In Eric W. Gritsch's book, A History of Lutheranism, he reports,

He memorized whole portions of the Bible (available in the Latin translation of St. Jerome, c. 348-420) and used various existing methods of interpretation. "Sometimes one important statement occupied my thoughts for a whole day," Luther recalled later, and he reminded others that Bible study should always begin with prayer rather than the assumption that diligence and intelligence would facilitate a proper reading.

Luther found this kind of approach to Bible study confirmed in the writings of the great church father Augustine rather than in the scholars of the Middle Ages. What Augustine had to say in The Spirit and the Letter (De spiritu et litera) decisively shaped Luther's early struggles with the Bible.

The author cites a primary source, one of Martin Luther's letters.

Anyway, is this where all modern Christians get their prayer-before-Bible-study habit? How did individualized Bible study evolve since the Reformation?

  • 1
    The history of lectio divina might be helpful here.
    – svidgen
    Commented Mar 16, 2014 at 14:36

3 Answers 3


The Tie Between Luther and Augustine

Luther entered an Augustinian monastery when he became a monk, so it is not surprising that he was heavily influenced by Augustine. An excellent survey of the one real letter we have of Augustine's that treats his overall view of prayer (not specifically applied to the study of the Bible) is in the 4 Principles on Prayer from Saint Augustine (The Gospel Coalition, 2014). The first principle is that you must have the right heart - one which rests on the primary rule of scripture - love. Love for God first, and other people second. Augustine was essentially teaching that proper attitude for prayer flows out of the core teachings of scripture. Essentially, he is saying a prayer should seek for God's will, and God's primary guiding principle in his will is love.

From another source on this same point, but regarding how this core principle also informs how to approach the scriptures. The Scriptural Roots of St. Augustine's Spirituality (Stephen N. Filippo) - here Augustine is speaking:

Therefore: 1. set your sights on God alone as the only object of your love and enjoyment, while enjoying other men only for the sake of Him; 2. be truly charitable to all who cross your path, for it is not by accident or random chance that they come into your life; and 3. go to the Divine Physician for the cure to your wounds (sins). Thus are laid down the three most important pre-requisites for correctly reading Sacred Scripture: charity towards God, neighbor and self; without which none can be faithful to the Truths taught in the Bible.

In the same way, Luther's teaching of seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayer prior to studying scripture is an attempt to seek for God's insight and will into what his word means, and how we should apply it to our life in our current circumstance. The implied rule which Augustine makes explicit is that we need to approach with the right heart, and Luther's prayer ensures that we aren't relying solely and pridefully on our own understanding.

So, I'm not sure that we can draw a direct parallel between Augustine and Luther on this point, but it certainly makes sense that following the teachings of Augustine would lead Luther to this position.

Consider Luther Lived in a Unique Time with respect to availability of the Bible

Despite the above, I think it's vital to understand the context around Luther's time in history and just how pivotal his teaching on biblical interpretation was to the burgeoning Protestant Reformation.

Consider that while the early church did have many copies of the books that make up what we call the Bible today, and did have many extant copies, biblical books and codexes would have been very expensive and prized possessions. There would have been a lot more group and oral discipleship with shared texts, when they were available. It wasn't until about - you guessed it - Luther's time that Bibles became widely available for individual's to study regularly on their own.

Consider the following rough history of Biblical availability to bring home this point:

  • Approx 100 AD - completion of all 27 books that now make up the New Testament
  • 315 AD - Athanasius identifies the 27 books of the NT
  • 382 Jerome's Latin Vulgate manuscript is produced (OT and NT)
  • 500 Scriptures have been translated into over 500 languages
  • 600 In areas of the Catholic chruch, Latin is only language allowed for Scripture
  • 1384 Wycliffe is the first person to produce a hand-written manuscript copy of the complete Bible (OT and NT).
  • 1455 Gutenbery invents the printing press - the first mass-produced Bibles become available (first book produced by him was the Latin Gutenberg Bible)
  • 1522 Martin Luther's German New Testament is produced
  • 1526 Tyndale's New Testment is the first NT printed in the English language
  • 1535-1611 Explosion of additional Bible's produced, perhaps culminating in the King James Bible from an English perspective, in 1611.

The point of the above is that within the Catholic world, there was very little need for anyone to develop any techniques for personal Bible study at all much between the time of Augustine and Luther, just because the average person didn't have access to (nor was encouraged to pursue a direct study of) the Bible. In fact, at the time of Luther it was not typically the case that a priest in the Catholic church would have necessarily ever studied or even held a Bible. It's not surprising to me at all that the topic is a difficult one to research as there was no need for an interpretive method prior to about the time of Luther, given these facts.

So Luther's teaching was filling a burgeoning need, which is why I think it "got so much press" at the time and why we still have references back to it today.

The Broader Biblical Teaching on Where/How we get any Insight or Knowledge

I was unable to find really any other teaching like Luther's from other early sources. But I think this brings up the final line of reasoning, that none of Luther's (or Augustine's) teaching is really new , so to speak - it all is directly and deeply rooted in the teaching that comes easily and directly from the Bible itself. There are so many quotes from Paul on relying on God's wisdom and on being filled with insight from above and the Mind of Christ, rather than human understanding - including specific references to teaching/doctrine, that I will only give a few examples:

  • 1Co 1:5 For you were made rich in every way in him, in all your speech and in every kind of knowledge (NET) [we gain knowledge in Christ]
  • 1Co 2:15 The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. (NET) [spiritual discernment versus the earthly discernment]
  • Eph 1:8 that he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight. (NET)
  • Eph 1:17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you spiritual wisdom and revelation in your growing knowledge of him, (NET)
  • Phi 1:9 And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight (NET) [Great quote directly tying love to spiritual understanding as per Augustine's teaching]
  • Col 1:9 For this reason we also, from the day we heard about you, have not ceased praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,

Jesus also has some good quotes about the topic, for example he tells the disciples:

26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you. (John 14:26, NET)

Jesus also goes on at length several times about the fact that the words he spoke and the deeds he did were not his own, but the words and deeds that the Father showed him. In the same way, as Jesus is an example to his disciples (all believers), we should seek the words and deeds of the Father. This fits well within Luther's instruction on praying and asking for insight from the Holy Spirit whenever studying scripture.


The common practice of praying before a study predating Luther's statement was likely taken and said to be beneficial from Daniel 2:18-19 ("That they should beseech the God of heaven for grace in this secret, that Daniel and his fellows should not perish with the rest of the wise men of Babel. Then was the secret revealed unto Daniel in a vision by night: therefore Daniel praised the God of heaven.")

Luther's statement was likely influenced by such practice, with his statement giving assurance to those who heard that prayer before biblical study is useful.

  • Do you have any evidence (references) for your position?
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 15:20

The fourth century liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom has the following prayer be read by the priest(s) prior to the reading of the Gospel, which precedes the sermon:

The Prayer of the Holy Gospel

Priest (in a low voice): Shine in our hearts, O Master Who loves mankind, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind that we may comprehend the proclamations of Your Gospels. Instill in us also reverence for Your blessed commandments so that, having trampled down all carnal desires, we may lead a spiritual life, both thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the illumination of our souls and bodies, and to You we offer up glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Similarly for the equally ancient liturgy of Saint Basil the Great:

Priest (in a low voice): Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

(Normally, this should be community wiki, but some complained).

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