What to look for in the gospels…

After his grandstand at the diet in Worms before emperor Charles V the banned and kidnapped Luther was banished on the Wartburg (1521). Not one to let an opportunity to spread the gospel go by, he got cracking and down to serious work – the most memorable and impressive was his translation of the Greek New Testament in just 11 weeks.

Although there were 14 German translations of the NT by 1520 – time was ripe for another one. The new movement was kickstarted by Luther´s new insights into the Bible and especially the theology of St. Paul, the Psalms and prophets of old. He used the Greek edition published by Erasmus of Rotterdam, knew the Vulgate by heart, and carried a Hebrew version of the Psalms with him, when he secretly ventured back into Wittenberg under cover – during the riots led on by the enthusiasts Karlstadt and Zwilling. However, ML wanted everyone to read the bible itself – not just have the masses follow some lead of loose cannons and theological renegades and wise cracks. He valued God´s Word much too highly for such misuse. “Die Anfechtung lehrt auf´s Wort achten!” Temptation, persecution and opposition led him back into the Word for truth, guidance and divine support as his later description of theology based on David´s Psalm 119 would summarize: “Oratio meditatio tentatio faciunt theologum” – and this also made him praise the devil and his many enemies as excellent tutors, because they led him back into the Holy Scriptures.

Melanchthon and Spalatin supported him in various ways during the translation. Sadly, the latter couldn´t come up with a map of Palastine as planned. So in the end Melchior Lotter jr published this bestseller for the editors Cranach and Düring – and the finished book was ready before the 21st of September 1522. Luther didn´t make any money with this, but the publishers nursed an ever-growing purse. ML not even got sufficient free copies to distribute. That was somewhat unfair and even got ML upset – according to his biographer Brecht.

Luther´s translation was topnotch. Not only was it intelligible, it was a literary highlight and most suitable for loud reading. He had an ear for the language and was able to touch people’s hearts and minds too.  He gave a number of notations along with the text – much like the Lutheran Study Bible (CPH) does today. Every book was introduced most helpfully by Luther – and this cast a very special light on the text. It was to promote IX – as savior of the world and redeemer of sinners – that was his overall criteria and benchmark. His introduction to the St.Paul´s letter to the Romans is still a classic reflection of the Christian doctrine of Justification of sinners by grace through faith alone. A number of woodcuts illustrate passages – many of them the visions in the Revelation of St. John. The book was a clear winner – and although more than 3000 were printed in September and next edition was required in December already. This enabled corrections, alterations and improvements too – and made ML a best-seller for ages to come.

The Old Testament translation was an even bigger task and far greater challenge. For economic reasons (i.e. to make it cheaper and affordable) ML wanted to divide this into three parts. In the end it became four. The Pentateuch was ready by mid-December 1522. The 2nd part (Joshua – Esther) was ready a year later and then the work on the 3rd part started. This was hard going. Especially Job challenged the Reformer. He comments: “Job would be just as unhappy with me than with his old friends, but he should at least appreciate that now his writings were comprehensible.” (cf. Brecht II, Pg.62). In Autumn 1523 the poetic books were published. The final version with the prophets was only done by the end of 1532. That´s after nearly a decade. As in the NT – ML´s introductions to the various parts and books of the bible are remarkable studies in theology and worth special and lasting attention.  

Here is Martin Luther´s brief instruction on what to look for and expect in the Gospels. First as a reading in German – but also in the English translation by E. Theodore Bachmann. It is ML´s introduction his “Wartburg Postille”: Model sermons on the epistles and gospels of the church year. The venerable Dr. Martin Luther writes:

It is a common practice to number the gospels and to name them by books and say that there are four gospels. From this practice stems the fact that no one knows what St. Paul and St. Peter are saying in their epistles, and their teaching is regarded as an addition to the teaching of the gospels, in a vein similar to that of Jerome’s introduction. There is, besides, the still worse practice of regarding the gospels and epistles as law books in which is supposed to be taught what we are to do and in which the works of Christ are pictured to us as nothing but examples. Now where these two erroneous notions remain in the heart, there neither the gospels nor the epistles may be read in a profitable or Christian manner, and [people] remain as pagan as ever.
One should thus realize that there is only one gospel, but that it is described by many apostles. Every single epistle of Paul and of Peter, as well as the Acts of the Apostles by Luke, is a gospel, even though they do not record all the works and words of Christ, but one is shorter and includes less than another. There is not one of the four major gospels anyway that includes all the words and works of Christ; nor is this necessary. Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or a prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered—a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, one this way, another that way.
For at its briefest, the gospel is a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a Lord over all things. This much St. Paul takes in hand and spins out in his epistles. He bypasses all the miracles and incidents [in Christ’s ministry] which are set forth in the four gospels, yet he includes the whole gospel adequately and abundantly. This may be seen clearly and well in his greeting to the Romans [1:1–4], where he says what the gospel is, and declares, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” etc.
There you have it. The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell. Just as there is no more than one Christ, so there is and may be no more than one gospel. Since Paul and Peter too teach nothing but Christ, in the way we have just described, so their epistles can be nothing but the gospel.
Yes even the teaching of the prophets, in those places where they speak of Christ, is nothing but the true, pure, and proper gospel—just as if Luke or Matthew had described it. For the prophets have proclaimed the gospel and spoken of Christ, as St. Paul here [Rom. 1:2] reports and as everyone indeed knows. Thus when Isaiah in chapter fifty-three says how Christ should die for us and bear our sins, he has written the pure gospel. And I assure you, if a person fails to grasp this understanding of the gospel, he will never be able to be illuminated in the Scripture nor will he receive the right foundation.
Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws. Therefore you should grasp Christ, his words, works, and sufferings, in a twofold manner. First as an example that is presented to you, which you should follow and imitate. As St. Peter says in 1 Peter 4, “Christ suffered for us, thereby leaving us an example.” Thus when you see how he prays, fasts, helps people, and shows them love, so also you should do, both for yourself and for your neighbor. However this is the smallest part of the gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called gospel. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not as yet contribute anything to you. In short this mode [of understanding Christ as simply an example] does not make Christians but only hypocrites. You must grasp Christ at a much higher level. Even though this higher level has for a long time been the very best, the preaching of it has been something rare. The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself. See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at. This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means. This is why such preaching is called gospel, which in German means a joyful, good, and comforting “message”; and this is why the apostles are called the “twelve messengers.”
Concerning this Isaiah 9[:6] says, “To us a child is born, to us a son is given.” If he is given to us, then he must be ours; and so we must also receive him as belonging to us. And Romans 8[:32], “How should [God] not give us all things with his Son?” See, when you lay hold of Christ as a gift which is given you for your very own and have no doubt about it, you are a Christian. Faith redeems you from sin, death, and hell and enables you to overcome all things. O no one can speak enough about this. It is a pity that this kind of preaching has been silenced in the world, and yet boast is made daily of the gospel.
Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. See, there faith and love move forward, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and a person is happy and fearless to do and to suffer all things. Therefore make note of this, that Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example exercises your works. These do not make you a Christian. Actually they come forth from you because you have already been made a Christian. As widely as a gift differs from an example, so widely does faith differ from works, for faith possesses nothing of its own, only the deeds and life of Christ. Works have something of your own in them, yet they should not belong to you but to your neighbor.
So you see that the gospel is really not a book of laws and commandments which requires deeds of us, but a book of divine promises in which God promises, offers, and gives us all his possessions and benefits in Christ. The fact that Christ and the apostles provide much good teaching and explain the law is to be counted a benefit just like any other work of Christ. For to teach aright is not the least sort of benefit. We see too that unlike Moses in his book, and contrary to the nature of a commandment, Christ does not horribly force and drive us. Rather he teaches us in a loving and friendly way. He simply tells us what we are to do and what to avoid, what will happen to those who do evil and to those who do well. Christ drives and compels no one. Indeed he teaches so gently that he entices rather than commands. He begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor, Blessed are the meek,” and so on [Matt. 5:3, 5]. And the apostles commonly use the expression, “I admonish, I request, I beseech,” and so on. But Moses says, “I command, I forbid,” threatening and frightening everyone with horrible punishments and penalties. With this sort of instruction you can now read and hear the gospels profitably.
When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him. When you see how he works, however, and how he helps everyone to whom he comes or who is brought to him, then rest assured that faith is accomplishing this in you and that he is offering your soul exactly the same sort of help and favor through the gospel. If you pause here and let him do you good, that is, if you believe that he benefits and helps you, then you really have it. Then Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift.
After that it is necessary that you turn this into an example and deal with your neighbor in the very same way, be given also to him as a gift and an example. Isaiah 40[:1, 2] speaks of that, “Be comforted, be comforted my dear people, says your Lord God. Say to the heart of Jerusalem, and cry to her, that her sin is forgiven, that her iniquity is ended, that she has received from the hand of God a double kindness for all her sin,” and so forth. This double kindness is the twofold aspect of Christ: gift and example. These two are also signified by the double portion of the inheritance which the law of Moses [Deut. 21:17] assigns to the eldest son and by many other figures.
What a sin and shame it is that we Christians have come to be so neglectful of the gospel that we not only fail to understand it, but even have to be shown by other books and commentaries what to look for and what to expect in it. Now the gospels and epistles of the apostles were written for this very purpose. They want themselves to be our guides, to direct us to the writings of the prophets and of Moses in the Old Testament so that we might there read and see for ourselves how Christ is wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger [Luke 2:7], that is, how he is comprehended [Vorfassett] in the writings of the prophets. It is there that people like us should read and study, drill ourselves, and see what Christ is, for what purpose he has been given, how he was promised, and how all Scripture tends toward him. For he himself says in John 5[:46], “If you believed Moses, you would also believe me, for he wrote of me.” Again [John 5:39], “Search and look up the Scriptures, for it is they that bear witness to me.”
This is what St. Paul means in Romans 1[:1, 2], where in the beginning he says in his greeting, “The gospel was promised by God through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures.” This is why the evangelists and apostles always direct us to the Scriptures and say, “Thus it is written,” and again, “This has taken place in order that the writing of the prophets might be fulfilled,” and so forth. In Acts 17[:11], when the Thessalonians heard the gospel with all eagerness, Luke says that they studied and examined the Scriptures day and night in order to see if these things were so. Thus when St. Peter wrote his epistle, right at the beginning [1 Pet. 1:10–12] he says, “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them; and he bore witness through them to the sufferings that were to come upon Christ and the ensuing glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but us, in the things which have now been preached among you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things which also the angels long to behold.” What else does St. Peter here desire than to lead us into the Scriptures? It is as if he should be saying, “We preach and open the Scriptures to you through the Holy Spirit, so that you yourselves may read and see what is in them and know of the time about which the prophets were writing.” For he says as much in Acts 4[3:24], “All the prophets who ever prophesied, from Samuel on, have spoken concerning these days.”
Therefore also Luke, in his last chapter [24:45], says that Christ opened the minds of the apostles to understand the Scriptures. And Christ, in John 10[:9, 3], declares that he is the door by which one must enter, and whoever enters by him, to him the gatekeeper (the Holy Spirit) opens in order that he might find pasture and blessedness. Thus it is ultimately true that the gospel itself is our guide and instructor in the Scriptures, just as with this foreword I would gladly give instruction and point you to the gospel.
But what a fine lot of tender and pious children we are! In order that we might not have to study in the Scriptures and learn Christ there, we simply regard the entire Old Testament as of no account, as done for and no longer valid. Yet it alone bears the name of Holy Scripture. And the gospel should really not be something written, but a spoken word which brought forth the Scriptures, as Christ and the apostles have done. This is why Christ himself did not write anything but only spoke. He called his teaching not Scripture but gospel, meaning good news or a proclamation that is spread not by pen but by word of mouth. So we go on and make the gospel into a law book, a teaching of commandments, changing Christ into a Moses, the One who would help us into simply an instructor.
What punishment ought God to inflict upon such stupid and perverse people! Since we abandoned his Scriptures, it is not surprising that he has abandoned us to the teaching of the pope and to the lies of men. Instead of Holy Scripture we have had to learn the Decretales of a deceitful fool and an evil rogue. O would to God that among Christians the pure gospel were known and that most speedily there would be neither use nor need for this work of mine. Then there would surely be hope that the Holy Scriptures too would come forth again in their worthiness. Let this suffice as a very brief foreword and instruction. In the exposition we will say more about this matter. Amen.

Luther Works Volume 35, Pg.117-129

And we sing with Martin Franzmann: Thy strong Word did cleave the darkness…

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Bibel und Übersetzung, Lectionary etc, Martin Luther and the Reformation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.