Martin Luther on Studying Theology and Reading Scripture

MattPhillips“Moreover, I want to point out to you a correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that.  If you keep to it, you will become so learned that you yourself could (if it were necessary) write books just as good as those of the fathers and councils, even as I (in God) dare to presume and boast, without arrogance and lying, that in the matter of writing books I do not stand much behind some of the fathers.  Of my life I can by no means make the same boast.  This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the hundred nineteenth Psalm.  There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm.  They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.” Martin Luther, “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” Luther’s Works, vol. 34, p. 285.  [Italics in original]

Prayer, meditation, and tribulation (Anfechtung) laid the foundation for Luther’s understanding of Scripture.  Here Luther seeks to demonstrate the proper means to study theology and he begins with Psalm 119.  Studying theology takes place as a part of true piety and within the struggles of the Christian life.

“Firstly, you should know that the Holy Scriptures constitute a book which turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness, because not one teaches about eternal life except this one alone.  Therefore you should straightway despair of your reason and understanding….But kneel down in your little room [Matt. 6:6] and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give {p. 286} you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.” Ibid., pp. 285-86.

Luther believed a true understanding of Scripture could only take place through prayer inspired by true faith.  The entire Trinity acts as we pray for God to enlighten our understanding by the Holy Spirit through the Son.  For Luther (as with many Christians before him) God acts through the devout, prayerful study of his Word:

“Secondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them.  And take care that you do no grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding.  You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is ripe…For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that.  His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc, outwardly was not given in vain.”  Ibid., p. 286. [Emphasis added]

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Martin Luther on Studying Theology and Reading Scripture — 2 Comments

  1. Luther’s take on the abuses of the practice of Lectio Divina in his time show through this work.

  2. Dear Dr. Phillips,

    Thanks for sharing this with the BJS bloggers. I love all your “posts.” Keep up the great work.

    Dear BJS Bloggers,

    I did not understand Luther’s trifold method at first, when I heard about it in college and seminary, but I think I am getting closer to understanding it now.

    Here is my experience with this method of Scripture reading:

    1) Prayer (i.e,. oratio) – the key, in my opinion, is admitting that you do not understand what is being said in the text. When you admit that to God in prayer and ask for help, you are REALLY confessing ignorance. The historical parts of Scripture are easy enough, but the theological, ethical, and personal-spiritual aspects are very difficult. If you have success in reading the easy parts, you might think that the rest is easy and that you “get it.” And that can lead to presumption, i.e., presuming you know the meaning when you really don’t, as Luther describes in Luther’s Works 37:17-18.

    2) Pondering (i.e., meditatio) – this is not a habit that we teach our children or students in school. The access we have to media of all sorts (e.g., videos, books-on-tape) for all the classic stories and the Bible leads to “surface comprehension.” Most modern literature (i.e, NY Times bestsellers and trade paperbacks) is, in my opinion, “thin” with meaning, and is easily comprehended. The classics (both old and new) and Scripture are “thick” and require slow reading, like Luther suggests, and the pondering of difficult passages. Even in parish Bible classes, the listeners want to learn about the whole Bible in “one hour.” WHAT! I am not kidding . . .

    3) Difficult Life Experiences (i.e., tentatio) – when I was in school, and heard about “tentatio” and “Anfechtung,” I didn’t understand how life-difficulties could help me understand Scripture. There are many parts of Scripture, again, the historical parts, that are not realy helped by tentatio, although you can have greater sympathy with Bible characters who have their own tentatio after you have had yours.

    But there are other parts, like the Imprecatory Psalms, and the Prophets, that are now like “WOW-I understand that one!” And all the business about death, and the power of death, I have learned to understand by sitting at the bedside of our elderly members in their homes, their nursing-care homes, the hospital, the ICU, then death comes and the funeral. Then you see how the Scriptures about death and the power of death (i.e., how it ages and disables you), makes so much sense.

    This also explains why people with difficult-life-experiences, who prior to that time had little use for religion, suddenly become interested in the church and Scripture. Tentatio makes it all real, if you listen to what tentatio is “saying” to you.

    Thanks again, Dr. Phillips, for the excellent post!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

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