Literary Education and the Reformation

As the Western world observes the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation – just kidding; I know most people are trick-or-treating instead – I am struck by its lasting effect on all things literary. It is amazing how, no matter what we believe theologically, we read and teach in a world informed by Martin Luther and those crazy 16th century theologians.

Modern historians like to focus on the social, economic, and political effects of Luther’s revolution, but its impact on literature and education was no less profound. You could argue that it is impossible to understand or even conceive of modern English literature without addressing the Reformation.

This is because the Reformation provided artists with two critical reminders. First came a reminder of Divine Providence, and the idea that sin fits into the original plan of a sovereign God. Second came the reminder that grace is His free response to the human condition, and that He no longer requires a debt of atonement from His creatures. In the theological world created by these reminders, artists were free to consider the human condition apart from religious obligations. You might say that the Lutheran principles of sola gratia (salvation by grace alone) and sola fide (justification by faith alone) helped create unique conditions for the humanities in God’s world.

These were not the only factors, of course. The explosion of imaginative literature in the early modern period had other causes, including Gutenberg’s printing press and a host of other political, social, and economic forces. Important among them all, however, was a sense of freedom among writers and readers, playwrights and audiences, painters and patrons, stemming from the idea that God has taken care of the God-man relationship by His grace. His creatures need not be gods; they are free to be men, and to relate to the world in all their human glory and frailty.

Examples of literature bearing the marks of this revolution abound, but none are quite as obvious as John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Here we find the astounding idea that sin and the Fall of man are God’s “Plan A” for the universe, foreseen and ordained because of His mercy. Suffering has a purpose: not to expunge man’s guilt, but to draw him into dependence on his Creator.

Shakespeare’s plays echo these themes as well. In The Tempest, for example, Prospero drowns his book of magic and joyfully despairs of his own ability to create harmony in the world. Salvation, he realizes, must come from beyond the hills. In Julius Caesar, Brutus comes to a similar realization, though tragically, he must destroy himself before he grasps it. King Lear’s blindness to original sin is the cause of his undoing, and what reconciliation he does find comes through understanding the depth of his own depravity. The list goes on and on.

When it comes to American literature, the fingerprint of Luther and his ideas is perhaps even more pronounced. To say nothing of the political impact of the Reformation on American society, the preoccupation in literature with themes of Providence and Grace, of sin and justification, and of man’s helplessness in the great affair of his salvation absolutely dominate the literary landscape of this country. To take only the most prominent example, consider Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, where protagonists Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale find the freedom they seek not by conquering sin but by embracing it, and where the author uses terms and images that could have come from Luther’s own mouth.

But you know, it’s not just what we read that has been shaped by the Reformation; it’s how we read as well.

The Reformation’s emphasis on textual criticism, embodied in Luther’s other slogans ad fontes (back to the sources) and sola scriptura (the scriptures alone) helped create a literary world in which the reader stands humbly before the text. The idea of the priesthood of all believers created a responsibility on the part of readers – and teachers, too – to listen carefully, interpret literature faithfully, and hold up their end of an artistic conversation in which we all are participants. These ideas, given such emphasis in the 16th century, affect nearly everything we do in the classroom today.

Of course, the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries initiated many of these trends in Southern Europe, and this observation should not take anything away from that glorious tradition – but with the Reformation, some of these trends gained considerable strength in Northern Europe and particularly England, with particular effect on the literary and educational tradition in which we live and work. Among our literary ancestors, they received a kind of Divine imprimatur that they might not have had ears to hear directly from Popish Italy. One struggles to imagine the Puritans of Massachusetts, for example, checking off on Petrarch, Boccacio, or Michelangelo – indeed, they had enough trouble with Shakespeare!

A look back at the history of printing, writing, and reading – and of education – quickly destroys the contention that freedom reigned supreme from 1517 onwards, of course. Historical Reformed establishments (German, English, and American) looked a lot like Catholic ones with respect to censorship and the like. After all, it is of the fallen nature of an earthly establishment to suppress dissent, and to inhibit creativity and the free exchange of ideas. But the principles emphasized during the Reformation – particularly the priesthood of the believer – act as a sort of solvent that cleanses establishments of every stripe, Reformed as well as Catholic, and has been partly responsible for the rise of the artistic impulse in modern literature, for readers and artists as well as teachers.

One could look at history and say that the church has faced “solvents” before and since, and that the Reformation was just one among many. This is true in one sense, of course. The Reformation, however, established the “solvent” principle in theology, church government, politics, art, and literature. Other movements surely had the effect of dissolving corroded establishments; the Reformation enshrined the idea of dissolving establishments by calling individuals to take responsibility for their own search for truth.

When we read carefully to interpret the author faithfully, and teach our students to do the same, we do so in a world created in part by Martin Luther and his fellow revolutionaries. When by such methods we discover authors looking for their help beyond the hills and resting in their imperfect humanity, we see the continuing relevance of the Reformation – as integral a feature of Western culture as trick-or-treating. Happy Reformation Day!