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Luther on Scripture 3 – The Meaning is Christ

Taken from this paper on Luther's exegesis of Genesis 3...

The meaning is Christ
Rescuing the Scriptures from the Judaizers

‘Christ is the Lord, not the servant, the Lord of the Sabbath, of law, of all things.  The Scriptures must be understood in favour of Christ, not against Him.  For that reason they must either refer to Him or must not be held to be true Scripture.’ (LW34.112)

When Luther says ‘must’ in this quotation he is deadly serious.  The written Word is a servant of the Eternal Word.  We cannot know God except "clothed in His Word and promises , so that from the name ‘God’ we cannot exclude Christ, whom God promised to Adam and the other patriarchs." (Commentary on Psalm 51, 1532).

Luther constantly returns to Genesis 3:15 as the promise by which Adam and Eve laid hold of life, and the fountainhead of all gospel promise:

"This, therefore is the text that made Adam and Eve alive and brought them back from death into the life which they had lost through sin."  (LW1.196-7)

"Never will the conscience trust in God unless it can be sure of God’s mercy and promises in Christ. Now all the promises of God lead back to the first promise concerning Christ: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” The faith of the fathers in the Old Testament era, and our faith in the New Testament are one and the same faith in Christ Jesus, although times and conditions may differ... The faith of the fathers was directed at the Christ who was to come, while ours rests in the Christ who has come. Time does not change the object of true faith, or the Holy Spirit. There has always been and always will be one mind,  one impression, one faith concerning Christ among true believers whether they live in times past, now, or in times to come. We too believe in the Christ to come as the fathers did in the Old Testament, for we look for Christ to come again on the last day to judge the quick and the dead. (Galatians commentary, 3:6)

Luther came to Genesis not primarily seeking for grammatical and historical understanding, but seeking for Christ.  As he claimed above, ‘the Scriptures must be understood in favour of Christ.'  For Luther, distinguishing the Church from Old Testament Israel has never been a question of adding a new, retrospectively awarded meaning to Moses.   The method modelled by Jesus and His Apostles has been to declare the inherent Messianic proclamation of all Biblical revelation.  Luther is completely in line with this as he repeatedly champions Genesis 3:15, not simply here, but throughout his work.  Yet this confidence in the protevangelium has sounded ‘incautious’ and ‘unreal’ to more modern ears.

F. Farrar in his History of Interpretation says this:

“When Luther reads the doctrines of the Trinity, and the Incarnation, and Justification by Faith, and Reformation dogmatics and polemics, into passages written more than a thousand years before the Christian era… he is adopting an unreal method which had been rejected a millennium earlier by the clearer insight and more unbiased wisdom of the School of Antioch.  As a consequence of this method, in his commentary on Genesis he adds nothing to Lyra except a misplaced dogmatic treatment of patriarchal history.” (p334)

Farrar misunderstands both Luther’s exegesis and his exegetical convictions.  Luther is not claiming to read back into the text a Christological reinterpretation.  His claim is that the gospel of Christ was preached, understood, trusted and passed on by the faithful throughout the Old Testament era.  His convictions in making such a claim are that non-Christological interpretations are really non-interpretations.  The written Word must preach the Eternal Word or it is no word worth hearing.  It is worth noting though that this prior commitment also allows Luther to make the greatest sense of the literal, historical and grammatical content of the passage.

In this respect Calvin is often seen as a more 'cautious' foil to Luther's christocentric bias.

So R. Grant in A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible writes:

‘Not all the reformers carried the principles of Reformation exegesis to the conclusion which Luther reached.  John Calvin, for example, vigorously maintains an ‘objective’ type of interpretation.  For him, scripture itself is the authority for Christian belief, rather than any Christocentric interpretation of scripture.’ (p106, emphasis mine)

That seems a very fair assessment.  And one worth ruminating upon.

Gerald Bray in Biblical Interpretation: past and present has written similarly:

“As an exegete Calvin is noted for his scrupulous honesty; he resisted the temptation to read Christological meanings into even such ‘obvious’ passages as Genesis 3:15.” (p203, emphasis mine)

Calvin’s principles of Old Testament interpretation as laid out in the Institutes (e.g. I.13; II.9-11) are admirable.  Yet they are not followed through with consistency in his expositions.  For instance, neither the Trinitarian (1:1,26; 3:22) nor Christological points (3:15) are picked up in Calvin’s Genesis commentary.

Lutherans in the 17th century felt so strongly about Calvin’s Old Testament exegesis that anathemas were pronounced, most notably by Aegidius Hunnius, in his Calvinus Judaizans (Wittenberg, 1693).  While this was a definite over-reaction it certainly points to differing trajectories and a tendency in Calvin to underplay that on which Luther had so passionately insisted.

In our own age, evangelical scholarship is crying out for defenders of a Christian Old Testament.  In John Sailhamer's excellent article The Messiah and the Hebrew Bible, he quotes Walter Kaiser as saying:

“if [the Gospel] is not in the Old Testament text, who cares how ingenious later writers are in their ability to reload the OT text with truths that it never claimed or revealed in the first place? The issue is more than hermeneutics… [the issue is that of] the authority and content of revelation itself!”

Gordon McConville comments in the same article

“the validity of a Christian understanding of the Old Testament must depend in the last analysis on [the] cogency of the argument that the Old Testament is messianic.”

We ought to re-learn from Luther the Christian meaning of Moses and the Prophets.  Not that, now Moses can be read through Christian spectacles.  Rather, that the only spectacles through which Scripture can be read are Christian.  The issue with our modern Jewish friends is not about whether the New Testament is a valid addition and re-interpretation of the Old.  The issue is the Old Testament itself.  We must maintain that the Hebrew Scriptures in and of themselves are Christian Scripture written from faith in Christ and directed to evoke faith in Christ  (cf. 2 Tim 3:15-17; Acts 10:36,43).  Luther would be an excellent tutor for our modern age in reclaiming the Hebrew Scriptures for Jesus.


0 thoughts on “Luther on Scripture 3 – The Meaning is Christ

  1. Dan

    Greetings from San Francisco,

    Ran across your blog while doing a "hermeneutics" search. Regarding Luther's handling of Scripture, might I suggest his sermon, How Christians Should Regard Moses and his 1535 commentary on Galatians. For some very readable (American Lutheran, non-biblicist) perspectives on Luther's Law/Gospel hermeneutic, I strongly recommend the writings of Dr. Edward Schroeder ("retired" professor of systematic theology) and his former mentor, the sainted Robert Bertram. The site is There you can also find the Crossing method using law/gospel lenses for each week's appointed Gospel pericope.

    I hope you don't mind the plug!


  2. Paul Blackham

    Glen, what a glorious trilogy this has been! Glory! You have put into words things that I've been trying to think and say for years. Glory! No matter how much I have appreciated Calvin's biblical studies, I have always found his Institutes to be his real contribution to the global church. Luther is the great Bible student. Yes, his academic ability was of course greater than Calvin, but that isn't the point here. Luther is driven by Jesus so explicitly and deliberately. Glory! Glory!

  3. Glen

    Dan - great to meet you. Don't mind the plug at all. And thanks for the comments.

    Paul - thanks for setting me on the scent to begin with! :)

    Thanks Bror.

  4. Dan

    (Fr?) Glen,

    Thank you and nice to meet you as well. One other site that might interest you and your readers concerning Luther (are you getting the idea that I'm a Lutheran?) is (sorry that I can't add a hyperlink)
    I don't know him personally, but one of the site's hosts, the Rev. Bryce Wandrey, is a former pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS) and is now an assistant curate in an Anglican parish in London. He speaks Anglicanese and Lutheranese pretty fluently :).


  5. Dev

    so basically..

    the literal, historical, grammatical, allegorical, scientific, etc...
    interpretation of Scripture is the Person and Work of Christ


  6. Glen

    Hi Dan,

    No 'Father' here ;-) I'm decidedly at the evangelical end of Anglicanism. Great link - thanks. The theology of the cross paper is helping me greatly with Sunday (I'm preaching on the fifth 'sola' and wanting to say exactly what God's glory is and isn't).

    Hi Dev,

    In terms of Barth's three-fold Word stuff (built on Luther), Scripture is the Second Form of the Word - concretely distinct but completely equal in authority to Christ (the First Form) and always begotten from Him. It's an asymmetrical relationship (as with Father and Son). The bible is continually 'word from Word'. So in all the genres and manifold ways of witnessing it all serves Christ because it's always coming from Him.

    So when you say "is" in that final sentence, that's true. And it's true in the sense that Jesus "is" God. But it's true because Jesus is eternally 'God from God' and 'Revelation *of* God'. In other words all that particularity of Scripture (sometimes poetry, sometimes narrative, sometimes epistle) must be taken with full seriousness (just as Christ's particularity must). But *in* that particularity it is always revealing the One to Whom it points.

  7. Dev

    hmm yea

    but what i mean for example..
    is in Gen 1- aren't there many levels of 'literal' meaning?

    to the world
    to the individual Christian - cf 2 cor 4
    to Christ's incarnation - John 1


    won't some of these be defined as allegorical?

  8. Glen

    Hi Dev, sorry misunderstood you.

    Yeah many levels has got to be true. And I think Luther's reaction to allegory is very understandable but sometimes overplayed. Apparently Augustine taught that the meaning of Gen 3:15 was that woman = lower reason; her seed = its good workings; the devil’s seed = his evil prompting which assails lower reason, etc, etc.

    You can undertsand why he'd just want to overthrow that whole system. And so he insists that you don't need allegory in order to understand the spiritual meaning - the spiritual meaning is the literal promise of incarnation. And that was very necessary for him to uphold.

    But I think it does lead him to over-react. So he rejects the typology of Adam and Eve / Christ and Church as 'allegorical'. I think that's a case of throwing out the baby with the bath-water.

    He does have some place for allegory. So he says this: "Therefore let those who want to make use of allegories base them on the historical account itself. The historical account is like logic in that it teaches what is certainly true; the allegory, on the other hand, is like rhetoric in that it ought to illustrate the historical account but has no value at all for giving proof."

    That phrase "giving proof" is a good indicator of what he was rejecting. The allegorists would *prove* all sorts of nonsense by appealing to hidden bible-code-type interpretations while completely ignoring the literal, historical meaning.

    So I think Luther's good at objecting to what's bad about Origen et al. Namely:

    a) the literal was despised and ignored as sub-spiritual,
    b) no matter what the passage, every Scripture was forced into a four-fold interpretation and
    c) the spiritual interpretation was sought after like a hidden bible-code and was not driven by Scripture's own use of those terms.

    I think we can say Amen to that rejection but also make room for multi-layered interpretations. Not least because creation itself - from stars to seeds - is invested with deep gospel meaning.

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