A Review of
Reading the Bible with Martin Luther
Reviewed by Douglas Connelly
If you are a Lutheran, you will find a lot of encouragement in Timothy Wengert’s book on Martin Luther’s view and approach to Scripture. The book will challenge you to undertake the interpretation and proclamation of the gospel with the same passion and care as the original Lutheran.
If you are not a Lutheran, Wengert’s explanation of Luther’s view on Scripture will force you to re-think some of the things you thought you knew about Luther. Most of us outside the Lutheran camp know only two things about Luther and the Bible: first, he called the New Testament book of James a “real strawy epistle,” and second, Luther championed the position of sola Scriptura, the appeal to Scripture alone to define Christian belief and practice.
Wengert does an admirable job of explaining Luther’s attitude toward the book of James (and Jude and Revelation) – and not by using the old “let’s make James agree with Paul” on the subject of justification approach. Luther’s view of the most essential books of the New Testament focused on those books that “pushed Christ” – Romans, the Gospel of John, Ephesians, First Peter. James says almost nothing about the cross or Jesus’ resurrection. He only mentions Jesus’ name a few times and never mentions the Holy Spirit. Luther saw these as the marks of a book that pushed (emphasized) the law, not grace.
Luther’s position on sola Scriptura also comes in for some clarification in Wengert’s book. Luther did not look so much to the Bible as the final authority for the church as he looked to the living Christ. We are to come to the Scripture seeking an encounter with Jesus, not a proof-text to back up our theological positions or a club to use in judging other people.
Wengert’s book will probably not sit well with more conservative Lutherans who hold to an inerrant and infallible Bible. Wengert claims that Luther would reject such views.
Wengert demonstrates his understanding of Luther’s interpretive method in several places in the book. His exposition of the incident of the woman caught in adultery is particularly interesting and thought-provoking (p. 22 f.). Wengert also give the reader an extended Luther-model exposition of Galatians 3:6-14 in chapter five of the book (p. 92 f.).
Wengert (who is a professor of Reformation history at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia) seeks to introduce the reader to the basic components of Luther’s theology of the Bible. He succeeds in that task but does it in such a way that you come away thinking more deeply about your own approach to understanding Scripture. I went from Wengert’s book to my own Bible, seeking not just a passage to preach or verses to bolster my position on certain issues, but seeking that fresh encounter with Jesus, the living Lord of the church.
You may not agree with all of Dr. Wengert’s conclusions, but you will certainly glean new insights and a fresh approach to your own study and preaching as you open your mind and heart to his – and to Dr. Luther’s – words and instruction.
Douglas Connelly is the senior pastor of Parkside Community Church in Sterling Heights, MI, and the author of The Bible for Blockheads (Zondervan).