Hermeneutics and The Shape of the Future - Edited by Frank K. Flinn
Luther read the New Testament in the
light of the Pauline message that the just shall live by faith and
not by works of the law.
Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 331
(The) New Testament... is a testament
when a dying man bequeaths his property, after his death, to his
legally defined heirs. And Christ, before his death, commanded and
ordained that his gospel be preached after his death in all the world
(Luke 24:44-47). Thereby he gave to all who believe, as their
possession, everything he had. This included: his life, in which he
swallowed up death; his righteousness, by which he blotted out sin;
and his salvation, with which he overcame everlasting damnation. A
poor man, dead in sin, and consigned to hell, can hear nothing more
comforting than this precious and tender message about Christ; from
the bottom of his heart he must laugh and be glad over it, if he
believes it true.
Preface to the New Testament, Luther's Works. Word and Sacrament I, p. 359
The gospel, then, is nothing but the
preaching about Christ, Son of God and of David, true God and man,
who by his death and resurrection has overcome for us the sin, death,
and hell of all men who believe in him. Thus the gospel can be either
a brief or a lengthy message; one person can write of it briefly,
another at length. He writes of it at length who writes about many
words and works of Christ, as do the four evangelists. He writes of
it briefly, however, who does not tell of Christ's works, but
indicates briefly how by his death and resurrection he has overcome
sin, death, and hell for those who believe in him, as do St. Peter
and St. Paul.
In his book against Erasmus on The Bondage of the Will (1525) Luther gives an epitome of the New Testament.
A Summary of the New Testament. In the
New Testament the Gospel is preached. This is nothing else than the
message by which the Spirit is offered to us and grace for the
forgiveness of sins, purchased for us by Christ Crucified -- and all
entirely free, through the pure mercy of God the Father, who thus
favors us unworthy creatures, who deserve damnation rather than
anything else. Then follow exhortations. These are to animate those
who have already been justified and have received mercy to be
diligent in producing the fruits of the Spirit and of the
righteousness received, to practice love in good works, and
courageously to bear the cross and all other tribulations of this
world. This is a summary of the entire New Testament.
Ewald Plass, What Luther Says. p. 987
In the preface which he wrote to the New Testament in 1522 Luther expresses his preference for certain books of the New Testament because of their exceptionally rich gospel content.
The Primary Gospel Books. Saint John's
gospel and St. Paul's epistles, especially that to the Romans, and
St. Peter's first epistle ate the true pith and marrow of all the
books. They should justly be the first books, and ever)7 Christian
should be advised to read them first and most, and by daily reading
to make them as familiar to himself as his daily bread. In them you
do not find described many works and miracles of Christ; but you do
find depicted in a masterly manner how faith in Christ overcomes sin,
death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation. This
is the real nature of the Gospel.
In his explanation of John 14:5-6 (1537) the Doctor comments on the preciously unique character of this Gospel.
Especially John Pictures Christ as God
and Savior. The evangelist St. John is wont to write and to emphasize
that all our doctrine and faith should center in Christ and should
cling to this one Person alone, and that we, brushing aside all
science and wisdom, should simply know nothing but the crucified
Christ, as St. Paul says in I Cor. 1:23 and 2:2.
Ibid., p. 988
Luther was also fond of the Book of Acts because of the emphasis it, too, places on "his" gospel of salvation by faith alone. He makes this statement in his introduction to Acts (1534).
Acts Commended. It is to be noted that in this book St. Luke teaches all Christendom to the end of the world the true, principal point of Christian doctrine, namely, that all of us must be justified only through faith in Christ Jesus, without cooperation of the Law or help from good works...
Therefore this book might well be
called a commentary on the epistles of St. Paul. For what St. Paul
teaches and insists on with words and passages from Scripture, St.
Luke here points out and proves with examples and incidents, which
show that it so happened and must so happen as St. Paul teaches,
namely, that no Law, no work, justified man, but only faith in
Christ. Hete, in this book, you find a fine mirror in which you can
see that it is true: Solafides justipcat. Faith alone
Ibid., pp. 988-89
Luther was looking for a theology
which would explore the kernel of the nut, the germ of the wheat and
the marrow of the bones. It was with this desire that he studied holy
Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, p. 96
... he never doubted that the will of
God was revealed and comprehensible to men solely through the holy
scripture... There are many difficulties in a formal scriptural
principle. Such a principle can turn the scripture into an oppressive
law. Obviously, if the scripture alone is valid, everything depends
upon how this validity is understood, and how the scripture is
interpreted. A proverbial saying with which Luther was acquainted
sums up these hermeneutic difficulties: "The scripture has a wax
nose": that is, its countenance can be changed and distorted in
many ways by an arbitrary interpretation. An extraordinary degree of
devotion to the scripture is necessary, in order not to do it
violence by approaching it from individual and isolated points of
view, but trying instead to understand the fundamental message. The
less one approaches the scripture from a previously established
position, looking for specific answers to specific questions, or in
order merely to enrich one's knowledge, and the more radically one
accepts the challenge to one's own existential life of an encounter
with the scripture, concentrating upon a single fundamental question
aimed at human existence itself and touching one's very conscience,
the more one looks ultimately for only one thing in the scripture,
the word which brings certainty in life and in death, the better will
be one's prospects of a real understanding and adequate
interpretation of the scripture. For its fundamental theme is clearly
the unique and ultimately valid word, which is called the word of God
because it is a decisive utterance about our existence as human
Ibid., pp. 96-97
Luther himself emphasizes that once he had attained a right understanding of Romans 1:17 ("I see in it God's plan for imparting righteousness to men, a process begun and continued by their faith. For; as the scripture says: 'The righteous shall live by faith.' " Philips translation) the whole Bible took on a new appearance for him, and that this one verse gave him an understanding which was of immense hermeneutic importance. But there is a danger here of seeing what took place in Luther's intercourse with the scripture from too narrow a point of view. His preparatory work for his first commentary on the Psalms is a unique testimony to the way he strove to understand the scripture in such a way that it did not remain merely the letter, that is, something alien, remote and external, but became the Spirit, that is, something alive in the heart, which takes possession of man. For the question of the true spiritual understanding of the holy scriptures, that is, an understanding through which the Spirit itself can take hold of a man, is identical with the question which tormented Luther, that of the reality of grace and the certainty which brings assurance to the mind and the conscience. For what is grace, except the presence of the Holy Spirit?
Consequently, Luther formulated the
principle of interpretation for his first exegetical lectures as
follows: "In the holy scriptures it is best to distinguish
between the spirit and the letter; for it is this that makes a true
theologian. And the Church has the power to do this from the Holy
Spirit alone and not from the human mind."
Ibid., pp 97-98
Thus the Spirit must be drawn out from
the letter. The Spirit is concealed in the letter. But this must be
understood in a profound and theologically very significant sense.
The letter is not a good word, for it is the law of the wrath of God.
But the Spirit is a good word, good news, the gospel, because it is
the word of grace.
Ibid., p. 96
This distinction between an
understanding based purely on the outward meaning of a text, and an
understanding based on its inner significance, between remaining
satisfied with the lifeless letter and going on to penetrate the
living Spirit of a text, has become a general hermeneutic
Ibid.. p. 100
(Luther's) whole attention was
concentrated... on the relationship between the literal and the
tropological sense. He understood the literal sense not, however, as
the historical meaning, but as the christological meaning of the
text. That is, the basic meaning with which the study of the text of
the Psalter is concerned is Christ himself. The prayers of the
Psalter are to be regarded as uttered by him; that is, if they are to
be understood at all, they must be understood as if the person
speaking in the Psalms, the "I" who prays in them, is not
some arbitrary person, but Jesus Christ himself. To begin with Christ
as the fundamental meaning and utterance of the holy scripture became
Luther's basic hermeneutic principle. He says: "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. But
whenever I have a text which is a nut whose shell is too hard to
crack, I throw it at once against the rock (Christ), and find the
Ibid., p. 104
But if Christ speaks through the
Psalter then it follows that in this understanding of Christ, the
details of his Passion, of his bearing the sin of the world, and even
of his abandonment by God are portrayed in all their severity. In
this respect Luther's christological interpretation of the Psalms
goes infinitely further than the tradition, and so prepared the way
for his theology of the cross. But if Christ is the fundamental
meaning, so that in him all words form a single word, then their
application to the individual (the tropological sense of the
scripture) must consist not of disconnected useful moral
applications, or of a demand for similar works on the part of man,
but must be aimed solely at the faith which apprehends Christ. This
is the ground on which the earliest form of Luther's doctrine of
justification sprang up. We may also say that we find here an
understanding of the Holy Spirit strictly orientated towards the
crucified Christ, and consequently, therefore, towards the
relationship between the word and faith. The concealment of God on
the cross is paralleled by the structure of faith, which consists of
concealment beneath a contrary. "For who would realize that one
who is visibly humbled, tempted, rejected and slain, is at the same
time and to the utmost degree inwardly exalted, consoled, accepted
and brought to life, unless this were taught by the Spirit through
faith? And who would suppose that one who is visibly exalted,
honored, strengthened, and brought to life, is inwardly so pitifully
rejected, despised, weakened and slain, unless this were taught by
the wisdom of the Spirit?"
Ibid., pp. 104-5
It now becomes clear what "spiritual"
means here. It means everything, insofar as it is understood, "in
the sight of God"; that is, in the sign of the cross of Christ,
and therefore in the sense of the concealment of God beneath the
contrary. Salvation is spiritual, insofar as it is not understood as
the affirmation of worldly existence or as the bestowal of temporal
goods, but as being crucified with Christ, and so possessing life in
death. The believer is spiritual, insofar as he understands that he
is hidden in God, and so affirms his concealment beneath the
contrary. The Church is spiritual, as long as it regards itself as
hidden in this life, and does not place its trust in earthly
instruments of power...
Ibid.. pp. 105-6
1. The Bible and the Word of God. As a
polemical theologian in his conflict with both Roman Catholicism and
Protestantism, Luther identified the Bible with the Word of
Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, p. 257
One of the copyists of Luther's Table Talk has transmitted to us a poem which the Reformer once wrote about the New Testament.
Preciousness of the New Testament.
This Testament is precious. Oh, how true!
Great art and wisdom it imparts to
Blessed be the man who follows its direction!
He will enjoy God's blessing and protection.
The Word of God forevermore endures
And heaven's kingdom unto us secures.
For all must die and leave this world someday,
And then the Word is our trusty stay.
It strengthens us at our last, painful breath,
And it redeems us from eternal death.
Ewald Plass, What Luther Says, p. 99
2. Scripture and Tradition. As the spokesman for a Biblically oriented Protestantism, Luther stressed the sovereignty of the scriptures over all tradition and dogma, however ancient...
3. The History of the People of God. As a man of scholarship, Luther employed the best historical-critical scholarship available to him and demanded that the historical sense of the scriptures receive the normative place in exegesis...
4. Commentary and Controversy. As an obedient expositor of the whole Bible, Luther endeavored to incorporate the full range of biblical language into his theology.
... in his exegesis -- as in his doctrine, piety, and ethic -- the Reformer represented himself as a son of the church and as a witness to the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ and documented in the sacred scriptures. To that church, to that Word, to that Christ, to those scriptures Luther the expositor pointed.
He still does.
Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther the Expositor, p. 257-60
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand. New York: Abingdon, 1950.
Ebeling, Gerhard. Luther: An Introduction to his Thought. Trans. R. A. Wilson. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970.
Luther, Martin. Word and Sacrament. Vol. 35 of Luther's Works. Ed. E. Theodore Bachmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, I960.
Pelikan, Jaroslav, ed. Luther the Expositor. St. Louis: Concordia, 1959.
Plass, Ewald M., ed. What Luther Says. St. Louis: Concordia, 1959.