Freedom in Reading the Scripture


[1] Martin Luther (1483-1546) recommended to students, colleagues, and friends a daily encounter with Scripture as a way to hear about, and therefore rely on, God’s presence in their lives. It was an invitation to believe in, and thus engage, God’s promises to them. Luther himself engaged and, therefore, interpreted Scripture with a freedom that still strikes us as blunt. From his ways of re-telling the biblical stories and his use of paraphrasing, to his making different parts of the Scripture speak to one another, moving through the text while looking for what proclaims, promotes, or “pushes Christ” (was Christum treibet),2 Luther approached Scripture with both freedom and respect, which are never to be thought of as mutually exclusive.

[2] Moreover, Luther saw both spiritual and ethical implications from this strong regard in which Scripture was held. Scripture speaks vehemently to righteousness, God’s as well as ours, while arguing for the proper distinction between these “two kinds of righteousness,” without excluding the place and need for the latter in human affairs. Ultimately, to say that Christ is our righteousness is to say that human righteousness, albeit always limited and imperfect, has now received its proper “breathing room.” That said, how did Luther get there? That is part of the story that we would like to present for the reader’s consideration

The Bible Professor

[3] After completing his “Doctor in Biblia” degree at University of Wittenberg in 1512, Martin Luther began lecturing on Bible in January 1513 after succeeding Johannes von Staupitz in the chair of Biblical Studies at the same institution. Luther taught at the same place continuously for the next 34 years until the time of his death.3

[4] Luther’s first lecture course was his “Lessons on the Psalms” (1513-1515). Shortly after, he was adding courses on Romans (1515), Galatians (1516), and Hebrews (1517). In all these biblical books, he explored definitions of divine justice, mercy, and the very idea of ‘who is God?’ Through the study of the Scripture, Luther gained insights into the meaning of “justification by faith” and the hermeneutic of “law and gospel.” This process of study was happening before and all along the composition of the Ninety-Five Theses.

[5] Study of the Scriptures was more than an academic exercise for Luther. Interpretation, commentary, and re-telling of biblical stories became hallmarks of his lectures, sermons, and publications. As teacher and preacher, he saw the need to develop innovative ways of reading the Scripture, contributing thus to biblical exegesis – the way that one goes about interpreting the text. Initially, Luther applied the method of interpretation that he learned at the University of Erfurt, namely, the Quadriga, which applied to the text a fourfold criterion of analysis: the literal, spiritual, moral, and eschatological meanings.

[6] In time, however, Luther applied other tools to the exegetical task: from analysis of the structure of a biblical text, book, or passage, to the study of its historical background and context. As a humanist, he sought clarity on the main argument (argumentum) of the writing.4 Luther made use of “word study,” seeing how a specific term was applied within a biblical book or even across different books of the Bible. Luther entertained different definitions and possible translations for important words, searching for the best possible rendition, so that the text could speak to people as clearly as possible. Possibly his biggest contribution to exegetical studies was his translation of the whole Bible, completed in 1534.

[7] Nonetheless, Luther’s main concern was looking in the text for what “pushes Christ,” emphasizing the task of proclaiming Christ openly to all.

Teaching the Book of Psalms

[8] It is known that the Book of Psalms was much studied and interpreted in the Middle Ages. Thus, Luther was not breaking new ground when he began lecturing on it. In any case, Luther demonstrated, time and again, a deep appreciation for the Psalms for theological, devotional, and spiritual reasons.

[9] While teaching the Psalms, Luther began to confront difficulties with his understanding of the concept of the “justice of God,” and what he could possibly expect from a “righteous God.” For example,

Psalm 31:1 (NRSV)
In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.

Psalm 71:15 (NRSV)
My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
of your deeds of salvation all day long,
though their number is past my knowledge.

[10] We may say that Luther was bothered by the idea of a “righteous God,” whom he could only sense as demanding and punishing. How could the psalmist be so bold and confident so as to proclaim the need to be saved through God’s righteousness? Exegesis provided Luther with new insights into the question of God’s will and character.

God Gracious

[11] Justice in the theological sense was normally understood as “to render, to give account (to God);” in addition, a righteous God could not condone any impiety. Luther believed that the strict meaning of this word conveyed a sense of “terror” before God’s holiness. As we know, Luther was not alone in this view. In Luther’s times, even Jesus was seen as a “lawgiver” or new Moses.

[12] For Luther, however, besides the fulfillment of his duties as teacher of the Bible, this was a personal search, a quest for truth, a search for God, as well as for the certainty of faith, and not merely a problem of biblical interpretation. It was, as we would say today, an “existential quest:” Luther was personally invested in this activity, as if his life depended on it.

[13] During his search, Luther’s main questions became, first of all, what do I have to do to get a gracious God? Moreover, are God’s justice and grace compatible with each other? Luther concluded that the answer to the latter question was a resounding “yes:” God’s justice is God’s merciful dealing with whoever God wants to save, that is, ordinary sinners, people like us. To the former question, the answer was: nothing, since there is nothing that we could do in order to make God good, friendly, or gracious to us. Forgiveness of sins is freely given. As St. Paul declares, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).

[14] As Luther went on with his study of the Scripture, he began to see the whole of the Hebrew Bible through the lens of his changing understanding of God’s gracious activity on behalf of the sinner, impious, and unworthy. The God of justice is the one who acts on our behalf and for our sake, despite of who we are. Moreover, God is always steadfastly faithful in his interest and love for us.

[15] At the time, Luther also engaged in an in-depth study of Augustine’s writings (354-430 CE), especially Augustine’s treatise Concerning the Spirit and the Letter but also On the Trinity. Especially significant for Luther was to learn that, according to Augustine, God does not address God’s attention toward our merits, but to God’s own divine mercy. From Augustine, Luther learned that God promises not to give attention to our merits but to God’s own goodness, and that the promises of God are trustworthy.

[16] Luther came to understand God’s justice as an act of divine surrender, that is, the act through which God gives God’s own self for us. Moreover, this is precisely what Jesus Christ means for us, since Christ himself has become our righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is now given, granted, and bestowed on us by faith in him. Any possibility for righteous living can only come from and through Christ’s own.

[17] This understanding truly changed Luther’s views on God. Now God was the God who acts in our favor. God is known to us by God’s activity; and God’s natural activity is to be gracious to us, to forgive us. God delights in acting mercifully; God cares for sinners in ways not truly yet grasped by us.

[18] We hear the word that proclaims this grace to us. And, since God is a God who says and does, we receive God’s promise of forgiveness for our comfort and salvation. God’s word is trustworthy. The divine promise itself creates faith. Faith now results in the exercise of freedom, the freedom to be and be for others, all fear and preoccupation with self being pushed aside, in the Christian life.

[19] In this way, Luther now developed one of his most revolutionary insights out of his detailed study of the Scriptures. He made a clear distinction between, on one hand, God’s alien work, or God’s reluctant doing; in brief, judgment and punishment. And, on other hand, God’s proper work, or God’s natural doing; in brief, grace and forgiveness. Luther also spoke of the “two hands of God.” With the “left hand” God enacts judgment; with the “right hand,” mercy. It so happens that God is “right handed”. It is in the nature of God to be good and forgiving. This has been shown publicly in the life, message, and work of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.

[20] Luther drew these insights from his reading of the Scripture. As Professor Cameron states, “It is through his exegesis, recorded in the commentaries generated by his lectures, that we chart the evolution of Luther into reformer.”5

How to Read Scripture

[21] When asked how he studied Scripture, or what was his method, Luther replied with his own version of Lectio divina (divine reading): oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, and struggle), since we “need to approach Scripture in the right spirit and with the right orientation.” In the preface to the first edition of his collected writings in German (1539), Luther suggested this attentive reflection on the Scripture. It appears in his commentary on Psalm 119:26-28, which is an exaltation of God’s word.6

[22] It all begin with prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to open the meaning of the text before us. Through prayer, we ask humbly for guidance; we want to be spared an over-reliance on our own initiative and reason. Scripture is not to be subjected to our mere musings and pleasure. It is God’s instrument, the place from which God addresses us.

[23] Meditation, diligently attending to the text, follows prayer. We read the Scripture, recite the words, speak them loudly; in this way, we listen and thus can reflect upon every word.

[24] Finally, Luther speaks of tentatio, a word difficult to grasp since it translates the German Anfechtung, meaning fight, struggle, the experience of opposition in the crucible of daily life, going through the vicissitudes of life and human anguish.7 Luther would come to call it the “devil’s attack.” We may think of it, following the Latin term, as temptation: we are tempted to think that we got it, that we truly understand God and faith, that we have grown spirituality, and all by our own attention and efforts. And here lies precisely the problem for Luther, that we never really “get it,” that any light comes strictly from God’s grace, through the action of Word and Spirit working in us and for us.8

[25] Anfechtung is the experience of despair, of God and of oneself, of uncertainty about God and faith. Luther thought that God is behind that experience, teaching us something valuable. “Without the darkness of despair, the light of faith would not emerge. Only in the struggle with unbelief, could faith be won and nurtured. The ultimately positive intent of the Anfechtungen could be grasped only as all the options had been wrestled with, and finally only faith was retained.”9

Luther’s Testament

[26] For the last ten years of his life Luther was lecturing on Genesis, verse by verse, by giving careful attention to every word. In the view of some scholars, Luther conceived of his Genesis commentary as a kind of theological testament, a compendium of theological topics, his legacy in biblical interpretation. In what I consider a striking example of the boldness with which Luther handled biblical texts and interpretation, while allowing seemingly disparate passages to speak to one another, let me share what Luther did with Genesis 32, the story of Jacob’s struggle with a heavenly creature.

[27] That night while camping alongside the river, Jacob fights a heavenly messenger, demanding from this being a blessing. Luther speaks of the wrestler as Christ himself. Jacob won’t let go of the being. Why? This is Luther’s take on the story, as if addressing Jacob directly:

Why do you not let him go? Your thigh is hurt and you are already lame; what will you do? “I feel no weakness,” says Jacob. Who is strengthening you? “Faith, the promise, and indeed, this weakness of faith.” In this manner God is conquered when faith does not leave off, is not wearied, and does not cease but presses and urges on. So it makes its appearance in the Canaanite woman with whom Jesus was wrestling when He said: “You are a dog, the bread of the sons does not belong to you” (cf. Matt 15:26). The woman did not yield here but offered opposition, saying: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” And so she was victorious and heard the excellent word of praise: “O woman, great is your faith!”10

[28] As it turns out, this Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman — a foreigner, with no known name — is Jacob in the Gospel story. Moreover, faith is not passive but active and demanding. What faith demands is the promise of God, to be fulfilled in us here and now.

What Luther Found

[29] “Luther saw Jesus Christ everywhere that he looked in Scripture, even in those area where modern exegetes are not accustomed to see him.”11 For Luther, believing in Christ frees us to read the Scripture and to find Christ witnessed and proclaimed, present for us in the text. Nonetheless, the biblical text, like faith itself, is “weak.”12 There is nothing self-evident about divine revelation in its pages. Understanding Scripture is always a struggle. There is a weakness and limitations to the text itself, since it is not all consistent, ethical, rational, nor does it always make sense. The interpretation of Scripture, for Luther, presupposes that we trust God, that we pray that the Spirit reveal its truth, and that in God’s mercy we hear God’s word addressing us.

[30] As we initially said, from re-telling of the biblical stories and paraphrasing to making the Scriptures’ texts speak to one another, moving through the texts while looking for what “pushes Christ,” Luther approached Scripture with a freedom that still strikes us as blunt today.

Luther Today

[31] As a way of conclusion, I would like to point to a thought experiment by the late Luther scholar Heiko Oberman (1930-2001). In the last chapter of his compelling biography of Luther,13 Oberman asked the following questions: “Where would a man like Martin Luther fit in today? What kind of job would he be suited for?” Basically, what academic subject should Luther teach today? Oberman’s answer comes down to the following: most academic positions would be closed to Luther, except that “professor of biblical theology would probably be best suited for the present-day field of practical theology.”
14 In other words, Luther would be at home teaching how to preach from the Bible, and helping students to move from exegesis to proclamation, a task and training as important and demanding today as it was in Luther’s own time.

Attached to the above view was a resilient faith in the ability of the Word, as it springs up from the Scripture, to change the hearts and minds of its listeners when it pleases the Spirit to do so, and to affect faith in people’s lives, but not without struggle or trial.


1 This article is an outgrowth from a public lecture at a Bible Conference at New York Theological Seminary in New York City, dedicated to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Reformation, last October 30, 2017. A word of thanks to the original audience as well as to the editor of JLE for the invitation to publish it in expanded form.

2 “What pushes Christ” is Robert Kolb’s translation of Luther’s was Christum treibet; see Kolb’s Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: the Wittenberg School and Its Scripture-Centered Proclamation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016).

3 For an extended analysis of Luther’s interpretation of the Scripture, beginning with his initial lecture course on the Psalms, see Scott H. Hendrix, “The Authority of Scripture at Work: Luther’s Exegesis of the Psalms” in Encounters with Luther, vol. 2,edited by Eric W. Gritsch (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Institute for Luther Studies, 1982), 144- 159, esp. 144-147.

4 See the discussion on this point with some examples in Timothy J. Wengert, Reading the Bible with Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 94-98.

5 Euan K. Cameron, “On Editing Luther’s Writings on Scripture,” in Dialog 56/2 (June 2017): 126.

6 Luther’s Works, American Edition,Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann, general editors (Philadelphia: Fortress Press and St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-), vol. 34: 285-288.

7 For a more detailed explanation of what is contained in the term Anfechtung and how Luther applies it, including looking for instances of that “struggle” in the Scripture, see Egil Grislis, “The Experience of the Anfechtungen and the Formulation of Pure Doctrine in Martin Luther’s Commentary on Genesis” in Consensus 8/2 (1982): 19-31, esp. 20-23.

8 For a discussion on Luther’s interpretation of Lectio divina as it relates to Lutheran conceptions of spirituality, see Nelson Rivera, “Mestizo Spirituality” in Lutheran Partners, Sept-Oct 2000: 34-37.

9 Grislis, “The Experience of Anfechtugen,” 23.

10 LW 6: 139.

11 Cameron, “On Editing Luther’s Writings on Scripture,” 131.

12 Wengert, Reading the Bible with Luther, 50-53.

13 Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

14 Oberman, Luther, 313.

Nelson Rivera

The Rev. Dr. Nelson Rivera is Associate Professor of Theology at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.