Was the biblical criticism of the eighteenth century in any sense rooted in the biblical vision of the Reformation? Was it possibly a fruit of Reformation principles that the Reformers themselves did not foresee? Did the Reformation’s investment in the principle of sola Scriptura carry, hidden but alive, a germ that later infected scriptural study in a way the Reformers would have rejected?
At least some scholars of the eighteenth century itself gave a Yes to these questions. One was Johann Salomo Sender (1725–1791). In a book that appeared in 1961 (Die Anfänge der historisch-critisches Theologie), Gottfried Hornig discussed thoroughly the relation between Semler and Luther. Semler, it seems, was critical of Luther but did have great respect for his idea of Scripture. Luther’s sola Scriptura, Sender thought, opened the way to a critical approach to the Scriptures.
Semler saw that Luther directed his attack against scholastic theology by demanding attention and obedience to Scripture itself. Luther proclaimed: Scripture is its own interpreter (Sana Scriptura sui ipsius interpret). That is, Scripture must not be interpreted by standards foreign to its own genius. Luther recalled Peter’s warning against “private interpretation” of Scripture (2 Pet. 1:20), which can also be read as “arbitrary” interpretation.
Neither Peter nor, after him, Luther was concerned with something purely negative in this warning. In fact, the statement that Scripture is not open to arbitrary interpretation is charged with positive intent. It means at least that the text itself must be the object of our study. Further, it means that we must listen to the text with an obedient and ready heart.
For Luther, this kind of listening involved a keen interest in ...1
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