Hermeneutics and The Shape of the Future - Edited by Frank K. Flinn

Luther's Reading of the New Testament -- Donald Deffner

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.
Ibid., p.360

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.
Ibid., pp.987-88

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 justifies.
Ibid., pp. 988-89

The Letter and the Spirit

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 scripture...
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 beings.
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 principle.
Ibid.. p. 100

The Christological Meaning of the Text

(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 sweetest kernel."
Ibid., p. 104

The "Concealment Beneath the Contrary"

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

Luther the Expositor

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 God.
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 you.
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. 

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