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]

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