Martin Luther’s Trinitarian Hermeneutic of Freedom

by Piotr J. Małysz

Martin Luther’s interest in the problematic of freedom belongs to a larger thread—or, more propDe servo arbitrio.jpegerly perhaps, a twine of issues—that runs through Western culture. It stretches as far back as Homer and then, beyond Luther, into the Enlightenment, only to find itself woven into today’s concerns, such as globalization and technology. Though Luther views himself primarily as a critical heir of Augustine, and considers freedom from an unapologetically theological perspective, it is as part of this longer intellectual trajectory that the continued currency of his views must eventually be decided. Even when Luther speaks theologically, he aims to address nothing short of the human condition.

The argument to be advanced here is that Luther puts forth a Trinitarian hermeneutic of freedom—perhaps not as clearly or systematically as he could, though more clearly than he is customarily credited with. In fact, for Luther, nothing less than a Trinitarian framework will do to account for both divine freedom and, relevant to our topic, the integrity of human agency as free. The divine-human relationship remains decisive for anthropology—but, it must be clarified, it remains essential precisely as the work of the Triune God.

Luther’s emphasis on divine triunity, where freedom is at stake, comes more fully into view when one considers the tensions that Augustine bequeathed to the medieval West and, in their light, medieval accounts of freedom as attempts to appropriate this Augustinian heritage. Seen from this angle, Luther’s thought is both a continuation of the medieval project of engaging Augustine’s legacy and a radical critique of it from the standpoint of the doctrine of God. To demonstrate this, this article begins with an outline of Augustine’s understanding of freedom, attending in particular to the anthropologically central notion of free choice. This is followed by an overview, necessarily brief, of medieval construals of freedom. We then highlight the central emphases of Luther’s account, as well as the manner they have been received by recent interpreters. This sets the stage for the constructive portion of this article, Luther’s own Trinitarian hermeneutic of freedom, which we articulate against the backdrop of the reformer’s critical interrogation of his medieval predecessors.

This article has appeared in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Martin LutherContinue Reading

Christ Alone: Reading Notes

Piotr J. Małysz

crucifixionAll good Christian theology is Christocentric in some manner. When the Reformation insisted on Christ alone (solus Christus), with this slogan it thus sought to make a stronger—exclusive—claim. But the Reformation in no way advocated a Christomonism, the reduction of all theology only to a consideration of Christ. The exclusive particle, Christ alone, was meant to make a more focused claim. Its thrust was the sufficiency, or better still, the overabundance that the believer as believer finds in the person and work of Christ. The particle has its home in the order of salvation (ordo salutis)—chiefly the doctrine of justification—and it is from this location that it brings the whole body of theology into a Christocentric focus.

The particle is not, of course, foolproof. Martin Luther—even as he drew attention to Christ, and declared that “the cross alone [!] constitutes our theology [CRUX sola est nostra theologia]” (Operationes in Psalmos, WA 5:176)—thought it wise to elucidate further the salvific role of Christ as gift, given to the believer, over against Christ’s role as example, in which he is of no more help to us than some other saint (A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels; in Luther’s Works 35). Oswald Bayer warns against the modern tendency to moralize the solus Christus and, in reality, to compromise it (Martin Luther’s Theology, 64). A notorious example of this tendency is John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke pits Jesus’ simple message as a teacher of virtue, which Locke believes he finds in the Gospels, against the ethically unproductive speculation of the New Testament epistles and, even worse, the dogmatic corruption of Jesus’ teachings in the creeds and the church’s theology. This is not the meaning of “Christ alone” that the Reformation intended.

What specific soteriological emphases did the Reformation intend, with its affirmation of solus Christus and Christ as gift? First, in his Lectures on Galatians (1531/1535; in Luther’s Works 26:122-138), Luther insists Christ, and he alone, gives faith its “form.” What is in the background here is the medieval view that faith, as a disposition, stood in need of being made concrete by the believer’s works of love. Luther denies that what constitutes faith is intellectual assent to the truth of God, still in need of taking shape through the believer’s actions. Rather, faith is formed and made concrete—it is everything it can and needs to be—only in so far as it grasps the work of Christ, and does so as if the believer had done this work him- or herself. This alone is what it means to believe. Christ, says Luther, is present in faith itself, and his work gives faith its essence, shape, and reality. In other words, faith lies not in giving credence to the improbable and confirming this posture through one’s own acts of charity. Rather, the irreducible reality of faith—safeguarded by Christ alone—is to take God at his word and trust God enough to stake one’s entire identity on the work of Christ. To believe is to declare God-in-Christ alone to be the generous giver of all that is good, righteousness and holiness included. Faith justifies alone precisely in this sense. As a believer one already is infinitely more than one could ever make of oneself.

In his polemic against Erasmus, On the Bondage of the Will (1525; in Luther’s Works 33), as well in his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45; here LW 5), Luther explores a different facet of “Christ alone.” In this work Luther is concerned with the nature and work of God and with divine revelation. A central question he pursues is how one finds the God who saves. The Bondage of the Will is without a doubt a complex work which poses a number of interpretive challenges. What we need to say about it is that Luther challenges here medieval accounts of God’s transcendence which placed divine and human agencies in a strictly non-competitive relation and, as a result, either practically or conceptually privileged human initiative in relation to God. Luther worries that, in consequence, the soteriological focus is taken off Christ and the burden of assuring one’s salvation is placed on the believer. In order to bring Christ back into focus, Luther articulates what is speculatively the strongest possible doctrine of divine agency. God, by virtue of being God, cannot but work life and death and all in all. Luther wants believers, first, to pay attention to God, and God alone. With this specter of God hidden in his own majesty, whose actions are inscrutable, Luther wants to lead reason to acknowledge that God cannot ultimately be confined to a sphere of action, however fitting, carved out for him by human speculation. God is free in relation to human cogitations about the divine. Reason must despair of itself when it reaches out toward God. But when it does so, when it finds itself at God’s mercy, it is now ready to recognize, through the proclamation of the gospel, that in his freedom God is none other than the Triune God he is. As this very God, God relates to history, time, and human agency on his own terms. Thus, paradoxically, Luther’s goal in The Bondage of the Will is not to affirm some sort of inscrutable God over and above the God revealed in Christ, a God at cross-purposes with his own revelation (this is the God that reason must run up against). Luther’s goal is to affirm that in Christ alone God is who he is. Not just because he happens to show himself to us there, but because he can be none other than the Father of his Son in their mutual Spirit. “Christ alone,” as articulated in The Bondage of the Will, emphasizes God’s freedom to reveal himself in his own being as the merciful God who brings comfort to a restless and disturbed conscience. Outside of Christ there is no revelation, no peace, and hence no salvation, for outside of Christ there simply is no God (see also Luther’s Works 5:42-50).

Like Luther, Jean Calvin points to Christ as the sole source of the believer’s righteousness before God (Institutes, III, esp. xi and xv). Calvin admits believers can be said to possess righteousness, but they do so only as partakers in Christ. Christ’s righteousness is communicated to the believer by imputation. For this reason, Christ, and he alone, remains the beginning and the fulfillment of a person’s salvation. What, throughout the history of the church, has detracted from this singular focus on Christ is, according to Calvin, the early adoption of the unscriptural term “merit.” This was initially intended to distinguish between works done from, and outside of, grace. However, when this distinction is divorced from a consideration of the work of Christ, what results is the effectual sidelining of Christ’s power to save and, in the end, also his dignity. Christ is, Calvin insists to the contrary, the Christian’s sole focus. Not only does one’s righteousness come exclusively from Christ. It is in Christ alone that one must also, without self-deception, contemplate one’s election. “Those whom Christ has illumined with the knowledge of his name and has introduced into the bosom of his church, he is said to receive into his care and keeping” (Institutes, III.xxiv.6).

More recent Protestant theology has, by and large, received appreciatively the Reformation’s witness to Christ alone, seeing in it an important voice and qualification within the larger catholic tradition. However, even where this reception is affirmative, it has not been uncritical of how the Reformation articulated the content of the exclusive particle or how it delineated its scope. Karl Barth, for example, though he acknowledged Calvin’s insistence on Christ as the sole mirror of the believer’s election, famously criticized the Reformed tradition for relegating Christ to the role of an executor of the Father’s inscrutable will to save only some. Unless the eternal Son, as the man Jesus Christ the Father intends him to be, is also the electing God, electing the Father’s will to be the God of love not just for God’s self but for a created other, the biblical concept of election, Barth maintains, is compromised (see Church Dogmatics II/2 [1942]). Here Barth articulates what is still inchoate in Luther. The absolute freedom of God is only the limit of human speculation about the divine. God’s actual freedom—including the divine will—is never naked and hence inscrutable but is the act of God’s own Triune being as love.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus—God and Man (1964), by contrast, articulates the exclusivity of Christ by drawing attention to Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection is a singular divine vindication of Jesus’ human life radically open and faithful to God. As such, it shows that Jesus’ divinity lies in the very depth of his humanity. Humans admittedly are characterized by openness to their world, which entails openness to God, but no person is capable of such openness without being personalized by total dependence and trust in God. The resurrection of Jesus, as the unfolding of God’s eschatological plan for humanity and indeed all creation, makes such dependence on God—such faith—possible.

Finally, Eberhard Jüngel, in Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith (1999), draws attention to the connection between “Christ alone” and the affirmation of Jesus’s divinity. Christ alone means that there are no other lords who can save. Now, for that to be the case, it must be true that in Christ God himself suffered and underwent our death, standing in his humanity as a representative of all humanity. Without God’s substitutionary and reconciling act, Christ would be only the example of a hero subjected to an inhuman death. But he would be no savior who is the death of death on behalf of all. Christ’s exclusivity, Jüngel argues, emphasizes his divinity and thus also his inclusive dimension as the human in whom all people are included.

The Reformation’s focus, in insisting on Christ alone, was more on the subjective dimension of Christ’s work, whether this was understood strictly soteriologically or epistemologically. The Reformation emphasized the believer’s comfort, assurance and peace of conscience. By and large, contemporary Protestant theology’s reception of the solus Christus has investigated more the objective aspects of the exclusive particle, that is, the matchless and conclusive character of Christ’s work. The particle points to the proper interpretation of this work, showing it to be none other than the self-expression and action of God himself, not only in time but also as reflected in the eternity of God’s triune life. In this objective emphasis, the more recent theology has argued for continued usefulness of the particle not so much from the perspective of the subjective criterion for true assurance as from the perspective of the concrete identity and character of God.

This article first appeared in Zondervan's Common Places series.

Luther Refracted

THE REFORMER’S ECUMENICAL LEGACY, ed. Piotr J. Małysz & Derek R. Nelson

Luther refracted.jpg

Luther Refracted speaks to the currency that Luther’s life and thought continue to enjoy in today’s Christian reflection. The contributors, representing a variety of Christian denominations, demonstrate Luther’s lasting impact on their own traditions and, together with the Lutheran respondents, encourage a fresh understanding of the Reformer. In their at times vigorous engagement, Luther’s legacy comes to light not only as variously received but also as contradicted, and transformed, only to reemerge as a fruitful leaven for further thought and transformation. All the essays presented here witness to Luther’s significance as a formidable doctor ecclesiae, a teacher of the church.


Listen to Timothy George’s interview with Piotr Małysz:




  1. Catholic Encounters with Martin Luther by Jared Wicks, SJ (Pontifcal College Josephinum)
  2. Spirituality, Ontology, and the Church: A Response to Jared Wicks by Piotr J. Małysz (Samford University)
  3. ‘The’ vs. ‘All’: Baptist Appropriations of Martin Luther’s Universal Priesthood by Brian C. Brewer (Baylor University)
  4. Angels of Light: Luther’s Liturgical Attack on Christendom by Matthew Myer Boulton (Christian Theological Seminary)
  5. Exocentric Ministry and Worship: A Response to Brian Brewer and Matthew Boulton by Derek R. Nelson (Wabash College)
  6. Martin Luther’s Deus Theologicus by David Tracy (University of Chicago)
  7. Much Ado About Nothing: The Necessary Non-Sufficiency of Faith by Matt Jenson (Biola University)
  8. Is Faith Really a Gift? A Response to David Tracy and Matt Jenson by Ted Peters (Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary)
  9. “Return to Your Baptism Daily”: Baptism and Christian Life by Susan K. Wood (Marquette University)
  10. “Every one must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone”: What this Episcopalian Learned from Martin Luther by Randall C. Zachman (University of Notre Dame)
  11. The Threat of Death, the Promise of Baptism, and the Vocational Form of Justification: A Response to Susan Wood and Randall Zachman by Ian A. McFarland (University of Cambridge)
  12. Luther’s Principle of sola scriptura in Recent Ecumenical Discussion by Johannes Zachhuber (University of Oxford)
  13. Learning from Luther: Reformed Appropriations and Differentiations by Anna Case-Winters (McCormick Theological Seminary)
  14. Scripture as Matrix, Christ as Content: A Response to Johannes Zachhuber and Anna Case-Winters by Paul R. Hinlicky (Roanoke College)


The Book That Cost a Cow

A Lutheran Testimony (of Sorts)

The book held pride of place in one of the kitchen cabinets. You could see it very well through the glass door: its thick black covers, the paper yellowish with age. Life at my grandparents’ house revolved around the kitchen, where the most basic necessities of life were always handy, where life itself happened. The book belonged to the basic stuff of life. On Saturday, sometimes Sunday mornings (especially when, because of old age, my grandparents were not always able to make it to church), my grandmother would walk over to the cabinet, take out the heavy tome, and solemnly take a seat at the head of the table. Only a loaf of bread was handled with similar care: you made the sign of the cross on it with your thumb to thank God for his daily provision before you sliced it up. The family, and whoever else was present, would already be seated. We all watched my grandmother attentively, even though we all knew the ritual. I had been brought up to know that the book was special: it had been purchased by my grandmother’s grandparents, and at that time its price was as much as a cow! Whatever else that meant, it clearly meant a lot of money! A lot of money for mountain folk trying to make a living off their meager land.

DambrowskiWhat was the book? Well, it was not the Bible. The Bible and the hymnals, both Polish and Slovak, had their place in the living room. The book bore the rather ponderous title typical of the time when it was first published, in the 17th century: Sermons, or Expositions of the Holy Gospels [as those are] Orderly Appointed for the Sundays throughout the Year.  Gathered from Holy Scripture and the Doctors of the Church, according to the ancient teaching and order of the true Christian Church, to the honor and glory of the Mighty God and the Savior Jesus Christ.  By the Reverend Samuel Dambrowski, shepherd of the Evangelical Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, etc.[1] The book, to put it briefly, was a Lutheran postil, a collection of sermons covering all the Sundays, feasts, festivals, and saints’ days of the year. Later on, to my surprise, I found there was even a sermon for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and the Feast of St. Barbara (a saint, we now know, was very much fictitious), and also one for the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Each sermon was preceded by the text of the Gospel lesson, given according to the lectionary, of which the sermon was an exposition, and in the earliest edition also by a woodcut illustrating the Gospel narrative.


This article appeared in Lutheran Forum 48:4 (Winter 2014), pp. 51-56. DOWNLOAD THE ENTIRE PIECE

[1] Samuel Dambrowski, Kazania albo wykłady porządne… (Toruń, 1620), followed by some fifteen editions, the last one in 1896.

Sin, between Law and Gospel

ImageBy Piotr J. Małysz

A fundamental question motivates these historically grounded reflections on sin: How can we talk about sin today? With a view to illuminating the answer, the following will reflect on certain conceptual dilemmas that came to define sixteenth-century Lutheran reflection on sin, and have punctuated it ever since. Our point of departure will be the Reformation’s radicalization of sin and its conceptual implications. In this light, we shall then consider how sin is disclosed. This will show the overarching dilemma in the relationship between law and gospel. When seen through the lens of sin, this relationship, I shall argue, appears to be more complex than the customary linear sequence in which the comfort of the gospel follows the accusation of the law and the conviction of sin. In fact, precisely this view leads to the loss of sin’s radical character, so crucial to Luther’s protest. The argument advanced here will be that, unless the gospel is related to the disclosure of sin, the Reformation’s insight about sin’s radicalness will be compromised, in the end minimizing not only sin but also grace. In the final section the essay addresses this very process by considering the impact which post-Reformation tensions, related to the nature of sin, exerted on the rise of autonomous human agency and being.

In Search of a Category

Philip Melanchthon’s charge in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) is that “the scholastic teachers . . . trivialize original sin.”[i] This should give us pause. For it is hard to overlook the proliferation, in the late Middle Ages, of confessional manuals notorious for giving detailed instructions to priests on how to tease out admission of guilt from unwilling penitents.[ii] Nevertheless, as early as Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518), there is a clear sense that there is more to sin. Sin is not just a transgression of the law, or a failure to keep it. Nobody in his right mind, including both Luther and his opponents, was interested in debating whether a crime was sinful. But Luther was vitally interested in debating whether, in addition to crimes, also those “works of man [which] always seem attractive and good . . . are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.”[iii] Luther readily admitted that the works he had in mind were “not mortal sins . . . as though they were crimes [crimina].” But he still concluded that the good, attractive, even law-abiding works that humans perform could, in fact, be sins meriting eternal damnation.

Seen from this angle, the Reformation began as a controversy over sin and good works, provoked by Luther’s indictment of good works, regardless of whether they were self-devised or perfectly consonant with the law. This is how Luther’s first opponents saw it, forcing him to clarify that he was not, in fact, against doing good works but against the self-righteousness and self-congratulation—in short, against sinful pride—that naturally attend good works.[iv] Already in the Ninety-five Theses (1517) Luther drew attention to the necessity and importance of doing good works, such as providing for one’s family.[v] This did not prevent Luther’s colleague, Nicholas von Amsdorf, from later making the notorious claim that good works were detrimental to salvation. Von Amsdorf’s view is certainly extreme, though not without precedent in Luther’s writings.[vi]

By contrast, today one rarely, if ever, hears Lutheran pastors speak to the good works of their congregants as likewise not immune to the danger of condemnation, perhaps even more in danger of it. After all, nobody wants to own their failures, but everyone wants to claim their successes. Today preaching sin seems to be confined largely to the law’s transgression. This brings us to the Reformation’s fundamental conceptual insight which, I think, ought to inform our consideration of sin today. It will not do simply to equate sins and crimes, sin and lawlessness, hamartiology and morality. But if we are not simply to equate them, how are we to relate them? Here two alternatives present themselves. The first option would be to regard crimes (crimina), as Luther understands them, merely as a subset of sin. Sin is simply a broader category: all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes. The larger set would then include also good works—those good works that are somehow deficient. With recourse to Kant, for example, we might blame this deficiency on the works being done only in accordance with duty, but not really out of duty.[vii] In that case, the opposite of sin would be virtue, wholehearted obedience to the law, which results not only in apparently or externally good works but in intentionally good works.

The alternative is sharply to distinguish sin and all works, including crimes, as belonging to entirely different categories. Distinction does not, of course, mean separation. To quote Eberhard Jüngel, “the necessity of distinguishing as sharply as possible emerges at the very point at which the things to be distinguished are bound together as tightly as possible.”[viii] But the relation is more complicated than that of larger sets to their subsets. The categorical distinction is, actually, the path taken by Luther and, albeit inconsistently, as we shall see, in the Lutheran Confessions. When one speaks of sin, it is certainly not enough to juxtapose evil deeds and good works—the goodness of good works is not determined ex opere operato, it is not automatic. But neither is it sufficient to place, on one side, evil deeds and only externally good works, and then juxtapose them with works that are truly intentionally law-abiding.[ix] Luther insists we must get at the root of the problem, “the inherited sin (Erbsünde), or the chief sin.”[x] This, for Luther, is unbelief. Although never quite transcending the category of human action and responsibility, unbelief belongs to a different category. Unbelief, the Reformer writes in his Preface to Romans (1522/1546), is “the root and source of all sin . . . unbelief alone commits sin . . . unbelief [is, in fact,] the only sin!”[xi] As early as The Babylonian Captivity (1520), we find Luther insisting that “no sin can condemn . . . save unbelief alone.”[xii]

One profound implication of this categorical shift, as Kierkegaard perceptively noted against the pious moralism of his own day, is that “the opposite of sin is by no means virtue.” “In part,” writes Kierkegaard, “this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, [namely,] that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: ‘whatever does not proceed form faith is sin.’ And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all of Christianity.”[xiii] In this respect, Kierkegaard may be seen as a good student of Luther, who likewise draws attention to the same juxtaposition. In his Sermons on the Gospel of John (1537), Luther contrasts sin and faith by noting that

unbelief retains all sin and cannot obtain forgiveness, just as faith delivers from all sin. Hence without this faith everything, including even the best works and life of which man is capable, is and remains sinful and damnable. Good works may be praiseworthy in themselves and commanded by God; but they are vitiated by unbelief and for this reason cannot please God just as all the works and life which spring from the faith of a Christian are pleasing to God. In brief, without Christ all is damned and lost; in Christ all is good and blessed.[xiv]


Revealing Sin

Locating sin beyond ethical categories raises some dilemmas, two of which I discuss in what follows. In this section we ask whether a rational case can be made for sin. In the ensuing sections we consider sin’s relation to our humanity. To consider whether a rational case can be made for sin, we must begin with the question of how sin is disclosed. The Lutheran commitment to preaching the law rests on the assumption that sin can be rationally brought to light—even if the Formula of Concord adds the caveat that without the Holy Spirit’s alien, convicting work the chances are rather slim![xv] However, in light of what has been said, it is not unreasonable to ask whether preaching the law can get at sin at all, with or without the Holy Spirit. But then why specifically preach the law? Can a jump be made from the knowledge of oneself as an occasional, or even habitual, law-breaker and impurely-motivated doer of the good to the knowledge of sin? Can a jump be made from an empirically established “tendency of man’s heart and nature,” as Jonathan Edwards would have it, to the knowledge of oneself as a sinner?[xvi] It seems the only way this can be done is by invoking some Anselmian assumption of debt that becomes infinite on account of the offended party: then a single offense, however slight in itself, makes one inescapably into a sinner. But even if we were to follow this route, is it at all commensurate with the insight that sin is, fundamentally, unbelief? In short then, what is it that we do when we preach the law? And in what sense does the illumination of legal failure prepare one for the gospel? Does the gospel play any role beyond being that for which the law prepares the way? These are some questions that, I believe, deserve more reflection than they customarily receive (Article V of the Formula of Concord notwithstanding). The “Lutheran” answers, it seems to me, cannot simply be taken for granted.


The entire article appeared in Lutheran Quarterly 28:2 (Summer 2014), 149-178.  DOWNLOAD


[i] Ap II.7: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 113 (hereafter, BC); Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (11th ed., Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 148 (hereafter, BSLK).

[ii] To this end, some of the manuals contained elaborate hierarchies, for example, of sexual sins; see Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 91, 141-2. For Luther’s reaction against excessive sexualization of sin, which obscures its true character, see his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45); in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 82 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955ff), 1:114 (hereafter, LW); D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. J. F. K. Knaake et al., 57 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883ff), 42:86 (hereafter, WA).

[iii] LW 31:39; WA 1:353.

[iv] Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian (1520): “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works” (LW 31:372-3; WA 7:70).

[v] Theses 41-46 (LW 31:12; WA 1:235).

[vi] See the editorial footnote appended by the Kolb/Wengert edition of The Book of Concord to Art. IV of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: BC 574, n. 139.

[vii] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor et al., rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 13.

[viii] Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” Theological Essays II, ed. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 218.

[ix] Rejected are also other views which tend to minimize the seriousness of sin, such as Peter Lombard’s teaching that “original sin is merely a reatus (obligation resulting from a debt incurred by someone else) without any corruption of our nature” (FC, Solid Declaration, I.17; BC 534-5; BSLK 850).

[x] Smalc. Art., III.1.1 (BC 310; BSLK 433).

[xi] LW 35:369; WA DB 7:7-8.

[xii] LW 36:60; WA 6:529.

[xiii] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, ed. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 82 (emphasis added).

[xiv]LW 24:344; WA 46:42.

[xv] FC, Solid Declaration, V.11 (BC 583; BSLK 955).

[xvi]The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758; London: Johnson and Keith, 1766), 32 [Part I, Chapt. I, Sect. III].

Exegesis the Lutheran Way

Excerpted from The Form and Meaning of the Fall Narrative by Norman C. Habel (1965)


Our moorings are biblical and our bearings are Lutheran. This means that we affirm certain presuppositions and follow certain basic principles of interpretation. In brief, these presuppositions and principles are as follows:


1.  The approach of the Lutheran exegete is governed by his faith in Jesus Christ, in whose name he has been baptized, and by whom he has been made righteous in God’s sight. This faith is anchored in the Gospel, the scandalous news that Jesus Christ died and rose again to execute God’s plan of redemption for sinful mankind.


2.  In the interpretation of Scripture, the Lutheran exegete must relate all of Scripture to its center, viz., solus Christus, that is, the message of justification by grace propter Christum [on account of Christ] through faith.


3.  In applying this principle the Lutheran exegete must follow the rule that “Scripture interprets Scripture” (Scriptura Scripturam interpretatur). Understood in its primary sense this rule means that the clear passages of Scripture, namely those which display the teaching of justification by grace through faith in all its force and glory, must be used to interpret and evaluate those portions of Scripture where this truth is obscure. In short, the right distinction between Law and Gospel must be rigorously maintained in all biblical exegesis (Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV 5).


4.  The Lutheran exegete also follows the norm that “the Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament,” that is, in the light of Christ’s advent as the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan of salvation. The ultimate context of the Old Testament is the New Testament . This principle is abused, however, when we insist that that New Testament interpretation or application of a given Old Testament passage is always the only meaning which God intends us to discover in that Old Testament passage.


5.  The Lutheran exegete must assume an attitude of subservience to the Scriptures as the inspired word of the living God which is designed to lead men to salvation. In so doing the exegete will always seek to determine the message which God intends to communicate in any given passage.


6.  By seeking to ascertain the intended sense of a given passage the Lutheran exegete is applying the principle sensus literalis unus est. The Latin formula stands in antithesis to the medieval method of discerning the fourfold meaning of each passage of Scripture. Sensus literalis has reference to the God-intended rather than surface meaning (sensus literae) of the biblical text.


7.  When attempting to determine the intended sense of a given text of Scripture the Lutheran exegete must employ all the tools at his disposal to discover the character or nature of the text with which he is dealing . In this task the evidence of the text itself must be taken into account and the analogy of comparable texts given due consideration. If this is done the exegete will not hastily jump to the conclusion that a given text is a chronicle, a law code, a parable, or any other kind of literature, without sufficient evidence.


8.  Finally the Lutheran exegete must pay special attention to the usus loquendi of the biblical writer, that is, he must try to ascertain what the terms, concepts, imagery, forms, etc., of a given text meant in the culture and specific historical situation of the audience to which the passage was originally addressed. God means to be understood and so he employs that living language or medium of expression which can be readily grasped by the original audience to which the speaker or writer addressed his message. In short, the exegete must attempt to become a part of the audience which the inspired biblical author addressed himself and to hear that writer speaking on his own terms, as far as this is humanly possible.