Protestants think of October 31 (AKA All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween) as Reformation Day. Traditionally, on this day in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Originally Luther’s theses were simply an attempt to engage theologians in an academic debate over the sale of indulgences to the Roman Catholic faithful. These indulgences purported to release people from the temporal punishment of purgatory. Luther’s first thesis came from his exegesis of Matthew 4:17: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, Poenitentiam agite, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther’s concern in his first three theses was that the Vulgate’s poenitentiam agite (“do penitence”) was understood as enjoining sacramental action rather than a prerequisite change of heart (see also Luther’s Works, 48.67-68). Luther’s teaching about biblical sufficiency and justification by faith would come later, but both seem to be implied here. Biblical exegesis was the basis of the 95 Theses.
Luther’s Theses flow from his study of the Bible and remind us of our own absolute dependence on the Holy Scriptures. In a sermon delivered on March 10, 1522, Luther attributed the beginnings of what we now call The Reformation solely to the awesome power of the Word of God:
I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. . . . I did nothing; I let the Word do its work (Luther’s Works, 51.77–78).
The Bible Today
Luther’s unshakeable confidence in the power and sufficiency of God’s Word contrasts with the casual, superficial manner with which the Bible is sometimes viewed and handled today. Is our confidence in the Bible and commitment to reading it, let alone studying and teaching it carefully, waning? If so, Reformation Day should remind us of the reformers’ confidence that the Word of God was sufficient to do the work of God.
I can’t help but contrast Luther’s careful exegesis with some of the shallow ways I see the Bible being read today. I call the first one Divination. Here the Bible becomes a talisman or lucky charm that somehow emits the aura of God’s blessing when it is opened (whether its message is carefully engaged or not). The practice of haphazardly reading the Bible only to find one’s “verse for the day” is not all that different from gazing into a crystal ball. The sapiential use of the Bible is similar. It treats Scripture as a source of self-help and fulfillment. In this approach we read the Bible only to get sage advice for whatever problem we happen to be facing. The judicial use of the Bible doubles down on the sapiential— we view the Bible as a legal code and we read it to find quick and easy yet authoritative rulings on any theological or behavioral question we encounter. Another common approach to the Bible is to take it as a curiosity, a fascinating object of study. Such academic use of the Bible doesn’t occur only in classroom. It can also happen on Sunday morning in church where people eagerly write down the key ideas of the sermon. Perhaps the most problematic of all is the ornamental use of the Bible, where we use the Scripture merely to decorate our own ideas. This happens when people with ideas or sermons already in mind come to the Bible to find a text to support them. Shakespeare’s Bassanio complained of this:
The world is still deceived with ornament. In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt, but, being seasoned with a gracious voice, obscures the show of evil? In religion, what damned error, but some sober brow will bless it and approve it with a text, hiding the grossness with fair ornament? There is no vice so simple but assumes some mark of virtue on its outward parts. (Merchant of Venice, 3:2)
Imagine what would have happened (perhaps worse, what would not have happened) if the magisterial reformers had approached the Bible as casually and superficially as we often do today. No doubt there are elements of truth, however small, in all the inadequate approaches mentioned above. God can and does use us in spite of all our inadequacies, but that doesn’t justify them. All the above ways of using the Bible are self-centered and prone to confirmation bias. They all use the Bible merely to confirm what the user already believes, or needs to believe. But the Bible is not a self-actualization tool at our disposal—we are at God’s disposal, and God’s Spirit uses God’s Word to transform and conform us to God’s image so that we can do God’s will for God’s glory. The Bible is not for us to use for our own ends; it’s for God to use for his ends. It’s not about us finding what we want; it’s about God finding us and showing us what we most deeply need. So, we come to the Bible reverently and thoughtfully, with an open heart to receive God-centered, life-changing revelation.
What Would Luther Do?
The well known reformation “solas” reminding us of God’s grace, Christ’s redemption, and the centrality of faith all stand or fall on the sole sufficiency of the Bible to guide us in all areas of faith and practice. Our doctrinal affirmation of these solas is empty if it is not reflected in our practice. Sola deo gloria (to God alone be glory) begins with us practicing Sola Scriptura.
- Christian living in general and pastoral ministry in particular must flow out of daily communion with God through study and reflection on the Scriptures in dependence on the Holy Spirit. Luther’s commitment to biblical exegesis in the original languages is a model for pastors today. Although pastoral ministry is filled with all sorts of pressures and many urgent tasks, the accurate interpretation and clear communication of the Bible remains foundational for those who would lead the church into the future.
- Churches need to equip people with tools and methods to read and study the Bible on their own. This is the least we can do if we truly affirm the priesthood of all believers. Merely guilting our people into reading the Bible more will not do. We need to equip them by showing them how.*
- W need to support educational ministries that train people whom God has gifted and called to ministry. Today the cost of formal higher education for ministry is daunting, even prohibitive, for people of modest means. Those of us who have resources should consider how God would have us invest them in the lives of future ministers who may someday have theses of their own to write.
*Next Steps with the Bible: I am currently teaching a course for adult “lay” folks on how to better understand and apply the Bible. I’m posting the handout notes and powerpoints as the class proceeds. Go to my Resources page and scroll down to Next Steps with the Bible if you’d like to see what I’m up to. Post a comment if you’re interested in doing (or are already doing) something like this. I’d love to hear from you.