“Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and its Scripture-Centered Proclamation” by Robert Kolb
In Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God, Robert Kolb places his readers in contact with a world where the interpretation and application of Scripture was more than a matter of personal religious conviction. The sixteenth-century Reformers sought to recover God’s speech in Scripture—speech that had been crowded out by opinions, traditions, and superstitions, speech that addressed human beings in all areas of life: society, family, church, and the depth of human hearts where fear, pride, despair, or indifference fought to maintain its grasp over the souls of men and women who sought to earn God’s love and saving grace through a system of cooperation and merit. As Kolb describes, Martin Luther believed that God spoke to all these matters through Scripture:
The Bible served as the center of his entire enterprise, combining elements in these several components of life to forge plausible answers to the questions of daily life. Without the Bible, there could be no preaching and therefore no evangelical church life. Permeating the whole of life for the Wittenberg theologians was the presence of God, particularly of God in conversation with his people in, through, and by means of Holy Scripture. (8)
Yet Luther was not alone in his wrestling with God’s word; he was part of a community that sought to recover Scripture’s message of grace, which hinged on the two little words faith alone. Kolb explains that this band of reformers was essential to the Reformation:
Without the team around Luther, there would have been no Wittenberg Reformation. The cross-fertilization that arose from conversations has long since disappeared into thin air, but it can be sensed in the writings of all of them as well as in their personal recollections. (7)
This conversation around Scripture—its message, form, and doctrine; proper methods of its interpretation and application; its proclamation; and even the practice of textual criticism—is a conversation Kolb introduces to pastors and students. It is his hope that his lengthy overview on the Wittenberg school of scriptural interpretation and proclamation will inspire and “stimulate new research,” even as “it attempts to provide biographical orientation for such new studies of many of the subjects discussed” (14–15).
Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God accomplishes this goal in a readable, engaging study that did more than stimulate my inner nerd. Kolb’s work inspired, challenged, and informed my reading of the Bible, and for this reason I recommend this book to anyone interested in Martin Luther, the Reformation, hermeneutics, or even the Bible.
In chapters 1 through 4, Kolb presents Luther’s theology of Scripture in historical context. He tells the story of Luther’s development into a teacher of Scripture within the late medieval world, a world that “had been anything but a world without a Bible” (34). The world Luther inherited was filled with Scripture, but it “lacked an understanding of God as the God of conversation and community, engaged personally with his people, and an understanding of the human creature centered on trust in God’s goodness and mercy, as well as love and service to other human beings” (18).
Kolb shows Luther immersed in the patterns of monastic life, with its daily hours of prayer and Scripture reading. He inherited a method of scriptural interpretation with renewed interest in the text’s literal sense, which had been chosen by his superior, Johannes von Staupitz, for university training. Luther became a “teacher of the Bible” and a late-medieval theologian well equipped beyond many of his peers (23–28, 31).
When Kolb writes about Luther’s theology of Scripture, he explains Luther’s understanding of God’s word as it relates to God’s character, Christ as the Word from the Father, the gospel, and the controversies of Luther’s own day: justification, the nature of faith, human nature, and church authority. For Luther, God effects what he declares in Scripture and governs what it affects: “God’s word governs the course of human history.…God’s Word creates faith, reestablishing the relationship of parent and child with his chosen people” (48). “God’s Word creates the Church and governs it” (62).
As an interpreter of Scripture, Luther is revealed as one who both maintained a supernatural understanding of Scripture’s origin, content, and effects together with a human understanding of language, able to embrace the humanist practices of textual criticism of his day:
Despite the perception that the utterly reliable, faithful God had been present in the composition of Scripture and remained present, confronting its contemporary readers, Luther was not oblivious to seeming discrepancies….Luther’s linguistic sensitivities prevented him from insisting on a strictly literalistic interpretation of every passage. (85)
Kolb shows Luther’s understanding of God’s presence in Scripture’s formation, content, and effects, and how this influenced the interpretive practices he inherited from medieval Christianity, along with the rhetorical and hermeneutical advancements made by humanist scholars, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Chapters 5 through 9 place Luther as a professor, preacher, and translator in context with the rest of the Wittenberg faculty. Here, Kolb shows how much of Luther’s insights and development were the outworking of a team of scholars committed to the cause of reformation. Philipp Melanchthon was one such scholar and friend, whose humanistic learning greatly contributed to Luther’s thought and the development of the Wittenberg School (241–42).
Chapters 10 through 14 explain the latter developments and concerns of Lutheran thinkers to follow the original faculty. Here, Kolb provides a helpful resource for new scholars seeking to research Lutheran thoughts on Scripture and exegetical practices. In chapter 11, Kolb notes the concerns over challenges from the Romans Catholic Church, preaching, catechesis, and the abundance of exegesis done to forward the work of reformation begun by Luther with the Wittenberg faculty.
In the wake of the five-hundred-year anniversary of the Reformation, Kolb reminds us of the confidence the Wittenberg Reformers had in God and his word. This book is well worth the time it takes to read and digest its many pages.
Silverio Gonzalez is an associate editor at the White Horse Inn and a member of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Escondido, California. He holds a BA in philosophy from the University of California Santa Barbara and an MDiv from Westminster Seminary California.