Comparing Historical Luthers: Education and Background

This post is part of our series on the Historical Luther. Today’s post, the beginning of our second week, examines Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb’s respective positions concerning Luther’s education and background.


Woodcut of the medieval university
Woodcut of the medieval university

The educational and spiritual formation of Martin Luther has received a great deal of attention in recent years, and the studies of Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb all give treatment to Luther’s education, family life, and upbringing. Though citing the dearth of information from Luther’s early years in Eisleben, Oberman takes a critical approach to his formative years under Hans and Margaret, viewing them as important in an understanding of Luther, though not in the overbearing manner of earlier scholarship.[1] One social factor that Oberman attributes to young Martin as the result of his parents was his sympathetic understanding of the common folk; though not peasants in the strict sense of the term,[2] Oberman argues that Luther learned much practicality and commonality from his parents.[3] Additionally, Oberman infers from Luther’s prayer to St. Anne that he had received at least some form of training and understanding of traditional medieval Catholic popular piety.[4] In considering Luther’s education at Mansfield, Oberman seeks to refute the once prevalent idea that he had been influenced by the Brethren of the Common Life of the Devotio Moderna movement.[5] Oberman also writes at some length concerning the role of witchcraft in young Martin’s life, though he ultimately concludes that while the Devil remained a very real figure for the mature Luther, the folk lore of the common German people had a negligible effect on his thought, writing that, “How curious that there should still be the gullible Hanna and her superstitions which are supposed to have had such a decisive influence on Luther.”[6]

While Oberman does not neglect Luther’s later and more formal education and training, his focus remains Luther’s early years. Hendrix on the other hand, viewed Luther’s educational influences in a more organizational fashion.  He cites monastic, scholastic, mystic, and humanist influences on Luther’s theology and thought, though perhaps none of these methods of thinking influenced him so much as did St. Augustine and Scripture.[7] Aside from St. Augustine, whom he read under John Staupitz in order to grasp his understanding of scripture,[8] Hendrix cites William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel as Luther’s nominalist influences,[9] Bernard of Clairvaux and John Tauler as his mystical influences,[10] and Erasmus of Rotterdam as Luther’s humanist muse.[11] From an educational standpoint, especially when compared to Oberman and Kolb, Hendrix appears to be more concerned with the development of Luther’s theology and thought than with the direct and indirect educational influences, a conclusion that seems to follow from Hendrix’s interpretive importance of the personal, pastoral theology of Luther.


William of Ockham
William of Ockham

While Oberman focus’ on Luther earliest years and Hendrix upon  influences from differing schools of theological and philosophical thought, Kolb considers specific influences in Luther’s life during the time of his formal training. While he argues that familial influences and early education played a role in the development of Luther,[12] he remains focused on more directly specific influences for Luther. Kolb cites the influence of the monastic and mystical traditions, chiefly Gabriel Biel, Bernard of Clairvaux, Heinrich Suso, Johann Tauler, Pierre d’Ailly, and Jean Gerson, who taught a practical form of devotional mysticism which was highly nominalist in content.[13] Of definitive importance for Kolb’s understanding of Luther was his scholastic training under the Ockhamist, or nominalist, school of thought at the University of Erfurt under Jodukus Trutfetter and Bartholomaus Arnoldi.[14] With this Ockhamist influence, Kolb argues that Luther developed concepts that formed his theology throughout his life, namely the absolute power of God, human dependence on the divine, the concept of the Word of God being the connection between the natural and supernatural, and also the inadequacy of mere reason before the transcendent power of Almighty God.[15] Kolb too recognizes Luther’s dependence on Augustinian thought, though he emphasizes that the authority of the Early Fathers was always held in subjection to the scriptures for the Wittenberg reformer.[16] Additionally, Kolb cites sources such as Humanist’s Erasmus of Rotterdam and Lorenzo Valla,[17] his spiritual mentor and Vicar General Johann von Staupitz,[18] and Luther’s medieval roots and immediate context,[19] for their influences on his development and growth of thought and theology.

What can be concluded concerning Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb regarding Luther’s formative educational and life influences? Oberman argues well his points concerning the relative influence of Hans and Margaret Luther, as well as Luther’s traditional Catholic upbringing within the German medieval context, which seems to have included at least a form of belief concerning the Devil and witchcraft that Luther held throughout his lifetime. Hendrix adds to this early understanding of Luther a variety of influences, influences that Kolb begins to name for us. The relative impact of Tauler, Suso, Biel, d’Ailly, Gerson, Bernard of Clairvaux, Trutfetter, Arnoldi, Erasmus, Valla, and others remains hard to accurately gauge overall, though Kolb argues well that the Ockhamist influence of Luther’s university training pervaded his theological understanding. The omnipresent influence of St. Augustine and Staupitz continues to be recognized in Luther’s theology, and aside from scripture seem to be the clear consensus among scholars as important influences in the life and development of Luther’s theology. Having considered Luther’s educational background, let us now turn to Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb’s respective views on the “reformation breakthrough.”


[1] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, Yale University Press, London & New Haven, 2006, 82-94; 109-110.

[2] Ibid., 85-87; Indeed, Oberman argues for a practical understanding of Hans Luther’s rise from poverty—the support of his in-laws.

[3] Ibid., 84.

[4] Ibid., 92-94.

[5] Ibid., 96-99.

[6] Section Ibid., 102-106; Quote, 106.

[7] Scott H. Hendrix, Abingdon Pillars of Theology: Luther, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2009, 12-18.

[8] Ibid., 15-16.

[9] Ibid., 14-15.

[10] Ibid., 16-17.

[11] Ibid., 17-18.

[12] Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, 11-15.

[13] Ibid., 27-30.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Ibid., 31-34.

[16] Ibid., 35-37.

[17] Ibid., 37-39.

[18] Ibid., 39-40.

[19] Ibid., 40-41.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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