Martin Luther and Scripture
© Scott David Foutz
This paper will briefly overview Luther's understanding and treatment of Scripture. Luther's view of the authority of Scripture will be examined first, in relation to Ockham, the papacy, the councils, the fathers, and reason. Secondly, Luther's hermeneutic will be given. And lastly, mention will be made of Luther's Christocentic understanding of Scripture.
Authority of Scripture
In several ways, Luther's treatment of Scripture was merely an extension of the medieval understanding. The issues of inspiration and validity of the Word of God changed little, if at all, as they passed into Luther's reforming hands. William of Ockham, a medieval thinker who greatly influenced Luther's early academic development, argued frequently for the sole authority of the Word as opposed to natural insight or rational ascent to an understanding of the divine. Luther likewise carried forward much of the medieval understanding of the Word without confrontation from his contemporaries, whether Erasmus, the pope, or the scholastics, since all generally held the same presuppositions regarding the basic role of Scripture as a reliable authority.
But where Luther radically differed from all others was the degree to which he was willing to view Scripture as the ultimate authority. The general understanding had been that the authority of Scripture, though genuine, was supplemented by various elements claimed by the Roman Church. Ockham, for example, although a proponent of the authority of Scripture, presupposed a necessary link between the authority of Scripture and that of the Roman Church. In the preface of his Compendium Errorum Johannis Papae XXII (c. 1334-8), Ockham includes this disclaimer: "If I should have written something in this work which is contrary to Holy Writ or the teachings of the saints, or the assertions of the most holy Church, I submit myself and my words to correction by the Catholic Church - not the Church of malignants, or heretics, or schismatics and their protectors." (Quoted in Wood, 120)
But over time, Luther shed the assumption that a transgression against the authortiy of the Church implied such against the Word, and vica versa. For Luther, Sola Scriptura would become the guiding and primary principle of his reformation. Luther's first break with the Roman Church came during the Leipzig Debate (July 1519) in which he declared agreement with John Hus, who had been condemned 100 years earlier by the Council of Constance. By rejecting the authority of such councils, Luther had prepared the way for his applications of the sole authority of Scripture. Luther found in Galatians 1:8 that no created being is greater than the Word of God, neither Paul, nor angels, nor any other man. This, therefore, would also include the pope himself, who claimed to be the sole interpreter and arbiter of the Word. Luther viewed the papal claim as, "the accursed lie that the pope is the arbiter of Scripture or that the Church has authority over Scripture." (Luther's Works 26.57; Q. in Wood, 123) Luther elsewhere wrote, "The pope boasts that the Christian Church is above the Word of God. No, this is not true! We must be pupils and not aspire to be masters, for the pupil must not be above his master." (LW. 23.231; Q. in Ibid.) Also, "Years ago all the pope's pronouncements were called Christian truth and articles of faith, yet this was simply based on man. And then it happened that people sank into the abyss and lost everything that pertains to the Word of God and Christ. Therefore, we must now declare: 'Pope, council, and doctors, we will not believe you; but we will believe in the Divine Word." (LW. 23.297; Q. in Ibid.)
One of the arguments put forth by the Church to defend its claims to authority over Scripture dealt with the Church's role in the canonization of the Word. Since the Church ultimately decided how many gospels there were, and what books were to be included or excluded, the Church therefore, it claimed, was evidentally superior to the Word. Luther attacked this argument by pointing to the fact that one's recognition or approval of the truth does not imply superiority over it. "I approve Scripture. Therefore I am superior to Scripture. John the Baptist acknowledges and confesses Christ. He points to Him with his finger. Therefore he is superior to Christ. The Church approves Christian faith and doctrine. Therefore the Church is superior to them." (LW. 26.57; Q. in Wood, 124)
The Church's use of the Fathers and councils to enforce non-Scriptural elements also fell under Luther's scrutiny. To these, Luther held the Word as the means of determining their accuracy and applicability. On the need for conciliar decisions to be grounded in the authority of the Word, Luther writes, "When anything contrary to Scripture is decreed in a council, we ought to believe Scripture rather than the council. Scripture is our court of appeal and bulwark; with it we can resist even an angel from heaven - as St. Paul commands in Galatians 1(:8) - let alone a pope and a council." (LW. 32.81; Q. in Wood, 126) Luther did believe that much of the conciliar decisions did contain truth, but only in so far as they correspond with the written Word. Luther viewed the fathers in similar fashion. Although Luther quotes the fathers frequently throughout his works, he nevertheless holds their teachings up to the light of Scripture in order to determine their truthfulness. This stance caused some to accuse Luther of rejecting all the past teachers of the Church. Luther denied this accusation, writing, "I do not reject them. But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they have erred, as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they give me evidence for their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred." (LW. 32.11; Q. in Wood, 125) Luther determined to follow the practice of Augustine in these matters, who in a letter to Jerome wrote, "I have learned to do only those books that are called the Holy Scriptures the honor of believing firmly that none of their writes has ever erred. All others I so read as not to hold what they say to be truth unless they prove it to me by Holy Scripture or clear reason." (Epistolae, 82; Q. in LW. 32.189; Q. in Wood, 125)
Even the creeds of the Church had to first pass the test of Scriptural authority before Luther would be willing to admit their authority. Luther did indeed accept the creeds, not because the councils of the Church had accepted them, but because he believed they conformed to the teaching of Scripture. As in the case of Scriptural inspiration and validity, Luther here does not venture far from the medieval Church in its acceptance of the creeds. But where Luther does distinguish himself is in his understanding of the Church's significance in all of this. Luther strips papal self-claims to authority and significance from medieval Christianity, leaving a reformed Church which operates solely on the principle of Sola Scripture. Yet at the same time, it must be pointed out that Luther does not strip medieval Christianity from reformation Christianity. That is to say, Luther does not leave the Church with nothing but the Bible. Much of the tradition and historical theology is affirmed by Luther, and maintained in his reformation of the Church. Although Luther subordinates the Church, councils, fathers, creeds and reason to the Word, he does not in any way seek to remove these elements from playing an active and crucial role in the Church.
Not only did the Roman Church, the councils and fathers fall under the sole authority of Scripture, but so did the entire realm of human reason. Luther continually exhorted his listeners and readers to elevate Scripture to the point of becoming a guide for living. "Among Christians the rule is not to argue or investigate, not to be a smart aleck or a rationalistic know-it-all; but to hear, believe, and persevere in the Word of God, through which alone we obtain whatever knowledge we have of God and divine things. We are not to determine out of ourselves what we must believe about him, but to hear and learn it from him." (LW. 13.237; Q. in Wood, 120) Scripture is the rule of life for the Church. Scripture allows even the most insignificant of men to discern between truth and error: "A Christian soon smells from afar which is God's and which is human teaching. He sees from afar that the schismatic spirits are speaking their own human mind and opinion. They cannot escape me, Dr. Luther. I can soon judge and say whether their doctrine is of God or of man; for I am doing the will of God, who sent Christ. I have given ear to none but God's Word, and say: 'Dear Lord Christ, I want to be thy pupil, and I believe thy Word. I will close my eyes and surrender to thy Word.' Thus He makes me a free nobleman, yes, a fine doctor and teacher, who is captive to the Word of God, and is able to judge the errors and the faith of the pope, Turks, Jews and Sacramentarians. They must fall, and I tread them underfoot. I have become a doctor and a judge who judges correctly." (LW. 23.230; Q. in Wood, 121) For Luther, therefore, Scripture became the cornerstone of all knowledge of God. The Word provided the sole foundation for both individuals and institutionalized Church.
Interpretation of Scripture
Having thus established Scripture as the sole authority for the Church, Luther then needed to reckon with the manner in which Scripture was to be handled. How does one go about interpreting the Scriptures? Up through the middle ages, the popular hermeneutic employed the fourfold method of interpretation, of which the allegorical method had gradually become the predominant approach. The allegorical method allowed the commentator to seek hidden or deeper meanings in the text by seeking parallels between the passage and either history or concepts. Inevitably, this led to wild speculations and often meaningless applications of the Scriptural passages under consideration. Luther likewise initially employed this allegorical method, as seen in his admission, "When I was a monk, I was an adept at allegory. I allegorized everything. But after lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans, I came to have some knowledge of Christ. For therein I saw that Christ is no allegory, and learned to know what Christ was." (Q. in Wood, 165) From the time of his understanding Christ through his encounter with Romans, Luther turned to what he referred to as the "grammatical historical sense" or "literal sense", although he expressed his displeasure with the latter phrase due to its easily being misunderstood and ridiculed by opponents. On the importance of the literal understanding, Luther writes, "The Christian reader should make it his first task to seek out the literal sense, as they call it. For it alone is the whole substance of faith and Christian theology; it alone holds its ground in trouble and trial." (LW. 9.24; Q. in Wood, 164) Luther saw this hermeneutic principle as a means of rescuing the meaning of Scripture from the manipulations of the allegorists and spiritualists. The individual truly interested in the meaning of the text, "should take pains to have one definite and simple understanding of Scripture and not to be a wanderer and vagabond, like the rabbis, the Scholastic theologians, and the professors of law, who are always toiling with ambiguities." (LW. 8.209; Q. in Ibid.)
Yet, although Luther warned against the subjective and ambiguous interpretations of the allegorists and spiritualists, he did not intend to reduce Scripture to mere grammatical sentences. For in Luther's understanding of Scripture, the Holy Spirit played a crucial role in the interpretive process. Without the participation of the Holy Spirit's work within the reader, Scripture would yield none of its teachings. The man who approaches the Word armed with reason alone will find a virtually empty book. Luther writes, "He will never smell or taste a spark or a tittle of the true meaning of a passage or a word of Scripture. He may make much noise and even imagine that he is improving on Holy Scripture, but he will never succeed." (LW. 23.230; Q. in Wood, 159) For Luther, no amount of scholarship or rational scrutiny will cause the Scripture to yield its fruit. Since the Scripture has its origin in the Divine, its meaning also resides in the Divine. Understanding of the Word must start with Divine initiative: "If God does not open and explain Holy Writ, no one can understand it; it will remain a closed book, enveloped in darkness." (LW. 13.17; Q. in Wood, 160).
The Lord "opens and explains" His Word through the work of the Holy Spirit within the reader. The Holy Spirit, being spiritual, rises above reason, thereby allowing the reader to likewise transcend reason and grasp the spiritual Word. In response to the abuses Luther saw in the Spiritualists' emphasis upon the leading of the Spirit as the ultimate authority for the church, he often stressed the Spirit's work as limited to correspondence with the Word. He writes, "The Spirit is given to no one without and outside the Word; He is given only through the Word." (Q. in Wood, 161) In this way, Luther sought to restrict the Spiritualists to an understanding of the authority of the Word through the working of the Holy Spirit, rather than allowing their claim that the Holy Spirit worked in ways outside and beyond the written Word.
In Luther's understanding, the written Word, through the work of the Holy Spirit, literally confronted the reader with God's divine message in the midst of the reader's daily life. The Word was not an intellectual challenge, it was an existential reality. In accord with Luther's conviction of Coram Deo and Christus por me, the Word likewise became the means through which God confronted the individual, and the individual experienced the will and Word of God. Luther writes, "Experience is necessary for the understanding of the Word. It is not merely to be repeated or known, but to be lived and felt." (Q. in Wood, 167) It is this way that Luther states that Scriptural message must "inculcate" or "drive home" Christ to the believer. The Word becomes the vehicle through which the individual meets Christ.
Christ and Scripture
The Christocentrism of Luther's Christian experience and theology also becomes the central pillar to his understanding of Scripture. As seen above, Luther's personal encounter with Jesus Christ came through his interaction with the Epistle of Romans. It was through the Word that Luther came to know the Lord Jesus. Luther saw in the Word the divine direction to the Christ. He writes, "The Scriptures begin very gently, and lead us on to Christ as a man, and then to one who is Lord over all creatures, and after that to one who is God. So do I enter delightfully and learn to know God. But the philosophers and doctors have insisted on beginning from above. We must begin from below, and after that come upwards." (Q. in Wood, 170) In the believer's pilgrimage to faith, the Scripture provides the sufficient guidance, which, if believed, will surely lead the individual into saving faith. Even matters of faith which seem to the mind of man most difficult to grasp become manifest through the sufficient provision of the Word: "If you can humble yourself, hold to the Word with your heart and hold to Christ's humanity - then the divinity will indeed become manifest." (Ibid.)
Not only does Scripture lead to Christ, but, for Luther, is "concerned only with Christ when you see its inner meaning, even though it may look and sound differently on the outside." (Q. in Wood, 171) The entire message of the Word is Christ. Luther often employed the analogy of Christ being the central point of the circle of Scripture, around which everything in the Bible revolves. In this way Luther sought to point to Christ as the central message of the entirety of Scripture. This became a significant factor in Luther's turn from purely allegorical interpretations to the "grammatical historical sense", for he believed the former often merely concealed the true message, namely Christ, within a passage. During a sermon in 1515, Luther warned, "He who would read the Bible must simply take heed that he does not err, for the Scripture may permit itself to be stretched and led, but let no one lead it according to his own inclinations but let him lead it to the source, that is the cross of Christ. Then he will surely strike the center." (Ibid.) Christ is the center of not only the New Testament message, but also of the Old. This seems to have been a conclusion that was not widely presupposed by Luther's audiences, who saw in the Old Testament a simplistic and rustic series of stories inferior to the gospel of the New Testament. To this sentiment Luther writes, "I beg and really caution every pious Christian not to be offended by the simplicity of the language and stories frequently encountered there, but fully realize that, however simple they may seem, these are the very words, works, judgments and deeds of the majesty, power and wisdom of the most high God." (LW 35.236; Q. in Wood)
Through the understanding that Christ is the message of the Word, Luther finds in the Old Testament fresh and exciting new significance: "Everything becomes new in this Christ, even the prayers of the dear patriarchs, because they call upon this very same Christ, who has now come and fulfillled what they believed and looked for. Now Scripture and the Psalms ring just as new on our lips, if we believe in Christ, as they did when David first sang them. In brief, from now on Christ wants all variation and disparity removed and everything unified, so that, as St. Paul declares, there will henceforth be but one God, one church, one faith, one prayer and worship, one Christ (Eph. 4:4-6), 'the same yesterday and today and tomorrow' (Heb. 13:8). To summarize, God will hear and acknowledge only what is presented in the name of Christ." (LW. 24.397)
The continuously Christological perspective which Luther takes toward the Scripture resulted in what has come to be known as his incarnational understanding of the written Word. Rather than employing theologcal or philosophical terms to describe the Christocentric dimension of the word, Luther consistently uses Christological terminology. Luther drew deliberate parallels between Christ as the incarnation of God, and the Scripture as the incarnation of God as pertains to His Word and will, between the Word made flesh and the Word written. Luther referred to God's Word in Scripture as "inlettered, just as Christ, the eternal Word of God is incarnate in the garment of humanity." (WA. 48.31; Q. in George, 84) It is in this way that Christ is the message of the entirety of Scripture, and that any true understanding of that message must first of all come from the initiating act of God. Through the Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit, the reader is brought into an encounter with the center of revelation, Christ Jesus. For Luther, God incarnate in the written Word is the object of faith through which the believer is justified. George concludes, "In this way the formal principle (sola scriptura) of the Reformation is determined by the material principle (sola fide): Justification by faith alone based upon the grace and work of Christ alone is the key to understanding God's revelation in Scripture alone." (85; additions mine)
From the overview above, it is clear that Luther's understanding stemmed in part from an extension of medieval understanding, as pertains to the inspiration and validity of the Scripture for the Church. Luther also developed his understanding of Scripture from experiential factors, as seen in the profound impact his personal conversion had upon his understanding of the role of Scripture in the believer's life and the authority it provided over matters of faith. Luther's view of scripture was, however, predominantly guided by Scripture itself, providing him with a foundation upon which he built the resolve necessary to withstand the Roman Church. Scripture testified to itself in the matters of authority, the role of reason, the necessity of the Spirit in understanding, and the papal claims to exclusive interpretation. The Christological teachings of Scripture also formed the basis for Luther's incarnational understanding of the written Word, through which much of his theology was unified and solidified.
It is clear, therefore, that by opening the Word, and encountering the truth therein, by the grace of God, Luther unintentionally started on the pathway leading to reformation. Although Luther was undoubtedly a great orator and thinker, Scripture alone is found to be the basis upon which Luther's theology stands. A clear and unhindered reading and contemplation of the truth offered throughout the preceding centuries in Scripture provided Luther with the profound content and determination which is witnessed in his reformation efforts.
George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers. (Nashville: Broadman Press; 1988)
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Volume VII: Modern Christianity,
The German Reformation. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 1994)
Wood, A. Skevington. Captive to the Word: Martin Luther: Doctor of Sacred Scripture.
Britain: Paternoster Press; 1969)