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.

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