Friday, 25 April 2008


I wonder how Luther would have scored if he could have done Scott McKnight's quiz? He certainly could not be called a fundamentalist! His reading of scripture was a truly liberating experience especially after trying to gain heaven by his own works, then discovering from it that 'the just will live by faith'. He then read Scripture in this light and any part of it that did not seem to give weight to this view, which he believed to be the central part, he was prepared to reject.He even went as far as to call the letter of James 'an epistle of straw' with Hebrews and Revelation not faring much better.He once wrote 'without doubt the whole of Scripture is orientated to Christ alone'.He therefore did not believe that scriptural texts were absolute truth but when they were read they could be questioned whether they truly 'proclaimed Christ crucified and risen from the dead for the salvation of all people,as well as the doctrine of justification by faith alone'(H.P.Grosshans'Luther').

This fine article by Eric Swensson will provide, for those interested,details on how the great Church Reformer interpreted Scripure and I leave it up to you whether you think he was conservative, moderate or progressive according to Scott McKnight's quiz.Answers on a postcard please. AK

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is best known as the reformer who said, "Here I stand," to Pope and Emperor, but he understood his vocation to be a Doctor of Biblical Studies at University, and the majority of the 55 volumes of his works in English are commentaries on Scripture. In Luther's approach to understanding Scripture, the Word and Spirit create an event in which the reader participates. As the Holy Spirit used a human to write it, the Holy Spirit uses the Word and helps the human enter into Scripture. The impression one gets from Lutheras he writes about figures and scenes in Scripture is that he is describing an actual landscape that he had visited. Luther would say that interpretation is a Word-event available to all readers though the Holy Spirit.
Kenneth Hagen explains how Luther gave explicit "rules," for his method of interpretation in his 1539 Preface to his works in German. Luther's rules are an integration of the intellectual into the spiritual: Oratio (prayer), Meditatio (meditation), and Tentatio (temptation), the latter term best translated as "life-experience" (Oswald Bayer). This is existential, understood as experiential but not as "discovery of the self" since the goal of temptation is humility. Luther preferred experience-oriented wisdom theology, hence these three existential rules are helps to achieve wisdom (sapientia) rather than knowledge (scientia). He used rules derived from Scripture, as did Augustine, for training in theology because they are consistent with Scripture as its own interpreter. These rules correspond to the marks of the church--Word (Meditatio), Prayer (Oratio), Cross (Tentatio). Significantly, though he used his grammatical skills in a continuous effort for more accurate translations in his German Bible, Luther understood that critical grammatical skills were secondary to a prayerful approach when attempting to discern the meaning of Scripture. These three experiential rules serve as lenses for a fresh look at what are commonly understood as the main features of Luther's approach to Scripture.

1. Scripture alone is authoritative. "No doctrine be taught except the pure Word of God."
Scripture as the sole authority for the rule of the life of the Church can be found in the writings of the earliest church Fathers. Augustine wrote, "For Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare to be wiser than we ought. Therefore, I should not teach you anything else except to expound to you the words of the Teacher." Sola scriptura came into wide usage after Luther existentially made it a hermeneutical guideline at Worms in 1521: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason ? I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God ? May God help me. Amen."

While Luther believed there was an inseparable bond between Scripture, the Fathers, and the teachings of the Church, he disagreed that tradition was equal to Scripture; rather Scripture is the judge of the Church. Luther's insistence that Scripture is the sole authority did not make him a radical in the sense that he was suggesting something new, because in many ways he was an "obedient rebel," he was a radical in the sense of "proceeding directly from the root." Luther sums up his position stating, "When everything that is said and done is said and done in accord with God's Word, then the glory of Christ and God will be done to all eternity."

This is the approach to Scripture that Luther utilized as an Augustinian monk and continued throughout his productive career, sacra pagina, given by God so that we might have faith, and it needs to be received in faith to be understood, but which was largely forgotten until Kenneth Hagen and Oswald Bayer rediscovered it. This is the tradition of the early Fathers and the monastics to pray, meditate, memorize, and copy the sacred text daily, and is in contrast to scholastics who were primarily concerned with doctrine, and humanists who were devoted to the religious literature for philosophy. "They are worthy of blessing who strive to purify the Holy Scriptures and lead them out of the darkness of scholastic opinions and human reasoning." Article continued as a comment.


Andrew Kenny said...

Article Continued
2. Scripture is a proclaimed office of law and gospel. "When Christ calls, this brings grace and salvation for He transfers them from the Law to the Gospel."

William Lazareth states that Luther's ?first rule' for translating the Scriptures is discerning if one is dealing with Law or Gospel: ?If some passage is obscure, I consider whether it treats of grace or the law, wrath or forgiveness of sin ? For God divides teaching into Law and Gospel." Hence, according to Luther, the mark of a real theologian is one who "rightly divides" between the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God has a double use of the Law, the first is the civil use to protect, and the second is the spiritual, to convict the conscience of sin. The first restrains harm but it does not justify as humanity does not do this voluntarily, or from the love of virtue, but because of fear of punishment. God instituted civil laws to restrain us, as well as teachers, parents to instruct us, all for our protection, but this use of the law cannot justify. The other use of the Law is the theological or spiritual one, which is the primary purpose of the Law of Moses, that through it, sin might grow and be multiplied, especially in the conscience as Paul discusses in Romans to reveal to individuals their sin and contempt of God."
Christ calls, brings grace and salvation, transfers believers from "the Law to the Gospel, from wrath to grace, from sin to righteousness, and from death to life." The Law is command; the Gospel is gift. The Law commands that which cannot be fulfilled except by the Giver. A hate for the Law is changed into a passion for the Law can only be the fruit of the Gospel, and this desire breaks through to victory, this desire which comes from faith in God through Jesus Christ.

Luther recognized Law and Gospel in every book of the Bible, insisting there was gospel in the Old Testament, and that 1 Peter and the Pauline Epistles were as much Gospel as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The important determining factor for "What is gospel?" is, "What promotes Christ?" This insight gives unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament, unity Luther did not invent but found reading Scripture with Pauline lenses. Keep in mind the unity as well as the differences, Luther nullified the chronological distinction between them. Luther recognized the most important biblical distinction to be made is not between the Old Testament and the New Testament, rather the distinction is in both,as Heinrich Bornkamm stated, "one must differentiate within the testaments rather than between." The key to distinguishing between the Old and the New is in the legal meaning of Covenant, "last will and testament," so that which was promised has now been given. The Christ present in the New Testament as Jesus is present in the Old Testament as promise. The whole meaning of the Old Testament is concealed until revealed through Jesus Christ. As Luther writes:

The whole Bible depends on this oath of God, for in the Bible everything has to do with Christ. Furthermore, we see that all the fathers in the Old Testament, together with all the holy prophets, had the same faith and Gospel as we have, as St. Paul says, "For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ." 1 Cor 10.4, for they all remained with a strong faith in this oath of God ? The sole difference is, they believed in the coming and promised Seed; we believe in the Seed that has been given.

The gospel this side of Easter is the promise of God that in Jesus Christ, God has fulfilled the Law of Moses on the cross; Abraham received his version of promise before the law was given to Moses. Luther is able to develop the theology of the cross, perhaps it was indeed inevitable, because of the centrality of law and gospel to his interpretation of Scripture, which in essence is that the law humbles so the gospel can lift up. Self-denial occurs and the believer is raised in faith.

Paul was the epitome of a Spirit-filled evangelist-theologian apostle, and served as Luther's model:

"For without the Holy Spirit a man cannot speak this way; that is, he cannot include the entire Law in one word and gather it all at once in Christ, and, on the other hand, include all the promises of Scripture and say that these are fulfilled in Christ once and for all. Therefore, Paul's argument is apostolic and very powerful, based as it is, not on one passage in the Law but on all the laws."

The Word of God is not passively waiting to be placed under a microscope for examination; rather it is a functioning reality. It has an office and goes to work every day. Though we may choose to ignore the sound, the Word of God continuously functions as Law and Gospel.

3. Simple is best. "One should not say therefore that Scripture has more than one meaning."

Luther believed God is beyond human all-knowing. However, all Scripture can be interpreted, and all Scripture has one simple sense."The Holy Spirit is the simplest writer ? his words could have no more than the one simplest meaning which we call the grammatical or the literal meaning." Luther asserted the goal of an exegete is to obtain the "one simple, seminal, and certain literal sense" is. Luther's understanding of literal is different from the modern definition of something that which can be verified by facts, rather literal means what the author intends by the words. He said, "Scripture deals only with Christ everywhere, if it is looked at inwardly, even though on the face of it, it may sound differently by the use of shadows and figures," so typology, metaphors, and allegories are included in what Luther means by literal interpretation.

Luther regard allegory less highly with his decision to adhere to the historical meaning and did not make use of them unless the text itself indicated them, but used allegory as an interpretive tool when he was not satisfied that he discerned the simple meaning through grammatical means, and used it under the rule that it be bound to and regulated by the simplest meaning.

Luther began his teaching career using the four-fold method interpretation as other medieval theologians: historical, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical sense of the text, but was also highly critical of this method: "With these awkward and foolish fables they tore Scripture apart into many meanings and robbed themselves of the ability to give sure instruction." Luther avoided the rigid partition of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture practiced by the scholastics and worked toward a historical-Christological interpretation. His Christocentric theology rose above the formal four-fold differentiations and combined the historical-literal with a literal-spiritual reading which was prophetic-spiritual, pointing to the coming Christ, showing the intent of the Author of Scripture always to promote the need for Christ while at the same time it speaking of the benefits of Christ, present as judgment and grace.

William Campbell is correct in his insight that, "Luther tends to read Romans through the piety of the Psalms, and the Psalms through the eyes of Paul."[46] In reference to, "Jesus Christ ? promised through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures (Rom1:2), Luther wrote, "There is opened up here a broad approach to the understanding of Holy Scripture: we must understand it in its entirety in relation to Christ, especially where it is prophetic. Now it is in fact prophetic throughout, though not according to the superficial literal meaning of the text."

This method of interpretation in which it is taken for granted that God is the author of Scripture differs from the historical-critical method which is concerned with learning who wrote Scripture. However, Luther learned the rules from Scripture itself. Kenneth Hagen states that current modern exegesis of the Old Testament is done in a way that "faith in Christ is out of the question" and faith in general is regarded as a "subjective hindrance to scientific exegesis."

4. Scripture interprets itself. "One passage of Scripture must be clarified by other passages.

Luther said that the best method of interpreting the Bible is to put Scripture alongside Scripture allowing plainer texts to illuminate the more obscure. According to Hagen, "Luther acquired this method of biblical self-interpretation simply by seeing the echo of Scripture in Scripture ? Scripture explains itself by citing itself," The Book of Hebrews and the Gospel of Matthew employ Old Testament so continuously that they are almost running commentary. Luther's commentaries function the same way; for example, to explain the word anathema in his commentary on Gal 1:8, Luther cites Joshua 6:17; Lev 27:28; and Ex 17:14. Luther practices "commentary by concordance."

Gordon Isaac illuminates this topic further, "Luther's comments on Scripture take the form of Scripture interpreting Scripture. In addition, we find that Luther's comments on the text display no sense of historical gap that needs to be overcome." In the same Festschrift, Timothy Maschke's essay on the hermeneutic of contemporaneity in Luther suggests a hopeful direction for biblical interpretation, an incorporation of Luther's pre-modern view of Scripture as means to communicate the gospel to post-modern culture."

Related to how Luther experienced no historical gap between God and himself, he referenced Scripture for answers to contemporary questions, he also experienced no gap between historical eras, and seems to be unaware of the ease of his time-traveling, shifting easily from the time and culture of Cicero, to that of Abraham, or the distance between Jesus in Palestine and the desk in his study. In his biblical world-view, the Holy Spirit makes Scripture come alive, and through faith inserted Luther into the stories. The historical gap is bridged by faith when one is lifted out of the present and placed into the Bible. The biblical world and the contemporary world run together.

Luther functions as a model Doctor of Scripture who understood experience as basic to interpretation, a model appropriate to theology of any era including post-modernity. His ability to move beyond the divide of the Old and New Testament with his Law/Gospel hermeneutic is a corrective to an exegesis of the Old Testament that would attempt to forbid Christ to enter. Luther used Paul as a model exegete, and today Luther serves as a model for a trinitarian exegete. Luther taught the Word has the freedom to create new realities in the unity of the one Spirit who authors and empowers it." Luther's interpretation of Scripture was "at once Christocentric and Christological," his christological approach to Scripture "was determinative for his whole hermeneutical program," and his Christocentric interpretation characterized his exegesis from his lectures on the Psalms through his whole career. The standard his Christo-centrism judges texts by is whether they bear witness to Christ directly or indirectly. Luther's interpretation joins Word and Spirit.

In Conclusion:

An examination of Luther's approach can be used to develop a hermeneutic for today. The interpretation of Scripture must be existential, and faith is necessary to the experience. Barth said, "The Holy Scriptures will interpret themselves in spite of all our human limitations." Men and women do not interpret Scripture as much as Scripture interprets each person. This takes place when Scripture is read in the faith which is freely given by grace of God. Though Barth and Luther differ in part in their theology of the Word, they stand shoulder to shoulder against any who would say there is any other way into the landscape of the Bible.

Tools such as the historical-critical method are a means and not an end which can easily be turned on the hands who wield them. One desiring to truly understand Scripture today would neither throw out the power tools of the historical critical method, nor use them without following appropriate safety guidelines. We need checks and balances in order to avoid the arrogance of a skepticism. If when working with the tools one thinks they are seeing something that doesn't fit into the story, for example, Jesus lying in a tomb past Easter, obviously one has something foreign in their eye and needs to remove it and put on safety goggles before resuming work. Another check would be a recognition that Scripture belongs to the church, and is the Church's story. Any other telling is recognized as having another voice.

Further study on how Luther approached text, author, and message could be very fruitful. Perhaps it would find Luther say that the author is God, the text is alive, it has the power and the freedom through the Spirit to do what it says it is going to do, and the message addresses the reader personally through the action of the author. There is no passive Scripture in faith. Maschke states, "Luther bridges Lessing's ditch" with "the Spirit-filled Word which brings God's power and presence into the present."

As Martin Luther said, "Christianity is simple, lying open to the light of day. One must take and accept it as it is."[65] He could say that because he understood that Scripture had an Author whose voice could be heard and verified only through the humility of faith, and then the gift of revelation can be received.

As Barth said, "The Bible unfolds to us as we are met, guided, drawn on, and made to grow by the grace of God."

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Hey brother, this article is excellent, and thank you for posting it. Now I know why I think Martin Luther is essentially an Orthodox church father, and also why I have been instinctively drawn to him all my Christian life. If I’ve understood what this article is saying about Luther's approach to Scripture, I would have to say that mine is very nearly identical. Although I write about Scripture using my personal frames of reference (I am, after all, a Greek Orthodox living in a lapsed evangelical America), and also echoing my personal mentors, C. S. Lewis (Anglican), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran), the Desert Fathers, the sub-apostolic fathers (early Christian), Archimandrite Vasileios (Greek) and other modern Greek and Russian fathers (Orthodox), my approach still reduces down to a sola scriptura emphasis that goes further than most Christian denominations can accept. I've written briefly on this in my blog in the post Giving “Sola Scriptura” a new meaning, ( And although my seminary-graduate oldest son and I often take very different angles on applying points of Scripture, I can say that his understanding of how to approach the Word of God is also exactly as my own. He has written, “We should not seek to incorporate the bible within our worldview and interpret it to meet us where we are—rather, we yield our own worldview to the authority of scripture and allow it to lead us and become the world that we live in. This is the only way to truly reap the full benefits of scriptural study. We live in God’s world by taking on the vocabulary and culture of the scriptural universe and allowing it to clothe our thoughts and feelings.” I am going to copy some of the points made in this post and your comment that to me are foundational thinking about the Holy Scriptures that I haven't seen in print before. Again, thanks for posting this article.

C. Marie Byars said...

I'm a Lutheran from a moderately conservative background. And Luther & modern conservative Lutherans certainly are not fundamentalists, as you rightly say! (They can be overly-literal, in what is obviously poetic or symbolic language.)
You're so right about the Law & Gospel message---that keeps us separated from the fundamentalists in many cases. (Of course, more Liberal Lutherans seem to want to largely throw out the Law entirely----God as the big indulgent Grandpa.)
Luther corresponded with the Orthodox church, too, but, I really can't agree with my friend Romanos that he was essentially Orthodox. (Neither would some of my friends who went from Lutheranism to Greek Orthodoxy.) But Luther did find some commom points.
Although my Lutheran beliefs are relatively conservative, my outlook on life is more of a "moderate"---I think we should not bury our disagreements but follow that old injuction to "Disagree without being disagreeable."
God bless from this side of "the pond."