Luther and Reformatory Ideas: The Bible and the Word

The Renaissance made a virtue of going back to the original sources when investigating historical materials. This was an ideal adopted by the Reformation. But whereas the humanism of the Renaissance was largely for the elite, the Reformation was more democratic. Not only for the theologians who were to be able to read and understand the Bible, but – in principle – everyone. So the Bible started to be read and used in new ways. Theologians read it in the original Greek and Hebrew to ensure the most accurate basis for interpretation, but there were also new, critical translations into local languages that made it possible for the Bible also to be read by people without a lengthy education. Before the Reformation, interpretating the Bible had been the prerogative of theologians, who always based their clarifications on the official church interpretation. The new ideal was that every Christian should be able to understand and explain their faith.    

It was important for Luther that the Bible was read correctly to avoid the reader’s own opinions being read into the text. He believed that the entire Bible should be read as ‘law’ and ‘gospel’. Previously this was a distinction used to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testament: the Old Testament included the Ten Commandments and other texts on God’s orders to mankind, whereas the New Testament was based on accounts of the life of Jesus and the role he played. Now the law and gospel were seen as present throughout the Bible. Everything that made demands on people was understood as law, regardless of whether it was in the Old or New Testament. Texts on law would always reveal that people are sinners unable to obey the commandments of God. But everything in the Bible that directly or indirectly referred to Christ and therefore granted God’s mercy was the gospel.