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Luther on Scripture 1 – The Meaning is Literal

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.

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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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0 thoughts on “Luther on Scripture 1 – The Meaning is Literal

  1. Heather

    I think you lost me.

    Would it be appropriate to summarize your thoughts by saying that both a literal/historical interpretation and a symbolic/allegorical one are vital elements of scripture...

    but, each facet is dependent on the other in order for the reader to truly make sense of either?

    I ask because I know it's possible to steer so far into the literal path that the spiritual meaning gets lost. Marriage as a creation ordinance comes to mind, as many Christians focus on that as a foundational human relationship because God ordained it from the beginning...but the teaching and exhortation concerning marriage stays focused on the human relationship, rather than the on God intends it to represent.

  2. Bror Erickson

    Not to speak for Glen, but that was not at all what I got out of that Heather, and I don't think that was Luther's position at all either.
    The meaning is literal, unless otherwise indicated. Sometimes though for reason of "revelation" and the fundamentalists' inability to understand the figurative, or coded language there we will say the plain sense.
    Luther was combating the idea that there are "four meanings to a text." And not paying any attention to the plain meaning or the "literal."
    I think Glen's next post when he tackles the idea of Scripture interpreting scripture will probably help you out in your concerns about marriage etc. Not saying he tackles that per se, but applying it to the passages you are concerned about may help.
    Of course, your statement "I ask because I know it’s possible to steer so far into the literal path that the spiritual meaning gets lost." assumes that there must be a spiritual meaning apart from the literal or plain sense meaning, and then you begin to second guess scripture. It begs the whole question, is there a spiritual meaning at all? What prompts you to think there is? Is it Scripture or your need to read something into scripture that you don't find there? How do you determine what the "spiritual meaning" is? Too often this becomes just reason to ignore scripture all together.

  3. Heather

    Hey Bror,

    How've you been?

    Thanks for the response.

    This
    Luther was combating the idea that there are “four meanings to a text.” And not paying any attention to the plain meaning or the “literal.”

    brings clarification to what I was wondering. I wasn't so much trying to challenge Luther's view as I was attempting to understand what was being said about it here.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the literal meaning is essential and we need to take seriously what is written. And I know Luther was up against some seriously wrong re-working of Scripture in his day. Seems this is something all believers in all eras need to guard against, yes?

    Of course, your statement “I ask because I know it’s possible to steer so far into the literal path that the spiritual meaning gets lost.” assumes that there must be a spiritual meaning apart from the literal or plain sense meaning, and then you begin to second guess scripture.It begs the whole question, is there a spiritual meaning at all? What prompts you to think there is?

    Actually, I do understand that sometimes there is no hidden spiritual meaning and I'm fine with that. So no, I'm not assuming that there must always be something else that needs to be unearthed via weird interpretive methods.

    For the record, I prefer to let scripture interpret itself, as well.

    Thanks again,

    Heather

  4. Heather

    Actually, I do understand that sometimes there is no hidden spiritual meaning

    Before this statement causes undue concern, I want to say that I don't read my Bible with the intention of finding "new" information that was previously hidden from everyone else.

    By "hidden", I only meant that which is able to be scripturally confirmed but not readily obvious to a casual reader of the text.

  5. Heather

    Thanks Glen,

    From your link:

    This means that the law on polygamy, the law on taking interest, the laws and theft and murder and etc., first reveal Christ – and I mean that it reveals to us the person of Christ directly (and his relationship with his people), not just stuff about the ethics for his people.

    ...helps a lot...
    the OT first reveals to us the person of Christ.

    That's what I thought your perspective is.
    Just wanted to verify that's what you are saying that Luther said. I wasn't following your post very well.

    Hope your Sunday has been pleasant.

  6. John B

    Hey Glen,

    The links to the original paper aren't working for me. This is a really good topic. Would like to get back to the original if it's still up.

  7. Hiram

    I agree with Luther, but I think there should some clarification. I mean this: How would we classify typological interpretation? Typology is not literal, but is, after a manner, a way of interpreting the prophetico-symbolic significance of literal events. Also, what do we do with statements that refer to Christ, in Old Testament prophecy, but call Him "My Servant DAVD." This is not to be taken literally. I haven't read much Luther, so I'm just wondering about where he would stand on these things...How would he classify typology and symbolic prophecies (cf. Ezekiel 37:24-28)?

    I was listening to the White Horse Inn the other day, and they made the claim that the only valid types are those that Scripture openly identifies as types, but then went on to say that Christ is proclaimed even in the Wisdom books. The problem is: Where is Christ literally in the book of Proverbs? If they say that Wisdom is a type of Christ, they would be contradicting their own hermeneutic, since the NT doesn't openly identify Wisdom as a type of Christ. And what about the Song of Solomon? In what literal/historical sense does the book have to do with Christ, seeing as it is a story about love that seems to not really have very strong pinnings in any given historical event in the OT?

    Didn't Christ say that ALL of Scripture spoke of His dying and rising - i.e. the Gospel?

    I dunno....

    -h.

  8. Bror Erickson

    Hiram,
    I'm guessing Glen's upcoming posts will deal with that question further.
    But the idea that the only types that are valid are the ones explicitly made in the New Testament is a reaction to allegorical interpretation, I tend to think an over reaction.
    There has though been some bad typological interpretations made, and I can be sympathetic to that view.
    As Christ says that the scriptures bear witness to him, and the idea of scripture interpreting scripture, will then have an influence in how you start interpreting scripture and what you see as the plain sense of it.
    It is not the same as searching behind every passage with origin looking for a moral and spiritual interpretation. It is letting the natural interpretation of scripture guide you as you read it.

  9. Glen

    Hi Hiram,

    In addition to the link I gave in the above comment - this article by Nathan Pitchford is just excellent:

    https://christthetruth.net/2009/03/07/the-literal-is-the-christocentric/

    The literal *is* the Christo-centric. And there are some good quotes in that article to that effect.

    It's not as though the "literal" means some neutral moralistic/theistic bedrock to which Christ must be added. That's such an enlightenment kind of approach. Instead the bible is just obviously testimony to Christ, to think of a level of interpretation that is somehow sub-Christian would be unthinkable.

    Therefore "DAVID" in Scripture always has that True David in mind. This is obvious from the lofty ways David is spoken of even in the OT - both during and after his lifetime. The *Christian* interpretation of DAVID is not a subsequent layer to add but something inherent in who David has always represented.

    That's my brief stab at it. But go and read Nathan - it's really good.

  10. pgjackson

    To poke my neb in,

    Another way of saying this

    'Therefore “DAVID” in Scripture always has that True David in mind. This is obvious from the lofty ways David is spoken of even in the OT – both during and after his lifetime. The *Christian* interpretation of DAVID is not a subsequent layer to add but something inherent in who David has always represented.'

    is to say that history itself is typological. Perhaps the problem with the allegorical approach is that it wants to have the symbolic/ pattern-oriented aspect of typology but wants somehow to divorce it from history, from events, grammar etc.

    Leithart is really good on this in the introduction to his commentary on Samuel ('A son to me'), if anyone is interested.

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