by Rev. Christopher Maronde
“I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board.” (LW 34:283) Martin Luther wanted all of his books to be burned, or, at least, collect dust in obscurity for the rest of history. Luther had a low opinion of books, especially his own. There was only one book that was necessary, only one book that was truly to be treasured, studied and inwardly digested: the Holy Scriptures. All other books were to point to the Scriptures, to highlight them, to encourage us to examine them further. “Therefore, it behooves us to let the prophets and apostles stand at the professor’s lectern, while we, down below at their feet, listen to what they say. It is not they who must hear what we say.” (LW 34:284)
Martin Luther was not impressed when colleagues and publishers encouraged him to authorize an edition of his works. They were concerned with preserving the teaching of this great man of God; the great man of God, on the other hand, wanted only to point to the Scripture. “I wish all my books were extinct, so that only the sacred books of the Bible would be diligently read.” (LW 34:282) Almost a decade was needed to finally convince him, and then he did so reluctantly, spending the preface speaking not about his works, or about his struggle against the papacy, but demeaning his writings next to the Scriptures. In the first authorized edition of his writings, Luther was more concerned to teach us how to understand the Scriptures.
“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…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.” (LW 34:285)
Oratio, Mediatatio, Tentatio. Prayer, meditation, and the struggle against the flesh and Satan. Through these means, God makes a theologian. Not through spending time in a classroom, not by the reading of many books, not by the conferral of degrees, but through the study of the Scriptures in the crucible of a world that wishes to destroy us, with the devil breathing down our necks, falling to our knees in prayer, begging the Father for His aid, continually reading and rereading the words that He has handed down to us.
The first part is Oratio, prayer. Not the first step, mind you, as if Oratio, Mediatio, Tentatio were a degree program. No, all three are constantly in interaction with one another, and they work in concert to make one a theologian. Yet, Oratio comes first, because one cannot study the Scriptures without prayer. This sets the Scriptures apart from any other book. There is no other book that one must approach solely through prayer, for there is no other book that not only teaches about eternal life, but actually delivers it. There is no other book that not only talks about God, but actually gives us the words from His very lips. For Luther, beginning our study of the Scriptures with prayer puts us in our place, it humbles us. We do not come to the Scripture boasting of our own reason, bringing against it the vast resources of man to sit in judgment over it, but we come in humility, begging God for understanding.
What do we pray for? David gives us the pattern. “Teach me your statutes! Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.” (Psalm 119:26b-27) We pray for the Holy Spirit, for apart from the Holy Spirit, apart from Him who inspired the Scriptures and thus kept them from error, we cannot rightly understand or interpret them. The Scriptures cannot be properly read, and no one can be a theologian, apart from faith in Christ, faith worked by the Holy Spirit.
“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.” (LW 34:285-286)
The Rev. Christopher Maronde is associate pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Lincoln, Neb.