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Recently I wrote about communion in marriage (i.e. sex).

Modern, western approaches to sex are essentially memorialist (if you don't know what that means, hang in there, explanation is on the way).

Our culture doesn't believe that real union is effected by sex.  A union of bodies is not considered to be a union of persons - not necessarily.  And a vast amount of the sex that does happen is a remembrance of the real thing (i.e. porn).

In this post I want to examine the negative effects of memorialism in preaching.  But let's just remind ourselves of what memorialism is.  Let's consider the clash between Luther and Zwingli in the 16th century.

As these two men discussed the Lord's Supper, Luther advocated the real presence of Christ "in, with and under" the elements of bread and wine.  "This is my body" Luther would quote.  In fact he scratched it onto his desk as the last word on the subject.  Zwingli considered Luther's position to be "a perverse and impious superstition."

Mike Reeves writes:

Luther believed that Christ's body and blood are really present in the bread and wine, making the Lord's Supper a gift of grace from God. Those who receive Christ in faith are blessed, those who take the Supper without faith face special judgement for despising Christ when offered to them.  Zwingli maintained that Christ's body cannot literally be present in the bread, but is instead symbolized by the bread.  The Lord's Supper for him was a mere symbol to help us commemorate Christ's sacrifice and to signify our membership of his body.  Luther was horrified.  It looked to him as though Zwingli was turning the Supper into an opportunity for us to do something (i.e. commemorate and signify something about us). This, surely, meant that the Lord's Supper would no longer be about grace but works.  Believing that Zwingli had fatally compromised the gospel, Luther refused to partner with him. (The Unquenchable Flame, p70)

Later in the same book, Mike makes the point that in the 16th and 17th centuries "there were no Lutherans among all the refugee theologians who came to England (something still felt today in the almost total lack of Lutheran flavour to English evangelicalism, which has always been much more Zwinglian and Calvinist)." (p129)

Now Calvin did believe in the real presence of Christ in the Supper, but I have to say, when it comes to the sacraments, modern evangelicalism, as I've encountered it, is decidedly memorialist.  I've met many who proudly maintain the real absence of Christ.

This kind of view tends to go hand in hand with a view of ministry that is not "word and sacrament" but almost self-consciously, word and not sacrament.  There is a deeply ingrained anti-ritualistic and, yes, even anti-physical streak to our evangelicalism.  I'm not sure I'll be able to displace such thinking in this post - it's not in my tiny stable of hobby-horses so I won't be riding it very far.  Instead, let me direct attention away from the Lord's table and onto ground that should be firmer for us: the pulpit.  Yet it's my contention that Zwingli rules here also.  Our churches are beset by memorialist preaching.

If you ask me, this is the malady afflicting conservative evangelical churches today.  I know, I know, I'm a 34 year old nobody pontificating about the state of evangelicalism.  Well... allow a younger guy to let off some younger-guy steam.  If it makes you feel better, favourite the page and read it in 30 years when my opinion is worth slightly more than zero.  But if you want to take my rants for what they're worth, here comes said rant...

Preachers simply do not believe that Christ is really present in the word that they speak.  How can I possibly judge that?  I listen.  I listen to their tone, their content, their manner, their prayers and to the preaching concerns they speak of out of the pulpit.  In all this, there seems to be very little confidence or expectation that they're in the business of speaking God's own word with His authority and power.  Modern preachers don't even consider themselves to be heralds - let alone attempt the feat.  They are bible experts, textual critics, near eastern historians, cultural and ecclesiastical commentators and discipleship coaches.  They are anything and everything but bearers of God's living word.  In short - they are memorialists.  They don't think they're doing anything to their hearers in the moment.  They seek merely to bring spiritual truths to the minds of the flock.

What is offered from the pulpit is like what's offered at the table - mere tokens of a far-off reality.  The dispenser of such lifeless things hopes that spiritual sentiments will, somehow, be awakened in their hearers.  But it's the hearers who will have to work at it because there's no real presence in the word.  The action doesn't happen in the gift of the words (either audible or visible).  For the Zwinglian, all the action happens between the ears of the recipient.

So memorialist preaching is aimed at educating, equipping and enthusing but not actually giving the hearer anything.  Christ is not handed over.  Not from the table and not from the pulpit.  Instead prompts, like post-it notes, are offered.  Little reminders.  Little to-do lists.  Little platitudes.  Little pep-talks.  "Now it's down to you.  Just remember what I taught you."

And perhaps the surest sign of memorialist preaching is a preacher who considers their job to be "explaining the Bible passage."  Like a mere dispenser of bread, the preacher moves through the verses, picking off interesting tit-bits along the way.  And somehow, by the end, we've been given a commentary and not Christ.  This is pure Zwingli.

As Mike notes in The Unquenchable Flame,

Where Luther opened the Bible to find Christ, Zwingli sought more simply to open the Bible. (p69)

What a tragedy.  The preacher's job is not to "preach Philippians".  The preacher's job is to preach Christ from Philippians.  So often the preacher just moves the bookmark forward, noting points of interest along the way. In so doing, they leave the listener to piece together whatever resolve or relief they can muster from the raw materials proffered.  This is not preaching.

Offer them Christ.  Hand Him over.  Placard Him from Scripture and say to the hearers "You want Him? He's yours, here He is."

You want to know what that sounds like?  I can't do any better than point you to Mike himself - preaching on Philippians as it happens.

Download Mike Reeves on Philippians.

And may his gospel preaching sweeten the after-taste of this here rant.


Melancthon wrote to a guy called Brenz to clarify the difference between the Protestant position on justification and Augustine's.  The difference is vital!

Luther being Luther, he couldn't help adding a P.S. to Melancthon's letter:

And I, dear Brenz, in order to get a better grip on this issue frequently imagine it this way: as if in my heart there is no quality that is called faith or charity, but instead of them I put Christ himself and say: this is my righteousness; He is the quality and my formal righteousness, as they call it. In this way I free myself from the perception of the law and works, and even from the perception of this object, Christ, who is understood as a teacher or a giver; but I want Him to be my gift and teaching in Himself, so that I may have all things in Him.  So he says: I am the way, the truth and the life. He does not say: I give you the way, the truth and the life, as if He worked in me while being placed outside of me. He must be such things in me, remain in me, live in me, speak not through me but into me, 2 Cor. 5; so that we may be righteousness in Him, not in love or in gifts that follow.


Reason and will would ascend and seek above, but if you would have joy, bend yourself down to this place. There you will find that boy given for you who is your Creator lying in a manger. I will stay with that boy as He sucks, is washed, and dies . . . There is no joy but in this boy. Take Him away and you face the Majesty which terrifies . . . I know of no God but this one in the manger.

-- Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon 1527.

Emma's got some Reformation Day Lutheran gold here.  Which reminds me of these, also from his Galatians commentary:

"The genius of Christianity takes the words of Paul “who gave himself for our sins” as true and efficacious. We are not to look upon our sins as insignificant trifles. On the other hand, we are not to regard them as so terrible that we must despair. Learn to believe that Christ was given, not for small and imaginary transgressions, but for  mountainous sins; not for one or two, but for all; not for sins that can be discarded, but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained. Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: “Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin. My sins are not imaginary transgressions... [Yet because my transgressions are multiplied]... therefore Christ the Son of God gave Himself unto death for my sins.” To believe this is to have eternal life."

"Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture. If he says, “Thou shalt be damned,” you tell him: “No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding me of God’s fatherly goodness toward me, that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure.” With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil’s craft and put from us the memory of sin."  (Galatians 1:4)

"By faith in Christ a person may gain such sure and sound comfort, that he need not fear the devil, sin, death, or any evil. “Sir Devil,” he may say, “I am not afraid of you. I have a Friend whose name is Jesus Christ, in whom I believe. He has abolished the Law, condemned sin, vanquished death, and destroyed hell for me. He is bigger than you, Satan. He has licked you, and holds you down. You cannot hurt me.” This is the faith that overcomes the devil."  (Galatians 2:19)

"Whenever sin and death make you nervous write it down as an illusion of the devil. There is no sin now, no curse, no death, no devil because Christ has done away with them."  (Galatians 3:13)

"Let us become expert in the art of transferring our sins, our death, and every evil from ourselves to Christ; and Christ’s righteousness and blessing from Christ to ourselves." (Galatians 3:14)

"[Galatians 5:5: "We eagerly await for the hope of righteousness."] This is sweet comfort for us. And we are to make use of it in comforting the afflicted. We are to say to them: “Brother, you would like to feel God’s favour as you feel your sin. But you are asking too much. Your righteousness rests on something much better than feelings. Wait and hope until it will be revealed to you in the Lord’s own time. Don’t go by your feelings, but go by the doctrine of faith, which pledges Christ to you.”

Defy Satan in times of despair. Say: “O cursed Satan, you choose a nice time to talk to me about doing and working when you know very well that I am in trouble over my sins. I will not listen to you. I will listen to Christ, who says that He came into the world to save sinners.  This is the true Christ and there is none other. I can find plenty of examples for a holy life in Abraham, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul, and other saints. But they cannot forgive my sins. They cannot save me. They cannot procure for me everlasting life. Therefore I will not have you for my teacher, O Satan.” (5:8)


If I ever taught preaching, this would be the set text.  Every week.  Forever.

In ten short pages David Lotz runs through 13 propositions regarding proclamation as God's Word (Dave K summarizes helpfully here).  Then he speaks of the form and content of gospel preaching.  Check out this paragraph for instance:

 Luther envisions an appropriate “rhetoric of preaching” that can only be labelled “kerygmatic discourse.” Such speech does not narrate historical events, instruct in doctrine, describe outward states of affairs (such as “sin” and “grace”), nor exhort to moral activity. It proclaims, announces, declares that God in Christ loves, forgives, accepts you, me, us; and it invites, even incites, the heart’s acceptance of this gift. Such speech takes the objective reality of “God in Christ” and makes (renders) it present and personal: thereby it creates a new reality in my hearing, “God for me,” which through faith (and thus through the Spirit working through that speech) becomes yet another new reality, “God in me.
The whole thing is worth its weight in gold.

Here's a faster edit of my video from a couple of years ago.   Same content, done in 4 minutes rather than 6 and a half.

When I first made the video it was prompted by some TF Torrance stuff I was reading.  It's all about the vicarious humanity of Christ!

But Luther said it long before him.  And recently Mike put me onto his Brief Instruction on What to Look For and Expect in the Gospels (part one, part two - Dave K also blogged on it recently).  It's glorious stuff.  Christ is not fundamentally our Example.  At base He is our Substitute:

Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or a prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered—a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, one this way, another that way. For at its briefest, the gospel is a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a Lord over all things...

...Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws...

...The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself. See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at. This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means. This is why such preaching is called gospel, which in German means a joyful, good, and comforting “message”; and this is why the apostles are called the “twelve messengers.”

Concerning this Isaiah 9[:6] says, “To us a child is born, to us a son is given.” If he is given to us, then he must be ours; and so we must also receive him as belonging to us. And Romans 8[:32], “How should [God] not give us all things with his Son?” See, when you lay hold of Christ as a gift which is given you for your very own and have no doubt about it, you are a Christian. Faith redeems you from sin, death, and hell and enables you to overcome all things. O no one can speak enough about this. It is a pity that this kind of preaching has been silenced in the world, and yet boast is made daily of the gospel.
Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. See, there faith and love move forward, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and a person is happy and fearless to do and to suffer all things. Therefore make note of this, that Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example exercises your works. These do not make you a Christian. Actually they come forth from you because you have already been made a Christian. As widely as a gift differs from an example, so widely does faith differ from works, for faith possesses nothing of its own, only the deeds and life of Christ. Works have something of your own in them, yet they should not belong to you but to your neighbor.

So you see that the gospel is really not a book of laws and commandments which requires deeds of us, but a book of divine promises in which God promises, offers, and gives us all his possessions and benefits in Christ....

...When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him. When you see how he works, however, and how he helps everyone to whom he comes or who is brought to him, then rest assured that faith is accomplishing this in you and that he is offering your soul exactly the same sort of help and favor through the gospel. If you pause here and let him do you good, that is, if you believe that he benefits and helps you, then you really have it. Then Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift...

Read the whole thing (part one, part two).  Well worth the 5 minutes!

It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open its ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent.

But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital?

And yet the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us. For how amazing it is that the Son of God becomes my servant, that He humbles Himself so, that He cumbers Himself with my misery and sin. . . . He says to me: “You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. You have not sinned, but I have. The entire world is in sin. However, you are not in sin; but I am. All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you.”

No one can comprehend this. In yonder life our eyes will feast forever on this love of God.

–Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 22:166-67

ht Dane Ortlund

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.


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


The meaning is in the Scriptures, not conferred on them
Rescuing Scripture from the Magisterium

In Luther's commentary on Genesis he stands against the tradition at key points.  First, we will note this issue of 6-day creation:

Therefore it is necessary to understand these days as actual days, contrary to the opinion of the holy fathers.  Whenever we see that the opinions of the fathers are not in agreement with Scripture, we respectfully bear with them and acknowledge them as our forefathers; but we do not, on their account, give up the authority of Scripture… Human beings can err, but the Word of God is the very wisdom of God and the absolutely infallible truth.

He highlights disagreement with the Vulgate on 3:1 but far more strongly on 3:15:

‘How amazing, how damnable that through the agency of foolish exegetes Satan has managed to apply this passage, which in fullest measure abounds in the comfort of the Son of God, to the Virgin Mary!  For in all the Latin Bibles the pronoun appears in the feminine gender: “And she will crush.”  Even Lyra, who was not unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, is carried away by this error as by a swollen and raging torrent.’

Luther is unhappy in general with the interpretation of 3:15 in history:

‘[this text] should be very well known to everybody… [yet it] was not expounded by anyone carefully and accurately so far as I know… I am speaking of the ancient ones, who are held in esteem because of their saintly life and their teaching.  Among these there is no one who adequately expounded this passage.’

Perhaps then Luther had not read Irenaeus on this. (cf Adv. Her. V.16.3.)  But of course, the Scriptures themselves provided him with great support for such a stand: Genesis 22:18; Habakkuk 3:13; Romans 16:20; Galatians 3:16; 4:4.

Ever since his revolution on Romans 1:17, Luther determined to prefer the plain testimony of the Word to the authority of the fathers.  In opposition to Eck at Leipzig in 1519, Luther proclaimed: ‘a layman who has Scripture is more than Pope or council without it.’

The logic for this is clear – the Church does not beget Scripture, but Scripture begets the Church.  From this the doctrine of sola Scriptura formed one of the true distinctives of Reformation theology.  Scripture alone interprets Scripture.  Clearly Luther listened to the tradition (as the above quotes testify) yet in order to treat Scripture according to its true nature it must have the supremacy.

While this is one of Luther’s greatest triumphs, it also opened the door to unresolved doubt over the canon of Scripture.  As Farrar notes, Luther’s views on the canonicity of various books is uneven to say the least.  He claims that while John’s gospel, Romans and 1st Peter are ‘the right kernel and marrow of all books’, Jude is unnecessary, second-hand, and non-apostolic and James is a ‘right strawy epistle’ which flatly contradicts Paul.  Luther saw Job as a ‘drama in the glorification of resignation’ and that while all the prophets built on the one foundation (Christ), some built only with hay, and stubble!

On Genesis 3:15, Luther allows himself to feel the force of an objection to its Gospel content.  Luther admits that if the challenge were true then ‘Christ would be nothing, and nothing could be proved about Christ by means of this passage.’  For Luther, the integrity of the Scriptures is guaranteed by their proclamation of Christ:

‘There is no doubt that all the Scripture points to Christ alone’ (WA, 10:73);

‘All of Scripture everywhere deals only with Christ’ (WA, 46:414);

‘That which does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if a Peter or a Paul taught it.’ (quoted in Farrar, p335)

‘In the words of Scripture you will find the swaddling clothes in which Christ lies. Simple and little are the swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies in them’ (LW, 35:236).

If Christ were not proclaimed in Genesis we can infer that Luther would have considered the book at least sub-Christian and therefore sub-canonical.

‘This is the true touchstone by which all books are to be judged, when one sees whether they urge Christ or not.’

Thus, in considering this issue of the canon and sola Scriptura, Luther brings sola fides and, most significantly, solus Christus into the centre where it belongs.  The meaning of the Scriptures is in them if by that we mean that their meaning is not externally conferred by pope or council.  But in a deeper sense, the meaning of the Scriptures is outside them since the meaning is Christ - to Whom the Scriptures alone bear witness.

The Church cannot stand above the Bible (as happens either with the Roman magisterium or with modern historical-critical scholars).  However it is not as though the power of authentication lies in any inherent qualities within the Scriptures.  Rather, because they ‘urge Christ’ they are authoritative.  He is the One who stands above the Scriptures and guarantees their authoritative character.

The Bible must be considered as witness to Christ (John 5:39) and only then does it have the self-authenticating power which it claims for itself as God’s Word.

More on this next time...


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)


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