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“Are You Alone Wise?”: Luther’s Answers for Today’s Protestants

September 3rd, 2019 | 18 min read

By Onsi A. Kamel

A decade after he began advocating for reform, Martin Luther had become highly attuned to the fundamental issues at stake in the debates with his adversaries. Having made Sola Scriptura his rallying cry, he was forced to face the chaos that ensued. Claiming his reform but rejecting his theology, radical sects had fomented violent revolution in the Holy Roman Empire.[1]

Several of Luther’s disciples had been executed as heretics.[2] To the south from Zurich, Huldrych Zwingli promoted a doctrine of the Lord’s Supper antithetical to Luther’s; to the West, the great Catholic humanist and former Reformation-sympathizer Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote against Luther’s articulation of human enslavement to sin. All the while, Luther’s Catholic opponents piled on: numerous biting rhetorical questions were leveled against Luther by the likes of Johann Eck, Thomas More, and Andreas Karlstadt, no mean assemblage of opponents.[3] “Are you alone wise?” they asked.[4]

Luther’s opponents forced him to face the issue of divergent scriptural interpretations. He discusses the problem in his expositions of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Both we and our opponents, the pope and the other sects, are appealing to the same Scripture and laying claim to one Gospel and Word of God.”[5] It is true, of course, that Luther protested the extra-Scriptural beliefs mandated by the pope and those in communion with him. From his perspective, the pope and his followers “smear it all up…by defiling the pure doctrine with the foul and wormy… addition(s).”[6]

But Luther also arrived at different conclusions about the meaning of the very same texts. Thus, Luther could not simply cut away overgrowth; he also had to figure out what the garden was supposed to look like. For the contemporary reader of Luther, this raises a crucial question: how was Luther interpreting the Scriptures? What principles was he applying, explicitly or implicitly, such that he reached conclusions so different from those of his papacy-aligned interlocutors?

Luther’s Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount

Luther Among the Pharisees, Pt. 1: History Repeating Itself

Luther sees the Sermon on the Mount as a key text, illuminating the difference between his hermeneutic and Rome’s. One striking feature of Luther’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount is the clarity with which he sees the problem of competing interpretations of Scripture. Unless one knew better, one might think Luther’s treatment of this issue was written in response to a 19th Century English Cardinal who waxed eloquent about “private judgment.” Luther was well aware of proto-Newmanish criticism: “The whole world is yelling at us now,” asking, “‘Who are you, that you should be wise enough to criticize everyone else’?”[7] So how did Luther answer?

Luther saw his hermeneutical debate with the papacy and with pope-aligned theologians as mirroring—even repeating—Jesus’ debate with Pharisees concerning the Law and Prophets, as recorded in Matthew 5:17ff. Jesus agreed with the Pharisees that “Moses and the Prophets must be taught and enforced rigidly.”[8] The problem was not that the Pharisees wished to uphold the law while Jesus wished to abandon it. They agreed the Law was law. Rather, the issue was sorting out “which of the sides is correctly citing and interpreting Scripture or God’s Law.”[9] Just as this crucial issue faced Jesus, “right now, too, both we and our opponents…are appealing to the same Scripture and laying claim to one Gospel and Word of God.”[10]

Luther makes the same move again later in his treatment of Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees, equating Jesus’ situation with his own. Just as “He [Jesus] is not denying that they [the Pharisees] are God’s people…Nor are we condemning or denying that under the pope there were Christians.”[11] And again, as Jesus did not destroy the Law, so Luther “accept(s) the very same Scripture, Baptism, and Sacrament.”[12] Luther believed Christ was trying to “salt” and “purify” a situation “in which neither doctrine nor life was in good condition,” and Luther saw the same situation in his own day.[13] As Susan Schreiner notes in Are You Alone Wise?, Luther thought various men at sundry times—Noah, Jesus, himself—must and may “rightly defy the whole world” because “‘the world refuses to change.’”[14] Luther understood himself to be doing what Jesus did against the Pharisees and what Noah had done against the world.

In other words, one hermeneutical key for Luther was seeing the events of his own day as types of the events of Scripture, finding their meaning and consequently their normative standing in relation to the events recorded in Scriptural text. This was possible precisely because fallen human nature, in all times and places, refuses to hear, receive, and obey the Word of God. The situations were fundamentally analogous because the spiritual situation of man remains ever the same.[15] Luther did not struggle, as some scholars have suggested, to pry Scripture’s contemporary relevance from the dead hands of history.[16] He had no trouble bridging the “now-then” divide. For Luther, history really did repeat itself, and this meant that the Scriptures could speak to contemporary events without trouble.

Luther Among the Pharisees, Pt. 2: The Key to the (Two) Kingdoms

The second formal hermeneutical principle, that which most directly leads to Luther’s material differences from his opponents in interpreting the Sermon on the Mount, is the distinction between the two kingdoms. Luther coordinates this distinction with that between faith and reason: faith is the means by which the Christian enters into and abides within the heavenly kingdom, and reason is the means by which the natural man lives within the earthly kingdom.

Luther justifies his two kingdoms framing through his understanding of what, exactly, the Scriptures are for. The earthly kingdom is concerned primarily with “temporal goods” and the “preservation of this life.”[17] The heavenly kingdom, by contrast, concerns spiritual and eternal life, that is, life lived before God. The Scriptures are about the latter, for no servant needs to be taught “how to…earn his bread;” no one needs divine revelation to teach him how to maintain “temporal goods” or “this life, for reason has already taught all these things to everyone.”[18] Reason is the means of knowing about earthly realities, while Scripture is the means of knowing about heavenly/spiritual realities. Scripture will not primarily treat those things for which reason is sufficient. Ironically, in light of later criticisms of Luther’s supposedly low views of reason, Luther’s two kingdoms framework is actually grounded in his high view of the deliverances of reason for life in this world. God would not tell us by revelation what is common knowledge by reason.

Luther sees his opponents’ inability to recognize this distinction as the root of their problems. Near the beginning of his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Luther writes that the late medieval Scholastics, like the Anabaptists, err in their interpretation because they “do not recognize any difference between the secular and divine realm, much less what should be distinctive doctrine and action in each realm.”[19] As a result, they interpret the Sermon on the Mount to be fundamentally about the earthly realm, which leads them into absurdities. The Scholastics were therefore forced to argue that Christ “does not intend everything He teaches in the fifth chapter to be a command.”[20] These hard teachings of Christ were “counsels,” intended not for ordinary Christians, but only for those who would be perfect (i.e. those who had taken religious vows). Indeed, they could not be for everyone: no king could turn the other cheek in response to attacks on his realm, no noble abandon his property and those who depended upon his protection.

Luther found this solution intolerable: the whole of the Gospel belonged to the whole of God’s people. By applying his two kingdoms hermeneutic, Luther aimed to “preserve in its purity the teaching of Christ.”[21] He hoped to reclaim Christ’s commands without either “suppressing good works” or “instituting false good works.”[22]

Spiritual Living in a Fleshly World

To understand how Luther’s two kingdoms view led him to interpret the Sermon on the Mount, we will focus on Luther’s treatment of two of the beatitudes: “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are those who mourn.” It will become clear that Luther understands Christ’s Sermon as not only directly about the spiritual kingdom, but as implicitly teaching Christians how to engage with the secular kingdom.

The first beatitude, “Blessed are the spiritually poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” immediately indicated, to Luther’s great delight, that Christ’s focus in the Sermon on the Mount was not the secular kingdom. (As an aside, it is important to note at the outset that Luther takes other of Christ’s claims, for example, that the “meek shall inherit the land,” to be promises of God concerning physical needs or well-being of His people. Hence some of Jesus’ claims or teachings had a primarily earthly referent, even though, to continue the example, meekness was to apply to Christians as those who live before God in the spiritual kingdom.[23]) Luther takes “Blessed are the spiritually poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” to mean that whoever wants to have the kingdom of heaven “must be poor himself and found among the poor.”[24] Luther emphasizes that Christ uses the word “spiritually” to modify the word “poor,” indicating, in his view, that “nothing is accomplished when someone is physically poor.”[25] Indeed, according to Luther, Christ did not have earthly, physical realities in view. Rather, “He wants to discuss only the spiritual—how to live before God, above and beyond the external.”[26] Luther takes spiritual poverty to be a state in which one does not “covet [money or anything of his own] or set his comfort and trust on it as though it were his kingdom of heaven.”[27] Spiritual poverty consists in a man not making “mammon his idol.”[28]

Because, for Luther, Christ’s statement about the poor does not concern physical poverty, he thinks it perfectly permissible to be “poor or rich physically and externally, as it is granted to you.”[29] Material abundance is neither here nor there, and Christ does not give a command concerning it in this passage. The key is to believe in God and to trust Him, rather than worldly goods, for one’s sustenance. This trust, spiritual poverty, will distance the Christian from the world; he will relate to God in a mode incomprehensible to the world because of his faith. While “the whole world…serves God only” for “property, popularity, and its Mammon,” the Christian worships God for spiritual benefits, namely, God himself.[30]

This leads to the absurdity, considered according to worldly thought, of those “many people whose hearts God can fill so that they may have only a morsel of bread and yet are cheerful kings…Such a person is a rich lord and emperor, and he need have no worry, trouble, or sorrow.”[31] Recognizing one’s spiritual poverty can lead to true wealth and contentment, which must always be distinguished from worldly wealth.

It is crucial to notice that Luther is not saying Christ’s commands have nothing whatever to do with the earthly world. While Luther contends only spiritual poverty is enjoined by Christ, such poverty inevitably and necessarily alters one’s relationship to worldly goods. The effect of this is indirect. Following Christ’s command of spiritual poverty leads not to temporal poverty but to willingness to give up all “for God’s sake.”[32] Spiritual poverty entails holding earthly possessions with a “loose hand.” As Luther wrote, “everything depends upon being content and not clinging to temporal goods.”[33]

In sum, then, Luther argues Christ speaks of human life before God. Before God, everyone must recognize their spiritual poverty, that is, their absolute dependence upon God. In so doing, they come to trust in God’s provision for them, to be content with what He has given them, and to be willing to give up all material possessions for His sake. Thus, spiritual poverty necessitates a relation to the secular realm characterized by holding earthly possessions loosely and receiving what God gives with joy and thanksgiving. Greed and stinginess are forbidden.

The second beatitude to examine in detail is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Like with the issue of poverty, Luther interprets this to concern not outward mourning or sadness, but the quality of not “depend[ing] upon having a good time and living it up, the way the world does.”[34] In contrast to worldly mourning, Christian mourning is to be expected and arises out of what occurs when the Christian sees the world as it is. “They must see and feel in their heart so much wickedness, arrogance, contempt, and blasphemy of God…Therefore, they cannot have many joyful thoughts, and their spiritual joy is very weak.”[35] For Luther, to be a Christian is to “find out what it means to mourn and be sorrowful.”[36] Of interest is the fact that the kind of sorrow Luther describes is not merely spiritual in nature, but in cause. It flows not out of earthly poverty, nor out of a lack of pleasure, but out of a genuine sadness over the spiritual state of the world.

Mourning also has indirect implications for the Christian’s engagement with the world. Again, for Luther, it is important to recognize that “Christ does not want to urge continual mourning and sorrow.”[37] Nevertheless, “He wants to warn against those who seek to escape all mourning and to have nothing but fun and comfort here (i.e. on earth).”[38] Mourning is a quality of the Christian because he will not be able to seek unmitigated earthly pleasures. Jesus teaches “His Christians, when things go badly and they have to mourn, to know that it is God’s good pleasure and to make it theirs as well.”[39]

Again, this contrasts with the world’s way of thinking. The world, Luther stated above, worships God for earthly advancement. Worldly reasoning would lead to the conclusion, then,, then, that misfortune which causes mourning would be a sign of divine displeasure. On the contrary, proclaims Luther: Jesus calls “‘blessed’ those who…mourn,” and this is “aimed and directed against the world’s way of thinking.”[40] Thus, while Jesus does not command mourning, and while “being joyful, eating and drinking well is not sinful or damnable,” mourning takes a special place in the Christian’s life: it is the product of the Christian’s spiritual vision, of his capacity to see the world as it is, and it is God’s good pleasure that Christians should mourn.[41]

Luther’s interpretation of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount reveals a number of themes. First, owing to his view of history and human nature, Luther takes Christ to be speaking to issues and people in Luther’s own day, and Luther’s battle with the papacy is a mirror or repetition of Jesus’s with the Pharisees. Second, because of his view of Scripture, Luther believes Jesus to speaks spiritual truths, inaccessible to reason. To think Jesusspeaks about the secular realm is to make a category error, even if, in certain beatitudes, Jesus is chiefly concerned with spiritual living in the secular realm.[42]

Still, although these teachings are spiritual and belong to the heavenly kingdom, they have serious implications for how Christians engage with the secular realm. Third, these spiritual truths make sense only from the vantage of faith—to the world, they are nonsense. Taken together, these themes constitute a window into Luther’s hermeneutic. It is fundamentally concerned with the two kingdoms distinction and, relatedly, the distinctions between faith and reason and comprehensibility and incomprehensibility.


Luther’s hermeneutical commitments have a number of implications for Protestants today. First, there are serious debates within contemporary Protestantism about how to interpret the Scriptures. Should Protestantism reclaim the Quadriga, as Hans Boersma contends? Should it defend the classical Reformation (and Augustinian/Thomistic) emphasis on the literal reading of the text?[43] If the latter, Luther’s vision of history presents one way of doing this.

Luther’s conception of history as a repetition of key events is also helpful in thinking through what it means to faithfully proclaim the gospel in a post-Christian world. Towards the end of his life, Bonhoeffer, for example, thought that the age when “we could tell people [who Christ is for us today] with words…is past, as is the age of inwardness and conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether.”[44] But if Luther is correct, Bonhoeffer’s understanding of history as being constituted by successive ages which actually change the quality of humans is untenable. For Luther, the human condition does not change, and what is called for is not a new mode of proclaiming the Word, but a new Noah to the anti-Christs of this age.

Additionally, Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, which was adopted by the Reformed in various permutations, has both a fraught history and undeniable contemporary relevance.[45] Recognizing that Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms dichotomy does not necessitate, and indeed militates against, a complete separation between the two kingdoms. Delineating clearly how, and how decisively, the spiritual realm changes the Christian’s relationship to the kingdom of the world is crucial for a healthy vision of the relationship between the two.

Luther’s hermeneutics, then, has undeniable relevance for Protestants. He helped to shape the Protestant approach to Scripture as a champion of the literal meaning. He assumed Scripture’s relevance to his world, seeing the events recorded in Scripture as archetypes of the events of his own day. He had a clear vision of the purpose of the Scriptures and reason, and therefore frequently interpreted the Scriptures according to his two kingdoms frame. Finally, Luther was forced to reckon with the “problem of private judgment,” that is, with the charge of “interpretive anarchy” leveled against him during his time and against Protestants into the present day.[46] And he answered these charges head-on, appealing to the power of reason, the mystery of the Cross, and in so doing, he preserved the teachings of Christ in all of their fullness over against his Catholic and Anabaptist opponents.

  1. Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, Reprint edition (New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2017), 155-157.
  2. Hendrix, Martin Luther, 192.
  3. Susan E. Schreiner, “Appearances and Reality in Luther, Montaigne, and Shakespeare,” The Journal of Religion 83, no. 3 (2003): 345–80, p. 347.
  4. Susan Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise?: The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era (Oxford University Press, 2011), 292.
  5. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 21: Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (Concordia Publishing House, 2007), p. 68.
  6. Luther, LW 21, p. 68.
  7. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 21: Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (Concordia Publishing House, 2007), p. 68.
  8. Luther, LW 21, p. 68.
  9. Luther, LW 21, p. 68.
  10. Luther, LW 21, p. 68.
  11. Luther, LW 21, p. 68.
  12. Luther, LW 21, p. 69.
  13. Luther, LW 21, p. 70.
  14. Susan Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise?: The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 297-298.
  15. I owe this insight to a lecture of Susan Schreiner’s on Galatians.
  16. Gerhard O. Forde, “Law and Gospel in Luther’s Hermeneutic,” Union Seminary Review 37, no. 3 (July 1, 1983): 240–52,, 244.
  17. Luther, LW 21, p. 9.
  18. Luther, LW 21, p. 9.
  19. Luther, LW 21, p. 5.
  20. Luther, LW 21, p. 3.
  21. Luther, LW 21, p. 5.
  22. Luther, LW 21, p. 5.
  23. See Luther, LW 21, p. 22.
  24. Luther, LW 21, p. 12.
  25. Luther, LW 21, p. 12.
  26. Luther, LW 21, p. 12.
  27. Luther, LW 21, p. 19.
  28. Luther, LW 21, p. 13.
  29. Luther, LW 21, p. 13.
  30. Luther, LW 21, p. 17.
  31. Luther, LW 21, p. 17.
  32. Luther, LW 21, p. 15.
  33. Luther, LW 21, p. 17.
  34. Luther, LW 21, p. 19.
  35. Luther, LW 21, p. 20.
  36. Luther, LW 21, p. 20.
  37. Luther, LW 21, p. 22.
  38. Luther, LW 21, p. 22.
  39. Luther, LW 21, p. 22.
  40. Luther, LW 21, p. 17.
  41. Luther, LW 21, p. 18.
  42. See Luther, LW 21, pp. 22, 26.
  43. For more on this debate, see Iain Provan, “On Eschewing the Labyrinths: Why Protestants Should Not Resurrect the ‘Spiritual Reading’ of Scripture,” in Joseph Minich et al., Reforming the Catholic Tradition: The Whole Word for the Whole Church (Davenant Press, 2019), and Iain Provan, Christopher Cleveland, Steven Wedgeworth, and Alastair Roberts. “In Defense of Protestant Hermeneutics.” Lecture, Colorado Christian University and the Davenant Institute, Denver, CO, Nov. 15, 2018.
  44. Clifford J. Green, The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Michael DeJonge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), p. 777.
  45. For a brief outline of various Reformed formulations of the Two Kingdoms, see W. Bradford Littlejohn, The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (Lincoln, NE.: Davenant Press, The, 2017).
  46. For a contemporary articulation of this problem at a highbrow popular level, see Reinhard Hütter, “The Ruins of Discontinuity.” First Things (2011): 37. Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua contains, of course, the classic articulation of the charge.

Onsi A. Kamel

Onsi A. Kamel is a PhD student in Philosophy and Religion at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in First Things, Ad Fontes, and Mere Orthodoxy.