Luther’s Hermeneutics in his Lectures on Genesis

By Alan D. Fürst

One of the most interesting tasks to a reader of Luther’s commentaries on biblical texts is to identify his hermeneutical principles for interpreting the Holy Scriptures. More than very interesting, creative, and valuable comments on the verses found in our Bibles, reading his Lectures can bring a great contribution for interpreters and theologians when considering his posture before the accounts given by the biblical authors.

This short essay considers Luther’s hermeneutical posture in his Lectures on Genesis as found in Volume 1 of the English Series of his works, which comprehends chapters 1-5 of the book of Genesis. All the quotations and references are taken from this volume published in 1958 by Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO.

Submission to the Word

Early in his commentary, Luther presents his hermeneutical principle for interpreting the Holy Scripture which reflects and is firmly grounded in his understanding of the Word of God. Luther sees no reason to complicate the reading of the text beyond what is meant in the writing itself. The simpler, the better.

This leads him to make a strong case against an allegorical reading of the Scripture, which in his opinion leads the reader to an understanding of the text that is not meant by the biblical author. Responding to those who tried to find hidden meanings in the text, Luther writes that “this is toying with ill-timed allegories (for Moses is relating history); it is not interpreting Scripture” (p. 19). What Luther has in mind is that the biblical reader should not try to find some “deeper” meaning for what the text is describing. In fact, Luther continues to say that even if the text presents something difficult to the human mind to understand, the reader of the Scriptures should stick with the meaning of the text rather than find philosophical explanations for them that most often lead the reader astray. An example of such posture before the biblical text and difficult questions that were raised at the time is the creation of light in verse 3 of Genesis 1. Apparently many questioned what kind of light God had created in the first day, and due to such questions some preferred an allegorical reading of such saying, which meant to read some different and easier meaning into the words written in the verse. Before this, Luther writes that

“Although it is difficult to say what sort of light it was, nevertheless I do not agree that we should without reason depart from the rules of language or that we should by force read meanings into words. Moses says plainly that there was light, and he counts this day as the first of the creation.”

Lectures on Genesis, p. 19.

In other words, even though our minds might not understand fully what kind of light was created in that first day, we should not try to find a meaning that differs from such account given by Moses, as if he was trying to hid some deeper meaning into the word “light.” Such move will lead the reader away from the text into philosophical inquiry rather than true interpretation of the biblical account. For Luther, we ought to remain in the text rather than move away from it.

This he emphasizes also later on when clarifying his principle of interpretation of the biblical text in contrast with the philosophical theories about the heavenly bodies. For Luther, the interpreter of the Scripture has to surrender and adapt himself to the terminology used by the Holy Spirit rather than trying to fit the text into the terminology of philosophy. He writes,

“Here I have considered it necessary to repeat the principle I mentioned several times above, namely, that one must accustom oneself to the Holy Spirit’s way of expression. With the other sciences, too, no one is successful unless he has first duly learned their technical language. Thus lawyers have their terminology, which is unfamiliar to physicians and philosophers. On the other hand these also have their own language, which is unfamiliar to the other professions. Now no science should stand in the way of another science, but each should continue to have its own mode of procedure and its own terms.

Thus we see that the Holy Spirit also has His own language and way of expression, namely, that God, by speaking, created all things and worked through the Word, and that all His works are some words of God, created by the uncreated Word. Therefore just as a philosopher employs his own terms, so the Holy Spirit, too, employs His.”

Lectures on Genesis, p. 47.

The point being emphasized here by Luther is the posture of submission before the Word of God written in the Scriptures. According to such posture, one does not look to subdue the biblical account to his or her personal vocabulary or capability of understanding, but rather allows him- or herself to be shaped by the vocabulary and account given by the Holy Spirit through the Holy Word. Otherwise stated, the reader adapts himself to the Text, not the other way around.

This posture presented by Luther towards the text reminds me of Hans Frei’s description of the “reversal of fit” in his classic bookmark, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. Specifically, Luther seems to represent the “premodern” hermeneutical principle that interpreted the world from the perspective of the Scripture instead of interpreting the Scriptures from the perspective of the world. An interpreter of the biblical text adapts himself to the text of the Scriptures, not adapt the text to his own “text.”

The Power of the Word

This submission and trust of the interpreter before the text of the Scripture also shapes Luther’s understanding of the trustworthiness of the Word of God as he considers the work of creation. While no mere human mind could grasp how God could create birds and fishes out of a common material — water — Luther nevertheless applies the above principle and insists that it is exactly that which happened. This because of the power of the Word of God. Even if it is beyond our understanding, God’s Word accomplishes what it says. As Luther states,

“Therefore we must take note of God’s power that we may be completely without doubt about the things which God promises in His Word. Here full assurance is given concerning all His promises; nothing is either so difficult or so impossible that He could not bring it about by His Word. The heaven, the earth, the sea, and whatever is in them prove that this is true.”

Lectures on Genesis, p. 49.

There is nothing too difficult or impossible for the Word of God. Even if the creation of an entire universe seems impossible for our modern minds to grasp or believe, we ought to trust that the Word spoken by God not only informs but also does what it says. The same creative and all-powerful Word that created the whole universe in the beginning also creates a new creation now through Word and Sacrament, and it will also create new heavens and new earth in the Last Day. This might be beyond our understanding, but it is not beyond the power of God’s Word.

This very same principle leads Luther to affirm the work of the Trinity in the creation of heaven and earth, especially the creation of man. When the Scriptures say, “Let Us make man,” Luther rejects the understanding of the Jews and the Turks who interpret this passage as if God is inviting the angels or the earth to make man. Instead, he is certain that “within and in the very Godhead and the Creating Essence there is one inseparable and eternal plurality” (p. 58). God is One and Three. The reason for such certainty is found in his posture towards the biblical text, which once again shapes Luther’s understanding of the text in hand.

“But among us the authority of Scripture is too great [to question the intention of God’s phrase “Let Us make”], especially since the New Testament points this out even more clearly. The Son who is in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18), teaches us the same fact much more clearly; and not to believe Him is the utmost blasphemy and eternal death. Therefore away with those utterly blinded corrupters of the divine doctrines until the time of their judgment!”

Lectures on Genesis, p. 59.

Luther does not question the clear message given in the biblical text. For him, as to the heirs of the Lutheran tradition even today, it is better to trust the Word of God found in the Scriptures than to trust in the theories invented by men. Since only God creates, it is clear that he is speaking among himself about the creation of the human creature. Luther considers this a reference to a conversation between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If the text accounts for that, why should we not trust it?

Genesis: History or Allegory?

In regarding the words of text in Genesis as allegorical or historical, Luther makes it clear that he considers this account to be history. Such emphasis is given in order not to be confused by the allegorical readings of the fathers of the Church. As we read,

“These, then, are all historical facts. This is something to which I carefully call attention, lest the unwary reader be led astray by the authority of the fathers, who give up the idea that this is history and look for allegories. For this reason I like Lyra and rank him among the best, because throughout he carefully adheres to, and concerns himself with, the historical account. Nevertheless, he allows himself to be swayed by the authority of the fathers and occasionally, because of their example, turns away from the real meaning to silly allegories.”

Lectures on Genesis, p. 93.

The prove of such historicity is found not only in the account given in Genesis but the very continued work of God in creation even today. Luther insists that the effectiveness of this Word of God remains until today in the midst of his creation. The spoken Word God uttered when he created the animals continues to create the animals today; the Word that created Adam also created me; the Word of blessing spoken over the creatures remain effective today over the creatures. All these Luther brings forth from his understanding of the creative Word of God in its power to accomplish what it say, specially while insisting that God does not abandon or leaves His creation on its own. Instead, God remains ever active in creation, and His Word continues to create just as it did in the beginning.

“God rested from His work, that is, He was satisfied with the heaven and earth which had then been created by the Word; He did not create a new heaven, a new earth, new stars, new trees. And yet God works till now — if indeed He has not abandoned the world which was once established but governs and preserves it through the effectiveness of His Word. He has, therefore, ceased to establish; but He has not ceased to govern. … Almighty, therefore, is the power and effectiveness of the Word which thus preserves and governs the entire creation.”

Lectures on Genesis, p. 75.

The Creator of the universe is not only He who created once and stopped creating and keeping what was created. Instead, the Creator continues to create and govern this creation through His Word.

Trust and Idolatry

Luther’s deep reverence to the text of the Scriptures leads him to argue that whoever gives up the Word of God and follows his or her thoughts becomes a idolater. This is true even if such person does not worship any idol of wood or stone. The reason is because they make their own thoughts a god and believe themselves rather than the revealed Word of God. In such a case,

“[F]aith has been lost, there follow unbelief and idolatry, which transfer the glory of God to works. Thus the Anabaptists, the Sacramentarians, and the papists are all idolaters — not because they worship stones and pieces of wood, but because they give up the Word and worship their own thoughts.”

Lectures on Genesis, p. 149.

This gives shape to the manner the Reformer deals with his opponents in theological matters. Earlier on his commentary, Luther states that one should deal with the interpretation of the fanatics as to someone who wishes to distort the text in order to blaspheme against God and his Word. Luther writes,

“This is a useful rule whenever one must carry on a discussion with fanatics. For the unwary are deceived when cunning men, according to their habit, switch from the parts to the whole, make use of the fallacy of composition and division, or fail to cite passages in their entirety.”

Lectures on Genesis, p. 108.

On a specific aspect of such idolatry in interpreting the biblical text, Luther observes that the fanatics tend to make use of a particular text without citing the entire passage in order to support their fallacy. By contrast, one should go from the whole to the parts, considering the entirety of the text in order to understand the parts of the same. This hermeneutical principle is commonly seen in difficult passages where much uncertainty remains to the meaning of that particular passage. Instead of applying a fallacy to such difficult passage and move to the whole, a good interpreter of the Scriptures will read and interpret this particular text in light of the whole — that is, in light of other passages that help finding the meaning of an obscure passage.

Final Considerations

Luther presents a deep reverence to the Word of God that reflects a submission to the text written in the biblical account. Such hermeneutical principle led him to adapt himself to the text rather than adapting the text to his personal/human perspective. Such reverence and submission, as well as his trust in the effectiveness and trustworthiness of God’s Word, led him to read the account in Genesis not as fiction or poetry or even as an allegory that pointed to some deeper meaning of the creation of the world. Instead, he read the text as a historical account of how heaven and earth were created, account given by Moses to the uneducated people of his time. Today, this same hermeneutical principle continues to guide those who follow his tradition of biblical interpretation. Even if it is too much for us to understand, we ought to trust that what the Word described is the historical truth of what happened in the beginning of the world. In the midst of so many views that try to lead us away from such perspective and consequently away from the text, Luther’s posture before the Word of God is a good reminder to all theologians and biblical interpreters of how we should portray ourselves as readers of the Holy Scripture — that is, to trust God’s Word rather than our own human thoughts and knowledge. May God grant us such humbleness and wisdom.

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