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Luther's Approach to Scripture

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Luther's fourfold sense of scripture focused on historical (literal), allegorical (figurative), tropological (moral), and anagogic (future).


Luther's Approach to Scripture

Luther, the Pastor: II Timothy 4:2

I. Most often Luther is remembered for his slogan sola scriptura and the issue of biblical authority. This principle, however, has much more to do with the large question of authority than the more intricate matter of dealing with the text of Scripture.

A. The Ninety-Five Theses

1. At this time he was still giving deference to the Pope, the magesterium and the Councils

2. 1517 was not at the place to make the bold statement of Scripture alone.

3. 1519 in the Leipzeg debate Luther is pressed to admit that Popes and Councils have erred, therefore, scripture is the alone

B. The Wittenberg Reforms

1. 1521 - Warberg Castle, Luther is out of the continuing reforms in Wittenberg. Carlstat begins to lead reforms in Wittenberg especially against images. A bit of a mob destroyed images.

2. Luther returned to bring peace to Wittenberg and he preached a series of sermons on the subject. Luther's emphasis now on the preaching of the word in the hope that hearts would be changed.

C. Avoiding the Doctrines of Men

1. Compares the laws of monastic rules to scripture.

a. Nothing should be added to the word of scripture.

b. Scripture has one center, Christ.

c. Monastic distinction of foods. Matthew 14: "not what goes into a man but what comes out that makes a man unclean"

d. Human freedom applies to the ceremonies of men

2. Augustine had once said, "I should not believe the gospel if I did not believe the Church." - What if he erred? If this is his opinion, he contradicts himself? Many falsify the words of Augustine.

D. The Council of Trent


II. The young Luther had to struggle with the traditional methods of biblical interpretation. Typically Luther speaks about the fourfold sense of Scriptures.

A. The need for allegorical interpretation

Arguments and discussion of 2 Corinthians 3:6



B. The letter lets you know what happened, the allegory what you must believe, the moral sense what you do, and the anagogical what you may hope for. (see below)

The Fourfold Sense of Scripture

Originally attributed to John Casian but many variations exist by the time of Luther



the city of Judea

good people




the city in Mesopotamia

evil people



Mount Zion

the land in Canaan


Pharisaic justice

earthly well-being

Mount Zion

the people of Zion


Christian justice

eternal life


C. Example


III. Modern Research, especially that of Gerhard Ebeling, has asserted that the methodological shift in Luther's hermeneutic, in which he overcomes the fourfold interpretive schema, corresponds with Luther's reformational breakthrough (a.k.a. Luther's tower experience).

A. Ebeling claims that Luther's contribution to biblical hermeneutics is his turning away from allegory rather than any particular interpretation in itself.

B. Ebeling's thesis has recently been challenged by J. Lindhardt, H. Junghans, and K. Hagen.


IV. What is certain is that Luther gives definite place to 2 Corinthians 3:6.

A. Tradition understood the letter in the mere historical sense. To get the real meaning of scripture one needed to move beyond the letter, the earthly, to the spirit. This caused the interpreter to look for the spiritual or allegorical meaning of the text.

B. Luther reverses this hermeneutic by asserting that the text does not mean something, it accomplishes something. The letter kills, the Spirit gives life. The Scripture confronts us with the living God who kills in order to make alive.

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