Full Text for Luther and Higher Criticism (Text)

THE SPRINGFIELDER July 1974 Volume 38, Number 3 Luther and Higher Criticism H IS"I'O14 Y l:I;\II<>lBE:RS J2L':I7I-ilZ13 cl~icfli; for his heroic sta11d OII Scriptt.1~~:. His man!' n ritings (I~O\\ 11c.aring onc 1it111dred volu~nes in tllc \\'eimar ctlition) \.el-if!; the faithfulness and skill 11-ith ~vhich he gnvc Sc:rip~ure's message i~nd meaning. I-l'-lc \\.as an obetlicmt listener to God's \Vord. regarc'lless of an!: assertions (c.g., 11)- Catholic scholal., :(oscph J.,orl L) to the con tra1.y. I,u~.Iicl-'s gc~lius \\-;is 11l.cciscly this, that 11c did not construct a tllcology-, but dutillully played back what hc founc'l in Got1 's i~~spirecl 'iVord. I-,uther's t:~ansl.;lrion of Holy \\irit \vas 11;s n~oqt 11olable achievcmrn 1, iIS nll~losl: c.\8e~.~-onc ngl:ces. 112 fact, pcl.h:ips [I>(: most i.e~~iarliable feat of modcrn timcs--uen rii!aling the: j.rl;lcilig of a lna~ 011 1.11~ moon - --\\:as 1.u tlier's translation of the Nu\: '%'est;~ri~cn~ from the o~:igil~nl G1:ncl; .into Gcrn~an ill the incredible tinie of ten or cle\.en \\'ceIi~. '1;his occur~.ccl durinq tlic ]?el-iod of his "cxilc" at thc \ITai.tbul:g Castle. \\lic.l.c 'I~is l>rj~lce. Elcctor I T;r~dc~.icli the \lTisc, I-i;~d hi0del.l Irim a\va)- f:o~. safe I~CC~I~II~. Toda!. it t-akcs tcan.ls or.' translators vclt1.s LO do \\-hat lL,tttlicr accoml~lished alone Fro111 late Dcccliil~el: 15 2 i to Fchrual.); 15 22, l"'11cn 11c rctl~rned to \\!ir-tcliber.g to clucll thc: ~~prisings \vhich till-catcncd thc populace 11-it-h ii~larcliy; lie acco~l~plishcd this n.i11) eight rc:m;il-1;al)lc serlllons on cigll t consecut.i\.c d;~!;s. Yet? in spi tc of all his unri\;;~llc.ci Script.~i~:al attajni11c:nts. scarcel! ;~II\(II~c' is s~iorc ~~scd and niisused in his statcn~c~lts co11ce~:ning the .;ac~-cil test. \\ hich 11c called "thc Mol) Spil-~L'S b~oli.'' EI CII lititheran ~l~c.olog>. it:sclf';~ntl 12utl~cran c:huscl~~s, notal,l!; 1-11c 1,~1theran Church.- l,lii%o~~l..i S!.110(1 ill tl~c ];)st >,ear, are sl~lit l~et\\;cen so-callcd "modcra tc" (01. I~l)cr.;~l ) i~rltl c.ol~sc:r.\.ati\;(: po1c:s. h lodc~.il~cs tlig around in 12i~tl\c~. 1'01- ~icll~its i~it('ntlcd to clisi~buse minds of the idea that Lutlicr was heltl I,\ tI)(: t.cst of 1loly Scripture: conservat-ives point to a J,uthcr \vho ii.iis Fol.c\.cl- tlofing his hat to the Holy Spirit and I-lis Inspired St:i.ipt~l~.c.s uilli 111c ;~dmonition, "Do the Holy Spjrit thc liono~: of acl~i~itrin:,! l.ll;lr llc is mol-c l(:iir~.i(:cl t.Ii;in )OLI."! "\T'ol.lld 1-utllcs bc ;rllo\\ c~.l lo l.c>itc.ll ;II hlisso~r~.i's sc~uinnl.ic:s?" ~llodcl.;~tcs jilx, ~>~>i,cl~ill! $inc.c ho is ~.cpol.tctl to Ila.i,e been the fastest hand a~ shoolil.~g (lo-\-\-n chcr-lsliccl I)itssilgcs ili the Biblc, in fact \\;llc,le books? Getzc?sis: lrrriulr: !e7.i.'11/i(7l/. ,/oh,, JOJ~~CS, JII~C, Re~:elatioll, Hebr.c~~-s, \\;lliche\.c:r Ibook uric cares to nalllc. soli~ebody is sure to quote the arcat Iicformei- in some ;I~?JXISUII~~ clc\;~s~;~~.ing, col-i~promising coinmcnt about the booli's :~t~tliol., autlic~~ticit\. co~~tent, or overall value. Perhaps, as long as nlo(1c1.n "~I.~~IIIcIs" ;rre [ivii:ling the crystal I>a11? the cluestior~ ougl~t: rnt1ic1- to bcb \\.II~IJI~,I. I.,t~tl~el: \\.auld 11.~72~ to teach at a scli~iiiar!., i\ilicthc:r in this coL1nll.y 01: abroad, if il Irlckcd, or failed to put its 111011c:\ \1,11crc: it:s mouth is in sul-~port of', clear-cut, unambiguous, i1ncj~1ostioncc.l 13i blic.:il at.~~hor-i~j.. 13iit, franlil!., \\.II;II: arc st1(;11 l~!.pothctical cluestions 1i.ol-tI1 any- way? \\'ho js going to ;Insi\.er ~llcn~? At best the!; arc acaclemic: dcsi:ncd to titillate, or irt, the l~roverbial itching ears, bat liroviny nothing. All kinds of dubious probings of this type- really innuei~does--s~\i:irn~ around a controversial figure like 1,uther. \.Vas Luther a nleataJIy clisturbed youth? Erilc Erikson .tr;rote a ~,vhole book on the subject (You~lg Ma12 I.zirher) and proved nothing. It is difficult to psychoanalyze a dead man-dead 428 years. A new field in history, psychohistory, de.c,otcd to psycho-analysis of historical personages is opening up. Yet psychiatrists adiuittedlv have enough trouble with the live spccirnens, including even themsell-es, without disturbing the dead. What were Luther's pll!jsical ailn~ents? Gastro- intestinal complications? If you believe John Osbornc (J,rither-, a pliry), constjpation n.as the 1x\; to Luther's life and worl;, pressing him to sorlle of his grcatest accomplishments. \+'hat next? Luther's interpreters colne a dime a dozen. Man! of: them are seetlpickers-better, nitpickers. Here and there they find a morsel, suiting their fancy, their preconceivecl notions, under- girding something they ~?i;unted to prove all the while anyway. And so, witIlorlt bothering to read him at length, or in context, the): pontificate broadly, "Luther sa>.s so and so . . .," and then feel that he has helpect them close the gap in tlmeir favor. It used to be that debunliing came only from the side of tliose who opposed Luther. T\vo star performers were the IZon~an Catholic historians Grisar and Denifle. In recent ye:~i-s, however, liomanist scholars, e.g., Joseph Lortz, have followed a considerably softer and generally fairer line of appraisal. But history plays its tricks. Now it is criclcet for 1-hose who claim to espouse him, Tduther's own namesakes no less, to get into the act. To prove what? That he had feet of clay-and no halo around his head? Great guns! Did anyone .really need proof of that? I can cite a dozen places without further ado, where he hirnself tells us what a ~naggoty bag of worms he is. But there is something particularly unrvelcome about what is going on now in the name of 1-uther stud>--especially on the part of Lutherans who try to justify their surrender to nco-Protestant liberal views on Scripture under the convenient cover of Luther-isms! Not onlv is this procedure unwelcome, but terribly unfair to I,uther. An artidc of this length scarcely suffices ro scratch the surface of the vast amount of material, but a few pertinent exanlplcs rnay help. 'iIJhat is happening, after all, is no parochial phenomenon. Xt is a symptom of the wide-spread infection and ennui that has spread through all of Christianity with respect to the concept of the Iloly Scriyturcs as thc inspired IVord of God. Back in the hot summer of 19 7 3, on July 24, immediately following the historic, turbulent con- vention of the Missouri Synod, in New Orleans, where conservative delegates won the battle for the Word, the St. Louis faculty ~najority (now knotvn as Seminex, Concordia Seminary in Exile, since their walk-out in January 1974) issued a protest statement which con- cluded by purportedlv quoting from Luther's world-famous treatise, The Frecrlom of LZ ~1z;istiall. We confess an open Bible unfettered by any human rules. With Luther we "acknowledge no fixed rules for the interpretn- tion of the MJord of Godn-whether Ilistorical-critical, gram- matical-critical, or any other-"since the Word of God, which teaches freedom in all other matters, rnr~st not be bound."" Now let's set the record straight. First, it should be noted that the words in quotation marks are not, as stated, from Luther's treatise itself on Christian liberty. They are actually from Luther's accom- panying letter to Pope Leo X, to whom he is appealing for help against his (Luther's) detractors and maligners.The year is 1520, just one year before Luther's heroic stand at the Diet of \Yor~lls. Once again Luther is saving what by this time he has said several tin~es over, that his conscience will be held and bound by no higher authoritv than the written Vi'ord of God, Holy Scripture, which .is its own best jn terpreter. Second, to put historical-critical methodology on the same line or in the same ball park with historical-grammatical Biblical inter- pretation is unscholarly, if not to say dishonest. The latter method of Bible interpretation, really the Bible's own, is helpful and good when properly used. Luther used it; conservative Bible scholars, con~mitted likewise to Scripture's inspiration and inerrancy, still use it. But the former, the historical-critical. methodology, is the basis on which the Bible in our clay has been torn apart. The difference be- tween the two is like that between fighting a fire with gasoline or fighting it with water. Everyone knows the difference. Luther would have had none of that freedom! Third, the "fixed rules of interpretation" which LLI ther is reject- ing are thosc of Scholasticism, approved by the Rom;lnist church at the time, by which every passage of Scripture was pot through the arbitrary sic'ire of allegorical interpretation. Every verse'of Scripture was lield to have f(:)ur meanings: literal, moral, allegorical, heavenly or spiritual. Thc distortions of Scripture's plain and intended sense were gross, incredibly twisted. Luther's judgment can be shown to apply to all brands of subjectivism, no matter what its cloak, because it lords itself over Scripture and its clear sense. But Luther never-to repeat, never-clisavowed the evident and fixctl ruIes of interpretation which Scripture itself demanded (like any other written document). Sinlply put, and to sul~~marize Luther, the rule is this: I) Scripture is an eminently clear book, which recluires no interpreter; because 2) it is its own best interpreter. even as it authenticates itself best of all, better than all books that are written about it; and so 3) if one will but "give a thought to the actual text, and to that which precedes and follows thc word, from ~vhich our undcrstanding of it must be sought" (the context, in other tvords), one will knon its meaning exactly.' Luther tacitly assunles, of course, that the reader of Scripture has command of the language and the rules of grammar (preferably, if possible, the Bible's original Hebrew and Greek). He is aware of the usual. so-called "Bible diffi- culties," but refuses to be diverted by them from trust in Scripture's trustworthiness, convinced for himself that solutions lie nearby, and if not now, then eventually in &ory. It is a desperate kind of theo- logizing, therefore, which quotes Luther out of context and implies Luthcl- And Niglter Criticism --------- . -- 215 - that there are no iised rules for Scriptural interpretation. 'The are Scripture's! Luther certainly did not suggest that "freedom ill the GosllelJ1 lets every man find whatever meaning he can in Scripture. That would be lo reintroduce the allegoriz.ing, or (rn0dern-day) demythologizing, technique which makes interpretation a highly sub- jective enterprise and often ends by making tales out of I1istorical facts. Everyone ]mows that the Biblical field is strewn with nulnerous casualties as a result of suc'h methodology-and all in the llame of scientific theologizing. Finally even the resurrection of Christ itself is not safe. Let us loolt more closely at some of the tidbits that are quoted against TJutherls actuallv solid Scriptural 'stance. Thev rang& such claims as "Job mas not a real person in Luther's' thinking," to the more familiar, "I.,uther favored discarding certain books of the Bible." The first clainl is really a nlinuscule point; but debunkers of Luther's solid Scriptural-stance like to cite it, claiming that he con- sidered Job to be a lnythological figure like Aeneas. What is the answer? Here are the facts from Luther's own writings: Job was a real,, historical person, who apparently hailed from ilfIesopotail~ia in Syria;'. of either Esau's or Nahor's' line;6 from around Solomon's time.i It was Luther's co~lsidered judgment that the book which bears Job's name, and gives the story of his life, was written by an extremely good theolog~an, perhaps Sol~mon;~ that it capsules Job's thoughts, if not his exact spoken words;Vhat it affords sufferers, eslxciall!; Christian bclievers, a most valuable cons~lation;'~ that it attests the resurrection Inore eloquently than any otlier Old Testament book;" and that, while it is very difficult to translate from the Hebre~v,'Qt is one of the most beautiful books in the Old Testanlent from a literary standpoint. At one place in his Table Talk1': Lutlier is quoted as comparing the account of Job to Vergil's epic treatment of Aeneas' trials and tribulations. This is the point at wllich some sleuthing scholars venture to say, "Aha, Luther did not think of Job as an actually historical l>erson." As a matter of fact, however, and in view of all the evidence (some of it cited above), the suggestion that for Luther Job was not a real person is a shallow attempt to discredit him and his confidence in Scripture's text, which itself places Job in historical parameters. Let us proceed then, to the second question, concerning Lather's 'attitude toward the books of Scripture. If and when Luther expressed himself critically (as he did at times-at first, more so; towards the end of his life, less so) on any book in our canon of Old and New Testament books, it is good to keep in mind some basic ground rules: First, we do not have to defend or explain every last one of Luther's comments, some of them made off the ~roverbial cuff. No one has ever clain~ed divine inspiration for Luther, least of all he himself. The amazing thing really, in view of the mountains of nlatcrial gathered in the many volumes of Table Talk by reporters who were constantly at his elbow, is that there is not more to embar- rass him. He was an amazingly steady and consistent thinlcer7 even in these off -the-cuff remarks. Second, and most important, almost all of these comments by I'uther, which arc cluoted against him advcrscly, Icavc an entirel~: diffcl-ent impression when seen in context. liuther was an estremelg well-balanced theologian, perhaps the only rcally great Dil~Xe cosmo- politan of the mo('lcl-n era, and he LIIIIYE~S rctai~~erl the highest 1:egard for (dl of Script~~re. The book of liebrc~~!s is a classic cs;~l~~ple. I-Jc lec- turecl on this epistle at the University of IVitt-enbcrg early in his career, 15 17- 15 18, and with deepest cipprcciation for its rich content, es~~eciall). chapter 11 on the lleroes of faith1.'-this ill spit-e of the fact that lie was ful.ly aware of Hehre~c:~' disputed position in the canon, because its author could not be finnly identifiecl and established ;IS al~ostolic. Tliirtl. thcrcforc, ne\lcr (lid liuthcr ,ictually frcl con~petcnt to lcavc nn1. bool; out of the Bible as n~c todav have it, not even such 1)ool;s as'~cbreu:s, Jzrde, James, Her7elatiorz, tor rvhich thcrc are some cidlnit-tecl (by it11 scholars) diiliculties in tracing back the historical chain clinching their apostolicity. For the fact Is (and I..,uthe~- 1Ives," sairs Luther in Against 1,ntowzus." I1lle cbii~:i:h does, i~lilerd, stili need the to,lcl~stoiic of Holy Scri1,t:urc. That is Ilon- t-hc Ileforination Co11f~ssioi1s looked upon it allcl thrit is ~vhat: thcv callcd it.'?A touchstone, n flint-lilie stone, sifted genuine froin dounterfeit gold; when a pure gold object was rubbed across it a gold streak sl~o\~led plainly. For Luther it was Holy ' Scripture alone \vhich was the touchstone by which "the church judges that this doctrine is correct and that doctrine false, and that this Inan js i> heretic and teaches falsehood" and that man the truth.'!' Schismatics, higher critics, liberals, "n~oclerates," with their vauntcti frcc.clom-of-thc Gospel fonnula, cannot claim Luther for their c]~an~pi(:n! Luther ple:~tls with them, rather, as he pleaded with I