Essay / Theology

How to Be a Theologian, by Martin Luther

Oswald Bayer has written a really quite wonderful book, Theology the Lutheran Way, in which he makes much of Martin Luther’s sense that the theologian is one who interprets “and is interpreted by” Scripture. All Christians are theologians, according to Luther, and to be a theologian is simply to be one who hears God’s Word.

How, then, does one hear? As he read and re-read Psalm 119, Luther discovered three rules articulating “the proper way to study theology”: prayer (oratio), meditation (meditatio) and spiritual attack (tentatio).

Firstly, you should know that Holy Scripture is such a book as to make the wisdom of all other books foolishness, because it is the only book that teaches about eternal life. Therefore you should immediately despair of your reason and understanding. They will not gain you eternal life, but, on the contrary, your presumptuousness will cast you and others like you out of heaven (as happened to Lucifer) into the abyss of hell. But kneel down in your little room and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.

Thus you see how David keeps praying in the above-mentioned Psalm, “Teach me, Lord, instruct me, lead me, show me,” and many more words like these. Although he well knew and daily heard and read the text of Moses and other books besides, he still wants to lay hold of the real teacher of Scripture himself, so that he may not grasp it in a disordered way with his reason and become his own teacher. For such practice gives rise to factious spirits who allow themselves to nurture the delusion that Scripture is subject to them and can be easily grasped with their reason, as if they were Markolf or Aesop’s Fables, for which no Holy Spirit and no prayers are needed.

To begin with prayer is to stave off presumption or a foolish attempt to be self-taught by humbly invoking the Holy Spirit, “the real teacher of Scripture himself”:

Secondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart but also outwardly, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoke them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe.

Thus you see in this same Psalm how David constantly boasts that he will talk, meditate, speak, sing, hear, read, by day and night and always about nothing except God’s Word and commandments. For God will not give you his Spirit without the outward word; so take your cue from that. His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc., outwardly was not given in vain.

As Bayer is quick to note, “Luther’s understanding of meditation is determined entirely by the external word.” It is thus not a retreat inward but a public excavation and articulation of God’s Word. It is also a distinctly ecclesiological form of meditation.

Thirdly, there is tentatio, Anfechtung. This is the touchstone that teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.

Therefore, you see how David, in the Psalm mentioned, complains so often about all kinds of enemies, arrogant princes or tyrants, false spirits and factions that he has to put up with because he meditates, that is, because he is occupied with God’s Word (as has been said) in all manner of ways. For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will plague you and make a real doctor of you, and by his attacks will teach you to seek and love God’s Word. I myself (if you will permit me, mere mouse-dirt, to be mingled with pepper) am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil’s raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise. And I heartily grant them what they have won in return for making this of me, honor, victory, and triumph, for that’s the way they wanted it.

That Luther can cheerily thank his enemies suggests the centrality of spiritual struggle for the Word’s flourishing in a person. This is a proving of Scripture in which the God of the promise is found to be a truthteller.

Here, I think, we have a sense of theology that translates beautifully into the life of the church–humble and prayerful, responsive, disciplined and patient, realistic and hopeful about the place of suffering, eager to incorporate the Word into the deepest regions of the life together of God’s people.

For more on this, see the forthcoming review essay of Bayer by me in the International Journal of Systematic Theology.

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