Sunday, May 5, 2013

Martin Luther's Understanidng of the Authorship and Warning Passages in Hebrews

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Martin Luther’s lectures on Hebrews make up a fascinating interaction with the Biblical text. Luther’s lectures were written around 1516-1518. Luther in his lecture notes and his preface to the book of Hebrews, seek to deal with the concepts of authorship, canonicity, and the warning passages. Luther’s hermeneutic to interpret scripture with scripture and his Pauline bias lead him to deny Biblical authority and the canonicity of the book of Hebrews.
Martin Luther
First, it must be noted that Martin Luther never published his notes on the book of Hebrews, and his “own lecture notes are not extant.”[1] In fact there are only two manuscripts from two students of Luther, still in existence today.[2] It is important to realize the students’ copies of Luther’s notes, may not necessarily be Luther’s original thought.  The original lectures were in Latin; in fact Luther had special copies of the Latin vulgate printed off for his students. Kenneth Hagan explains:
Luther lectured on Hebrews, as he had done on the Psalms, Romans and Galatians, in traditional manner by dividing his material into Gloss and Scholium…For his preparations Luther glossed his special copy of the Latin Vulgate by inserting short summary and descriptive phrases between the lines of the text (traditionally know throughout the Middle Ages as the interlinear gloss) and by adding more extended exegetical material in the margins (traditionally known as the marginal or ordinary gloss). Luther also worked out his own extensive exegetical and theological interpretation of Hebrews (Traditionally known as scholium)…Each student had his own copy of the Vulgate, which Luther had had printed especially for his class. The student then glossed his own text with the interlinear and marginal Glosses as well as with the scholium that Luther dictated.[3]

Thus, since the students were writing Luther’s dictation, these lectures are more or less based on these two particular students’ understanding of what Luther was teaching.  This becomes even more evident when one realizes that Luther’s Glosses contained word or passage studies, grammatical and or philological issues, and moral/ethical issues.[4] Meanwhile, the Scholium is essentially Luther’s interpretation of the text and his “exposition.” [5] Secondly, it must also be noted that this paper was researched based on the English translations of the American Edition of Luther’s Works. Therefore it is also important to know that the editor Jaroslav Pelikan decided to leave out all the glosses, and only translate the scholia. Thirdly, it must be noted that Luther’s lectures on Hebrews only cover Hebrews chapters 1-11.

            Luther has had several thoughts on the authorship of the Book of Hebrews. Originally, he was content with a Pauline authorship. Hagen, interprets an older version of Luther’s notes from a German translation. It states,
we should note that Paul in this epistle exalts grace and contrast it with the  arrogance of legal and human righteousness.  He shows that without Christ, neither the law nor the priesthood nor prophecy nor even finally the ministry of the angels was sufficient for salvation. In fact all these were established and provided in reference to the coming of Christ. Therefore, everything considered, he proposes that one should teach Christ alone.[6][bold added]

It is probably best to note here Luther’s positive understanding of the book of Hebrews. Now compare this to Luther’s later understanding of Hebrews from his 1522 preface to the book of Hebrews, where Luther states, “in the first place, the fact that Hebrews is not an epistle of St. Paul, or any other apostle…who wrote it is not know, and will probably not be known for a while; it makes no difference.” In other words, Luther’s most recent comments on the book are that Paul did not write it and neither did any other apostle. There is also speculation that Luther thought possibly that Apollos was the author of Hebrews. According to David Allen, Luther, in one of his (Luther’s) sermons on Hebrews 1:1-4, argued that Apollos was the author of Hebrews in 1522.[7] This seems to be problematic though, because Luther publishes in the same year where He very definitively states “who wrote it is not know, and will probably not be known for a while.” Allen then shows that Luther’s commentary on Genesis attributes the book of Hebrews to Apollos.[8] This must also be taken with a grain of salt since these Genesis lectures were also notes taken from Luther’s students. Yet, despite whether Luther thought the book of Hebrews was written by Apollos or by an unknown author, his conclusion remained unchanged – that the author of Hebrews (at least according to Luther) was not an apostle.  This belief will play an important role in Luther’s understanding of the book of Hebrews.

The Warning Passages in Hebrews
            Like many modern reformed theologians, Luther starts off with the presupposition that the ones who are being discussed in the warning passages are not Christians - at least that is what it seems at first.  Later he argues and denies canonicity and the scriptural authority of the book. Moreover, the concept of losing one’s salvation, not being able to repent or no longer having a sacrifice as expressed in Hebrews 6 and 10, are completely foreign ideas. Since Luther’s lectures only cover Hebrews 1-11 this study will only cover the warnings in 4 of the 5 warning passages. This means that the two original texts left from his notes did not contain the last two chapters, because Luther cites them in his other works.  Also, these lectures were written between 1516-1518, where he still held to Pauline authorship and held to this book as being apostolically inspired. However, his thoughts on the source of this book changes after 1522 when he publishes his introduction to the New Testament books. Luther goes as far as to place Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelations as uninspired New Testament apocrypha. This change in Luther’s understanding of authorship does play an important role in his hermeneutic of the warning passage.
            The first warning Luther expounds on is found in Hebrews chapter 2:2-3, which is translated, “For if the message declared by angels was valid, [and every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution].”[9] Luther sees this passage as dealing with the Law. In Luther’s theology he breaks down the word of God into two categories: one of Law and Gospel. The law in Luther’s “law and Gospel” theology functions as God’s wrath on the sinner.[10]  Paul Althaus explains,
The Law was originally not a means of God’s wrath. In primeval state man could still fulfill it. Therefore, it was not a burden for him but a joy. Since the fall however, everything is different man. Man is no longer able to fulfill the law. For this reason the law which for men was once a means of community with God, now becomes the instrument of God’s wrath.[11]

This is exactly how Luther proceeds to formulate his theological understanding of this passage.  Luther first cites Romans 8:3, which his translations and comments state, “‘For what the law could not do, in that it was weakened, because of the flesh,’ that is, was not fulfilled but was rather neglected.” As Altheus stated in the quote above, “since the fall” that man has not been able to fulfill the law. Luther also links this warning passage with the fourth and final warning in Hebrews 10. Luther states, “the Law is said to be established and ratified, and, on the other hand, to become invalid, as below in
ch. 10:28, where a man is making void the law of Moses is mentioned.”[12] Luther sees these people as people who tried to earn righteousness on their own strength, by trying to fulfill the law as a means of salvation. Luther states, “The result was that they fulfilled the Law only out of fear of punishment or out of love of reward. But to fulfill the Law in this way is to practice pure hypocrisy.”[13] In the end Luther understands these people, the “hypocrites”, to be unbelievers. To Luther, he sees these actions are inevitable for “every man who is outside of Christ.”[14] Therefore, while he does not directly come out and say that the ones receiving a just retribution are unbelievers it is implied.
            This does not mean though that, the punishment or the “just retribution” is eternal damnation or hell. Rather, for Luther, this punishment is an external punishment. External punishment is an earthly punishment or physical punishment that is dealing with the inward man. To Luther there is the Law and the Gospel, the law is the left hand of God which serves the purpose of regulating and coercing activities. It is there to cause people to perform good works, but to Luther all these works are external works. The external works by no means help with salvation. Thus, the punishment for not obeying external laws by doing external works according to Luther was an external punishment, and or external reward. Luther believed it was just as much a sin to do good works for rewards - thinking one can earn one’s way to heaven, as it is to live a sinful life. This is why Luther calls these people hypocrites. Moreover, Luther viewed salvation as being acquired through only one work - the work of Christ. This is the only internal work for Luther. While the punishment for this passage is not eternal damnation, the result is still the same because according to Luther these people are not in Christ. Hell will be their end result, but it will not be on account of their external transgressions but on account of their unbelief.
            The second verse in this warning passage is Hebrews 2:3, which Luther interprets, “[How shall we escape] if we neglect such a great salvation?”.  Luther goes on to explain his law and gospel understanding of this warning in more detail on the comments on this verse. He states, “The Law and the Gospel also differ for this reason, that in the law there are very many works- they are all external- but in the Gospel there is only one work- it is internal-which is faith…therefore the whole substance of the new law and its righteousness is that one and only faith in Christ.”[15]  Luther in this passage is not even discussing eternal issues such as heaven or hell, because he understands verse 2 to be dealing with disobedience to external works. One might ask that since this is referring to external, rather than internal, disobedience and has nothing to do with hell or damnation, then why does it imply that these people have to be unbelievers? Luther, like many reformed theologians, believe “it is impossible for faith in Him (Christ) to be idle; for it is alive, and it itself works and triumphs, and in this ways works flow forth spontaneously from faith.”[16] This is another reason why this passage according to Luther cannot be talking about true Christians, because a Christian’s faith would cause the external good works to spontaneously generate. 
            In the following warning passage Hebrews 3-4, Luther, being an Old Testament scholar, immediately notices the link between the wilderness generation and the warning passage. Luther takes Hebrews 3:10 to mean that in the future there will be a people that God is just as displeased with as the wilderness generation; but he does not clarify whether the future people are Christians or not.[17] Later in verse 3:12 which states, “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart.” Luther takes this as to mean again someone who is not saved. For example, Luther then directly references Titus 1:15, which he translates, “To the impure nothing is pure, but their minds and consciences are corrupted.” In other words, Luther understands these people with unbelieving hearts to be unbelievers because they have an impure heart. Luther in his comment goes on to say,
For one falls away from the living God when one falls away His Word, which is alive and gives life to all things, yes, is God himself. Therefore they die. He who does not believe is dead. But falling away comes about through unbelief. And thus it is clear what an ‘evil heart’ of unbelief is. It is a heart which nothing is good, but everything is evil, because it departs from everything that is good.[18]

This is probably one of the clearest statements made by Luther on the warning passages. Here one can see that Luther clearly understands these people who miss the rest as people who have nothing good in their hearts and this is due to unbelief.  Therefore, for Luther, this is not a matter of losing one’s salvation because these people did not have faith; if they did, they would be producing work as noted earlier.
            This point is explained even more clearly in Luther’s comments on Hebrews 4:12 which states, “for the word of God is living and powerful.”[19] This according to Luther has a twofold meaning. First that for the believer it is power, it is an enabling power for those who believe it in faith. Luther states, “it is the ‘powerful,’ because it makes those who believe able to do everything.”[20]  For Luther, the word of God is the proclamation, the oral word spoken and if one is a believer he will have responded positively to that word. If one is an unbeliever, then he or she has responded negatively to that proclaimed word. To respond positively to the proclaimed word, one has to have a purified heart.[21] For the unbeliever, this passage is one of judgment of wrath. Luther states this passage is “better…understood as a threat of cruel punishment for unbelievers.”[22] Luther goes on by quoting John Chrystom, “indeed, it is cruller than any sword: for it will fall upon (that is, will cut) the souls of those inflicting cruel wounds and fatal cuts.” Luther also links this passage of the word of God being living and powerful, back to the warning in Hebrews 2:3 about escaping the great salvation. He asserts, “Therefore since the Word of God is above all things, outside all things, within all things, before all things, behind all things. Therefore everywhere, it is impossible to escape to any place.”[23]  Moreover he links it to eternal punishment. Luther continues by explaining that this punishment because it is “living” is also “eternal,” which results in never ending “punishment.”[24] This again directly fits into Luther’s concept of Law and the Gospel. Luther understood the law to be just as much the word of God as the Gospel, combined one brings wrath to unbelievers and crushes them. Meanwhile, the Gospel kills one’s self on the cross of Christ and make alive and the one who does respond in faith to the Gospel, the word of God. In the end, Luther understands this warning to be two fold, for believers need to prepare for Christ’s (the High Priest) return, because when He does some will receive eternal punishment, while others will receive the implied rest.[25]  Luther does not explicitly define rest, but the implication seems to be eternity with Christ. 
            In the second warning in chapters 3 and 4, Luther talks about an evil heart. For Luther, the one’s heart is evil because it did not listen to the oral or the proclaimed word of God. This is all based on Luther’s understanding of faith. This is the key to understanding to whom this warning is talking. Kenneth Hagen explains,
Luther holds that the key to [3:12] is the word ‘Heart.’ He interprets the verse as an exhortation for one to be sure that his heart is ‘clean.’ Faith cleanses the Heart. Through faith united to Christ who is verbum dei man becomes ‘clean,’ ‘pure,’ ‘just,’ ‘wise,’ ‘good,’ and so on.[26]

Thus the warning is for the unbeliever who has not responded in faith to Christ. This results in never being purified, justified and never being saved. Therefore, to Luther, these evil unbelieving hearts refer to unbelievers. Meanwhile, those who do respond to the oral proclaimed Word of God, those are purified. While other commentators from the Middle Ages like, “Aquinas, Tarantasia and Lyra” explained these verses to mean one needs to perform good works, this is contrary to Luther’s understanding of faith.[27] Luther’s interpretation was a major shift in medieval thought as he had split away from the teaching that these passages called for people to perform good works. Luther saw that through faith one could keep one’s heart strong. Hagan translates Luther’s thoughts, “Just as man’s body cannot become strong without bread, so also his heart cannot become strong without the bread of God’s Word.”[28]  Luther also makes a major shift in even inserting faith into the concept of cleansing one’s heart. Luther argues in Hebrews 9:14 that one’s conscience or heart is cleansed or purified through faith.[29] This is an important transition, Hagan states, “With the exception of Aquinas, faith is not mentioned by medieval exegetes in their interpretation of” Hebrews 9:14.[30]
This then opens the reality that the warning is not focused toward believers (Christians), because Luther believes that one can only respond to the Word of God through faith. In Hebrews 3:7 Luther seems to clarify this idea for his students, he comments, that, “it is perverse…for one to hasten to works before God works in us, that is before we believe.”[31]  Therefore, for Luther these passages are not talking about those who are Christians because if one was a Christian he or she would be purified and would have already been performing good works.
With regards to the following two warnings, Luther begins to have his shift in thoughts about the book of Hebrews and decides that it is not Pauline. For instance, in 1522 about 4 to 6 years after Luther’s lectures in his preface to the epistle to the Hebrews Luther states, “Up to this point we have had (to do with) the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation.”[32]  In other words, Luther is denying its canonicity. He argues in part due to the next two warning passages Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-27. Luther states,
“Again, there is a hard knot in the fact that chapters 6[:4-6] and 10[:26-27] it flatly denies and forbids to sinners any repentance after baptism; and in chapter 12[:7] it says that Esau sought repentance and did not find it. This [seems, as it stands, to be] contrary to all the gospels and to St. Paul’s epistles; and although one might venture an interpretation of it, the words are so clear that I do not know whether that would be sufficient.”

This is important to keep in mind, because Luther’s comments while not this strong, will seemingly be leaning toward this idea. In his notes, he does not even deal with verses 3 or 4, but instead skips to verse 6, which he translates, “To restore again to repentance those who have fallen away.”[33] First, Luther disagrees with changing the word “impossible” to “difficult” trying to be as literal as possible.[34] Next, he makes a confusing statement that, “it is no less difficult for God to justify any godless person again, and it is impossible for man to rise from any sin.”[35] This statement creates a paradox of justified godless people whom God would have to justify again. As noted in the preface to Luther’s works, he no longer holds this view. Instead, Luther stated above in the preface that he believes the author to be wrong about repentance. Even in his lectures, he seems to be leaning towards this thought. Luther proceeds to cite multiple verses that begin to show how God brings the sinner back to Him, and back to repentance.
In the final passage, Luther’s commentary really only deals with Hebrews 10:26, which he translates: “For [if we sin] deliberately [after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins].”[36] Luther believes that this passage along with the warning in chapter 6, can only be understood “on the basis of other scripture passages.”[37] Luther does this because he believes that others might be “contentious” and argue for other interpretations.[38] Therefore, Luther knew this verse could cause controversy to some degree. From here Luther continues with his understanding of Pauline Biblical theology rather than exegeting the passage. Luther goes back to his theology of Law and the Gospel, by arguing that one cannot “sin against faith.”[39] He gives the example of David who is known for deliberately sinning. Luther explains that David’s sin was not “against faith”, but only against the fifth and sixth commandment.[40] While this seems rather flippant to say “Oh he only broke two commandments”; that is not Luther’s point. Rather, Luther is arguing from the concept of Law and Gospel. For Luther, David’s sins and most other sins were a result of external or horizontal worldly sins. Luther believed these sins get punished by external punishments as stated earlier. Luther explains that this type of sin is probably a mortal sin (which he bases off of Hebrew 10:29) and death to Luther is an external punishment. Luther cites 1 Corinthians 13:7; specifically the fact the love bears all things, and to Luther all things mean all things including external sins. He then argues that in 1 John those “who are born of God do not sin,” which is a traditional reformed understanding.
Luther then turns the argument on its head in opposition to the Armenians’ point of view. He argues that “he who is outside Christ cannot repent.”[41] He continues, that one “must understand that there is perseverance; that, is, just as he who is in grace cannot sin, no matter what he does, but remains in grace, so he who is in sin, cannot do good, no matter what he does, but remains in sins.”[42] Namely, it does not matter what one who is in grace does, because if he sins he is still under grace and dies under the work of Christ, and the end result is heaven. This is synonymous to the sinner as it does not matter how much he sins or does not sin, he is going to die apart from Christ and the end result is hell. For Luther, in the end, our actions here on earth are basically irrelevant to eternal realities, such as heaven. Moreover, there are two “state of affairs” which one can live in, either in Christ or not.[43] In conclusion, Luther sees the impossibility to be one of a change of state rather than of repentance.

            In the end, Luther’s interpretation was more influenced by his dogmatism and proof texting. Luther, throughout his lecture notes uses scripture to interpret scripture, and several times argued for a more literal interpretation even when it was not popular among the commentaries of his day. Yet despondently, Luther, being a Biblical theologian, used his Pauline Biblical theology as a mold in which to try and fit the book of Hebrews. The end result of this as seen in his preface to the book of Hebrews was a rejection from the cannon. Granted, Luther still appreciated and loved the book for the author’s understanding of faith and Christ as the great high priest. In the end, Luther’s theology of the warning passages was more of a list of proof text to argue why he is right and why other interpreters are wrong, than a true verse by verse interpretation. In the end his Pauline presuppositions, which were not necessarily wrong, got in the way of allowing him to truly create an exegetical exposition of the passages in Hebrews. This might also be just Luther’s response to a more Armenian understanding of the text that was prevalent during his time. But despite the reason, Luther was overly dogmatic in his exposition, which affected his ability to interpret the Hebrew text; and in the end it eventually caused him to reject Hebrews’ canonicity along with that of James, Jude and Revelation.   

[1] Kenneth Hagen, A Theology of Testament In the Young Luther: the Lectures on Hebrews, (Leiden;Brill, 1974),6.
[2] Hagen, Lectures on Hebrews,6.
[3] Hagen, Lectures on Hebrews, 6.
[4] Pelikan, American Edition of Luther’s Works: Lectures on Titus, Philemon and Hebrews, (Vol 29, Saint Louis; Concordia publishing house,1968) xi.
[5] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews,xi.
[6] Hagen, Lectures on Hebrews, 19-20.
[7] David Allen, Hebrews (NAC; Nashville, Tenn: B&H Publishing, 2010), 46 note 115.
[8] Allen, Hebrews,46 note115.
[9] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 122.
[10] Paul Althaus, The theology of Martin Luther, (Philadelphia; Fortress Press,1963)255.
[11] Althaus, The Theology, 174.
[12] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews,122
[13] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews,122
[14] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 123.
[15] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews,123.
[16] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews,123.
[17] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 152.
[18]Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 153.
[19] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 163.
[20] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 164.
[21]Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 164.
[22] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 164.
[23] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 165.
[24] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 165.
[25] Pelikan, Lectures on…Hebrews, 146-167.
[26]Hagan, Lectures on Hebrews, 76.
[27] Hagan, Lectures on Hebrews, 76.
[28] Hagan, Lectures on Hebrews, 77.
[29] Pelikan, Lectures…on Hebrews 209.
[30] Pelikan, Lectures on Hebrews,78.
[31] Pelikan, Lectures on Hebrews, 148.
[32] E. Theodore Bachmann, The American Edition of Luther Works: Word and Sacrament I, (Vol 35, Philadelphia;Fortress Press,1960), 394.
[33] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 181.
[34] Pelikan, Lectures on …Hebrews.181.
[35] Pelikan, Lectures on …Hebrews 182.
[36]Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 227.
[37] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 227.
[38] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 227.
[39] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 228.
[40] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 228.
[41] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 228.
[42] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 228.
[43] Pelikan, Lectures on… Hebrews, 228.

Allen, David. Hebrews . NAC; Nashville, Tenn: B&H Publishing, 2010.

Althaus, Paul. The theology of Martin Luther, Philadelphia; Fortress Press,1963.

Bachmann, E. Theodore. The American Edition of Luther Works: Word and Sacrament I, Vol 35, Philadelphia; Fortress Press,1960.

Hagen, Kenneth. A Theology of Testament in the Young Luther: the Lectures on Hebrews, Leiden; Brill, 1974.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. American Edition of Luther’s Works: Lectures on Titus, Philemon and Hebrews, Vol 29, Saint Louis; Concordia publishing house,1968.