Martin Luther on Studying Theological Texts

“If anybody wishes to become a theologian, he has a great advantage, first of all, in having the Bible.  This is now so clear that he can read it without any trouble.” [Martin Luther, “Table Talk no. 5511,” Luther’s Works 54: 439-440.]

In this record of his table discussion in 1542-43, Dr. Martin Luther set forth the books needed to study theology.  Here he advised the theology student to read the Bible, which one could read in various languages, including Luther’s own German translation (published in 1534).  He then recommended other significant works:

“Afterward he should read Philip’s Loci Communes.  This he should read diligently and well, until he has its contents fixed in his head.  If he has these two he is a theologian, and neither the devil nor a heretic can shake him.  The whole of theology is open to him, and afterward he can read whatever he wishes for edification.” [Ibid., p. 440]

Dr. Luther wanted students to read the first major textbook of Lutheran theology: Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, often translated as Theological Commonplaces.  First published in 1521, Melanchthon published later editions, particularly in 1543.  Philip arrived in Wittenberg in 1518 to teach Greek and other languages.  Luther also gave Melanchthon the duty to lecture on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  Luther praised Melanchthon’s theological textbook in the following manner:

“There’s no book under the sun in which the whole of theology is so compactly presented as in the Loci Communes.  If you read all the fathers and the sententiaries you have nothing.  No better book has been written after the Holy Scripture than Philip’s.  He expresses himself more concisely than I do when he argues and instructs.  I’m garrulous and more rhetorical.” [Ibid., p. 440.]

When Luther mentions the fathers he usually means the early Christian theologians to the early 6th century.  While the “sententiaries” refers to the many late medieval commentators on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the text upon which all Western theological inquiry rested from the late 12th century to the early 16th centuries.  Luther’s theology of justification by faith in Christ alone began as a rejection of these late medieval scholastics’ theology of salvation. [On Luther’s early rejection of scholastic theology see: Luther Against Scholastic Theology]

Dr. Luther also recommended reading Philip Melanchthon’s lectures on Romans and his own lectures on Galatians and Deuteronomy.  As mentioned above, Philip lectured on Romans often and published a commentary in 1532 (and a revised copy in 1540).  Luther published his lectures on Deuteronomy in 1525 and his second lectures on Galatians in 1535.  Luther concluded: “These will give him the art of speaking and a copious vocabulary.” [Ibid., p. 440]


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