Luther, Libraries, and Learning (3) – John W. Montgomery

Luther&LearningAs we take another look at Luther’s love for and support of libraries and learning at the outset of the Reformation – through the great essay by John W. Montgomery, “Luther, Libraries, and Learning”, as found in his book In Defense of Luther (Northwestern, 1970) – Montgomery directs us to Luther’s most significant piece of writing encouraging the establishment of libraries for the sake of good learning.

That work is Luther’s treatise of 1524 “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” which Montgomery quotes in full. As soon as I read it, I recalled that I had done a post on this before, and sure enough, you will find it here (from 2011). And you may find the complete treatise on this website (scroll down until you get to the pdf by this title).

I am not going to re-quote from that treatise today, but I am going to give you Montgomery’s evaluation of it – at least part of it today. Because he asks and answers the question, Why did Luther have such a passion for learning and libraries (the same holds true for the entire Reformation movement)? He finds it in several truths Luther rediscovered. We give two of these in this post:

Thus the reading of the Bible, the study of the original languages of the Scriptures, and the collection of libraries became mandatory in Luther’s program. The chain of reasoning was inescapable: To be saved a man has to believe in Christ the Word; to comprehend who Christ is, one must meet him in the preaching of the Gospel and in Holy Writ; and to understand what the Scriptures say, pastor and even layman cannot avoid the tools of scholarship.

Certain corollaries of Luther’s basic theological principle provided added motivation toward library establishment. The universal spiritual priesthood of believers was one such corollary. In his Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) Luther declared: ‘Let everyone.. who knows himself to be a Christian be assured of this, and apply it to himself, that we are all priests, and there is no difference between us, that is to say, we all have the same power with respect to the Word and all the sacraments.’ In practice this view freed the layman from the legal demands of a priestly caste, but at the same time it placed a great personal responsibility on him. The matter of salvation could no longer be handled for one by a hierarchy; now, each man would have to confront the Word. Luther’s monumental translation of the Bible into the German vernacular testifies to his conviction that the Bible must not be allowed to remain the property of a special class of believers. Compulsory education, and municipal schools with libraries in conjunction with them, were thus essential for making the universal priesthood a practical reality” (pp.136-37).

I also appreciated the way Montgomery concluded his essay on this subject:

…Luther’s concern for library promotion may also suggest revision of the old aphorism that ‘it matters little what you believe as long as you are sincere’; in the realm of books and libraries, as in all other realms, what one believes makes all the difference in the world as to what one does (p.139).

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