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TEXT: Psalm 119:130

SUBJECT: Reformation Day, 2004

No one looks forward to October 31 more than I do. Not because I love witches, ghosts and goblins, but because I love Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. To me, October 31 is not Halloween, but Reformation Day.

The Reformation began on this day, back in 1517. That morning a young monk called Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. To us, this has a bold and romantic feel. But it didn't to Luther because that was the customary way of proposing a debate. He had done it many times before and would do it again over the years to come. But the other debates cannot be compared to this one. For this one broke the power of the Roman Catholic Church and set God's people on the way to Reformation and Revival.

In one way, the Reformers and the Catholics were very much in agreement. Both believed in the Bible. Both said it is God's Word, and that, consequently, it is true in every part, authoritative, and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. There was no debate on the nature and authority of the Bible! When Protestants say We're for the Bible and the Catholics are against it, they are either misinformed or they're lying to you. Both parties are for the Bible!

Yet when they read the Bible, the Reformers found one thing while the Catholics found another. And the two were often not just different, but in contradiction. Either the pope is the head of the Church or he isn't; Justification is either by faith alone or it's not by faith alone.

How do we explain this? It would be flattering to say the Reformers were all intelligent and holy men, while the Catholics were a nothing but corrupt ignoramuses.

I'd like to say this, but I won't because it's not true. There were scholars and saints on both sides-and sinners too!

Why, then, the violent disagreement? I thought of three reasons to explain it. The first two I'll pass over briefly, and spend more time on the third.


The two sides differed because neither had all the truth. Both were limited in their knowledge and capable of getting things wrong. To err is human-the old saying goes-not Catholic (or Protestant).

They also differed on the role of Tradition. Both accepted it, but they differed on where it goes. Rome put Tradition on par with the Bible, while the Protestants put it below the Bible. It didn't always work out this way in practice, but that's the theory. In effect, this means the Catholic read his Bible in light of Tradition, while the Reformer read his tradition in light of the Bible.

I'd like to work these things out more carefully some day. But not today! For now, I hope to take up the third reason Martin Luther and the Pope could read the same Bible, but find very different things in it.

The most important difference between the two parties is this: The Catholics and the Protestants had different systems for interpreting the Bible.

The Catholic system was old and supported by many great names in the Church. The Protestant system was new, and defended, not by great names, but by good sense.


At the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church thought every verse in the Bible had four separate meanings: literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical.

The literal sense of a verse is it's plain meaning. If the Bible says Jesus sat on a donkey, it means He sat on a donkey.

The moral meaning is the duty we must find in every verse. What does Jesus sat on donkey tell me to do?

The allegorical meaning finds the doctrinal content of the verse. What article of faith is taught by Jesus sat on a donkey?

The anagogical meaning finds the heavenly significance of the verse. Jesus sat on a donkey tells me something about eternal life with God.

If this sounds bizarre to you, it is, of course, but don't think the men who came up with it were stupid. They weren't. The founder of this school of thought was Clement of Alexandria (c.155-220). Perhaps the two greatest minds of the Early Church used it: Origin (all the time) and St. Augustine (some of the time).

If this is not the natural way to read a book, why did the Medieval Church read the Bible in this way? It's because the plain, earthy sense of the Bible embarrassed them. It seems unworthy of God and of His Word.

You have to feel for these dear people. A plain, old donkey is unworthy of God's Only Begotten Son. The Bible is better than any other book. Their motive was good.

But the results were terrible.


Go back to the verse that says, Jesus sat on a donkey. The literal sense isn't very exciting, but it is true and it can be checked and verified.

Did Jesus sit on a giraffe? No He didn't. How do we know that? Because the Greek word for 'donkey' means 'donkey' and not 'giraffe'. Did Peter sit on the donkey? No, because 'Peter' is the name of one man, and 'Jesus' the name of Another. Did the donkey sit on Jesus? No because the grammar means He sat on it. Did He stand on the donkey? No because 'sitting' excludes 'standing'.

Can the word, 'donkey' be a figure of speech? Sure it can. If I said, 'A man who interprets the Bible this way is a donkey', you know what I mean! But is there anything in the verse and the verses that surround it to make you think 'donkey' has a figurative meaning? No. It's not a poem or a dark vision or a parable or any such thing. It's a simple narrative: it tells you what happened.

But what about the other meanings of the verse? The moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical?

What duty does the verse teach? Well, it might teach that If Jesus was content to ride a donkey, we should be content to drive a Ford Escort. We ought to be content, of course, but is that lesson taught in the verse? If it is, what does the rest of the story teach us? That we should expect a King's Welcome when we come to town? Should I be offended that nobody laid down his coat on the sidewalk when I came to church this morning? And where are the palm branches I was looking for?

What doctrine does the verse teach? Does the donkey stand for the Church that carries Jesus into the world? Or to the angels who carried Him into heaven? Or to the clouds that will carry Him back to earth? If the donkey is an unclean animal, maybe it stands for sinners whom Christ will ride to their doom!

This makes you laugh, but if the Medieval Church was right about the four meanings of every verse, you have to find some doctrine in Jesus sat on a donkey. If you can't find it there, you've got to put it there! And putting meanings into the Bible that are not there is a form of adding to His Word-and that is not right or safe.

How does the verse point us to heaven? Does it mean Jesus Christ will welcome donkeys into heaven? I hope so! But is that what the verse teaches? If it does, how would you prove it?


Good men sought to enrich the Bible by finding four meanings in every verse. But they didn't make it richer; they made it far poorer. By making Jesus sat on a donkey mean four separate things, they made Jesus sat on a donkey mean nothing at all.

Let me illustrate: If Come here means (1) Come here, (2) Bake a chocolate cake, (3) Man is a sinner, and (4) Angels will be in Heaven, what does Come here really mean? It means nothing.

In the hands of the best men, the method is foolish and dangerous.

But many teachers in the Medieval Church were not the best of men. They put this method of interpretation to a sinister use.

How do you justify having notorious and stubborn sinners in the church? I Corinthians 5 tells us to expel these people from the church. But, wait a minute, says the finder of multiple meanings. The ark represents the Church, and if Noah took unclean animals into the ark (on purpose), then the Church should take in unclean sinners.

A good man wouldn't like that conclusion, but how would he argue with it? The ark has four separate meanings: it is the ship Noah built, and the duty of working with your hands, and the Church, and Heaven.

He knows something is wrong with this, but he can't say what. But how could he? If the higher meanings are not in the text, where are they? And how can he be sure the ones he has come up with are the right ones? He can't be. So, he turns to the priest and takes his word for it.

This is where the 'spiritualizing the Bible' takes you: it takes you to an Infallible Teacher, whether he's the pope or the pastor, the scholar or.yourself.


Martin Luther was a fine scholar trained in this method of interpretation. Over the years, however, he came to see what it was and where it led. Consequently, he rejected it-and more than that--he replaced it!

Scholars call it the Grammatical-Historical Method. I call it the commonsense approach to reading the Bible. It was refined and corrected over the years, of course, but it was basically Luther's idea.

What is it?

It starts with the assertion that a verse in the Bible has one meaning and not four or ten or however many you can put into it.

This meaning is mostly found in the vocabulary, syntax, and context of the verse. When the verse says, donkey, you think 'donkey' unless you have some very, very good reason not to. If it says, Jesus sat on a donkey, you don't wonder if He stood on a donkey or the donkey sat on Him. If Jesus sat on a donkey comes right before His entrance to Jerusalem, you don't say it really refers to His Second Coming!

If the interpretation of one verse is unclear, you clarify it by looking at other verses. But in doing that, you're careful that the other verses refer to the same thing and you don't depend on 'accidental' similarities.

In other words, you don't find the meaning of Jesus sat on a donkey by reading up on Balaam's donkey! 'Donkey' appears in both verses, but the two donkeys have nothing to do with each other!

Every interpretation is submitted to the analogy of faith or what we'd call the General Teaching of the Bible. For example, Psalm 82:6 says, You are gods. At first glance, this seems to teach that there are many gods. But what is the General Teaching of the Bible on the question? It says There is One God Only! Thus, whatever the Psalm means, it cannot mean there are more than one God! We have to go back and work on it until we find out what it really means.

[Just for the record, it means the judges of Israel are invested with the authority of God, but if they pervert His justice, they'll die like men].


A commonsense reading of the Bible does not make every verse easy to understand and has not brought complete agreement to people who use it.

But, without being perfect, it has done something wonderful for the people who use it: It has freed them from them from gurus of every kind and enabled them to understand the Bible for themselves-and to know what God says!


The Reformation did for the Church what the Exodus did for Israel, it Let God's people go, that they might serve Him. And so we serve Him without an Infallible Pope and without depending on a parish priest. We can read the Bible for ourselves-and we can understand it. Because the Bible is not a puzzle only the Pope can put together. It's written for God's People, and by using our noggins, listening to our friends, and depending on the Holy Spirit, we can put it together for ourselves!

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