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The Beginnings of Luther's Hermeneutics*

by G E R H A R D E B E L I N G

The Christological Basis of Luther's Understanding of the Spirit able to indicate hastily the richness of the relationships in Luther's thoughts. Of course his thought, especially with respect to his concept of God, demands more precise interpretation. For our question concerning the proper understanding of the dualism in Luther, however, it will have become very clear that we cannot stop at the antithesis between creation and redemption, but rather that the entire problem is concentrated in christology. For Christ is simultaneously God and man, dead and alive, mortal and immortal. Certainly, says Luther, "Nearly every contradiction is here reconciled in Christ."139 That is the marvel, that here the antitheseswhich are otherwise opposed only dualistically, and which, in the tension between shadow and truth, only stand in relation to each other as if they were dividedare simultaneously united in a paradox. But does that mean that their antithetical nature is taken from them? Now it must be shown how, in Christ, the antitheses are united. Precisely there, where God is most present,140 namely as the incarnate God, he is hidden. W h y is he hidden? Because he is Spirit and the Spirit is invisible? Certainly also as the naked God he is the hidden and incomprehensible God, who dwells in a light where no one can approach.141 But then, in what is his hiddenness as the God clothed in flesh distinguished from his hiddenness as the naked God? Precisely in that here God makes himself hidden, he before whom all is naked and manifest, while before men all things are hidden.142 As the Spiritus Separatus God can certainly not be so hidden as he is hidden under the A bsconso Carnis.143 The hiddenness of the incarnate God is thus not the pure hiddenness of the spiritual, invisible, and interior God, but rather the hiddenness under the form of its contrary.144 Precisely because God becomes visible in Christ, in the way in which the
HA VE ONLY BEEN *Here we publish part two of the three-part serialization of Ebeling's investigation of the beginnings of Luther's hermeneutics. Part three will appear in our winter 1993 issue. 315



world itself is visible, he appears to the world as the opposite of what it expects from God. We fail to understand Luther's thoughts if we interpret them as ontological assertions. Certainly Luther can so formulate it that it sounds as if he wanted to characterize two spheres of beings with regard to their knowability in and for themselves, when he says, "Man is manifest, but God is invisible";145 or "Flesh is manifest but spirit is secret."146 The distinction that Luther is attempting to make is between two different, and indeed opposed and mutually exclusive, possibilities of knowledge and understanding. His distinction, however, is drawn, not between two different objects of knowledge, as it had previously been expressed, but rather between two different subjects of knowledge. Man is manifest, which means that the knowing and judging of a man is oriented to how things appear to him, as they are placed at his disposal. God, however, is invisible, which means that God's knowing and judging is independent of how things appear in the world-system, as they are at our disposal within the world. That man is manifest, therefore, not only signifies that he can be seen, but also that he sees only what is in front of his eyes. That God is invisible not only signifies that he cannot be seen, but also that he sees into what is hidden. Hence it is impossible to say of anything that it is knowable in itself or invisible in itself. Rather, everything is necessarily simultaneously knowable and hidden, yet in different aspects, and indeed, such that one aspect conditions the other. For one cannot simultaneously appear to the world and to God but must be hidden to one or the other.147 "What is hidden before God is clear before the world, and vice versa."148 Thus, two judgments stand opposed, the judgment of God and the judgment of men. What men elect, God condemns; and what men condemn, God elects. And this judgment of God is shown to us in the cross of Christ.149 The oneness of God and man in Christ means, therefore, that God allows it to happen that his judgment and the judgment of men coincide at this one point and thereby become evident in their disunity. Therefore God is not hidden in Christ in the usual sense, but is hidden instead under the contrary. For only through this oneness of weakness before the world and strength before God, of foolishness before the world and wisdom before God, can God be most present to men and destroy the deceit of another oneness, namely the oneness of justice before the world and justice before God, of the glory of the flesh and the glory of the Spirit.150 Herein the soteriological



meaning of the cross of Christ comes to light: it saves the spirit by condemning the flesh.151 And now the concept of the spiritual receives its clarity. The spiritual is everything, insofar as it is understood before God, which is to say, in light of the cross of Christ, in light of God's revelation, hidden under its contrary. Salvation is spiritual, insofar as it is understood, not as a certainty of being-inthe-world and as the bestowal of temporal goods, but rather as a being-crucified-with-Christ, in order to have life in the midst of death. The believer is spiritual insofar as he understands himself as hidden in God and therefore affirms his being-hidden before the world, in order to be hidden in this hiddenness under its contrary. The church is spiritual insofar as it is understood as hidden in this life, because she places her trust not in earthly means of power, but knows, rather, that she must be persecuted and that the most dangerous persecution is not to be persecuted but rather to live in security. But likewise, even sin is spiritual insofar as it is seen before God in his proper justice, in pious self-assertion in the face of God, in the flight away from being justified by God toward self-justification. Thus the spiritual is not a special realm of being, a sphere of pure spirituality, inwardness, and invisibility. To understand the hidden in that way is not to understand it at all spiritually, but rather carnally. Instead, the spiritual is a category of understanding. Whoever exists spiritually exists in the visible realm, but he exists in it not as manifest but rather as hidden. Something certainly can be seen, namely its contrary, but it is not spiritual living as such. To live in the Spirit, therefore, is nothing else than to live in faith. For Spirit and faith are one and the same.152

Luther's Hermeneutical Understanding of the Antithesis of Spirit and Letter It is overwhelming to see in the first Lectures On The Psalms how this concept of the Spirit, which is christologically oriented and yet related to human existence, operates as a disruptive force which causes the entire structure of traditional theological thinking to totter. We cannot at this point pursue any further the questions of justification and ecclesiology in which this process shows itself with special clarity. Instead, we shall proceed in the direction of our main problem and ask: What is the meaning of what we have thus



far achieved in respect to hermeneutics? Here, indeed, all the threads come together. For the dualism of the first Lectures On The Psalms, which makes itself known to us as a dualism of two ways of understanding, or more precisely, of understanding existence, is certainly not an insight achieved by speculation, but rather discloses itself here only from the knowledge of Christ. But how do we obtain knowledge of Christ? Certainly through the Scripture! But how is Scripture to be understood? If the dualism of understanding proves to be so radical, then it must certainly become acute here too, and precisely here, because here the source of understanding itself likewise penetrates into the dualism of mutually exclusive possibilities of understanding. That for Luther the hermeneutical problem in the first Lectures On The Psalms moves right to the center, thus hangs on the fact that for him the Word alone opens access to Christ. It is striking how seldom Luther mentions the sacraments. That is not accidental. By the method of allegory he could have expounded a full-length doctrine of the sacraments. That he did not do so is a clear sign of how, at the beginning of his hermeneutical development, the sacraments lay very much at the periphery of his thinking. It could be demonstrated that this negative fact is a symptom of his new theological approach. For the central position, which he accords to the Word, is affected by his fundamental theological idea of revelation in hiddenness. "Quia adeo abscondita est gloria regni christi et potentia, ut nisi per verbum predicationis auditui manifestetur, nonpossit agnosci, cum in conspectu oculorum maxime contrarium appareat. . . ,"153 Therefore, it is not correct to argue that for Luther the Word moves to the center, because for him revelation was identical with a doctrine, and therefore the proclamation of the doctrine mediates the gift of grace itself, just as the sacraments mediate grace itself. It was not Luther's view that the Word stands in opposition to the Catholic sacraments, becoming itself a sacrament by analogy to the traditional understanding of sacraments.154 Yet if we get to the bottom of the matter, the antithesis becomes all the more radical. "In this life, we do not possess the thing itself but testimonies of things, for faith is not the thing, but an argument of things not apparent."155 With this, the entire Catholic sacramental system is already tacitly turned upside down. Luther did not quite say: The Word does not mediate the thing itself, but the sacraments mediate it. Had Luther spoken in this way about the sacraments, how very much he would have



bestowed upon them the pathos of his theological thinking! But what Luther said about the Word, that it is only testimonies, "not . . . an exhibition of present things but only testimonies of future things,"156 tolerates no correction through the sacraments, which would have elevated them above the Word, so that they were the exhibition of present things. For: "All our good exists only in Word and Promise."1571 would not maintain that Luther had consciously formulated these thoughts in contrast to the prevailing doctrine of the sacraments. But viewed objectively, they stand in the sharpest antithesis to it. In his boldly executed interpretation of the concept of testimony, this observation stands out starkly: "Nothing but words . . . not the things themselves, but the signs of things."158 Certainly one might immediately think of a reference to the adoration of the host, when he says: "Heavenly things cannot be shown like things present but can only be proclaimed by the Word."159 But no weight should be given to this. What is decisive, as Luther formulates it positively, is where then the things remain: "Because things not apparent are hidden in words through faith, the one who has the words has all things through faith, even if hidden."160 Faith, therefore, corresponds to the Word, just as grace corresponds to the sacraments as the sacramental efficacy. But while sacramental grace is the thing, faith is not the thing itself, but rather the substance of future things. Now he who has the Word through faith certainly does not have nothing; but neither does he merely have some specific consequence of grace; rather, he simply has everything! If we consider how firmly the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments is anchored in christology, we can say that Luther did not understand the presence of Christ sacramentally,161 but rather eschatologically. The sense in which this was so shall become clear only later; for now it is enough to allude to the eschatological tension in his expressions: "Not in actuality but in hope; not in sight but in faith; not the exhibition of present things but the testimonies of future things." We could ask: Was the sacrament not the most appropriate object to which Luther could have applied his thought on hiddenness under a contrary? I am familiar with only one passage in the Dictata where he does that: "the Sacrament of the Eucharist where He is most completely concealed."162 But there, too, in his characteristic way, he turns back again to the incarnation. That deepens the insight into why for Luther everything is concentrated on the Word. Not in the sacrament as it was understood by the Scholastics, but



rather only in the Word in its correlation to faith does the recognition come that the hiddenness under a contrary is not an objective condition but rather hints at the clamping-together of christology and existential understanding. And therefore the connection between Word and faith signifies that the relationship to Christ has something to do with the problem of understanding: That Christ is Lord we have only by hearing in faith."163 "It is the nature of the Word to be heard."164 So here the whole dualism is further broken open. What kind of Word is it then? And what kind of hearing is it? Is it an external Word, proclaimed vocally and heard by the ear? Or is it an internal and invisible Word, spoken directly in the heart and heard interiorly?165 If it simply happens to us, then it is certainly a human word and of the letter. For only when it happens in us is it God's Word and of the Spirit.166 Upon this hangs the question of the "efficacious Word." For "the Word of God has motive power above all things," 167 and is thus not only a "teaching power" but also a "motivating power."168 The antithesis between the external Word as letter and the internal Word as spirit sometimes seems for Luther to be stretched right to the breaking point. Yet the tension is not broken. It does not come to the point of rendering God's speaking interiorly over against the letter of Scripture. "God uses our words . . . as tools with which He Himself writes living words in our hearts."169 Luther has nothing to do with the psychological problem of how, in general, a word which has been perceived with the senses, read, or heard can penetrate into the heart. In a formal sense, each word is able to beget living letters in the heart, "since nothing could be received into a living subject unless it were living."170 In this formal sense, the spirit is certainly always hidden in the letters. The question, rather, is how, through the literal Word, the Spirit of God can write such living letters into the heart, letters which are enlivened by God. Here the idea of hiddenness under a contrary holds good. In fact: "the spirit is concealed in the letter."171 But, in this theological sense, the spirit is not concealed in every letter, but only in the Holy Scripture, because Scripture is the testimony of Christ. But then the Scripture is not the Word of God in the sense of an objective report. Rather, we can now formulate it suitably as follows: the Word of God is hidden in Scripture. But if the Word of God is encountered in this way through the Holy Scripture, then it is obviously determined by the understanding of Scrip-

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ture whether it becomes letter or spirit for a person. And then it is obviously the duty of exegesis to disclose the spirit in the letter, to interpret Scripture not literally but rather spiritually. But does this not confuse the matter? Is it not so that in the one instance it is a matter of an existential understanding in which the Word of God encounters me and so the letter becomes the spirit, while in the other instance the question of exegetical method arises, which is at the disposal of men? How these two relate to each other, the understanding in faith (or the non-understanding in faithlessness) and the method of scriptural exposition, brings the hermeneutical problem to a crisis. If we trace the antithesis of spirit and letter to the utter limits to which Luther takes it, right up to the point where this distinction meshes with the question of scriptural exposition, the lines threaten to become inextricably entangled. The concepts of spirit and letter, along with their parallel concepts, mean for Luther, as we have made clear, two mutually exclusive ways of understanding existence, namely, existence before God or before the world. What it means to exist before God (i.e., spiritually) in the hiddenness under a contrary, is revealed on the Cross and stated through the gospel as the Word of the Cross to the world. Whoever takes offense at the Word of the Cross falls all the more into living carnally. To him the Word of the Cross becomes condemnation.172 On the other hand, the Word of the Cross awakens faith in anyone who bows before that Word; that is, his existence comes to be one of living spiritually under the gospel, which is now an acquittal, revealed to the spiritual but hidden from the carnal.174 That it comes to the one as well as to the other, namely, that the gospel is understood either as folly or as the wisdom of God (which means that the one stands aloof from the gospel in faithlessness, and from thenceforth understands himself out of that which is at his own disposal and seeks his own righteousness; while the other opens himself to the gospel in faith, understands himself out of that which is not at his own disposal, and thus allows Christ to be his righteousness; that to the one the gospel thus becomes a killing letter while to the other it becomes the life-giving spirit), does not lie in the power of the one who expounds Scripture.175 So to this extent, the distinction of spirit and letter has nothing to do with scriptural exposition. It is surely something different that the exposition of Scripture must be oriented toward the knowledge of these two



possibilities, of this Either/Or, which is to say, of the meaning of the Cross of Christ. To this extent the distinction of spirit and letter is indeed the diacritical mark which properly orients scriptural exposition. To the extent that scriptural exposition is not so oriented, such that the Word of the Cross is not illuminated but darkened, it becomes difficult, if not utterly impossible, for the gospel to pronounce judgment one way or the other. Or stated more properly, it reinforces the tendency to remain undisturbed in carnal living; it suggests that one adapts Scripture to this carnal understanding of existence and thus places Scripture in the service of his own righteousness. Conversely: to the extent that scriptural exposition is oriented according to this distinction between spirit and letter, and thereby becomes the interpretation of the Word of the Cross, it expounds the genuinely decisional character of the gospel and serves (in a way which is entirely beyond the control of the expositor himself) to arouse either resolute unbelief or faith. There are thus, in fact, both relevant and irrelevant kinds of scriptural exposition. And in this sense we seem to be justified in characterizing the relevant sort (i. e., scriptural exposition which is oriented according to the distinction between spirit and letter) as spiritual, and the irrelevant sort (i. e., scriptural exposition which obliterates this distinction) as literal or, alternatively, as carnal. But this is providing that we allow the sense of the words "spiritual" and "literal" (or "carnal") to be strongly oriented to the Either/Or of these two understandings of existence which are separated by the Cross of Christ. Yet we must be careful about the use of these characterizations. For they are simply inseparable from other pressing questions which adhere to them. That becomes clear in Luther's scintillating use of language in the first Lectures On The Psalms. It is certainly quite instructive to recognize how the problems are interlinked for Luther, without his yet arriving at a conceptualization which clarifies the problems' connections and guarantees against a false coalescing. This state of affairs compels us to measure the infinite fullness of his links of reasoning and formulations against his manifest intentions. From this I derive the right to distinguish in the way that has already been expounded: Sometimes the spiritual and the literal are characterizations of two possibilities of understanding human existence. At other times they become characterizations of two ways of scriptural exposition, the one ree-

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ognizing the possibility of these two mutually exclusive understandings of human existence, the other allowing this knowledge to go by the board. But now two distinct problems appear.

The Relationship of Faith and Understanding The first problem is as follows: Can only the person who exists spiritually know about the possibility of these two mutually exclusive understandings of existence? Moreover, can only one who is himself a believer expound the Scripture rightly? The Dictata offer rich material for these questions, material which seems to be attuned to a single keynote: Only one who is illumined by the Holy Spirit, only the believer, can understand and expound the Scripture. Yet we would make this matter too easy if we felt content with this information and thereby allowed all further hermeneutical reflections to be truncated. That Luther so interrelates faith and understanding characterizes the existential thrust of his theological thought. It is not an inability to draw distinctions, but rather the power of integration, which impels him not to place theological assertions next to each other as separate objects of thought nor to bring them into a Scholastic system, but rather to lay hold of what is objectively separated where it all comes together at a single point and is no longer an object but rather an event, namely in human existence. And, indeed, in human existence understood as one or the other of these two ways. And this self-understanding of humanity stands, in turn, in an indissoluble correlation to the understanding of that which encounters humanity. Luther's assertions about humanity are chiefly governed by categories of understanding like sapere (sense), sentire (feeling), cognoscere (knowledge), intelligere (intelligence), and so forth. But then, if all theological assertions are understood in their existential thrust, it is a self-evident consequence that the anthropological categories in Luther's theological vocabulary (like caro [flesh], spiritus [spirit], mens [mind], cor [heart], anima [soul], conscientia [conscience], affectus [affect or emotion], voluntas [will], intellectus [intellect or understanding], etc.) play a large role. And therefore, because the theological assertions are set in connection with human existence, the anthropological categories obtain a peculiar ambivalence. For example, the question of what the term spiritus means in any given case does not resolve itself into



a simple alternative between the spirit of humanity and the Spirit of God. Certainly there are passages where Luther uses spiritus univocally as an anthropological category: "Two things are in a person, spirit and flesh."176 And conversely, there are obviously passages where God's Spirit alone is meant. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, spiritus is the human spirit of man as enlightened by the Spirit of God, that is to say, the self-understanding of humanity as it is oriented to God, human existence before God understood as such. For: "We all . . . are poor before God, but we do not all acknowledge the fact."177 This becomes especially clear in the use of the concept intellectus and its derivatives. We encounter seemingly contradictory assertions. Usually Luther sets intellectus in the sharpest antithesis to sensus, intelligible things to perceptible things, and thus understanding becomes a correlative concept to faith or spirit. On the other hand, Luther can say: "Faith does not enlighten the understanding; indeed, it blinds it,"178 and "faith does not require understanding."179 Luther is well aware of the ambivalence of the concept of intellect, and indeed, of all concepts, depending on the understanding of existence on which they are based.180 This ambivalence is also found in Scripture: "Scripture . . . when it speaks of things as they are before God, and when [it does so] as they are before humans." 181 Herein is the reason that in the vocabulary of Scripture, intellectus means a being-determined-by, and not, as in philosophy, simply a potency. Thus, in its proper biblical sense, intellectus is not something obtained through philosophy or nature, but only through theology and grace, namely the knowledge of the meaning of Christ; more clearly still, it is "the wisdom of the Cross of Christ."182 But now because faith is a self-understanding which arises from the encounter with the Word of Scripture, so it is understandable why faith is so tightly bound up with understanding, and why the spiritual understanding plays so large a role in Luther's claims as to how one may arrive at an understanding of Scripture. This has not the slightest thing to do with intellectualism. For wherever the misunderstanding of faith as a purely intellectual act suggests itself, Luther plays off emotion against intellect in the sharpest terms,183 to express the fact that faith affects one's whole existence, and particularly one's will. The bold use of anthropological categories thus does not spring from the fact that Luther somehow wanted to stress the autonomy of humanity over against God. On the contrary, it was his only objective to see humanity



entirely before God, and even to refer all assertions about God to human existence before God. That is why the expressions in Scripture such as conspectu dei, coram deo, apud deum, and ante deum are so abundant.184 Self-understanding before God and knowledge of God are one and the same. For self-understanding before God is precisely the opposite ofthat self-observation by which God's and humanity's relatedness to one another is torn apart in such a way that one considers only oneself and God considers only himself. To be "in conspectu dei" certainly means simultaneously that God sees and humanity is seen, and that humanity sees and God is seen. The "sight of God" is simultaneously to be understood actively and passively. "Because [God] sees us; so he makes himself seen by us."185 If we keep in view this kind of theological thinking in Luther, we will be able to rightly evaluate his many assertions about the right disposition for understanding Scripture, the necessity of faith, the spiritual understanding, the conformity of affect, humility, and so forth. Although echoes of the heritage of mysticism resonate here (one thinks of such expressions as "rapture" and "ecstasy"), Luther inserts them in such a fashion as to accentuate the existential thrust of all theological statements. It would cast everything into a false light if we made of this something obvious and at one's disposal, so that the person who reads or interprets Scripture observes, himself as to his possession of the Spirit, his own humility, how he is affected and thus attempts to prove himself before others. "Even if the efficacious word of the gospel stands with the empassioned soul, it nevertheless does not [stand] from the empassioned soul."186 If one tries to make this existential understanding into a method of exegesis, he has not understood what the terms "existential" and "before God" mean, nor that being-spiritual is a being-hidden under a contrary. Here the hermeneutical circle comes into play, which even Luther knows: "How are we able to become illumined, unless we become blind? And how will we become blind, unless we are illumined?"187 Whoever attempts to understand and expound Scripture should take into account all that Luther says about the relationship of faith and understanding. But he should not commit the folly of basing the method of his exegesis upon some alleged unity of faith and understanding which he presumes to have found in himself. For we have God's Word only in actu..188 But human existence is a constant being-underway, and as movement, is but an "incomplete act, always partly acquired and partly to be acquired, always in between contraries and consisting from one



end and to another. "189 Human existence is "an advance from act to act" and therefore also "from understanding to understanding, from faith to faith."190 And this process is nothing other than a perpetual beginning.191 What was previously spirit for someone is now letter for him.192 Thus, the trinitarian dogma was spirit to the fourth century, while to us it is now letter.193 For the acquired understanding is always letter in view of the acquiring understanding.194 The step on which one finds oneself is always letter in light of that which lies before him.195 This readiness to leave what lies behind as letter and to stretch oneself out after the spirit;196 to observe oneself not as the one who illuminates but as the one who is to be illuminated;197 to know that "every passage in Scripture is to be infinitely investigated {infinite intelligentie)198all this means to take Scripture seriously as a testimony, namely, as a "Testimonia eorum, que nondum intellexisti."199 The knowledge of this dialectic of understanding is "the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom."200 Therefore let no one appeal to Luther in support of the idea that scriptural exegesis is "spiritual" only if the exegete himself is in possession of the Spirit. For one can speak of a "spiritual exposition" only in cases where the exposition is oriented by the distinction between spirit and letter.

The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments The other problem which interlocks with the distinction of spiritual and literal scriptural exegesis and causes nearly unavoidable confusion among these concepts is the question of the unity of Scripture. We have established that scriptural exegesis must be oriented by the Cross of Christ, and that means by the distinction of spirit and letter in the sense of two mutually exclusive understandings of human existence, if the exegesis wants to be relevant. Yet is this not begging the question? Is there not something being imported into the individual scriptural passage which in itself it does not contain; and if so, is it then still exegesis? Do we not violate the text if we proceed from the assumption that Scripture has one and the same perspective in all its parts, namely the Cross of Christ? It may be a correct and perhaps necessary thesis, brought in from systematic theology, when Luther says: "All the words of God are one, simple, consistent, and true, because they all point



toward the same thing, however many there are."201 And indeed: "In Christ all words are one Word, and outside of Christ they are many and vain."202 It is evidently quite otherwise if we approach the Scripture and try to prove the accuracy of this thesis exegetically. The issue which traditionally made the unity of Scripture problematic and generated the greatest difficulties for Christian exegesis naturally gave impetus to intensive exegetical efforts in Luther's exposition of the Psalms as well, namely, the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. For in the Old Testament, Jews and Christians struggle against each other, like Esau and Jacob in the womb of Rebecca.203 If it is said that one must first have the New Testament in order to understand the Old,204 then it would surely be conceded to Jewish exegesis that the Old Testament, taken for itself, leads to this exegesis. But is it not the single correct hermeneutical standpoint to expound the Old Testament purely from its own contents? How can one justify it hermeneutically to proceed otherwise in order to prove that Jewish exegesis is a mistaken interpretation? Luther even goes so far as to say: "If the Old Testament could be expounded by human sense without the New Testament, I would say that the New Testament then is given for nothing."205 This means that the New Testament is the exposition of the Old Testament; therein its meaning expends itself. Thus, according to this perspective, which in itself is entirely traditional, the Old and New Testaments relate to each other like text and exposition. This means not only that single passages of the Old Testament find their exposition in the New, but also that the Old Testament as a whole is text and the New Testament as a whole is exposition. And the general problem, how text and exposition relate to each other, wherein they are one and wherein they are distinct, is thus the same as the problem of the unity and the differentiation of the Old and the New Testaments. Thus, not only does the hermeneutical problem arise for the person who approaches the exposition of the Holy Scripture, but that problem is inherent in Scripture itself. And indeed, the two-part canon of Scripture, with Old and New Testaments, with text and exposition, not only poses the hermeneutical problem thus, but actually claims according to this understanding to offer the solution to the hermeneutical problem. In the way in which the New Testament is the exposition of the Old, the authoritative paradigm is given for a general method of approaching the exposition of a text. This thought, that the Holy Scripture is,



so to speak, a textbook of hermeneutics, through the very fact that the Old and New Testaments stand side by side, appears a peculiar construction. Certainly, in the history of scriptural exposition this at least is confirmed, insofar as the Holy Scripture was taken de facto as a textbook of hermeneutics, but only in the superficial sense that people saw obliging paradigmatic examples of exegesis in the quotation and exposition of Old Testament passages in the New. Luther, too, in his first Lectures On The Psalms, took every available opportunity to refer to the exposition which is to be found in the New Testament of certain passages from the Psalms.206 But this conception of Scripture as a textbook of hermeneutics was also valid in the much deeper sense that one employs the categories by which he grasps the relationship between the Old and New Testaments as the controlling hermeneutical categories. Let me connect this with something said earlier. Already in the New Testament itself, this relationship of the Old and New was seen according to two different schemes. The one was that of prophecy and fulfillment. It has its widest manifestation in the antithesis between figure (or shadow) and truth. For not only are the direct prophecies (real or imagined) grasped, but also the indirect correspondences between the Old and New Testaments (i.e., the allegorical structure of the Old and New Testaments), that is, that the Old Testament, understood as the prophecy of the New Testament, means something other than what the words say directly. The other scheme is that of letter and spirit, and primarily signifies the antithesis of law and gospel. Just as the prophecy/fulfillment scheme is based on the idea of the positive relationship of the Old and New Testaments, though with a faint antithetical undertone, so the original letter/spirit scheme is based on the very idea of antithesis, and in any case certainly with a definite synthetic undertone. Now, to the extent that the main stress was laid upon the positive relationship of the Old and New Testaments, the prophecy/fulfillment scheme had to gain the hermeneutical ascendancy, and the letter/spirit scheme was almost absorbed. That was the case in the ancient church and the Middle Ages, so that letter and spirit were understood as hermeneutical categories on the basis of the figure/fulfillment scheme, but so understood in the sense that "literal" meant literal-historical exposition and "spiritual" meant allegorical exposition. From a definite interpretation of the relationship of Old and New Testaments thus arose a definite hermeneutical theory, namely, that the New

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Testament was the allegorical interpretation of the Old. And one saw a mystery therein, which endowed the Old Testament with a special halo. We saw that concerning this, Augustine had recognized the original sense of letter and spirit, but had not been able to make it hermeneutically fruitful. Well, how did Luther deal with this problematic situation? He worked out the antithesis of the Old and New Testaments much more rigorously than was done in traditional exegesis, and indeed, he did so with the concepts of letter/spirit as the characteristics of two mutually exclusive understandings of human existence. What we recognized as the core of the great dualism in the first Lectures On The Psalms, Luther thus saw to be present in the Scripture itself. The relationship of the Old and New Testaments is that of antithesis, and indeed, between these two mutually exclusive understandings of human existence. The people of the Old Testament and the people of the New Testament relate to each other as flesh and spirit. The one is due to the birth of the flesh in wrath, the other to the birth of the spirit in grace.207 Under the Old Testament, one turned one's face toward earthly things and turned one's back on Christ.208 While the gospel teaches only spiritual matters, the law adapts itself to carnality.209 While the gospel reveals hidden spiritual sins, the law only worries about the sins which go against the justice of the flesh.210 And so the antitheses go on. Under the law man understands himself only before men.211 It mediates only a worldly sanctity,212 a righteousness of the letter,213 a visible justice.214 One fulfills the law only under compulsion,215 in servile fear.216 And so, too, only temporal matters are promised.217 The Old Testament was concerned only with earthly and not spiritual salvation218 and therefore with a salvation which was granted to the good and the evil indiscriminately219 and was not at the same time judgment. 220 The Mosaic law writes dead letters in the heart, namely, a literal salvation and glory.221 Therefore it is the killing letter.222 Luther uses the sharpest words: "The mandates of Moses are hateful."223 "In the Law of Moses is neither good word nor good work."224 Indeed, Moses is merely equated with all the rest of the lawgivers,225 his law with human laws in general.226 Therefore it is also transient227 and confined to a definite people.228 But we also find very strong evidence in Luther of the other scheme, namely that the Old Testament is seen as the figure and shadow of the New Testament. Accordingly, he made rich use of



Old Testament allegorization. The traditional understandings of "literal" and "spiritual," according to which literal simply means pertaining to letters and words, and spiritual means allegorical, slip in everywhere. I forego quoting examples of this familiar fact. Rather, all stress must now be laid on the observation that Luther, though constrained by the tradition, made a decisive start in breaking the chains of the customary hermeneutic. Already it is noticeable that he accentuates more strongly the negative ring to the concepts of shadow and figure. That the law is the shadow of truth and not the truth itself is not a statement which would eliminate or temper its other characteristic as the killing letter. On the contrary, both are identical: as the shadow of truth (i.e., as vanity), the law is the killing letter.229 The "shadow" is obviously not the mysterious twilight from which the right to extract an allegorical meaning may be derived; rather, Luther understands this to be real night.230 We thus realize how, in contrast to the exegetical tradition, the rightly understood distinction of letter and spirit draws to itself the figure/fulfillment scheme and gives it a new sense. We can recognize this also from the fact that the concept of "spiritual," even where it apparently still means "allegorical," nevertheless already takes on the genuine sense which results from the theology of the Cross. The "spiritual" (meaning: allegorical) interpretation is controlled by a "spiritual" exposition, which is spiritual because it understands how to distinguish between letter and spirit in the sense of law and gospel. When Luther says that with spiritual eyes one should see in the Mosaic law the law of faith lying hidden and closed, then he obviously has in mind the current familiar thought of allegorical hiddenness. And yet, simultaneously connected with this is the entirely different thought which orients the removal of the veil and the bringing-to-light of the unveiled toward the distinction of law and gospel.231 As Luther increasingly brings to center stage the connection between the figure/fulfillment scheme and the distinction between the two mutually exclusive understandings of human existence, he gradually dispels the impression that this scheme pertains to a mystery which is to be revealed allegorically: "Every law and human justice is a shadow and figure of that true justice which is in the spirit before God, and without which it is necessarily hypocrisy." 232 And therefore, as Luther saw the Old Testament ever more strongly in the light of the Cross, all the more are we impelled



to suppose that the thought of hiddenness under a contrary comes into conflict with the thought of allegorical hiddenness, and ultimately even leads to its removal. But in order really to recognize this, we must still bore one level deeper. The figure/fulfillment scheme in the ordinary sense understands the distinction of Old and New Testament as a gradation. There is something present in the Old Testament which therefore entitles the lines of connection with the New Testament to be drawn out. This thought is also found in Luther. "The Law was the beginning of the Gospel, which perfects the Law."233 And then the allegorical exposition appears as a legitimate means of making this process visible, as the suitable method by which to treat the Old Testament so that it therefore becomes the New Testament. "The law may not be spiritual except through a transmutation and an exposition offigures."234But Luther is quite aware that a real transformation of the Old Testament into the New is not a matter of exegetical method, but rather takes place through Christ. "Out of the letters of the law, indeed, out of an informed lump, the Lord shapes and makes the law [into] Spirit: he reduces the letter into Spirit."235 And therefore the transformation of the Old Testament into the New takes place not just by an allegorical reinterpretation but rather by a conversion into something completely opposite. "Everything which was in glory in terms of the law, he changed into disgrace. "23e Indeed, all this was a figure of internal and spiritual things. But precisely because it was, it had to yield before, and become polluted and profaned by, the coming of what it had signified. Indeed, Luther extends this thought even further: "Even if today all things which are beautiful, elegant, strong, and good in the world mostly aptly signify spiritual things, nevertheless, it will happen that they must be spit out, and their opposites chosen. "237 Here it becomes clear that the lines from the Old Testament to the New Testament stretch over the Cross and therefore proceed from itto put it picturesquelycrosswise. Thus, Christ makes the law into the gospel. The way from the Old Testament to the New leads "through the killing and death, literally, of both shadows and figures."238 The destruction of the body of Christ at his death on the Cross, the destruction of the synagogue, and the destruction of the carnal man are all one event which spring up from the same root.239 But radicality of this destruction is not changed by Luther's addition: "Nothing, however, is destroyed, but truly is changed into something better."240 For this change into something better takes place



through the death of the old. Thus is the agreement of the Old and New Testaments to be understood: "the Old and the New Law come together, just as the old man is slain and the new man is revived. . . . And so they come together amicably."241 And what is it that is conducive to the correct exposition of the Old Testament? Luther says repeatedly: "The spiritually understood Law is identical with the Gospel."242 Now does that mean that the Old Testament allegorically interpreted is identical with the gospel? Obviously not! It means, rather, that the law, understood as the killing letter, is one with the gospel; and conversely, that the "literally-understood law"243 is the same understanding of the law which finds the law to be sufficient and does not recognize it as the killing letter. So, are there then two possible ways to understand the old law? Indeed so! Yet these two possibilities of understanding are not divided in such a way that, besides the literal sense, the letter still also has an allegorical sense, but rather in such a way that man can understand his relationship to one and the same law in two quite different ways. It is one and the same state of affairs, namely, the old law as the killing letter, in which two understandings of human existence part company. The one does not understand himself to be killed by the law. But precisely then the law is, in fact, the killing letter. The other does understand himself to be killed by the law. But precisely then the killing letter points the way to the life-giving spirit. That the old law is the promise of the new law is thus not based on the fact that besides being of the killing letter, it is something different from it. Instead, its character as the killing letter is its promissory character. For "the Old Law understood spiritually is nothing but the crucifixion of the flesh."244 Luther tries to make this clear with a very graphic picture. The statement in Psalm 103:2 (104:2), "You stretch heaven out like a tent," Luther interprets allegorically of the old law. It divides between the waters above the firmament and below the firmament, namely between spirit and letter. The Jews, who stand under the law and therefore only have its inferior parts, only see its concave side. Conversely, Christians, who stand above the law and therefore have its superior parts, recognize its convex side.245 Both possibilities of understanding the law therefore do not fall apart like its literal and allegorical meaning, but rather presuppose the identity of the letter which, described pictorially, is therefore convex on one side precisely because it is concave on the other, and is therefore promise precisely



because it is the killing letter. One might immediately veil this state of affairs with allegorical meaning. The insight into the distinction of letter and spirit in the sense of law and gospel thus has hermeneutical consequences. It compels us to abandon the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. But are we not making a gross mistake? Must we not sharply distinguish between law and Old Testament? As much as Luther does this later, in the first Lectures On The Psalms the concepts are still enmeshed for him. Old and New Testaments stand against each other as old law and new law. And yet, in these very lectures, the way is paved for the later distinction between law and the Old Testament in consequence of his correct differentiation between spirit and letter. Luther recognizes that already in the time of the Old Testament itself, both understandings of human existence were struggling with each other. The Pharisaic understanding of the law opposed the prophetic.246 The former took the law only as letter; that is, their understanding of human existence was defined by the law as something perfect. They had their justification in the law. The latter, on the contrary, had both the spirit and the letter at once; that is, their understanding of human existence was defined by the law as something imperfect, and therefore as passing away. They did not attempt to achieve justification through the law, but rather prayed for it, "as the letter retreats, the Spirit advances; the veil is removed, the face appears; Christ comes and Moses leaves."247 So they had not the naked letter, but rather a letter which was hiding the things of the spirit.248 And yet Luther made a distinction: they did not have a revealed faith, but rather only a simple literal faith;249 that is, they did have the Spirit in simple hiddenness, yet still not in hiddenness under a contrary.250 Furthermore, Luther begins to understand that the time of the law and the time of grace are not simply chronologically successive,251 that even the gospel can become for someone an "impossible law."252 For "until now the one who is under sin is also under the law."253 This yields a deep insight into the relationship of the Old and New Testaments and into the necessity of both Testaments for the church. Psalm 103:10 (104:10) says this: "You cause fountains to spring forth in the valleys, that water may flow between the mountains." Luther interprets this pictorially: The two mountains which form a deep valley are the Old and New Testaments. The mountains are different: the one is a mere hill in comparison to the other. The peak



of the Old Testament is the glory of the world; the peak of the New Testament is the glory of heaven. And yet these two come together in the bottom of the same valley, in one root of truth. In this valley the church finds itself in this life: "In this life one lives in between two mountains namely, between the corresponding old and new law."254 Therefore the church is reminded that its existence is a pilgrimage, an existence between the times, that is, between the time of the law and the time of grace. For just as the people of the Old Testament were shadows of the future people, so too, the present church is the shadow of the future church.255 For "shadows" do not signify something static, but rather movement and even destruction.256 As the way of the Old Testament leads to the New, so the way of the church also leads toward its fulfillment only over the Cross of Christ. Has something therefore changed with respect to Old Testament exposition? Indeed, in the first Lectures On The Psalms, Luther believes it is necessary to emphasize the prophetic character of the Old Testament by means of allegorization. And even if he, along with Faber Stapulensis, understands the prophetic meaning of the Psalms christologically as the literal sense, this still does not overcome allegory in principle; on the contrary, it is the alleged legitimation for it. But amid this christological interpretation, which is so strongly oriented by the Cross, the hermeneutical change breaks in. For if the decisive connection of the Old and New Testaments lies in the Cross of Christ, such that precisely there a revolutionary change in one's understanding of human existence takes place, and precisely there the law is brought to light as law, then one can confidently, and of necessity, expound the Old Testament literally and keep free from all allegorical whitewashing, so that the Old is really seen to be the Old; and we must leave it only to the literal understanding to determine to what extent a new understanding of human existence already announces itself in the Old Testament which has an inkling that the law is the killing letter. Thus, Luther's struggle with the relationship of spirit and letter in the first Lectures On The Psalms had already laid the ground for the hermeneutical change which first became visible in 1516, and even then, not with all its practical consequences.

T H E B E G I N N I N G S OF L U T H E R ' S H E R M E N E U T I C S NOTES 139. 55:2.1, 73.13-15 (3:5 - 5 ) 140. 55:1.1, 86.7 (3:93.12). 141. 3:i24.3off. 142. 3:4ii.8f. 143. 4:83.i6ff. 144. 4:449.35^ 145 y-302.ig{. 146. 3:203.22f. *47- 3 35 - 9 148. 3:112.25.
: 8 2 f 2 2 f


149. 3:463.15fr. 150. CF. 4:82.14fr. 151. 3:166.22. 0 152. 3:150.16fr. and 27 . 1 26 53 4539-4:45 54 Certainly it is correct that in the Reformation the Word of God takes the place which in the Roman Church is taken by the sacraments. Luther himself can later designate the effect of the word as sacramental in order to demonstrate the viewpoint of the efficacy of the Word. But it must not be overlooked that the difference from the Catholic conception lies already in the understanding of the nature of sacramental efficacy. *55 3 : 2 793-3 2 156. 4:310.29. E. Iserloh (see above n. 31) 78 in his critique of my explanation objects: "But does in the sacraments an exhibition of the present things take place?" I cannot enter here into the history of Catholic sacramental terminology. But that the term "exhibit" occurs exactly in the context of the doctrine of the eucharist and a justification of the adoration of the Host and of the Corpus Christi Procession can be attested by mag Tri. Sess. XIII can. 8 (it is not important that this text is of a later date than the passages in Luther under discussion). It speaks explicitly of Christ as exhibited in the eucharist (Denz. 1658 [890]). In can. 6 it sayscompare this with my remark below at n. 159: If someone should say that in the holy sacrament of the eucharist Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is not to be adored also in the external cult of worship, and is not to be venerated with an appropriate festive celebrity, and is not to be carried around in the processions according to the praiseworthy and universal rite and custom of the Holy Church, or not publicly to be presented to the people so that he should be adored, and that those who adore him are idolaters: let him be condemned. (Denz. 1656 [888]). Unfortunately Iserloh does not discuss my contrasting of the statements of Luther with the piety and theology of the sacraments which stand behind the text quoted. But in my opinion, it cannot be set aside with the rhetorical question, "But does in the sacraments an exhibition of the present things take place?" 157. 4:272.i6f. 158. 4:376.13^ 159. 4:272.17^ 160. 4:376.15^ 161. Here it must be emphasized, in harmony with n. 154, that it is not in contradiction with this when Luther following Augustinian terminology, calls Christ a sacrament. 162. 3:124.37^ 163. 4:8.341" 164. 4:9.i8f. 165. Compare on this question especially 3:255.336. 166. 4:9.286.


167. 4:3 2 I -35 f 168. 4:284.32^ 169. 3:256.10^ A B r a n d e n b u r g (see above n. 31) 146, in his reference to t h e scholion on

Ps. 44, misses t h e fact that L u t h e r exactly also in this passage does n o t surrender t h e necessary connection b e t w e e n letter or t h e outwardly proclaimed w o r d and spirit or t h e living words in t h e heart. T h i s is so despite t h e theological critique against being satisfied w i t h t h e m e r e letter. T o characterize Luther's conception as "distrust of t h e biblical l e t t e r " distorts t h e matter completely. 17 3 : 4 5 6 - 2 3 f 171. 3:256.28. 172. C F . 3:266.33^ and 4:354.32^ 173. Cf. 4:115.4.

74 4:3974 1 " 75 3 : 2 55-4iff. 77 3 : 393-3 2 f 4:3564

176. 4:109.i3f.

17 8 4 : 3 5 6 - 2 3 f

i 8 o . 3:400.16fr. 181. 4:490.if. 182. 3:176.36., 507.36 0 .; 4:324.16. 183. 4:356.106. 184. 3 : 4797~9 185. 4 : 3 ^ ~ 1 1 2 ^ 8 6 . 4:233-4^ - Schwarz (see above . 6) 184 . 33 o correctly has directed attention t o the fact that L u t h e r uses t h e t e r m "passio" only in t h e negative qualification of t h e sinful passions and that in t h e context in w h i c h t h e above quotation is cited t h e t e r m "anima passionata" is interpreted erroneously in t h e good sense. A l t h o u g h t h e understanding is to be corrected in such a way that t h e r e is here n o allusion to t h e spiritual passions in Gerson's linguistic usage, one must consider t h e following: L u t h e r contrasts in t h e entire context, b e g i n n i n g at 230.8, t h e virtue of G o d w h i c h as such is spiritual and t h e virtue of h u m a n s w h i c h as such is carnal (especially 231.116.) so t h a t even a religiosity w h i c h is autonomous toward G o d w o u l d be carnal and not be derived from Z i o n (this is in t h e interpretation of Ps. 109 [uo]:2i) but from t h e confusion, i.e., from Babylon, w h i c h comes about t h r o u g h t h e passions of w r a t h and others (233.3^). 187. 4:84.29^ 188. 4:283.26. 189. 4:362.36-38. 190. 4 : 3 9 8 ^ I 9 1 4:355"> 246.38^; 4:342.iif. 192. 4:3 I 9-3 f f *93 4 3 6 5 - 3 194 4:39 2 4^ 95 4 : 3 2 2 6 4:345-33^ 196. 4 : 3 2 0 - 3 f f e 197. 4:320.146 . 198. 4:3i8.4of., 365.27^ 199. 4:319.34-320.1. 200. 4:246.386. 201. 3 : 3 5 6 - 3 5 f 202. 4:439.2of.


3 3:323-36ff-



4- 3 : 373-3 of -

205. 55:1.1, 6.26f. (3-.12.29f.). 206. 55:1.1,100.116. (3:99.236.). 3:119.356, 224.25., 245.29., 43 2 - I 5 f f -> 435- 2 7 f 4 4 560.46., 564.76; 4:141.i6f., 167.366, 433.4if., 468.226, 4 6 9 . 2 9 6 , 492.26., 507.216.

7 3:59o1-12

208. 3:608.36 209. 55:2.1, 115.96. (3:97.186.). 210. 4:1.246., 51.31. 211. 3:116.56 212. 3:286.3. 213. 3:285.22. 214 3 : 455- 2 9 f 215 4:233.226 216. 4:69.256 217. 3:561.66. 218. 3 : 3 3 6 - 3 3 f ' 4:164.186. 219 3 : 34i-i3 f f 220. 4:245.236. 221. 3:456.14-16. 222. 4:285.39. 223. 4:286.27. 224. 3:257.146 225. 4:2.286 226. 4:1.246. 227. 4:237-216 228. 4:323.216. 229. 3:164.22-26. 23 3 : 2 4 3 - 3 8 231. 4:35- I 9 f f 232. 3:129.206 233 3 : 6 o 5 2 1 234 4 : 3 5 4

3 5 4:97-35 f 37 4:454-6. 3 9 4 : 4 7 - 2 l f f ' 49-24ff.

236 4:45 2

238. 4473 2 ^

240. 4:4739 241. 4:176.28-30 (emphasis mine). 242. 55:1.1, 92.196 (3:96.266).

4 3 - 5 5 : i I > 9 2 - I 7 f - (3:96-25).

244. 4:174.176 245. 4:174.296. 246. 55:1.1, 92.2ofF. (3:96.276 e .). 247. 4:310.386 248. 4:251.4. 249. 4:251.16. 250. C F . 3:547.366.

251. 4:51.31fF.
252 VAS122^

338 253. 254. 255. 256. 4:61.13. 4:179.306., 180.66 3:608.286 3:638.166.


^ s
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