Monday, October 30, 2017

Martin Luther’s work from 1512–1517

Following up on some thoughts of mine to the effect that we ought to be thinking about a Reformation Season, I wanted to post some background information about Martin Luther. Much of this is something that many of us are familiar with, but as well, in the spirit of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, you’re never too advanced to remember to practice the fundamentals.

Luther combined the threefold office of sub-prior, preacher and professor. He preached both in his convent and in the town-church, sometimes daily for a week, sometimes thrice in one day, during Lent in 1517 twice everyday. He was supported by the convent. As professor he took no fees from the students and received only a salary of one hundred guilders, which after his marriage was raised by the Elector John to two hundred guilders.

He first lectured on scholastic philosophy and explained the Aristotelian dialectics and physics. But he soon passed through the three grades of bachelor, licentiate, and doctor of divinity (October 18th and 19th, 1512), and henceforth devoted himself exclusively to the sacred science which was much more congenial to his taste. Staupitz urged him into these academic dignities, and the Elector [Frederick the Wise] who had been favorably impressed with one of his sermons, offered to pay the expenses (fifty guilders) for the acquisition of the doctorate. Afterward in seasons of trouble Luther often took comfort from the title and office of his doctorate of divinity and his solemn oath to defend with all his might the Holy Scriptures against all errors. He justified the burning of the Pope’s Bull in the same way. But the oath of ordination and of the doctor of theology implied also obedience to the Roman church (ecclesiae Romanae obedientiam) and her defence against all heresies condemned by her.

With the year 1512 his academic teaching began in earnest and continued till 1546, at first in outward harmony with the Roman church, but afterward in open opposition to it.

He was well equipped for his position, according to the advantages of his age, but, very poorly, according to modern requirements, as far as technical knowledge is concerned. Although a doctor of divinity, he relied for several years almost exclusively on the Latin version of the Scriptures. Very few professors knew Greek, and still less, Hebrew. Luther had acquired a superficial idea of Hebrew at Erfurt from Reuchlin’s Rudimenta Hebraica. The Greek he learned at Wittenberg, we do not know exactly when, mostly from books and from his colleagues, Johann Lange and Melanchthon. As late as Feb. 18th, 1518, he asked Lange, “the Greek,” a question about the difference between ἀνάθημα and ἀνάθεμα, and confessed that he could not draw the Greek letters. His herculean labor in translating the Bible forced him into a closer familiarity with the original languages, though he never attained to mastery. As a scholar he remained inferior to Reuchlin or Erasmus or Melanchthon, but as a genius he was their superior, and as a master of his native German he had no equal in all Germany. Moreover, he turned his knowledge to the best advantage, and always seized the strong point in controversy. He studied with all his might and often neglected eating and sleeping.

Luther opened his theological teaching with David and Paul, who became the pillars of his theology. The Psalms and the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians remained his favorite books. His academic labors as a commentator extended over thirty-three years, from 1513 to 1546, his labors as a reformer embraced only twenty-nine years, from 1517 to 1546. Beginning with the Psalms, 1513, he ended with Genesis, November 17th, 1545) three months before his death.

His first lectures on the Psalms are still extant and have recently been published from the manuscript in Wolfenbüttel. They are exegetically worthless, but theologically important as his first attempt to extract a deeper spiritual meaning from the Psalms. He took Jerome’s Psalter as the textual basis; the few Hebrew etymologies are all derived from Jerome, Augustin (who knew no Hebrew), and Reuchlin’s Lexicon. He followed closely the mediaeval method of interpretation which distinguished four different senses, and neglected the grammatical and historical interpretation. Thus Jerusalem means literally or historically the city in Palestine, allegorically the good, tropologically virtue, anagogically reward; Babylon means literally the city or empire of Babylon, allegorically the evil, tropologically vice, anagogically punishment. Then again one word may have four bad and four good senses, according as it is understood literally or figuratively. Sometimes he distinguished six senses. He emphasized the prophetic character of the Psalms, and found Christ and his work everywhere. He had no sympathy with the method of Nicolaus Lyra to understand the Psalter from the times of the writer. Afterward he learned to appreciate him.

He followed Augustin, the Glossa ordinaria, and especially the Quincuplex Psalterium of Faber Stapulensis (Paris, 1508 and 1513). He far surpassed himself in his later comments on the Psalms. It was only by degrees that he emancipated himself from the traditional exegesis, and approached the only sound and safe method of grammatico-historical interpretation of Scripture from the natural meaning of the words, the situation of the writer and the analogy of his teaching, viewed in the light of the Scriptures as a whole. He never gave up altogether the scholalistic and allegorizing method of utilizing exegesis for dogmatic and devotional purposes, but he assigned it a subordinate place. "Allegories," he said, "may be used to teach the ignorant common people, who need to have the same thing impressed in various forms." He measured the Scriptures by his favorite doctrine of justification by faith, and hence depreciated important books, especially the Epistle of James and the Apocalypse. But when his dogmatic conviction required it, he laid too much stress on the letter, as in the eucharistic controversy.

From the Psalms he proceeded to the Epistles of Paul. Here be had an opportunity to expound his ideas of sin and grace, the difference between the letter and the spirit, between the law and the gospel, and to answer the great practical question, how a sinner may be justified before a holy God and obtain pardon and peace. He first lectured on Romans and explained the difference between the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of works. He never published a work on Romans except a preface which contains a masterly description of faith. His lectures on Galatians he began October 27th, 1516, and resumed them repeatedly. They appeared first in Latin, September, 1519, and in a revised edition, 1523, with a preface of Melanchthon. They are the most popular and effective of his commentaries, and were often published in different languages. John Bunyan was greatly benefited by them. Their chief value is that they bring us into living contact with the central idea of the epistle, namely, evangelical freedom in Christ, which he reproduced and adapted in the very spirit of Paul. Luther always had a special preference for this anti-Judaic Epistle and called it his sweetheart or his wife.

These exegetical lectures made a deep impression. They were thoroughly evangelical, without being anti-catholic. They reached the heart and conscience as well as the head. They substituted a living theology clothed with flesh and blood for the skeleton theology of scholasticism. They were delivered with the energy of intense conviction and the freshness of personal experience. The genius of the lecturer flashed from his deep dark eyes which seem to have struck every observer. "This monk," said Dr. Pollich, "will revolutionize the whole scholastic teaching." Christopher Scheurl commended Luther to the friendship of Dr. Eck (his later opponent) in January, 1517, as "a divine who explained the epistles of the man of Tarsus with wonderful genius." Melanchthon afterward expressed a general judgment when he said that Christ and the Apostles were brought out again as from the darkness and filth of prison.

From Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation, § 27. Luther as Professor till 1517, pgs 135-141 in the printed edition.

See also this blog post about What Reformation Day Really Is.

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