A Right Way to Study Theology
I will show you a right way to study theology, which I myself have practiced, and, if you adhere to it, you too shall be so learned that, if need should arise, you will be able to write books that are as good as those of the fathers and councils, just as I may make bold to boast in God, without pride or deceit, that I would not acknowledge that some of the fathers had much on me when it comes to writing books, though I am far from being able to boast the same of my life. It is the way that King David teaches in Psalm 119 and which was without a doubt adhered to by all the patriarchs and prophets. There you will find three rules which are abundantly set forth in the whole psalm: oratio, meditatio, tentatio.
First, you must know that the Holy Scriptures is a book that makes foolishness of the wisdom of all other books, because none of them teaches eternal life, only this one alone. Therefore you must straightway despair of your own mind and reason, for you will not attain it by these. On the contrary, with such presumption you will cast yourself, and others with you, from heaven into the abyss of hell, as did Lucifer. Rather kneel down in your closet and pray to God in true humility and earnestness that through his dear Son he may grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten, guide and give you understanding. You see how David in the above-mentioned psalm prays again and again: Teach me! O Lord, instruct me! Show me! and many other expressions like them. Even though he knew well the text of Moses and other books and heard and read them daily, he still desires the real Master of the Scriptures himself in order that he may not tackle them with his reason and make himself the master. For this produces those sectarians who allow themselves to think that the Scriptures are subject to them and easily mastered with their own reason, as if they were the fables of Markolf or Aesop, which require neither the Holy Spirit nor prayer.
Second, you should meditate, not only in your heart but also outwardly, repeating and comparing the actual, literal words in the book, reading and rereading them with careful attention and thought as to what the Holy Spirit means by them. And guard against being satiated or thinking that when you have read, heard, or said it once or twice you understand it fully; for this will never make an excellent theologian; it will be like immature fruit that falls before it is half ripe.
This is why in the psalm you see David constantly exulting that he would do nothing else, day and night and always, but speak, write, utter, sing, hear, and read God’s Word and commandments. For God will not give you his Spirit apart from the external word. Be guided accordingly, for it was not for nothing that he commanded that his Word should be outwardly written, preached, read, sung, and spoken.
Thirdly, there is trial (tentatio). This is the touchstone that teaches you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty,how comforting is God’s Word, wisdom above all wisdom. So you see why it is that David so often in this psalm laments concerning all the enemies, the wicked princes and tyrants, the lying and godless spirits, which he must suffer by reason of the very fact that he meditates, that he applies himself to God’s Word, as we have said. For as soon as God’s Word goes forth through you the devil will afflict you and make you a real doctor [of theology] and teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself . . .must be very thankful to my papists for pummeling, pressing, and terrifying me; that is, for making me a fairly good theologian, for otherwise I would not have become one…So there you have David’s rule. If you study well according to this example, you will also sing and praise with him in the words of the same psalm: “The law of thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” “Thy commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep thy precepts.” And you will find how flat and moldy the books of the fathers will taste to you; you will not only despise the enemy’s books but the longer you go on the less will you be pleased with your own writing and teaching. When you have come to this point then you may confidently trust that you have begun to become a real theologian, who is able to teach not only young and imperfect Christians but also the advanced and mature; for Christ’s church has in it all kinds of Christians, young, old, weak, sick, sound, strong, fresh, lazy, simple, wise, etc.
-Martin Luther, quoted in Minister’s Prayer Book, ed., by John W. Doberstein (pp. 287ff.)