Luther on Scripture

Martin Luther developed his theology around the conviction that the Word of God is true and strong. He believed, as do I, that Scripture is the speech of God. It is no different than the speech that brought earth into existence out of nothing. It contains that same power and purpose.

Here are three great quotes that capture some of his thinking on Scripture. We can see hints of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and ad fontes (back to the sources) in the first quote. In the second and third quotes we see Luther’s pastoral approach to Scripture. It is a safeguard against despair and temptation. It is a wellspring of hope and confidence.

“He who has made himself master of the principles and text of the word runs little risk of committing errors. A theologian should be thoroughly in possession of the basis and source of faith—that is to say, the Holy Scriptures. Armed with this knowledge it was that I confounded and silenced all my adversaries; for they seek not to fathom and understand the Scriptures; they run them over negligently and drowsily; they speak, they write, they teach, according to the suggestion of their heedless imaginations. My counsel is, that we draw water from the true source and fountain, that is, that we diligently search the Scriptures. He who wholly possesses the text of the Bible, is a consummate divine. One single verse, one sentence of the text, is of far more instruction than a whole host of glosses and commentaries, which are neither strongly penetrating nor armor of proof. As, when I have that text before me of St Paul: “All the creatures of God are good, if they be received with thanksgiving,” this text shows, that what God has made is good. Now eating, drinking, marrying, etc., are of God’s making, therefore they are good. Yet the glosses of the primitive fathers are against this text: for Bernard, Basil, Jerome, and others, have written to far other purpose. But I prefer the text to them all.”

“Oh! how great and glorious a thing it is to have before one the Word of God! With that we may at all times feel joyous and secure; we need never be in want of consolation, for we see before us, in all its brightness, the pure and right way. He who loses sight of the Word of God, falls into despair; the voice of heaven no longer sustains him; he follows only the disorderly tendency of his heart, and of world vanity, which lead him on to his destruction.”

“A fiery shield is God’s Word; of more substance and purer than gold, which, tried in the fire, loses naught of its substance, but resists and overcomes all the fury of the fiery heat; even so, he that believes God’s Word overcomes all, and remains secure everlastingly, against all misfortunes; for this shield fears nothing, neither hell nor the devil.”

An Undomesticated Word

Let’s do an exercise on this post. Below, I have chosen a few short passages of Scripture for you to read. Observe your reactions as you read and think about how you tend to interpret texts like this. Take note of what  you normally do when you come across passages like these in the Bible.

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9)

“He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow” (Lamentations 3:10-12).

“I was at ease, and he broke me apart; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target; his archers surround me. He slashes open my kidneys and does not spare; he pours out my gall on the ground. He breaks me with breach upon breach; he runs upon me like a warrior” (Job 16:12-14).

“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (Jeremiah 20:7).

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1).

So, what are your thoughts? What do you do with these passages? How do they make you feel when you read them? What questions arise? What interpretive methods do you draw out and use to fit them into your system of thought?

These are not easy passages, that is clear. But they are inspired words. They have function and purpose. I believe the biggest temptation for us as interpreters is to explain texts like this away. Instead of exploring their unique contribution to the canon and our faith we dismiss them by any interpretive means possible. This is old covenant material. These expressions of the psalmist were sinful. Not everything inspired is to be imitated. And on it goes. I have some pretty sophisticated ways to protect myself from passages that make me uneasy. Oswald Bayer has a great quote on the persistent desire of mankind to tame the Word of God.

“Time and again many have tried to smooth out what is rough, or at least minimize such tensions. For example, theologically well-trained and sharp-minded church father Gregory of Nyssa wanted to make ‘the hard, indigestible bread of Scripture disgestible’ with unfettered allegorical interpretation. The hard bread of the literal text is made digestible in that Gregory is drawn back to a sense that was known already: what makes one feel strange gets domesticated (italics mine).”

It is far better to have no satisfactory answer to the meaning of a text or the reason for its presence in the canon then to disregard it altogether. Honesty with the Word of God means that we refuse to mute the parts of it that are most difficult to understand. The true test of our affirmation of the authority and inspiration of Scripture is how we handle its most challenging parts. I believe that giving these portions of Scripture their voice and working hard to hear them out will yield tremendous benefits for the church. After all, even the texts above are profitable for teaching, reproof, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16-17).