The most famous event of 1517 is Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses. However, in the same year Luther reached a milestone that may be even more significant: when he finally abandoned the medieval method of interpreting the Bible.
For centuries, the dominant way of interpreting the Scriptures assigned four separate meanings to each thing in Scripture. For example, when the Bible speaks about Jerusalem, medieval theologians said that it was talking about 1) the city in Israel (literal), 2) the Church (allegorical), 3) the soul (moral), and 4) heaven (eschatological).
Luther identified the shortcomings of this approach, which was too often dependent upon guesswork and the whims of the interpreter. He wrote, “It was very difficult for me to break away from my habitual zeal for allegory. And yet I was aware that allegories were empty speculations and the froth, as it were, of the Holy Scriptures. It is the historical sense alone which supplies the true and sound doctrine” (LW 1.283).
Luther identified that the Scriptures had one sense, the literal or natural sense. This did not mean that he was a complete literalist. For example, he stated that figures of speech are meant to be taken figuratively. However, when the Scriptures speak plainly, they should be taken literally according to the normal use of language. The implication of this approach is that the Bible is clear in its meaning and can be understood by ordinary people.
It is the historical sense alone which supplies the true and sound doctrine.
The most important principle of interpretation that Martin Luther used was “Scripture interprets Scripture.” The tools for properly interpreting the Bible are contained in the Bible itself. Thus, he delved into the New Testament to see how Jesus and the apostles had interpreted Scripture. There he found a valuable tool. He discovered that many Old Testament people and institutions were to be understood as types or patterns that foreshadowed and proclaimed the Christ, who would surpass them and fulfill them. Thus, in his Preface to the Psalter, Luther wrote, “The true, the only sense of the Psalms is the Christ-sense.”
For Luther, every part of the Bible proclaimed Christ, not apart from the literal sense but in a way that was communicated by the literal sense. Luther “desired to know nothing but Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), and we continue in that legacy when we speak the Christ-filled message of Scripture.