Skip to main content

Martin Luther's Humanism Education

Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience. She holds degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

Was Martin Luther a humanist?

Was Martin Luther a humanist?

Understanding Humanism

To understand Luther and the Protestant Reformation, one has to understand humanism. This Renaissance was a movement that would have men take control of their own lives and souls: “man was now the creator of his own destiny.” This was the first time in history that, on a large scale, man began to look deep within himself, becoming more aware of what he was like on the inside and what he could become. Humanism swept through the arts and writing, which would “help characterize the age as one of individualism and self-creativity.” Artists brought reality to their works. Sculptors created pieces that seemed to breathe. All of the art world brought their pieces to the masses in ways that everyone could relate to and "touch."

Back to the Classics

Humanism also took the academic world back to the classics. The works of Plato, Aristotle, and others were read more and more. Instead of reading summaries of the classics or original literature, such as the Bible, students began to read the actual texts and study them. It was this aspect of humanism that was the foundation for Luther’s movements. Take this move to study the original texts with the fact that “the common people… sought a more personal, spiritual and immediate kind of religion – something that would touch them directly, in the heart” and there was no way the Protestant Reformation could have been avoided.

Into the Universities

It was “under Sixtus humanism prospered because it contributed to the Pope’s intention of establishing the papacy as a great secular power.” His help encouraged humanistic studies in the universities, including those that educated future church leaders. It was at Erfurt that “a fresh and vigorous impulse was being given to that study of classical antiquity, which gave birth to a new learning, and ushered in a new era of intellectual culture in Germany.” This fresh blood into the academic world gave the world “free movement of thought” and a “new world of ideas.”

Looking Deeper

Luther attended Erfurt and was largely impacted by the humanist movement. He “began to give himself to the studies of Greek and Hebrew, so that having learned the peculiar quality of the language and the diction, and doctrine drawn from its sources, he might be able to judge more skillfully.” Many of the scholars that were influenced by humanist thoughts dove into the ancient texts. They desired to learn more of the foundations of the world and understand their own. They opened up the “original texts of the civilization which had included not only Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, but the establishment of the Christian church.”


Did It Backfire on the Popes?

Reading the original texts was big in leading Luther down the Reformation path. Christian humanists did not direct their studies “through medieval Latin commentaries” which was used to remind the students and readers “that the church represented an accumulation of interpretations as well as dogma.” Though Popes used humanism to advance their positions of power, it was humanism that was to undermine them and drain their power. The religious leaders saw dangers all around them that would topple them. What they did not see was that “the most serious [dangers] had their ground in the characters of the Popes themselves.”

Luther's Changing View of Christianity

At this time, the Church was full of what many considered unethical and immoral acts. Offices were sold, mistresses were kept, and greed was rampant. Those that criticized the church leaders said that they participated in “excessive pomp, political militancy manipulation of the college of cardinals, the sale of offices, and nepotism.” As Luther saw more and more of what was behind the Church’s lavish curtains, the more disgusted he became with how the Church was run. What he considered the true heart of Christianity had been murdered. All he wanted was a resurrection of these ideals. Luther wanted to bring back a faith that man could “throw itself, with inward longing and childlike trust, into the arms of God’s mercy, and so enjoy true forgiveness.”


Buckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001.

Busak, Robert P. “Martin Luther: Renaissance Humanist?” podcast audio, .

D’Amico, John F. Renaissance humanism in papal Rome: humanists and churchmen on the eve of the Reformation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Gersh, Stephen and Bert Roest, ed. Medieval and Renaissance Humanism: Rhetoric, Representation and Reform. Boston: Bill Academic, 2003.

Hale, J.R. Renaissance Europe 1480-1520. Malden: Blackwell, 2000.

Kostlin, Julius. Life of Martin Luther. New York: Amazon Digital Services, Kindle Edition, 2009.

Luther, Martin. “95 Theses.” Project Wittenburg. wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html (accessed February 20, 2011).

Mazzocco, Angelo, ed. Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism. Brill: The Netherlands, 2006.

Middle Ages Religion.” (accessed February 20, 2011).

“The Protestant Reformation.” (accessed January 19, 2011).

Vandiver, Elizabeth, Ralph Keen, Thomas D. Frazel, ed. Luther’s Lives: Two Contemporary Accounts of Martin Luther. New York: Manchester, 2002.