Luther and Calvin on Biblical Interpretation

In the early 1520’s Elector Fredrick the Wise commissioned Martin Luther to prepare a homily for each Sunday throughout the year. In one of his homilies for the Christmas season, Luther suggested a somewhat peculiar interpretation of Luke 2:16: “And they found both Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger.” Luther held that Mary is to be understood as representing the Christian church, whereas Joseph represents the bishops and pastors of the church.1 Herein, Luther concluded that it is not a mistake that Mary is mentioned before Joseph since the church is more important than the hierarchy of the church, a position which Rome would detest in the early 1520’s. Although Luther’s understanding of Mary and Joseph may seem odd to us, it would not have been surprising to his listeners in the 1520’s. He was using a method of interpreting Scripture which had a long tradition in the church. It was commonly referred to as the allegorical method. The allegorical method attempted to search beneath the literal meaning of a text in order to find the true meaning of the text. In the field of Biblical exegesis, its roots are usually traced to the famous Jewish exegete, Philo Judeaus of Alexandria (20 BC–40 AD), who, for example, thought it was utter nonsense to take the text in Genesis 2:8 literally which states: “God planted a garden in Eden.” In Philo’s estimation the meaning of the phrase, “God planted a garden in Eden,” is to be understood as God implanting terrestrial virtue (implanting goodness) in the human race [Eden=virtue (goodness)].2 In other words, allegorically speaking, the author of Genesis wrote one thing but intended something else by it; or to put it another way, the text presents a metaphor which requires a symbolic interpretation to understand its true and hidden meaning. Therefore, allegory takes an event, person, or institution and dissolves it of its historical character, in order to find a hidden meaning behind an event, person, or institution. Whether you agree with the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture or not, you cannot overlook Philo’s profound influence upon the fathers of the early church and the Middle Ages, making its mark even upon the reformer, Luther. But it goes even further: it is alive today! This same principle of allegory is found in many teachers and preachers of the Word of God today, including evangelicals and Calvinists. This principle is found in what I want to refer to as the spiritualizing or moralizing of the text.


Specifically, I would like to refer to the spiritual or moral principle of interpretation as “neo-practical mandate,” which sees its purpose as providing practical insights that are relevant for man living in his contemporary surroundings. There is one common denominator for those who approach the text for the express purpose of gleaning its practical insights: one is to go beyond the literal historical meaning of the text in order to find the relevant, or “real” meaning of the text for the people of God living in their particular situation today. Herein, the allegorical principle is at work. In other words, the real meaning of the text is found in timeless principles of practical living which the exegete can glean from the text. This approach is clearly endorsed by the popular works of Charles Swindall. After he notes the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea, he states for his readers the application of the story: “Old Testament experiences have modern day lessons. They pass on timeless truth from which we can learn.”) Swindall proceeds to enlighten his readers concerning the “timeless truths” of the exodus; there are four: 1) “it takes tight places to break lifetime habits,” 2) “when hemmed in on all sides, the only place to look is up.” 3) “If the Lord is to get the glory, then He must do the fighting,” 4) “‘Red Seas’ open and close at the Lord’s command, not until.”4 Such an understanding of “timeless truths” makes trivial the revelation of the event itself since the believer’s community with the text is not found in the revelation-life of the narrative itself, but in the principle abstracted from the narrative for modern life. The text is merely a point from which to leap or jump off into the practical dictums of life.




If we reflect upon the two principle figures of the Reformation—Luther and Calvin—we will come to realize that although Luther eventually found this method of allegory distasteful, it was Calvin who strongly attacked the allegorical method of Biblical interpretation. Calvin realized that the allegorical method was so popular in his day that he accused the church of being “addicted to allegories.”5 In spite of its popularity, this did not prevent Calvin from expressing candidly his opinion of those who were fascinated by its method. In a very perceptive manner, he noted that such people have”and always will prefer speculations which seem ingenious, to solid doctrine.”6 They will never perceive that the method is “undoubtedly a trick of Satan to impair the authority of Scripture and remove any true advantage out of reading it.”7 For Calvin, the sad fact of the situation is that the method continues to receive the highest applause as it goes “unpunished” in the church.8 Thus, he soundly rejected the method of allegory which he believed “Satan with the deepest subtlety, has endeavored to introduce into the Church, for the purpose of rendering the doctrine of Scripture ambiguous and destitute of all certainty and firmness.”9

What did Calvin and Luther put in the place of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture? First, they agreed that the Bible testifies to its own authority since its final author is the Holy Spirit; this same Spirit testifies within the believer—the interpreter—that the Bible is the Word of God.

Second, the interpreter must keep away from “deadly corruptions” which “lead us away from the literal sense” (a literal sensu) of the text.10 For Calvin as well as Luther, this meant that the text must be interpreted in terms of the literal grammatical meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words in the text. Furthermore, the literal understanding of Scripture meant that the narratives of Scripture must be understood to have occurred in time and space; and thus, the language of a given text must be interpreted in its historical context.

Furthermore, it must be noted that Calvin and other reformers used the word “literal” in contrast to the allegorical method. For them, the meaning of a text must remain within the confines of a literal-grammatical and historical production of the Biblical narrative by the Holy Spirit. One is not to assume that the language of the text has a hidden meaning beyond the perimeters of the narrative. Otherwise, one would return to the allegorization of the text.

Third, Wilhehm Pauck refers to Luther’s method of interpretation as the “literal spiritual.”11 We have seen what “literal” means; now, what does “spiritual” mean? Luther thought that the interpreter must search for the literal meaning which the Holy Spirit intends the text to teach. By using the original languages of Scripture, the exegete was obligated to make every attempt to understand what the Holy Spirit intended to say. Herein, Calvin complemented Luther. Calvin had pointed out that a given text had one essential meaning which is to be extracted from its literal, historical terminology. A given text does not bear multiple meanings which are to be extracted from the subjective feelings and emotions of a given Bible study. Rather, the text has one meaning, one intent, in the purpose of God’s revelation. According to Calvin, we are to seek out this “simple and natural meaning.”

Luther realized that it was not enough to say that I have a literal/historical understanding of a text, nor was it enough to acknowledge that the exegete must discover the reason why the Holy Spirit included a text in Scripture. Rather, the “spiritual-literal” method of interpreting the text had, as its focus, the salvation of Christ as the text calls for a moral response on the part of the reader.

Luther believed that he must listen to Christ in the text; for Luther, Christ was the absolute authority over against the “authoritative” traditions of men (especially the authority of Rome). From his perspective, Christ is the main subject of the entire Bible. From the beginning of Scripture until its end, Christ is its inherent authority far above the traditions of man; He is the unification of the canon of Scripture.12

Calvin also was clear concerning the centrality of Christ in the message of the entire Bible, although he did not use the doctrine of Christ for the justification of canon. Moreover, as Calvin pledged himself to a simple and natural (literal) meaning of the text, he did not want to overlook that Scripture is written by the Holy Spirit; and from beginning to end it is entirely inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is one essential document; it has one essential message, i.e. the story of redemption in Christ. More specifically, the Old Testament unfolds the promise of Christ and the New Testament unfolds the fulfillment of that promise. For Calvin, the message unfolds the promise of Christ and the New Testament unfolds the fulfillment of that promise. For Calvin, the message message of the Bible has a continuity: it has one covenant. The new covenant varies from the old covenant only in administration; i.e. it is a fuller revelation of the identity of Christ. Thus, Emil Kraeling is correct when he writes that for Calvin “the whole history of Israel, including the Mosaic legislation, is viewed as a revelation of the redeeming God through the Pre-existent Mediator, Christ.”13

These four principles of interpretation enabled Luther and Calvin to combat and basically overcome the medieval concept of allegorizing the text. Again titles of our principles are: 1) The Bible is the blueprint of the Holy Spirit; 2) The Bible is to be understood literally, meaning that the words are to be understood within the domain of its historical context; 3) that the Spirit intends us to receive one meaning from a given text; and 4) that Christ is the focus of the entire Bible, The final point, was the definitive point to keep Calvin and Luther from falling back into allegory. Likewise, I would suggest that if we are to withstand the temptation of allegory we must follow Calvin and Luther’s lead.


Specifically, we must come under the conviction of Christ’s own principle of interpreting Scripture. As Christ meets men on the road to Emmaus, Luke comments: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He (Christ) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself” (Lk. 24:27). In the same chapter, Luke records that Christ used the same principle of interpretation before His disciples: “He (Christ) said to them, ‘This is what I told you when I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’ Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:44, 45). Christ understood the central place He occupied in the Scripture: we must do the same. Christ must be seen in each text of Scripture. If Christ is not made visible in each text of Scripture, then the teacher and the preacher has violated Christ’s own hermeneutical principle of interpreting God’s Holy Word. After all, Christ’s centrality in the entire scope of Scripture is essential to the very fabric of the Biblical revelation.

In order to comprehend the presence of Christ in the Old Testament, the reformers used the hermeneutical device of “typology.” For the Reformers, typology and allegory are not the same thing, although some exegetes view typology as another form of allegory. Often the Old Testament priestly functions and their association with Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews as well as Paul’s interpretation of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians (4:21–31) are employed to prove their point. This was not the view of Calvin and Luther. In particular, Calvin clearly denounced the viewpoint that typology in Galatians is to be understood as allegory. In application of Calvin’s point of view, the distinction between allegory and typology is stated clearly by Sidney Sowers:

We should add that typology does not assert, as allegory does, that the text means something other (alios) than what it says. Typology presumes nothing more than that an event, person, or institution occurring at one point in Biblical history will find a counterpoint at a later point in history. It does not dissolve the historical character of the event, person, or institution to find another meaning behind it [such as allegory].14

For the Reformers, therefore, typology is interwoven into the process of revelation in history, always finding its counterpoint in history. Herein, Scripture interprets Scripture.

In typology, there are many ways in which we can see the presence of Christ in the Old Testament. For example, we can analyze names, (Joshua is the Hebrew word for Jesus. Joshua means Savior in Hebrew.); character traits (David is a warrior, so it is that Christ is the final warrior against the great enemy of God, Satan), and experiences (God saves His people, Noah and his family, from His judgment in the flood; thus God saves His people from judgment through Christ). Although such things as names, character traits, and experiences are important for us to consider in discovering Christ’s presence in the Old Testament, nevertheless there is a dear reality of Christ’s presence in the Old Testament. We must understand that the eternal Christ Himself is at work in and through the Old Testament saints. Specifically, we must keep in mind that the saints of the Old Testament are not modeled after the person of Christ, rather it is Christ working through them that causes a resemblance between the Old Testament figure and Christ. Note, for example, how God the Father and Christ reveal their relationship in Moses and Aaron: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have truly made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet’” (Ex 7:1). In this case, God defines the types: Moses will take on the presence of God the Father to Pharaoh, and Aaron will take on the presence of Christ—prophet before Pharaoh. As you read about Moses and Aaron, you will notice that this image is even carried over before Israel.

But we must also carefully note that all the types in the Old Testament are anti-types—they fail to live up to Christ. The type is still a sinner, in need of redemption. Thus, the type is never the Christ, our redeemer.

Moreover, a Christocentric interpretation of Scripture also enlightens how an event in the Old Testament resembles an event in the life of Christ. Many of the historical events in the Old Testament are repeated in the life of Christ. The story of redemption ties together Israel’s wildemess journey and Christ’s temptation (Deut. 6:8, Mt. 4:1–11); Abel’s blood cries out from the ground (Gen. 4:10, I Jn. 3:11–20); the ram takes the place of Isaac and is sacrificed on the altar (Gen. 22; Jn. 10:29; 19:28–30); at his birth, Moses is hid while Pharaoh slaughters the little children (Ex. 1:22–2:10; Mt. 2:11–18); the distress of David before all his enemies (Ps. 22:1–5; Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). The coming of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ is paralleled in Elijah and Elisha. In Mal. 4:5, the Lord states: “I will send the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Jesus says that Elijah came in the person and the work of John the Baptist (Mt. 11:14; 17:11, 12). John the Baptist is like Elijah—a voice crying in the wilderness, a voice of warning Israel to repent before the Lord. As John the Baptist and Elijah are prophets of warning and judgment, likewise Jesus Christ and Elisha are the prophets of peace and miracles. [Through the ministry of Elisha, the Shunamite’s son is raised from the dead; Christ feeds a hundred people with just twenty loaves of barley bread, while some is left over (II Kings 4; Lk. 8:49–56; Mt. 14:13–21; 15:29–39)].

Finally, if the presence of Christ is a crucial element in understanding the Old Testament and its continuity with the New Testament, then the central work of Christ’s redemption must also be present: His death and resurrection. Christ’s death and resurrection are important in understanding the redemptive acts in the Old Testament. For example: the promise in Gen. 3:15 is the resurrection of Adam and Eve. Seth is the resurrection of Abel’s righteousness, Noah experiences new life (resurrection) as death encompasses him and his family (cf. I Pet. 3:18ff.), Abraham’s faith is a resurrection faith as he receives his son (under the pronouncement of death) back from the dead (cf. Heb. 11:19), Joseph serves as the resurrection of his brothers and his father who are under the pronouncement of death-famine (Gen. 45:5, 6), and the great event of the Old Testament—the exodus (the Easter event of the Old Testament)—Israel moves from bondage to new life (promised land). Christ is present in each of these events, bringing those under the pronouncement of death to life.

It was the centrality of Christ that kept the reformers from jailing back into allegory. Everything came together: from Genesis to Revelation the Scriptures are the holy, infallible, inerrant Word of God, written by the Holy Spirit in the grammatical-historical context of the people of God, with the intent of bringing the people of God into the narrative of the text by beholding their redemption in Christ.

Thus, our discussion presupposes that we cannot separate the authority of Scripture from interpreting the Scripture. In other words, it is not enough for us to say that the Bible is holy, infallible, inerrant, God-breathed, inspired, written by the Holy Spirit and Christ’s letter to us. Just as crucial as maintaining our doctrine of Scripture is the following simple statement: “God is the interpreter of Scripture.” Note the subject: it is not man; it is God!! The reformers gave us the four principles of how we are to focus upon God as interpreter of Scripture; those principles are reduced to a simple battle cry: “Scripture interprets Scripture.” In other words, the interpreter/reader must be engulfed/immersed in the flow of revelation/the Scripture itself. Once you try to understand Scripture by standing outside of Scripture—you are dead!! Your interpretation/understanding will be bound to humanness. The issue today is to deny self; deny self so that you open yourself to the thoughts of God in His Word—as He wrote His Word from Genesis to Revelation.


People of God, we must be committed to this principle of interpretation set forth by the reformers today, or else we will reap the demise of the Word of God in our midst. For this is what we see:

Critics of Biblical authority:

1) From the liberals

They have returned to allegory,spiritualizing, and moralism because the Bible as it is written does not meet the needs of the intellectual in our post-enlightenment, scientific age. Science, and the critical investigation of the Biblical narrative has shown, so they think, that the narratives have questionable reliability.

2) From the conservatives

Conservatives are found using allegory, spiritualization, and moralization (e.g. Swindall, devotionals) because they are obsessed with meeting the practical everyday needs of the person in the pew built on modern relevance reinforcing traditional and conservative values. But this leads to a pietistic movement of eliteness and arrogance of a subjective, autonomous understanding of the Word of God for me. But the real danger is that this leads to liberalism, because people are trying to find the meaning of the text outside our four principles of interpretation set forth by the reformers.

The issue is simple: Scripture must be interpreted within the understanding of the Sovereign God unfolding His revelation and redemption in history. Here is the meaning of the text, the power of God, the power of the Word, the power of preaching, because you are entering into the fabric of the revelation of the Word; by the Spirit you are entering into a personal letter written to the church by the Christ.


1 Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. and trans. John Nicholas Lenker. I. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983),169.

2 See Philo: Questions and Answers on Genesis, trans. Ralph Marcus, I. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 4–6.

3 Charles Swindall; God’s Man For A Crisis; (Waco, Texas: Word Publishing.. 1985), 67.

4 Ibid., 67–68.

5 Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King. I. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 19(8),114.

6 The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, cds. David W. Torrance and Thomas T. Torrance, trans. T.H.L. Parker; (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), 84.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Genesis, 114.

10 See Calvin, Galatians, 85.

11 “General Introduction,” Luther: Lectures on Romans, ed. and trans. Willhelm Pauck. (philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), xxxiii.

12 See Emil G. Kraeling, The Old Testament since the Reformation (London: Lutterworth, 1955), 9.

13 Ibid.

14 The Hermeneutics of Philo and Hebrews: A Comparison of the Interpretation of the Old Teslament in Philo Judaeus and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Zurich: EVZ-Verlag, 1965), 90.

Dr. Dennison is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA.