Luther on Being a Theologian: Oratio, Meditatio and Tentatio

In John Doberstein’s The Minister’s Prayerbook, he discusses Martin Luther’s understanding of the development of a theologian. Luther believed that the “right way to study theology” is anchored in the three rules set forth in Psalm 119: Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio. For Luther “Everything centers around the practice of meditation, for prayer prepares for it and its results are confirmed in the experience of conflict. For Luther, meditation is the key to the study of theology. No one can become a true theologian unless he learns theology through it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 142). The discussion that follows is taken directly from Doberstein and explores each of the three dimensions.

  • Oratio (prayer) is grounded in the Word of the Lord. Prayer is the voice of faith. That is to say, that prayer grows out of the Word of the Lord. “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart” (Bonhoeffer, Psalms, 15). Prayer is “responding speech” (Peterson, 5). “Prayer escapes the danger of disorder and confusion only when it is enkindled by the words of Scripture. From the Word proceeds its inner justification, as well as its life-giving power and the clearness of its petitions. A prayer that does not stick to Scripture will soon become poor in ideas, poor in faith, poor in love and will finally die” (Koeberele, 176-177).
  • Meditatio (meditation) is the continual study of the Scriptures. In 1518, Luther wrote “You should not only meditate inwardly in your heart but also outwardly by repeating the words out aloud and rubbing at the written word (like a sweet-smelling herb), by reading and rereading it, carefully, attentively and reflectively, to gather what the Holy Spirit means by them” (quoted in Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”). Meditatio is grounded in the externum verbum. Luther: “Let him who wants to contemplate in the right way reflect on his Baptism; let him read his Bible, hear sermons, honor father and mother, and come to the aid of a brother in distress. But let him not shut himself up in a nook…and their entertain himself with his devotions and thus suppose that he is sitting in God’s bosom and has fellowship with God without Christ, without the Word, without the sacraments” (AE 3:275). Luther likened meditation to a cow chewing its cud. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 14:1of 1525, he writes: “To chew the cud, however, is to take up the Word with delight and meditate with supreme diligence, so that (according to the proverb) one does not permit it to go into one ear and out the other, but holds it firmly in the heart, swallows it, and absorbs it into the intestines” (AE 9:136).
  • Tentatio (affliction)- God uses tentatio (spiritual trial and temptation) to drive a way from self and to His promises alone. Tentatio happens within the context of a person’s vocation. “Tentatio is testing, temptation, and trial which occurs when God and his word intersect with us and our world” (Pfeiffer, 113). Suffering happens precisely because a person is faithful to his calling. See Luther’s comments on “cross bearing” (see AE 51:195-208). “Peace with God brings conflict and adversity with the world, the flesh, and the devil” (Hein, 33). Pastors are not exempt from tentatio. In fact God uses it to draw us away from our own abilities to the gifts He gives in the Gospel and the Sacraments. Luther is thankful for his enemies: “For I myself…must be very thankful to my papists for pummeling, pressing, and terrifying me; that is, for making me a fairly good theologian, for otherwise I would not have become one…” (Doberstein, 288). “As soon as a person meditates and is occupied with God’s Word; as soon as God’s Word begins to take root in and grow in him, the devil harries him with much conflict, bitter contradiction, and blatant opposition. But these assaults (Anfechtungen) prove to be spiritually counterproductive, for by driving him to the end of his tether, they teach him ‘to seek and love God’s Word’ as the source of all his strength and being. In such a situation of temptation, he experiences for himself the power and truth of God’s Word. Temptation turns the student of God’s Word into a real theologian, because it exercises and reinforces his faith in Christ. He experiences the power of God’s Word in his own weakness. Paradoxically, he sees the presence of God and his grace most fully displayed under its apparent negation in adversity and trouble. Because he bears the word of Christ in himself, he must also bear the cross for it. But, as he bears his own cross, he gets to know himself and Christ whose glory was revealed by his death on the cross. Meditation, then, ultimately elucidates temptation and is itself elucidated by it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 147).

“Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: A Right Way to Study Theology” (287-289) in The Minister’s Prayerbook edited by John Doberstein is taken (in an abridged form) from the “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings, 1539” (AE 34:279-288).

Daily Forgiveness, Leadership and Deliverance

The Lord’s Prayer is concerned with the daily. The petition for “daily bread” implies that the other requests are also daily in nature. Daily petitions point to daily needs. Take a look again at the requests that follow the prayer for sustenance. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt 6:11-13).

I’m really thankful for this prayer. I often have no idea what I really need or how I should pray. I tend to take Romans 8:26 as my starting point for thinking on prayer: “we do not know what to pray for as we ought.” I couldn’t agree more. If your familiar with that text you know that it goes on to say that the Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes on our behalf. Here Jesus helps us in our weakness. He lays it out clear. Here are your basic daily needs and here is how you should pray. He gives us three things to focus on in this section of the prayer.

Daily Forgiveness
Legend has it that Luther’s dying words were, “we are beggars, this is true.” He understood that the life of faith is a life lived by grace. Everything we are, have, and do is given. One thing we need every day is the gift of release from our debt. Here we are instructed to come to the Father daily to receive that grace. In turn, we are in need of extending that forgiveness to others on a daily basis. In this one petition we drive to the heart of Christianity. The obliteration of condemning debt is the core of the gospel. Every day we are invited to know the liberation that comes from the cross-work of the Son. Every day we are called to mimic that aggressive assault on the debt of others.

Daily Leadership
According to this next petition, temptation is a significant danger every day. The stumbling blocks in our paths that cause us to fall away from God are serious. The instruction here is to seek leadership from God out of and away from temptation. He is a good shepherd that desires to protect us from temptation.

Daily Deliverance
The final request shows us yet another daily danger. The evil one that prowls around like a lion seeks daily to devour us. This prayer calls upon God to be our deliverer from the enemy. The trio of sin, temptation, and satan are all addressed in this prayer. In many ways this prayer is a war cry, a battlefield supplication. God is peeling back the curtain and showing us the reality we face and then equipping us with the weapons necessary to engage the battle. The conflict is daily and the weapons are to be taken up every day.

Daily Bread

Food is intended to anchor our thoughts in a few essential things. First off it reminds us that we are creatures. We are not self-sufficient like our Creator. We are dependent by nature. We must have food to go on living this life. Secondly, as dependent creatures we receive our sustenance from the Creator on a daily basis. Food is pointing us to God, every day. The Lord’s Prayer is very insightful here. This prayer, taught by Christ to the disciples, is a compass for the disciple. It teaches him concentric priorities for life and prayer. The disciple is encouraged to make the thrust of this prayer his own, every day, so as to find true north as he engages the daily tasks before him.

In the prayer, as you well know, we read the petition for daily sustenance.  In Matthew’s version it reads: “give us this day our daily bread (6:11).” In Luke’s version we have, “give us each day our daily bread (11:3).” Note the emphasis in both gospels on the dailiness of the bread. This is clearly a daily need that requires a daily request that results in a daily provision. The dinner table, the drive through window, the grocery store, the oven, the waitress, they are all calling on us to slow down and enjoy a daily gift.

In Ecclesiastes there is a wonderful refrain written throughout the book. In the face of confusion, vanity, and the uncertainty of tomorrow the author commends the full enjoyment of daily provision. For example he says, “a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God (2:4).” The uncertainty of tomorrow calls for the full engagement of the present. The daily bread is what we currently have in front of us and we are invited to enjoy, fully, without concern for tomorrow. The anxiety of tomorrow robs us of entering into the provision of today. Every morsel of bread is an invitation to come into the moment, embrace our creatureliness, and give thanks to our Creator.