Luther and Reformatory Ideas: The University and Scholarship

The reformers had a significant impact on the understanding of university studies and therefore also on the concept of scholarship. Together with Melanchthon, Luther conducted an early reform of the university in Wittenberg based on a humanistic model. The goal was that thorough studies of the sources in their original language provide the basis for scholarship. For Melanchthon, the structuring of the university and different fields of study was governed by the overall principle of benefitting the church and society. The study of history became especially important, because factual history could show God’s plan for the world.

The reformers changed the approach to historical material. Studies at the new university were no longer subject to the interpretative traditions of the church as they had been in the Middle Ages. Instead – on the basis of thorough language studies – the sources were read and understood independently. The humanistic principle of returning to the sources - ad fontes – thus played a role in the Reformation. The idea of the universal priesthood incorporated the ability of the individual to read and understand texts, and formed the basis for the Reformation’s further development of a humanistic approach.

Against this background, the Reformation can be seen to have contributed to planting the seed for the emancipation of scholarly research that has become the keystone of modern-day research. Several centuries passed, however, before a total severance from specific interpretations and the authoritarian control of academic studies became a reality.

Not until the end of the 1700s and 1800s, after the critical approach of the Enlightenment, were Danish universities structured along the lines we know today. This was also when disciplines in the humanities, sciences and social sciences were separated. Until then, there had basically been one preparatory faculty where students could study for a bachelor in philosophy, then three faculties where people could graduate in theology (by far the largest faculty), law or medicine.