Friday, January 2, 2015

Martin Luther's move away from allegorical interpretation of Scripture

Martin Luther

Before I start discussing some of Martin Luther's important sermons on the parables, I should note his important move away from allegorical interpretation of Scripture. He was not a fan of Origen!

Luther underwent significant development in his approach to exegesis. He notes, for example, that early in his career, he utilized allegorization extensively in his interpretations of Scripture (he would have allegorized even a "chamber pot"):
When I was a monk, I was a master in the use of allegories. I allegorized everything. Afterwards through the Epistle to the Romans, I came to some knowledge of Christ. I recognized then that all allegories nothing, that it’s not what Christ signifies but what Christ is that counts. Before I allegorized everything, even a chamber pot . . . . Jerome and Origen contributed to the practice of searching only for allegories. God forgive them. In all of Origen there is not one word of Christ (LW 1967 54:46-47).

Interpreters must begin with the plain sense of Scripture and pursue the literal sense as far as one can go, before considering any symbolic meaning. The reference point, though, always has to be centered on Christ, and that focus provides the context for all biblical interpretation (Kissinger 1979: 45).
Luther again reflects on his development of thought concerning exegesis “Now I have shaken off all these follies, and my best art is to deliver the Scripture in the simple sense; therein is life, strength, and doctrine; all other methods are nothing but foolishness, let them shine how they will . . .” (Table Talk CCEL 275).

Luther uses even harsher language in his treatise, Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments. He addresses in particular, Andreas von Karlstadt, a former colleague who now opposed him. Luther argues that Karlstadt’s approach is similar to those “who are fond of allegories,” whom Jerome compares to “jugglers” (LW 1958 40:187-8). To illustrate the defects of allegorical interpretation, Luther compares it to the legend of St. George: St. George is Christ, the woman he saved is Christendom, dragon is the devil, the horse is the human nature of Christ, the spear is the gospel message, and so forth. Allegorical interpretation is a “trifling art,” and here Luther does not mince words: “their interpretation is so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting” (188). Such interpreters “juggle and play” with the texts, and as long as they do not damage the message of Christ, Luther is content to leave such “prophets,” as he sarcastically calls them, alone, but, Luther adds: “But when one examines it under the light and according to the text, it is revealed as pure jugglery. Devoid of foundation or truth, it is the product of his [Karlstadt’s] own fancy, and forced upon the text” (189-90). Then Luther goes on to say:
If such spiritual juggling were to prevail, I would like to put Dr. Karlstadt and all his prophets to school for another three years. I was thoroughly drilled in this method when I first began to study the Bible ten years ago, before I discovered the true method. I too would carelessly say: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth," Gen. 1 [:1]: Heaven refers to the angels and the spiritual creatures; earth refers to the bodily creatures. Don't you think this was splendidly and truly said? Yes, but meanwhile what happened to the text? How could I prove, that in this verse heaven and earth are not the natural heaven and earth, as the words say? Brother, the natural meaning of the words is queen, transcending all subtle, acute sophistical fancy. From it we may not deviate, unless we are compelled by a clear article of the faith. Otherwise the spiritual jugglers would not leave a single letter in Scripture.
      In this manner even the great teacher Origen played the fool, and led St. Jerome and many others astray with him. In former times his books were justly forbidden and condemned on account of such spiritual tomfoolery. For it is dangerous so to play with the Word of God by which conscience and faith are to be guided. Therefore, interpretations of God's Word must be lucid and definite having a firm, sure, and true foundation on which one may confidently rely.
 He has some additional words about allegorical interpretation in Table Talk, which I will talk about next.

A personal note: A very happy birthday to Camden!

1 comment:

  1. Just finished reading Calvin's reaction to allegory. Less kind than Luther's statements. Good article that I wish more Christians would read this instead of listening to some allegorical radio personalities. Good hermeneutics equals sound doctrine


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