How Martin Luther and the Reformers Changed the Study of Scripture
Special Issue: 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
In 1501, a 17-year-old German boy named Martin Luther entered the University of Erfurt. He had some knowledge of the Bible—having learned a few of its stories from the artwork of St. George’s church, just up the hill from his parents’ smelting operation in Mansfeld—but he may not have been able to distinguish clearly between the legend of St. George slaying the dragon and the biblical account of Samson wrestling a lion. Two decades later, young Luther was reading the Bible in a wholly different light: In the pages of Scripture, he had discovered, God was actually speaking.
Luther perceived that God’s speaking in Scripture is both creative and re-creative. God calls into existence what is not, through words of forgiveness and reconciliation embodied in the gospel narrative of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. According to Luther’s preface to the New Testament:
This gospel of God or New Testament is a great message, good news, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and have eternal joy, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith.1
In short, Jesus Christ became for Luther the key to sacred Scripture.
IN HIS STUDIES AT ERFURT, Luther placed what he knew of the Bible into an interpretive framework oriented around human performance of God’s and the church’s commands. Emphasis fell on religious activities, embraced in the church’s ritual and administered by a sacred hierarchy (mainly the local priest). Divine grace was a necessary component of the relationship between God and sinners, but human works provided the key to salvation.2
After four years at the university, Luther moved on to an Augustinian Eremite cloister in Erfurt.3 He soon came to know the Bible better than most (if not all) of his fellow friars, who dubbed him a “Biblicus,” a kind of walking concordance. Yet Luther’s voracious devouring of the Bible did not alter the conceptual framework through which he made sense of it.
Augustinians devoted themselves to preaching in parish churches, and Luther’s learning continued to grow as he proclaimed God’s word to people in the city of Wittenberg. Initially, his sermons unfolded in Scholastic style—verse by verse—with a focus on ethical themes.
Luther’s preaching style changed as he applied elements of the biblical text to the real-life circumstances of his hearers. In this new approach, Luther used four strategies to explain the text:
Contextual explanation: He presented historical and grammatical details to aid understanding of what the text said in its original context.
Catechesis: He dwelt on catechetical instruction in the faith, drawing richly on other Bible passages for elaboration.
Typology: He often traced motifs in the Bible, connecting New Testament themes back to prophetic individuals or actions in the Old Testament.
Imaginative biography: He wove into his sermons and lectures a lively retelling of Bible stories.
This final stage in the development of Luther’s preaching rested on an essential change in his understanding of what it meant to be Christian. As historian Christopher Ocker has observed, Luther had discovered something that medieval Bible interpreters lacked: “a literary method for handling the narrative construction of the Bible as a whole.”4
In the course of his own spiritual struggles and his ever more intensive engagement with the biblical text, Luther reoriented the definition of Christian faith. The key to salvation was not to approach God with our good works (either ethical or sacred), but rather for God to approach us sinners with a gift of grace.
AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WITTENBERG, Luther’s exegetical lectures turned slowly away from the medieval method he had learned. According to that method, the professor provided glossae, short comments explaining the linguistic, historical, or dogmatic significance of something in the text; scholia, longer expositions of the significance of the text; and continuationes, occasional observations about the larger context of the passage. Instead of adopting these traditional features, Luther’s lectures took on the characteristics that formed his sermons toward the end of the 1510s. He strove to acquaint his students not just with the Bible’s key texts, but also with contextual passages to form a scriptural view of God, humanity, and all creation.
Luther’s dramatic change in the manner of interpreting Scripture is often associated with his rejection of the allegorical method he had learned from university instructors—and it is true that he turned decisively toward the literal and historical meaning of the text. But the truly revolutionary change in his exegetical method came in his recognition that God is present in Scripture, speaking words that spell out his expectations for human behavior (which Luther labeled “law”) and words that deliver his love and the life-changing benefits of forgiveness and salvation (“gospel”).
Luther had begun to distinguish law and gospel—or command and promise—in a specific sense soon after Philip Melanchthon arrived in Wittenberg as the university’s Greek instructor in 1518. The two men combined their talents, learning from each other, as Melanchthon enthusiastically embraced and amplified Luther’s core understanding of biblical terminology and the impact of God’s message on human beings.
Luther’s decision to lecture only on biblical books had already refocused the university’s theology curriculum. Melanchthon furthered this reform in both the liberal arts and theology. As a result, their colleague Justus Jonas abandoned lectures on canon law and assumed part of the New Testament instruction. Along with other colleagues, they provided a range of lecture courses revolving around a core of biblical books: Paul’s letter to the Romans, John’s Gospel, Psalms, Genesis, and Isaiah (along with Augustine’s De spiritu et littera). In 1533 this became the official teaching plan for Wittenberg’s theology professors.
LUTHER'S REVOLUTIONARY APPROACH TO CHRISTIAN FAITH, grounded in the Bible through which God speaks to his people, had widespread influence in every sphere of Christianity. In the local parish, it demanded a shift in the believer’s experience of worship and of life, as well as a shift in the pastor’s perception of his calling and role in the congregation.
In his German order of worship, Luther stated that the “preaching and teaching of God’s Word is the most important part of the divine service.”5 The preacher brings God into conversation with his people. That meant the sermon replaced the Mass at the center of Sunday morning worship. A sermon also became the focal point of other liturgical rites where it previously had not been present (or at least prominent), including funerals and weddings.
In the university lecture hall, too, study of the Bible changed under the guidance of Luther and Melanchthon. When delivering his first lectures on Galatians, Luther had followed the medieval method of glossae and scholia, but the printed version of those lectures offered a narrative approach. In his preface, Luther advised readers that it was “not so much a commentary as a testimony of my faith in Christ.”6 His published commentaries over the next quarter century often followed the narrative model.
The students of Luther and Melanchthon went on to translate what they had learned in Wittenberg into their ever-changing congregational settings. Their sermons and lectures reveal the imprint of their experiences with their Wittenberg instructors. They followed Luther’s thought quite faithfully for the most part, and they used Melanchthon’s methods (as well as his insights into many biblical passages). They drew the distinction of law and gospel, and they relied on the Hebrew and Greek texts to guide their interpretations. Some of them could tell stories as well as Luther could.
Luther also left an enduring imprint on Christian use of the Bible through his translation of it. Gifted with an ear for common speech and the ability to master the original languages, Luther’s insights into the significance of what God wanted to say to his people guided the rendering of the Bible into German. Luther’s translation found eager readers. It gave them not only a lively reproduction of the words of the prophets and apostles, but also introductions to sections and books of the Bible and explanatory notes in the margins. Even in a society with a high illiteracy rate (being reduced, to be sure, by his own and others’ insistence on more education for both boys and girls), Luther’s translation of Scripture aided his attempts to cultivate parental education in the faith and a regular rhythm of meditation or devotion in the home.
Luther’s conception of being Christian centered on God’s speaking with his people through the pages of Scripture, conveying the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. Facilitated by Gutenberg’s movable type and empowered by a gift for language, Luther sparked a revolution that has transformed Bible study for half a millennium.
1 Deutsche Bibel, D. Martin Luthers Werke [WA] (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–1993), vol. 6: pp. 2–5; Luther’s Works [LW] (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1958), 35:358.
2 This essay incorporates materials presented in Robert Kolb, Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and its Scripture-Centered Proclamation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), esp. 1–6.
3 The Order of Hermits of St. Augustine was established formally in the 13th century.
4 Christopher Ocker, Biblical Poetics before Humanism and Reformation (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 21–22, 211.
5 The German Mass, 1526, WA 19:78.26–27; LW 53:68.
6 WA 2:449.16–19; LW 27:159.