Joseph Fiennes plays the sixteenth-century Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, who led the Christian Reformation resulting in religious freedom for hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries. The movie begins with Luther running through a thunderstorm. In fear of death, he vows to God to become a monk if God saves him from the storm. Pursuing theological progression and service to God, Luther travels to Wittenburg where he excels theologically but becomes personally acquainted with the corruptions of the church. Realizing the practices and teachings of the church from the Pope to the Priests are in conflict with what he believes to be true in the scriptures, he nails 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. This single act catapults Luther into a spiritual revolution and reformation of how biblical scripture is interpreted.
The movie Luther reveals a great hermeneutical theme. The movie is based on true historical accounts revolving around religion which is appealing to most people. The notion of hermeneutics is captured in the constant battle between Martin Luther and the leadership of the church as they quarrel over the meaning and interpretation of the scriptures. The intent of this paper is not to explain systematically how to apply hermeneutical principles to a particular study or everyday life, but to reflect on the concept of hermeneutics as I see it exemplified in the movie.
Hermeneutics analyzes the way a person reads and understands a particular text. It has become especially important for those examining a historical text or something written from the basis of a different culture. Hermeneutics in relation to the bible or religion, in general, explores how someone reads, understands, observes the text, and eventually makes applicable the meaning the reader interprets. Perhaps the concluding interpretation is the most important factor in hermeneutics or in general. The final interpretation of something observed can form a basis or prejudice in the mind of the observer. The result can become either positive or negative as the observer begins to make an application in life. Compatible with observation is the conclusion from something read. How one understands something read can also have a negative or positive outcome when making an application in life. For instance, in the movie Luther, the way Martin Luther understood the concept of mortification was to practice self-flagellation. In future practice of hermeneutics, he comes to realize he was wrong in his interpretation and ceased the false application.
Similar cases to these concede that the interpretation of something should be taken seriously. Finding the meaning of something involves labor to deal with the complexity of topics. Resources and tools involved in the study have encouraged philosophers to consider hermeneutics as “the science of interpretation,” (p. 12). One of these tools or resources is innate within every individual, and that is the ability to question yourself. Questioning the reason why we come to believe what we believe. Questioning our basis and examining our self is similar to the concept of Socrates realizing that the unexamined life is not worth living. The act alone may involve humility. Another tool or resource of importance is the human attribute of courage and anger. Justified anger does not necessarily have to result in a negative consequence. As seen in the movie Luther, Martin Luther became angry as he developed the courage to question the decrees of God and developed doctrines and traditions of his church. Unknowingly, at the moment only confusion may be the only disposition, but with further labor, persistence, and hermeneutical responsibility the final conclusion may result in great positive utility. It is highly important, especially when reading political or sacred texts to focus on a study with responsibility.
Without constant responsibility in seeking the meaning of things, history has demonstrated unfavorable consequences. Perhaps greater responsibility is attributed to people who rise in power and establish control over resources necessary to find a precise interpretation. A historical example is in 1229 when the Council of Toulouse prohibited the people from owning a copy of the bible; “we prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old and the New Testament . . . we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books,” (Mizzi). To be fair, the historical context was that the Catholic Church was attempting to combat heresy and corrupt translations in circulation. There may be a reasonable justification given the circumstances. In reference to the movie Luther, Pope Leo the tenth seemed to have more nefarious reasons. Since the people had no bibles to interpret the teachings of the church; the Pope had an advantage over their ignorance to raise money through indulgences. Luther’s response was that the Pope has the right to interpret the bible, but he is not above it.
I believe Luther expresses an important principle for many to follow. While Luther expresses the bible as an absolute authority, we may view this as an absolute standard, or that there is an absolute truth for the truth seeker to hope for. By this standard, or that there exists a universal absolute truth as an absolute standard; when attempting to interpret truth in meaning, we must be careful and responsible not to violate whatever the absolute standard of truth may be. To do so would be comparable to placing our self on similar corrupt ground as the Pope was in the sixteenth century.
The practice of hermeneutics undoubtedly existed prior to Luther’s reformation; however, the conception of hermeneutics was primarily established through Christian theology. In western society, exegesis is seen in the works of Origin and Augustine, but it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation which gave rise to the principles of hermeneutics as we understand it today (Dilthey). A few reasons for this are perhaps the people realizing the manipulation of the scriptures by the church. It is reasonable to accept once someone realizes they are being lied to over a matter; to eventually attempt to find the truth for themselves. In desiring the truth, and eventually attaining bibles for themselves, a personal passion between the person and the bible is developed. A personal notion is established and meaning becomes a priority. Meaning in relation to the bible can become complex, and with the complexity and desire to understand for passionate and personal reasons, principles of interpretation are developed into what we know as hermeneutics to find truthful meaning in the texts.
Hermeneutics, although it may have started with theology eventually expanded to other relevant branches. Systems of interpretation are relevant in law and politics. For example, attempting to find accurate meaning in the US Constitution involves the concentrated study of history, law, philosophy, and politics. All these systems obligate the reader to examine several sources of study material, which inevitably involves a system of hermeneutical principle. Hermeneutical principles are advantages but in philosophy, it is not without its problems. For some philosophers, the hermeneutical circle becomes an epistemological dilemma. Hermeneutics may also extend to personal communication between individuals. Interpretation and meaning can be dictated by sociological principles which may be culturally based. Reasonably, lack of understanding is one of the world’s principal problems which create conflict from individuals to nations.
Hermeneutics has been established as an art or science of interpretation. It has become a systematic method of interpretation. The way something is interpreted is as important as the conclusion received from an understanding. The final understanding of meaning creates inevitable utility. This utility may have a positive or negative reaction. These negative and positive reactions are manifested in history as seen in movies such as Luther. Movies like Luther may also be considered as a hermeneutical resource to gain an understanding of how misconstrued meanings can have an unfavorable or favorable reaction. Hermeneutics and power such as involved in church or government necessitate responsibility. As seen in the movie Luther, those with great power need to concentrate on the power of interpretation. The way powerful people interpret a meaning can have the ultimate consequence of either creating peace, or creating calamity. A powerful principle to remember for those who possess power; that they may interpret a matter, but they are not above it.
Diekelmann, Nancy, and Ironside, Pamela. Hermeneutics. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2006. Web. Oct 6, 2019.
Mizzi Josheph. Just for Catholics: The Bible Forbidden to the Laity. http://www.justforcatholics.org/a198.htm. Web. Oct 6, 2019.
Dilthey, Wilhelm, et al. Hermeneutics and the Study of History. Princeton University Press,1996. EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=nlebk&AN=75653&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Web, Oct 6, 2019.