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Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 3–13 

Luther and Interpretation in Marlowe and Goethe's Faustian Dramas

Debra A. Faszer

Interpretation 1 is a struggle involving every nuance of language. Realizing the range of attitudes and experiences readers bring to a text can make hermeneutics seem frustratingly subjective. Yet since Martin Luther’s time, individual interpretation has dominated, influenced specifically by his notion of the independent reader. 2 This hermeneutical dilemma is evident in Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Faust. Both post-Reformation dramas depict theologians engaged in questionable manipulations of scripture, suggesting a critique of Luther’s interpretive method. An examination of Goethe and Marlowe’s texts finds them attacking the validity of Luther’s hermeneutics with analyses similar to those of post modern critics. While Marlowe’s and Goethe’s comments on the dangers of personal interpretation are embedded in pre-modern dramas, they are similar to modern critics’ assessments of post-Reformation methods, and specifically the influence of Luther’s hermeneutic. In order to follow Marlowe’s and Goethe’s evaluation of Luther’s hermeneutic, the Reformer’s method must be clear. Luther was hostile towards authoritative interpretation. This {4} malevolence evolved from his exposure to medieval methods that supported the extensive use of glosses.

The vulnerability of Luther’s more individualistic hermeneutical method, unchecked by the safeguard of a wider heremeneutical community, is illustrated by two dramas depicting the search for truth by Professor Faust.

Luther found that according to Augustine’s writings, the essence of proper interpretation involved being “turned toward the text in the proper way” (Bruns, 142). Augustine’s polemic, On Christian Doctrine, explains this ideology. The character traits one must have in order to interpret in the right spirit are, “fear, piety, knowledge, fortitude, mercy . . . [and a cleansed eye] through which God may be seen insofar as He can be seen by those who die to the world as much as they are able” (Bruns, 142). Augustine’s method emphasized that only those trained in the church could interpret properly. Lay followers needed to rely on the spirit, not in order to interpret for themselves, but in order to understand trained church leaders’ interpretations. Augustine’s method was attractive to Luther, who developed it further by adding an emphasis on personal conviction while discarding Augustine’s reliance on church hierarchy. In so doing, Luther abandoned Augustine’s safeguard—authority of the church (Bruns, 142).

Freedom from the dogmatic authority and glossing tendencies of the church was, as previously mentioned, one of Luther’s major pursuits. So his method, in contrast to Augustine’s, “was intended to remove the church hierarchy from its position of authority . . .” (Lundin, 254). According to Luther [P]utting aside all human writings, we should spend all the more persistent labor on the Holy Scriptures alone . . .” (Bruns, 145). He reasoned that scripture was self-interpreting, easy to understand, and that complex passages were clarified in the light of other parts of the Bible. He believed that scripture had “no more than the one simplest meaning which we call . . . the literal” (Bruns, 143). Therefore, the purpose of translation, and thereby the doctrine sola scriptura, was to experience the text. In Luther’s words, “Scripture is not understood, unless it is brought home, that is, experienced (Bruns, 147). However, he made it clear that the Spirit plays the definitive role in such experience. He explains, “[I] do not wish to boast that I am more learned than all, but that scripture alone should reign, nor do I pretend that it is to be interpreted by my spirit or that of other men. But I wish to understand it by its spirit” (Bruns, 145-46). Luther’s intentions were not to support subjective interpretation, but to “usurp the authority of the church . . . at the same time promoting the idea that the Holy Spirit would superintend biblical interpretation and guard against error” (Lundin, 255).

Realizing the danger of oversimplification, it seems that Luther modified the Augustinian position to suit his social agenda, and in the process removed Augustine’s safeguards. The force of Luther’s modification—an emphasis on personal conviction—is evident in his words: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, {5} for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” (Lundin, 139). Luther’s notion, while based on Augustine’s thought, extracted the element of authority, which eventually led to a somewhat isolated practice of interpretation, creating a variety of hermeneutical problems.

The impact of Luther’s methodology on the Faustian dramas is not immediately apparent. Other than involving the activities of a Wittenburg professor, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus does not instantly conjure images of Luther. In fact, Faustus’ first speech, in which he declares war on whatever might be sacred, suggests a kind of antithesis. Alone in his study Faustus sits, contemplating his professorial future and finding himself unsatisfied with its potential, or lack thereof. Being an educated gentleman, and a gifted one at that, Faustus evaluates his options. He considers becoming a philosopher, because his schooling has been steeped in logic. But philosophy’s “chiefest end” (8) seems to be disputation, and Faustus is already a master of that area. Faustus’ discussion soon reveals his religious commitment to logic, and alerts the reader to an undercurrent of biblical allusions. He declares that he is not attracted to the prospect of “liv[ing] and d[ying] in Aristotle’s works,” (5) mimicking Romans 14:8 “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord, or whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Cornelius, 236). Rather than seeking the Lord, Faustus makes it apparent that he seeks another master, and it seems clear that his motivations are opposite to those of Luther.

Faustus shifts his focus from philosophy to medicine, thinking he might gain fame by producing a wonder-drug. But he realized that he is already famous and, revealing his principal desire—the attainment of power—declares that no matter how skillful he might become he would “still [be] Faustus, and a man” (23). In fact, he would only be satisfied with medicine if he could “Make men to live eternally” (24). This reference to Christ’s salvific power confirms that Faustus seeks knowledge in order to attain the status of a god. Faustus flirts with God’s Edenic warning in his self-reproach, “art thou still but Faustus and a man,” (23) by scorning the admonition of Genesis 3:5 “But God doth know that when ye shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened, & ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Cornelius, 236). His search for power continues, as he similarly disparages the benefits of a career in law. Finally, after evaluating the limits of three sectors of academia, and intentionally twisting biblical language four times, Faustus turns to the profession he has been alluding to throughout; Faustus now turns his scourge on theology.

Quoting Jerome’s Vulgate. “Stipendium peccati mors est. Ha! Stipendium . . . {6} The reward of sin is death: that’s hard.” Faustus contemplates what he deems an unduly harsh doctrine (39-40). For the first time Faustus enters what could be seen as Lutherian territory, the territory of interpretation. Faustus quotes and comments on the first part of Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sinne is death,” (Cole, 198) and continues with a paraphrase of the first portion of 1John 1:8 “If we say that we have no sin,/ We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us” (42-43). Faustus’ antinomian logic follows that, since “The reward of sin is death” (40), and all have sinned, he might as well live as he pleases.

Cornelius and Cole evaluate the faultiness of this Faustian syllogism. Cole notes that “Faustus arrives at his fatalistic conclusion by joining together two premises which themselves are glaring half-truths, for each of the propositions he cites from the Bible is drawn from contexts and passages which unite the helplessness of the sinner with the redeeming grace of God” (198). In this way Cole explains that what Faustus’ interpretation fails to include is the corollary for each statement: the wages of sin is death, “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and, although denying human sinfulness is a lie punishable by death, “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (Cornelius, 49; Cole, 199).

Faustus uses this blatant misinterpretation of two Pauline texts to rationalize his rebellion against scriptural authority. And while his hermeneutics appear glaringly false, they contain surprising correlations with one of Luther’s Pauline exegeses. Bruns notes that Luther, in an effort to support his notion of sola scriptura, draws on Paul’s distinction between letter and spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). Based on this passage, Luther argues that there should be no separation between the words of scripture and the spirit leading the reader. Yet, according to Bruns, “Letter and spirit [within Paul’s letter] are construed not according to the scholastic categories of literal and spiritual senses [as Luther uses them], but as a distinction between law and gospel . . .” (144). Paul’s distinction between letter and spirit explains that the law convicts one of sin, while the spirit gives one a renewed relationship, so that “The law is not to be read differently . . . we are still answerable to it—but now we can answer differently” (144). Luther correctly translates Paul’s language, but applies it clearly out of context, and in so doing, performs a kind of Faustian act. The only distinction is that Luther’s motivations lead him to a slightly more orthodox conclusion. It seems evident that, regardless of intention, both Luther’s and Faustus’ methods are questionable.

Having followed Luther’s contextual lead, Faustus tosses the Bible and his blatantly unsound syllogism aside, and comments, like some would-be disciples who walked away from Jesus, that the message is too “hard” {7} (Cornelius, 100). Cole suggests that, “beyond its rationalizing function, Faustus’ syllogism betrays . . . a deep-seated willingness to pervert the scriptures . . .” (Cole, 198). Faustus’ attitude seems exactly opposite that of Luther, who is most concerned with uncovering the plain text. Yet one could argue that Marlowe includes this incident to emphasize that although the professors’ motivations for rebelling against authority differ, both neglect context, and the result is misinterpretation. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus suggests that while Faustus’ and Luther’s intentions are admittedly polarized, their methods are disturbingly similar, and because of their lack of methodological integrity, neither professor’s efforts yield pure results.

After calmly discarding the Word based on interpretive fallacy, Faustus reverts to language once again filled with biblical echoes. He is interested in “a world of profit and delight,/ of power, of honor, of omnipotence,” (53-54) and his language triggers the words of Mark 8:36-37: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall win all the world, and lose his own soul?” (Cornelius, 238). By the end of his first speech, Faustus has displayed intimate knowledge of the Word. And by mimicking Luther’s methodology, however distinct their motivations, Faustus has displayed a disturbing similarity to the reformer, showing how a slight degradation of Luther’s method can lead to an utter contempt for scripture’s meaning.

While different in its narrative from Marlowe’s dramatic vision, Goethe’s Faust contains further comment on interpretation. As in Marlowe’s play, Goethe’s Faust begins his monologue entrenched in a gloomy study. The professor’s dissatisfaction with learning is immediately apparent. Faust has mastered the available disciplines—even, God help him, theology—and as he reflects on these pursuits, he concludes that “there is nothing we can know!” (364). Conceding that he at least does know more than his colleagues, “parsons and scribes, doctors and masters” (367) he nonetheless has not found what he presumes are useful answers, answers that would make him wise or rich. In desolation he decides to “quit . . . verbiage-mongering” and “resort to Magic’s art” (385, 377).

Behind his withdrawal from academia lies Faust’s disillusionment with the written word. Language—with its asymptotic and illusory nature—is suspect, and Faust declares his frustration by rejecting the four professions primarily involved with interpretation. 3 This suspicion of language serves to legitimize his proposed solution—seeing “if [magic,] by spirit, mouth and might” will yield insight. Significantly, Faust’s proposal includes virtually every method of communication except writing. Neil Flax, in his article “The Presence of the Sign in Goethe’s Faust,” charts this growing disillusionment: “After identifying ‘words’ as the chief obstacle to a vision of essential reality, Faust complains of his long years of confinement among books and {8} papers . . . and library shelves” (184). Several elements of Faust’s disgust appertain to Luther, who, although seemingly unrelated to the scene, expresses his own, similar misgivings about words. Like Faust, who has discovered words’ limited communicative power, Luther’s understanding, as described by Bruns, is that the text must be elucidated under the Spirit’s direction because it is “irreducible to its grammatical character; it is no longer intelligible purely in terms of the letter inscribed on the page” (Bruns, 148). Luther himself—specifying the act of biblical interpretation—states, “Scripture is not understood unless it is brought home, that is, experienced” (Bruns, 147). Luther claims that words must be experienced in order to be fully clear, and Faust can relate; he has grown tired of the theoretical distancing caused by his academic pursuits. Goethe develops this connection between Faust’s disillusionment and Luther’s misgivings. Both recognize the limits of pure exegesis, and seek a more enlightened path. It will become clear, however, that their choice of paths differ.

Faust turns to nature in an attempt to escape the gloom of his book-lined crypt, hoping that the experience will release “what constrained” his “Thwarted spirit” (410-411). Yet ironically, after lamenting the infirmities of language, Faust’s first thought is to bring along a book. He insists on reading Nostradamus’ text 4 while exploring the revelatory power of nature. Literally carrying his discontent with him out the door, Faust is stunned by Nostradamus’ “tracings pure and whole” (440). The book contains etchings which, unlike words, seem to him complete, continuous, and without ambiguity. And since his gaze follows the lines of the book rather than God’s hand in nature’s colorings, Faust discovers the “creative nature open to [his] soul,” rather than the status of creatureliness (441). He does sense the power of nature, but while it provides stimulus for this thought, he chooses to “rue” that he is “Not like the gods” (652).

Having sought the revelatory power of nature, and finding it lacking, Faust turns to meditation, wondering if reflection on his own “inner condition” will produce more insight than his prior endeavors (Durrani, 57). He reenters his study asserting maxims about love. In the act of meditation he finds that “love of man for man resurges, / The love of God is stirred and freed” (1184,85). Faust’s conclusion—that love stems from a rejection of selfish aims, even aims as harmless as his thirst for nature—seems biblical. But Durrani points out that “by placing human love first, Faust has inverted the order of the two ‘greatest’ commandments . . . (Matt. 22:37-39) . . . in his view, ‘divine love’ proceeds directly from a love for his fellow men, instead of God’s love originating the act” (Durrani, 57).

Although Faust has not yet turned a direct eye on scripture, he is clearly focused on spiritual matters and on the weaknesses of language. He has evaluated {9}and discarded three unrelated options for enlightenment—study, nature, and self-reflection—and he now turns to the Bible. Luther’s influence becomes apparent as Faust nearly echoes the Reformer’s words, “appealing [in the act of translation] / To simple honesty of feeling / To render it in [his] dear German speech.” Heinz Bluhm describes just this kind of personalized translation in an essay on Luther’s hermeneutics, describing it as “transcend[ing] what is ordinarily meant by the term translation . . . hav[ing] the stature of primary works of literature. They lead lives of their own . . . they enjoy an existence apart from the originals of which they are ultimately but versions in another, a modern, tongue” (Dunnhaupt, 112). Faust and Luther appear to be interpreting their texts in similarly liberal manners.

Faust begins his translation with the first verse of the gospel of John and immediately questions the translation of the Greek word logos. His translation reads, “In the beginning was the Word,” yet this phrase only serves to clarify a growing disillusionment with language; simply thinking on the “Word” does not satisfy his notion of the origination of all things. This disapproval stems from Faust’s frustration with the limitations of language, a frustration similar to that of Luther. Faust, in keeping with Luther’s method, takes the text to be his own.

Realizing that he must reinterpret the text, if “indeed [he is] illumined by the Spirit” (1228), Faust sorts through his vocabulary. First replacing logos with “Sense,” then with “Force,” both of which are linguistically plausible translations (Durrani, 60), Faust finally settles on his choice: “In the beginning was the Deed!” (1237). Having contentedly made the text his own, Faust is described by Durrani as coming increasingly “to rely . . . on his own intuition . . . and resort[ing] to new renderings” (Durrani 60). And while Durrani clarifies that Faust “realizes [his interpretations] to be inaccurate, and justifiable, if at all, by his own latent attitude to life,” (60) it is nonetheless apparent that Faust’s and Luther’s translations, while separated by distinct motives, cannot be distinguished by method alone.

Based on the similarities evidenced by this scrutiny of Faust’s and Luther’s methods, it seems clear that Goethe is intentionally commenting on Luther’s hermeneutic. The problem is that Luther’s method fails to maintain Augustine’s legitimizing authority, an authority necessary to constrain the motives of a Faust. Faust follows Luther’s methodology in his reliance on personal insight, yet his motives, demonstrated by his preference for the Nostradamus’ text, reveal that for him, the Bible “constitutes . . . only one among many sources of knowledge, not the sole example of divine revelation.” (Durrani 60). In other words, Luther’s methods, unlike Augustine’s, allow for a wide variety of motivations, and Faust’s radical interpretation of John 1:1 attests to this weakness. And although Luther attempts to protect his {10} method by emphasizing the spirit’s role in individual revelation—”Scripture is to be understood alone through the Spirit who wrote it” (Bruns quoting Luther, 145)—Luther privileges personal insight, stating that “no believing Christian . . . can be forced to recognize any authority beyond the sacred scripture, which is exceedingly invested with divine right . . .” (Lundin 254-55).

Personal insight and spiritual insight become difficult to distinguish, and Faust’s translation reveals Luther’s folly in claiming that “The Holy Spirit . . . is the simplest writer and speaker in heaven and on earth. This is why his words can have no more than the simplest meaning which we call the written one, or the literal meaning of the tongue” (Bruns, 143). Goethe’s choice of Faust’s passage, taken from the prologue to John’s Gospel (a notoriously complex bit of scripture), is significant in the light of such oversimplification. That Goethe is developing a deliberate critique becomes more than evident when Faust claims for himself divine inspiration. Illuminating the force of personal agenda, Goethe dramatizes Faust’s solitary attempts at rewriting scripture and problems with Luther’s proposed sola scriptura become increasingly apparent.

Neil M. Flax points out in his essay, “The Presence of the Sign in Goethe’s Faust,” that Faust’s “act of translation immediately raises a host of perplexing problems about the authority and truth value in language” (188). Like Luther, Faust claims divine inspiration, and while his attitude does not fit Augustine’s notion of the proper spirit, no authoritative presence for discerning who has that spirit exists. Moreover, as Erasmus states, “If we grant that he who has the spirit is sure of the meaning of the scriptures, how can I be certain of what he finds to be true for himself? What am I to do when many bring diverse interpretations, about which each swears he has the Holy Spirit?” (Bruns quoting Erasmus 146-47).

This tension between discernment and proper interpretation, alluded to by Goethe, makes one question the validity of any interpretation. Goethe’s Faust raises the issue “that the influence of the spirit might not be separable from people’s agendas of personalities. The insight forces one to wonder about the original recording of the gospel—were those translators, or historians, or storytellers, influenced by personality also, or wholly by the spirit?” (Durrani, 61). The questionable status of sacred texts, and of any interpretation becomes clear; Faust ostensibly follows the lead of the spirit, while in actuality transmitting his own purpose. His method reveals problems deeply embedded in the act of translation itself, and particularly in a personally subjective method like Luther’s.

Faust’s reliance on language magnifies the dilemma surrounding valid translation. His attempted indictment begins with the implication that the “Bible requires translation and elucidation if it is to be understood” (Durrani, 60). {11} The problem is that he must use language, the medium he questions, in order to clarify. And significantly, although he claims guidance by “der Geist,” in discarding the more accurate translations of logos, “this term [which] he spontaneously uses to invoke the divine authority, is merely another conventional German translation—through the Latin ‘Spiritus’—for ‘Logos,’ the very term whose correct translation he is supposedly first discovering” (Flax, 189). In this way Faust attempts to use words to solve a problem inherent to them, and claims authority by the existing name for the thing whose name he is trying to interpret (Flax, 189).

Faust’s efforts raise serious questions about language’s capacity to aid in any explication. The tenuous relationship between spiritual revelation and reliance on reason is clear. Goethe’s critique raises questions about Luther’s methods. He dramatizes the ease with which one could leap from Luther’s methods to Faust’s own. Moreover, by replacing inspired interpretation with reason, Faust reflects the activity of Goethe’s era, in which “As Protestantism gave way to the Enlightenment . . . the scriptures themselves were supplanted by human reason as the arbiter of truth” (Lundin, 255).

Luther’s notion of sola scriptura has profoundly influenced the modern world, and Marlowe and Goethe’s dramas, while exposing the faults of Luther’s interpretive method, foreshadow five centuries of interpretive ramifications. Luther’s pivotal assertions instigated a reaction against authority that has been a major preoccupation of post-Reformation hermeneutics. Modern intellectuals not only accepted Luther’s rejection of institutional authority, but also sought to omit the influence of personal authority—i.e., any base of assumptions that might affect interpretation.

This extension of Luther’s hermeneutic becomes problematic when one considers the implausibility of escaping prejudgment entirely. Martin Heidegger, one of the first modern intellectuals to identify this dilemma, challenged the idea that it is possible to interpret without prejudice (Lundin, 159). Modern thinkers have traditionally defined proper interpretation as entering into a text without preconceived notions; yet, according to Heidegger, this is not possible. It seems that modern intellectuals followed Luther’s mistaken attempt to escape authority, thinking it the path toward proper interpretation, instead of following Luther’s valid idea (adopted from Augustine) of approaching a text in the proper spirit. In this way Luther’s influence created a shift for more than five centuries toward mistaken notions of correct interpretation.

Scholars of the post modern era have extended the problems inherent in Luther’s faulty hermeneutic, and now philosophers and academics like Heidegger must struggle to eliminate the flaws Goethe and Marlowe reveal in Luther’s interpretive model. Marlowe’s drama implies that Luther’s rejection {12} of interpretive authority allows dangerous hermeneutical practices. Luther’s tendency to ignore context, suggested by Faustus’s misinterpretations, undermines the Reformer’s quest for interpreting in the proper spirit. Goethe similarly presents Faust in the act of misinterpretation, including comment on manipulation of the spirit and concern for the validity of written communication. Both Luther’s notion of the proper spirit and Heidegger’s understanding that there can be no unbiased interpretation stem from the writings of Augustine (Bruns). It seems that while Luther’s efforts to read independently involved unsound methods, the Augustinian basis of his attempt remains valid. For contemporary scholars attempting to develop a proper hermeneutic, Marlowe and Goethe’s critiques of Luther’s method provide valuable insight.


  • Arndt, Walter, trans., and Cyrus Hamlin, ed. Faust: Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.
  • Bruns, Gerald L. Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Cole, Douglas. Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.
  • Cornelius, R. M. Christopher Marlowe’s Use of the Bible. New York: Lang, 1984.
  • Dunnhaupt, Gerhard, ed. The Martin Luther Quincentennial. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1985.
  • Durrani, Osman. Faust and the Bible: A Study of Goethe’s Use of Scriptural Allusions and Christian Religious Motifs in Faust I and II. Berne: Lang, 1977.
  • Flax, Neil M. “The Presence of the Sign in Goethe’s Faust.” PMLA 98(2): 183-203.
  • Kocher, Paul H., ed. Christopher Marlowe: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Arlington Heights: Harlan Davidson, 1950.
  • Lundin, Roger. The Culture of Interpretation: Christian Faith and the Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.


  1. This essay was composed as part of the requirements for participating in the 1995 Pew Younger Scholars Seminar. I am indebted to Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey (University of Ottawa) {13} for his editorial suggestions.
  2. Luther’s method, termed sola scriptura, involves interpreting the Bible without the aid of outside commentary. Glosses were so thick in Luther’s time that according to Gerald L. Bruns in his book Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern, “Biblical text was materially embedded in the history of its interpretation” (139). Because of this excessive elaboration and the church’s singular authority, Luther fought for a less encased text. He began to formulate his own conception of proper interpretation, drawing heavily on the hermeneutics of Augustine.
  3. The respective professions of the aforementioned practitioners: parsons, scribes, masters (those holding a master’s degree) and doctors (those holding a doctorate).
  4. A book of magic, written by Nostradamus, containing signs used for conjuring.
Debra Faszer graduated from Tabor College in May 1996 with a double major in English and Bible. She plans to teach English at the high school level.

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