Martin Luther Is My Homeboy: The Legacy of Luther (Part 1)

It is no coincidence that one of the slogans that came out of the Reformation era was “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone). It was the rediscovery of the Word of God that sparked the Reformation in the first place and it is one of the great features of Luther’s legacy. Above and before any other title that one might give to Luther he would have wanted to identify himself as a student of the Scriptures. Paul Althaus writes:

All Luther’s theological thinking presupposes the authority of Scripture. His theology is nothing more than an attempt to interpret the Scripture. Its form is basically exegesis. He is no “systematician” in the scholastic sense, and he is no dogmatician – either in sense of the great medieval systems or in the sense of modern theology. He wrote neither a domgatics, nor an ethics, nor a Summa; he never produced any thing like Melanchthon’s analyses of individual doctrines or Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Luther was a professor of biblical exegesis at the University of Wittenberg. (The Theology of Martin Luther, 3)

Luther wrote and did theology rooted in, built upon, and thoroughly engulfed in the Scriptures. This is his theological legacy. His writings and teachings on the doctrine of Scripture stands as an influence and shaper of Christian theology today. In three key teachings Luther’s theology of Scripture has shaped modern-day Evangelicalism: (1) Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit; (2) Scripture interprets itself; and (3) Christ is at the heart of Scripture.

The first of these teachings has to deal with the ultimate source of confidence for the Christian. In Luther’s day the ultimate residence of the Christian’s confidence was the Holy See of Rome. Rome had taught that the Pope, the Councils, and the Creeds were the source of authority for the Christian. Luther denied that such things had any ultimate authority. “Only the Scripture can establish and substantiate articles of faith” (Althaus, 5). Luther contested, “No one is bound to believe more than what is based in Scripture” (Luther’s Works, 32, 96). For Luther the ultimate reason he could have confidence in the Word of God is that it was just that, the very Word of God. It was infallible, without error, without fault. Men erred, councils erred, even the pope erred, but Scripture did not. So Luther wrote:

But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they [the church fathers] have erred as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they prove their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred. (Luther’s Works 32, 231).

Scripture, not councils, creeds, or men, was Luther’s final authority. It became that way for all the traditions that flow out of the Reformation.

Secondly, Luther’s belief that Scripture interprets Scripture has significantly influenced the interpretive practices fo the modern Evangelical church today. Hermeneutics, as it is called, is not an easy task. There are many things that must be considered when interpreting and explaining the text of Scripture, but ultimately it was Luther’s conviction (and has been for much of Evangelicalism) that God’s Word is clear. Not that it is always easy to understand but that the text can be, nonetheless, understood. In more recent modern theology this view has been challenged, but the whole dismantling of that view makes any discussion of the text of Scripture rather arbitrary and pointless. Luther’s contention that Scripture is clear is rooted in what Scripture itself teaches (i.e. Luther develops his theology of Scripture from Scripture). Paul Althaus again helps us understand Luther’s view:

For Scripture ought to be the final authority and the highest judge. Its character as the final authority, which is grounded in and bears witness to itself, precludes the possibility that the standard of its interpretation could somehow come from outside itself. It also includes the fact that it interprets itself; and this self-interpretation is therefore the most certain, most easy, and most clear interpretation. (76)

In contrast to the culture of his day, Luther asserts the total supremacy to Scripture itself. The Papacy asserted that final interpretation fell to the teaching office of the church. Other radicals asserted that final interpretation fell to the Spirit of God imparted to individuals, apart from Scripture. Luther saw a very close connection between the Spirit of God and the Scriptures too, but he saw that the Spirit works through Scripture…not apart from it.  Today theologians call this principle the Analogy of Faith: Scripture interprets Scripture. Evangelicalism, by in large, holds to this same principle today. We do not allow for subjective interpretations, for random assertions of what the text may mean to one individual devoid of an objective meaning. The Spirit indeed works on the mind of the reader, but not apart from the text of Scripture. We owe a debt to Luther for this hermeneutic.

Finally, Luther believed that the heart of the whole Bible was Christ himself. It had, of course, been taught that Christ was in some sense at the center of the Scriptures, but previous theologians and teachers had seen Christ as a moral teacher, a prophet, or a lawgiver. And in this vein Christ was at the center of each of the parts of Scripture. But in many ways it was Luther who recovered a sense of Biblical theology, which saw the whole storyline of Scripture as the story of the unfolding of the gospel fo grace. Althaus says it this way: Christoncetric interpretation for Luther thus means gospel-centered interpretation understood in terms of the gospel of justification by faith alone (79). Today we do not read the Scriptures as a series of detached moralistic lessons, we do not read them as random stories of Biblical heroes who did awesome things, but we are to read them as part of an unfolding plan of redemption. This is the legacy which Luther left us and which the Puritans picked up after Him and which has been passed down to us today. If we have perhaps lost some of this legacy I believe it is being recovered in the contemporary church today. The Bible, the storyline of Scripture, from beginning to end is about Jesus. Luther gives us that.

Luther’s theology of Scripture sets the stage for all else that we might learn from him. All Luther’s theology is built of the presupposition that Scripture is our ultimate authority. That’s Luther’s legacy and if the church will continue to cling tightly to that legacy today then I believe our theology will be better for it!


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