Here are some excerpts from a paper I wrote about Luther's exegesis of Genesis 3. In these next three posts I'll tease out three key convictions underlying all Luther's exegesis:
The Meaning is Literal - Rescuing the Bible from the Allegorists
The Meaning is in the Scriptures - Rescuing the Bible from the Magisterium
The Meaning is Christ - Rescuing the Bible from the Judaizers
For the footnotes, go to the original paper.
The Meaning is Literal
Rescuing the Bible from the Allegorists
In the history of exegesis, the early chapters of Genesis have often been claimed as definitive warrant for an allegorical approach to Scripture. As far back as Philo (d. c50), it was to early Genesis that they appealed:
“We must turn to allegory, the method dear to men with their eyes opened. Indeed the sacred oracles most evidently afford us the clues for the use of this method. For they say that in the garden (of Eden) there are trees in no way resembling those with which we are familiar, but trees of Life, Immortality, of Knowledge, of Apprehension, of Understanding, of the conception of good and evil.”
Allegorical interpretation in the Christian tradition is largely identified with the Alexandrians. As with so many modern interpreters, exegetes like Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) would point to features of Genesis 1-3 – the existence of light and days before the creation of the sun, the impossibility of four rivers co-existing in one garden, God ‘walking about’ – and claim that such writing demands a non-literal understanding. The parallels with today are striking.
Clement of Alexandria (fl. c.200) took courage from these opening chapters in asserting that the Bible was written in signs and symbols. The task of the exegete was therefore to decode these signs – not to understand the letters on the page.
Clement unravelled the signs in a five-fold interpretation. There is:
an historical sense;
a doctrinal sense;
a prophetic sense (including OT typology);
a philosophical sense and
a mystical sense.
Origen maintained a three-fold reading corresponding to a tripartite anthropology. So there is
body (a literal sense),
soul (a moral sense) and
spirit (an allegorical/mystical sense)
The eventual heir of this school, the quadriga, gave the Church a four-fold sense.
The letter, teaches what it says, e.g. Jerusalem is the city of the Jews;
Allegory, teaches doctrine, e.g. Jerusalem means the Church;
Tropology, teaches morals, e.g. Jerusalem is the human soul;
Anagogy, teaches the Christian hope, e.g. Jerusalem is the heavenly city.
At best, these approaches give a polite ‘nod’ to the literal sense of the words, but at base is the conviction that this represents only the carnal meaning. 2 Corinthians 3:6 is a key verse for the Alexandrians. The spiritual meaning is found beyond the historical.
It fell therefore to the school of Antioch, remembered for its determination to take the flesh of Christ seriously, to take the ‘flesh’ of Scripture equally seriously. One representative, Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), wrote Concerning Allegory and History Against Origen and argued that the spiritual meaning (theoria) is not the allegorical but simply the application of the literal. Again, the interpretation of Genesis was at the centre - modern interpreters take note:
Theodore’s argument was that Origen denies ‘the whole biblical history of its reality. Adam was not really Adam, paradise was not really paradise, the serpent was not a real serpent. In that case, Theodore asks, since there are no real events, since Adam was not really disobedient, how did death enter the world, and what meaning does our salvation have?' (Robert Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, p70)
These are questions that need to be asked again today and with urgency.
In the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) took up the fight for the literal interpretation of Scripture against an allegorism that persisted through Augustine’s (354-430) legacy. Once more, Genesis provided the battle-ground:
‘The things which are said of Paradise [i.e. Eden] in scripture are set forth by means of an historical narrative… [This historical narrative] must be taken as a foundation and upon it spiritual expositions are to be built.’ (Grant, p100)
Coming from this tradition of literal interpretation, Luther is able to call allegories ‘silly’ ‘twaddle’, and ‘absurd’ ‘pratings’. He insists that “it is the historical sense alone which supplies the true and sound doctrine.”
Hence his insistence on literal 24 hour days, a literal garden with literal rivers, a literal serpent (though dominated by a supernatural being) and thus a literal fall from which we are promised a literal Deliverer. Such a carnal understanding proves not to be a denial of spiritual meaning unless we were to conclude that the Seed Himself was too carnal to provide spiritual hope. Yet Luther’s commitment to the Incarnate Christ as the ground and goal of all God’s dealings with man means he could never drive such a Platonic wedge between flesh and spirit or between the literal and the mystical. Luther continually keeps these two realms together as in the following quotation:
“For we have the Holy Spirit as our Guide. Through Moses He does not give us foolish allegories; but He teaches us about most important events, which involve God, sinful man, and Satan, the originator of sin.” (LW1.185)
Because the Seed Who will come from the body of the woman is the hope of the ages, then we are caught up into the divine purposes of the LORD. Thus the spiritual purpose of Moses was to ‘relate history’, and the spiritual task of the exegete is to simply ‘adhere to the historical account.’ In this history is the spiritual hope of all peoples.
Before we move on to other facets of Luther's interpretation we must take heed for our own day. The current vogue in dismissing Genesis chapters 1-3 (not to mention 4-11) as unhistorical can only open the door once more to Origenistic extravagence.
While those committed to an historical-grammatical hermeneutic have (by definition) ruled out an allegorical interpretation, they nonetheless pass over the literal sense in favour of a meaning grounded elsewhere. It is essentially the error of Origen all over again even if the techniques have changed.
We would do well to get back to Luther’s hermeneutic and his rebuke:
If then we do not understand the nature of the days or have no insight into why God wanted to make use of these intervals of time, let us confess our lack of understanding rather than distort the words, contrary to their context, into a foreign meaning… If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit. (LW 1.5)