Reformational Hermeneutics according to Brian Gerrish

I’ve been reading a lot of Brian Gerrish (not pictured) lately. I’ve been familiar with some of his work for a while now, but I’ve lately begun diving into his essays. It has been a lot of fun. I find him very easy to read, and his keen historical judgment unfailingly results in thought-provoking insights. So it should come as no surprise that I wanted to share some of this with you, gentle readers.

What follows is a passage wherein Gerrish lays out five points as a summary of Luther’s “exegetical principles.”

B. A. Gerrish, “The Word of God and the Words of Scripture: Luther and Calvin on Biblical Authority,” The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage (London: T & T Clark, 2004), 57. Bold is from; italics are from Gerrish’s.
Luther’s interpretation of scripture . . . . The pertinent exegetical principles can be summed up under five major heads. First, the literal meaning is to be preferred to the allegorical when we are seeking to establish points of doctrine. To the principle “Scripture alone” Luther adds the further principle “the historical sense alone.” Allegories may be used afterwards - as ornaments, not as proofs. Even then we must observe the analogy of faith: “that is, accommodate them to Christ, the church, faith, and the ministry of the Word.” Second, Luther insists that the understanding of scripture is fundamentally simple. Party, this is asserted in opposition to the Roman Church’s claim that only the pope can interpret Scripture – a view against which Luther argues in the Address to the German Nobility. Elsewhere he asserts that “the Holy Spirit is the simplest writer and adviser in heaven and on earth. That is why his words could have no more than the one simplest meaning, which we call . . . the literal meaning.” This does not mean that Luther neglects scholarship; on the contrary, with the utmost respect he calls the literary skills of humanism “forerunners of the Gospel,” as John the Baptist was the forerunner to Christ. Third, Luther believes that many difficulties can be cleared up – and many errors avoided – by interpreting each passage in the light of the biblical message as a whole. Scripture is its own interpreter. Fourth, however, his method is not purely technical; the Scriptures must always be understood in faith. We must feel the words of Scripture in the heart. Experience is necessary for understanding the Word, which must be lived and felt. Fifth - and this is perhaps another way of saying the same thing - we must listen to the voice of the same Spirit who wrote the Scriptures. In the light of affirmations such as these, we can understand Luther’s characteristic dicta that “it is better to leave reason at home” and submit to Scripture; or that “even the humble miller’s maid, nay, a child of nine if it has faith,” can understand the Bible.
Now I can hear you wondering, gentle readers – “Why did that McMaken guy title this post with reference to ‘Reformational’ hermeneutics and then only talk about Luther?!?!” Well, I’ll tell you: “Calvin’s exegetical principles were essentially the same” (Gerrish, 64).



Wayne Coppins said…
Thanks for this post! I also greatly profited from that collection of essays.

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