Archive for December, 2011

This portion of Scripture is often called the “Magnificat” after the first word in the Latin translation.  It is an adoration song that is given by Mary to Elisabeth upon their meeting.  The Christ child has yet to be born, yet creation is jumping with anticipation at news of his soon-arrival, including the unborn John the Baptist (Luke 1:44).

There are no less than 15 allusions to the OT in these few verses.  While I am convinced of Mary’s inspiration at the utterance of these words, I’m also confident in her familiarity with the passages in question.  Many of the allusions come from the Psalms, so they were perhaps sung by Mary in the synagogue and at the Temple.  You will also see a parallel between Mary’s Magnificat and Hannah Song in 1 Samuel 2.  The circumstances are completely different, but the praise unto the Lord and His mercies are very similar.  A heart of thankfulness to God permeates through both of these songs to the Lord for His greatness and kindness.

I call them allusions because they are not direct quotations of the OT text, merely parallel thoughts and snippets that Mary sings in her joy.  It is as if Mary is so steeped in Scripture that as she breaks into the praises of God, these words come naturally to her lips[1]  I want to take a few moments this morning and look at the Magnificat or the Canticle of Mary as it is also known and glean from it the humility and thankfulness she pours forth to God.  It is my hope that by hearing Mary’s praise, the Holy Spirit will attune our hearts to praise the Lord, not only in this holiday season, but in all seasons.

God’s Present Blessings Upon Mary (vv. 46-49)

The Depths of Her Praise (vv. 46-47) – “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” – Martin Luther believed there was a categorical distinction between soul and spirit as it is used in these verse.  I do not see any indication that Mary was making such a point.  I do believe we see the outpouring of thankfulness and praise from a heart that is at peace with God.  Mary’s heart is lifting up the Lord to the utmost heights and her spirit is rejoicing in this relationship between Creator and creation.  This is not a superficial praise, but an admiration that springs from the very depths of Mary’s being.

Psa. 34:2-3 – My soul shall make her boast in the LORD at all times:  his praise shall continually be in my mouth.  O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.

The Direction of Her Praise (vv. 46-48) – “. . . the Lord” and “. . . in God my Savior.” – There is a misconception among some that Mary is heaping praises upon herself and her blessedness.  They use verse 48 as their ammunition where Mary says, “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”  In doing this, they ignore to whom Mary addresses her praise from the very beginning of this song.  Note with me what she says again.  “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”  There are to be no misconceptions here.  Mary’s praise and adoration is not for herself, but to an Almighty God.  She finds nothing to boast of in her own condition.  She even recognizes and states here station before God.  She notes her own “low estate” and calls herself the handmaiden or servant of the Lord.

Martin Luther describes Mary “Hence she does not glory in her worthiness nor yet in her unworthiness, but solely in the divine regard, which is so exceedingly good and gracious that He deigned to look upon such a lowly maiden, and to look upon her in so glorious and honorable a fashion. They, therefore, do her an injustice who hold that she gloried, not indeed in her virginity, but in her humility. She gloried neither in the one nor in the other, but only in the gracious regard of God. Hence the stress lies not on the word “low estate” but on the word “regarded.” For not her humility but God’s regard is to be praised. When a prince takes a poor beggar by the hand, it is not the beggar’s lowliness but the prince’s grace and goodness that is to be commended.”[2]

Psa.  138:6 – Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly:  but the proud he knoweth afar off.

The Declaration of Her Praise (v. 47) – Sometimes as Fundamentalists, we are afraid to say too much about Mary.  The Roman Catholics have venerated her to realm of perpetual purity, sinlessness, and assumption.  You will find none of these elements in the NT.  Mary did have more children according to the NT, she did sin, and she did die as a natural death.  We have little time to discuss all those issues, so we will just tackle the one discussed in this song.

In an exegesis of the passage, Curtis A. Jahn states, “Mary found her highest joy in God her Savior. The genitive pronoun “my” is objective. Mary is applying the gospel to herself; she sees herself as the recipient of God’s saving work. What does Mary see God saving her from and saving her for? From the context of her song, the angel’s message to her, Elizabeth’s greeting, and the broader context of the Old Testament Scriptures’ plan of salvation, it is clear that Mary looked to the Lord as her Savior from sin, from the curse of the law, from death and damnation, and from all the evil brought upon his world because of sin.[3]

Psa. 35:9 – And my soul shall be joyful in the LORD:  it shall rejoice in his salvation.

Hab. 3:18 – Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

Luke 11:27-28 – And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the papa which thou has sucked.  But he said, Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.

God’s Promise of Future Blessings Upon Humanity (v. 50)

Promise of Salvation — “And his mercy is on them that fear him . . .” – God’s mercy is upon those that are continually following Him.  The idea of fear here is not a horror-filled reality that should fill the heart of the unbeliever, but it is a child-like reverence and awe that is to be possessed by every child of God.  It is respectful and solemn concerning the person of God and the work of God.  Mary is singing because she knows of the mercy and grace of the Lord.

Psa. 98:1-3 – O sing unto the LORD a new song; for he hath done marvelous things:  his right hand, and his holy arm hath gotten him the victory.  The LORD hath made known his salvation:  his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen.  He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel:  all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Promise of Continuation – “. . .  from generation to generation.” – God’s mercy is not a radiant sun that shines bright one day and dims the next.  His mercy and grace continue on and on.  Mary understood that the mercy and grace she had received of God would continue to bless those that came after her.

Psa. 103:17-18 – But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.

She knew from the announcement of the angel Gabriel that the child she now carried would save his people from their sins (Mat. 1:21).  We now have a better understanding of this promise to Mary and how far-reaching the Word of God was to become.  Not only did Jesus offer salvation to the nation of Israel, but to the entire world.

God’s Past Testimony of Blessings for Abraham (vv. 51-56)

God Showed His Strength (v. 51) – As I have researched this month for the Christmas season, I have been surprised at the number of times the term “arm” has appeared in the various texts I studied.  The coming of the Christ in prophecy, description, and promise is filled with references to the “arm” of the Lord.  This is a show of strength to the watchful nation of Israel.  They do not quite understand how this strength will be unleashed in the form of Jesus, but they are looking for it.

Isa. 40:10 – Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him:  behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.

Isa. 52:10 – The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

God Supplied the Need (vv. 52-54) – Often when we think of God supplying needs, we always think in the positive.  This is certainly a reality, but have we ever considered that sometimes God supplies our true need by what he removes.  These verses show both the positive and the negative means by which God supplies for needs.

  • Scatters the Proud
  • Put Down the Mighty
  • Exalted the Low
  • Filled the Hungry
  • Emptied the Rich

God Secured His Promises (vv. 55) – Do I believe that Mary understood the far-reaching implications of Jesus and His mission?  No.  She understood only as far as God gave her understanding.  As the church, we also have a limited understanding of God’s complete mission in redemption of creation and the salvation of man.  We understand as much as God has revealed to us through His Word.  Mary was not giving a theology lesson with her song, not intentionally.  She was singing the praises of her God and his faithfulness to her and His people.  Mary’s song is pregnant with theological truth and timeless truth concerning God, but Mary did not approach Elisabeth with the intent of giving a discourse.  Everything Mary said and knew about God was based upon one simple principle—God kept His promises.

Gal. 3:16 – Now to Abraham and his seed were the promise made.  He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.

[1] John Piper, Meditation on the Magnificat, sermon preached 12-7-1980, found at, accessed 12-17-2011.

[2] Martin Luther, “The Magnificat,” Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 21 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 314 (Op. Cited from Curtis A. John).

[3] Curtis A. Jahn, “Exegesis and Sermon Study of Luke 1:46-55,” (City Unknown:  Publisher Unknown, 1997), 4.


On August 21, 1911, an Italian immigrant took his revenge upon the nation of France.  Vincenzo Peruggia moved from his native Italy to Paris in hopes of joining its art world.  Peruggia eventually did make it into Paris’ most renowned art museum, the Louvre; however, it was as a handyman and not an artist.  From some reports, Peruggia  was verbally abused by some Parisians, calling him ‘sale macaroni‘ or ‘dirty macaroni,’ an overt and racially charged insult.

As one considers the various avenues of conflict resolution, there are some old standards that come to mind.  First, you can speak with those with whom you have an issue.  This is the peaceful solution to any problem and is the first step with most peaceable and civic-minded citizens.  Noting that Peruggia exacted his revenge in 1911, one might first jump to the conclusion that the Italian immigrant resorted to violence.  If you chose either of those options, sadly, you are wrong.  So how did Peruggia seek revenge upon the people and country that scorned him and made him long to return to his beloved Italy?  He stole the Mona Lisa!

No, your monitor is not displaying that wrong.  Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa.  Believing that Napoleon had stolen it from Italy (he didn’t by the way, da Vinci sold it to Francis I when he moved to Paris to become the court artist), suffering from homesickness, and just a general dislike for the French, Peruggia walked out of the Louvre with da Vinci’s masterpiece hidden under his smock.  The theft is not the most interesting aspect of the story.

Before being stolen, the Mona Lisa was a famous masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.  It was well-known in most art circles.  Beginning around 1860, it was beginning to gain interest from art critics and art lovers, yet Mona had not reached the iconic status she enjoys today.  Author and historian James Zug states, “The ‘Mona Lisa’ wasn’t even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the Louvre.”[1]  Peruggia’s theft transformed da Vinci’s work from a well-crafted portrait into a world-famous masterpiece overnight.  People rushed to the Louvre and the museum’s attendance steadily rose.

The painting would not return to the Louvre for nearly 2 years.  Peruggia would eventually try to sale the painting and be arrested for the theft.  Mona would take a tour of Italy before being returned to the Salon Carre and reclaim her place on the wall.  In the course of those 2 years, more patrons visited the Louvre to see a blank space upon the wall than had come to the museum in the previous decade.

I read the story of the Mona Lisa and Peruggia in disbelief.  The crime did not surprise me, though I was a bit taken aback with the motive.  My disbelief came from the people’s reaction to the theft.  They marched into a museum filled with masterpieces, yet it was a blank part of a wall that drew their attention.  There was not a drop of paint upon this bare spot.  No brush strokes to analyze, no colors to discern, and certainly no scene to envision.  The people had been drawn by the grandeur of the event.  They did not quite understand it, but they knew it was important.

As I tried to put this into a more modern context, I thought of the church.  Here during the Christmas season many churches see an influx of visitors.  Acquaintances and friends who barely have the time or spiritual inclination to make an appearance show up during the Christmas season.  The allure of the event is too much to be ignored.  But I have to ask, are we missing the big picture?

I believe the answer is a resounding yes.  One of the least offensive narratives of the Gospel story is the birth of Jesus.  His poor earthly father and mother travel in hardship to Bethlehem.  The trip is made especially more difficult because Mary is pregnant and nearing her delivery time.  The story’s tension grows as they reach Bethlehem and find there is no place for them to stay.  Either in greed or mercy, an innkeeper gives them his stable to rest in for the evening.  We assume Joseph and Mary are surrounded by animals, hay, and dirt when the child is born.  They wrap the child in strips of cloth and place him in an animal trough.  Angels sing, shepherds praise, and a star shines in the heavens.  The call comes for peace on earth and goodwill toward all men.  It is an upbeat story.  A beautiful story.  It is also only part of the story.  We are missing the big picture.

Why did Jesus come?  Why did he take on “the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men?” (Phi. 2:7)  While Matthew and Luke go on to answer these important questions, the prophet Isaiah had already painted a beautiful picture that answered these questions.  I shared this portrait with my congregation on Sunday, December 11, 2011.

I.             The Portrait is Made Public (Isa. 53:1-3)

His Coming Announced (v. 1)– Isaiah’s proclamation appears to imply that the coming of this servant has been alluded to before to the nation of Israel.  As NT believers, we know this to be an accurate statement as we look back upon the OT and see the various declarations of God concerning the coming of His Messiah.  Beginning in Genesis 3, the Lord has been promising a Savior for sinful man.  The prophet is making the public proclamation and describing the Christ.  Even in the proclamation, there is an element of foreshadowing concerning what is to come.  The word “arm” that is used in this passage is the Hebrew word zeroah, also used to describe the shank of the lamb that was eaten during the Passover.  Already, this Messiah is being portrayed as the Passover Lamb—a substitutionary death.

His Charm Annulled (vv. 2-3) – I can only imagine how shocked the people were when they first heard Isaiah description of the coming Messiah.  Surely, anyone that God will send will be glorious to behold!  His beauty will radiate, His riches will enthrall, and His life will be the envy of all whom see Him.  Sadly, this is not the picture that Isaiah is painting at all.  Notice the words he uses, “no comeliness; no beauty; despised; rejected; sorrow; and grief.”

Matthew Henry says, “No where in all the Old Testament is it so plainly and fully prophesied, that Christ ought to suffer, and then to enter into his glory, as in this chapter. But to this day few discern, or will acknowledge, that Divine power which goes with the word. The authentic and most important report of salvation for sinners, through the Son of God, is disregarded. The low condition he submitted to, and his appearance in the world, were not agreeable to the ideas the Jews had formed of the Messiah. It was expected that he should come in pomp; instead of that, he grew up as a plant, silently, and insensibly. He had nothing of the glory which one might have thought to meet with him. His whole life was not only humble as to outward condition, but also sorrowful. Being made sin for us, he underwent the sentence sin had exposed us to. Carnal hearts see nothing in the Lord Jesus to desire an interest in him. Alas! by how many is he still despised in his people, and rejected as to his doctrine and authority!”

II.            The Portrait is Marred (Isa. 53:4-9)

In the classic book The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde tells the fanciful story of young Dorian Gray.  He is attractive, rich, and is quickly becoming the talk of London.  Having been corrupted by a hedonistic noble, Dorian begins to believe that beauty is the only worthwhile aspect of life.  After seeing a portrait of himself, Dorian wishes for the portrait to grow old, but for himself to remain forever young and beautiful.  His wish is granted.  The picture begins to change and reflect the sinfulness of Dorian’s life and ways.  The book is a lesson that everything beautiful is not good and vice versa.

Isaiah has not painted what many would consider a very flattering portrait thus far.  He has described the Messiah as one who is without beauty, rejected, and despised.  However, we must continue reading to find the true beauty of this picture.  Before we get there, we must first see how the portrait is marred.

The Servant is Sin-Bearing (vv. 4-6) – These verses recognize that the Messiah was to die for the sins of others and not His own iniquities.  All the punishment that is received is undeserved if the Messiah’s actions are taken into account.  It is our actions that are being considered though, and unlike this servant of God, we are not without sin.  Isaiah states that people will look upon His suffering and assume that God is punishing Him for his own transgressions.  As we think to the scene at the cross, the Jews shook their heads, mocked, and cursed Him just as Isaiah describes here.  They thought God had brought judgment upon Jesus for his own actions, when in reality, God was pouring our sin upon Him.

The Servant is Silent (v. 7) – Though He was innocent, He spoke not a word.  Jesus is recognized as the Lamb of God in the NT (John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 5:6), and here more detail is added to the picture.  The Messiah will be the sacrificial lamb of God.  He will resemble that sacrificial lamb that was introduced in Exodus (Exo. 12:3, 6); who through sacrifice and substitution was able to save lives.

The Servant is Slain (vv. 8-9) – So there is no mistake as to what is implied in the text, Isaiah tells us, “he is cut off from the land of the living.”  The death of this servant is a certainty for there is no other way to pay the harsh penalty of sin.

 III.          The Portrait is Magnified (Isa. 53:10-12)

The Seed of the Servant – What is the seed spoken of here?  It is the effect of Messiah’s labor and work.  Offspring will be produced through this righteous work.  And He will see that fruit of his labors.  This is a foreshadowing to me of the resurrection.  Isaiah has already told us that he was cut off from the land of the living.  And now, He will witness His offspring/seed.

The Satisfaction of the Servant – Not only will He see the fruit of His labors, but He will be satisfied.  If    the death that took place in verse 8 were permanent, then these final verses would be illogical.  Something miraculous is going to have to take place if the Messiah is going to see His offspring and be satisfied with the redemption of humanity.

The Spoil of the Servant – There is a reference to great victory in this final verse of chapter 12.  Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage, “To the victor go the spoils.”  This is in reference to the winning army taking the treasures of the defeated.  The servant is said to “divide the spoil with the strong.”  Will the Messiah be victorious?  The answer is a resounding yes!

The Protestant Reformation remains one of the key epochs of the modern era in both the secular and theological worlds.  It opened the doors to enlightenment and brought about the end of the era known to many as the Dark Ages, a time when the realms of society, thought, and science moved at a snail’s pace because of the Roman papacy’s tyrannical oversight.  Small glimmers of light surfaced from time to time throughout Europe.  John Wycliffe in England and John Huss in Bohemia challenged the religious status quo in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century and laid a powder keg at the foundations of Roman Catholicism; however, it would be another century before a spark would ignite that keg and produce any significant change.  That spark was a German monk by the name of Martin Luther.  His name is synonymous with the Protestant Reformation, an honor well deserved, and he would come to champion a battle cry of the Reformers, sola scriptura.  Luther, along with the other Reformers, changed the course of human history by simply changing their interpretative method.  In this paper, we will examine the hermeneutic method of Luther.  We will accomplish this task by first examining the church’s traditional method prior to the Protestant Reformation and then considering Luther’s personal hermeneutic both before and after the widely accepted beginning of the Reformation in 1517.

The Roman Catholic Church’s Traditional Hermeneutic Method

 The swing of a hammer in Wittenberg, Germany, October 31, 1517, appears at first to be an insignificant protest against papal extravagance, more pointedly against the selling of indulgences to fund the church’s building projects.  The act was one familiar to the scholarly community of the sixteenth century.  Its intent was to start a debate among the learned men of the time.  Luther, as documented later by his own hand in an autobiographical note, was unaware of the fervor he would ignite by nailing his upon 95 theses upon the church door.[1]  The obstacle for Luther did not lay in his method of nailing the theses to the church door as many modern readers may interpret for this was an accepted practice of the time; the true obstacle for Luther lay in the traditional hermeneutic employed by the Roman Catholic Church.

The church found itself in a theological quagmire with the death of Gregory the Great in AD 604.  Instead of producing an ever-expanding theological system and body of written work, the church’s learning became stagnant.  Farrar is quite adamant in his assertion no great theological mind emerged during the time known as the “Dark Ages” and the brief sparkles of light during the nine hundred year course only brought to remembrance teachings of the patristic fathers.[2]

Hermeneutic method also became a casualty to the medieval system’s lackadaisical approach to spiritual education.  Medieval scholars failed to develop a system that was characteristic of their era, choosing rather to rely upon methods developed early in the church’s history.  The two primary schools of influence early in the church’s history were the Alexandrian school and the Antiochene.  The Alexandrians, in an attempted synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christianity, viewed Scripture as having a hidden, deeper meaning and valued an allegorical interpretation.  The Antiochenes abhorred the allegorical method and believed interpreting Scripture should rely upon the historical and literal message of the text.  Both schools produced renowned theologians, skillful exegetes, theological treatises, and sizeable libraries; but the Alexandrian allegorical method emerged as the true victor in Roman Catholic hermeneutics.  Ferguson argues the rise of the allegorical method as the accepted hermeneutic gave rise to papal authority.  He states, “Interpreters within the mainstream of the church’s tradition often accused outsiders of distorting the obvious meaning of the text.  But as allegorization came to be accepted by the orthodox theologians, this charge lost much of its force.  Church officials soon began to sense the need for some external authority which would permanently fix the meaning of Scripture.”[3]  The need, Ferguson further contends, was satiated in the Roman Catholic Church.

By the time of Luther, the medieval theologians followed a four-fold interpretative method in Scripture.[4]  First, the literal interpretation evaluated a text based upon its plain meaning.  This first principle held little esteem with most medieval scholars.  The literal sense of a passage was then followed by an allegorical interpretation that would dominate the medieval hermeneutic.  Following closely in the steps of the Alexandrian school, medieval exegetes overlooked the literal thrust of Scripture and searched for a deeper truth.  The third step of this medieval method taught that the moral meaning of a passage spoke directly to the hearer’s daily activity and was to produce faith through action.  The final piece to the medieval hermeneutic puzzle was the anagogical interpretation.  This area focused on the eternal state of elements in this world and revealed a platonic influence.

 Luther’s Pre-Reformation Hermeneutic

Luther’s own writings prior to 1517 are difficult to find, and it may be by Luther’s own design that these writings are literary rarities if they do exist.  It is from Luther’s own hand one gains a glimpse into early interpretive method.  He says, “When I was a monk, I was much versed in spiritual significations and allegories.”[5]  He further comments that it was not until he completed his study through Paul’s epistle to the Romans that he came to consider allegory a vain, improper method of interpretation.

Even with the meager examples of Luther’s early writings, understanding the content and structure of his writing is possible by studying his contemporaries.  Luther’s own admission indicates insignificant divergence from his own early writings and those of other fifteenth century monks.  He viewed allegory as an art, but later viewed the form as one without purpose when orchestrated from the human mind.  To state that Luther completely rejected allegory later in his life is disingenuous and many scholars have noted his apparent contradictory statements concerning the form.  After 1517, Luther did alter his approach to Scripture significantly, and while it did contain some elements of allegory, it varied greatly from that of his former profession as a Roman Catholic monk.[6]

Luther’s Reformation Hermeneutic

 The crux of the Protestant Reformation rested upon a shift in hermeneutic.  The Reformers rejected the allegoric heavy method that carried Roman Catholicism through the medieval period.  Luther, as the reformation catalyst, led the hermeneutical shift.  Describing Luther’s hermeneutic method and the methods of the other Reformers as new is misleading.  Luther did not invent the historical-literal method of interpretation; rather he re-introduced it into the Christian world.  Literal interpretation of Scripture characterized the Antiochene School in the early centuries of Christianity.  Even though Luther did not invent the Reformation hermeneutic, Dockery asserts his importance to the method’s development when he states, “In a very real sense, [Luther] is the father of Protestant interpretation.”[7]

Luther was not the first reformer, nor would he be the last; however, his importance to the Protestant Reformation cannot be understated.  His predecessors included a long list of valiant men such as John Wycliffe and John Huss, but these men were only flickers in a relatively long, dark tunnel of history whose last flash of brilliance dimmed in the seventh century with the death of Gregory the Great.  The task rested upon Luther and his contemporaries to pull back the veil that had blinded Europe for a millennia.  But how could they succeed where so many others had failed?  The solution lay in the issue of authority.

Roman Catholicism had long contested its position of authority in the person of the pope.  This authority rested in the writings of the early Bishops of Rome and later in the works of the Latin fathers.  Shielded by the authority of the early fathers and ignorance of the general populace to the meaning of Scripture, Roman Catholicism thrived under the leadership of various popes throughout the centuries.  If any disputed the Holy See of Rome’s authority, they were lambasted with early church writings and papal bulls that expounded the primacy of the pope.  All opponents quickly fell, either through fear or through bribery, and the system continued as it had in the past.  At first it appeared that Luther’s ninety-fives theses in Wittenberg would follow the same course as others in the past.  Either Luther would collapse under the authoritarian papal system, or he would be branded a heretic to be killed by angry masses or to die in obscurity and forgotten by history.

Oddly, Luther did not falter, and he did not fail in his opposition to Roman Catholicism.  When faced with such a powerful opponent as the Roman Catholic Church, Luther decided he would not be cajoled into keeping silent.  The German monk also decided his interpretation of the papacy and the Roman Catholic system would not be argued from the writings of bishops and church fathers, only from Scripture.  In recalling his debate with John Eck at Worms, Luther remembered Eck defending Rome’s position by quoting only the church fathers.[8]  This fact marked Luther as a Reformer of distinction, and it positioned him to succeed when so many before him had failed.

Luther’s new approach called for a new hermeneutic.  Reliance upon the old allegorical system had put Rome into its vaulted position and only served to solidify the Holy See’s claim to power.  Luther, still a devout Roman Catholic when he posted his theses, did not develop his approach to Scripture overnight, but it was the product of many laborious years in the Word of God.  Farrar points out a shift in Luther’s interpretation as the monk began to study Hebrew and Greek and depend less upon the church father’s interpretations.  By 1521, Luther worked from a system that has done a great service to the church since the time of the Reformation.  Luther’s system, as Farrar organizes it declares (1) the supreme and final authority of Scripture itself, apart from all ecclesiastical authority and interference; (2) the sufficiency of Scripture; (3) a setting aside of the medieval four-fold sense; (4) a rejection of the validity of allegory; (5) the perspicuity of Scripture; (6) the absolute indefensible right of private judgment.[9]

The six elements of Luther’s hermeneutic continue to be the driving force behind many Protestant denominations interpretive methods.  Luther’s first and key element of sola Scriptura establishes an authoritative base in Scripture that is absent of Roman Catholic endorsement.  His dependence on the principle of Scripture’s final authority led Luther to stand defiantly against condemnation at the Diet of Worms.  Resting upon this authority, Luther also viewed Scripture adequate to meet every need of man.  While the first two points were incisive, Luther did not stop, but next directly attacked the interpretive foundation of Roman Catholicism by renouncing the four-fold sense and declaring allegory useless to a literal understanding of Scripture.  Luther says, “Allegories are fine ornaments, but not of proof.”[10]  The perspicuity of Scripture, as defined by Kaiser is, “the sense of the text is to be drawn from the clear verses of the Bible.”[11]  Lastly, and perhaps as important as the first, Luther asserted the right of the believer’s priesthood.  Farrar avows the importance of this principle better than other historians when he states, “[believer’s priesthood] lies at the base of all Protestantism, I might even say at the base of all manly, sure, and thoughtful religion.”[12]

Luther’s literal interpretation of Scripture and his Reformation hermeneutic ignited a fire in the religious world that burns even today.  The German’s training did not differ from the typical monk of the sixteenth century.  Where Luther did differ from many of his contemporaries was in his approach to Scripture.  He would not be bogged down with Roman Catholic tradition, fanciful allegory, or fear of retribution for going against the Holy See of Rome.  Was it his strong belief in sola Scriptura or Luther’s faithful contention that each believer possessed a God-given priesthood?  Historians can and will continue to debate Luther’s motivation; however, there is large-scale agreement to his effectiveness in reshaping the course of Christian history with his rediscovered hermeneutic.

[1] E. G. Rupp and Benjamin Drewery, ed.  Martin Luther:  Documents of Modern History (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1970), 173-179.

[2] Frederic W. Farrar.  The History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1961), 245-250.

[3] Duncan S. Ferguson.  Biblical Hermeneutics:  An Introduction (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 151-152.

[4] Krey, Philip D. and Lesley Janette Smith, ed.  Nicholas of Lyra:  The Senses of Scripture (Boston:  Brill Publishing, 2000), 16.  The four-fold interpretive method, “Littera gesta docet; Quid creadas allegoria; Moralia quid agas; Quo tendas anagogia” or “The letter teaches what happened, the allegorical what to believe, the moral what to do, the anagogical toward what to aspire.”  This well-known quote of the medieval world can be found in a number of sources from the era.

[5] Table Talk 7:767

[6] Paul K. Jewett, “Concerning the Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 17, no. 2 (November 1954):  2.

[7] David S. Dockery, “Martin Luther’s Christological Hermeneutics,” Grace Theological Journal 4, no. 2 (Fall 1983):  190.

[8] Farrar, 327.

[9] Farrar, 324-335.  See Dockery, 190-191 for an abbreviated version of Farrar’s observations.

[10] Table Talk, 7:762.

[11] Kaiser, 3.

[12] Farrar, 329.

The Forgotten Discipline

“I am a history person,” is often the response that I give when asked about my interests.  The context of such a question is typically in relation to my ministry as a pastor.  By vocation, all pastors are in some manner “history people” because our subject matter stretches back a few thousand years.  We touch history every time open our Bibles and interact with the text.  History dances across our eyes with every verse of Scripture that we read.  However, how many pastors can say with a pure conscience that they dedicate their time to studying the roots of our Christian faith?  What of the men and women who came before us (and after the closing of the canon)?  Are their lives not worthy of consideration and study?

The detractors will say, “We are called to preach the Word!  Not give a history lesson!”  And, I would heartily agree with that assessment.  My purpose as a pastor is to preach the Word of God to edify the saints of God and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the lost.  But, what of the Word that I use?  What of the testimonies of Scripture?  Are not all of these histories?  Paul illustrates the value of history when he shares with the Romans the reasoning for studying Scripture, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).  By Paul’s use of the term “scripture” we know he is speaking of the Old Testament, the theological, as well as cultural and historical record of the Jews.  While modern pastors’ neglect of the Old Testament is the topic of another post, I will state that I think the principle of Paul’s instruction here is far-reaching.

The idea is not to be “backwards-minded” and be ineffective in this day and age.  The principle is that life is learned in the past and lived in the present.  Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool hath no delight in understanding, but that his heart my discover itself.”  Or, as I often relate it, “Only a fool learns from experience, where instruction has already been given.”

What are the mistakes of our past and how can we avoid them in the future?  Solomon wrote there is “no new thing under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9) and if he is to be believed our future can be shaped and guided if we understand our past.  More importantly than that, I believe our history to be just as important as our theology, especially if we believe in the God of the Bible.  History is not merely an unrelated series of events that we categorize and tie together in an effort to gain understanding of our environment.  History is the channeled outworking of God’s redemptive acts.  I say channeled because I do not believe humanity’s time on this planet from creation to the present is a free-flowing fractal of coincidence and luck.  God has directed them and God has worked using the marred clay of humanity in His grand designs.  These past redemptive works should and can be used in our churches!  These histories can be presented in a manner that shows the application of Scripture in the lives of Christians and the Providence of God in the life of His Church.

In short, our Christian history can be a great evangelistic tool if used properly, and in using it we open up our next generations to the richness of God’s grace to humanity.  The past work of God becomes a present reality to those who accept Him through Jesus Christ.  The marvelous work of God is no longer a narrative to be admired, but a mission to be lived.  Grace is no longer an impotent word coming from the mouth of a preacher, but a concept to love and embrace.  The Holy Spirit is not an enigmatic invisible force but an indwelling Friend.  And Jesus, sweet Jesus, is not the oft-admired and just as often-maligned great moral teacher—He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mat. 16:16; John 6:69).

Our Christian history is a means by which we open up that reality to the lost.  What is our testimony?  It is a historical record of how God worked in our life and continues to work!  What is the Word of God?  It is a God-breathed historical revelation of God at work in the realm of humanity!  So I charge each of you that are pastors to teach our Christian history, proclaim your own history with God by your testimony, and pray others can begin writing their own history with the Lord Jesus Christ.