The year 2017 is quickly coming to an end and with it the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Should our study and appropriation of the Reformation, its theology, and its call back to the scriptures stop in January, well that will only demonstrate that we have not understood the Reformers at all. Needed in the years ahead is an ongoing and renewed vigor not only to study the Reformers historically, but to make use of their exegetical and theological writings for our own contemporary publications, debates, and church reform.
Nevertheless, December is the last month of this anniversary year. So, I thought I’d take time each week in December to highlight a number of Reformation publications that I have yet to review or discuss or commend. On my desk sits a mountain of books; I doubt I will get to all of them in time. A cluster of them, however, scream out for attention before the new year, and first on that list is Martin Luther’s Basic Exegetical Writings, edited by Carl L. Beckwith (Concordia, 2017).
There are many “readers” on the market that will introduce you to Luther’s most significant theological writings. I have a love-hate relationship with readers. I’m always looking with anticipation to discover that one reader that will perfectly capture the essence of Luther’s corpus, but I usually walk away frustrated that certain works were neglected. Perhaps my expectations are too high! Nevertheless, Carl Beckwith, professor of church history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School, has taken a more realistic approach, providing us with a reader on a particular aspect of Luther’s corpus: his exegetical work.
Believe it or not, no contemporary reader or anthology focusing on Luther’s exegetical writings exists. This might explain why, in part, we struggle to understand Luther’s context. Remember, if you were a German influenced by the Reformation, most likely it would have been a lecture or a sermon Luther gave that first caught your attention. As Beckwith says, “In Luther’s day, the ordinary pastors and laypeople of Germany came to know and embrace the Reformation because of Luther’s lectures at the University of Wittenberg and his sermons at St. Mary’s, the city church of Wittenberg.” So an anthology that pulls us into Luther’s commentaries as opposed to his theological works is most welcome.
What excerpts has Beckwith chosen? The excerpts span the career of Luther, from 1515-1546. The collection begins, naturally, with Luther’s lectures on Romans (1515-16) and the penitential psalms (1516). It then turns to the gospels and epistles. As one might expect, a lengthy excerpt from Luther’s 1531 Galatians lectures is included. Yet Beckwith includes less known commentaries, like those on Jonah, 1 Peter, and Genesis. Given my previous recommendation of Luther’s sermons on John’s Gospel, I am especially pleased to see that fourth Gospel included near the end.
Intriguing is Beckwith’s choice to include a variety of excerpts that picture Luther’s allegorical interpretations. I say “intriguing” because, as Beckwith points out, Luther was not quiet in his negative opinion of the patristic use of allegory. But Luther himself utilizes allegory, as seen in his lectures on Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Genesis. Luther is not against allegory, as it turns out, just the wrong use of it. As Beckwith explains, “He dismisses allegory when it undermines or ignores the historical character of Scripture. For Luther, the historical sense alone supplies true and sound doctrine. Allegories adorn or embellish the historical account.”
Before I sign off, I commend Beckwith himself to you. Not only has he provided introductions to each of these excerpts, passing on insight concerning the historical and literary context, but an introduction to the volume is illuminating as well. As a reader, you must take time to read Beckwith’s introduction. There he offers background to the type of soteriology the medieval schoolmen adopted, which proves relevant because in any number of Luther’s lectures and commentaries he digresses, criticizes the schoolmen, and does so in order to shed further light on the biblical text. Reading Beckwith will help readers see that Luther is not chasing a random rabbit trail but actually making a much larger point.
Much more could be said, but pick up the book and read it for yourself. I except you will walk away knowing a side to Luther you had never thought to explore.
Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by Grace, Owen on the Christian Life, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, and Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at MatthewMBarrett.com.