Tag Archives: Magnificat

An Ongoing Reference to Luther’s Works

Martin Luther (1523) by Lucas Cranach

Martin Luther (1523) by Lucas Cranach

I am a Lutheran pastor but not a Lutheran scholar and the breadth of Luther’s works makes them a staggering task to approach. As a part of my study of various books of the scriptures I have also made it my practice, recently, to attempt to go through Luther’s works interpreting scriptures which may not be as concise as many of his theological works but give me as a reader some exposure to the evolution of Luther’s thought and theology in conversation with the Word that he cherished. I also think it is useful as we approach each volume to honestly look at what Luther’s interpretation over 500 years ago in his earliest works might have to still contribute in our time (and some books will be better handled by Luther’s theology than others).

Luther’s Works, Volume 9- Lectures on Deuteronomy (1523-1525)-This volume was written five years after the 95 theses and Luther’s theology and his Christocentric and preference for a plain text reading of scripture are beginning to emerge. Luther in this work is still heavily dependent on the allegorical methods of interpretation he learned in his earlier work, but we see a hermeneutic beginning to evolve. Luther, due to the subject matter, also speaks a lot about his view of the law and its purpose in the life of the believer. Those familiar with Luther’s theology would see his first and second uses of the law reflected in the theological approach to adopting Deuteronomy. One of the other unfortunate things one sees in this volume is a heavily anti-Jewish tone which Luther becomes famous for in some of his late writings. Those who want to confine Luther’s anti-Semitic comments to those later works will be disappointed in the way they occur frequently in his exegetical work. Luther for all his gifts is a man of his time.

Luther’s Works, Volume 10- First Lecture on the Psalm, Psalms 1-75 (1513-1515)- This is a pre-reformation Luther and so his methodology is still heavily dependent on the allegorical methods taught in the renaissance university. Luther is beginning to exercise the linguistic and explore some new hermeneutic roads but his theology has not developed yet. It is amazing how far Luther will come within a few short years after these lectures. There is not a lot in these lectures that are going to be enlightening to a modern reading of the Psalms or that will shed much light on Luther’s later theology. This is probably best used as a reference to understand where Luther’s theology begins before it fully develops.

Luther’s Works, Volume 11- First Lectures on the Psalms II, Psalms 76-126 (1513-1515)-Like the previous volume, this is a pre-reformation Luther and these lectures on the psalms will be strange to any modern reader unfamiliar with the allegorical and typological readings of the renaissance and earlier. There is not a lot of Luther’s developed theology in these works. The Psalms are mainly read from a Christological perspective and many of the readings are deeply critical of the Jewish people and faith. As with volume 10 there is not much that will be enlightening to a modern reader of the Psalms and should really be viewed as a historical document to understand the early theological perspective of Luther and how is evolves.

Luther’s Works, Volume 12- Selections from the Psalms, contains Luther’s Commentaries on Psalms 2, 8, 19, 23, 45, 51 (1524-1536 depending on the Psalm) These are later approaches to the Psalms by Luther and they reflect his more developed theology. These are primarily Theological/Christological approaches to the Psalms. Luther still relies heavily on an allegorical approach to reading scripture which places each of the Psalms as either spoken through Christ or talking about Christ. Other times the Psalms become launching points for Luther to expound upon the Reformation theology. Some of these expositions can become very lengthy and he can discuss a single Psalm for a hundred pages, but there are some good insights into Luther’s Christological approach to scripture and his more developed theology in this volume.

Luther’s Works, Volume 13-Selections from the Psalms, contains Luther’s Commentaries on Psalms 68, 82, 90, 101, 110, 111, 112 (1521-1535 depending on the Psalm) These continue to show Luther’s theology and way of reading scripture developing as well as illustrating some of the conflicts he was engaged in. You also see Luther the preacher in the expositions on the psalms using very earthy imagery and simple illustrations and proverbs. Luther’s reads the psalms through a very Christocentric lens, and many of the psalms he interprets as either applying directly to Christ or the Lord’s Supper. Luther continues to be verbose in his exposition, covering seven psalms in four hundred pages, and some of these expositions were multiple sermons or teachings. Even as Luther’s theological interpretation of scripture develops it would still be strange to most modern interpreters.

Luther’s Works, Volume 15- Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The Last Words of David 2 Samuel 23: 1-7 These are three separate works joined together in one volume and so I will treat each one separately.

Ecclesiastes (Initial lectures 1526, published in 1532)- Luther enjoyed Ecclesiastes and we see him begin to utilize a more plain text reading. There are still times where he falls back into allegory, but there are also times where he has a very lucid reading of the text that would be echoed in some modern commentators. Luther prefers to call this the Politics or the Economics of Solomon and within the later chapters one can see some of Luther’s own political theology (with its respect for temporal authority) being given voice as he wrestles with Ecclesiastes. Luther grasps the way in which our yearning for future things is in his words ‘a part of the depraved affection and desires of men’(8) and reflective of the ‘inconstancy of the human heart’ (10).

Song of Songs (Delivered 1530-31, published in 1539)- Luther, like most classical interpreters of the Song of Songs, reads this work allegorically as an illustration of the relationship between God and the people of God, or specifically for Luther between Christ and the church. Many of Luther’s concepts (law/gospel, two kingdoms, etc.) play into the interpretation and explication of the allegory. It is interesting to see the sexual language of Song of Songs explained away into something ‘purer’ and although Luther does a good job of drawing out an allegorical reading his overall interpretation in not as insightful as many of his other works.

Last Words of David (1543)-This is a polemical work and it bears the same ugly language of On the Jews and their Lies which appeared in the same year. This is the dark side of Luther’s Christocentric way of approaching scripture. If you want to learn about Luther’s later views on the Jewish people and Muslims this is one of the places where his anti-Jewish views are clearly exhibited. Luther spends a lot of time revisiting the Christological debates of the early church and attempting to argue in a way that would be unlikely to convince anyone who wasn’t already a Christian. Perhaps he was trying to erase any perception that he could have been an ally to the Jewish people from some of his earlier writings, but this is really an ugly piece.

Luther’s Works, Volume 21-The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat

The Sermon on the Mount composes the majority of this volume and reflects some of the developed theological themes of the Lutheran reformation. Particularly the division of the two kingdoms (the kingdom of God and the secular kingdom) and the division of law and gospel are apparent in Luther’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount. The Magnificat is a much shorter work, on a smaller piece of scripture, written for Prince John Fredrick and perhaps most remarkably in this work is Luther’s favorable, for the 1500s, treatment of the Jewish people at the very end of the work.

Treatise on Good Works (1520) This is a part of the Annotated Luther Study Editions published by Augsburg Fortress in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. A good translation of Luther’s 1520 treatise in a good visual presentation. Luther uses the ten commandments as the basis for this treatise to talk about the place of good works in relation to faith. It reads like a series of sermons or some of his other teachings. There are some good theological insights but it is a 1520 document and reflects the thoughts and language of that time.

The Annotated Luther, Volume 4: Pastoral Writings This is a part of the Annotated Luther Study Editions published by Augsburg Fortress in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The volume is visually attractive to read and well put together. Several of the works are excellent examples of Luther’s creative and pastoral thought including: Selected Hymns, the Small Catechism, and Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague. Some of the works like the Little Prayer Book could’ve been left out, but they do show a development of Luther’s thought and style. Overall a good collection of Luther’s writings directed towards his pastoral theology and actions.

Psalm 12-Save Us from Ourselves

Bible Paintings in Castra center, Haifa- David and Batsheva, David and Avshalom

Bible Paintings in Castra center, Haifa- David and Batsheva, David and Avshalom

Psalm 12

To the leader: according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.
1 Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
   the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
2 They utter lies to each other;
  with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
3 May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
   the tongue that makes great boasts,
4 those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;
   Our lips are our own—who is our master?”
 5 “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
   I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
  “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
6 The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure,
   silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
   purified seven times.
7 You, O LORD, will protect us;
   you will guard us from this generation forever.
8 On every side the wicked prowl,
   as vileness is exalted among humankind.
The Psalm begins as a cry for help and while the cry may come from an individual the cry goes forth on behalf of a community that no longer is the place it was intended to be. What was dreamed to be a place of faithfulness and trustworthy people has turned into a place where tongues have been loosed, boasts have been made and community has been destroyed. The double-hearted nature of the community has broken the heart of the Psalmist and sent them into a search for hope in the midst of the empty words they see in a community that was meant to be something much different. In a toxic environment where the tongues of those who are seeking their own interests rule the day the community of the faithful is in mortal peril.

Many leaders of communities have known times where the community, through conflict or by the actions of a bully, devolves into the opposite of its original intent. Unfortunately, it is all too common for churches and places of worship which preach forgiveness to become unforgiving. Sometimes the message of justice becomes perverted into a message of just-us, and sometimes the boastful words overpower the quiet insistence of those trying to follow whole heartedly. It is from this experience of disillusionment that the Psalmist cries for help. In a feeling of isolation and desolation where the faithful have been replaced by the duplicitous, the powerlessness of the Psalmist on their own is overpowering.

Family Systems Theory can talk about a Karpmann Drama Triangle where people are stuck into roles as the victim, oppressor or hero. Claus Westermann noted that in many of the Psalms of Lament that Israel or the speaker find themselves in the role of the victim where the LORD becomes the liberator of the speaker or Israel from their adversaries. (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 74) With the speaker in the role of the victim in the midst of their adversaries they are reliant upon God as their deliverer from their adversaries. This is the nature of the relationship that the people of God have with their deliverer. However, the danger is that these same people can easily move into the role of the oppressor where now the LORD must stand with the oppressed ones over against them. Perhaps, this is something that the Psalmist feels is now happening among their community. That the empty words have allowed the people to deny the contingency of their existence that is based upon their living into the covenant they have with the God of Israel.

The Psalmist sees those around him denying reality and doing violence to others in that denial. They have arrogated themselves into the position of being their own gods who no one can judge. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 156) Their tongues have become the small member that boasts of great exploits, setting fire to the world around them. (See James 3: 1-12) In claiming this place they have denied the reign of God feeling free to craft their own dominions.  Yet, as so often is the case, when the powerful and the boastful feel free to create their own realities it comes at the expense of the poor and the vulnerable. Whether the Psalmist can claim a spot among the alien, the widow and the orphan (the classic way that the Hebrew bible speaks of the vulnerable) or not they are aware of the way in which the law, the commandments and the ordinances of God attempt to create a society where the oppressed are cared for. Yet, as the community moves away from its groundings and devolves into a place where unpleasant truths are denied at the expense of a more convenient illusion it also becomes a place that loses its understanding of hospitality and mercy.

The Psalm rests on the confidence that God will see and God will intervene even when the immediate evidence may point in the opposite direction. In a place where vileness is exalted among humanity and the poor are despoiled and the needy groan the Psalmist sees beyond the present moment to a hopeful future where God sees and acts. The Psalms understand, like the rest of the Bible, that God acts on behalf of the powerlessness and has an ear for the cries of the poor and oppressed.  It is in the LORD’s answer, “I will now rise up” that the Psalmist trusts. The LORD has acted in the past; the LORD’s promises are true and precious. In comparison to the dross the Psalmist hears spoken around him the promises of God to them are like pure silver. As Mary can sing in Luke’s gospel the time is coming when:

He has shown the strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1: 51-55)