Saturday, June 14, 2008

Martin Luther on Genesis

Alice C. Linsley

Having completed a series of lectures on the Psalms, Martin Luther lectured on Genesis beginning in 1535 and until his death in 1545. He moved deeply into the patriarchal narratives and yet he recognized that there was still more to be said, deferring to later commentators: “This is now the dear Genesis… God grant that after me others will do better.” (Martin Luther “Lectures on Genesis,” J. Pelikan, ed. Luther’s Works, Vol. 1., Concordia Publishing, p. 333.) 

Luther’s words are an invitation to subsequent generations and indeed many have taken up the study of this remarkably rich book: E.A. Speiser, Gerhard Von Rad, John Wesley, and Matthew Henry, to name but a few. Luther’s Interpretive Method found Christ prefigured in the Psalms and in other books of the Old Testament, but in his commentary on Genesis he focuses more on traditional Lutheran doctrine. 

His reflections on Genesis were to refine reformed dogma. James Arne Nestingen suggests that one receives this impression because, as Peter Meinhold argued fifty years ago, the lectures were edited by Viet Dietrich and his colleagues to enlist Luther’s authority in support of Melanchthon’s theological revisions in the 1540s. There is little doubt that Luther used Scripture polemically. He, more than any other writer, is responsible for the Protestant doctrine of "the priesthood of the believer", an innovation which logically, make ordination unnecessary.

Given the consistency with which Luther interpreted Scripture, it seems likely that he found Christ throughout the book of Genesis, especially as he read it through the lens of the Pauline epistles. Clearly, Luther regarded Gen 3:15, the “proto-evangelion,” as the first promise concerning Christ. From this promise the history of salvation begins to unfold. “Christ is the Lord of the Scripture,” Luther wrote in a letter to Erasmus, “take Christ out of them and what do you have left?” (De Servo Arbitrio, 1525) 

On the Authorship of Genesis Luther believed that Genesis is attributed to Moses and that “Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively.” Yet, referring to the placement of the sun in a watery mass (Gen. 1:14-16), Luther admits that “I for my part shall confess that I do not understand Moses in this passage.” 

Luther accepts that there are mysteries in the Genesis, such as the Trinity. He wrote, “Of course, he [Moses] does not say in so many words that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the one true God; this was to be reserved for the teaching of the Gospel.” Luther writes repeatedly in his Lectures on Genesis that the plural Elohim can only refer to the Trinity, but he claims that this mystery would have been incomprehensible to those who lived before the appearing of Christ. 

On the Fall Luther regarded Satan to be the great enemy of God and Man and he saw fighting the devil through the grace of Christ to be the duty of every Christian. He wrote, “Let this, then, my dear sirs and friends, be the first consideration to influence you, namely, that herein we are fighting against the devil as the most dangerous and subtle enemy of all.” He regards the serpent as the devil embodied, and concerning the devil’s cunning he writes. “He does not immediately try to allure Eve by means of the loveliness of the fruit. He first attacks man’s greatest strength, faith in the word. Therefore the root and source of sin is unbelief and turning away from God.” (LW, Vol. 1, p. 162) 

Luther writes: “the pattern of all the temptations of Satan is the same, namely, that he first puts faith to trial and draws away from the Word. Then follow the sins against the Second Table. From our own experience we perceive that this is his procedure. The events which now follow deal with the description of sin: what its nature is when it is active, and what it is later on when it lies in the past. For while it is active it is not felt; otherwise we would be warned and draw back. But because these lie hidden, we proceed smugly to the deed itself after we have forsaken our uprightness and faith. Eve trespassed similarly in the instance of the fruit after she had been persuaded, contrary to the Word of God, that she would not die.” (LW, Vol.1, p. 163)

On Adam and Eve as Historical Persons “Afterwards, when Eve was with child again, they hoped to have a daughter, that their beloved son, Cain, might have a wife; but Eve bearing again a son, called him Abel—that is, vanity and nothingness; as much as to say, my hope is gone, and I am deceived.” On Locating the Garden of Eden Concerning the rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:10-14, Luther says: “…one must not imagine that the source of these rivers is the same today as it was at that time; but the situation is the same today as in the case of the earth, which now exists and brings forth trees, herbs, etc. If you compare these with the uncorrupted creation, they are like wretched remnants of that wealth which the earth had when it was created. Thus these rivers remain like ruins, but, to be sure, not in the same place; much less do they have the same sources.” (LW, Vol. 1., p. 99.)


PianoTuner said...

Thanks so much Alice for your research on Luther's Commentary on Genesis; I'm a Confessional Orthodox Lutheran needing a contrasting view to that of Prof. David Lose at Luther Seminary in MN; Lose wanders around too much in his theologies while Luther hits us right between the eyes, so to speak, with the Christology within Genesis as well as the "proto-evangelion" as Christ's first promises to us...! By the Way, James Nestingen is one of my absolute favorite Confessional Lutheran Pastors/Theologians of this age, as I've heard him speak on several occasions; in addition, I've attended several of his Bible studies. Again, Many Thanks!!

Alice C. Linsley said...

Piano Tuner,

I'm glad you found this helpful. There is more to say about Luther on Genesis and I may take this topic up again at a later date. I'd love to compare and contrast his views on Genesis to those of Calvin and Wesley.

I graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Mt. Airy) in 1988. I was the only Episcopalian who took the Lutheran Confessions course, which was excellent. I learned to appreciate Luther for his unwillingness to accomodate the Gospel to culture. We need more like him who will hit us "right between the eyes" with the truth.