John A. Maxfield. Luther's Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity. Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2008. xiv + 242 pp. $54.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-931112-75-8.
Reviewed by Mickey L. Mattox (Theology Department, Marquette University)
Published on H-German (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Luther on Genesis ... Again!
Writing just over a hundred years ago, distinguished Martin Luther researcher Julius Köstlin observed that the great man's last and lengthiest work, the Enarrationes in Genesin (1535-45), was an especially rich source for understanding his theology. Only a few decades later, however, critical scholarship seemed to foreclose any appeal to those "lectures" in understanding Luther's thought. Erich Seeberg and, more ominously, his student Peter Meinhold, undertook a devastating source-critical analysis of the Enarrationes. Noting that three of the four original volumes of these lectures had been published posthumously by a team of industrious editors (Hieronymus Besold, Caspar Cruciger, Veit Dietrich, and Georg Rörer), Meinhold argued that they had been extensively reworked by the editorial team and therefore betrayed "traces of an alien theology." Within these pages, Meinhold argued, one hears not the authentic voice of Luther, but the "Melanchthonian" voice of his editors. The present work makes a welcome addition to a slow but steady stream of studies produced over the last thirty years or so--including works by Jaroslav Pelikan, Heiko Oberman, Juhani Forsberg, Jonathan Trigg, Ulrich Asendorf, and me--that have challenged the conclusions of that critical scholarship and slowly reopened the scholar's path into the Genesis lectures.
John A. Maxfield takes up the lectures here with both a sober eye on his sources and a confidence that one meets Luther in them as he was, or, at the very least, Luther as he wished to be presented to the public. Indeed, through his own work in the sources, documented for the most part in a series of insightful footnotes, Maxfield further confirms and deepens the case for the authenticity of the lectures. His work, however, is aimed not merely at vindicating his sources, but also at the much broader and more significant task of transporting the reader into Professor Luther's classroom of the late 1530s and early 1540s. There, at work among his students, men who aspired to church ministry in the emerging Lutheran tradition, Maxfield sees Luther articulating and inculcating through the narratives of Genesis a radically new evangelical identity, one undergirded by Luther's "revolutionary break" with Catholic tradition in terms of theology (particularly soteriology) and brought to expression through a new version of the "affective interpretation" of biblical narrative. Some of the trajectories and explanatory strategies employed in Maxfield's work suggest the influence of Scott Hendrix, an eminent interpreter of Luther for our own generation. Maxfield is deeply interested, for example, in the ecclesiology of the Enarrationes, and he explores with energy and insight the question of the Reformation as an early episode in "secularization." In Maxfield's hands, the Genesis lectures turn out to be a fascinating place to engage these and similar interests.
Besides an introduction and epilogue, the book includes five substantive chapters, each of which takes up a significant topic or problem in Luther or Reformation research. The first of these revealingly connects the exegesis found in the Enarrationes to Luther's well-known spiritual triad: oratio, meditatio, tentatio. The struggles of the Old Testament "saints" as told in the narratives of Genesis are textbook examples, so to speak, of the believer's struggle, and of the church's struggle (tentatio), for faith in the Word of God. Luther's intention, Maxfield argues, is to allow the great saints of the Old Testament to speak. Thus, he models for his students not the professor offering "his interpretation" but the image of an ideal hearer, one whose attentive posture shows how rightly to sit at the feet of the apostles and prophets.
Maxfield's application of this image is revealing, and it probably accurately reflects Luther's self-presentation in the classroom. One wonders, however, whether Maxfield too readily takes Luther at his word in the matter. As an expositor, Luther does not neatly function as a transparent lens through which the biblical text shines forth in its purity. Luther's admirable and often inventive efforts to let the text speak for itself rely in manual crucial respects on the antecedent tradition of Christian interpretation, and they also clearly reflect his readiness to apply his own theological convictions to recalcitrant texts in order to focus them to yield up their edifying fruit.
The second chapter examines the attitude toward scripture reflected in the lectures. Maxfield sees Luther as having strongly identified the Bible as Word of God, indeed as the utterance of the Holy Spirit, in a manner that makes it, like Jesus Christ, a divine incarnation. He also engages critical questions related to Luther's employment of the principle of sola scriptura, noting that this strategy did not preclude his use of the exegetical tradition. Along the way he also deftly examines Luther's use of the distinction between the res and the verba of Holy Scriptura, offering a clear and helpful account of Luther's position in sixteenth-century debates regarding the treatment of the Old Testament as a Christian book, including his critical engagement with Jewish exegesis. The work here is centered, however, on Luther, and it is in explaining what Luther seems to have been trying to say that Maxfield excels.
Chapter 3, the longest in the book, examines the understanding of the Christian life and Christian holiness found in the Enarrationes. Although Maxfield positions Luther within the stream of later medieval monastic exegesis--drawing, for example, on the work of Kenneth Hagen--his broader argument is for disjunction rather than continuity. Here and throughout the text Maxfield presses the case for a Luther radically at odds not only with the later medieval Latin tradition but with a much broader Catholic tradition, one that goes back to and includes Augustine and many of the other early church fathers. Luther's understanding of faith and holiness, he argues, constitutes not only a "decisive break" with scholasticism, but also a "repudiation of early Catholic soteriology" (p. 76): in short, a broad rejection of the Catholic tradition, "East and West" (p. 114). Luther's so-called three orders come into play here, as Maxfield presses the case for Luther's difference from the antecedent tradition by showing how he secularized holiness as a matter of living rightly within the divinely established orders of home and state. Genesis, which so often puts the household squabbles of the patriarchal households on such embarrassing display, proved an ideal text for Luther to play out how the saints' testing takes place, as God has determined, in this world and in these worldly estates, and not, therefore, in the monastery or convent.
A brief complaint: Maxfield contrasts Luther's notion of tentatio with the medieval hope for contemplatio. The story Maxfield tells here seems to me to offer a description that is a bit too neat of monastic contemplatio that consists in a glorious ascent, in sad contrast to Luther's recognition that authentic spiritual experience means descent into the testing one meets in everyday life. If a more charitable and nuanced reading of the antecedent spiritual tradition were offered, one that includes the via negativa, we might see a good deal more commonality than the author asserts.
Chapter 4 offers a spirited presentation of Luther's view of history, with an eye especially toward the titanic battle being waged by God and the devil as expressed in the perpetual opposition between the true church and the false. Maxfield strongly distinguishes Luther's treatment of the "church of Cain/church of Abel" motif from that of St. Augustine. In treating this trope, Augustine is all about love with an orientation toward the Catholic unity of the church in its struggle with the city of this world; Luther, on the other hand, is all about faith and the perpetual struggle between the two churches, one false the other true. Here, Maxfield sees Luther articulating a "radically new ecclesiology" within which "Augustine's concept of catholicity and unity as marks of the church cannot function and has no meaning" (p. 178). This stance is crucial to the formation of evangelical identity, he argues, because it shows Luther imparting to his students the confidence that they stood within the true church. Others (notably, Trigg) have found Luther's ecclesiology less polarizing than Maxfield portrays it, though he admits that Luther recognized that the true and the false churches could not be so neatly separated as his classroom rhetoric suggests. Maxfield argues, however, that any subtle qualifications notwithstanding it would have been the stark contrast--"false church" versus "true"--that his students would have remembered and that would have thus shaped their own "evangelical identities." Continuing the complaint introduced above, it seems to me that questions should also be asked regarding Maxfield's pitting of Luther's ecclesiology and soteriology against the broad Catholic tradition. The marks of continuity here seem to me more impressive and more fundamental even if, yes, Luther's rethinking of traditional theological ideas is often radical.
Not surprisingly, the discussion of the conflict between the two churches leads into a final chapter treating Luther's apocalypticism. Maxfield offers the reader a subtle and helpful treatment of the meaning of Luther's apocalypticism, contrasting it instructively, for example, with that of Thomas Müntzer and Melchior Hoffman. Luther's apocalypticism deals not with dreams or visions, but with what he finds in scripture. The lectures are marked both by the conviction that the world is in its final throes and the confidence that God will soon make sense of it all. Luther's achievement, Maxfield says, was to recover an authentic New Testament apocalypticism, one that brought near the church's sure hope of Christ's imminent return.
In sum--my interpretive disagreement here and there notwithstanding--this is a very good book, thoughtful, energetic, and well grounded in the sources. It is also well written, most often persuasive, and wonderfully suggestive of the historical insights and theological riches yet to be mined from the Enarrationes. The substantive chapters presented here tell us much and helpfully advance the state of our knowledge about old man Luther, and the author does a very fine job of parsing the difficult issues related to Luther's position in sixteenth-century exegesis, his ecclesiology, and his apocalypticism. At the same time, however, it must also be admitted that the Luther who emerges from these pages is very much the "Luther the wretched colleague" so memorably sketched out at the end of Heiko Oberman's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Exhorting his students to "hatred" of the Roman church, raging against the devil, the Jews, the Turk, the papists, and the "false brethren," one frankly wonders: is this Luther really someone we need to know? The elder Luther's marked tendency to demonize his opponents is everywhere on display, a matter that, to me anyhow, raises the question of whether one who writes a historical work on Luther, especially when that work seems oriented toward the theological recovery of Luther, is obliged to take at least a brief position on what Luther says.
Scholars who have felt under pressure to reject the sort of demonization sometimes found in sources from the old man's pen have often taken refuge in the notion that the elder Luther was sick and embittered, so what he had to say about his enemies could be taken with a grain of salt. Maxfield's Luther, however, is fully in control and intentional as he goes about the business of forming his students' faith and spirituality. Frankly, I think Maxfield is right about that, which underscores the old man's continuing energy, creativity, and hard-earned wisdom as a theologian. Again, however, meeting this Luther is a somewhat unsettling experience, one that fairly cries out not just for historically accurate description, but for comment and explanation as well. Naturally, Lutheran theologians--indeed, the Lutheran churches--will want at least to some extent to receive Luther's history and struggles as their own. (The relevance of this project to Lutheran history has been underlined in the twentieth century by no less a scholar than Werner Elert.) The narrative of Luther's "rediscovery" of the Gospel and his heroic struggle with the Roman church informs and surely should inform Lutheran identity today. But as one draws Luther's story forward, so to speak--including the story of the old man in what he saw as the darkest hours that would precede the final consummation--with the goal not just of understanding sixteenth-century evangelical identity but of shaping and informing Lutheran identity today, must not one acknowledge not just the promise in doing so but the peril as well?
. Erich Seeberg, Studien zu Luthers Genesisvorlesung (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1932); and Peter Meinhold, Die Genesisvorlesung Luthers und ihre Herausgeber (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1936).
. For a more detailed analysis of scholarship on the Enarrationes, one may consult Mickey L. Mattox, "Defender of the Most Holy Matriarchs": Martin Luther's Interpretation of the Women of Genesis in the Enarrationes in Genesin, 1535-1545 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 259-275, appendix 1.
. Further to the two churches problem in the Genesis lectures, see Mickey L. Mattox, "Fortuita Misericordia: Martin Luther on the Salvation of Some Biblical Outsiders," Pro Ecclesia 17 (2008): 423-441.
. Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 313-314.
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