The Spirit, the Spirits, and the Letter

Jonathan Mumme
Monday, November 1st 2010
Nov/Dec 2010

In the theology of Martin Luther, the Holy Spirit (contending for his position among other spirits) cannot be separated from the external Word in the fixed and stable form we know as the Holy Scriptures. These Holy Scriptures belong to a broader matrix of instruments through which the Holy Spirit deals with people mediately rather than immediately or by direct revelation to the individual, and thereby certainly in the church.

The Spirit and the Letter: Platonic Separation and Christological Cohesion

“Scribes” was the epithet pinned on Luther and his colleagues by Thomas Müntzer and the left wing of the Reformation. Bound to the letter and educated (only) in what was written, Anabaptists such as Müntzer alleged that the Reformers lacked essential knowledge and experience of the Spirit. And although Luther did indeed counteract their cries of “Speeerit! Speeerit!” with “Scripture! Scripture! Scripture!” he never did in a way that pitted Holy Scripture against the Holy Spirit. Instead, preaching on Romans 15:4 in 1531, Luther claimed the Scriptures as a “comfort” for Christians, thus aligning the Bible inseparably with “the Comforter,” as the Holy Spirit is called by Jesus in John 15:26. God himself is present in and with the Scriptures, after having inspired their authorship, even though their “written-ness” might seem to make them as significant as straw. “Let the Scriptures be ink, paper and letters,” Luther explained. “Nevertheless there is one who is present with them; he says they are his own, and that is God.” (1)

The history of interpretations that separate the Spirit and Scripture is unfortunately all too long, beginning with a Platonist reading of 2 Corinthians 2:6 (“For the letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive”). Whether from reason in the Enlightenment, spiritualism among the mystics, or the inner religion of experience in Schleiermacher’s school, the demand that the Spirit should somehow be distanced from all physical, concrete, historical, and fleshly words on the page is ever present. There needs to be some space. Luther eventually broke with the understanding of language most prominent in classical antiquity (even in the Augustinian tradition) and ceased to conceive of language as a system of signs that could by their very nature only point to things external to themselves. His great hermeneutical discovery (won via private confession with the realization that the priest’s word of absolution really forgives sin) was that the lingual sign, the word, is the thing itself. “The [lingual] signs are twofold: In philosophy the [lingual] sign is the marker of an absent thing; in theology it is the marker of a present thing,” he explained. Therefore Luther did not allow for any space or gap between the Word and Spirit; or put more plainly, the Bible was not an empty set of words that merely symbolized a far-off heavenly reality. Luther not only affirmed the inspiration and divine authorship of the Holy Scriptures along with the church, but against the prevailing mode of interpretation in the Middle Ages he insisted that Scripture’s spiritual sense was precisely the literal sense. (2)

Simply stating that Luther had a high view of Scripture, though certainly true, actually stops far too short. His understanding of the preached Word and of Scripture is shaped by his understanding of Christ, his pneumatology (or doctrine of the Holy Spirit) by Christology (his doctrine of Christ). God “has brought the Savior low enough and placed him in the oral Word,” and what is more, his speaking “is written down with the quill and is God’s voice.” For Luther, the incarnation of the Son of God has a sanctifying effect on the bodily, the lowly, the earthly, the concrete. He rejected the opinion that “such external things” as the preached Word, the ink of the written letter, water, bread, and wine “cannot save, because they are common, bodily creatures.” An incarnate Creator does not shun the creaturely. GodÂ?not needing to be theologically shielded from human flesh, from ignominious death upon a crossÂ?does not need to be shielded from human speech or human writing. The incarnation and the personal union of Christ’s two natures, which communicate their attributes to one another, hallow the human, the bodily, the physical. In light of this condescension into human flesh, the Holy Spirit’s condescension simply follows, for whom pen and ink with all of their historicity and contingency do not prove too ignominious. The Scriptures depict and deliver such an incarnate God: “These are miraculous things, that God bends down and sinks himself into the letters and says, ‘There man has me depicted. These letters shall give such strength that the Devil [is] defied and people [are] redeemed.'” (3) When the holy Lord takes things into his use, they are hallowed words too, even the written ones. It is via such a Lord that one arrives at the fact that some of the many things that have been written are the Holy Scriptures.

The Spirit vs. the Spirits

As Luther’s ecclesiology came to contrast the struggle between Christ and antichrist, and as he famously robbed Erasmus of the notion of neutral ground in matters theological, so also the landscape surrounding the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures is a field fraught with strife. The Spirit and Scripture constantly vie for their place and their particular identity. (4)

With interpretation and exposition, much more than just various senses, various spirits are at play. In his “Assertio omnium articulorum” Luther depicts the struggle between one’s own spirit and the Spirit of the Scriptures themselves. Accused of wanton self-will in interpretation, he counters his opponents by claiming that the current exegetical method had devolved to amassing opinions of the fathers. The Spirit of the Scriptures was getting buried beneath the ever growing heap of the spirits of its interpreters. Affirming the Scriptures themselves as first principle (principium primum) he declares, “The Scriptures are not to be understood but by way of that Spirit, by whom they have been written. This Spirit can be found nowhere more present and vivifying than in his own Holy Scriptures, letters which he has written.” The Spirit of the Scriptures is the Holy Spirit who through the Scriptures drives out our spirit. This amounted to an exorcism for exegetes. At the font of the Scriptures we are taught that “first and alone one should labor in the words of God. The Spirit will come of his own accord and will drive out our spirit, so that we may be about the task of theology without hazard.” (5)

Harmful spirits need room to rabble-rouse and cause mischief, we might surmise from Matthew 12:43-45, and the fanatics or fanatical spirits (Schwärmgeister) before and after the Reformation created just such space for theirs by divorcing the Holy Spirit from the letter of Scripture. Paraphrased, Luther’s reply to the Anabaptists was, “No letter? Then no Spirit, and no Christ.” Spirit without the external Word is still spirit, although neither good nor holy, but rather the devil.

Eventually the humanist Erasmus was drawn unwillingly into this great Reformation debate, and like the Anabaptists he too wished to create some space between God and the Scriptures. He offered Luther an olive branch by way of academic skepticism and biblical moralism. The Scriptures, Erasmus claimed, are often uncertain and obscure, so better to give theological assertions a rest and stick with the promotion of piety. But Luther flipped the tables and blamed all darkness and ambiguity on the human heart and will, insisting that though God himself is at times unintelligible, the Scriptures of God are not; they are clear, and moving from their center (Christ) outward they clarify all darkness and make sure assertion (that is confession, a sine qua non for Christianity) is possible. (6)

The moves of various spirits to disarm, domesticate, sidestep, or (as in the case of the late-medieval papacy) institutionally corral the Scriptures gets met by the living Spirit of God, who asserts himself and whose Scriptures create their own hearing. The interpreter is interpreted, the expositor exposited. Exorcising our spirit, the Holy Spirit moves in, killing our notions of free will and assertions of neutral space. The letter and Spirit together give vitality and come to hold the Christian together, encouraging him in prayer.

I don’t know how strong others are in the S/spirit, but I can’t get that holy. Even if I were so learned and full of the S/spirit as some think themselves to be, I still constantly experience the fact that when I am without the Word and not dealing with it, then Christ isn’t home, nor zest, nor S/spirit. However, as soon as I take up a Psalm or a word of Scripture, a light shines and a fire burns in my heart, so that I obtain a different attitude and mind. (7)

The Holy Scriptures and the Larger Matrix of the Holy Spirit’s Mediate Work

As noted above regarding the christological and incarnational foundation for Luther’s understanding of Holy Scripture and its relation to the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures share with Holy Baptism, the Holy Supper, and with preaching (we might say, the Holy Sermon) a scandalous concreteness and an externality. In Luther’s treatment of the Scriptures, they are not only analogous in externality but are in fact part of a larger matrix of means by which the Holy Spirit is speaking and dealing with his people in the church. (8)

Seldom does Luther deal with the Scriptures apart from preaching. They form for him parts or aspects of the overarching whole of the external Word of God, and so he can refer to both under this title. Even the meditatio, which along with oratio and tentatio forms the proper study of theology, is not simply the meditating of students hunched over the Bible but entails engaging a Word that God has commanded to be written, preached, read, heard, sung, and said. Though some argument can be made for a given primacy of the preached Word with Luther, rather than categorically place the Scriptures over preaching or preaching above the Scriptures, he tends to hold the two together against opponents who were inclined to separate them from one another. Rather than being substitutes for or rivals of one another, Scripture and preaching run together, the proper place for the Bible being the pulpit. As the receiving of preaching and Scripture go together, so does their rejection. The fanatical spirits insisted on direct or separate revelations of the Spirit over against the Scriptures, and were also quick to dismiss the Word preached from the pulpit. Naturally they were not against preaching itself, of which they too did much, but against the ordered preaching of the Ministers of the Word that was bound to the letter of Scripture. Here Luther maintained that the solid ground for faith and teaching is that of the bodily or written Word, written down in letters, and preached orally by him and others in the Office of the Ministry. Only in the continuity of preaching with the Scriptures could Luther claim against Roman opponents that the Word proclaimed among the followers of the Wittenberg Reformation was God’s Word. Similarly on this front, the papacy set itself not only above the Scriptures but also over the Office of the Ministry and all preaching by arrogating the teaching office of the church to itself. As was often the case when his theological diagnostic was sharpest, Luther could lump the fanatics and the supporters of the papacy together, calling them all “Enthusiasts,” those who place the thoughts and musings of their own hearts above and before God’s Word. (9)

Luther’s answer to both the fanatics and the allies of the papacy is a steady reiteration of God’s mandated, instituted, and ordered Word, Sacraments, and Office. Enthusiasm is to break with and sidestep what God has mandated and instituted, stipulating other (and one’s own) means for God’s dealing with us. This tendency has infected the children of Adam from the beginning. God has, however, bound himself to the preached and written Word, to Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Absolution, locating himself in the church as its Head, where the Holy Spirit works through these means to “call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify,” to create and sustain faith, to forgive sins. This is to encounter God where he has put himself, to find him where he wills to be found. Paralleling the difference between God himself and the Scriptures of God, the opposite of the hidden God (deus absconditus) in Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” is not simply some abstractly revealed God (a deus revelatus), but God as he is preached, held out, and encountered in the Divine Service (deus praedicatus, oblatus et cultus). Luther’s confession of the Holy Spirit, which as we have seen is bound up with his understanding of Holy Scripture, is incomplete without confession of the means by which the Holy Spirit delivers the benefits of Christ’s saving work, which places Scripture in a broader matrix of means and ties it indissolubly to the ordered preaching of the church. (10)

Wherein then does the sola of sola scriptura lie? Contrary to some prevalent Protestant mystique, sola scriptura is no doctrinal discovery of the Reformation. As with most Christian doctrine, the doctrine of Scripture did not come into decisive written formulation until it was challenged, but this does not mean that it was not understood and practiced beforehand. Prior to the Reformation the fathers of the church had been primarily exegetes; the Scriptures were the understood source of teaching and theology. Numerous medieval theologians had formulations of sola scriptura in their writings. Only after three centuries of strife over the final authority in the church did the Council of Trent perpetrate a theological novum, declaring Scripture and Tradition to be of equal authority as sources of revelation. The Lutheran Reformation, along with its understanding of Scripture, did not manufacture the new but reasserted the old in the face of church abuses and theological and ecclesial ingenuity. Along with the great tradition of the church, Luther implicitly affirms what we might call a nominative case use of sola scriptura: as he is articulating theologyÂ?in the pulpit, at the podium, or in printÂ?it is clear that the Scriptures are the final ground of authority for teaching and for establishing the theological content of divine revelation. However, the primary function of sola scriptura, as with sola gratia and sola fide, is in the ablative case (the Latin case expressing ideas of preposition without the prepositions). As the rule and norm of Christian doctrine, Scripture is that by which all teaching is judged and all practice measured. Scripture is not alone the Word of God to the exclusion of preaching; because of Scripture God also reveals himself through preaching, Baptism, the Supper, and the Absolution. But all teaching is judged and the life of the church and its Divine Service are normed by Scripture alone. It was precisely this ablative function of sola scriptura that called for assertion at the time of the Reformation, first over against a papacy, which having set itself above the other bishops and any council had also become resistant to being judged by Scripture, and then against rampant spiritualism, which would use the developing break with Rome to break with all institution and order, even God’s own instituted and ordered means of grace. (11)

First Things First and Given Things Delivered

In affirming that the Holy Spirit works through such means, Luther in no way denied that he also works on and in the human heart:

God…deals with us in a twofold way: on the one hand externally, and on the other hand internally. Externally he deals with us through the oral Word of the Gospel and through bodily Signs such as Baptism and the Sacrament. Internally he deals with us through the Holy Spirit and faith along with other gifts.

Yet there is order to this twofold mode of operation:

But that all in such a way and according to such an order, that the external bits shall and must go first. The internal ones come after, through the external ones, as he has decided to give no one the internal bits except through the external bits, for he will give no one the Spirit or faith without the external Word and Sign, which he has instituted for this purpose.

These quotations from “Against the Heavenly Prophets” are paralleled by the internal and external clarity of Scripture addressed in “Bondage of the Will.” The internal clarity of Scripture, a matter of one’s heart and understanding, is not to be had without the Holy Spirit. Regarding external clarity, the Scriptures are clear as they are declared to all in the Ministry of the Word that is faithful to the Scriptures. Any internal clarity is by way of the Holy Spirit working through these external means. Working through the external means, the Holy Spirit overcomes the space between Christ and man, creating faith in man, enlightening the heart, delivering the gifts of Christ’s suffering and death, justifying and reconciling with the Father. Where there are these means, there the Holy Spirit, there Christ, there the Father, all certainly and concretely delivered as a gift. (12)

If things don’t go from out to in, they go from in to out, or perhaps just stay completely within. This was the case with the fanatics of Luther’s day and ours, who like medieval monastics sought God by a mystical sinking into the self or with a supposed direct relationship to the Spirit. But by following this in to out pattern, biblical spirituality is overturned: what should be the inner gifts of the Spirit become instead mere inner spiritual gifts to be improved by particular exercises and a specific piety (and thus are not really gifts but habits that we develop for ourselves). Then the Sacraments become mere commands to be carried out by us, the Scriptures become a rulebook for making life godlier, and the duties of personal piety begin to pile up. Luther recognized this reversed directional pattern in his opponent Andreas Karlstadt, saying he “wants to teach you not how the Spirit comes to you, but how you are supposed to come to the Spirit.” Luther eventually went on to diagnose the attempt to move from inside ourselves to God as the confusing of law and gospel; it was even possible, he criticized the fanatics, to tie up the Spirit under the letter of the law. (13)

As the Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse has noted, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of Scripture go together. As with all doctrines, these can be articulated as demands: “We must cling to Scripture alone! The Bible must have primacy in the church!” Or they can be delivered as gifts. Do we get to Scripture, or does it get to us? By his example and by his own biography, Luther guides us to the latter, toward Scripture as the sole rule of faith and life delivered to us by the Holy Spirit along with and through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, the Holy Supper, and the Holy Sermon. Though he may go on to further apologetic tasks, the Christian who consistently hears biblical teaching, whose pastor distinguishes the gospel from the law in scriptural preaching, who is privileged to live in a liturgy that steeps him in the Scriptures, who receives Christ so delivered, will need little convincing that the letters on the page are none other than those of the Spirit of the living God. (14)

1 [ Back ] Martin Luther, "Scribes," Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 60 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883), 34/II:487,2f. (hereafter WA); WA 50:646, 33ff.; see also the references in Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelischlutherischen Kirche, 11th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 454 n. 2 (hereafter BSLK). Luther's imitation of the southern German/Swiss drawl ("gaischt, gaischt"): WA 46:426, 28. "Scripture!...Scripture!": WA 36:500, 31ff. The sermon: WA 34/II:483-490; quote: WA 34/II:489,13-15. All translations are the author's unless otherwise indicated.
2 [ Back ] The Spirit and the letter along with 2 Cor. 2:6: Johannes von Lüpke, "Geist und Buchstabe," in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 4th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998ff.), 3:578-82. Luther vs. Schleiermacher: Hermann Sasse, "Luther and the Word of God," in Accents in Luther's Theology, ed. Heino O. Kadai (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 47-97, 72. Luther's understanding of language and hermeneutical breakthrough: Oswald Bayer, Schöpfung als Anrede: Zu einer Hermeneutik der Schöpfung (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1986), 36-9; see also his Martin Luthers Theologie: Eine Vergegenwärtigung (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 62-83 (esp. 71-3). Luther quote: WA Tischrede 4:666, 8ff. (no. 5106). Authorship and inspiration of the Scriptures: WA 7:97,2ff.; WA 34/II:488, 4; Hermann Sasse, "The Rise of the Dogma of Holy Scripture in the Middle Ages" in The Reformed Theological Review 18 (1959): 45-54. Spiritual and literal sense: WA 7:647-71; see also Martin Brecht, Martin Luther (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag), 1:360ff.
3 [ Back ] Luther quotes in order: WA 46:527, 31-5; WA 50:646, 25-31; WA 34/II:487, 12-15. The Christology as driving force for the whole: Luther's preface to the New Testament: WA Deutsche Bibel 6:2, 23-4, 23 (hereafter WA DB); Johann Anslem Steiger, "Die Communicatio Idiomatum als Achse und Motor der Theologie Luthers: Der 'Fröhliche Wechsel' als hermeneutischer Schlüssel zu Abendmahlslehre, Anthropologie, Seelsorge, Naturtheologie, Rhetorik und Humor," in Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 38 (1996): 1-28. See also Sasse, "Luther and the Word...," 82: "The Lutheran Christian...believes in the Bible because he first believes in Christ."
4 [ Back ] The Holy Spirit, singular and unique, and one among other spirits: see the Larger Catechism 2, 35-6, BSLK 653, 36-654, 1/2.
5 [ Back ] "Assertio...": WA 7:94-151. Quotes: WA 7:97, 1-3 and 7:97, 34ff. Here Luther also calls Scripture its own interpreter: WA 7:97, 23.
6 [ Back ] Luther's paraphrased answer: WA 28:76, 15-19 and 36:500, 21-501, 16. Luther and Erasmus: WA 18:603, 1-609, 14; in regard to the clarity of Scripture see also WA 50:548, 14ff.
7 [ Back ] See Bayer, Martin Luthers Theologie, 62-5. Quote on prayer: WA 28:76, 15-21 (in view of Luther's German, the English differentiation between spirit and Spirit is arbitrary). In regard to the whole of section 2: Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator, trans. John M. Jensen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1953).
8 [ Back ] See WA 34/II:487, 6-10 in the wider context of this sermon.
9 [ Back ] Meditatio, etc.: WA 50,658, 29-661, 8; see also Bayer, Martin Luthers Theologie, 28-34. Toward a given primacy of the preached Word: WA 7:721 ,9-15; WA DB 6:2, 23-4, 23; WA 10/I,1:625,12-628, 8; for discussion see Von Lüpke, 579 and Bayer, Martin Luthers Theologie, 71-3. Continuity and the Bible in the pulpit: WA 34/II:487, 26ff. and 50:658, 27ff. in the context of 50:657, 2-658, 28. Fanatics against the preached Word: WA 34/II, 488, 4-7 and 36:500, 21-501, 16. Bible and oral proclamation interwoven: Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Theology of the Means of Grace," in Accents in Luther's Theology (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 124-47, 130ff. On the Roman front: WA 50:628, 29ff. with 50:630, 14ff.; Schmalkaldische Artikel III, VIII, 4 (hereafter SA), BSLK 454, 7-12 with Tractatus 1, BSLK 471, 5-8.
10 [ Back ] Word, Sacraments, and Office: WA 50:647, 6-13. Enthusiasm: SA III, VII, 3-13, BSLK 453, 16-456, 18. Mediately located and active in the church: see Kleiner Katechismus II, 6, BSLK 511, 39-512, 13 (quote: 512, 6) and GroÃ?er Katechismus II, 34-62, BSLK 653, 25-600, 13 (includes the offices, see II, 54, BSLK 658, 10-18) in relation to chief parts 4-6 (Baptism, Confession and Absolution, the Lord's Supper). God preached and proffered in the liturgy vs. God hidden: WA 18, 685, 3-5; cultus from colo implies more than just worship; it entails the habitation of God. See also WA 26, 505, 29-506, 29.
11 [ Back ] Following Sasse, "The Rise of the Dogma..." and "Luther and the Word...." What the Reformation was (not): see Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and its Theology, ed. Lawrence Rast (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007); Arthur Carl Piepkorn, "What the Reformation Was Not," in The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, vol. 2, ed. Philip J. Secker (Mansfield, CT: CEC Press, 2007), 72-7; Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., The Catholicity of the Reformation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), esp. the articles by Yeago and Senn.
12 [ Back ] Quotes: WA 18:136, 9-13 and then 13-18. Regarding "On the Bound Will": WA 18:609, 4-14 and 18:653, 22-28; see also Jared Wicks, "Luther's Ecclesiology (Seminarbericht)," in Lutherjahrbuch 62 (1995): 198-201, 199. The whole delivered as a gift: Kleiner Katechismus (n. 10 above) and WA 26:505, 38-506, 12; further Norman E. Nagel (NEN), "When the First Article Cannot Come First," in Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 2, no. 1 (1993): 57.
13 [ Back ] Quote: WA 18:137, 15ff. See also Brecht II:165-69. Luther, Law and Gospel, spirit and letter: von Lüpke, 581.
14 [ Back ] Hermann Sasse, "On the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit," in We Confess the Church, trans. Norman Nagel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 17-39; see also Bayer, Martin Luthers Theologie, 65-67. Luther's biography: Oswald Bayer, "Die reformatorische Wende in Luthers Theologie," in Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 66 (1969): 115-50 comparing with WA 54:185,12-187, 7 via Notger Slenczka, "Das Evangelium und die Schrift," in Der Tod Gottes und das Leben des Menschen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003), 39-64, 52ff. For Luther the inseparability of Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture never meant that he did not need to hear someone speaking the Word of God to him from the Scriptures but exactly the opposite: WA 40/III:543, 22-544, 14; when the plague struck Wittenberg the mighty Reformer could not do without his pastor in the house: Brecht II:207.
Monday, November 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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