This Post Can’t Teach You Theology: Learning with Luther

Some years ago I had a simple plan for my life. Step 1: head to […]

Adam Morton / 11.2.15

Some years ago I had a simple plan for my life. Step 1: head to grad school to learn a bit of theology. Step 2: acquire degrees. Step 3: teach for a living. Forgive my youthful naivete regarding the academic job market. My plan failed, but not for that reason. Neither was I derailed by the process of earning degrees; I proved an able student, did earn one degree, and may yet grab another. But that didn’t matter very much. No, I failed at Step 1, because I presumed it possible to learn something of God by devoting myself to that project, as if I were studying a beetle on the ground.


But how else would one learn theology than by personal dedication and hard work? You can imagine my confusion: I had once learned a little physics (less than I could have) by studying (much less than I could have) in college. The correlation between input and output, work and knowledge was clear, so this time I would buckle down, achieve my potential and become a walking example of willful self-improvement. But that was before I met Dr. Luther of Wittenberg.

Dr. Luther himself had retired from theology and moved on to effortless enjoyment of its source. I would only encounter him in writing and through certain modern interpreters (not least the Mockingbird-approved Drs. Steven Paulson of St. Paul and Oswald Bayer of Tübingen). Despite these interactions, I was frustrated. My grand project yielded two major disappointments: first, elements of my life I had thought stable were coming unglued, producing an emotional crisis, and second, all my work was not making much of a theologian of me. It was then that Dr. Luther stepped in, whispering a secret in my ear: he told me how to study theology correctly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat hint came in the 1539 Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings. The preface is short, not even six pages in its English translation. It comes late in Luther’s life, when he has had time to consider his own influence (a dangerous prospect) and what he might like to be remembered for (not much!). Throughout he recommends the scriptures as the true place to learn theology. That may seem obvious, but let none of our Protestant hubris obscure how we all, from low-church evangelicals to high-church yearners-for-Rome, find ourselves subject to traditions whose roots we barely comprehend. I confess the Bible as the sole source and norm for theology; but again and again I fall back on well-worn pathways, things my preachers have said to me, stock phrases in the vocabulary of American Christianity, and I repeat them without any question as to whether they reflect the scriptures. Last week I was contending with a strange but common word, ‘glory,’ and had to admit that I had heard it all my life and hadn’t the foggiest what it was.

Luther, of course, was not aiming to overturn all traditions. Such a thing is neither possible nor desirable. He meant instead to lay out how students of theology might be truly subject to scripture and to scripture’s God:

Moreover, I want to point out to you a correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that. If you keep to it, you will become so learned that you yourself could (if it were necessary) write books just as good as those of the fathers and councils, even as I (in God) dare to presume and boast, without arrogance and lying, that in the matter of writing books I do not stand much behind some of the fathers. Of my life I can by no means make the same boast. This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.

Note well that Luther’s claim applies to everyone from Abraham to Zechariah, and moreover, to you. The only named saint here is David–adulterer, murderer, who exposed himself before the ark and whose reign plunged Israel into civil war. Luther’s rule applies to the Psalmist as much as to the reader of Psalms. To learn well, we must be instructed in the same way as those who wrote the scriptures.

GloryLuther’s Latin triad is not pure invention, but a play on the medieval formula oratio, meditatio, contemplatio–prayer, meditation, contemplation. That formula represents a movement inward and upward from praying with the lips to meditating with the heart to pure, wordless contemplation. The theologian steps beyond letter to Spirit, to a place above the words of scripture. Theology by that scheme consists in disembodied speculation, a flight from the Bible into the naked majesty of God on my own inner-spiritual wings.

Luther’s apparent tweak to the formula is nothing less than total demolition of the old approach and reconstruction on new lines. Only one of three terms has changed, but the content of each is new. Oratio, prayer, remains the prayer of the lips, but its object has been altered. Mediatio has shifted from internal pondering to external wrestling with the Word. Tentatio (variously rendered as temptation, spiritual attack, deadly struggle, or Anfechtung) appears out of place. The old terms were to be understood sequentially, but Luther means for the study of theology to take place in continual and repeated fashion, each term supporting the others.

We begin with prayer:

meditationFirstly, you should know that the Holy Scriptures constitute a book which turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness, because not one teaches about eternal life except this one alone. Therefore you should straightway despair of your reason and understanding. With them you will not attain eternal life, but, on the contrary, your presumptuousness will plunge you and others with 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.

Without the Holy Spirit, all study of scripture is meaningless, theology vain. Reason cannot accept that it is incapable in this way; the theology student (which is to say, every human capable of speculation) errs immediately in presuming that intellect and its proper application are at issue. If I study, I will learn–how can this not be true? Luther elaborates:

Although he [David] well knew and daily heard and read the text of Moses and other books besides, still he wants to lay hold of the real teacher of the Scriptures himself, so that he may not seize upon them pell-mell with his reason and become his own teacher. For such practice gives rise to factious spirits who allow themselves to nurture the delusion that the Scriptures are 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.

How strange to warn against becoming one’s own teacher! Isn’t that the goal of education, to excel teachers and instruct oneself? Luther implies that this stands at the heart of our failure. If the scriptures are subject to us, then they can only say what already lies within us. Luther insists, on the contrary, that the truth is outside and must be engaged there. That is the proper sense of meditatio:

SumoSecondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by outwardly 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 spoken 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 the 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 external word; so take your cue from that. His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc. outwardly was not given in vain.

This is not mysticism. However inadequate the external forms of study might be, they cannot be done away with! There is a place for burying one’s head in books–and not only the head, but the hands, lips, eyes, ears and all the body. Properly engaging scripture means to wrestle like Jacob at the Jabbok, marshaling every resource and hanging on for dear life, even at cost of a divine low blow and a permanent limp. Furthermore, this is no solitary task. The Spirit is given through the external Word, through means–and so through the hands and voices of other Christians. Study cannot become so private that it retreats from the external Word and so from God’s Spirit, instead seeking God through my own inner powers.

Now we reach the third term, tentatio. What could there be beyond the Holy Spirit and true engagement with God’s Word? Only the cross laid on the life of the believer:

Thus you see how David, in the Psalm mentioned, complains so often about all kinds of enemies, arrogant princes or tyrants, false spirits and factions, whom he must tolerate because he meditates, that is, because he is occupied with God’s Word… For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults 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.

ambushWithout the attack, all that has been gained will quickly wither. It is not joy of discovery or satisfaction in personal progress that drives our learning, but the assaults of the enemy from which we seek refuge in Christ. So much theology is merely flight from grace; so much Christian learning self-absorption. As painful as the slings and arrows become (and we speak of real suffering of the most severe kind, not minor or self-chosen hardships), without them I would forget my God. To learn theology properly is to become dependent on grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. Nothing else counts, no matter how dressed up in holy words. Learning is more than intellectual; it takes place in the daily life of the Christian, where such assaults teach us “not only to know, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.”

So remember: oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Prayer, meditation, assault. Only in this way is all our learning in God’s hands. Like Luther, I flatter myself that by my own dismal failures God has begun to make a bit of a theologian of me. Certainly better than I was! You, gentle reader, will either nod in agreement or shake your head in confusion or disapproval, but it doesn’t matter. To understand is to begin to be grasped, however dimly, by the strangeness of the situation. The truth is that of which I cannot be persuaded and towards which I cannot turn my heart. It does not await my judgment or my study. The truth is a free person, and he judges me. To learn him, I must learn on his terms. Ours is the theology of corpses who would know the Resurrection.

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15 responses to “This Post Can’t Teach You Theology: Learning with Luther”

  1. Ian says:

    Adam, this is one of the finest examinations of means (and how they aren’t antithetical to the gospel) I’ve ever seen on Mockingbird. Cheers!

  2. MargaretE says:

    I’m no theologian, but I found this essay exceptional… and quite helpful. Thank you.

    • Adam Morton says:

      You are most certainly a theologian, though one of the sensible types who doesn’t do it for a living. And you’re quite welcome.

  3. Michael Cooper says:

    This is nothing less than amazing, gut level and fresh, devoid of argumentative bull shit and damned honest.

  4. Leah Garhovd says:

    Clarifying and encouraging – thank you.

  5. David Morton says:

    From one Morton to another, this is really good. It’s amazing how much I can learn about God simply by driving the speed limit and prayerfully trying my best not to be resentful about the person riding my bumper. I’d say one can learn more about who Christ is through that experience than through years of book-study.

    • Ian says:

      Or, even better (paraphrasing B.B. Warfield), driving the speed limit with your books on the dash and riding shotgun.

      • Adam Morton says:

        The books are useful! But they are not really where my redemption plays out, and can only teach so much.

        I sometimes get very frustrated with pastors and theologians who, not lacking in intellect and reading all the right books, still don’t get it. They seem almost willfully stupid, and I remember Philip Melanchthon’s snipe at the authors of the Confutation of the Augsburg Confession: “Who taught these jackasses logic?” But then, that that’s exactly what they are, just as I am. The will is precisely what’s at issue, and so the Spirit.

  6. Nicholas Hopman says:

    Thanks much.
    Your dad turned me onto this site and I’ve enjoyed many posts, but this is the best so far.

  7. Timothy Anderson says:

    I use the sumo picture when I teach David and Goliath in confirmation classes. One of my favorites and to find it in such an excellent piece of theology makes it even better. Always good to return to Luther’s basics, which of course Luther always did too. Best I have read in a while. Thank you.

  8. Rob Gillette says:

    Life experience + good theology + on going life experience = wisdom

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