Saturday, October 15, 2005

Martin Luther and the Kaiser's Wife

Luther on interpreting Scripture:
The natural speech is the Kaiser's wife, and it is to be preferred to all subtle, sharp, and sophistic interpretations. One must not depart from it unless one is compelled do to so by a clear article of faith, or else not one letter of Scripture can be maintained against the spiritual jugglers. -- Weimar Ausgabe, 18, 180

For all the books that have been written about interpreting Scripture, you would think it must be a complicated thing. Many people still seem to have missed the obvious thing that Luther addressed: if the writing is plain exposition, the words should stand at face value with their normal meanings. Any other interpretation than that, for plain exposition, is necessarily a misinterpretation. Period.

So why all the juggling? It's true that in some types of writing (symbolic prophecies, for example) the words were never intended as plain speech and it would be a mistake to take them as such. But most doctrines are not based on symbolic prophecies but on plain speech, such as letters to a congregation or an individual; it is a mistake to interpret these words as anything but plain speech.

The type of theologians which Luther called "spiritual jugglers" must quickly claim that it's not all that simple that it should mean what it says. It's common enough to hear jugglers belittle as "simplistic" any suggestion that lay Christians can understand such things as "plain speech." But consider the following points:
  • Many doctrines are based on letters written to explain and advise, often written to the laity or those who had no specialized training;
  • Many doctrines are based on explanations originally given to uneducated fishermen;
  • Jesus said that the understanding of the things of God was hidden from the wise and learned and given to little children.

Considering any one of these points raises the question whether the "special interpretations" are justified, and whether it is really right to be quite so quick to scorn simplicity and the plain honest reading of the text. Yet in some circles the special interpretations, so blatantly against the text, are jealously guarded, and too many people are intimidated at the thought of being called "simple and unlearned" or worse that they back away from what the text obviously says and isntead make themselves fools by trying to appear wise, and by "reinterpreting" make themselves unable to understand a text that is plain and clear.

Some people, still determined to argue against "plain speech", will pretend that it doesn't allow for common allusions to literature or figures of speech such as calling a follower a sheep, and pretend that the use of an allusion or figure of speech catapults a passage into an obscure realm where only a specialist may properly understand it. Contrary to this, readers are not generally caused difficulty by allusions or figures of speech. This should rightly raise suspicion of the specialist who can "see" that it does not mean what it says. The "no plain words" approach requires (or gives license for) someone to insert his own views contrary to the meaning of the text, putting words in God's mouth, as it were, and claiming them as the originals. "Did God really say...?" is the first line of attack against the plain words; we've all heard it before (Genesis 3:1). But it's high time that the jugglers were confronted about their game.

Here are a few examples of texts that various groups try to juggle so as to avoid what the plain words say:

  • "In this world you will have trouble." (John 16:33) is unpopular with the "name it and claim it" / victorious life crowd.
  • "Then he will say to those on is left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'" (Matthew 25:41) is unpopular with universalists.
  • "They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away." (Luke 8:14) is unpopular with the "once saved, always saved" camp.
  • "In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Crist, in accordance with his pleasure and will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he has freely given us in the One he loves." (Ephesians 1:4-6; see also the surrounding text) is unpopular with those who build theologies opposed to all understandings of predestination.
  • "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9) is unpopular with works-righteousness folks.
  • "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" is unpopular with some of the faith-righteousness folks.
  • "This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4) is unpopular with those who teach that God does not want all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
  • "This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance -- and for this we labor and strive -- that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe." (I Timothy 4:9-10) is unpopular with the limited-atonement camp.

I haven't exhausted the list and I hope I haven't missed anybody's favorite. The point remains: it is not Scripture that needs changing, but the lens through which we decide which parts we're willing to accept.

Early in his thoughts, Luther found himself rankled by certain passages that did not seem to fit with others according to the theological lens he was using. He struggled with the relationship between faith and works, between predestination and God's will to save all people. Later, in his more developed theology, he came to value the plain word wherever it went. Critics say that this leads to contradictions, by which they imply that the Bible itself is (on their view) contradictory. But many other "flaw-free" theologies have what can be considered a far greater flaw: they "argue with the Kaiser's wife" and dispute with the Bible itself. This is particularly tragic in groups which claim the Bible to be the source of their doctrines; when certain passages are swept under the rug it's plain that the Bible is not actually given full honor. Luther reasoned that God's thoughts were higher than our thoughts, and that we had no right to tinker with the words on the page since God knows how to explain himself to us better than we know.

His next comment sums up the only approach to Scripture that can possibly find all the depths which God intended:

"If you contend that the Scripture contradicts itself, go manufacture your own reconciliation. I will stay with the author of Scripture."

It's easy to find fault with Luther; he had many faults. I'm in no position to throw the first stone. But his legacy, such as it is, is for people to be willing to follow the Word of God wherever it goes, and to change the lens through which they interpret Scripture rather than changing Scripture. In light of this, I would want this amendment to Luther's "Kaiser's Wife" example:

The natural speech is the Kaiser's wife, and it is to be preferred to all subtle, sharp, and sophistic interpretations. One must not depart from it, or else not one letter of Scripture can be maintained against the Spiritual jugglers.

These days the "Kaiser's wife" with which people dare not argue is, sadly, not Scripture but the watchdogs of certain self-proclaimed orthodoxies. Here's a text we would do well to take at face value: to fear God rather than men. It is a marvel that so many are not at all ashamed to speak so boldly against what Scripture says so plainly, and more of a marvel still that people have gotten away with it for so long.

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