Saturday, December 5, 2009

How to Read the Bible Like a Lutheran. Part 3


In Martin Luther’s day Scholastic theologians had devised some pretty fanciful, allegorical ways to interpret the Scripture. They sought to tease hidden meanings out of the text. Luther insisted that, for the Bible to be understood correctly, it should be read according to its plain meaning. The Bible says what it means and means what it says.

I think that when Luther spoke of the “plain sense” of Scripture, he meant that the Bible should be understood as any reasonably intelligent sixteenth century German peasant would understand it. That is just a little problematic. I would argue instead that the plain meaning of a biblical text is the meaning that its original audience would have understood. The Bible, after all, cannot mean what it never meant. For this reason it is important for those who wish to understand the Bible to use every tool at their disposal to understand the times and cultures in which the Scriptures were written.

I would also point out that the Bible contains many different kinds of literature. There are letters, songs, apocalypses, parables, prophetic oracles, and even short novels. The reader should keep the type of literature they are reading in mind as this affects the plain meaning of the text. The plain meaning of a poem is poetic. The plain meaning of a parable is parabolic. The plain meaning of an apocalypse is apocalyptic.

You get the idea.

To sum up: Lutherans read the Bible as the word of God. We meet Jesus in the Scriptures. The Bible is both Law and Gospel, and the two should not be confused. Lutherans believe that the Bible is best interpreted by its plain sense, the sense that its original readers would have understood.

Next time: Scripture interprets Scripture.

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