So, how should Christians regard Moses?

Part 6: Guidance in the Pentateuch: Re-reading Moses with Luther.

ML answers this question summarily in a sermon dated 27th August 1525, which was the 29th in a string of seventy-seven sermons on Exodus (Bachmann, Pg.159): Eyn Unterrichtung wie sich die Christen ynn Mosen sollen schicken WA 16, Pg.363-393)

Luther differentiates two divine sermons – one at Sinai and the other on Pentecost in Jerusalem.[1].

Now the first sermon, and doctrine, is the law of God. The second is the gospel. These two sermons are not the same. Therefore we must have a good grasp of the matter in order to know how to differentiate between them. We must know what the law is, and what the gospel is. The law commands and requires us to do certain things. The law is thus directed solely to our behavior and consists in making requirements. For God speaks through the law, saying, “Do this, avoid that, this is what I expect of you.” The gospel, however, does not preach what we are to do or to avoid. It sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, “This is what God has done for you; he has let his Son be made flesh for you, has let him be put to death for your sake.” So, then, there are two kinds of doctrine and two kinds of works, those of God and those of men. Just as we and God are separated from one another, so also these two doctrines are widely separated from one another. For the gospel teaches exclusively what has been given us by God, and not—as in the case of the law—what we are to do and give to God.

Luther Works 35,162

ML goes on to differentiate God´s two kingdoms plus a third one in between, and he differentiates between Moses the “teacher” and “law-giver”. The first we aught carefully to consider but should not get caught up with the second for God did not lead us out of Egypt, only Israel. 

The temporal, which governs with the sword and is visible; and the spiritual, which governs solely with grace and with the forgiveness of sins. Between these two kingdoms still another has been placed in the middle, half spiritual and half temporal. It is constituted by the Jews, with commandments and outward ceremonies which prescribe their conduct toward God and men. Here the law of Moses has its place. It is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel. And Israel accepted this law for itself and its descendants, while the Gentiles were excluded. To be sure, the Gentiles have certain laws in common with the Jews, such as these: there is one God, no one is to do wrong to another, no one is to commit adultery or murder or steal, and others like them. This is written by nature into their hearts; they did not hear it straight from heaven as the Jews did. This is why this entire text does not pertain to the Gentiles. I say this on account of the enthusiasts. For you see and hear how they read Moses, extol him, and bring up the way he ruled the people with commandments. They try to be clever, and think they know something more than is presented in the gospel; so they minimize faith, contrive something new, and boastfully claim that it comes from the Old Testament. They desire to govern people according to the letter of the law of Moses, as if no one had ever read it before.

But we will not have this sort of thing. We would rather not preach again for the rest of our life than to let Moses return and to let Christ be torn out of our hearts. We will not have Moses as ruler or lawgiver any longer. Indeed God himself will not have it either. Moses was an intermediary solely for the Jewish people. It was to them that he gave the law. We must therefore silence the mouths of those factious spirits who say, “Thus says Moses,” etc. Here you simply reply: Moses has nothing to do with us. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses. Thus the consequence would be that if I accept Moses as master, then I must have myself circumcised, wash my clothes in the Jewish way, eat and drink and dress thus and so, and observe all that stuff. So, then, we will neither observe nor accept Moses. Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service.

That Moses does not bind the Gentiles can be proved from Exodus 20[:1], where God himself speaks, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This text makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us. For God never led us out of Egypt, but only the Jews. The sectarian spirits want to saddle us with Moses and all the commandments. We will just skip that. We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver—unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law. Therefore, it is clear enough that Moses is the lawgiver of the Jews and not of the Gentiles. 

Ebd. 164f

The old Law of the Sabbath also proves that Moses´s law, which bound up the Jews in knots is now abolished for the Gentiles i.e. Christian church:

For Paul [Col. 2:16] and the New Testament [Matt. 12:1–12; John 5:16; 7:22–23; 9:14–16] abolish the sabbath, to show us that the sabbath was given to the Jews alone, for whom it is a stern commandment. The prophets referred to it too, that the sabbath of the Jews would be abolished. For Isaiah says in the last chapter, “When the Savior comes, then such will be the time, one sabbath after the other, one month after the other,” etc. This is as though he were trying to say, “It will be the sabbath every day, and the people will be such that they make no distinction between days. For in the New Testament the sabbath is annihilated as regards the crude external observance, for every day is a holy day,” etc. Now if anyone confronts you with Moses and his commandments, and wants to compel you to keep them, simply answer, “Go to the Jews with your Moses; I am no Jew. Do not entangle me with Moses. If I accept Moses in one respect (Paul tells the Galatians in chapter 5[:3]), then I am obligated to keep the entire law.” For not one little period in Moses pertains to us. [2]  

Ebd. 165f

Why preach Moses if he does not pertain to us?

Answer: Three things are to be noted in Moses. (Pg. 166)

1. Firstly, ML dismisses Mosaic law, but follows rules which fit:

  • Tithing (Ebd. 166);
  • Jubilee year (Ebd. 167);
  • Levirate (Dt.25,5f: Ebd) 

The Gentiles are not obligated to obey Moses. Moses is the Sachsenspiegel for the Jews. But if an example of good government were to be taken from Moses, one could adhere to it without obligation as long as one pleased, etc.

He acknowledges “natural law” in some of them, which bind both Jews and Gentiles – predating Moses and embedded in creation:  

The Gentiles have it written in their heart, and there is no distinction [Rom. 3:22]. As St. Paul also shows in Romans 2[:14–15], the Gentiles, who have no law, have the law written in their heart. But just as the Jews fail, so also do the Gentiles. Therefore, it is natural to honor God, not steal, not commit adultery, not bear false witness, not murder; and what Moses commands is nothing new. For what God has given the Jews from heaven, he has also written in the hearts of all men. Thus, I keep the commandments which Moses has given, not because Moses gave commandment, but because they have been implanted in me by nature, and Moses agrees exactly with nature, etc. But the other commandments of Moses, which are not [implanted in all men] by nature, the Gentiles do not hold. Nor do these pertain to the Gentiles, such as the tithe and others equally fine which I wish we had too. Now this is the first thing that I ought to see in Moses, namely, the commandments to which I am not bound except insofar as they are [implanted in everyone] by nature [and written in everyone’s heart].

2. Secondly, ML hears Moses preaching Christ i.e. Gospel.

In the second place I find something in Moses that I do not have from nature: the promises and pledges of God about Christ. This is the best thing. It is something that is not written naturally into the heart, but comes from heaven. God has promised, for example, that his Son should be born in the flesh. This is what the gospel proclaims. It is not commandments. And it is the most important thing in Moses which pertains to us. The first thing, namely, the commandments, does not pertain to us. I read Moses because such excellent and comforting promises are there recorded, by which I can find strength for my weak faith. For things take place in the kingdom of Christ just as I read in Moses that they will; therein I find also my sure foundation.

Ebd 168f
  • Genesis 3,15 Protevangelium to Eve:“Your seed…”
  • Genesis 12,3 Promise to Abraham “Blessing to all people…”
  • Genesis 22,18 Promise to Abraham “Your descendants…”
  • Deuteronomy 18,15-16 Promise to Moses “A prophet like me…”
  • Godless readings e.g. Gn.22,2; Ex.17,8-16; Dt.25,17-19;

One must deal cleanly with the Scriptures. From the very beginning the word has come to us in various ways. It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us. That makes all the difference between night and day. God said to David, “Out of you shall come the king,” etc. [2 Sam. 7:13]. But this does not pertain to me, nor has it been spoken to me. He can indeed speak to me if he chooses to do so. You must keep your eye on the word that applies to you, that is spoken to you. The word in Scripture is of two kinds: the first does not pertain or apply to me, the other kind does. And upon that word which does pertain to me I can boldly trust and rely, as upon a strong rock. But if it does not pertain to me, then I should stand still.

Ebd. 170

3. Moses preaches most beautifully about faith, love & the cross

…In Moses we read most beautiful examples of faith, of love, and of the cross, as shown in the fathers, Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and all the rest. From them we should learn to trust in God and love him. In turn there are also examples of the godless, how God does not pardon the unfaith of the unbelieving; how he can punish Cain, Ishmael, Esau, the whole world in the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. Examples like these are necessary. For although I am not Cain, yet if I should act like Cain, I will receive the same punishment as Cain. Nowhere else do we find such fine examples of both faith and unfaith. Therefore, we should not sweep Moses under the rug.

Thus, in summary ML holds of Moses and the OT:

The OT is thus properly understood when we retain from the prophets the beautiful texts about Christ, when we take note of and thoroughly grasp the fine examples[3], and when we use the laws as we please to our advantage.

Ebd. 173

[1] E. Theodore Bachmann summarizes: “Luther´s opposition to both Karlstadt and Münzer derived from his theological convictions – stated in this treatise – concerning the relationship between law and gospel and the related problem of the relationship between the OT and the NT. Law and gospel are chosen ways through which God addresses his word to men. In the law God says No to man, the sinner; in the gospel he says Yes to man, the righteous – that man who has repented and believes his promise in Jesus Christ. Law and gospel are both present in both of the Testaments. They must always be distinguished but never identified or confused.” (LW 35, Pg. 157) Schramm contextualizes: “Luther viewed Karlstadt and Müntzer (sic) as cut from the same cloth, and thus his arguments against the former regarding images and against the latter regarding the cause of the peasants are strikingly similar. For him, both share the error of attempting to impose Mosaic law on contemporary German church and society, and both, through their failure to understand Moses correctly, threaten the peace and well-being of the land.” (Schramm 2015, 130)

[2] Stolle takes exception to this explanation of Luther´s, because the Law of the Sabbath derives from before the Fall – and is part of the creational setup as illustrated in the first chapters of Moses i.e. holds true to all of creation, not just the Jews. (Stolle 2021, 43)

[3] „Die Frommen des Alten Bundes werden den „Heiligen“ (sancti) und damit der Kirche (sanctorum communio) zurgerechtnet, deren Gedächtnis den Christen anempfohlen wird.“ (Stolle, Biblische Orientierung in der Begegnung von Christen und Juden. Die Abkehr vom Judenbild Luthers in der lutherischen Theologie 2021) S. 53.

Read more here: Genesis lectures etc. Part 7 of “Guidance in the Pentateuch. Re-reading Moses with Luther”

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Bibel und Übersetzung, Gedankensplitter, Martin Luther and the Reformation, Theologie, You comfort me + and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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