By Dr. Richard P. Bucher
Martin Luther’s last writing was a short message written on a slip of paper the day before he died. This note was found on a table next to his death bed. What was on the note? Words of praise for the Bible and an appeal to read it with a humble spirit (this note is recorded in Luther’s Works 54:476). Fitting last words for a man whose adult life was marked by an intense love for the Scriptures of God.
Long before his rediscovery of the Gospel and long before his work as a reformer, Luther had embarked on a love affair with the Bible. But at the beginning of the 16th Century this was anything but typical. Far from our day in which the devotional reading of Scripture, available in hundreds of versions and editions, is roundly encouraged, in that day few had access to the Scriptures in the vernacular. What Scripture they knew had been heard in the liturgy and Scripture readings (in Latin!). Those who did have access to a Bible were not especially encouraged to read it. It was looked upon by many as a dark and obscure book, one that needed expert guidance to understand. Thus, there is nothing unusual about Luther’s claim that the first time he even saw a Bible was in a University library in Erfurt when he was twenty years old. At this time he apparently read the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel.
Nor was this attitude toward the Bible essentially different among the theologians. Even though the Bible remained the source book of theology during the Middle Ages, it was seldom studied directly by the theologians. Luther complains that both in the monasteries and the universities the Bible was seldom read directly, and when it was, it was understood according to the categories of Aristotle. Those seeking “real” theology were instead directed to study the scholastic theologians, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, and others. As a typical example of this, Luther mentions his fellow professor Andreas Karlstadt, who did not even own a Bible when he earned his doctor of theology degree, nor did he until many years later (e.g., WA TR 1, no. 174).
With this in view, Luther’s love for the Bible was remarkable. That love was kindled when he became a novice during his first year in the monastery in the reform congregation of the Augustinian Hermits. Kindled, because of the work of Johann Staupitz. Staupitz, the vicar general of the Augustinian Hermits, was to have a lasting influence on Luther’s love of the Bible in two ways. First, he reinstituted Bible study in the monasteries of the reformed Augustinian Hermits. Second, when Frederick the Wise, elector of Electoral Saxony, summoned Staupitz to found the new Wittenberg University in 1502, he established a new professorship in the Bible, which he himself filled until 1512, when Luther took it over. For the time, having a university chair of Biblical studies was quite unusual, and it proved to be of the greatest importance to Luther’s discovery of the Gospel.
During their first year in the monastery, novices were given a Bible bound in red leather and encouraged to study it. Years later in one of his “table talks” Luther claimed that he had read that Bible so thoroughly that he knew what was on every page. When a passage was mentioned he knew immediately where to find it:
If I had kept at it, I would have become exceedingly good at locating things in the Bible. At that time no other study pleased me so much as sacred literature. With great loathing I read physics [Aristotle’s Physics], and my heart was aglow when the time came to return to the Bible . . . I read the Bible diligently. Sometimes one statement occupied all my thoughts for a whole day (LW 54:14).
Unfortunately at the end of Luther’s novitiate, this Bible was taken from him, which he regretted, and he was forced to study other subjects. But whenever he could, he stole away into the monastery library to read the Bible there. The monks were allowed to keep a copy of the Psalter, which they were required to pray on a regular basis. Luther later claims that he had memorized the Psalms and had worn the little Psalter book to shreds. Thus, Luther is undoubtedly referring to his first years in the monastery when he mentions in another of his Table Talks, “As a young man I made myself familiar with the Bible; by reading it again and again I came to know my way about in it” (LW 54:361).
Again it must be stressed that in his love and passion for the Bible Luther was highly unusual. All of this must have attracted Staupitz’ attention and wonder, who then had a hand in Luther’s earning of the bachelor of the Bible (1509) and doctor of theology (1512), both earned in Wittenberg. The doctorate was especially important, because upon completing it, Luther took over as Professor of Bible at Wittenberg University. This position, which he loved, forced him even more deeply into the Scriptures, as he lectured on various Biblical books from 1512-1521 (Psalms, 1512-1515; Romans, 1515-1516; Galatians 1516-1517; Hebrews, 1517-1518; Psalms 1518-1521).
But Luther’s interest in Scripture in these and the following years was far more than academic, nor was it limited to the particular Bible book he was lecturing on at the time. In a comment, probably made in 1519, Luther remembers, “I had then already read and taught the sacred Scriptures most diligently privately and publicly for seven years, so that I knew them nearly all by memory” (LW 34:334). This quote indicates that throughout this period, Luther continued to read the Scriptures devotionally as well, so much so that he had nearly memorized them! This helps us to understand Luther’s famous comment associated with his tower experience.
There I began to understand [in Romans 1:17] that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered the gates of paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God (LW 34:337; italics mine).
When Luther came to understand the Gospel in Romans 1, he was able to compare his discovery with the rest of Scripture from memory, precisely because he had already spent so many years carefully reading and teaching the Bible! This is why he immediately knew that his interpretation of Romans 1:17 agreed with the rest of Scripture.
This voracious appetite for the Word did not stop there. Looking back in 1532, the reformer could comment,
For some years now, I have read through the Bible twice every year. If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant (LW 54:165).
Throughout his adult life, even though he read it so many times, Martin Luther continued to have an incredible love for the Bible, never content with previous readings and insights, always wanting to better understand.
But from whence did this great attraction for the Bible come? What was it that made Luther love the Bible so much? First, as Martin Brecht has said, “The monk Luther brought the questions which troubled him to the Scriptures, expecting an answer” (Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521, translated by James Schaff. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985, p. 90). One of Luther’s most strongly held convictions was that in the Bible, God had the answers to his problems. The Bible, for him, was the voice of the living God, who spoke directly to the needs of His people. Luther was sure that if he only studied, read, and meditated enough, the answer would break through.
Second, there was the joy of discovery. So deep and broad were the Scriptures that new readings and meditations ever brought knew insights and discoveries. This conviction is evident in a comment Luther made in 1540:
The Bible is the proper book for men. There the truth is distinguished from error far more clearly than anywhere else, and one finds something new in it every day. For twenty-eight years, since I became a doctor, I have now constantly read and preached the Bible; and yet I have not exhausted it but find something new in it every day (WA TR 5, no. 5193).
This same conviction is also behind his last words found by his deathbed, alluded to at the beginning of this article: “Let nobody suppose that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has ruled over the churches with the prophets for a hundred years” (LW 54:476). Here at the very end of his life, Luther’s great respect for the depth of Scripture shines forth.
Because of this, Luther was constantly vexed that his fellow Germans were so bored with the Bible. While in the Castle Coburg during the proceedings at the diet of Augsburg, 1530, Luther expressed this vexation in a preface to his commentary on Psalm 118.
The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world. Everything else, arts or literature, is pursued and practiced day and night, and there is no end of labor and effort; but Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it. Those who condescend to read it want to absorb everything at once. There has never been an art or a book on earth that everyone has so quickly mastered as the Holy Scriptures. But its words are not, as some think, mere literature (Lesewort); they are words of life (Lebewort), intended not for speculation and fancy but for life and action. By why complain? No one pays any attention to our lament. May Christ our Lord help us by His Spirit to love and honor His holy Word with all our hearts. Amen (LW 14:46).
In 1540, after commenting on how difficult it had been to translate the Bible into German (completed in 1534), Luther remarked,
This German Bible (this is not praise for myself but the work praises itself) is so good and precious that it’s better than all other versions, Greek and Latin, and one can find more in it than in all commentaries, for we are removing impediments and difficulties so that other people may read it without hindrance. I’m only concerned that there won’t be much reading in the Bible, for many people are tired of it and nobody clamors for it any more (LW 54:408).
The great reformer by bitter experience knew from whence this boredom and distaste for the Bible came. He comments on this at end of a sermon on the Monday after Easter, 1530:
You should diligently learn the Word of God and by no means imagine that you know it. Let him who is able to read take a psalm in the morning, or some other chapter of Scripture, and study it for a while. This is what I do. When I get up in the morning, I pray and recite the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer with the children, adding any one of the psalms. I do this only to keep myself well acquainted with these matters, and I do not want to let the mildew of the notion grow that I know them well enough. The devil is a greater rascal than you think he is. You do as yet not know what sort of fellow he is and what a desperate rogue you are. His definite design is to get you tired of the Word and in this way to draw you away from it. This is his aim (WA 32, 64f.).
In a similar vein, Luther addresses this “insidious plague of boredom” toward the Word of God in his preface to the Large Catechism, giving further reasons to constantly meditate on Scripture.
I implore them not to imagine that they have learned these parts of the Catechism [10 Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer] perfectly . . . Even if their knowledge of the Catechism were perfect (though that is impossible in this life), yet it is highly profitable and fruitful daily to read it and make it the subject of meditation and conversation. In such reading, conversation, and meditation the Holy Spirit is present and bestows ever new and greater light and fervor . . . . Nothing is more effectual against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts than to occupy oneself with the Word of God, talk about it and meditate on it . . . For this reason alone you should eagerly read, recite, ponder and practice the Catechism, even if the only blessing and benefit you obtain from it is to rout the devil and evil thoughts. For he cannot bear to hear God’ s Word. God’s Word is not like some empty tale, such as the one about Dietrich of Bern, but as St. Paul says in Rom. 1:16, it is “the power of God,” indeed, the power of God which burns the devil and gives us immeasurable strength, comfort, and help (Book of Concord; Tappert edition; Large Catechism 9-11).
Ultimately, though, Martin Luther loved the Bible because it was there that he had found Jesus Christ and the good news that we are justified (declared to be righteous) by faith not the works of the Law. For him, this was the reason Scripture was written and the reason for reading and hearing it.
Here [John 5:39,40,43] Christ would indicate the principal reason why the Scripture was given by God. Men are to study and search in it and to learn that He, He, Mary’s Son, is the one who is able to give eternal life to all who come to Him and believe in Him. Therefore, he who would correctly and profitably read Scripture should see to it that he finds Christ in it; then he finds life eternal without fail. On the other hand, if I do not so study and understand Moses and the prophets as to find that Christ came from heaven for the sake of my salvation, became man, suffered, died, was buried, rose, and ascended into heaven so that through Him I enjoy reconciliation with God, forgiveness of all my sins, grace, righteousness, and life eternal, then my reading in Scripture is of no help whatsoever to my salvation. I may, of course, become a learned man by reading and studying Scripture and preach what I have acquired; yet all this would do me no good whatever (WA 51,4).
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