Word of Life: Introducing Lutheran Hermeneutics, by Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019. Pp xii + 164. $29.00 (softcover). ISBN-13: 978-1506402826. [Reviewed by Douglas Kuiper.]
Did Martin Luther have a distinct method of hermeneutics (Scripture interpretation)? If so, what made it distinct? Was it peculiar to Luther alone, or did other Lutheran theologians in his day share that method? And is it still used by Lutheran theologians today?
Timothy Wengert answers these questions in this book. Wengert is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the mainline Lutheran denomination), and emeritus professor of Reformation church history at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He argues that Luther did have a distinct method of hermeneutics; that his colleagues, particularly Philip Melanchthon, adopted the same method; and that at least some Lutherans still use that method today.
Because he was born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, Luther initially used the common hermeneutical method of his day. Consequently, he explained every passage from four viewpoints: the literal (what the text actually says), the allegorical (what it teaches regarding doctrine), the tropological (what it teaches regarding how we must live), and the anagogical (for what we are to hope). Luther later rejected this method with its emphasis on allegory, and emphasized instead the text’s literal and historical meaning. This background and introduction to Luther’s hermeneutics is the subject of the first chapter. Chapters two and three explain what his distinct contribution was; more on that presently.
The fourth and fifth chapters contain illustrations of Luther’s method—chapter four, by using sermons that focus on Jesus’ last words from the cross, and chapter 5, by using meditations from the Psalms. The fourth chapter opens with a sermon that Luther preached in 1519 on Christ’s passion, then includes six of Wengert’s own sermons on Christ’s last words. The fifth chapter begins with a gem, Luther’s “Preface to the Psalms.” Wengert then provides his own meditations on nine different Psalms (1, 6, 13, 23, 46, 119:1-8, 130, 139, and 145), introducing each meditation with a quote from Luther’s summary of that Psalm. Wengert wrote these meditations to his daughter who was away at college while her mother (his wife) was dying of cancer. These last two chapters indicate that Wengert strives consciously to follow Luther’s hermeneutical method.
The first distinctive aspect of Luther’s hermeneutics was his insistence that a text’s meaning depends both on its grammar and on its effect on those who hear or read it (18-44). At this point, a clarification: many liberal interpreters today believe that the text’s effect on its hearers is important regardless of its literal meaning. What Moses, David, Isaiah, Paul, and Peter meant does not matter; how the text moves you is the issue. And how it moves you depends on your culture and circumstances.
Emphatically, that was not Luther’s point. He emphasized the need to understand the text— its grammar, its plain meaning, its place in the context of the book as a whole—and its effect on the hearer. Reading Luther’s commentaries, one finds that he explained the text’s meaning briefly, but spent more time showing how the doctrine of the text changes the believer’s life and gives us hope.
The second distinctive feature of Luther’s hermeneutic was his desire always to find Christ as Savior in the text (44-9). What allegory attempted to do in a wrong way, because it was arbitrary, Luther sought to do in a proper way. Consequently, he viewed the Psalms as Christ’s own speech to the faithful, and the Christ-filled believer’s speech to God. This also enabled Luther properly to view the relationship between the Old and New Testaments: Christ is at the center of both, and both speak of Him.
Luther’s theology of the cross is a third distinctive feature of his hermeneutic (56-59). The term “theology of the cross” assumes the doctrine of the atonement, but is not a reference specifically to that doctrine. Rather, it refers to the fact that God reveals Himself in ways that humans do not always understand. Here Luther took his starting point from 1 Corinthians 1:23ff.: apart from God’s revelation, humans would never think to look to Christ’s death on a cross as the foundation for salvation. Yet God revealed His justice and mercy exactly that way. Likewise, throughout Scripture, God “hides” Christ in a text; the believing exegete must search a text thoroughly to find Christ, and be ready to find Christ in a place that we might not expect to find him.
Finally, Luther’s distinction between law and gospel is central to his hermeneutic (chapter three). For Luther, “law” and “gospel” were not two different kinds of Scripture, such as the Old Testament (“law”) and the New Testament (“gospel”). Again, “law” did not refer to a scriptural command, nor “gospel” to a particular promise. Rather, these two terms referred to two effects that every Scripture passage had on every believer. In this way Luther made a specific application of the principle that the text’s meaning regards also the effect it has on the hearer. Functioning as law, all of Scripture accuses the believer of being a sinner. Even the gospel promises function as law in this respect, when they remind us that we do not deserve the salvation that God has promised.
Functioning as law, Scripture impresses on us that by our works we could never earn salvation nor help God save us. Functioning as law, Scripture insists that we depend entirely on God’s grace. Only the regenerated person will understand that which Scripture, functioning as law, teaches, and it will lead us to repentance.
Functioning as gospel, all of Scripture points the believing sinner to the salvation God has prepared for us in Christ. Even the commands of Scripture do so, when they show that the regenerated believer will walk in obedience to God.
Wengert convincingly demonstrates that Luther had a distinctive hermeneutic. Here Wengert is fresh, but not innovative: other scholars have recognized this for centuries. This is no criticism. We ought to be wary of any who writer claims to have found some distinctive aspect of Luther’s hermeneutical method that no one else has noticed in the five centuries since Luther.
In his demonstration that Luther’s method lives on today, Wengert is original. He would have made his case more strongly by including sermons and meditations from fifteen different Lutheran pastors, rather than by including fifteen sermons and meditations from only one Lutheran pastor, himself.
The third chapter, regarding law and gospel, was certainly beneficial. However, Wengert appeared to digress from his argument in the sections regarding the law’s civil use and regarding its use to guide Christians in thankful living. That Luther spoke to these matters is to be granted. But they do not appear to have been distinctive aspects of his hermeneutic.
Protestant Reformed subscribers of this Journal who read Wengert’s book will note a striking contrast between Wengert’s sermons and those that are usually heard from PR pulpits. Although Wengert’s sermons are based on exegesis, they lack depth, and the exegesis doesn’t permeate the sermon. Although based on Christ’s last words, they do not so much as mention the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, let alone develop that doctrine at any length. Many readers of this Journal will also disagree with Wengert’s distinction between an invitation and a command (88), as applied to the call of the gospel.
Yet the book’s gems should not be overlooked. Every reader will profit from reading Luther’s “Preface to the Psalms.” And we can appreciate the point that Wengert makes when commenting on the words of Jesus regarding the camel going through the eye of the needle. Some say this refers to a gate in Jerusalem that camels found difficult, if not impossible, to get through. Others allege that Jesus’ point was that camel’s hair is too coarse to use when stringing a needle. Wengert’s pointed response is this: if either of these be true, “the impossibility of the comparison is lost on the hearers” (66, footnote).
Indeed! The simple meaning of the text is not so difficult to understand. The more one tries to force the text to make sense to the human mind, the more one misses the point. This is what Luther underscored by insisting on the literal meaning of the text, and by his “theology of the cross.” Wengert’s reminder is apt.