Our reading of the past can often be obscured by various factors. We all come with presuppositions and theological convictions. Other times our methodology causes us to arrive at conclusions different than others. The list goes on. Timothy J. Wengert advances a more simple reason why we misinterpret history.
For Wengert, our misunderstanding of someone like Martin Luther is due to the simple fact that we are not reading his writings. Our preconceptions of what Luther should say, or our assumptions of what he said, replace the act of reading his works and discovering what he actually said.
Wengert takes his argument and applies it to Luther’s interpretation of the Bible. Looking beyond what we might think Luther said about the Bible, Wengert carefully examines what Luther actually said. Reading the Bible with Martin Luther(Baker, 2013; source: publisher) not only explores the reformer’s theology concerning the Bible but also implores its readers to use Luther’s hermeneutic as a guide for our own interpretation of the Bible.
The issue of authority is addressed in the first chapter. Luther’s comment on the book of James, as an “epistle of straw,” is infamous. His opinion of James’ less than worthy merit compared to other books of the Bible is used to portray Luther as one who deemed his own worth as a leader and knowledge of all things theology over the authority of the Bible.
Taking Luther’s phrase was Christum treibet, what pushes Christ, Wengert establishes Luther’s criteria for biblical authority. Luther’s contention with James was based on what Luther perceived as a lack of was Christum treibet. This criterion placed Luther under the authority of God and not superseding biblical authority.
Chapter two deals with Luther’s law and gospel dichotomy. Wengert highlights the tendency to see Jesus as either a lawgiver or only a merciful savior. However, Luther’s law and gospel corrects this misperception, instructing readers of the Bible to a balanced approach. Of particular importance, Wengert distinguishes between Calvin and Luther’s third use of the law. The third use is a command, but at the same time, an invitation to the believer to apply the first two uses of the law (external discipline of sinners and being brought to the knowledge of sin).
Though not using the terminology of accommodation or condescension (Luther did use the term), Wengert examines the “lowliness” of the Bible. He writes, “The scandal of God speaking through the pages of the Bible is as great as the scandal of the crucified God who hangs on a cross and comes in bread and wine” (53). Also, there is no need to skirt certain issues or present the characters of the Bible in glowing terms. The Bible does not do so, so why should we?
The issue of ethics is discussed in chapter four. Though not proposing a system of situational ethics, Wengert describes Luther’s ethics as one not fixed to a system of laws. Rather, in the spirit of Gleichmut, or equity and fairness, Luther commends making decisions and judgments with love.
The last chapter compares Luther’s interpretation of Galatians 3:6-14 in the year 1519 to his 1535 comments on the same passage. Wengert offers an interesting take on the progression of Luther’s thought and the impact of Reformation theology.
Do not be deceived by its short length. Reading the Bible with Martin Luther is a challenging book to read. When our perception of Luther is based on what we think he should say, according to our bias rather than a historical and theological study of what Luther actually says, we trick ourselves into conceiving an image of the great reformer without actually understanding Luther. Wengert reveals how our understanding of Luther is less true to the theologian and more aligned to our modern sentiments.
Some of his short comments are made to prod the reader, but also merely to convey the author’s own opinion. Thus, a well-developed discussion and support is not given. But it is also not needed. The reader can disagree with Wengert’s opinions on minor matters but at the same time learn from Wengert’s assessment of Luther.
However, one area of concern is Wengert’s caricature of inerrancy, rather than a biblical and theological understanding of inerrancy. He repeats the argument that inerrantists conceived the doctrine from an a priori understanding of what the Bible should be (8). Wengert fails to account for the biblical and theological development of the doctrine. It is also puzzling that Wengert isolates fundamentalists as adherents of inerrancy, since this is the position held throughout much of church history.
Apart from what one thinks of fundamentalism, since the work is on Luther, the greater concern is how Wengert finds Luther in disagreement with the historical church. I doubt Luther would have the same understanding of inerrancy as Wengert expounds. Luther’s confirmation of inerrancy and infallibility can be found in many places (Biblical Authority, 53-56).
Reading the Bible with Martin Luther is a thought-provoking read on at least two counts. First, Wengert challenges our perception of Luther, pushing readers to come to grips with the intricacies of Luther’s hermeneutics. Second, as readers learn of Luther’s approach to the Bible, we develop a more theological exegesis of the Bible.
*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.