Ministry Resources

Lutheran and Wesleyan Hermeneutics – A Comparison and Contrast

Author: Robert A. Love

I. Introduction

In every avenue of human endeavor, there are those who attain a special prominence. In the religious life of the western world, there are not a few who, with signal success, served their generations and left legacies that that long outlived them. Of special interest is Martin Luther who, with John Calvin, was a principal architect of the Reformation. 1 We identify also John Wesley whose ministry and labor in England has had continuing effect around the world and into the foreseeable future.

Martin Luther and John Wesley were, without doubt, theologians, writers and preachers of renown. Each has endowed expressions of religious experience and organizations that bear their names. Followers of these great men are identified today as Lutherans or Wesleyans. Luther and Wesley continue to be regarded with respect and, in some communions, with reverence. Of particular interest, however, are the ways in which Luther and Wesley did their scholarly work. How did they do hermeneutics?

The purpose of this paper is to identify and delineate the distinctive characteristics of the hermeneutical principles of Martin Luther and John Wesley. What were the Lutheran and the Wesleyan distinctives? What influences might Luther and his teaching have had on Wesley? How can we understand, five centuries after Luther and two centuries after Wesley, the work and ministry to which their lives were given?

We will identify and describe the hermeneutical principles of Luther and Wesley and seek to explain their approaches in terms of their personal backgrounds, the prevailing cultures, and the traditions of their day. We will determine, to the extent possible, what pressures and conditions influenced the Reformers’ hermeneutics. In what ways, and for what reasons, did John Wesley respond in the development of his systems of biblical interpretation? We will also ask how we can serve our generation better as result of the Luther/Wesley heritage.

II. Martin Luther: His Life and Times

It is not only difficult to understand, it is bewildering, to the 21st century reader that historical narratives, propositions, or the plain statements of ordinary language were, in a bygone day, pressed into service as allegories. To be sure, there are literary pieces intended as allegories that exist both then and now. There are also literary pieces that contain allusions which, taken together, may indicate the author’s intention to refer to reality outside the narrative. 2 Such literature may be treated as de facto allegory. To the modern reader, however, the literary piece must be an allegory, or very like one, to be regarded as an allegory.

With regard to hermeneutics, the medieval period had provided the fourfold method of interpretation: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Of these four, the allegorical method of interpretation reigned supreme. It has been pointed out that this allowed an interpreter or commentator to seek hidden or deeper meanings. This often led to speculation and meaningless application.3

The allegorical method, however, was not without critics. One such critic was Nicholas of Lyra (1270 – 1340). Nicholas promoted the literal sense in Scripture and “complained that the mystical was being allowed to choke the literal.” 4 It would be almost a hundred years before Nicholas’ influence would be recognized, but its effect would be profound. Scholars agree, as indicated by the couplet (which contains an interesting wordplay) that if Nicholas had not piped, Luther would not have danced:

Si Lyra non lyrasset
Lutherus non saltasset.

Martin Luther came to prominence at a time when the Church was busy preserving its traditional authority by invoking the concept of apostolic succession. The Pope was enthroned as the lineal spiritual descendant of the Apostle Peter and the one to whom the keys to the kingdom were passed. The Scriptures, unavailable to the laity, were interpreted by an allegorizing clergy. The Pope, by virtue of office, was the chief interpreter. Exegesis of Scripture was carried out under the watchful eye of the church. Certain approved philosophical fundamentals allowed only certain interpretations.

It is clear from the histories of the time that Martin Luther was, first of all, a Christian who loved and revered the Bible. He lived in a day when, as we have seen, allegorical interpretation was comfortably predominant, and the church had a monopoly on the interpretation of Scripture. This situation might have continued had it not been for Luther’s apprehension of God’s direct teaching that “the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel,” and “the just shall live by faith.”

This revelation is portrayed with poignant drama in the film, The Life of Luther. Luther is seen reading the Scripture. When he comes to the great text in Romans, [ Romans 1:17 ], he places his quill pen after the word faith, and with a bold stroke, writes the one word sola! Wood points out, no less dramatically, that

the Protestant Reformation really started not on the steps of the Scala Sancta in Rome . . . nor at the entrance to the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg . . . but in the tower room of the Augustinian cloister where Luther sat before an open Bible and allowed Almighty God to address him face to face. 5

III. Luther’s Hermeneutical Principles

Having received the meaning of one verse, Luther reasoned that since the Word of God is a unity, it must be in agreement with this one verse, and with itself, in its entirely. This insight was recognized by Luther as a gift from God. Thus, the interpretation of Scripture became an especially important feature of Luther’s life and teaching, and of the Reformation itself.

Luther’s hermeneutical principles are clearly and eloquently stated in a monograph by A Skevington Wood. 6 The following summary of Luther’s presuppositions and hermeneutical principles are referenced in the Wood monograph. Wood himself cites sources that are not immediately available but could be referenced. Many other sources regarding the life and work of Martin Luther will attest to this. 7

Luther’s Hermeneutical Presuppositions

It is readily recognized when we consider the writings of others – though it is usually less clear when we consider our own writings – that we do not come to the interpretive process with complete objectivity. We come to the text with some idea in mind, or with certain presuppositions, or perhaps with a view to what we want the interpretation to be. Whether or not Luther would have expressed the problem of subjectivity in exactly this way, he recognized it and made provision for it in what has been called “the first hermeneutical cycle”; namely, that the nature of Scripture must itself be determined by Scripture and that the Bible itself must provide the rules and insights for its own interpretation. 8

We would assume from Luther’s position on the primacy of Scripture in effecting its own interpretation that he accepted its plenary inspiration. This is well-documented. Wood cites several samples, from a population of several hundred statements, that indicate Luther’s strict view of verbal inspiration. 9

Luther’s Principles of Interpretation

Luther’s hermeneutics, following upon the presuppositions noted above, include a number of principles that guided his interpretation.

Requirement of Divine Inspiration

This principle derives from the assumption that the Spirit interprets the word, which He has already inspired. Prayer is a prerequisite to interpretation. The Bible cannot be mastered by study and talent. Reason should not be discarded altogether, but we must recognize the limitations of unaided reason. 10

The Principle of Perspicuity

The word perspicuity is a synonym or near synonym for such terms as clarity, intelligibility, lucidity, and plainness. Luther assumed that “each passage of God’s Word possesses one clear, definite, and true sense of its own.” 11 The idea is that the Scripture has self-revelatory clarity that releases the Book from bondage to experts. This view is shared by Luther’s fellow reformer Erasmus who “hoped [the Scripture] might be read and understood not only by the Scots and Irish, but also by the Turks and Saracens, by the ploughboy, the weaver, and the traveler.” 12

Scripture is its Own Authority

Luther required that Scripture itself interpret Scripture. Luther recognized the unity of Scripture and insisted that it be interpreted within the analogia fidei. The interpretation must be congruent with the general norm of the Word of God. “The exegete,” says Luther, “is not a free agent, but a prisoner to the Word. He is not at liberty to use the Scripture for his own ends.” 13 Luther employed a comparative technique by allowing the plainer and clearer texts to illuminate the more difficult. In this, he acknowledges indebtedness to Origen, Jerome, and Augustine. 14

Primacy of the Literal Sense

Perhaps the most important of Luther’s interpretive principles is found in his assertion that the literal sense of a passage takes priority over other senses such as allegorical, moral, or anagogical. The so-called quadrigia, or four-fold rule, was dear to the hearts of the interpreters of the day, and Luther flew in the face of strong tradition to challenge it. “The literal sense alone, ” Luther stated, “is the whole essence of faith and Christian theology.” 15 Luther’s great contribution in this area was the priority or primacy placed on literal interpretation. Says Luther:

It was very difficult for me to break away from my habitual zeal for allegory, and yet I was aware that allegories were empty speculations and the froth, as it were, of the Holy Scriptures.16

Christocentric and Christological Character Scripture

The assertion that Luther’s hermeneutics was Christocentric is something of an understatement. For Luther, the Gospel is defined in terms of the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection of Christ and thereby becomes the theological standard for judging doctrine.

The Christological norm superseded the biblical one. . . . Theology throughout was to glorify Christ. Without Christ there was no true theology, even where it claimed to be apostolic, or a Word of God, or based on these. 17

Wood suggests that Luther’s christological conception of Scripture is the determining principle of Luther’s hermeneutics.

As the divinity and power of God are embedded in the vessel of Christ’s incarnate body, so the same divinity and power of God are embedded in Scripture, a vessel made of letters, composed of paper and printer’s ink. 18

This is a high view of Scripture, so high, in fact, that portions of the canon – Hebrews, James, and Revelation – were rejected by Luther on the grounds that they were not sufficiently Christological.19 This created a “canon within the canon.” Reumann notes that “exegetes never agree on what that is, but it is clear that Luther had a preference for certain New Testament books and others he regarded as marginal.20

IV John Wesley

After the death of Luther, there would be of two centuries before the conversion of another great reformer, John Wesley. Wesley is properly regarded as a post-reformation theologian of the period 1650-1800. He espoused Luther’s theology and hermeneutics and was in many ways the spiritual heir of Luther. Indeed, it was at the reading of Luther’s preface to the book of Romans, at Aldersgate on May 24, 1738, that John Wesley was converted. Wesley reported:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. 21

It is not difficult to establish that Wesley was in essential agreement with the theology of the Reformation, and with the principles of interpretation set forth by Luther. Wall points out, for example, that Wesley’s

claim to be homo unius libri , a man of one book, [is ] justified by even a cursory reading of his sermons and other works, where the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture is clear and certain. Wesley understood true Christianity to be a biblical religion. 22

Likewise, Wesley espoused the simultaneity [unity] between every part of Scripture and the whole.23 He was also, in the words of Colin Williams, “at one with Luther and Calvin in relating the authority of Scripture to experience by the living witness of the Holy Spirit.” 24

In discussions of Wesleyan theological methods, scholars often consider the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” : Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition. Coppedge takes pains to show that Scripture was not one of four coordinate principles.25 Scripture to Wesley was the final authority in all matters, the “norming norm” to be placed above all other authority. 26 Reason was treated not as a classical exercise in logic, but as indicative of the image of God in man. Tradition to Wesley did not refer to church law or customs, either existent or handed down, but rather the church’s understanding of Scripture. Experience is distinguished from feelings, enthusiasm, dreams, voices, or impressions. Experience to Wesley, was the appropriation of biblical truth in everyday life, “the evangelical experience.” 27

Of all the principles received by Wesley from the Reformation, not the least would be the understanding that the literal sense of the text is to be the primary one. The literal sense is understood to be the sense in which the authors intended it to be read. Wesley accepted within the literal sense the use of figures of speech or analogies, but did not depart from the plain sense unless the plain sense would yield an absurdity [or an impossibility ].28

V. Wesleyan Distinctives

The agreement of Luther and Wesley with regard to presuppositions and hermeneutical principles is so fundamental that we need not struggle to establish it. If we are to find differences or contrasts between the hermeneutics of Luther and Wesley, we must look for distinctions of emphasis and ways in which the culture of the 18th century differs from that of the 16th.

It may be considered an advantage to Wesley that he lived two centuries after the Reformation. A number of events would shape the slice of time in which Wesley would minister.

A few of these events, notably the development of Bible translations and church literature, would be especially formative for Wesley and others of his day: 29

* The publication of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer – 15
* Thomas Moore, Cranmer, and Foxe affirm the existence of English versions or portions of the Bible – 1550 +/-
* The Publication of the Geneva Bible – 1560
* Development of the Geneva Bible – 1572 ff.
* The King James (Authorized) version of the Bible – 1611 ff.
* The Publication of the Authorized version in Scotland – 1633
* The Catholic English version of the New Testament, Revision of the Reims NT by Witham. 1730. 30

Thus, Wesley was the spiritual heir of those who, in the face of great hardship, made the Scriptures generally available for Wesley and his English-speaking countrymen. He was also able to build on the insights and scholarship of the Reformers.

It has been pointed out that the Reformers leaned heavily on certain language categories, notably the metaphors that portray God as creator and sovereign majesty. Their approach thus tended to focus on God as creator, king, and judge.31 God is also seen as redeemer but operating more like a king who sovereignly decides to pardon or redeem an unworthy subject.

Wesley emphasized the roles of God as teacher, friend, priest, shepherd, and father. This modified the severity of the Reformers’ approach and portrayed God as intimate and personal. Wesley did not exclude the Reformers’ categories, but added an emphasis on cleansing, and a new birth, and a continuing relationship with God after salvation. Coppedge notes:

While no one category fully describes all that happens in salvation, the use of multiple biblical metaphors to describe salvation insures a much broader and therefore much more accurate picture of all the dimensions of God’s saving grace. 32

We see that the theology and hermeneutics of John Wesley are more subjective and practical that those of Luther (and also Calvin). God as father and friend to all mankind does not arbitrarily approve some and disapprove others. Christ is not only redeemer, but also kinsman redeemer. Thus, Wesley’s hermeneutics takes on a soteriological emphasis. Salvation for Wesley is much more than simply not being condemned; it is a living out of the life of God in the redeemed soul. McKown notes:

For Wesley . . . religion is subjective (“the life of God in the soul of man”), hermeneutics includes the application of Scripture to Christian experience (sanctification) and conduct (morality). Thus, it encompasses the totality of Christian existence as lived out in this world. 33

IV. Conclusion

In reading the works of Luther and Wesley, one gets the impression that they were both very much the children of their own time. Luther lived in a day when the world still stood, albeit tenuously, at the center of the universe. The Roman church was very much in charge and the threat of death by burning hung ominously over the theological debates. Luther, as it were, bet his life on a literal interpretation of the Scripture, and won. He left for his own people a German translation of the Bible, and to the world an assurance that salvation is of God, by faith, and for everyone.

John Wesley, in a very real sense the spiritual son of Luther, enjoyed a thousand advantages that Luther did not possess. We of the 21st century tend to regard the 1700s as a benighted.


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