“Letter” and “Spirit” in Luther’s Hermeneutics -- By: Randall C. Gleason

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 157:628 (Oct 2000)
Article: “Letter” and “Spirit” in Luther’s Hermeneutics
Author: Randall C. Gleason


“Letter” and “Spirit” in Luther’s Hermeneutics

Randall C. Gleasona

Studies in biblical hermeneutics no longer focus merely on the proper rules and steps for interpreting the Scriptures. They also address fundamental issues such as the nature of meaning itself.1 This shift has led to a wide spectrum of opinions, ranging between those who insist that proper biblical hermeneutics should seek the author’s intended meaning and those who say that readers actually construct their own meanings from the text.2

Those who hold more closely to the historical-grammatical meaning seek to safeguard interpreters against twisting Scripture to fit their own theology and self-interests. Others seek a more dynamic hermeneutic that transforms the reader through the creation of new meanings more relevant to the modern world. Several writers have observed that these recent trends relate “very much to

the understanding of the Bible by the Reformers.”3

This article discusses Luther’s distinction between a Spirit-guided understanding of Scripture and a superficial knowledge of its words, which foreshadows some of the problems facing modern biblical interpreters. Like most medieval exegetes before him, Luther expressed the relationship between words and their meaning in terms of Paul’s contrast in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” However, unlike many who preceded him, Luther understood Paul’s letter/spirit antithesis in a new way. This new understanding gives a window into his hermeneutical framework that revolutionized hermeneutics in the sixteenth century.4

The interpretive history of Paul’s letter/spirit contrast (Rom. 2:25–29; 7:1–7; 2 Cor. 3:6) is virtually a history of biblical interpretation, since patristic and medieval exegetes commonly appealed to this important Pauline concept to justify their hermeneutical methods.5 For example from earliest times the Alexandrian school

(led by Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria) used Paul’s letter/spirit antithesis to support their allegorical method.

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