Categories
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.

Categories
Theology

Hear the Music, Don’t Learn the Steps

Part 5 in a 10 part series. View series intro and index.

If you are anything like me (let’s hope not), your bent is to read the Bible to get information. You want to mine the peaks and valleys of Scripture for intellectual ascent, to out-wit, out-smart, or out-argue someone else in a theological debate. You want information because filling your brain makes you feel enlightened, special, smart, or just plain better than others.

If you aren’t like me, I’m willing to be you are still a bit like me (too bad) in that you read the Bible for information, yet in a different way–it just might not be for theological prowess. Instead, you might have been raised on the American proverb, “Knowledge is power,” and “power” for you is that little nudge to initiate your self-help gears.  You bring that perspective to your devotional times, and as long as you find that little piece of history to remember or a short verse to memorize, your conscience will be appeased, at least until tomorrow morning.

If you read the Bible simply for information, you will learn the dance steps of Christianity. Anyone can learn dance steps. Even uncoordinated white men can learn the Macarena or the Electric Slide if a pretty girl invites them to the dance floor. It is much harder (impossible?) to hear the music as the writer and composer would without a complete internal transformation.

Isn’t that what we do when it comes to devotions? We look for dance steps. We simply want to know where our feet go. We search for a rule to follow or a sin to avoid. We want to know when to raise our hands in church, when to say “Amen,” and how to talk like church-folk. Sadly, this doesn’t only happen during devotions. At Sunday services, small groups, or Friday night hang-outs, people in the church are just looking for dance steps. Many Christians (and those who think they are) just want to know where their foot goes next.

Dance steps will get you by for a song or two. If you know the steps, you might even be able to fool your dance partner that you know what you are doing. But sooner or later a song will play that doesn’t have programmed moves. You will need to hear the music to show that you know what you are doing. Unfortunately, there are millions of people in America who can do the dance of Christianity, and reading the Bible for information–which is what you probably learned to do growing up–will only teach you steps. You must hear the music.

The Bible teaches this, just not in the same vocabulary.  The author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (4:12-13).

That goes way deeper than simple dance steps.

Dance steps are akin to phony, external religion, but God wants us to hear the music. Dance steps make Christianity about me. Hearing the music makes it about God. Dance steps are a short cut that yield no eternal reward. Hearing the music means we enter into the story of God’s redemptive work and relish the fact that he has graciously broken into our lives to save us from the sin and brokenness we would not otherwise be able to overcome.

This is were true joy lies. Thus the Bible is meant for your spiritual transformation, not mere transfer of information.

Obviously no one can “hear the music of the gospel” unless the Spirit causes them to be born again (John 3:1-8). With that said, we still have responsibility for our spiritual lives. As I wrote last time, whether Christian or not, our greatest need is the gospel. Scriptures main point is to be “a speaker amplifying the music of the gospel.”[1] Here are some questions to help us hear the music when reading Scripture.

  • What is the big idea of this passage?
  • How does this passage fit into the big story of God’s redemptive work throughout the Bible?
  • How does this passage point to Christ (either implicitly or explicitly)?
  • What idols and counterfeit gods does this passage expose?
  • In what ways does this passage expose my unbelief in the gospel?
Answering these questions will not always be easy, but the process will always be worth it. In the end, only by God’s grace, you will be more gospel-sensitive, and less externally religious.

[1] I am indebted to Dr. Keith Johnson for the analogy of “hearing the music of the gospel.” Read his article for a much fuller and more helpful version of what I have written.

Categories
Theology

C is for Christocentric

How do you read the Bible? To find rules to obey, to discover spiritual insights for your life path, or memorize answers for doctrinal debate?  Dane Ortlund posted several weeks back on the Resurgence blog about transforming your Bible reading.  He wrote, “Biblical theology reads the Bible as an unfolding drama, taking place in real-world time and space, that culminates in a man named Jesus.”

We call this type of theology “Christocentric” (aka “Christ-centered”). The Bible is truly God’s grand story of redemption in the world he created, and that redemption is found and fulfilled in Jesus.  Therefore, the way we view the creation, the fall, redemption, and future glory should be centered upon him.

If we have an anthropocentric (aka human-centered) view of the world or Scripture, we will inevitably make life and redemption about us. Grace will not longer be grace, and we will make God a debtor to us.  Salvation will not be a free gift–it will be something we have earned and deserve.

We cannot even have a view of the world and redemption that is centered on others. Why? Because no human being–not even a spouse or child–can bear that responsiblity.  Ernest Becker wrote, “If your partner is your ‘All’ then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you…What is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to this position?…We want to be rid of…our feeling of nothingness…We want redemption–nothing less. Needless to say, humans cannot give this.”

The Bible does not let us go either of those ways, however.  We could discuss dozens of passages all over the Bible that declare this, but one passage in particular stands out about the rest in calling us to a Christocentric view of Scripture and all of life.  Colossians 1:15-22 says:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.

How glorious!  We could spend years on this paragraph, but notice the linchpin of the text: all things were created through him and for him. Was anything made through you or for you, or through or for any other human for that matter?  I don’t think so.

If my world is Jamescentric, I will be a miserable and mean wretch of a man, isolated from others and void of purpose, meaning, significance, and love. But if my world is Christocentric, Jesus will be my supreme delight and ultimate end, and in him there is complete joy and pleasure forevermore (Ps. 16:11).