Lutheran Studies at PLU

2. Freedom for expression and protection of learning

Free inquiry shapes effective worldly intelligence and service in the world. Martin Luther’s free investigation of scripture led to his breakthrough and the posting of the ninety-five theses on October 31, 1517. Luther argued against the sale of indulgences (church-sanctioned spiritual favors) based upon his understanding of God’s free and unearned gifts of life, community, forgiveness, and peace as revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In Luther’s intellectual work lay the seeds of a new vision of free and responsible society.

The intellectual structure of the Lutheran reform movement was laid in previous centuries by the twin influences of the medieval European universities and Renaissance humanism. The medieval universities provided the foundations of free academic inquiry through a curriculum shaped by the classical trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). These in turn provided the basis for advanced medical, legal, and theological studies. Renaissance humanism dedicated itself to the recovery of the classical heritage under the watchword ad fontes (“return to the sources”). Besides new understandings of art and civic life, humanism revived the study of Greek and Hebrew that enabled Luther’s biblical studies, his reform of late medieval theology, and translation of the Bible into German, the language of the people. His insistence that Christian life is rightly marked by freedom from legalism and superstition created a new freedom to engage the world with an active intellect. As a consequence, beginning with the curriculum of Wittenberg University, the Lutheran intellectual tradition was deeply rooted in and shaped by language study and historical study. Moreover, Luther’s theology and his understanding of education bestowed autonomy upon the various disciplines of worldly study. Here was a dialogical education that revived the classical emphases of Plato and his successors.

This intellectual tradition subsequently absorbed the empirical methods of the new science, and the German universities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries submitted all literary, scientific, historical, philosophic and theological knowledge to penetrating scrutiny. Great minds like those of Kant and Hegel exemplified this critical intellectual heritage at its best.

Yet this precious legacy of free inquiry was not always fostered or welcomed among Lutherans. Battles over orthodoxy contributed to the Thirty Years’ War; the free thinking of German Lutheran professors had little impact upon Prussian militarism; Lutheran culture contributed to political quietism during the Nazi period. At the same time, Lutheran colleges established by immigrants in the United States came to inherit more fully the freedom of inquiry that was the birthright of the European universities and Lutheran higher education.

The Lutheran intellectual tradition, consequently, has lent a highly distinctive set of interlocking emphases to the educational mission of Pacific Lutheran University today. Seven language departments cover languages strategic for the Lutheran intellectual tradition. The university sponsors chairs in both Lutheran and Holocaust Studies and professorships in Scandinavian Studies and Education. Language and historical studies are highly valued. Scientific inquiry is conducted in first-rate laboratories and departments. Creative writers on campus explore the heights and depths of the human experience. The social sciences inquire into the forces of society and culture. Music and art are practiced, composed, and crafted. All students take critically-sophisticated classes in philosophy and religion. One of the best and largest Departments of Religion in the West conducts inquiry across a broad range of sub-disciplines. Indeed, Pacific Lutheran rests within this robust intellectual tradition and its insistence on freedom of inquiry.