For ten years Luther read the Bible twice a year. His first Bible was so thoroughly read that he “knew what was on every page and where every passage was found.” Martin Luther is the most prominent name among those who brought about the Reformation and took Bible study to a new level.
Luther followed the Englishman John Wycliffe, the early star of the Reformation, the first of a series of reformers who helped to restore the primary role of Scripture in Christianity and to reestablish an interpretation of the Bible according to the practice of the apostolic church. Luther’s desire to re-emphasise the importance of Scripture arose in the context of the Renaissance interest in the study of biblical languages, which paved the way for Luther to bring the light of truth to a world emerging from the Dark Ages.
Scripture, the Word of God
On the evening of 18 April 1521, Luther, now 37 years old, was to appear before Charles V (the Quint), a young man of only 21 who, in addition to being King of Spain, had been elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (and therefore successor to Charlemagne) in Germany less than two years earlier. The Imperial Diet (or official assembly of representatives of the Empire), convened in Worms in January of that year, marked Charles V’s first visit to the German lands.
Luther was ordered to retract everything he had written. He was also asked to publicly confess his errors in what he had written about the Gospel, the nature of the Church, and the state of Christianity at the time.
Luther’s words before the Diet of Worms provide a glimpse of his view of Scripture. For Luther, nothing could be placed above the “divine word;” his conscience was bound by the “chains of Scripture.” Therefore, Luther demanded that the authorities judge his works on the basis of the testimony of Scripture and the “divine word,” willing to lose his life rather than renounce the Word of God. Luther’s hermeneutic accepted nothing less than the spoken or written Word.
Multiple views of Scripture
Luther declared that God and Scripture are two different things, Creator and creature. For him, Scripture was not a collection of objective truths, but, like the rock that Moses struck in the wilderness to provide water for the thirsty people, the Bible was the means of reaching Christ with the rod of faith. With Luther we have a functional view of Scripture: a means of reaching Christ, or “the alien work” as Luther liked to call it. This perspective was born out of his struggle to find Jesus Christ, a struggle in which he tried to go beyond words to reach the Word.
For the former monk, the Word of God had several meanings, depending on the context. Luther believed that we have the oral Word that God spoke throughout history in dialogue with His people, in both Testaments, as “the basic form of God’s word.” Then we have God’s redemptive acts throughout the same history—God’s Word spoke most clearly, Luther believed, through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Contribution to hermeneutics
The great reformer shook the medieval church to its foundations with the fundamental truth that Scripture is above the church and should be allowed to interpret itself (Sola Scriptura). His emphasis on the Bible as its own sole interpreter ended a long history of reliance on human tradition. Luther was the first major scholar to radically challenge the Catholic Church’s grip on Scripture and the hermeneutics of tradition.
In his efforts to restore the importance of the Bible, Luther struggled with the papal church on the one hand, and with the Enthusiasts, an extremist group of reformers led by Thomas Münzer, who believed that the Holy Spirit spoke directly to them, on the other. Luther firmly believed that the Spirit speaks through the Word, and his preservation of the unity of Spirit and Word was a powerful defence against the extremism of the Enthusiasts. His stance became an important hermeneutical position in the centuries that followed—no one can understand the Word without the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through the Word (written or spoken) to make it effective in the life of the recipient. This is the “witness of the Holy Spirit” within.
In affirming that human reason was impaired by the Fall, Luther went a step further than Thomas Aquinas and his belief in natural reason. Luther understood true reason as a gift of God, a gift of the Holy Spirit that comes through the Word and whose proper exercise depends on the Holy Spirit. The hermeneutical principles of Scripture interpreting Scripture (Sola Scriptura) and the Spirit interpreting Scripture were the weapons with which Luther confronted the Catholic Church and the Enthusiasts. These two hermeneutical principles are inseparable in his theology. Consequently, Luther concluded that both Rome and the Enthusiasts were in the wrong—both subordinating Scripture to an alien law.
A canon within a canon
We need to consider another aspect of Luther’s hermeneutical thinking. He did not regard the whole Bible as authentic. Having discovered the futility of human works in relation to Christ’s gift of salvation (justification by faith, see Romans 1:17), he lost interest in biblical books that seemed to deviate from the gospel (for example, the Epistle of James). As an argument, Luther appealed to Christ’s words, “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.” Therefore, for him, the most important content of Scripture was Christ, hence his famous formulation Christum treibt (germ., “that which conveys Christ to us”). Luther asserted that any interpretation that does not lead to Christ must be rejected as an unscriptural use of Scripture; thus we place Christ above Scripture. As such, Luther did not write lectures or sermons on or from, say, the Epistle of James or Revelation, because he did not accept their status in the canon. In effect, he ended up producing a canon within the canon, making Christ the hermeneutical criterion of Scripture. The problem arising from this hermeneutical perspective is the establishment of a subordinate relationship of the written Word to the incarnate Word.
In other words, Luther placed Christ above Scripture in a hermeneutical sense, since the purpose of Scripture is to reveal Him. Christ is the King of Scripture and everything must be interpreted in relation to Him. To see Christ as the centre of Scripture—with the Old Testament pointing to His first coming and the New Testament recording His life, death, resurrection, present ministry and second coming—was the only correct approach, in Luther’s view. In his view, Christ and Scripture could be placed in opposition to each other because, according to him, the order was: The personal Word (Christ), the spoken Word (the Gospel), and the written Word (the Scriptures).
In evaluating this position of the great reformer, it must be said that it is as correct as possible to allow Scripture to bear witness to Christ and to the Gospel, but to make Christ the criterion for Scripture unwittingly opens up the possibility of criticising Scripture. For Luther, the literal sense is not the historical sense, but the Christological sense. This means that a passage read without reference to Christ is a letter that kills, while a passage read with reference to Christ is the Spirit that gives life. This was his early position, which he modified to combat the misplaced emphasis of the Enthusiasts on the Holy Spirit.
Luther failed to see that the elevation of Christ above Scripture as a hermeneutical principle was not very different from the papacy’s elevation of tradition above the Word. It created a conflict between the written Word and the incarnate Word. In his desire to exalt the living Word of God, he prejudiced the written Word of God, a prejudice that affected late Lutheran hermeneutics just as tradition affected the hermeneutics of the Catholic Church. Paradoxically, Luther freed Christians from human tradition only to replace it with another human tradition. The reduced canon of the Lutheran Protestants was not unlike the reduced understanding of Scripture of the Catholic tradition. It was a difference of degree, but not of kind.
To place human reason of any kind above the Word of God, for whatever reason, is to prejudice Scripture. Luther’s translation of the German Bible was “an interpretation of Scripture according to Christ and the Christian proclamation.” However, placing Christ above Scripture, in the sense that Christ becomes the criterion for determining which books are canonical, was only slightly better than the Catholic Magisterium, which placed collective human reason above Scripture in determining which books are canonical and which are not. While Luther narrowed the canon (rejecting James and Revelation), the Catholic canon was expanded to include the apocryphal writings.
Luther’s hermeneutics is reflected in the Lutheran New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), who judged Scripture by demythologising the so-called pre-scientific biblical language. Demythologising interprets the supernatural elements (myths) of Scripture not in a literal sense but in existential categories. This is paradoxical when we consider that Luther believed in the principle of Sola Scriptura and strongly supported the propositional character of the inspiration of Scripture in his struggle for the presence of the body of Christ in the sacrament. Luther applied the principle of Sola Scriptura christologically, not canonically.
Luther’s struggle was not between tradition and Scripture, but between the Pope and Christ. He was engaged in a dynamic and ongoing conflict with the papacy, and he responded to the challenge with his dynamic vision of Christ as revealed to him through Scripture and preaching.
Scripture, with its cognitive and propositional truths, remained the cornerstone of his theology and the basis of his opposition to papal teaching. Luther clung to the living Christ revealed in Scripture in order to remove the counterfeit Christ of Rome. In this way we can discover Luther’s view of revelation, both propositional and dynamic. Thus we can find the basis for the later emphasis on both perspectives found in evangelical theology.