing that the overworked and stressed Luther needed, especially when it was this same year (1515) to which some scholars attribute Luther with a life-changing "Tower experience" - his theological breakthrough moment - while studying and teaching Paul's Epistle to the Romans.
At the time of his spiritual crisis in 1515 there were, therefore, many circumstances which linked together to weigh mightily upon the overwrought body, mind and soul of Martin Luther: teaching obligations, study obligations, and community responsibilities not only at Wittenberg but now also at eleven other communities. Bodily infirmities, from an extraordinary variety of which he suffered during the greater part of his life, pressed hard upon him in consequence of his strenuous labours and his ever-present spiritual trials and temptations. In view of his subsequent sermons on the invalidity of vows, it is of passing interest to note that at this time he fully recognized the binding nature of his vows: “According to him man cannot steep himself sufficiently in his essential nothingness before the Eternal God, and vows are an expression of such submission to the Supreme Being.” Even so, in some points regarding ordinary monastic duties, Luther now fell short of the mark, and even those of precept he disregarded at will.
(Continued on the next page.)AN4391