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]


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 Theological Texts — 4 Comments

  1. Ps.133 1. How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! 3. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.

    “Immo nihil perinde optarim, atque si fieri possit, Christianos omnes in solis divinis literis liberrime versari et in illarum indolem plane trasnformari. Nam cum in illis absolutissimam sui imaginem expresserit divinitas, non poterit aliunde neque certius neque propius cognosci. Fallitur, quisquis aliunde christianismi formam petit, quam e Scriptura canonica. Quantum enim ab huius puritate absunt commentarii? In hac nihil reperias non augustum; in illis quam multa, quae a philosophia, ab humanae rationis aestimatione pendent, quae cum iudicio spiritus prorsus ex diametro pugnant.”
    (Die LOCI COMMUNES Philipp Melanthons, in ihrer Urgestalt herausgegeben und erlaeutert von G.L. Plitt, Erlagen, Verlag von Andreas Deichert, 1864. p.98-99)

    “Rather, I could wish nothing more than that all Christians, if possible, were thoroughly versed in divine Scriptures alone and wholly transformed into their nature. For since in them divinity has expressed its purest image, it cannot be known more surely or more intensely from any other source. Whoever seeks the nature of Christianity from a source other than canonical Scripture deceives himself.”
    (Commonplaces: Loci Communes 1521, by Philip Melanchthon, Christian Preus (translator), Concordia Publ. House, 2014, p.20-21)

  2. Some humor …

    While I was within the Evangelical Free Church of America (45 years), I was introduced to the concept of a magisterium by two friends, one a runaway Catholic priest, and the other a defrocked Lutheran minister.

    The EFCA lacks a magisterium, unless one counts the book “This We Believe” by Arnold T. Olson. And nobody does. But in practical matters one cannot be ordained by the EFCA unless one affirms its teachings. But who cares, since one can pastor an EFCA church without having any EFCA credentials (e.g. training, certification, ordination, etc.).

    For the Catholic, the magisterium is the teaching office of the bishops, and my Catholic friend introduced me to that magisterial tradition.

    For the Lutheran, the magisterium is the Book of Concord, and my Lutheran friend introduced me to that magisterial tradition.

    When I was looking for an alternative to the EFCA, I entered into dialogue with my Lutheran friend about how Lutheranism differed from Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.

    So… Just how important is Philip Melanchthon for Lutherans? My Lutheran friend told me that Lutherans were really Melanchthonists!

    Eventually, I left the EFCA and joined a Lutheran church. When I reported this to my Lutheran friend he asked: “Which synod?”. I replied “LC-MS”. He smiled at me and said: “Them’s the worst kind.”.

    Getting serious now …

    Indeed, we as God’s people need to find a way to “live together in unity”.

    Regards, Jeff

  3. This text (Loci Communes) has been on my “procure and read” list for some time.

    But tell me, in Loci, does Melanchthon get (in Pastor W. Weedon’s words) “diarrhea of the pen”, as he did for the Apology, or is it more succinct? I struggled my way through the Apology, wherein Philip repeated his points ad nauseum, and I’d rather not repeat the experience, especially when I could be reading something better (like Luther, Walther, Chemnitz, Pieper, or Gerhard).

    Thanks for the input!

  4. Lieber, lieber Luther
    Martin Luther, doctor and confessor, is a real treasured hero! He wrote all those thoughts while having to have the toilet as best friend for his afflictions: hemorrhoids, kidney stones, gout. Add to that the black days of (probably nutritional) depression….Thus, a terrible strong character only suited for the fingerprint he left on the world! (ref: Martin Luther, The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. Metaxas E., 2017)

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