Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 9, 2008

More from Luther on Biblical Interpretation

Shortly after this blog was launched, one of my first posts included a quotation from Luther on biblical interpretation. My summer reading from Luther has now taken me to another work where this subject comes up. I’m currently reading Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images in Sacraments (great title, isn’t it?!). Luther is refuting the radical reformation movement and especially its leader and his former colleage, Andreas Karlstadt. Among other problems, Karlstadt was of the mindset that whatever Rome said and did was automatically wrong, and the opposite must be done. So if Rome said that the body and blood of Christ are present in the Lord’s Supper, Karlstadt said it was only bread and wine. Luther wisely did not fall into what I like to call the “theology of the knee jerk reaction.” In Against the Heavenly Prophets, Luther shows how far Karlstadt has wandered from the truth in his positions, and in the process he shows how Christians must return to the clear statements of the Word of God as a basis for our theology. These quotations come from the second half of this work. Luther points out the false position to which Karlstadt subscribed and the faulty allegorical method he used to interpret the Bible. In the process, Luther lays out some important truths for biblical interpretation. Those are the types of quotes included below as a little Luther food for thought – and one with an edge to boot!

“This then is our basis. Where Holy Scripture is the ground of faith we are not to deviate from the words as they stand nor from the order in which they stand, unless an express article of faith compels a different interpretation or order. … To put it briefly, we must have sober, lucid words and texts which by reason of their clarity are convincing” (LW/AE 40:157-158).

“This high art [of biblical interpretation] of Dr. Karlstadt reminds me of that practiced by those who are fond of allegories. … In general, their interpretation [produced by the allegorical method] is so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting. … They do not consider that such has to be proved from Scripture and that it means nothing unless it is clearly expressed elsewhere. … Generally, all such allegories or interpretations are in fact true and very attractive and fine. My answer to this is that I am not contending as to their falsehood or truth. But I know well, that they often are amiss and pure fancy, because they are brought forward without any scriptural foundation. … I was thoroughly drilled in this method when I first began to study the Bible ten years ago, before I discovered the true method. … Brother, the natural meaning of the words is queen, transcending all subtle, acute sophistical fancy. From it we may not deviate, unless we are compelled by a clear article of the faith. … Therefore, interpretations of God’s Word must be lucid and definite having a firm, sure, and true foundation on which one may confidently rely” (LW/AE 40:187-190).



  1. Ah, good ol’ Luther. Apparently the “natural meaning” of 2 Timothy 2:24-26 was too much for him. It doesn’t sound “kind” and “not resentful” to say “their interpretation is so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting”. 😉

    Of course, I totally agree with the main point – take from scripture what it literally says!!! It’s amazing how much this is missing from mainline churches these days.

    Thanks for the quotes.

  2. This is a response to “westendorf7” (who, for blog readers not “in the know,” is a friend of my wife)…

    No serious pastor or scholar suggests that Luther’s writings are inspired or that he didn’t cross the line at times. Perhaps there are some well-meaning but not fully informed individuals who want to “canonize” Luther, but that is not the position of any contemporary Lutheran denomination.

    While there are writings in which Luther unquestionably crosses the line (e.g. On the Jews and Their Lies) and for which he has been harshly criticized by contemporary Lutherans, I feel hard pressed to condemn this particular statement. Luther had gone around with Karlstadt plenty of times, but Karlstadt continued pushing the radical reformation with its civil disobedience and lack of concern for weak Christians who haven’t had the chance to be instructed carefully from Scripture. Luther may well have made the judgment call that this case had reached the point where he would have been “casting pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6).

    Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees, Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:12, and the imprecatory psalms (a.k.a. complaint psalms, e.g. Ps. 68:23, 137:9) all contain pretty harsh language, yet they are inspired Scripture. To be frustrated by the rejection of God’s Word and by the sinful actions of God’s enemies is not inherently sinful, otherwise these Scripture verses would be sinful.

    (Finally, let me close with a point is more of an observation based on past experiences than a reply to the responder): I have heard some theologians make the point that statements like 2 Tim. 2:24-26 cannot jibe with Gal. 5:12, and by such apparent contradictions, there is proof that Scripture is not inspired (at least not in the traditional sense that term has been used). Those who have suggested that every harsh statement a person makes is inherently sinful may eventually come to the conclusion that all of Scripture is not necessarily inspired by the Holy Spirit, otherwise one can’t allow both of the aforementioned verses to stand as “inspired.”


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