Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Martin Luther’s Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (Part 1 of 6)

The articles in this six-part series are from an oral address presented by Dr. Rob Plummer at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting, March 2005, and are posted here with his permission. Quotations of Luther’s preface are from the following English translation: “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 63-68. An online version of Luther’s preface is located at

I. Introduction

Never in the history of the church have so many good hermeneutics textbooks been available. Of course, never in the history of the church have so many bad hermeneutics texts been in print as well. Still, evangelicals have little to complain about. If we haven’t learned to ” read the Bible for all its worth,” we have hopefully at least come upon “ a basic guide to interpreting the Bible.” Though current evangelical hermeneutics texts vary in strength, as a whole, they are excellent in defending authorial intent, providing a history of biblical interpretation in the church, giving rules for determining various literary genres and enumerating principles for interpreting those genres. With so many excellent texts on biblical interpretation available, it is striking how few hermeneutically-sound sermons one hears. Where is the clarity and power of sound Biblical interpretation manifested in pulpits, popular Christian literature, and Sunday School classes? Is something lacking?

Martin Luther, though he wrote nearly 500 years ago, provides some guidance on this subject in the preface to the Wittenberg edition of his German writings. Indeed, if the sole benefit of this paper is to serve as a goad so that you – the listener – find and read this short preface yourself, your time in this session will be well-spent, I believe. Luther’s memorable style of expression undoubtedly exceeds the quality of my writing – and thus, I point you to it. (” Ad fontes!” as the Reformers said.) Yet, with faltering lips, I hope to summarize faithfully and apply some of Luther’s thoughts to our current setting.

In his preface, Luther gives a three-part prescription for theological study, which I think provides the missing ingredients in much current evangelical hermeneutical instruction. This three-step method is Oratio, Meditatio, and Tentatio (prayer, meditation, and trial). These elements, I believe, are crucial to faithful biblical reflection, but are often neglected in current discussion. In this paper, I will proceed by looking at the basis for Luther’s theological prescription. That is, why does he see prayer, meditation, and trials as the sine qua non of true theological study? Then, we will examine each one of his three recommended elements in turn. Finally, I will make some concluding remarks.

NEXT TIME: Luther’s Basis for His Prescription

Dr. Rob Plummer serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is author of Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006).


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