Theological Fragments: Biblical History as principium

“Luther is reluctant to interpret primordial biblical history as the beginning of things, the initium, but rather insists that its meaning be understood in terms of principium. He does not allow himself to be distracted by any isolated, past original history, by any “beginning of things,” but instead, in the lectures on Genesis, he sees himself radically placed into the creative event of primordial history. It is not Adam who is ultimately relevant here, but Luther.”

–Johannes Schwanke, “Luther on Creation,” Harvesting Martin Luthers Reflections, edited by Timothy J Wengert, pg 82.

8 thoughts on “Theological Fragments: Biblical History as principium

  1. Here is the footnote, explaining the difference of the two terms: “The Vulgate translates “In the beginning” (Gen. I:I) with in prinicipio, not with in initio. While initium means a beginning, which, once started, stays in the past and has no further influence, principium is a beginning that stays relevant for what it initiated. See WA 42:8, 34-9, 13; LW 1:10 (on Gen. 1:2).”

    Interestingly there are parallels with how Luther understands the “beginning” of creation with how he understands the “beginning” of the Christian life in Baptism. The act of creation, like the act of Baptism, is not initium but principium.

  2. Thanks for the clarification.

    I should have been clearer myself: I meant the dichotomy between Adam and Luther. Unless we are dealing with the modern preoccupation with “Was there really an Adam?”, which for Luther was not debatable. Or, put another way, is the author’s concern with our/perennial existential [not meant pejoratively!] questions?

  3. It is interesting. I can offer some more thoughts from the author, hopefully to clafiry his thought.

    Schwanke writes that Luther “interprets primordial history as a history of the present.” For Luther “creation is not something past, but something present.” And so, the historicity of Adam isn’t really the issue for Schwanke, at least in this section (not that he questions it or affirms; it simply isn’t the issue). He follows this up by writing that Luther “sees himself in his individuality as created, addressed, and desired by God, the history of creation can be nothing other than present history.”

    I wonder if this approach by Luther allows one to escape the whole issue of the historicity of Adam? I don’t mean to imply that it wasn’t an issue for Luther, but does Schwanke’s analysis allow us to fall on either side and yet find the biblical account of history relevant and consequential for our lives?

  4. To throw another voice into the fray since the whole historicity of Adam has been raised. I have always been interested in what Kierkegaard has to say about this in his The Concept of Anxiety. In the first chapter he deals with the whole problem of defining hereditary sin and its relation to Adam which can leave Adam “outside” of human history (this is one of Kierkegaard’s critique’s of the Formula of Concord) (page 27-28 of the Hong edition for further understanding how Kierkegaard draws this conclusion). In a footnote on page 33 of this same edition of Kierkegaard’s Anxiety, he writes the following and I offer it simply for further thought on Adam’s historicity:

    “The problem is always getting Adam included as a member of the race, and precisely in the same sense in which every other individual is included. This is something to which dogmatics should pay attention, especially for the sake of the Atonement. The doctrine that Adam and Christ correspond to each other explains nothing at all but confuses everything. It may be an analogy, but the analogy is conceptually imperfect. Christ alone is an individual who is more than an individual. For this reason he does not come in the beginning but in the fulness of time.”

    I think this thought of Kierkegaard’s is interesting because some have insisted upon the historicity of Adam, in part, because of Paul’s use of the Adam/Christ analogy.

    But I do feel as though I am digressing from Schwanke’s (and Luther’s) thought as expressed in the theological fragment.

  5. SimonPotamos

    Perhaps this is a digression, too, so I won’t elaborate

    Every attempt to “get beyond historicity”—while theologically interesting and perhaps even valid in a sort of theological version of the correspondence theory of truth—eventually has to face this question: if it weren’t so, how can we know that it is so. How can Adam be a member of the race without having been a member of the race? Or put in another way again, what’s behind the myth?

    Health warning: I’m not presuming or implying anythingyour views on these questions, Bryce; just taking my cue from you.

  6. I guess, if I was to be concerned about the whole historicity or non-historicity of Adam, my biggest question would be: what does the theological system gain from Adam being an historical figure? Or maybe, most importantly, what does it lose from the classical expositions of the doctrines of creation, Fall and redemption if Adam was not an historical figure? Would we be unable to talk about and confess God as creator of everything, as humans freely choosing evil (as the opposite of good), as Christ being incarnate and redeeming humanity? I don’t think we would.

    I think Kierkegaard is illuminating in at least one aspect and that is when we define a person named Adam as being “created” without sin, while all the rest of us are “created” (conceived) in sin, then we have defined Adam outside of human history. We have defined Adam as something other than ourselves. This is highlighted by the quote above, especially as it relates to Paul’s Adam/Christ analogy.

    As most commentators agree, “The Concept of Anxiety,” is one of Kierkegaard’s most complex pieces, but that is one thing that I think I have gleaned from it and (at least partially) understand.

  7. SimonPotamos

    I haven’t read Kierkegaard on this, so am not fit to comment (probably wouldn’t be even if I had!). I’ll just say this one thing in reply to your question: to define Adam in this way does not place Adam outside of human history, but within a unique point (one terminus) of it. And Paul’s Adam christology turns on that uniqueness: there are two unique adams in human history, both of them in motion. One, the first Adam, moves from a special, sinless createdness into sinful createdness; the other, Christ, makes the return journey. The historicity of the first journey isn’t insignificant in order for the second to be significant.

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