Luther’s Interpretation of Scripture: Biblical Understanding in Trinitarian Shape

sub_of_faith.jpgBielfeldt, Dennis, Mickey L. Mattox, and Paul R. Hinlicky.

The Substance of the Faith: Luther’s Doctrinal Theology for Today

Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2008. Pp. vii + 214. Paper. $23.00.

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In the first chapter of The Substance of Faith, Mickey L. Mattox seeks to show the reader the Christocentric Trinitarianism of Luther’s interpretation of Scripture.  He breaks down the chapter into five brief sections:

  1. Luther as an Interpreter of the Bible [p. 14-33]
  2. The Substance of Scripture: Teaching the Traditions of the Trinitarian Faith [p. 33-37]
  3. Taking the Fathers’ Exegesis a Step Further: Sarah, Abraham, and the Holy Trinity [p. 37-45]
  4. The Substance of Scripture: Old Man Luther’s Parting Exegetical Advice [p. 45-56]
  5. Conclusion: The Substance of Faith, the Substance of Holy Scripture [p. 56-57]

As someone who has hardly read anything that Luther has written I was very pleased to learn from Mattox’s introductory paragraph that:

Knowledge of the triune God, on Martin Luther’s account, is what Holy Scripture gives. At the same time, knowledge of the triune God is the means by which alone one reads and understands the Scriptures aright. [p. 12]

It has long been my contention that an encounter with the triune God has to reshape the way we interpret Scripture.  Mattox also says that: “the doctrine of the Trinity–or, better, living faith in the God Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–stands at the very heart of [Luther’s] tradition and example.” [p. 14]  So it is no surprise that Mattox believes that modern scholars are misguided when they take the doctrine of justification as the first and central truth in Luther’s system of theology.  He says that this “sadly underestimates the centrality of the trinitarian faith in Luther’s theology as a whole.” [p. 16]

In taking a brief look at Luther’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed Mattox says:

[T]he starting place for Luther’s trinitarian theology is the work and person of the Redeemer . . . the knowledge of God for Luther is grounded first, last, and always in the humanity of Christ. [. . .] The ministry of the Holy Spirit is the starting point of Christian faith and life, for the Spirit brings the Christian to Christ and through Christ reveals the love of the Father. [. . .] What makes the church indispensable for salvation, then, is precisely the Spirit’s presence, for it is within the church that the Spirit united believers “in one faith, mind, and understanding.” [. . .] But to know God either as benevolent Father or as redeeming Son requires that one be brought ever and again into the holy Christian church by the ministry of the Spirit… [p. 20-21]

It is interesting to see how the Son is central to the knowledge of God, and the Spirit is central to the Church’s faith and life, yet we aren’t told exactly what (or even if) the Father is central for.  I’d be very interested to learn more about this, if, in fact, there is anything more to learn.  Perhaps one of the other two authors will address this in the subsequent chapters.

Mattox takes a few pages to talk about Luther and the Bible with reference to the critical tools that Luther used, such as Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum and Annotationes, as well as Luther’s relationship to the original languages.  I was not aware that Luther taught himself Hebrew or that he closed his career out lecturing about Genesis.  I did know that he spent quite some time preparing a German translation of the Bible, but apparently he was also an innovator with regard to the manner in which he had the Bible printed.  Mattox says:

When Luther began his early lectures on Paul’s writings, he arranged with the Wittenberg publisher Grünenberg to have the biblical text printed in the manner of the glossed medieval Bible, but without the standard medieval apparatus1[. . .] His students began, in other words, with the bare biblical text in hand, but with sufficient space between the lines and around the margins to take down verbatim Luther’s brief textual remarks (glosses) as well as his lengthier theological analyses (scholia). [p. 23-24]

I guess we can say that Luther was responsible for the first wide margin Bible. -D

Mattox moves on to Luther’s anti-Judaism, and is very careful to note that it should be rejected by all, although it wasn’t so uncommon in Luther’s day.  In Mattox’s judgment it is wrong to anachronistically hold Luther to the same standard as moderns.  This does not excuse in any way, shape, or form, Luther’s demonizing of the Jews or his invective against them, but he was not privy to the same information and cultural sensitivities that we are.  Of Luther’s positive contribution Mattox says:

Luther read and interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures as a Christian on behalf of Christian students and readers, and it is precisely here in his argument for trinitarian and christological exegesis–and not in his argument against the Jews–that we discover his genius as an expositor and his positive potential for today. [p. 31]

When turning to the substance of Scripture, Mattox outlines how for Luther, it was trinitarian.  He uses Luther’s interpretation of Genesis 1:26 as an example of his trinitarian exegesis before moving onto Luther’s view of the outward (von aussen), i.e. economic, and inward (von innen), i.e. essential/immanent, Trinity.  Luther recognized one essence and three Persons.  Mattox tells us that:

[F]or Luther the doctrine of the Trinity is grounded in God’s creative, redemptive, and sanctifying work in human history. The knowledge of God is trinitarian with respect to its ontological ground, to the structure of God’s self-revelation in history, and to the reality of Christian experience. [p. 37]

If not carefully qualified though, this could lead to a modalistic view of the Trinity, as is often the danger with Western trinitarianism.  We’re taken back to Luther’s trinitarian exegesis, but this time we see how Luther stood on apostolic exegesis, and sought to improve it.  Taking Genesis 18:1-15 as his example, Mattox shows how Justin Martyr and Irenaeus interpreted the passage as a Christophany, in which the Son came to visit Abraham with two angels.

Luther, however, following Ambrose and Augustine, took the interpretation of this passage a step further in asserting that all three persons of the Trinity were present in the three angels.  For Luther the text wasn’t to be interpreted as mere allegory,  as if a trinitarian reading violated the history of the text.  Mattox says that “Luther relates trinitarian interpretation to the “hidden sense” (occultus sensus) of the text, a meaning to which the reader is alerted by attending to grammar and typology but that also reveals the truth about what happened at the oaks of Mamre.” [p. 42]  He then outlines three crucial distinctions that Luther employs in his exegesis:

  1. The distinction between argument and adornment (i.e., the distinction between dialectic and rhetoric).
  2. The distinction between the historical meaning (historica sententia, historicus sensus) and its hidden meaning (occultus sensus).
  3. The distinction between what is reasonable and persuasive to those inside the household of faith and what is reasonable and persuasive to those outside the household of faith.

It is with these distinctions that he defended the patristic interpretation of the text.  I’m of the opinion that Justin Martyr and Irenaeus had the correct interpretation, this is what is explicit in the text itself.  Anything past that is reading a bit too much into what we have in front of us, although I certainly understand the desire and tendency to do such.

But as an old man Luther went beyond the fathers with regard to 2Samuel 23 in a work called “On the Last Words of David.”  Luther believed that with the resurgence of the knowledge of the Hebrew language, he was able to catch things that the fathers were not with regard to Scripture since they had read it in Greek or Latin translation.  But at the same time “Luther believed he had to refute the “judaizing” interpretations he saw developing among Christian expositors.” [p. 49]

Mattox says that Luther viewed Moses as a Christian and in doing so considered all Jews and “Christian Hebraists who failed sufficiently to factor Christian truth into their interpretation” as “false interpreters” spreading “sheer lies.” [p. 49-50]  Luther argued that Christians have the true meaning of the Bible because they have the New Testament.

Luther noted the titles used in 2Samuel 23:2-3: “the Spirit of the Lord,” “the God of Israel,” and “the Rock of Israel” but didn’t use these as his main argument for a trinitarian reading.  Instead he appealed mainly to the New Testament and other Old Testament texts which he had drawn the hidden meaning out of.  This was another example of Luther’s focus on the “rhetorical meaning as opposed to the dialectical teaching.” [p. 53]

Mattox concludes the chapter by saying:

In the end, then, Luther’s trinitarian reading of the Old Testament as found in “On the Last Words of David” was grounded not in grammatical or historical interpretation but, as suggested above, in a distinctive use of the regula fidei, that is, in the exegetical application of the faith that grasps and knows the triune God, the very same faith Luther had sought to instill and encourage through his Large Catechism. [p. 56]

For me this chapter was nothing but educational, but then again, I have no basis by which to judge its accuracy.  What I can say is this, I found Mattox to be an able writer, who expresses himself clearly and makes his subject matter interesting to read about.


1“[T]hat is, without either the “interlinear glosses” in a small type printed at the center of the page between the lines of biblical text, or the “marginal glosses” in large type arranged in columns at the sides of the biblical text, in which the collective exegetical wisdom of the church fathers and medievals was traditionally set forth.” [p. 23]

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