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Vol. XVII No. 24
15 March 2020

TABLE TALK ON THE BIBLE

Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s famous table talks were the conversations he had with his colleagues and students when he had them over for dinner in his house. Here are some of his musings on the Scriptures:

Bible Preserved and Protected

The Bible is God’s Word. As God made and shaped the world, so does it stand to this day. Infinite potentates have raged against this book, and sought to destroy and uproot it—but they nothing prevailed; they are all gone and vanished, while the book remains, and will remain for ever and ever, perfect and entire, as it was declared at first. Who has thus helped it—who has thus protected it against such mighty forces? No one, surely, but God himself, who is the master of all things. And ’tis no small miracle how God has so long preserved and protected this book. God, with singular strength, has upheld the Bible.

Far above Human Reason

The Holy Scriptures are full of divine gifts and virtues. The books of the heathen taught nothing of faith, hope, or charity; they present no idea of these things; they contemplate only the present, and that which man, with the use of his material reason, can grasp and comprehend. Look not therein for aught of hope or trust in God. But see how the Holy Scripture is the highest and best of books, abounding in comfort under all afflictions and trials. It teaches us to see, to feel, to grasp, and to comprehend faith, hope, and charity, far otherwise than mere human reason can; and when evil oppresses us, it teaches how these virtues throw light upon the darkness, and how, after this poor miserable existence of ours on earth, there is another and an eternal life.

The great men and the doctors understand not the Word of God, but it is revealed to the humble and to children, as it testified by the Saviour in the Gospel according to St Matthew, xi. 25: O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. The Holy Scripture is a stream of running water, where alike the elephant may swim, and the lamb walk without losing its feet.

We must make a great difference between God’s Word and the word of man. A man’s word is a little sound, that flies into the air, and soon vanishes; but the Word of God is greater than heaven and earth, yea, greater than death and hell, for it forms part of the power of God, and endures everlastingly; we should, therefore, diligently study God’s Word, and know and assuredly believe that God himself speaks unto us.

Basis and Source of Faith

A theologian should be thoroughly in possession of the basis and source of faith—that is to say, the Holy Scriptures. Armed with this knowledge it was that I confounded and silenced all my adversaries; for they seek not to fathom and understand the Scriptures; they run them over negligently and drowsily; they speak, they write, they teach, according to the suggestion of their heedless imaginations. My counsel is, that we draw water from the true source and fountain, that is, that we diligently search the Scriptures. He who wholly possesses the text of the Bible, is a consummate divine. One single verse, one sentence of the text, is of far more instruction than a whole host of glosses and commentaries.

The Holy Scriptures surpass in efficaciousness all the arts and all the sciences of the philosophers and jurists; these, though good and necessary to life here below, are vain and of no effect as to what concerns the life eternal. The Bible should be regarded with wholly different eyes from those with which we view other productions. He who wholly renounces himself, and relies not on mere human reason, will make good progress in the Scriptures; but the world comprehends them not, from ignorance of that mortification which is the gift of God’s Word. Can he who understands not God’s Word, understand God’s works? But by that Word, we, God be praised, are able to discern and know all such; therefore let us hold the Bible in precious esteem, and diligently read it.

Luther’s German Bible 1534

Philosophy understands naught of divine matters. I don’t say that men may not teach and learn philosophy; I approve thereof, so that it be within reason and moderation. Let philosophy remain within her bounds, as God has appointed, and let us make use of her as of a character in a comedy; but to mix her up with divinity may not be endured. But faith is a thing in the heart, having its being and substance by itself, given of God as his proper work, not a corporal thing, that may be seen, felt, or touched.

Certainty of the Doctrine

Truly, in this case, we must not only be well armed with God’s Word, and versed therein, but must have also certainty of the doctrine, or we shall not endure the combat. A man must be able to affirm, I know for certain, that what I teach is the only Word of the high Majesty of God in heaven, his final conclusion and everlasting, unchangeable truth, and whatsoever concurs and agrees not with this doctrine, is altogether false, and spun by the devil. I have before me God’s Word which cannot fail, nor can the gates of hell prevail against it; thereby will I remain, though the whole world be against me. And withal, I have this comfort, that God says: I will give thee people and hearers that shall receive it; cast thy care upon me; I will defend thee, only remain thou stout and steadfast by my Word.

We must not regard what or how the world esteems us, so we have the Word pure, and are certain of our doctrine. When a man has this certainty, he has overcome the serpent; but if he be doubtful of the doctrine, it is for him very dangerous to dispute with the devil.

I did not learn my divinity at once, but was constrained by my temptations to search deeper and deeper; for no man, without trials and temptations, can attain a true understanding of the Holy Scriptures. St Paul had a devil that beat him with fists, and with temptations drove him diligently to study the Holy Scripture. I had hanging on my neck the pope, the universities, all the deep-learned, and the devil; these hunted me into the Bible, wherein I sedulously read, and thereby, God be praised, at length attained a true understanding of it. Without such a devil, we are but only speculators of divinity, and according to our vain reasoning, dream that so and so it must be, as the monks and friars in monasteries do. The Holy Scripture of itself is certain and true; God grant me grace to catch hold of its just use.

Warning against Corruption, Contempt, and Criticism

No greater mischief can happen to a Christian people, than to have God’s Word taken from them, or falsified, so that they no longer have it pure and clear. God grant we and our descendants be not witnesses of such a calamity.

The great unthankfulness, contempt of God’s Word, and willfulness of the world, make me fear that the divine light will soon cease to shine on man. The darkness grows thicker around us, and godly servants of the Most High become rarer and more rare. Impiety and licentiousness are rampant throughout the world, and live like pigs, like wild beasts, devoid of all reason. But a voice will soon be heard thundering forth: Behold, the bridegroom cometh. God will not be able to bear this wicked world much longer, but will come, with the dreadful day, and chastise the scorners of his Word.

All men now presume to criticize the gospel. Almost every old doting fool or prating sophist must, forsooth, be a doctor in divinity. All other arts and sciences have masters, of whom people must learn, and rules and regulations which must be observed and obeyed; the Holy Scripture only, God’s Word, must be subject to each man’s pride and presumption; hence; so many sects, seducers, and offences.

I have lived to see the greatest plague on earth—the condemning of God’s Word, a fearful thing, surpassing all other plagues in the world; for thereupon most surely follow all manner of punishment, eternal and corporal. The condemning of God’s Word is the forerunner of God’s punishments.

We ought not to criticize, explain, or judge the Scriptures by our mere reason, but diligently, with prayer, meditate thereon, and seek their meaning. The devil and temptations also afford us occasion to learn and understand the Scriptures, by experience and practice. Without these we should never understand them, however diligently we read and listened to them. The Holy Ghost must here be our only master and tutor; and let youth have no shame to learn of that preceptor. When I find myself assailed by temptation, I forthwith lay hold of some text of the Bible, which Jesus extends to me; as this: that he died for me, whence I derive infinite comfort.

[Source: The Table Talk of Martin Luther, translated by William Hazlitt, published by the Lutheran Publication Society. Herein edited and abridged. JK]

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