Christ in Luther's Interpretation of the Old Testament

PROPTER CHRISTUM: Christ at the Center

A shift seems to be occurring within biblical interpretation. Some scholars have issued calls to reevaluate the historical-critical method of interpreting the Scriptures. Scholars have become fascinated with "pre-critical" interpretations of Scripture.

John A. Maxfield calls our attention to this shift, but he primarily encourages us to not lose sight of our Lutheran heritage. In this article, Maxfield presents a discussion of Luther's interpretation of the Scripture — particularly the Old Testament — and his thoroughly christological hermeneutic.

The entire essay can be found in the forthcoming festschrift in honor of Daniel Preus: Propter Christum: Christ at the Center. Visit LOGIA’s website to reserve your copy. It is available for pre-order and is scheduled to be released in November.



—by John A. Maxfield

The last words of Bornkamm’s book convey both the problem for the modern reader of Luther’s Old Testament interpretation and its opportunity:

[Luther’s] work has Christianized the Old Testament thoroughly, as we have seen. We cannot use it with a clear conscience much longer if we cannot give clear and new reasons to justify such an interpretation. If we take this task just as seriously as we take the inviolable truthfulness of historical research, then we can let go of the “swaddling clothes” of Luther’s interpretation of the Old Testament and once again salvage the treasure in the manger.1

The late Professor Bornkamm might be surprised by the “clear and new reasons” used today instead to knock historical-critical analysis of the Old Testament off its hegemonic pedestal. In the burgeoning subdiscipline of the history of biblical exegesis in the fields of both biblical studies and church history (as well as historical study more widely cast), it appears that the keenest fascination has been with what might be named the “swaddling clothes” of the so-called “pre-critical” interpretation of the Bible. For example, in a widely-cited article that has functioned as a manifesto for the discipline of the history of pre-modern biblical interpretation, David Steinmetz takes aim at the sufficiency of exegesis that focuses narrowly on the intended historical-literal sense of the human author and asserts boldly:

The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text it is interpreting, it will remain restricted—as it deserves to be—to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.2

A whole genre of studies of biblical interpretation in the early church, the Middle Ages, and the Reformation continues to be the fruit of such appeals to dethrone the sole focus of biblical studies on “the inviolable truthfulness of historical research” as conceived in post-Enlightenment historical criticism. I am reminded here, ninety years later, of Karl Barth’s scathing critique of liberal Protestantism in his preface to the second edition of his Epistle to the Romans, where he did not challenge historical criticism as a tool of the interpreter but asserted boldly that historical analysis is merely the prolegomena to the true task of theological interpretation of Paul’s text, which is in fact the word of God, the sole means (that is, the Bible as a whole) by which God, who is unknowable, reveals himself to man.3

But how fares the biblical interpretation of Luther in this revival of interest in pre-critical exegesis? The current romance of many confessional Lutherans with the early church fathers, often quite ignorant or dismissive of the critical and selective appropriation of patristic traditions in the Lutheran Reformation and its Confessions (and this is especially true in regard to patristic exegesis), suggests that Luther’s approach to the Old Testament in particular is in danger of being lost to a resurgence of allegorizing and typological interpretations, also among Lutherans. The days are apparently long over when John Calvin’s method of typological interpretation of messianic psalms, applying them first and foremost to David and only secondarily to Christ, is rejected by orthodox Lutherans as “Judaizing.”4 Indeed, Calvin’s methods of typological exegesis are frequently celebrated broadly as the vanguard of responsible Christian and yet historically sound exegesis of the Old Testament while Luther’s understanding is rejected on the ideological grounds of it being “supercessionist” (as is also much of the New Testament), and thus responsible for his highly offensive views of the Jews in many of his later writings.5

In contrast to what seem to be the prevailing views today, I view Luther’s distinctive approach to interpreting the Old Testament as Christian Scripture as both historically sound and most fruitful for the church’s theology and preaching. In the remainder of this essay in honor of Daniel Preus, who continues to devote his talents and energies to the theology and life of the Lutheran church throughout the world in its modern context, I would like to describe some of the rather traditional as well as the new ways that Luther kept Christ and the gospel at the center of his interpretation of the Old Testament, focusing especially on his lectures on Genesis. . . .6

  1. Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther and the Old Testament, trans. Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch, ed. Victor I. Gruhn (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969 [German orig. 1948]), 266. More recently, Siegfried Raeder also evaluates Luther’s Old Testament interpretation, describing for example Luther’s second psalms lectures (the Operationes in Psalmos, 1519–1521) as “‘evangelio-centric’ rather than christological,” that is, “more in regard to the Gospel of Christ than in regard to the person of Christ.” Luther thus stands in contrast to the psalms exegesis of the humanist Lefèvre d’Étaples, whose “strictly christological interpretation of the Psalter prevented Lefèvre from investigating the historical forms of faith, love and hope in the Old Testament.” Siegfried Raeder, “The Exegetical and Hermeneutical Work of Martin Luther,” in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, vol. 2, From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. Magne Sæbø (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), 377, 370.
  2. David Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today 37 (1980): 38. Likewise, Robert Louis Wilken takes up the mantle of Roman Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac and defends the use of allegory (among other meanings) in patristic and medieval spiritual interpretation: “If there is anything that is obvious, it is that the notion of a single sense does not carry us very far in the interpretation of great works of literature, or of the Bible.” “In Defense of Allegory,” Modern Theology 14, no. 2 (April 1998): 197. A significant portion of De Lubac’s magisterial study is now available in an English translation: Henri de Lubac, S. J., Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, vol. 1, trans. Mark Sebanc (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998); vol. 2, trans. E. M. Macierowski (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000); vol. 3, trans. E. M. Macierowski (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009).
  3. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. from the sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 2–15. Note Barth’s response to historical criticism: “I have been accused of being an ‘enemy of historical criticism.’…I have nothing whatever to say against historical criticism.…My complaint is that recent commentators confine themselves to an interpretation of the text which seems to me to be no commentary at all, but merely the first step towards a commentary.…Jülicher and Lietzmann know far better than I do how insecure all this historical reconstruction is, and upon what doubtful assumptions it often rests. Even such an elementary attempt at interpretation is not an exact science. Exact scientific knowledge…is limited to the deciphering of the manuscripts and the making of a concordance. Historians do not wish, and rightly do not wish, to be confined within such narrow limits,” 6.
  4. On the charge by the Lutheran orthodox dogmatician Aegidius Hunnius in his book Calvinus Iudiazans . . . (1593), see esp. G. Sujin Pak, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  5. See, for example, Eric W. Gritsch, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment (Grand Rapid, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), esp. 33–46. Space does not allow an exploration of the significant problem of Luther’s Old Testament exegesis in relation to his so-called “anti-Jewish writings”; however, I would like to suggest that this problem (and it is a problem!) is most fruitfully analyzed not by rejecting Luther’s prophetic-christological and historical but gospel-centric interpretations of the Old Testament, as is often done, but by recognizing that Luther’s error in these later writings had to do with a failure to apply his own principle or overarching doctrine of the two kingdoms (or two realms of God’s governance in the world), and not with his critique of Judaism in relation to its legalism and in response to Jewish unbelief. The latter is, after all, also the critique of the New Testament.
  6. Some of what follows has appeared and is treated more extensively in terms of Luther’s vocation as Professor Reformer in John A. Maxfield, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies 80 (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2008). Previously published material used with permission of the publisher.