Holy Scripture in the Thought of Martin Luther

By Matthew Becker

The most controversial issues in the last half millennium of Christian theology surround the Christian Bible.  Of course the major division that began in western Christendom in the 16th Century was largely the result of disagreements over scriptural authority and interpretation vis-à-vis church doctrine and practice; yet even among the church bodies that adhere to the symbolical books of the Lutheran Church, divisions have occurred for the same reasons.  For more than two centuries no doctrine has been more contentious within the Lutheran Church than the doctrine of Holy Scripture.[1]  No issue has been more central than the problem of interpreting the Bible for the present day (hermeneutics).[2]  For example, the institutional conflict that occurred in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in the 1960s and 70s was largely about the authority of the Bible and the proper ways of interpreting Holy Scripture in the contemporary world.  Some have even used the expression “The Battle for the Bible” to describe that crisis.[3]  Current theological disagreements in the LCMS (over such matters as church fellowship, women’s leadership in the church, and the relation of Christian faith to scientific knowledge) and in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (over matters relating to church fellowship with Reformed and Episcopalian churches and over the ordination of practicing homosexuals) are also about the authority, the content, and the appropriate use of the Bible.  These ongoing ecclesial discussions and disagreements naturally lead to a fundamental question in theology: What ought Christians believe, teach, and confess about Holy Scripture, its content, and its proper use in the church today?

While the following essay is not an exhaustive response to this question, it does seek to highlight how Martin Luther (1483-1546) answered it. The truths that Luther set forth from his study of Holy Scripture are always worth relearning.  A basic assumption of the essay is that an understanding of this historic “Luther-an” position on Holy Scripture ought to be an important initial step in the attempt to set forth a contemporary evangelical-confessional understanding of Holy Scripture.[4]


How did Luther understand the authority, the content, and the purpose of Holy Scripture?[6]  While one could write a whole book to answer this question, the first part of this present essay will merely attempt to set forth the main elements in Luther’s teaching about the Word of God, Scripture, and the problem of hermeneutics.[7]  To do so adequately, one must keep in mind the differing polemical contexts in which he wrote about the Word of God and Scripture in order to discern more accurately the meaning and implications of any statement he made.  His “table-talk” aphorism, “sola autem experientia facit theologum” (“yet experience alone makes the theologian”) is especially apropos to his own theological development.[8]

 (A) Martin the Friar

When Martin Luther entered the Augustinian eremite cloister in Erfurt on July 17, 1505, he was already well educated.  Not only had he completed the basic course in the faculty of the arts (e.g., grammar, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics, physics, astronomy) and received the degree of Master of Arts, he had also begun the study of law.  He wanted to please his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer.  Thus he was well on his way to a promising secular career.  However, as is generally known, he abruptly traded his academic regalia for the simple garb of a novice monk.  The deaths of three close friends from the plague, a near fatal injury to his leg, his inner doubts and anxieties, and a violent thunderstorm drove him to the monastery.  These terrible events were masks behind which lurked a fundamentally religious problem:  “I want to escape hell with my monkery.”[9]

Two years later (1507) Luther began his formal theological studies.  His initial degree was the Bachelor of Bible, which he received at the order’s Wittenberg cloister in 1509.  This degree allowed him to give introductory lectures on the biblical texts to his fellow monks.  Later that same year he received the Bachelor of the Sentences degree, which allowed him to lecture on Peter Lombard’s (c. 1100-60) four-book harmonization of theologians’ contradictory statements (“sentences”) on the Trinity, creation, sin, the Incarnation, the Sacraments, and other theological topics.  When Luther returned to the Erfurt cloister in the fall of 1509 he gave his first lectures on Lombard’s Sentences.  Reluctantly, but in obedience to the demand of his vicar general Johannes von Staupitz (1468/69-1524), Luther became a Doktor in Biblia, a doctor of the Bible (1512).  Looking back on that fateful demand, Luther wrote, “I…was compelled to become a doctor, without any initiative of my own, but out of pure obedience.  Then I had to accept the office of doctor and swear a vow to my most beloved Holy Scriptures that I would preach and teach them faithfully and purely.”[10]  A year after he completed his doctorate he was appointed to teach at the recently founded University ofWittenberg.  From that time onward interpretation of the Bible would occupy him much more than lecturing on statements in Lombard’s textbook.  In an early letter he states that he wanted to pursue a theology “which explored the kernel of the nut and the germ of the wheat and the marrow of the bones.”[11]

From the first days of his theological studies the question that drove him to Scripture was the question of his personal salvation.  In large part this was the question that drove him to become an Augustinian monk.  This existential dimension to theology is central for understanding his thought.  “For Luther, theology as the object of intellectual inquiry and theology as the sphere of a personal encounter formed an individual unity.”[12]  This unity in Luther must always be kept in mind when attempting to come to grips with his ideas, including his views toward the interpretation of Holy Scripture.

(B) The Righteousness of God and Salvation

Sharpened thus by his spiritual struggles and inner conflicts (Anfechtungen) over his sins and the just judgments of God, the question about salvation led him to concentrate his intellectual powers initially on the Psalms (1513-15) and then the writings of St. Paul.  Doing so, he came to see that the medieval scholastic traditions about salvation that he had learned as a student were partly correct but mostly incorrect.

Prior to his so-called Reformation breakthrough, the young Luther agreed that medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-74), William of Ockham (c. 1285-1347), and Gabriel Biel (c. 1420-95) had been correct to assert that human beings are only acceptable to God by being righteous, that is, by having as their very own the righteousness that God demands.[13]  Luther also agreed that such theologians were correct to assert that divine grace was necessary for salvation, though he was aware that these theologians disagreed among themselves about just where God’s grace fit into the process.  Luther knew, for example, that Aquinas asserted that a person who freely did good actions under the power of divine grace cooperated with God in attaining salvation.  In this commonly-held medieval view, morally good deeds are the necessary condition for possessing saving faith.  Such a faith must be completed or “formed” by acts of charity.  Whoever did his or her moral best within a state of grace received salvation as a just reward.  Of course to be in a state of grace one must participate in the sacramental life of the Roman Catholic Church through which one alone received the necessary grace to do truly God-pleasing good works.  According to the patristic doctrinal tradition, outside of this Church there is no salvation.[14]

Luther also knew that Ockham and Biel had made a significant change to the place of grace in the Thomistic scheme.  In the interest of defending human free will, Ockham and his followers taught that the natural abilities of human beings (e.g., reason and conscience) had not been completely corrupted by the Fall of Adam.  Ockhamists asked, “Did not many biblical passages imply that human beings, even after the Fall, have both the ability and the responsibility to make the initial step in the process of salvation?”  “…therefore choose life, that both you and your descendents may live” (Deut. 30:19); “Turn to me and I will turn to you” (Zech. 1:3); “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the LORD God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23); “If you seek me, you will find me” (Lk. 11:9).  Thus the Ockhamists reasoned, “If God gives salvation as a just reward to those who do good works in a state of grace, as Aquinas taught, could God not also be expected to give as a just reward an infusion of grace into those who do good works freely by nature?”  Biel’s point was:  If you do your best, if you “do what is in you” (facere quod in se) through your natural moral abilities, God will give you grace so that you can then do your best under the power of grace and ultimately receive eternal life as a just reward for your efforts.  For the followers of Ockham, such as Biel, human beings could at least initiate the process of salvation.[15]  If people did their best, God would not withhold his grace from them.

By his own account, the young Luther was among the majority of theologians at this time who agreed with some form of Ockhamism.  As a young Augustinian monk and then university professor, he tried to live his life according to the Ockhamist scheme that he had learned from his Erfurt teacher, Jodokus Trutfetter, and the writings of Biel.[16]  But Luther was never sure he had done his best.  One can imagine him fretting in his monk’s cell, “How does one ever know one has done one’s best?  If one does not do one’s best, then God’s grace remains elusive.  Without God’s grace, I remain locked in my sins and separated from God and God’s salvation…”  This Ockhamist understanding only intensified his spiritual struggles and his sense of uncertainty before almighty God.  In addition to the pastoral care of Staupitz, who tried to assure Luther of God’s grace, his only consolation came from the study of the Psalms, Paul, and Augustine (354-430).  The writings of these authorities clarified for him that human beings in themselves lack the ability and freedom of will to do the good that Biel and other Ockhamists had said was possible.  Careful study of Scripture only confirmed for Luther what Augustine had also learned from St. Paul: every human will is naturally in bondage to sin and cannot do anything positive on its own before God (coram deo).  Had not Augustine argued as much against the arch-heretic Pelagius (late 4th/early 5th century)?  Had not Pelagius also taught that human beings have innate abilities to take fundamental steps toward salvation by their own efforts, apart from divine grace?  Luther saw in Ockhamism, at least in the form he had learned from Trutfetter and Biel’s books, nothing other than Pelagianism, a heretical theology that emphasizes human freedom to choose what is good (e.g., God) under the power of one’s God-given nature.

This Augustinian, anti-Pelagian critique of Ockhamism was, however, only part of the solution to Luther’s difficulties.  The full solution came as he continued to study and lecture on the writings of Paul (1515-18).  These writings opened Luther to the best news: God’s righteousness is a gift, not a sacramental power or infusion of divine energy for doing better deeds.  Luther’s Reformation breakthrough, which was likely a gradual transition in the years 1513-19, came from reading and hearing that the righteousness of God is God’s own righteousness (what could be more perfect than this?) that God gives as a total gift to the one who trusts in Jesus Christ.  This gratuitous, gracious gift of God’s own righteousness is Jesus Christ.  While God demands that each human being have God’s own righteousness—you have to have this to be acceptable to God!—God gives such righteousness as a total gift in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This “alien” or “external” righteousness (i.e., a righteousness outside of each human being) is the certain basis of one’s standing upright before God.  “Our theology is certain for it places us outside ourselves.”[17]

In the parlance of Luther, God’s righteousness comes sola gratia, as total gift.  The content of this gift is the righteousness that was achieved by the death of Christ on the cross, i.e., solus Christus (“Christ by himself”).  The means by which this divine righteousness becomes one’s very own is though faith—alone, i.e., sola fide (“by faith alone”), which itself is a gift, lest anyone boast (Eph. 2:8-9).  In Luther’s lingo, these three “sola” slogans are synonymous; they each speak of the one article of faith which alone is the proper basis of all other articles of faith.  Lose Christ, and the gift of God’s righteousness is also lost.  Nothing else but Christ alone will do when one stands before God.  In other words, lose trust alone in Christ alone, and all is lost.[18]

(C) Holy Scripture and Authority in the Church

Luther soon saw a corollary to these three primary solas: only Holy Scripture (sola scriptura) could finally be trusted to deliver the good news of Jesus’ righteousness as pure gift to be received by faith alone.  Faith alone goes with Christ alone by means of the word alone.[19]

True, all previous Christian theologians worth their salt shared Luther’s conviction that the Bible is the primary authority in the church, at least in theory.  Augustine had repeatedly stated that the Bible is the sole norm for the church’s doctrine.  “These are the writings of outstanding authority in which we put our trust concerning those things we need to know for our good, and yet are incapable of discovering by ourselves.”[20]  Aquinas, too, had raised biblical texts to a place of authority that was higher than the opinions of the church fathers and the reasoning of his favorite philosopher, Aristotle.  Another medieval scholastic theologian, Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) flatly declared, “Nothing is to be held as of the substance of the faith except that which can be expressly derived from Scripture…”[21]  Biel, too, thought that Christian faith only comes from hearing and studying the Bible.  He was merely following his main intellectual guide, Ockham, who even went so far on occasion as to pit the Bible against the errors of specific popes.

In actual practice, however, each of these theologians appealed to an authority alongside of Scripture, which in fact was always more important than Scripture itself.  For Augustine the orthodox and Catholic Church decided what is and is not Holy Scripture, and this authoritative Church alone provided the authentic interpretation of Holy Scripture.  “I would not believe the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me.”[22]  For Aquinas theology is always a mix of biblical argument, correct opinions of the church fathers, and true propositions from Aristotle, but the Roman Church establishes and guarantees the normative character of official Church doctrine over against theological errors.  Scotus completed his statement, quoted in the above paragraph, with a most telling phrase:  “…or which is expressly declared by the Church.”  Even Ockham, who was otherwise on occasion critical of the pope and his errors, finally appealed to the Roman Church as the one arbiter of true doctrine:  “I submit myself and my words to the correction of the Catholic Church.”[23]  Biel echoed Ockham when he stated that there could never be any real opposition between statements in Holy Scripture and the official doctrines of the Roman Church.

For each of these theologians the truth which Holy Mother Church defines as catholic and orthodox is to be believed with the same respect and devotion as the truth expressed in the Holy Scriptures.  Opposition or tension, let alone contradiction, between sacred Scripture and the authority of the Roman Church is simply out of the question.  The true meaning of Scripture had to be compatible within the total context of the Church’s doctrinal teachings and decisions and had to be interpreted in harmony with them.[24]  This was Luther’s position, too, at least as late as March 1519: “It was never my intention to secede from the Apostolic Roman See; I am content that it should be called, or even should be, the lord of all.”[25]

So how did Luther’s attitude toward the authority of the Roman Church change?  The turning point seems to have occurred in 1519, when he debated Catholic theologian Johannes Eck (1486-1543) in Leipzig.[26]  Ostensibly that multi-day disputation was about the practice of selling indulgences, but it also centered on the issue of authority in the church.  For Eck the real authority of the church resided in the papal office and, by extension, the official hierarchy of bishops.  While technically Rome’s position on papal infallibility did not achieve dogmatic status until the First Vatican Council (1870-71), Eck’s argument was consistent with that doctrinal trajectory wherein the pope is Christ’s official representative on earth and thus the final earthly authority for what constitutes catholic doctrine.  For Eck, the “rock” that Jesus mentions in Matthew 16:18 must refer to Peter and by extension to all who later fill Peter’s shoes and seat (chair/office), since all of the most important church fathers had interpreted that verse thusly. Against the conciliarist, anti-papal position that had been supported a century earlier (especially among the French bishops), Eck asserted the authority of the hierarchy of the Roman Church, which ultimately centers in the authority of the pope.[27]  This hierarchy is necessary to teach and defend catholic doctrine for the catholic faithful.  Only in this way can the Church provide the official, enforceable interpretation of the Bible, Church doctrines, and practices that can then be defended against the false teaching of professors like Luther.  After all, Eck must have stressed, every good theologian knows that heretics had often notoriously supported their heresies through a plethora of biblical citations.

Eck’s arguments forced Luther at Leipzig to assert that the authority of the Roman Church is subordinate to the authority of the Bible itself.  The indulgence controversy revealed to Luther that the subordination of Holy Scripture to the teaching authority of the Church (i.e., the authority of traditional interpretations of Scripture set forth by church fathers, but ultimately the authority of the pope) had actually led to the incarceration of the Bible under Church authority.  In the course of his conflict with Rome Luther concluded that a sharp opposition had developed between the teaching of St. Paul and at least some of the doctrinal positions of the Roman Church.  In Luther’s judgment the authorities of the Roman Church were actually denying the true gospel.  In its place they had substituted a different gospel, which is no gospel, and this non-apostolic (and thus innovative) teaching was now being coercively defended against Luther’s authentically apostolic teaching.  Thus Luther rejected the traditional interpretation of Matthew 16:18 (that the Petrine/papal office is the “rock”) by quoting 1 Cor. 3:11:  “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”[28]  Only Christ establishes doctrine, not the pope.  The latter certainly cannot set forth new articles of faith.  No Christian can be coerced to believe anything beyond Holy Scripture.  The institutional Church cannot then be the Lord over the Scriptures; only Christ fills that spot.  A year later (1520) Luther made the same point:  “Whatever is asserted without scriptural proofs or an accredited revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed.”[29]  This principle was also stated in his famous reply at the Diet of Worms (1521):

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  May God help me.  Amen.[30]

Many have noted that it is this distinctive sola scriptura position that marks Luther’s scriptural principle as being different from the position taken in practice by the most important medieval scholastic theologians.  Not a few have had serious problems with his position.  Does Luther’s principle not imply that each individual Christian may interpret the Bible as he or she sees fit?  Does his view not naturally support what some have called “the right of private interpretation?”  Many have accused Luther of paving the way for just such an individualistic approach to Scripture, which has eventuated in pluralistic, sectarian, heretical, schismatic Protestantism (25,000+ distinct church groups/denominations worldwide today).  In this individualistic approach, so the critique goes, the private interpreter need not pay any attention to the ecclesial context of his or her interpretation of “the church’s book” and thus also safely ignore the history of biblical interpretation and the development of the church’s doctrinal teachings through ecumenical councils and papal encyclicals.[31]

While some of the above criticism fits many forms of Protestantism in the modern world, it does not fit Luther’s own position.  Luther was opposed to such individualistic isolation of Scripture from the church’s proclamation of Christ in Word and Sacrament and from the church’s authentic doctrinal traditions.  As proclamation of the gospel, Holy Scripture has a public, catholic, churchly character.[32]

But is there not a contradiction here?  How does one determine what is authentic (and thus truly catholic and orthodox) from what is inauthentic in the doctrinal traditions of the church?  Was not Luther making an individualistic decision when he accepted some dogmatic decisions and rejected others?  Had he not decided in the privacy of his monk’s cell how the gospel would be defined, which definition he then applied to the Church’s traditions and practices?  And how could he consistently maintainsola scriptura while also retaining all that he did retain from Catholic tradition?

In opposition to traditionalism he had been able to proceed as though every article of faith were ultimately subject to exegetical re-examination, though he himself did not necessarily subject it to such re-examination.  In opposition to a rejection of the tradition, however, he proceeded as though there existed a given body of articles of faith.[33]

So how did Luther oppose what Pelikan calls the “traditionalism” of one set of opponents and yet affirm the “tradition” in view of another set of opponents?  Luther himself was aware of this problem.  His chief response was to assert that the clear teachings of Scripture gave rise to the doctrinal content of the church’s teaching about God and Christ and other articles of faith.  On the other hand, his opponents had taken an obscure passage or word in Scripture out of its context and twisted it to obscure the clear teaching of Scripture.  Luther found no need to criticize or even question the dogmatic decisions of the ecumenical councils that had defined the dogmas of the Trinity and the Person of Christ because he was convinced that these decisions were authentic, truly catholic articulations of Scriptural teaching over against heretical views.  While the church has no right to coin new doctrines, church doctrine is always set forth in the context of the Scriptural doctrine of the church.  The doctrinal authority of the church merely resides in its responsibility to set forth the evangelical sense of the words of Holy Scripture.  On occasion, too, Luther found himself defending the scriptural views of church theologians (e.g., Augustine), which he thought had been perverted or distorted by his opponents, but on other occasions he was quite critical of the moralistic distortions of the gospel in the writings of even the most esteemed church fathers.[34]

For similar reasons Luther was critical of those Protestants (many of which proclaimed their allegiance to him and his spirit!) who jettisoned traditional liturgical and ecclesiastical forms and the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas in favor of their own idiosyncratic readings of Scripture.  He also faulted those whom he labeled “hyper-Christians” for thinking they could pit the Holy Spirit’s supposed “inner illuminations” against the words of the Scriptural texts.  In contrast to “the fanatics,” whose supposed visions and private revelations he judged to be all-too-human or even demonic, Luther stressed that the words of Holy Scripture and the activity of the Holy Spirit are enmeshed.

In these matters, which concern the external, spoken Word, we must hold firmly to the conviction that God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word which comes before.  Thus we shall be protected from the enthusiasts—that is, from the spiritualists who boast that they possess the Spirit without or before the Word and who therefore judge, interpret, and twist the Scriptures or spoken Word according to their pleasure.  Müntzer did this, and many still do it in our day who separate the letter and the Spirit without knowing what they say or teach.[35]

“There is a parallel here between Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper and his philosophy of language: just as the body and blood of Christ are ‘truly present’ in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, so the truth is totally present in the Word.  It must be sought not behind but within it.  For Luther ‘the human word itself’ becomes ‘the bearer of the divine Spirit,’ indeed, is ‘actually wrapped in the swaddling cloth of the human word.’”[36]  In this context, too, the principle of sola scriptura was at stake.

(D) The Clarity of Scripture

 A fundamental assumption of Luther’s scriptural principle is the general clarity or perspicuity of Scripture.  Several Roman Catholic theologians, most notably Erasmus (1466/9-1536), had stressed the need for an authoritative teaching office to make sense out of the many difficulties in the biblical texts.[37]  For Erasmus the many obscurities in the biblical texts necessitated an episcopal teaching office that alone provides an authoritative and binding interpretation of Scripture on all those who claim the title catholic Christian.  The teaching office in the Roman Church (e.g., popes and councils) defines what the generally opaque Bible means.  Without that teaching office, the Bible remains a confusing and very difficult book.

Luther thought quite differently.  While he acknowledged in his reply to Erasmus (The Bondage of the Will) that indeed there are numerous ambiguities and real difficulties in the biblical texts (here Luther differed from later Protestant dogmaticians who asserted the perspicuity of Scripture in toto), the core teaching of the Bible, namely, justification by faith alone in the righteousness of Christ alone, is perfectly and self-evidently clear.  Every baptized Christian could come to this conclusion herself, without needing any external guidance from an ecclesial or philosophical authority.  The meaning of the Bible’s words and sentences on this core Christian teaching is simple, transparent, and unequivocal.  A church government or a philosophical system (e.g., Thomistic Aristotelianism) will not make the biblical words and sentences any clearer than they already are.

The Holy Spirit is the plainest writer and speaker in heaven and earth, and therefore his words cannot have more than one, and that the very simplest, sense, which we call the literal, ordinary, natural sense.  That the things indicated by the simple sense of his simple words should signify something further and different, and therefore one thing should always signify another, is more than a question of words or of language.  For the same is true of all other things outside of the Scriptures, since all of God’s works and creatures are living signs and words of God, as St. Augustine and all the teachers declare.  But we are not on that account to say that the Scriptures or the Word of God has more than one meaning.[38]

Holy Scripture alone establishes church doctrine, since it alone is a clear and reliable guide to the word and will of God.  “The meaning of Scripture is, in and of itself, so certain, accessible, and clear that Scripture interprets itself and tests, judges, and illuminates everything else.”[39]

(E)  Scriptural Clarity and Sufficiency in Service to Christ Alone

Put another way, the general clarity of Scripture serves the Bible’s main function, which is always to bear witness to Christ alone in service to faith alone.  To reach this end, Scripture alone is sufficient.  All Scripture turns about Christ as its authentic center.  He is its proper and central content.  He is the Lord and King of Scripture and Holy Scripture is his queen.  One finds this same basic point in words Luther put to Erasmus: “Take Christ from the Scriptures, and what else will you find in them?”[40] Thus all Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, “must be read and interpreted from and toward Jesus Christ.”[41]  “The whole of Scripture is everywhere about Christ.”[42]  While one cannot force a Christological interpretation on texts that cannot bear such a narrow interpretation, the essential content of any given section of Scripture is always properly defined in relation to Holy Scripture’s overall basic witness to Jesus.  Had not Jesus himself said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify to me” (John 5:39)?  “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness through his name” (Acts 10:43).  “And Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.  …[T]hen he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations…” (Luke 24:27, 45-47)  If a person comes to the Bible with any other issue in mind, beyond this one about preaching and teaching the righteousness of Christ for repentance and faith, then indeed the Bible remains opaque and unclear.  It devolves into an oppressive book of laws, much like it was for the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.  Or it becomes the pretext for the fanciful, anti-gospel interpretations of supposedly “Spirit-filled” interpreters like Thomas Müntzer (c, 1489-1525) or Andreas v. Bodenstein [Karlstadt] (c. 1480-1541).  Luther, too, knew that Scripture “has a wax nose,” that its “face” can be changed and distorted in many ways by an arbitrary interpretation.[43]

The Bible, then, at least according to Luther, is not a compendium of various and sundry disconnected statements that merely need to be arranged into some kind of dogmatic or ethical system.  One misreads the Bible if one takes it to be merely a divinely-inspired sourcebook for what Christians are obliged to accept and believe and do, or if one thinks the Bible always speaks clearly and directly to contemporary questions, problems, and issues.  Luther was certainly opposed to the position that a person must accept and believe every idea that the Bible presents.  He would never have accepted a bumper sticker which reads: “The Bible says it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”  That slogan does not summarize Luther’s principle of sola scriptura!  Rather, for Luther anyway, the Bible’s primary purpose is to serve as the normative witness to Christ, the living Word of God, for the purpose of leading one to repent of one’s sins and to trust in Christ alone.  As such, Holy Scripture points beyond itself to the Word made flesh, whose death and resurrection have reconciled sinners to God.  Apart from the revelation of this Word, God remains “hidden” (deus absconditus), secretive, a mystery, one who works weal and woe beyond human comprehension.  Thus, the only purpose of Scripture is to serve as a light, as a means to deliver graceful knowledge of God, as the normative proclamation and inculcation of the living Word for the sake of repentance and faith.  “The Word they still shall let remain, Nor any thanks have for it; He’s by our side upon the plain, With His good gifts and Spirit.”[44]

(F) Holy Scripture and the Word of God

Not surprisingly, then, Luther speaks of the Word of God, as the Bible itself does, as something other than the Bible, as living speech of God via the prophets but incarnate in the Word made flesh.  Pelikan summarizes the principal definitions of “Word of God” that Luther held:  “In short, as the ‘Word of God’ in the cosmic sense was the eternal Christ, and as the ‘Word of God’ in the Old Testament was finally the anticipated Christ, so the ‘Word of God’ in the New Testament was essentially the historical Christ.”[45]  This Word of God is also the chief element in the Sacraments.  Just as proclamation of law and gospel is intended to convey the forgiveness of sins for the sake of faith, so also the Sacraments, as “visible Word of God,” are intended for the same goal.[46]  In a secondary sense, then, the “Word of God” is the gospel, the good news of and about the incarnate Word:

Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God…  You may ask, “What then is the Word of God, and how shall it be used, since there are so many words of God?”  I answer: The Apostle explains this in Romans 1.  The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son.  Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God.[47]

Abram is a good example of one who made good use of the good news.  He is the father of the faithful because he did not rely on his own strength and wisdom but constantly “sustained himself with the divine promises of the Word.”[48]  This one Word of God, the proclaimed gospel promise about the incarnate Word (also in the OT), provides the key and guide to the meaning of the Word of God in a tertiary sense, namely, the Word of God as writings of the prophets and the apostles.  Not surprising, Luther sometimes made a sharp distinction between God and Scripture:  “God and the Scripture of God are two things, no less than the Creator and the creature are two things.”[49]  Thus the canonical Scriptures and the Word of God are distinct from one another, though clearly related.  “Most of the time Luther, like the Scriptures themselves, did not mean the Scriptures when he spoke about ‘the Word of God.”[50]

(G) The Distinction between Law and Gospel

 Actually the one Word of God results in two distinct messages from God, the law and the gospel.  Here, too, Luther distanced himself from both the fanatics (e.g., Müntzer) and those who practiced the traditional method of allegorical interpretation. Both Müntzer and Erasmus understood the Bible to contain a uniform message, as if the law and the gospel have the same content and purpose.  Contrary to this view, Luther argued that the words of Scripture cannot be melded into one single message.  Rather there are two qualitatively different messages in the Bible.  Both are valid and true; both come from God; yet both are quite different from each other:

The law commands and requires us to do certain things.  The law is thus directed solely to our behavior and consists in making requirements.  For God speaks through the law, saying, “Do this, avoid that, this is what I expect of you.”  The gospel, however, does not preach what we are to do or avoid.  It sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, “This is what God has done for you; he has let his Son be made flesh for you, he has let him be put to death for your sake…”  For the gospel teaches exclusively what has been given us by God, and not—as in the case of the law—what we are to do and give to God.[51]

The law thus accuses and judges sinners under the wrath of God, while the gospel forgives and acquits sinners for Christ’s sake.  For this reason the law is always God’s “alien word” (verbum alienum), while the gospel is God’s “proper word” (verbum proprium).

Both words are found in both testaments, though the law predominates in the Old and the gospel predominates in the New.  “As Moses can proclaim the Gospel, so Jesus can proclaim the Law.”[52]  The Old Testament is like swaddling cloths, “but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.”[53]  Christ brings to light the hidden presence of the gospel in the Old Testament and actualizes the gospel promises foretold in the prophets.  He makes clear that the law, sin, death, and the devil have met their match.

Often the same section of Scripture is both law and gospel.  For example, just as Christ reveals the promissory character of the First Commandment, so also the Sermon on the Mount proclaims both law and gospel.  In Christ God says to us through the First Commandment: “Since I alone am God, you shall place all your confidence, trust, and faith in me alone and in no one else…”[54]  This God wants to be your God so that you despair of your own works and ways and solely trust in God’s mercy.[55] Similarly, the preaching of the cross in the New Testament is both the harshest law against sinners and the sweetest gospel.

These two words of God, both true, nonetheless cannot remain at peace with each other in the life of the sinner.  “The letter [RSV: “the written code”] kills but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).  The letter is not a good word, for it is the word of God’s judgment and wrath against the sinner.  The Spirit, however, is a good word, the good word, because it is the word of God’s grace and forgiveness for the sinner.  There is thus conflict in the sinner/believer who hears both words.  The one who hears them is caught in a struggle between the old age (“the age of the law”) and the new age (“the age of grace”).[56]  The law says to sinners, “You are damned under the just judgment of God.”  The gospel, however, says, “You are forgiven for Christ’s sake.  I have damned him so that you might live.  There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ…”  He—and he alone!—has put to death the accusing word of the law.

This conflict between “the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life” results in several consequences.  One consequence is a paradoxical understanding of the human being before God.  Under the law, in herself, the human being is a sinner and under the wrath of God; but under the gospel, in Christ, she is righteous and full of the Spirit and under grace.  To use yet another Augustinian phrase, the sinner in Christ is simul justus et peccator, total sinner and totally righteous at the same time.[57]  The distinction between the law and the gospel leads to a paradoxical anthropology: one and the same human being who is judged and forgiven by God.

Another consequence of this conflict is one that preachers face.  These two words of God, the law and the gospel, must always be distinguished and never identified or confused in biblical interpretation, in preaching, and in teaching, even though both messages might be tightly wound together in the same passage of Scripture.  “Virtually the whole of the Scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology depend upon the true understanding of law and gospel.”[58]  “Anyone who can properly distinguish the gospel from the law may thank God and know that he is a theologian.”[59]  This is a most difficult task, to distinguish the law from the gospel, for the sake of creating and sustaining faith in Christ who has triumphed over God’s just judgment.

There is also a consequence for Christian theology.  The gospel is not merely one teaching among many others.  Rather, the gospel is the key and central article of faith which illumines all other articles.  “I have often heard before that there is no better way to hand down and maintain true doctrine than by following this method, that is, of dividing Christian doctrine into two parts, the law and the gospel.”[60]

Dealing with any doctrine in a formally correct manner is never enough unless we also express the proper distinction between law and gospel in the double nature of God’s activity as well as our twofold relationship to God as people who are both judged and who have experienced mercy.  Precisely here we become most clearly aware of the powerful dynamic that flows through Luther’s theological work.  At the same time we can now begin to see that the simple theoretical assertion that Scripture alone is the authority in theology says really very little.[61]

Luther does in fact lay great weight upon the doctrine of justification, but his purpose is not to give preference to one Christian doctrine among many others, but to make possible a thorough approach to all Christian doctrines, or, to use more radical language, to make possible a proper treatment of all conceivable doctrine.  The proper function of the doctrine of justification is that of giving a true significance to all other doctrines.  But it can only be understood as Luther saw it if it is identical with what is implied by the distinction between the law and the gospel as the basic guiding principle of theological thought, and therefore as the decisive standard of theological judgment.[62]

Still another consequence of this most important distinction between the law and the gospel is that much of the Old Testament law is inapplicable to Christians.  This inapplicability even applies to the Ten Commandments insofar as they merely represent the Israelite’s national law, the law code of the Jewish people as a national ethnic group.  (Luther compares this Jewish law to the Sachsenspiegel or Saxon code of law.)  The Mosaic law is just one code of laws among many that may or may not be all that beneficial to other groups or time periods.  Contrary to the fanatics (e.g., Müntzer, Karlstadt), Luther asserted that “all such Mosaic teachers deny the gospel, banish Christ, and annul the whole New Testament.  I now speak as a Christian for Christians.  For Moses is given to the Jewish people alone, and does not concern us Gentiles and Christians.”[63]  This was said in view of those who wanted to make the laws of Moses the law of Saxony.  According to Luther, “Moses” is not the Word of God for the present in the sense that “Moses” could be substituted for a piece of human legislation.  Secular, civil law works just fine.  Just as the Judaizers in Paul’s day wanted to insist on circumcision for Gentile Christians, so the enthusiasts and radicals in Luther’s day, those who wanted to make Moses the law of the land, had forgotten that “Christ is the end of the law” for those who have faith (Romans 10:4; cf. Eph 2:16) and that God rules in the world through secular rulers, civil laws, and the human conscience.  Judaizers in all periods distort the gospel into law, contrive new laws for the faithful, and minimize faith.  The message of the gospel, however, is never coercive or legal.  “We would rather not preach again for the rest of our life than to let Moses return and to let Christ be torn out of our hearts.  We will not have Moses as ruler or lawgiver any longer.  Indeed God himself will not have it either.  Moses was an intermediary solely for the Jewish people… Moses’ rule ended when Christ came.  He is of no further service.”[64]

On occasion Luther even went so far as to describe the law as “the word of human beings” and the gospel as “the word of God”:  “As often as God’s word is preached, it creates a joyful, open, and assured conscience before God, for it is the word of grace and forgiveness, a kind and sweet word.  But as often as man’s word is preached, it creates troubled, cramped and fearful consciences, for it is the word of law, of wrath and of sin, and shows what a person has failed to do and how deeply he is in debt.”[65]

Given his critical, Pauline attacks on the Old Testament law, Luther’s understanding of the law, including the Mosaic laws, could be misunderstood.  To avoid misunderstanding, one needs to stress that Luther was not an immoralist; he was not an Antinomian, that is, one who argued that the law of God is no longer necessary in the life of the Christian.  (For example, he spent many pages in his small and large catechisms explaining the meaning of the Ten Commandments for Christians.)  For Luther the divine law is already written on the heart and mind of every human being by virtue of one’s being created in the image of God.  Such divine “writing” or “scripture” on the human heart occurs apart from Moses and the written Mosaic law.  Both the responsibility to love the neighbor and one’s duties toward God, what Jesus says is the sum of the Mosaic law, are already imprinted on the conscience.  The written law of God merely clarifies and sharpens the moral and religious responsibilities that each human bears toward God and neighbor by nature.  “I sense in my heart that I owe God this [keeping of commandments], not because the Decalogue was handed down or written with us in view, but because we know we brought these laws into the world with us.”[66]  In Luther’s view, Moses made clear and explained the divinely established natural law that is already a working element in each human being.  “Thus where [Moses] gives commandment, we are not to follow him except so far as he agrees with the natural law.”[67]  While there is then a kind of “righteousness” that human beings are capable of achieving on their own in this world, this “civic righteousness” is not the righteousness that brings peace to the sinful conscience and gives it confidence before God.  Civil righteousness, truly a good and necessary thing, nonetheless will not get one very far vis-à-vis God.  Such a civic “righteousness,” while necessary and good and important for the neighbor, always comes up short in light of God’s legal demands.  Thus the divine “imprint” on the conscience continues to accuse or excuse even the Christian to death insofar as she remains a sinner before God (cf. Rom. 1-2).

(H) The Priority of Oral Preaching over Scripture

 This on-going accusatory function of the divine law necessitates the on-going proclamation of the gospel.  The central purpose of proclaiming the gospel as distinct from the law led Luther to stress the priority of the oral proclamation over the biblical texts themselves.  “Christ did not command the apostles to write, but only to preach.”[68]  “The church of Christ is a mouth-house, not a pen-house.”[69]  “Faith comes from hearing…” (Romans 10:17).  The living voice of the gospel, proclaimed by preachers, evangelists, missionaries, and other Christian disciples, is God’s primary means for creating and sustaining faith, and such preaching was personally directed to specific hearers in specific contexts.  The vocal “for you-ness” of the gospel is always at stake in evangelical preaching.  Thus, “when one meets the phrase ‘Word of God’ in Luther’s writings, it usually has reference to this oral Word of proclamation.”[70]  “The nature of the Word is to be heard” (natura verbi est audiri).[71]  Frankly, Luther wrote, the Old Testament “alone has the name of being Holy Scripture, and the gospel should really not be Scripture but oral Word which explains the Scripture…”[72]  “That it was necessary to write books is in itself a great breach and decline from the Spirit; it was caused by necessity and is not the proper nature of the New Testament.”[73]

So it is not at all in keeping with the New Testament to write books on Christian doctrine.  Rather in all places there should be fine, goodly, learned, spiritual, diligent preachers without books, who extract the living Word from the old Scripture and unceasingly inculcate it into the people, just as the apostles did.  For before they wrote, they first of all preached to the people by word of mouth and converted them.[74]

For the Word created heaven and earth and all things; this the Word must do, and not we who are sinners.  This is the summary of summaries; this I will preach, this I will speak, this I will write.  But I will force no one, nor constrain them with violence. For faith seeks to be accepted willingly, without constraint.  Follow my example: I oppose indulgences and all papists, but without force.  All I have done is to put forth, preach and write the Word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing.  While I have been sleeping or drinking Wittenberg beer with my friend Philip and with Amsdorf, it is the Word that has done great things, so that the papacy has become so weak that neither prince nor emperor has ever done it so much damage.  I have done nothing; the Word has done and achieved everything…  I have done nothing, I have let the Word act… it is all powerful, it takes hearts, prisoner, and when they are taken prisoner, the work that is done comes from the Word itself.[75]

(I) The Inspiration of the Prophets and the Apostles

 Clearly the above quotations indicate that for Luther “the Word of God” is first and foremost Jesus Christ and secondly the preaching about this Jesus, yet the central purpose of proclaiming this Word also led Luther to tie the prophetic and apostolic writings of Scripture very closely to the work of the Holy Spirit.  In a tertiary sense the “Word of God” is also Holy Scripture.  “The Holy Scripture is God’s Word written and, so to say, spelled out and pictured in alphabetic letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God veiled in human nature.”[76]  “Neither councils, fathers, nor we, in spite of the greatest and best success possible, will do as well as the Holy Scriptures, that is, as well as God himself has done.”[77]  “Not only the words but also the expression that the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures employ is divine.”[78]  Of course in his controversy with Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) over the Lord’s Supper, Luther stressed that the words, “This is my body,” are words that were directly inspired by the Spirit.  As such they are only capable of the meaning which the Spirit intends, namely, the one that serves the gospel about the Word incarnate.

So there is no question that Luther affirmed the verbal inspiration of the prophetic and apostolic texts, though he refrained from trying to provide a rational explanation for this mystery.  As a consequence of his reverent respect for the prophetic and apostolic texts, he was very concerned to establish the most authentic rendition of the biblical books on the basis of the Hebrew and Greek texts that were then available to him (e.g., the New Testament in Greek that was published by Erasmus).  He also used the best resources available to the scholar for understanding and translating the received Scriptural texts, including the Apocrypha, into colloquial German.

(J) Luther’s Critical Spirit

Luther’s understanding of inspiration, however, differs from those theories of verbal inspiration that were developed by Protestants (Reformed and Lutheran) in the century after his death (e.g., the dictation theory wherein the authors are mere sieves for the words of the Spirit).  Though Luther sometimes sounds similar to his medieval forebears, who also accepted the verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture, there is an important, qualitative difference between the former and the latter.  While Luther did believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the words of the true prophets and authentic apostles, he did not hold to the verbal inspiration of the Holy Scriptures in toto. [79]  While Luther affirmed the inspiration of the authentic prophetic and apostolic texts, his principle of sola scriptura does not equate to an unqualified acceptance of the inspiration of the medieval biblical canon in total (tota scriptura).  On the contrary, he set forth what can only be described as a modern, “critical” attitude toward some biblical books and passages. For example, he made judgments about which books were more central in the Bible and which ones were on the periphery.  A mere three years after his famous debate with Eck he was bold to admit publicly in writing that at least some New Testament books were in conflict with the authentically apostolic texts.  These non-apostolic writings deny or confuse in some way the clear preaching of Christ alone for the sake of creating and sustaining faith alone.  These biblical writings could therefore legitimately be ignored or even rejected without harming the Word of God.

All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate [treiben] Christ.  And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ.  For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, 1 Corinthians 2.  Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching.  Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.[80]

If necessary, for the sake of the gospel, Christ and Scripture can even be pitted against each other.  “Scripture is to be understood, not against, but for Christ: either it must be referred to him, or else it must not be held to be true Scripture…  If my opponents have urged Scripture against Christ, we urge Christ against Scripture.”[81]  “You urge the slave, that is, Scripture—and only in parts…  I urge the Lord, who is King of Scripture.”[82]  “Thus if the text of Scripture is opposed to Luther’s gospel-centered interpretation of Scripture, his interpretation becomes gospel-centered criticism of Scripture…  Sacred Scripture is its own critic.”[83]

Luther’s prefaces to the New Testament writings, which were included in all of the earliest editions of Luther’s translation of the Bible (before 1537), also serve as a very important indication of his critical, evangelical spirit toward the biblical texts.  Here are some excerpts:

Which are the true and noblest books of the New Testament?  From all this you can now judge all the books and decide among them which are the best.  John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books.  They ought properly to be the foremost books, and it would be advisable for every Christian to read them first and most, and by daily reading to make them as much his own as his daily bread.  For in them you do not find many works and miracles of Christ described, but you do find depicted in masterly fashion how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation.  This is the real nature of the gospel, as you have heard.

…Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about his preaching, while the other evangelists write much about his works and little about his preaching.  Therefore John’s Gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and placed high above them.  So, too, the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine.  Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.[84]

[Romans] is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel.  It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day…[85]

[Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation] have from ancient times had a different reputation [from John’s and Paul’s writings].  In the first place, the fact that Hebrews is not an epistle of St. Paul, or of any other apostle, is proved by what it says in chapter 2, that through those who had themselves heard it from the Lord this doctrine has come to us and remained among us…  Again, there is a hard knot in the fact that in chapters 6 and 10 it flatly denies and forbids to sinners any repentance after baptism…  This is contrary to all the gospels and to St. Paul’s epistles…  We cannot put [Hebrews] on the same level with the apostolic epistles…[86]

Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book… though, to state my own opinion about it, without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as a writing of an apostle…  In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works…  This fault, therefore, proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle…  Although I value [Jude], it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are supposed to lay the foundations of faith.[87]

About this book of the Revelation to John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions.  I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment.  I say what I feel.  I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.  First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel.  For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions…  Finally, let everyone think of [Revelation] as his own spirit leads him.  My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.  For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known to it…  Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.[88]

Luther thus included such “non-apostolic” books as James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation in his 1522 translation of the New Testament, but he relegated them to the very end of the book and did not list them in his table of contents.

Luther’s “critical spirit” is also apparent in his acceptance of errors in the Bible.  While he held that Christ Jesus “does not lie or deceive” (Large Catechism, Sacrament of the Altar, 14 [in reference to the words of institution]), he did acknowledge that the Scriptures occasionally contain slight errors.[89]  The text of the prophecies had often fallen into confusion since they were first spoken and only written down by editors at a later time.  The Books of the Kings are more trustworthy and accurate than the Chronicles of the Kings.  Many of the reports about the same event in the gospels conflict with each other and cannot be harmonized.  Matthew wrongly attributed a quotation to Jeremiah instead of Zechariah.  As noted above, James and Hebrews contain theological errors.  Commenting on Galatians 1:12 Luther wrote:

The histories in the Scriptures are often concise and confused, so that they cannot be easily harmonized, as, for example, the denials of Peter and the history of Christ’s passion, etc.  Thus Paul is not reciting the entire history here.  Therefore I do not expend any labor or concern on harmonizing these things, but here I pay attention to Paul’s purpose and intention.[90]

“There are many passages in Holy Scripture that are contradictory according to the letters; but when that which motivates them is pointed out, everything is all right.”[91]

As noted above, Luther’s “critical” spirit also found expression in his writings about the Old Testament texts.  He excluded Esther and the Apocrypha from his list of authoritative texts.  In a sermon on how Christians should regard the writings of Moses, he simply states, “Now if anyone confronts you with Moses and his commandments, and wants to compel you to keep them, simply answer, ‘Go to the Jews with your Moses; I am no Jew.   Do not entangle me with Moses.  If I accept Moses in one respect (Paul tells the Galatians in chapter 5), then I am obligated to keep the entire law.’  For not one little period in Moses pertains to us.”[92]  This same critical spirit toward the law in Scripture also led Luther to recognize the historical contingency of at least some apostolic legal demands in the New Testament: the apostolic prohibition on eating blood (Acts 15:20) was no longer binding on himself or his fellow Germans.[93]

But someone might object, “Is not the whole Bible God’s Word?  How can you, Luther, set aside such huge portions of it?”  His answer was three-fold.  First, “the canon within the canon” (“what inculcates Christ”) is already found within the Scriptures themselves; he therefore did not bring this canonical criterion to the Bible from his own subjective experience or in the interest of defending an idiosyncratic or one-sided understanding of the gospel.[94]  Second, the important distinction between “the agreed-upon” biblical texts (the homolegoumena) and those that were “spoken against” (the antilegomena) was already made in the early church.  He was not the first to question the apostolicity of James, Jude, Hebrews, or Revelation (not to mention 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John!).[95]  And third, because the prophetic and apostolic Word of God was spoken to a specific time and set of circumstances, not everything in Scripture applies to one’s present situation.  In reference to the Mosaic texts, for example, Luther wrote: “Yes, it is all God’s Word.  But let God’s word be what it may, I must pay attention and know to whom God’s word is addressed.  You are still a long way from being the people with whom God spoke…God indeed speaks also to angels, wood, fish, birds, animals, and all creatures, but this does not make it pertain to me.  I should pay attention to that which applies to me, that which is said to me, in which God admonishes, drives, and requires something of me… Thus what God said to Moses by way of commandment is for the Jews only.”[96]  Apparently, the same was true for those apostolic customs that no longer fit the cultural scene of 16th-Century Saxony!

Luther’s Biblical “canon” (“rule,” “norm”) was thus larger and more catholic than most Protestant Bibles today, but also sharper and thus smaller than Scripture as a whole.[97]  Unlike Rome, the Lutheran Church, following Luther, has left the borders of the biblical canon uncertain.  What is certain is the center.  Luther’s “canon within the canon” thus centers on the evangelical witness to Jesus in both testaments.  The writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Paul and John, do this best.  Lesser biblical texts are subordinate to these central prophetic and apostolic witnesses precisely because the less authoritative texts obfuscate what ought to be clear testimony to the crucified and risen Christ, the clear means by which God has reconciled sinners to himself apart from human works.  This central element also allowed Luther to live with errors in the Bible.

(K) Luther’s Hermeneutical Principles

 Finally, Luther’s evangelical breakthrough also contributed to his refining of medieval principles for biblical interpretation.[98]

First, the literal, grammatical meaning is to be preferred to the allegorical.  As was noted above, the literal meaning was the historical sense that the scriptural words had in their original context and for their original readership.  The literal sense is the spiritual sense.  Allegorical interpretations of a given text are almost always “empty dreams” that stand “in no relation to the account and do not illuminate it.”[99]  Thus the traditional interpretation of 2 Cor. 3:6 was also set aside in favor of an historical reading that centered on the distinction between the law and the gospel.  While Luther occasionally set forth an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, even in late-career (e.g., in his Genesis commentary he treats the ark as an allegory of the church), he judged allegory to be an unreliable method that led to unpredictable results in the interpretations given by the fathers.  For Luther “the writers of the Scriptures intended to present history, not allegory, in their narratives.”[100]  “Beware of clumsy and common-place allegories…”[101]

Second, understanding Scripture is generally quite a simple matter.  The meaning that the Holy Spirit intends typically is no more than one, simple meaning, which is the historical, literal sense.  A fourfold meaning of Scripture gives way in Luther to a unitary meaning, which is the historical meaning, or in the apt expression of Pelikan, “the history of the people of God.”[102]  The “spiritual” meaning, the one God intends for God’s church, is not behind or beneath the actual words of Scripture, but the words themselves, since the actual prophetic and apostolic words, divinely inspired by the one Spirit, convey and proclaim the Word made flesh loud and clear.  God’s way of delivering Christ to us through both the Old and the New Testaments is up-front, straight-forward, and certain.  Thus even a humble maid or a child of nine can understand the Bible.  Such an assumption was inherent in the principle that guided his translation and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures:  “You must ask the mother at home, the children in the street and the common man in the market place, and see on their own lips how they speak, and translate accordingly, so that they understand it and realize you are speaking German to them.”[103]

Third, the clear passages of Scripture shed light on the less clear.  In other words, Scripture interprets itself (scriptura sui ipsius interpres).  Sound interpretation of Scripture, while faithful to the historical and philological sense of given words, must always understand particular passages in light of the Scriptural whole.  For Luther this “whole” is always centered on Christ.  The real meaning of any Scriptural passage only becomes clear in relation to the word about Christ:  “Others may follow more devious routes, and as though they were willfully fleeing from Christ, neglect this way of coming to him through the text [of Scripture].  But whenever I have a text which is a nut whose shell is too hard to crack, I throw it once against the Rock [Christ], and find the sweetest kernel.”[104]

Fourth, the Scriptures remain a closed book to those who do not have faith, to those who lack the experience to appreciate what the Holy Spirit preaches through Scripture.  The words of Scripture are addressed to living human beings who experience sin, the pangs of God’s law in the conscience, death, the power of the devil.  To such people the words of Scripture are spiritual words that bring life and health.  Said in perhaps a better way, the Scriptures are intended by God to serve as a means of grace for people who experience weal and woe, joy and guilt, life and death and new life.

These principles led Luther to profound insights into the meaning of Holy Scripture.  No one who reads Luther’s many commentaries and sermons can fail to be impressed by the vigor and profundity of much of his exegesis.  Where others are timid, Luther is bold and creative.  His exegesis connects with his day, with the knowledge of life that he possessed to the highest degree.  Like Augustine, Luther was a doctor of Holy Scripture and also a doctor of the human soul.  Not merely Protestant theologians (e.g., Ebeling, Bornkamm, Lohse), but even recent Roman Catholic historians acknowledge Luther’s importance in the history of biblical interpretation and the history of Christian theology.

Yet, as Pelikan has aptly noted, “a virtuoso is often a failure as a composer—and worse than a failure as a member of an orchestra.  Many of the features which we find most attractive and powerful in Luther’s exegesis are also the ones which we find most difficult to follow.”[105]  Many of Luther’s specific exegetical positions are unconvincing to contemporary Bible scholars and theologians, and for good reasons.  In many ways he remained a child of his medieval time.  Thus he found reference to the Messiah in Old Testament passages where few contemporary scholars would find him today.  Although Luther practiced a kind of “nascent form of historical criticism,” he essentially shared a pre-modern worldview that is revealed in all of his commentaries.[106]  “Luther lived in the pre-Copernican world.  Copernicus’ work appeared in print in 1543, and Luther, then an aging man, did not feel compelled to give up the view of the world in which he had grown up and which he found confirmed by the Bible.”[107]  This worldview necessarily shaped his interpretations of the biblical texts that dealt with cosmological and other scientific matters.  He accepted as true the geocentric cosmology he read of in the Bible, that the earth is founded on a solid foundation (e.g., 1 Sam. 2:8), that the earth does not move, and that the sun and all other heavenly bodies do move around the earth (Josh. 10:12ff.).  The pursuit of “the historical sense” also led Luther to other exegetical conclusions that would later be shaken by scientific discovery.  For example, the first volume in the American Edition of Luther’s Works (from Luther’s 1535-1545 commentary on Genesis) contains the following exegetical conclusions: When Moses spoke of six days, he must have meant six literal days (when most other theologians in the history of the church have attempted to accommodate these “days” to philosophical and scientific scholarship); had there been no historical fall into sin, conception would have been easier, there would have been no pain in child-birthing, human excrement would not stink.  “Before sin the sun was brighter, the water purer, the trees more fruitful, and the fields more fertile”; wild and noxious animals and plants were the result of the fall of Adam.  A little further along in his Genesis commentary, he reveals his perplexity about the sanitary conditions on the ark!  Many, many other examples of Luther’s “outdated” exegesis could be given, but “even if one is obliged to question [his] exegesis, one does so in the name of Luther’s own exegetical principles and practice!”[108]

The one who reads Luther’s 16th-Century exegetical reflections today will likely find himself or herself laughing, or at least chuckling, at some of the master’s remarks, but there are weightier reasons for recognizing the historical and cultural distance that separates Luther from the twenty-first century.  Many of today’s theological problems were not his, just as many of his are not ours.  Put slightly differently, evangelical preachers today cannot merely repeat his exegesis or preach his sermons without missing the mark God intends for teachers and preachers to hit today.  Nonetheless, Luther’s 16th-Century gospel-insights cannot help but be relevant to the contemporary interpreter/teacher/preacher who shares the same task that he had for his age: to understand the Holy Scriptures for the sake of preaching the gospel to real people.

Luther’s final words, written on a scrap of paper two days before he died, ought to give pause to everyone who is called to take up that task:

No one can understand Virgil in the Bucolics and the Georgics unless he has been a shepherd or a farmer for five years.  No one can understand Cicero in his letters—so I feel—unless he has spent forty years in a prominent office of state.  No one should suppose that he has even an inkling of an understanding of the authors of Holy Scripture, unless he has governed the churches for a hundred years, together with the prophets.  Thus John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles represent an immense miracle.  “Do not lay hands upon the divine Aeneid, but bow down and honor its tracks” [the Latin poet Statius].  We are beggars.  That is true.[109]


[1]Already more than fifty years ago Hermann Sasse (1895-1976) identified this doctrine as the most disputed one within the Lutheran Church.  See his unpublished letter, “On the Doctrine De Scriptura Sacra,” Letter Addressed to Lutheran Pastors, No. 14 (August 1950).  I am grateful to Pr. John Hannah for providing me with a copy of this letter.  While Sasse was critical of the inroads that Protestant Liberalism had made into the Lutheran Church (e.g., minimizing the Scriptures as the written Word of God), he was especially critical of the inroads that Fundamentalism had made among American Lutherans (e.g., holding to the inerrancy of the Bible with regard to all matters it treats, even indirectly).  His description of the Lutheran Church at that time still rings true today.  See also his essay, “Luther and the Word of God,” Accents in Luther’s Theology, ed. Heino Kadai (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 47-97.  While Sasse is not as explicitly critical of “inerrancy” in this later essay, there appears to be no material difference between it and the earlier letter with regard to the fully human character of the biblical texts.  More recently, Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has endorsed a proposal by Duane Larson, president of Wartburg Seminary, that would call for an ecumenical council on the Christian interpretation of Scripture.  In a letter to Bishop Hanson, President Larson asserted that Christianity has a global identity crisis because the authority and interpretation of the Bible have not been addressed ecumenically.

[2]The problem of interpretation in Christian theology is usually addressed in a sub-discipline of systematic theology called “hermeneutics” (from the Greek verb, “hermeneuein,” “to interpret”).  The word “hermeneutics” is derived from the name of the Greek god, Hermes, who was the son of Zeus and Maia, the daughter of the Titan Atlas.  The name “Hermes” itself appears to be derived from the early Greek word, “herma,” which means “a pile of stones set up to mark a boundary.”  So Hermes is the god of boundaries and roads.  His main boundary is the one that divided the gods and human beings.  His role was to cross that boundary and deliver and translate messages from the gods for human beings.  Hence the Greek word for “interpreter” is a “hermeneus.”  Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation.  In a Christian context hermeneutics refers narrowly to the art of understanding Scripture.  More broadly, it refers to the process of understanding the Christian tradition and all that it contains—other texts, images, liturgical forms, architecture, icons.  Hermeneutics also then entails the specific principles which one utilizes toward that goal of understanding. For a good overview of how the Bible has been interpreted within the church, see Robert M. Grant and David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.  A classic introduction to traditional Lutheran hermeneutical principles is Herbert T. Mayer,Interpreting the Holy Scriptures (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967).  For more recent analyses of theological hermeneutics, see Francis Watson, Text, Church, and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); idem, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); and Matthew Becker, The Self-Giving God and Salvation History: The Trinitarian Theology of Johannes von Hofmann (New York: T & T Clark, 2004), 59-88, 120-31.

[3]See Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976).

[4]In this essay the word “evangelical” has the meaning that it had for Luther, namely, “oriented to the good news or good message” about the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-8).  The word “evangelical” is originally based on the Greek word, “euangelia,” which means “good report” or “good message.”

[5]The standard scholarly biography of Luther is the magisterial three-volume work by Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, trans. James Schaaf (Philadelphia and Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985-93).  One-volume works that are also important include Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther in Mid-Career, ed. Karin Bornkamm and trans. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983); James Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1986); Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, trans. Robert Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); Martin Marty, Martin Luther (New York: Viking, 2004); Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990); and David Steinmetz, Luther in Context (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).  The best one-volume treatment of Luther’s theology is Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).  See also the essays in Donald McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).  Classic if now dated studies of Luther’s theology that still prove useful include Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966) and Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, trans. R. A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970).  The latter is particularly good on the early Luther’s principles of Scriptural interpretation.

[6]The literature on this question is extensive, but see especially: Oswald Bayer, “Luther as an Interpreter of Holy Scripture,” The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, ed. Donald McKim (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 73-85; Heinz Bluhm, “Bedeutung und Eigenart der Lutherbibel,” Concordia Theological Monthly 33 (1962), 587-94; idem, Martin Luther—Creative Translator (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965); Heinrich Bornkamm, Das Wort Gottes bei Luther (Munich: Kaiser, 1933); idem, Luther and the Old Testament, trans. Eric Gritsch and Ruth Gritsch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969); Gerhard Ebeling, Evangelische Evangelienauslegung, 3rd ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1991); Werner Fuehrer, Das Wort Gottes in Luthers Theologie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984); Brian Gerrish, “The Word of God and the Words of Scripture: Luther and Calvin on Biblical Authority,” The Old Protestantism and the New (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 51-68; Kenneth Hagen, Luther’s Approach to Scripture as Seen in His ‘Commentaries’ on Galatians 1519-1538 (Tübingen: Mohr, 1993); Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 187-95; Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther the Expositor (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959); and Edward Schroeder, “Is There a Lutheran Hermeneutic?,” The Lively Function of the Gospel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966), 81-97.  The influence of these works will be visible throughout this essay.

[7]All citations are from D. Martin  Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Hermann Böhlau Nachfolger, 1883–), abbreviated as WA.  The title and initial year of publication are given in brackets.  Whenever possible, the matching reference in the American Edition is also given: Luther’s Works, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-86), abbreviated as LW.  The companion volume to this edition is Pelikan’s study, Luther the Expositor, cited in note 4.

[8]WA (Table-talk) 1/1, 16, 13 [Veit Dietrich, 1531]; LW 54:7.  To understand Luther’s theology properly one must keep the development of his life, his experiences, and his theological and political conflicts in view when reading his writings and sermons.

[9]WA 47, 30, 95 [Sermon, 1538]; LW 22: 366.

[10]WA 30/3, 388, 6ff [Commentary on the Alleged Imperial Diet, 1531]; LW 34:104.

[11]WA (Letters) 1, 17 (No. 5), 40-44 [1509].

[12]Ebeling, Luther, 95-96.

[13]For the following, see Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 233-35.

[14]Salus extra ecclesiam non est” (Cyprian of Carthage [d. 258], Epistle 73, 21, 2).  In my essay “church” will be left uncapitalized when I am referring to “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Christ.”  “Church” is capitalized when it refers to a specific confessional or denominational group, e.g., Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, etc.

[15]Ozment, ibid., 234.  See also Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), 175.

[16]For Trutfetter’s theology, see Brecht, Martin Luther, 1:29, 34-35.

[17]WA 40/1, 589, 8 [Large Commentary on Galatians, 1531/35]; LW 26:387.

[18]“What must be realized is that in spite of the different ways in which it is applied, the recurrent word ‘alone’ expresses a fundamental theological understanding: that whenever anything is said about God, it must be made fully evident that it is God who is being discussed.  But if God is to be spoken of at all, then it is necessary for God’s sake to rely on God alone, on Christ alone, on the Scripture alone, on the word alone, and on faith alone; that is, one must exclude everything which prevents God from being God, and which gives an opportunity of speaking of theological matters in an untheological or pseudo-theological way” (Ebeling, Luther, 246).

[19]Cf. Ebeling’s discussion of these three solas, Luther, 251-67.

[20]Augustine, City of God, 11, 3.

[21]Duns Scotus, Commentary on the Sentences, as quoted in Reinhold Seeberg, Textbook of the History of Doctrines, trans. Charles Hay, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954), 2:149.

[22]Augustine, Against the “Foundation Letter” of the Manichees, 5 in Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna, 1866–), 25:197.

[23]Quoted in Gerrish, “The Word of God and the Words of Scripture,” 53.

[24]Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 154.

[25]WA (Letters) 1, 356, 7 (no. 159) [1519].

[26]Gerrish, “The Word of God and the Words of Scripture,” 54.

[27]Conciliarists argued that the authority of church councils is above that of any bishop, including the bishop of Rome.

[28]WA 2, 289, 31-35 [Leipzig Disputation, 1519].

[29]WA 6, 508, 19 [Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520]; LW 36:29.

[30]WA 7, 838, 3-8 [Diet at Worms, 1521]; LW 32:112.  Cf. Brecht, Martin Luther, 1:460.

[31]Richard John Neuhaus, who is a former LCMS and ELCA pastor and now a Roman Catholic priest, has occasionally chided Lutherans and other Protestants for the negative results (e.g., sectarianism, individualism, novelty of doctrine and practice) of their supposed “sola Scriptura” position.  In an essay that partly explains his move from the Church of the Augsburg Confession to the Roman Church, Neuhaus writes, “From my boyhood intuitions as an ecclesial Christian, it seemed self-evident that, if God intended to reveal any definite truths for the benefit of humankind, and if Jesus intended a continuing community of discipleship, then some reliable means would be provided for the preservation and transmission of such truths through the centuries. Catholics believe that God did provide such reliable means by giving the apostles and their successors, the bishops, authority to teach in His name and by promising to be with them forever. The teaching of the apostles and of the apostolic churches, securely grounded in the biblical Word of God, continues to this day, and will continue to the end of time. Catholics believe that, under certain carefully prescribed circumstances, the pope and the whole body of bishops are able to teach with infallibility. That is a word that frightens many, but I don’t think it should. It means that the Church is indefectible, that we have God’s promise that He will never allow the Church to definitively defect from the truth, to fall into apostasy” (Richard John Neuhaus, “How I Became the Catholic I Was,” First Things [April 2002]).  Much could be stated in response to this position, but space only allows a couple of observations.  That the teaching of the apostles is securely grounded in the biblical Word of God does not imply that bishops, including the bishop of Rome, are incapable of committing theological and ecclesial errors against that biblical Word, under any circumstance.  The sole reliable means and sole authority for preserving and transmitting the truths of God’s Word rest in the biblical Word alone, though of course the biblical Word is never alone in actual practice.  Every human being is unreliable when it comes to preserving and passing along the truth of God’s Word.  This human unreliability necessitated the development of the biblical canon in the first place, to serve as an external norm for the church’s hierarchy (which was also developing at the same time).  Furthermore, even the apostle Peter defected from the truth of the gospel and needed to be corrected by the lowly apostle Paul (Gal. 2)!  While one might argue that perhaps Peter’s defection was not “definitive” (after all, we don’t have his side of the story!), it does raise an actual situation wherein an apostle committed a theological error and needed to be corrected by another apostle.  And it wasn’t the first time Peter’s theology and practice needed correcting!  If this potential for error was actualized by the apostle Peter, what is to keep other sinful Christians (including bishops who fill Peter’s seat) from actualizing additional theological errors?  If one answers, “the abiding presence of the risen Christ and his Spirit will keep this Church free from defecting from the truth,” one must simply note the historical record of this Church and its hierarchy.  Ockham and Luther were not the first in the history of the church to highlight the specific theological errors that popes and Church councils had actually made and promulgated.

[32]Lohse and Pelikan stress the ecclesial character and context of Luther’s exegesis.

[33]Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 127.

[34]Cf. Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 75-77.

[35]Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles [1537], VIII, 3.  “The papacy, too, is nothing but enthusiasm, for the pope boasts that ‘all laws are in the shrine of his heart,’ and he claims that whatever he decides and commands in his churches is spirit and law, even if it is above and contrary to the Scriptures or spoken Word” (ibid., VIII, 4).

[36]Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 191.

[37]Neuhaus’ argument essentially follows that of Erasmus.

[38]WA 7, 650, 21-29 [Answer to the… Book of Goat Emser, 1521]; Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1930), 3:350.

[39]WA 7, 97, 23-24 [Assertion against the Bull, 1520]; cited in Lohse, Martin Luther, 157.  Sadly, many in the LCMS and other church bodies want their church leaders and officers to tell them the “official” meaning of a given passage of Scripture.  How often has one not recently heard something like the following:  “Well, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations [LCMS] tells us this is the meaning of this Scripture passage…”  Or, “The Synod in convention has decided that this passage or these sets of passages mean…, and that interpretation is official, authoritative, binding, and final…”  Or, “Our church body has always understood this passage to mean…”  When C. F. W. Walther (1811-1887) gave his first presidential address (1848) to the synod that would become the LCMS, he clearly stated that the only authorities the members of the synod have are “God’s word and persuading.”  This non-coercive view of ecclesial authority keeps that authority centered on the perspicuous and self-authenticating Word and not on a sometimes-erring, humanly-devised synod or institutional Church (though, of course, one’s interpretation of Scripture and the “persuading,” if necessary, that follows, properly occur in the church and for the sake of the church, its faith, and its practices).

[40]WA 18, 606, 29 [On the Bondage of the Will, 1525]; LW 33:26.

[41]Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 195.

[42]See Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” 64.

[43]WA 1, 507, 34ff. [Decem praecepta Wittenbergensi praedicata populo, 1518]; Cf. Ebeling, Luther, 97.

[44]WA 35, 457, 4-7 [Hymns, 1529]; cf. LBW 228, st. 4.

[45]Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 60. Cf. ibid., 167-73.

[46]“To undo the distortion and to restore the proper relation of Word and Sacrament, Luther and the other Reformers called upon a familiar formula from St. Augustine, according to which the Sacraments were the ‘visible Word of God.’  This formula suited their purposes very well, because it summarized the statement of the apostle: ‘As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’  The motif of the visible Word thus became a primary mark of Protestant sacramental thought, and it still is” (Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 219).

[47]WA 7, 50, 38; 7, 51, 12-17 [On the Freedom of the Christian, 1520]; LW 31:345-46.  “There is in Luther’s writings very little speculation about the inner life of the Holy Trinity, which had been a favorite subject among theologians.  He had surprisingly little to say even about Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity apart from Jesus Christ in the flesh” (Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 52-53).

[48]WA 43, 103, 11-12 [Lectures on Genesis, 1535-45]; LW 3:318.

[49]WA 18, 606, 11ff [On the Bondage of the Will, 1525]; LW 33:25.

[50]Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 67.

[51]WA 16, 366, 17ff [How Christians Should Regard Moses, 1525]; LW 35: 162.

[52]Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” 63.

[53]WA (German Bible), 12, 5-8 [Preface to Bible, 1545]; LW 35:236.

[54]Cf. WA 6, 209, 24-30 [On Good Works, 1520]; LW 44:30.

[55]Lohse, Martin Luther, 157.

[56]WA 40/1, 526, 21ff [Large Commentary on Galatians, 1531/35]; LW 26:342.

[57]In addition to the four or five principal “alones,” Ebeling finds Luther’s use of the term, “simul” (“at the same time”) distinctive of Luther’s mature theology.  Cf. Ebeling, Luther, 247.

[58]WA 7, 502, 34 [Sermon, 1521]

[59]WA 40/1, 207, 17 [Large Commentary on Galatians, 1531/35]; LW 26:115.

[60]WA 39/1, 361, 1-4 [First Disputation against the Antinomians, 1537].

[61]Lohse, Martin Luther, 158-59.  Lohse’s statement elsewhere that the law and gospel in Luther’s theology are not two distinct words of God is contradicted by Luther’s own statement in his sermon, “How Christians Should Regard Moses” (1525) and in many statements in his 1531/35 commentary on Galatians.  While the two words have their unity in God, the distinction between them remains sharp in truly evangelical preaching.

[62]Ebeling, Luther, 113.  See also Oswald Beyer, “Luther as Interpreter of Holy Scripture,” The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, 73-85; and Mark Mattes, The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).  To focus so “narrowly” on law/gospel may seem awfully reductive and doctrinaire, but the realm of thought to which such a distinction opens one is really quite immense, namely, the whole of human experience.

[63]WA 18, 76, 2ff. [Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525]; LW 40:92.

[64]WA 16, 372, 16ff [How Should Christians Regard Moses, 1525]; LW 35:164-65.

[65]WA 2, 453, 2ff. [Commentary on Galatians, 1519]; LW 27:164.

[66]WA 39/1, 540, 10-12 [Third Disputation against the Antinomians, 1538].  Cited in Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 193.

[67]WA 16, 392, 14-15 [How Christians Should Regard Moses, 1525]; LW 35:173.

[68]WA 10/1.1, 626 [Kirchenpostille, 1522]; LW 52:206.

[69]WA 10/1.2, 48, 5 [Kirchenpostille, 1522].

[70]Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 64.

[71]WA 4, 9, 18 [Dictata on the Psalms, 1513-15].

[72]WA 10/1.1, 17, 6ff [Kirchenpostille, 1522].

[73]WA 10/1. 1, 627, 1-3 [Kirchenpostille, 1522]; LW 52:206.  Cf. Ebeling, Luther, 132.

[74]WA 10/1.1, 626, 15-20 [Kirchenpostille, 1522]; LW 52:206.

[75]WA 10/3, 18, 8-19 [Sermon, 1522]; LW 51:77.

[76]WA 48, 31, 4 [Sprüche aus dem Alten Testament]; cited in Gerrish, “The Word of God and the Words of Scripture,” 55.

[77]WA 50, 657, 25ff [Preface to the German Writings, 1539]; LW 34:284.

[78]WA 40/3, 254, 23 [Lectures on the Psalms, 1532/33/40].

[79]“Luther, however, in contrast to the early orthodox theologians of the sixteenth century, did not develop any doctrine of verbal inspiration.  Quite the opposite is true.  For example, Luther was openly critical of the substance of certain portions of Scripture…” (Lohse, Martin Luther, 155-56).  John Michael Reu (1869-1943) attempted to argue against this position, recently articulated by Lohse, but Reu’s evidence has proved inconclusive at best.  See John Michael Reu, Luther and the Scriptures (Columbus: Wartburg Press, 1944).  Lohse’s summary of Luther’s understanding of inspiration reflects the best of contemporary scholarship on this question.

[80]WA (German Bible) 7, 385, 125ff [Prefaces to the New Testament, 1522]; LW 35:396.  This comment is made in Luther’s preface to the books of James and Jude in his 1522 German translation of the New Testament.  Although Luther toned down some of his most critical prefatory remarks after 1534, even later he still spoke of the “really main books.”  “The Lutheran Church cannot subscribe infallibility to a council.  So there remains the possibility of error in the judgment of the church as to what is the written Word of God and what is not.  The fact that a book is inspired can be believed only on the basis of an internal criterion.  This was for Luther the famous Was Christum treibet.  A Biblical book that does not have Christ crucified for its content is not canonical in the strictest sense even if it is in the Bible and read in the church” (Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” 87).

[81]WA 39/1, 47, 3ff. [Theses on Faith and Law, 1535]; LW 34:112.

[82]WA 40/1, 459; [Large Commentary on  Galatians, 1531/35]; LW 26:295.

[83]Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 81.

[84]WA (German Bible) 6, 10, 9ff [Preface to the New Testament, 1522]; LW 35:361-62.

[85]WA (German Bible) 7, 3, 1ff. [Preface to Romans, 1522]; LW 35:365.

[86]WA (German Bible) 7, 344, 1ff [Preface toHebrews, 1522]; LW 35:394-95.  Of course Luther’s Reformation discovery occurred in part while he was lecturing on Hebrews in 1519.  Those lectures demonstrate that Luther did find the gospel in that book, particularly in its assertion that Christ’s sacrifice was “once and for all” (Hebrews 9:26).

[87]WA (German Bible) 7, 385, 1ff. [Preface to Jude and James, 1522]; LW 35:395-98.  “Some day I will use Jimmy to heat my stove” (WA [Table-talk] 5, No. 5854, 382).

[88]WA (German Bible) 7, 404, 1ff [Preface to Revelation, 1522]; LW 35:398-99.

[89]Reinhold Seeberg provides a representative list of errors in Holy Scripture with which Luther wrestled.  See Seeberg, Textbook of the History of Doctrines, 2:300-301.

[90]WA 40/1, 126, 20ff. [Large Commentary on Galatians, 1531/35]; LW 26:62.

[91]WA 50, 548, 14ff. [On the Councils and the Church, 1539]; LW 41:54.  “Historical oversights and errors in the sacred writings disturbed Luther but little.  They did not affect the real grounds of his confidence” (Seeberg, Textbook of the History of Doctrines, 2:301).  See also Sasse’s solid critique of the Orthodox notion of “biblical inerrancy,” in “On the Doctrine De Scriptura Sacra,” 22-26.  I shall return to this important matter in the second part of my essay.

[92]WA 16, 375, 10ff. [How Christians Should Regard Moses, 1525]; LW 35:166.

[93]WA 50, 526, 11ff. [On the Councils and the Church, 1539]; LW 41:28.

[94]See Carl Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 2.

[95]Luther cannot therefore be favorably compared to Marcion (fl. 150), whose Gnostic understanding of God led him to reject the Old Testament and to form a New Testament canon that only included an edited version of Luke’s gospel and the central letters of Paul.  Unlike Marcion, Luther did not eliminate books from his Bible.  However, he did follow the catholic custom of allowing the central homolegoumena to take priority over the peripheral antilegomena.

[96]WA 16, 384, 13ff. [How Christians Should Regard Moses, 1525]; LW 35:170-72.  Still, Luther does not totally reject the Pentateuch or other parts of the Bible that contain material that is not intended for today’s hearers.  While he dismisses the commandments given to the people ofIsrael (“they are dead and gone”), he urges his hearers to follow a Mosaic commandment freely if it is suitable for some personal or corporate good.  Secondly, there are the promises about Christ that one finds in the Mosaic texts (e.g., Genesis 3:15; 12:3; 22:18; Deuteronomy 18:15-16).  Finally, one should read Moses for the beautiful examples of faith and of love and the examples of unbelief that are found therein.  (Luther, of course, knew nothing of a documentary hypothesis to explain the historical formation of the Pentateuch and its myriad laws and textual traditions.)

[97]The Roman Church did not have an undisputed scriptural canon prior to April 8, 1546, when the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent officially defined it as the text of the Vulgate.

[98]The following summary of Luther’s hermeneutical principles takes its orientation from Gerrish, “The Word of God and the Words of Scripture,” 57ff.

[99]WA, 42, 173, 30ff. [Commentary on Genesis, 1535-46]; LW 1:233.

[100]Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 89.

[101]WA 31/2, 243, 20 [Lectures on Isaiah, 1527-30]; LW 16:327.

[102]Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 107.

[103]WA 30/2, 637, 19-22 [Letter, 1530]

[104]WA 3, 12, 32-35 [Dictata on the Psalms,1513-15]; LW 10:6; cf. Ebeling, Luther, 104.

[105]Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 256.

[106]Karl Holl, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte: Luther (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1928), 1:574.  While Sasse is correct to note that many of our historical problems (e.g., the problem of Christian faith and the natural sciences) “were not within the horizon of [Luther’s] theological thought,” Luther’s critical spirit and his awareness of certain historical problems in the biblical texts do mark him as a most important forerunner to the rise of historical-critical interpretation of the Bible.  For Sasse’s rejection of Luther as historical-critical forerunner, see Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” 84.  For weightier evidence that counters Sasse’s opinion, see Seeberg, op. cit., and also Werner Georg Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), 20-26.  Another good, if brief, introduction to historical criticism of the Bible is Edgar Krentz, The Historical Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).  A more recent and more complete survey is by Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture: Baruch Spinoza to Brevard Childs, 2d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[107]Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” 84.

[108]Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, 190.  “Quite unexpectedly, however, the historical exegesis of the Genesis accounts by the Reformers did open the way for a reconsideration of all these conclusions.  If one is to make sense of these accounts as an accurate record of what the universe is like and of how it came to be, one must turn to other sources to supplement the scanty information in the Bible.  Despite his well-publicized remark about ‘that fool’ Copernicus, who was trying to ‘turn all of astronomy upside down,’ Luther insisted that the study of the natural world, like the study of law or politics, had a technical autonomy and was to be permitted to carry out its research according to its own canons” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Intellectual [New York: Harper and Row, 1965], 58.  Cf. Brian Gerrish, “The Reformation and the Rise of Science: Luther, Calvin, and Copernicus,” The Old Protestantism and the New, 163-78.

[109]WA 48, 241, 2ff [1546]; cf. WA (Table-Talk) 5, nos. 5468, 5477.  The exact text has not been preserved.  See Brecht, Martin Luther, 3:374-75.  We might change Luther’s famous aphorism only slightly: Experience alone makes the interpreter and preacher!

Facebook Twitter Email

2 thoughts on “Holy Scripture in the Thought of Martin Luther

  1. Thank you so very much for this article. It gave me a clearer perspective on the myriad of forces that impacted Luther’s life and writings. I am 76 years old and until about six months ago was a lifelong member of The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. The break came when I openly criticized the church’s stand on the Lord’s Supper’s ability to forgive sins. I believe that only faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection has that power. How is this a sin? How does this violate Luther’s concept that the Bible is all about Christ?

  2. Pingback: A New Catholic Commentary On Holy Scripture 1969 – mikileak.info

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *