Luther’s Rhetoric and the First Creation Story

As noted in a previous post, I am working through Luther’s writings this year.  While I have previously read a few classics, such as Freedom of a Christian (1520) or the preface to his Latin writings, I have started to work through his biblical interpretations.  The edition I am working through does not work through Luther’s lectures and commentaries in chronological order, but in the order of the canon.  So, even though Luther worked through Genesis after he did the Psalms, for example, I am reading Genesis first.

I have, so far, worked through the first creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:3).  I have to say that in general there is little of Luther’s own interpretation that catches my attention – though there are a few points I would like to quote.  What catches my attention, especially in basically a commentary, is his rhetoric, which can be often vituperative.  Luther’s often harsh words for people he disagreed with is something I have been familiar with in his works directly concerning social issues around the Reformation itself, so perhaps I should not be surprised; yet, on the other hand, having read a lot of fairly dry biblical commentaries, it does stand out in terms of the genre.

Luther’s Stated Hermeneutic: Simplicity

“The first chapter is written in the simplest language” (Luther’s Works, 1.3).

Firstly, Luther basically applies Oakham’s Razor to biblical interpretation: the simplest explanation is likely to be the right one.  He, therefore, shows a great deal of disdain for any interpretation that seems too elaborate.  He operates basically on the hermeneutical assumption that – to put it in Jewish terms – God condescends to speak in human language (e.g., the position ascribed to Rabbi Ishmael in midrashic interpretations).  He often shows little patience for Jewish and Christian interpreters who came before him, even as he heavily relies upon them, especially Augustine of Hippo and Nicholas of Lyra.

Judaism and Anti-Jewish Rhetoric

He complains that despite Genesis 1 being written in simple language, “Not even with this practice [Rabbis being forbidden to study Genesis 1 until age 30 according to Jerome], however, did the Jewish Rabbis achieve anything worthwhile” (1.3).  Instead, they “prattle most childishly.”  Or that Jewish patriarchs spoke mysteriously rather than in blunt language (1.21).

What Luther seems to object to is the polysemy of scriptural interpretation that Rabbinic commentators delighted in: that is, looking at a text from every possible angle, giving disagreeing interpretations between rabbis, and allowing differences to stand.  He may also be frustrated at the details being discussed – which is interesting because, as I write this, I have just read his extensively exhaustive, detailed, and perhaps a bit-too-ingenious account of the rivers of paradise in Genesis 2 – which to someone outside of the tradition, can seem arcane.

He also refers to Jewish “sophistry” in the explanation of the use of the plural throughout the creation stories: “Let us.”  Why does God use the plural if we are in a monotheistic context.  Later he says they “torture” this passage” (1.16).  Jews typically claim God was speaking to the angels; Christians and Luther among them say God was referring to the Trinity; others may think this reflects a pre-monotheistic stage of Israelite religion; others, moreover, might note that there is already a plurality in the name “God” in Hebrew: Elohim is itself plural.  Others still suggest it is the plurality of respect, the “royal we” so to speak.

There is at least one neutral observation: he notes that Jewish days begin in the evening during the setting sun because of the biblical phrase “and evening and morning” (1.20).  Similarly, that the sprouting of vegetation in the creation story indicates that God started the world in spring and, therefore, Jews begin their year in the spring (1.38) – so, the “First month” is in the spring and yet the “new year” is in the seventh month in the fall, probably being the result of merging two traditions.  He also cites Lyra who cites Rabbi Solomon in a positive or at least neutral light on his interpretation of the second day (1.32).

Luther’s Christian Sparring Partners

Luther, however, doesn’t just disparage Jewish readings, but previous Christian ones as well: “Until now there has not been anyone in the church either who has explained everything in the chapter with adequate skill” (1.3).  What is interesting is what he considers the limits of human knowledge at this point:

The commentators, with their sundry, different, and countless questions, have so confused everything in the chapter as to make it clear enough that God has reserved His exalted wisdom and the correct understanding of this chapter for Himself alone, although He has left with us this general knowledge that the world had a beginning and that it was created by God out of nothing. (1.3)

That is, at the end of the day, the only thing one can really know for sure in this work is that God created the world in time and out of nothing.  What is interesting is that the latter doctrine of creation out of nothing is a traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation that is later than the text and not part of its “simplest meaning,” so to speak.  In other ways – as we will see in the second creation story – Luther also imposes much of the Tertullian-Augustinian tradition of Original Sin, much of which must be impressed into the text to do other theological work rather than reading the text in its simplest manner.  What is interesting is that his “literal” or “simple” reading of Genesis 1:1 seems anything but: “Thus ‘in the beginning’ has the same meaning as if he said: ‘At that time, when there was no time, or when the world began, it began in this wife, that heaven and earth were first created by God out of nothing in an unformed condition, not beatified as they are now.'” (1.10).  When there was no time is an interesting interpretation, and seems as “trifling” as Augustine (see below), but “when the world began” reflects recent translations of “When God began to create” rather than “In the beginning, God created.”  Yet “before time” and “creation from nothing” are, again, later theologoumena that have creeped backwards.

In 1.4-5, he calls Augustine “trifling” for failing to be literal enough in his treatment of six days, which is ironic given that Augustine wrote a Literal Commentary on Genesis, yet it reminds us that the meaning of the word “literal” and the practice of “literal interpretation” changes over time.  On the other hand, he praises Augustine’s Confessions, where responding to questions of what was God doing before time, before creation, Augustine responds, “God was making hell ready for those who pried into meddlesome questions.” (1.10).  Nonetheless, he affirms Hilary’s and Augustine’s Trinitarian speculations, especially when looking at the biblical text that God made humans in the divine image (Gen. 1.26), not because they can always be clearly found in the text, but that they affirm faith in general (1.50; 1.60-61).  Interestingly, at this point, while Luther points out that God also created woman in the divine image, he lets his sexism creep in: “Although Eve as a most extraordinary creature – similar to Adam so far as the image of God is concerned, that is, in justice, wisdom, and happiness – she was nevertheless a woman” (1.69).  He goes on to say that woman is to a man as the moon is to the sun: beautiful and glorious, but not so much as the man/sun.  In his exposition that follows animals are the stars.  Luther, therefore, can take a great statement of male/female equality – both equally made in the divine image – and use it to reinforce patriarchy (1.69).

When referring to the nature of the heavens as being originally watery, crystalline, or glacial, and how many there were, Luther castigates Ambrose and Augustine as “childish,” and embraces the sober silence of these topics of Jerome (1.28).  He often cites and comments on, with relative neutrality or some approval, Jerome’s readings of biblical text (e.g., 1.51).

Luther and Contemporary Catholics

Obviously, Luther in this late stage of his life would not have much positive to say about Catholics, aligning them rhetorically at least with Jews, claiming that neither adheres to the Word of God:

Similarly, because a monk does not adhere to the Word, he thinks that there is a God sitting in heaven who intends to save anyone wearing a cowl and following a definite rule of life.  He is also ascending to heaven without God’s disclosure of Himself or without His face leading the way.  So also the Jews had their idols and their groves.  The fall and destruction of all these is the same; they all run into the same difficulty because, forsaking the Word, they each follow their own thoughts. (1.14)

Luther elides contemporary monks with biblical Israelites, recounting the histories of 1&2 Samuel and especially 1&2 Kings, rather than contemporary Jewish practices.  It is a sleight-of-hand that is easy to overlook.  But one could ask what contemporary Jews would have idolatry?  Moreover, while he praises Moses, he never – so far – refers to him as a Jew or Israelite, which is also a striking omission.

Luther and the Philosophers

He suggests, as ancient Jews and Christians also did, that Plato plagiarized Moses, and, therefore, sometimes hits upon the truth (1.4), he cites Aristotle (1.3-4; 1.48), though he disagrees with Aristotle’s views of animal procreation (1.52).  He also later cites Plato’s Timaeus (1.47).  He refers to the “silly and rationalistic ideas” of Averroes referring to celestial bodies as containing mind and substance (1.29) – and if you think Luther was against reason here – he cites approvingly the idea that these things were material, citing those more knowledgeable in astronomy (1.28-1.29).  Indeed, he notes that rational inquiry is a uniquely human trait given by God:

The first human being was made from a clod by God.  Then the human race began to be propagated from the male and female semen, from which the embryo is gradually formed in the womb, limb by limb; and it grows, until at least, through birth, man is brought out into the light of day.  Thereafter begins the life of sensation, and soon that of action and motion.  When the body has gained strength, and mind and reason are fully developed in a sound body – only then does there come a gleam of the life of the intellect, which does not exist in other earthly creatures.  With the support of the mathematical disciplines – which no one can deny were divinely revealed – the human being, in his mind, soars high above the earth; and leaving behind those things that are on the earth, he concerns himself with heavenly things and explores them. (1.46)

In this praise of human reason, he notes a few interesting things.  Firstly, he ascribes the ancient two-seed theory of human reproduction.  More interestingly, he claims that mathematical reason is divinely given or revealed.  It is through math that one can ascend to heaven and explore heavenly things.  On the last point, I think, most physicists will agree (on it being God-given, maybe less so).

Biblical Absences

Luther looks and does not find anything of the stories of Satan’s fall and the demons, which he expected to find somewhere in the creation stories.  Why would Moses remain silent on these matters?  They did NOT happen, or not in the traditional manner: that is, due to Moses’ silence, people have made up a lot about Satan, his demons, and the war in heaven (1.22-23).  Here is especially speaks against the readings of Bernard of Clairvaux.

Another reason is to keep with the style: Moses wrote simply for simple people.  Abstruse topics on angels, their nature, functions, and conflicts were neither useful nor necessary (1.23).  All one can know is from Revelation: there were angels that fell, likely – but not clearly – through pride.  When, how, the details, etc., are simply not available and so it is useless to speculate (1.23).  Oddly, he slips up and offers some speculations when commenting on Genesis 2:1 (1.75).

Some Interesting Moments

In keeping with his principles that scripture can be read and understood by uneducated people, he makes some interesting analogies.  Once, when referring to the word “firmament,” which, in its Hebrew version, Raqi’a, means something spread out, Luther writes, “The heaven was made in this manner, that the unformed mass extended itself outward as the bladder of a pig extends itself outward in circular form when it is inflated – if I may be permitted to make use of a coarse comparison in order to make the process clear.” (1.24)  Yes, you may!

Conclusions to Luther’s Genesis 1:1-2:4

Luther was clearly combative when he reached to interpreting Genesis.  While he clearly relies upon figures like Augustine and especially Nicholas of Lyra, he is quick to point out faults that typically devolve simultaneously into name-calling, as he does when discussing Jews (usually ancient Jews; not contemporary Jews), Catholic monks, and some philosophers: he prefers to call people “childish” and “trifling.”  They “prattle” and “torture” the text.

While Luther uses a stick of simplicity – any interpretation that is not so simple that an uneducated person could easily grasp it – to beat his opponents, and does usually apply it to his own exegeses – he often cannot help but to input material into the text and get a bit “sophistic” himself: on the Trinity in the plurals, on the nature of matter, creation from nothing, and the doctrine of original sin (he is, indeed, still very Augustinian).

He has long digressions on the origin and nature of demons to tell us that we cannot actually talk about demons or the nature of the Trinity impressed onto human nature to tell us we can’t know for sure about these things.  I love his discussion of using math to ascend to heaven, which ultimately goes back to at least Pythagorus (though he was not cited in this manner in Luther).

Luther, however, is not simple, but highly rhetorical and it is a rhetoric that hides itself as simplicity and, while that can be a typical rhetorical tactic, one can often miss Luther’s elisions, sleights-of-hand, and distractions as elisions, sleights-of-hand, and distractions.  His is the art of interpretation that hides itself as such.


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