God and His Human Creatures in Luther’s Sermons on Genesis

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This is an excerpt from “The Alien and the Proper: Luther's Two-Fold Righteousness in Controversy, Ministry, and Citizenship,” edited by Robert Kolb (1517 Publishing, 2023). Now available for purchase.

In March 1523 Martin Luther began preaching on the book of Genesis in the town church in Wittenberg. Over the next year and a half he examined its text and applied it to his hearers’ lives in the Sunday afternoon service. Some three years later, in 1527, the Wittenberg printer Georg Rhau published versions of these sermons in both Latin and German, based on notes taken by Luther’s student, friend, and later official amanuensis, Georg Rorer, and edited by another former student, Caspar Cruciger, at the time a school rector in Magdeburg. [1]  Often lost in the shadow of Luther’s ten-year lectures on Genesis to his students in Wittenberg (1535-1545), these sermons offer a view of how the reformer was formulating his thought for a popular audience relatively early in the course of his call for public reform. This essay explores how these sermons put to use his recently formulated definition of humanness as two dimensional, totally passive in relationship to God and at the same time active in relationship to God’s world. This distinction of “two kinds of righteousness” provided the anthropological framework for preaching about God and the human creature in his Genesis sermons. [2]

Two Kinds of Righteousness as a Nervous System of the Wittenberg Body of Doctrine

Luther’s sermons on Genesis disclose how his method operated as it guided the proclamation of what the reformer found in the book, and they also unveil how his newly developed presuppositions shaped his treatment of fundamental questions regarding the person and nature of God and what it means to be human. Indeed, it is implicit in these sermons that for those subject to Biblical revelation these two topics cannot be explored independently of each other. For, Luther was certain, God does not reveal everything about His innermost being in Scripture. Some of the reaches of the depth of God’s person belong to what he labeled in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 the “Hidden God” (Deus abscon- ditus). [22] Scripture reveals instead how He relates to His human creatures, above all, in and through His incarnation, as Jesus Christ (Deus revelatus). [23]  At the same time Luther’s essential definition of what it means to be human, expressed in his distinction of the two dimensions of humanity—what he labeled two kinds of righteousness—centers on two persons. It posits, first, the personal, almighty Creator who bestows “passive righteousness” upon His human creature (in the very act of creation and in subsequent redemption from sin) through His creative and re-creative Word. Second, it posits the human creature, fashioned by the Creator in His own image to respond to His love in fear, love, and trust. God’s gift of human identity as a child of God elicits and creates the trust that lies at the center of humanity. This “passive righteousness” is, however, inseparable from the “active righteousness” that meets God’s expectation for human performance that properly expresses that core identity. Luther believed that human creatures are so fashioned in God’s image that they are fully responsible for carrying out God’s plan and will for human living in such performance, but at the same time God is completely responsible for everything in His creation as the almighty Creator. Other Christian theologians have also struggled with the question of the balance between God’s power and human power, and many have tried to harmonize and homogenize these two Biblical claims of God’s total responsibility and of human responsibility. Luther, in contrast, along with his Wittenberg colleagues and students, strove to hold the two responsibilities in creative tension. This tension produced presuppositions for his entire theological enterprise, such as the distinction of Law and Gospel, the distinction of the two dimensions of humanity, and the distinction of two realms of God’s governance of His world. [24]

God’s gift of human identity as a child of God elicits and creates the trust that lies at the center of humanity.

Luther would later, in 1535, dub the distinction of the two kinds of human righteousness “our theology.” [25]  By that time he had refined and enhanced the concept in its details, but even as he first gave utterance to this Biblical axiom some four years before preaching on Genesis, it was clear that he was laying down the foundation of his anthropology. His Sermon on Three Kinds of Righteousness bore this title because it distinguished the civil righteousness of the non-Christian from the faith-driven but externally similar pious righteousness of the believer. This treatise discussed these two forms of the “active righteousness” of human performance in the horizontal relationships with other creatures along with the “passive righteousness” of the human relationship with God. After the fall into sin, true human righteousness can be restored to sinners only on the basis of what Christ has done to meet the Law’s claim for the death of the sinner and to claim life for forgiven sinners through His resurrection. The work of Christ refashions sinners into God’s children in the action of God’s Word, parallel to His original creation in Genesis 1, as that word of forgiveness, life, and salvation comes in oral, written, and sacramental forms.

Luther defined the righteousness which Christ gives the sinner through the forgiveness of sins as a righteousness as free and unconditional as the humanity given to Adam and Eve at creation, before they had had a chance to perform any deeds of love. This righteousness is comparable to the identity that a person has because it has been bestowed by birth, a total gift (natalis). It is a righteousness that is essential, that is, that determines the core identity of a person (essencialis). It is determined by the person’s origin by the power of God’s re-creative Word, and therefore it cannot be separated from who the person is (originalis). It comes as a gift from someone else, from God, and thus it comes to the person from outside (aliena). This righteousness, Luther points out, comes from being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). It is received by God’s power to make sinners His children (John 1:12). Therefore, because God has given new birth to believers, they are no longer identified as sinners (1 John 3:9) because Christ has given them His righteousness (Rom. 5:18-19). [26] This righteousness of pure gift, of new birth, brings with it, however, divine parental expectations. The gift of identity as creatures and children of God issues naturally into the performance of what God created human creatures to do, into the good works that actively express the core identity of human passive righteousness. [27]

This distinction of two kinds of righteousness functioned as a presupposition for all that Luther said about the human being and the human relationship with God. As a presupposition rather than a dogmatic topic in itself, it did not become a standard part of the list of teachings in Lutheran dogmatics because the form for presenting Biblical teaching that Philip Melanchthon bequeathed his students did not have a place for the presentation of presuppositions. Using the best linguistic theories of their time, those of the Biblical humanists) Melanchthon adapted rhetorical forms from that movement, chief among them the organization of material to be taught in categories or topics, called loci communes (commonplaces) in the academic Latin of his day. In many details the Wittenberg theologians left behind the model of Peter Lombard’s Sententiae, which had provided the configuration for Western public rendering of the Biblical message since the eleventh century (though Lombard’s outline of topics did shape Melanchthon’s organization of his own topics to some extent). [28] However, Melanchthon’s second and third editions of the Loci did follow Lombard’s model in simply beginning with the topic, “On God.” The communication theory of the time did not recognize any need for laying down the conceptual framework of its way of thinking-although in at least one preface to the work, Melanchthon did sketch the framework of distinguishing Law and Gospel.

This distinction of two kinds of righteousness functioned as a presupposition for all that Luther said about the human being and the human relationship with God.

Nonetheless, within the Wittenberg practice of theology there is a place for modern interpreters to make certain that its presuppositional framework is made clear. The Wittenberg team sometimes called the whole of Biblical teaching a corpus doctrinae, a “body of doctrine,” and the individual topics were members, or articuli, of that body. [29] Even though the Wittenberg theologians did not have a way to describe it, it is true that presuppositions run like a nervous system or a circulatory system through the entire body, shaping a number of the specific topics. Therefore, we can recognize the critical role of the distinction of two kinds of righteousness—the two dimensions of humanity—as a critical anthropological presupposition for the exposition and proclamation of a number of topics of Biblical teaching even if this is not made explicitly clear in the tradition. As a presupposition this concept is not dealt with in detail in most of Luther’s works, but nonetheless, it surfaces as the clear frame-work for his thinking, for instance, in his Genesis sermons of 1523 and 1527. This is true in other works of the period following the publication of the sermons on two kinds and three kinds of righteousness as well. [30] 

This is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of “The Alien and the Proper: Luther's Two-Fold Righteousness in Controversy, Ministry, and Citizenship,” edited by Robert Kolb (1517 Publishing, 2023), pgs 125, 129-133.

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[1] See the introduction to the printed edition in D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar: Bohlau, 1883-1993 [henceforth WA]), 24:XIII-XLVII, and to the notes taken on the sermons as they were delivered, WA 14:92-96. The text of notes from Georg Rörer and Stephan Roth are found in WA 14:97-488. See J. P. Boendermaker, “Heet eerste word blijft gelden. Luthers preken over de vijf boeken van Mozes, 1523-1525 inleiding en enkele teksten,” in Luther na 500 jaar, teksten, vertaald en beproken, ed. J. T. Bakker and J. P. Boendermaker (Kempen: Kok, 1983), 99-123. Sabine Hiebsch, in her study of Luther’s use of the interpretive method of “figura,” also treats this sermons series (Figura eccle- siae: Lea und Rachel in Martin Luthers Genesispredigten [Münster: LIT, 2002]).

[2] Robert Kolb, “Luther on the Two Kinds of Righteousness: Reflections on His Two-Dimensional Definition of Humanity at the Heart of His Theology,” Lutheran Quarterly 13 (1999): 449-466; David Lumpp, “Luther’s ‘Two Kinds of Righteousness’: A Brief Historical Introduction,” Concordia Journal 23 (1997): 27-38. See also Charles P. Arand, “Two Kinds of Righteousness as a Framework for Law and Gospel in the Apology,” Lutheran Quarterly 15 (2001): 417-435.

[22] To be sure, Luther later insisted that nothing in this Hidden God contradicts what He has revealed of Himself in the Revealed God; see his lecture on Genesis 26 a quarter century later, WA 43:459,24-32; Luther’s Works ed., 5:45. Luther was most concerned to assure the believer that God’s promise of salvation in Jesus Christ, delivered through the means of grace, is absolutely trustworthy.

[23] “HeidelbergDisputation,1518,”WA1:362,15-19.(Luther’sWorks(Saint Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1958-1986; henceforth LW)) 31:53. See Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 39-43, 69-102.

[24] These ideas are more fully developed in Robert Kolb, Bound Will, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method from Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[25] WA 40,1:45,24-27; LW 26:7.

[26] Sermodetripliciiustitia,1518,WA2:44,32-38.Cf. the similar definition in the Sermo de duplici iustitia, 1519, WA 2:145,9-146,35; LW 31:297-299. See J. T. Bakker, “De tweevoudige gerechtigheid. Luthers ‘Sermo de duplici Iustitia’, 1518,” in Luther na 500 jaar, 30-57.

[27] WA 2:46,1-4; cf. WA 2:146,36-147,23; LW 31:299-300. Luther uses the description of Christ as both sacramentum (gift) and exemplum (exam- ple) to describe His relationship to the creature’s two dimensions or kinds of righteousness. See Norman Nagel, “Sacramentum et exemplum in Luther’s Understanding of Christ,” Luther for an Ecumenical Age, ed. Carl S. Meyer (St. Louis: Concordia, 1967), 172-199.

[28] Robert Kolb, “The Ordering of the Loci Communes Theologici: The Structuring of the Melanchthonian Dogmatic Tradition,” Concordia Journal 23 (1997): 317-337.

[29] Irene Dingel, “Melanchthon und die Normierung des Bekenntnisses,” in Der Theologe Melanchthon, Günter Frank, ed. (Stuttgart: Thorbecke, 2000), 195-211.

[30] See also, for example, Robert Kolb,“Mensch-SeininZweiDimensionen: die Zweierlei Gerechtigkeit und Luthers De votis monasticis Iudicium,” forthcoming.