We know that on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, igniting a continent-wide reformation of the church. But what was he thinking? Was this a novel, even revolutionary move to engage in such theological dissent? Or was there historical precedence? Furthermore, were there procedures in place that allowed for this? And who even held the authority to judge theological writings as orthodox or heretical?
Drawing primarily from Amy Nelson Burnett’s article, “Academic Heresy, the Reuchlin Affair, and the Control of Theological Discourse in the Early Sixteenth Century,” I want to consider the background that paved the way for the controversy surrounding Luther’s 95 Theses.
Robert Grosseteste (1175–1253) defined heresy as “a statement chosen by human opinion, contrary to holy Scripture, and pertinaciously defended.” Both parts of that definition are important. The first reveals a failing of the intellect, while the second a failing of the will. A distinction is then made between “heretical teaching” and “heretical individuals.” A person may teach or write something in error, but it was not until they refused to recant and submit to the authority of the church that they themselves were deemed a “heretic.”
“Academic Condemnation” was a process aimed at heretical teaching, carried out by either the theological faculty of a university or the papal curia. “It effectively placed the determination of heresy in the hands of specialists in theology and canon law,” which became for them “a powerful mechanism for regulating academic discussion of theological questions” (40). Initially the jurisdiction of these theological faculties didn’t exceed their respective university community, but this changed in the fifteenth century with the introduction of the printing press.
Burnett provides the following example of this expansion:
The Cologne theology faculty also claimed the right of book censorship, and in 1507 it denounced propositions drawn from the published work of the jurist Peter of Ravenna. At a hearing before a commission representing each of the university’s faculties, Peter submitted to the demand to abstain from teaching the questionable doctrine. Within a few months, however, he began a literary feud with the Cologne faculty (40).
This feud has been seen as the impetus for the Reuchlin Affair, in which a similar procedure was followed, but one that would spin out of control. This would in turn pave the way for the initial response to Luther.
Before proceeding, however, it’s important to note that humanists had been vying against the scholastics for a voice in judging theological discourse. As we’ll see, the Reuchlin Affair would become the cause célèbre in pitting these two schools against one another.
The Reuchlin Affair
Johannes Reuchlin penned Augenspiegel (1511) in which he defended his earlier writing that opposed the confiscation of Jewish books against Johann Pfefferkorn. The Cologne theology faculty quickly denounced the book and once Reuchlin learned that some of his statements were theologically suspect, he responded with a letter in which he stressed his submission to the church and his willingness to modify his position where needed. The faculty replied with the suspect propositions, but “refused to identify more precisely what he needed to change in his book” (41). They weren’t interested in a revised Augenspiegel, but Reuchlin’s submission to their authority.
The tension grew between them, and Reuchlin was eventually demanded to publish a retraction to his book. Instead, he took to a public defense of his writing and what ensued was a writing war between him and the faculty in 1512 and 1513. Burnett notes that the true significance of Reuchlin’s Defensio contra calumniatores suos Colonienses (1513) “rests on the fact that it challenged the moral, legal, and intellectual competence of the Cologne theology faculty to judge heresy” and, on a larger scale, “attacked the entire procedure followed in academic condemnation.” Furthermore, Reuchlin’s actions moved the right to judge theological discourse out of the academic sphere into the public forum, which “changed the parameters of the debate entirely” (42).
The affair continued for a number of years, but the important thing to see is that the validity of “academic condemnation” was for the first time brought into serious question along with the competence of scholastic scholars to judge theological discourse. In Reuchlin’s Letters of Obscure Men, he
mocked the eagerness of theologians to label anyone who disagreed with them as heretics and portrayed [his] scholastic opponents, especially Hoogstraeten, as ignorant, vainglorious laughingstocks. Such characterizations fit only too well with Erasmus’ lampooning of theologians in his Praise of Folly, which had already provoked rebuke from the Louvain theologian Martin Dorp (45).
These claims were often well-founded as most scholastics were ignorant of Greek and Hebrew and would misrepresent statements by isolating them from their literary context. The humanists, on the other hand, excelled in these areas. Fred Hall comments on the influence of humanism on Luther, who himself had received scholastic training, and Wittenberg,
At Wittenberg (from 1513), Luther used the classics, the fathers and acclaimed language scholars, Reuchlin (Hebrew) and Erasmus (Greek). He encouraged exegetes to drink deeply from the Scriptures and to criticize the fathers and classics when they neglected the theology of the Scriptures. This principle was foundational for Wittenberg’s “New Theology,” and transformed Wittenberg into a center of biblical humanism.
It is in this environment that Luther published his 95 Theses in 1517.
The Luther Affair
The Reuchlin Affair had undermined the credibility of “academic condemnation,” which was evident in the controversy that followed the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses.
Because the Wittenberg theology faculty supported Luther, denunciation would have to come from outside of Wittenberg. The archbishop of Mainz initiated this process by asking the Mainz theological faculty to evaluate the these and by forwarding them to the papal curia (46).
Just as in the Reuchlin affair, the Luther affair would proceed in two arenas: “the publicist battle in Germany and the legal process in Rome” (47). The question that had been left unanswered by the previous affair was whether a restricted group trained in scholastic theology or the learned public had the right to judge whether a statement was heretical. We can begin to see now why the teaching of Luther and the rest of the Reformers could not be contained by the theological faculties or the Roman church.
A significant and influential public audience now called into question a procedure whereby a relatively small group of academic experts had the authority to police theological discourse and to condemn propositions removed from their context without giving a more detailed rationale for their judgment. In the wake of the Reuchlin affair, charges of academic heresy leveled by scholastic theologians became an object of derision rather than something to be feared. In the second decade of the sixteenth century, theology faculties lost their moral authority to monitor academic discourse in Germany, with fateful consequences for the early Reformation (48).
The Reuchlin affair had created a conducive environment for Luther’s 95 Theses to electrify the world.
 Burnett is the Paula and D. V. Varner University Professor of History at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her essay can be found in Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition.