Law and Gospel: the key distinction. [How to Read Scripture, Part III]

Melanchthon, one of Luther’s principal disciples, once remarked that Luther’s most important discovery was the distinction between Law and Gospel.1 Luther himself thought that the mark of a real theologian was understanding – and explaining – the difference between the two.2

I agree.  If you understand this distinction, you pretty much understand everything – but especially how to read scripture.

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  1. R. Kolb, “Luther’s Hermeneutics of Distinctions” in R. Kolb et al., eds., Martin Luther’s Theology (Oxford 2014) p. 170. []
  2. Lectures on Galatians, ed. and trans. J. Pelikan et al. Luther’s Works (St. Louis 1963) vol. 26, p.115. []

Advent, Luther-Style

Christmas — what a wonderful feast of God’s grace, of his great gift to us!

Are we ready?

Luther, as usual, pulls no punches on how we ought to prepare:

The “way of the Lord” [John 1:23], as you have heard, is that he does all things within you, so that all our works are not ours but his, which comes by faith.

This, however, is not possible if you desire worthily to prepare yourself by praying, fasting, self-mortification, and your own works, as is now generally and sillily taught during the time of Advent. A spiritual preparation is meant, consisting in a thorough awareness and confession of your being unfit, a sinner, poor, damned, and miserable, with all the works you may perform. The more a heart is thus minded, the better it prepares the way of the Lord, although meanwhile possibly drinking fine wines, walking on roses, and not praying a word.1

Not exactly warm and fuzzy, but, dang, he’s got a way of focusing the mind, hm?

(And the first line, “The ‘Way of the Lord…'”, is certainly worth holding on to.)

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  1. Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, on John 1:19-28, Weimar Edition, 10.1.2.199.3-14, trans. John Lenker et al., The Sermons of Martin Luther (Minneapolis 1906), 1.124, altered. []

Christ Did Not Die on the Cross to Give Us a Book. Really, He Didn’t. [How to Read Scripture, Part II]

Interpreting scripture is a lot easier than most people think.

Most people think of scripture as a vast, incredibly complex edifice that requires intricate study and unpacking. They believe that interpreting scripture is a long and arduous task of trying to discover the mysterious truth about God and the world contained within its pages. Supposedly, correct Christian doctrine is that teaching which is the most coherent and accurate distillation of scripture’s content. (In more recent times, it’s become all about the process of seeking this doctrine instead of the doctrine itself, but that makes little difference.)

This is a vision based on the idea that Christianity is, fundamentally, an exercise in gaining special knowledge or wisdom about the nature of God and humanity, and in following specific divine precepts. Since the source of this knowledge is considered to be scripture, Christianity must become a huge, complex exercise in exegesis.

In short, Christianity is understood as a religion of contemplating and studying divine revelation, and revelation is the bible.

This is a very common view. It’s very old, and very widespread.

And I think it’s very wrong. In fact, I think it’s obviously wrong.

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Was Christum treibet? Yup, it’s German, and Why You Need to Learn It [How to Read Scripture: Part I]

So here’s a classic Luther quote that tends to bother people a bit:

For it is the duty of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and Resurrection and work of Christ, and thus lay the foundation of faith, as He Himself says, in John 15, “You shall bear witness of me.” All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach Christ and inculcate [treiben] Him. That is the true test, by which to judge all books, when we see whether they inculcate [treiben] Christ or not, since all the Scriptures show us Christ (Rom. 3), and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ (1 Cor. 15). What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or Paul taught it; again, what preaches Christ would be apostolic, even though Judas, Annas, Pilate and Herod preached it.1

This is from his Preface to the Epistles of Saint James and Saint Jude (1545). He’s discussing why he doesn’t think James is truly apostolic.

The critical idea is that the Gospel makes scripture; not the other way around. There is one, and only one, key for interpreting scripture, and even for determining what scripture is: the Good News. And the Good News is something very specific: it is the promise of God’s totally free, unmerited gift of salvation, forgiveness and eternal life, given in Christ, with nothing required from us. Luther’s shorthand for this is simply “Christ.”

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  1. Trans. C.M. Jacobs, in Works of Martin Luther, vol. 6, Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1932, p. 478, altered; emphases mine. []