Luther on Figures of Speech

“So much for this “Louvanity” and veritable vanity. Let us replace it with Augustine’s opinion, which is that of ordinary common sense and of truth itself. “Figurative language proves nothing.” Although he says this of sacred types [of the relationship of image and reality in the realm of the holy], it can be properly applied at least as well to rhetorical figures of speech. In no writings, least of all the divine, is it right in mere whimsy to grasp at figurative meanings. These ought to be shunned, and the pure, simple, original sense should be sought, unless the context or an evident absurdity forces one to recognize a figurative expression. Wouldn’t there otherwise be a Babel of words and languages in the world? Silence would then be better than speech.

“… We acknowledge that everything is full of figures, but they must be considered with [sound] judgment for which no certain and adequate rule can be formulated. … We are guided by two [rules]: [we assume figurative speech if the result would otherwise lead to] absurdity of meaning, and the circumstances in which the words are spoken.

“… I will tolerate no figure as long as it is not required by an absurdity or by the necessity of the circumstances” (“Against Latomus,” LW 32, 167, 168).


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