Johann Eck was born Johann Maier at Eck (later Egg, near Memmingen, c. 70 km southwest of Augsburg) in Swabia, and derived his additional surname from his birthplace, which he himself, after 1505, always modified into Eckius or Eccius, i.e. "of Eck." His father, Michael Maier, was a peasant and bailiff, or Amtmann, of the village. The boy's education was undertaken by his uncle, Martin Maier, parish priest at Rottenburg on the river Neckar.
At the age of twelve he entered the University of Heidelberg, which he left in the following year for Tübingen. After taking his master's degree in 1501, he began the study of theology under Johann Jakob Lempp, and studied the elements of Hebrew and political economy with Konrad Summenhart. He left Tübingen in 1501 on account of the plague and after a year at Cologne finally settled at Freiburg University, at first as a student of theology and law and later as a successful teacher where he was mentor to the prominent Anabaptist leader of Waldshut and Nikolsburg, Balthasar Hubmaier, and later retaining this relationship during their move to the University of Ingolstadt. In 1508 he entered the priesthood in Strasbourg and two years later obtained his doctorate in theology.
At Freiburg in 1506 he published his first work, Ludicra logices exercitamenta and also proved himself a brilliant and subtle orator, although obsessed by an untamable controversial spirit and unrestrained powers of invective. At odds with his colleagues, he was glad to accept a call to a theological chair at Ingolstadt in November 1510, receiving at the same time the honors and income of a canon at Eichstadt. In 1512 he became prochancellor at the university and from that time until his death he was in complete control of the destinies of Ingolstadt, on which he impressed the character of ultracatholicism, which made it a bulwark of Roman Catholicism in Germany at that time.
His wide knowledge found expression in numerous writings. In the theological field he produced his Chrysopassus (Augsburg, 1514), in which he developed a Semi-Pelagian theory of predestination, while he obtained some fame as commentator on the Summulae of Peter of Spain and on Aristotle's De caelo and De anima. As a political economist he defended interest, despite the opposition of the bishop of Eichstadt.
A ducal commission, appointed to find a way of ending the interminable strife between rival academic parties, asked Eck to prepare fresh commentaries on Aristotle and Petrus Hispanus. Between 1516 and 1520, in addition to all his other duties, he published commentaries on the Summulae of Petrus Hispanus, and on the Dialectics, Physics and lesser scientific works of Aristotle, which became the textbooks of the university. During these early years, Eck was considered a "modernist", and his commentaries are inspired with much of the scientific spirit of the New Learning. His aim, however, had been to find a via media between old and new; his essential conservatism resulted in a lack of sympathy for the revolutionary attitude of the Reformers. Personal ambition and a desire to be conspicuous may have pushed him into public opposition to Luther. He had won a public disputation at Augsburg in 1514, defending the lawfulness of putting out capital at interest; again at Bologna in 1515, on the same subject and on the question of predestination; and these triumphs had been repeated at Vienna in 1516. By these successes he gained the patronage of the Fuggers, and found himself fairly launched as the recognized apologist of the established order in church and state. Distinguished humanists might sneer at him as "a garrulous sophist"; but from this time his ambition was not only to be the greatest scientific authority in Germany but also the champion of the papacy and of the traditional church order. The result of this new resolve was a gratuitous attack on his old friend, the distinguished humanist and jurist Ulrich Zasius, for a doctrine proclaimed ten years before, and a simultaneous assault on Erasmus's Annotationes in Novum Testamentum.
Eck died at Ingolstadt, fighting to the last and worn out before his time. He was the most conspicuous champion of Roman Catholicism in the age of the Reformation, but his gifts were marred by many faults. His vast learning was the result of a powerful memory and unwearied industry, but he lacked creative imagination. He was a powerful debater, but his victories were those of a dialectician. His chief work was De primatu Petri (1519); his Enchiridion locorum communium adversus Lutherum ran through 46 editions between 1525 and 1576. In 1530-1535 he published a collection of his writings against Luther, Opera contra Ludderum, in 4 vols.
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