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Life Theology

How Martin Luther Interpreted the Bible

History is full of giants of the faith who have immensely helped the church interpret the Bible properly. One giant in particular stands out: Martin Luther. Along with John Calvin, Luther is perhaps most loved for his radical Christ-centeredness when it comes to Bible interpretation. He’s prominent because God used him at such a vital crossroads in church history. As one of the driving forces of the Reformation, Luther helped Christians refocus biblical hermeneutics back to the text of Scripture and away from the authority of the church. Let’s briefly look at his hermeneutical method.

Luther’s method for interpretation, if named anything, may be termed “historical interpretation” because he rejected allegory.[1] More accurately, Luther’s method may be labeled Christological. He believed that the sole content of Scripture is Christ. Christ is the incarnate Word of God, therefore the Bible can only be God’s word if it deals with Christ.[2] Luther further held that “all Scripture is interpreted by its relationship to the gospel.”[3] In other words, every text must be seen in light of God’s redemptive work in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus every text relates to the gospel either by promising, foreshadowing, proclaiming, or reflecting upon the person and work of Christ. The modern interpreter is helped by Luther’s Christological hermeneutic because the gospel is timeless. Since Christ lived, died, and rose for believers past, present, and future, the gospel is immediately applicable to the modern reader. The gospel, therefore, is the applicational bridge from the ancient text to the modern reader.

Luther led the charge for what is called sola scriptura (Scripture alone), the “key foundational premise of the Reformation.”[4] Sola scriptura holds that only Scripture holds divine authority for the life and conduct of Christians. Scripture authenticates itself and the church, not the other way around as the papacy supposed. Because Scripture is the final authority for Christians, its message is not regionalized or relegated to a certain time period. Modern interpreters must acknowledge the Bible is authoritative for their life even in the twenty-first century.

As Augustine taught more than a millennium before, Scripture interprets itself which implies that Scripture is clear in itself.[5] Here Luther leads the modern interpreter to be confident that Scripture is living, active, and harmonious.

Finally, one valuable element of Luther’s method of interpretation is that he accounted for the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the interpreter. The Holy Spirit enables Christians to understand accurately what a passage teaches about Christ.[6] Because of this, just like Luther in the 1500s, readers today can be confident that God has provided through his Spirit the ability to objectively understand and subjectively experience the truths of Scripture.


[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 47.
[2] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 185.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Klein et al. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 47.
[5] Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 185.
[6] Klein et al. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 47.