Luther, Zwingli, and the Hermeneutical Principles of the Lutheran (Christian!) Church

Luther, Zwingli, and the Hermeneutical Principles of the Lutheran (Christian!) Church January 26, 2015

This post features an extended quotation from this fine book.  Learn more here.
This post features an extended quotation from this fine book. Learn more here.

I think one of the more entertaining Martin Luther quotes I have read that pertains to the matter of biblical interpretation is this one:

“This is certainly an extraordinary situation! It is just as if I denied that God had created the heavens and the earth, and asserted with Aristotle and Pliny and other heathen that the world existed from eternity, but someone came and held Moses under my nose, Genesis 1 [:11] “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”; I would try to make the text read: “God” now should mean the same as “cuckoo,” “created” the same as “ate,” and “the heavens and the earth” the same as “the hedge sparrow, feathers and all.” The word of Moses thus would read according to Luther’s text, “In the beginning the cuckoo ate the hedge sparrow, feathers and all,” and could not possibly mean, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” What a marvelous art this would be—one with which rascals are quite familiar! Or, if I denied that the Son of God had become man, and someone confronted me with John 1 [:14], “The word became flesh,” suppose I were to say: Let “Word” mean “a gambrel” and “flesh” “a mallet,” and thus the text must now read, “The gambrel became a mallet.” And if my conscience tried to reproach me, saying, “You take a good deal of liberty with your interpretation, Sir Martin, but—but—” etc., I would press until I became red in the face, and say, “Keep quiet, you traitor with your ‘but,’ I don’t want the people to notice that I have such a bad conscience!” Then I would boast and clap my hands, saying, “The Christians have no Scripture which proves that God’s Word became flesh.” But I would also turn around and, bowing low in humility, offer gladly to be instructed, if they would show me with the Scripture that I have just finished twisting around. Ah, what a rumpus I would stir up among Jews and Christians, in the New and the Old Testaments, if such brazenness were allowed me! ” (Luther, Martin. “That These Words of Christ, ‘This Is My Body,’ etc. Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics” in Luther’s Works, The American Edition, volume 37. Fortress Press, Philadelphia. Pp. 30-31)*

I was recently reminded of this quote as I was reading about the conflict that arose early on in the Reformation regarding matters of biblical interpretation. It was in an excellent essay called “Why Am I a Lutheran?” by Lutheran historian Martin Noland, published in a festschrift in Pastor Daniel Preus’ (one of the current Vice Presidents of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) honor.  I highly recommend the essay, and you can order the whole book, “Propter Christum: Christ at the Center” here or get a PDF file of the book here.

Ulrich Zwingli: “Christ abolished external things”… “No external thing can make us pure or righteous”!
Ulrich Zwingli: “Christ abolished external things”… “No external thing can make us pure or righteous.”

In the essay**, Noland writes:

Ulrich Zwingli was Martin Luther’s main competitor, in his own lifetime, for the hearts and minds of the Protestants. Like Luther, Zwingli saw his theology as being sola Scriptura. Unlike Luther, Zwingli was willing to set forth doctrines that never had been accepted in the church. In a treatise defending his view of baptism, written in 1525, Zwingli wrote:

“In this matter of baptism – if I may be pardoned for saying it – I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles… [F]or all the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach. They have also misunderstood the saying of Christ about water and the Holy Ghost in John 3….

When he took upon himself the curse of the Law, Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, deprived us of all external justification. Therefore no external thing can make us pure or righteous…. These verses [in Hebrews 9:9-10] tell us, however, that Christ abolished external things, so that we are not to hope in them or to look to them for justification. Certainly we are not to ascribe cleansing to the external things which are still left. For if in the Old Testament they were only carnal and outward, not being able to cleanse us or to give us peace or to assure the conscience, how much less are they able to accomplish anything in Christ, in whom it is the Spirit alone that quickeneth.”

This treatise was written by Zwingli to oppose the rising tide of Anabaptism in the city of Zurich. It is useful today for seeing Zwingli’s chief concerns before his conflict with Luther. “No external thing can make us pure or righteous” is the basic principle that Zwingli deployed to eradicate the seven sacraments of the medieval church. In the place of the external things, which Lutherans call the “means of grace”, Zwingli posited that “it is the Spirit alone that quickeneith.” This basic principle still echoes today throughout all branches of the Reformed Protestant church.

The problem Zwingli encountered in his debate with Luther about the sacrament of the altar was that his basic principle was not enunciated in Scripture. The “abrogation of all external things in the Christian religion” seemed to be a logical extrapolation of Christ’s abrogation of the Old Testament sacrificial system, as explained in the book of Hebrews; however there were no biblical texts that supported Zwingli’s principle per se. That forced Zwingli, and the other Reformed theologians, to find other biblical texts and “turn” them toward this purpose.

Luther’s response to the challenge posed by Zwingli and the Reformed theologians was his treatise That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics (AE 37:13-150). In this treatise, Luther laid out his own hermeneutical principles that prevented him from “turning” biblical texts towards his own purposes or ideas and that lent consistency to his interpretation of the Bible.

Luther started out with a warning to all theologians:

Woe betide all our teachers and authors, who go their merry way and spew forth whatever is uppermost in their minds, and do not first turn a thought over ten times to be sure it is right in the sight of God! These think the devil is away for a while in Babylon, or asleep a their side like a dog on a cushion. They do not consider that he is round about them with all his venomous flaring darts which he puts into them, such superlatively beautiful thoughts adorned with Scripture that they are unaware of what is happening… He who does not know this, let him try and see. I have had some experience in this matter. (AE 37:17-18)

Next Luther explained to his readers the overarching strategy of the Reformed theologians:

“They wish first of all to change the natural words and meanings of the Scriptures into their own words and meanings; then they boast that we do not have Scriptures, in order that the devil may make a laughingstock of us, or rather, may safely strangle us as defenseless enemies [emphasis added]. (AE 37:32)

(pp. 232-233***, bold italicized in original quotation)

16th century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz: "We hold that no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all of antiquity should be accepted." (Examination of the Council of Trent)
16th century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz: “We hold that no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all of antiquity should be accepted.” (Examination of the Council of Trent)

In this section of the article, “hermeneutical consistency”, Noland talks about three principles Luther goes on to talk about, and that “became a part of the Lutheran canons of interpretation”:

*“Using sources in the original languages to determine the natural meanings of words and phrases” (“explicated by Johann Gerhard in his Loci theologici in Commonplace I, chapter 25, section 534.5, where he quoted Basil the Great in support of it.”)

*“Conforming one’s interpretation to the articles of faith” (“explicated by Johann Gerhard in his Loci theologici in Commonplace I, chapter 25, section 532.2, where he quoted Irenaeus and Augustine in support of it.”)

*“Using the context to determine whether a figurative meaning is intended by the author” (“explicated by Johann Gerhard in his Loci theologici in Commonplace I, chapter 25, section 536.6, where he quoted Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Theodoret, Hilary of Poiteiers, Jerome, Augustine, and Nicholas of Lyra in support of it.”)

Noland concludes this section of his article by saying: “This led the way for [Luther’s] orthodox followers to continue on the path of hermeneutical consistency**** – the path that was true to the Scriptures themselves.” (p. 235)***

(coming full circle, I noticed as I was doing this post that the Luther quote I begin with also came from the same essay by Luther that Dr. Noland discussed in his essay.  I guess I was reminded of the quote for good reason…)




* Note also the following quote, addressing again the issue of the Lord’s Supper, from one of Luther’s last sermons (AE 51:376-377):

“Therefore, see to it that you hold reason in check and do not follow her beautiful cogitations. Throw dirt in her face and make her ugly. Don’t you remember the mystery of the holy Trinity and the blood of Jesus Christ with which you have been washed of your sins? Again, concerning the sacrament, the fanatical antisacramentalists say, ‘What’s the use of bread and wine? How can God the Almighty give his body in bread?’ I wish they had to eat their own dirt. They are so smart that nobody can fool them. If you had one in a mortar and crushed him with seven pestles his foolishness still would not depart from him. Reason is and should be drowned in baptism, and this foolish wisdom will not harm you, if you hear the beloved Son of God saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you; this bread which is administered to you, I say, is my body.’ If I hear and accept this, then I trample reason and its wisdom under foot and say, ‘You cursed whore, shut up! Are you trying to seduce me into committing fornication with the devil?’ That’s the way reason is purged and made free through the Word of the Son of God.

So let us deal with the fanatics as the prophets dealt with the spiritual harlots, the idolaters, the wiseacres, who want to do things better than God does. We should say to them, ‘I have a Bridegroom, I will listen to him. Your wisdom is utter foolishness. I destroy your wisdom and trample it under foot.’ This struggle will go on till the last day. This is what Paul [in Rom. 12:3] wants; we are to quench not only the low desires but also the high desires, reason and its high wisdom. When whoredom invades you, strike it dead, but do this far more when spiritual whoredom tempts you. Nothing pleases a man so much as self-love, when he has a passion for his own wisdom. The cupidity of a greedy man is as nothing compared with a man’s hearty pleasure in his own ideas. He then brings these fine ideas into the Scriptures, and this is devilishness pure and simple. This sin is forgiven, but when it reigns in one’s nature, not yet fully purged, then assuredly the true doctrine is soon lost, however willingly one preaches and willingly one listens. Then Christ is gone. Then they fall down before the devil on the mountain and worship him (Matt. 4 [:8–10]).”

** Quoted with permission from Luther Academy, publisher of the book the essay is from. I have left out the footnotes from the quote.

*** Preus, Daniel, Scott R. Murray, Aaron M. Moldenhauer, Carl D. Roth, Richard A. Lammert, Martin R. Noland, Charles L. Cortrright, and Michael J. Albrecht. Propter Christum: Christ at the Center : Essays in Honor of Daniel Preus. Fort Wayne, Indiana: Luther Academy, 2013.

**** To read more about one of those followers and his battle against the highly sophisticated Reformation radical Caspar Schwenckfeld, see this post.

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