Luther, Theological Interpretation, & Lively Rhetoric

I’m working on my paper for the St. Andrews Galatians conference in which I’ll include a small section hoping to clarify that Luther’s Galatians commentary is more concerned with theological interpretation than historical description.  It is much more like Barth’s Romans commentary than a pure biblical studies commentary focused merely on historical-critical exegesis.

Barth certainly appears to see it that way.  He regarded the historical-critical work in the text as necessary but only preliminary to “the understanding of the Epistle.”  He explains what he means with reference to Luther’s and Calvin’s work.

“By genuine understanding and interpretation I mean that creative energy which Luther exercised with intuitive certainty in his exegesis” (p. 7).

Barth notes “how energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent!  Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears.  The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and to-day becomes impossible” (p. 7).

At any rate, I’m trying to set Luther’s “exegesis” in a more favorable light for my biblical studies friends.

Passages like the following, however, don’t make my task any easier.  But they do make reading the Galatians commentary exciting!

[T]herefore the Anabaptists themselves are all bastards, and their parents were all adulterers, and whoremongers; and yet they do inherit their parents’ lands and goods, although they grant themselves to be bastards, and unlawful heirs.  Who seeth not here, in the Anabaptists, men not possessed with devils, but even devils themselves possessed with worse devils?

7 thoughts on “Luther, Theological Interpretation, & Lively Rhetoric

  1. Michael Pahl

    Sounds like some of the things people in Jesus’ day said about him. Which, I’m sure, made all those following-in-the-way-of-Jesus Anabaptists pretty happy. It certainly justified including Martin on their list of “persecutors to pray for.” 🙂

    As a side note, the Lutheran World Federation recently sought the forgiveness of the Mennonite World Conference for past Lutheran persecution of Mennonites, which the Mennonites readily extended.

  2. mwesterholm

    John Webster wrote an interesting discussion/defense of the Römerbrief as a commentary. It’s a chapter in Greenman and Larsen’s “Reading Romans through the centuries: from the early church to Karl Barth.” It might stir some thinking . . . .

  3. S Wu

    This is most interesting, Tim. When I read the quote, I thought of biblical scholars who are Mennonites. I wondered what Michael Pahl would say. Great conversation! (By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed Michael’s From Resurrection to New Creation and The Beginning and the End.)

    Love to hear more about your take on Galatians, Tim.

  4. Daniel B

    This post intrigued me, so I did a little looking and found a few things I thought were interesting… I believe Timothy Machke and Gordon L. Isaac would agree with Barth. From the essay collection: “Ad fonts Lutheri:Toward the Recovery of the Real Luther, (2001). Gordon L. Isaac sums the present ideas of Luther as a Biblical expositor into three catergories: “the first hereneutician, as biblical humanist, or as Catholic (one could read this, monastic) theologian.” He explains that Luther’s method should not be confused to correspond with “current hermeneutical principles, built as they are on metholodologies of textual and literary criticism…” Isaac says that the emerging image is viewing his work as a whole as a theologian. Timothy Maschke argues that his hermeneutical perspective could be called a “hermeneutic of contemporaneity.” Speaking of the Galatians commentary Maschke says, “Although he acknowledges that Paul was writing to the Galatians, Luther recognizes that Paul was also speaking a contemporary word to Luther’s own time (p175).” On (p181) quoting Scott Hendrix, “Luther was unwilling to make the sharp distinction encouraged by modern criticism between what the text meant and what it means. He did not ignore this distinction and could leave the meaning of a text at the level of historical or theological analysis. At the same time, he often utilized personal experience and his diagnosis of the contemporary church to make the text speak immediately to his own day and thus to reveal its meaning.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s