Readers speak: Did Martin Luther really think Genesis wasn’t history?

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (public domain)

Editor’s note: Today’s letter comes from a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Regarding an earlier post on the theologian Martin Luther’s views of Genesis, he writes:

Tyler,

I really appreciated your article entitled “If you can read, you can understand Genesis, right?” It stirred some very interesting discussion between myself and my co-worker.

I’m also taking a class entitled “Origins.” My professor is an old-earth creationist, believes that the young-earthers fall short. I, however, am on the fence when it comes to some of these issues.

I did want to bring something to light about the article, though. My co-worker is a Ph.D. student who is doing his dissertation on Luther and found your citation interesting. It came from Luther’s Works Volume 1 and the first chapter concerning Genesis. My colleague was concerned that you didn’t get the spirit of Luther’s words. Your quotation came from the end of the second paragraph. However, just a couple page later Luther writes:

“Therefore so far as this opinion of Augustine is concerned, we assert that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read.”

Luther knew of the debates going on and referred others to his friend Lyra regarding the “day and the night” terms in Genesis, but he himself appears to take it literally.

So while we think some of your points are valid, namely that there is diverse interpretation regarding Genesis 1 among our church fathers, you should be careful quoting one out of context. Luther was part of the main thrust your argument, and at the end, his thinking doesn’t align with your conclusion.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email! I look forward to your response.

Blessings.

As I told today’s letter writer, I didn’t intend to convey that Luther interpreted Genesis 1 any way other than literally, which is why I asked for and received permission to share his comments with you. But I still think the Reformer’s point holds, namely that Genesis is a complex and nuanced book, and one should not enter into attempts to say what it “means” lightly.

As I said in the earlier article, “Whatever Luther’s eventual interpretation of Genesis 1 may have been, he clearly did not arrive at his view by simply reading through it once and ‘taking it as face value.’ In fact, it appears he didn’t believe a complete understanding of the text was even possible.”

In his introduction to Genesis, Luther said it is “clear enough that God has reserved His exalted wisdom and the correct understanding of this chapter for Himself alone, although He has left with us this general knowledge that the world had a beginning and that it was created by God out of nothing. This general knowledge is clearly drawn from the text.”

As our letter writer points out, Luther went on to say he accepts the idea that the world was created in six 24-hour days. However, in light of his introduction, I think that Luther is, admittedly, offering nothing more than his opinion on the text. It is a learned and reasoned opinion, yes, but an opinion nonetheless, which means it is an opinion a believer would be free to reject should his or her own reason and learning lead them elsewhere.

Whether you choose to agree or not is, of course, entirely up to you.

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