First Theologian Lecture focuses on “Luther and the Scriptures”

Tusculum Theologian-in Residence lecture series opened Tuesday, Feb. 6, with the topic of “Luther and the Scriptures.” This session is the first of two that considers Luther’s struggle to define the nature of religious authority.

The series, sponsored by Tusculum with funding from Ron Smith, features lectures by Dr. Joel Van Amberg, professor of history at Tusculum. The title of the lecture series is, “The Historical Luther: Tracing the Development of Martin Luther’s Central Reformation Views.”

The 2018 Theologian-in-Residence series will join with people around the world in commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (1517-2017).

According to Dr. Van Amberg, the topic of the first lecture, “Luther and the Scriptures,” cannot be confined to this lecture alone, but will spill over into the other themes of this series, as the Bible was so central to Luther’s experience and theology.

Dr. Van Amberg told the group that one myth that “comes up quite a bit in the discussion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is that the Church hid the Bible from the laity by keeping it in Latin and refusing to let them read it.” He clarified that this is actually untrue.

“The Church in the Middle Ages never forbade laity to read the Bible, nor, with a few exceptions, especially in England, did they ever prohibit the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages like German, Italian, and French,” he said. “Laity were free to read the Bible in the Latin Vulgate as well as in their own language.”

According to Dr. Van Amberg, the first Bible in German was published in 1466, the first in Italian in 1471, the first French 1474 and the first Dutch 1477. Printed German translations of the Bible were numerous, with 18 German editions of the Bible published between 1466 and 1522, the year Martin Luther published his New Testament in German.

However, he added, it would be fair to say that there was not in the Middle Ages a culture of Bible reading, or of Biblical-oriented piety. And while this was certainly in part because less than 10 percent of the population could read, it is also true that the Church did not cultivate an interest in the Bible among Medieval Christians.

Dr. Van Amberg told the group that Luther’s interest in the Bible “probably lies in his contact with the Psalms during his years as a monk.” Monks would gather together for public prayer eight times a day, for a total of about four hours a day. The majority of this time was spent in praying, or chanting, the Psalms. In fact, every week, monks would generally pray through the entire Psalter of 150 Psalms.

Luther had an intense, but ambivalent, relationship with the Psalms. Luther was a particularly scrupulous monk, who wanted to perform his monastic duties correctly.  This involved having a correct understanding of the Psalms. This requirement disturbed Luther because he did not understand the Psalms. Thus, the Psalms worked to increase his already troubled conscience, his fear that he had yet again failed a harsh God of judgment.

According to Dr. Van Amberg, this anxiety and dread was only enhanced by certain verses in the Psalms that spoke of God’s righteousness. However, these experiences, instead of driving him away from the Bible, drove him further into it. He strove to understand the meaning of these difficult concepts that disturbed him.

As he did, he discovered that the Psalms are a book for the crushed, the fearful and the anxious. Again and again, the author of the Psalms cries out to God in fear, anxiety, torment, and confusion. Thus, the Psalms confirmed Luther’s own personal experience and affirmed it as the proper attitude of the true believer in God. But how could this book affirm that it is precisely the true Christian that is crushed under the righteous judgment of God? Luther sensed that he had hit on the way out of his problems, but also knew that he only vaguely grasped the teachings he had uncovered.

He told the group that the most significant and lasting expression of Luther’s commitment to the centrality of the Bible was his translation of the entire Bible into German. In 1522 he translated the whole New Testament. It is estimated that between Sept. 1522 and the end of 1525 at least 86,000 copies of Luther’s New Testament were published; that is one for every seven literate Germans (assuming a 5 percent literacy rate). Luther swiftly began the translation of the Old Testament. Finally in 1534 the entire Bible was published. And between 1534 and the year of Luther ’s death, the Wittenberg printers issues over 100,000 copies, and many more than this were issued by unauthorized printers across Germany.

He told the group, that there were numerous editions of German Bibles that had been published before. “The 16th century printers were a capitalist, entrepreneurial lot. If people had wanted more German Bibles, printers would have published them. So, something must have changed that can account for the explosive popularity of Luther’s Bible.”

The first answer, he said, is Luther himself. By 1522 Luther was an international celebrity and the most prolific author in Germany. People read Luther; they discussed Luther; they loved or hated Luther. When Luther’s New Testament came out, people naturally wanted a copy.

The second answer is Luther’s translation. Earlier translations of the Bible had been literal, word for word translations from the Latin. With the resultant odd phrasing, strange word order, and unfamiliar idioms, German readers found them difficult to understand and unpleasant to read. Luther scrapped that entire approach for one that conveyed the sense of the passage in a way that captures the meaning of the author, but in the idiom of the reader. His German Bible sounded like good German, not like another language translated into German.

The third reason involves Luther’s success in creating a new culture of the Bible.  The Bible was available before Luther, but hardly anyone read it. “It was an obscure and confusing book, a book for specialists, not meant for you.” Luther challenged all of that. When Luther’s Bible appeared in 1522, he had been in the public eye for almost five years. His writings had been flooding the German market since 1518. Constantly in his writings, Luther referenced the Bible. He quoted the Bible; he explained the Bible; he appealed to the Bible; he held up centuries of Church teaching and practice against the authority of the Bible and found it lacking. According to Dr. Van Amberg, people read Luther, or heard him read, or heard him discussed, and many drew three conclusions.

Most of Luther’s writings were devotional in nature. Often these took the form of a sermon where Luther would expound on a text from the Bible and he would make that text connect with the lives of the listeners. “He sought to convey to his listeners the fruit of his own experience, that the Bible was his source of consolation in times of trouble.  And people began to understand the Bible in a new way, not as a specialist’s book full of arcane matters, but as a vital source of personal spiritual comfort.”

Dr. Van Amberg added, again and again Luther referenced the authority of the Scriptures in his conflict with the Church. Centuries of settled church teaching on scores of matters were held up to the standard of Scripture and, at least according to Luther, declared invalid. “For those who accepted Luther’s conclusions, the implications shook their world like an earthquake: the Church and the Scripture were not aligned. The consequences, however, were clear: away with human authority; there can be no more reliance on the unreliable traditions and teachings of men. Scripture alone must be our guide.”

He added, Luther did not believe that the Bible’s meaning was basically self-evident to the common reader, and that no special scholarly skills or training were necessary to understand it. Luther indeed did hold that the key teachings of the Christian faith were knowable to the reader approaching the text of the Scripture with a good will. He also believed, though, that there were many obscure passages that could confuse and mislead the simple reader. There was always in his mind an important role for the scholar

He told the group that Luther’s settled position becomes this: “All Christians should read the Bible devotionally, to receive comfort, consolation, and encouragement from God. The interpretation of the Bible, however, that is, the discernment of doctrine, should be in the hands of those who have been trained and educated, and have received a formal call as a pastor or teacher operating in a church under the authority of a local government.”

He concluded, for Luther, “God wants to speak into the lives of people and recreate them with his Word. He insists, however, that his spiritual word be attached to a physical word, like preaching. And this divine, living, Word, although it is contained in the Scriptures, and can be made effective by reading the Bible or other Christian literature, really is best when it is spoken out loud, that is, preached or proclaimed. Thus the Word of God written, that is the Scriptures, breaks forth in the Word of God proclaimed in the sermon, and the Word of God performed in the sacraments of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and also, though it is not required, confession.”

The next session will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 13, and is titled, “Luther and the Papacy.” The February Theologian-in-Residence lectures will take place on each Tuesday of the month – Feb. 6, 13, 20 and 27. Each lecture session will begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons. The sessions typically end around noon, with lunch in Tusculum’s cafeteria following the conclusion of the lecture. There is no admission fee to attend the lectures or the luncheon.

Although the series has no admission fee, reservations are required. For more information or to make a reservation for the series, please call 423.636.7303 or email