Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Heavenly Sanctuary, Luther and Historicism

Sometimes there is a confluence of information. Earlier I addressed a thread on the website which is entitled Reforming the Reformation. In it one person used a quote from Martin Luther quite apart from its context. Checking back on that thread I noticed another from the forum with a similar problem. In responding to his comments there is a confluence with information about Martin Luther and our own Adventist Eschatology, specifically Luther's opinion of the book of Revelation and historicism. What is also interesting is that both the comments I am responding to were made by a couple of the people who were instrumental in the Good News Tour and both spoke at the conference. Brad also has material posted on the Adventist Today webpage about this quarter's lessons. At a later time I will deal with Brad and Dorthea Cole's and Tim Jennings views regarding the Investigative Judgment and the heavenly sanctuary for which their aforementioned website is named. Brad wrote:
Very well said Tom. How sad it would be if there were no maturing of thought among God's friends. When EGW was young and her mother was entertaining thoughts that there might not be a place of eternal torture, Ellen White responded something like, "why mother, keep those thoughts silent. If people believe that there isn't a hell, then there will be no motive to turn to God." (I can't remember where this was found, but this is how I remember the quote).
And, while we all fall over ourselves in admiration and respect for Luther, he made the comment about the book of Revelation (in his introduction to the book) that "there is no way the Holy Spirit inspired that book." He found "too little of Christ" in that book, even though it is the REVELATION of Jesus Christ. This may partly explain why he never came to see a great controversy that is based primarily on the character of God.

This is a popular view about Martin Luther in the historically challenged Adventist church. Someone somewhere told someone that Luther thought little of the book of Revelation and they assume that contrary to their own view of Ellen White who they point out could change in her religious thoughts through her life, Luther's statement must represent the sum total of Luther's entire and unchanging views.

However Luther did use the book of Revelation and actually developed the idea of comparing the words of the Revelation with history to see if a possible meaning could be found. Even Luther's questioning of some of the New Testament books is in line with the historical questioning of the Christian church as it grappled with what should make up the New Testament cannon. Martin Luther also said that a book called the "Revelation" should be more revealing.

As the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod website says:
Luther himself was well aware of the history of the development of the biblical canon, including the historic distinction between what were called the "antilegomena" (books "spoken against") and the "homologoumena" (books unanimously attested as apostolic) [See articles on "antilegomena" and "canon" in the Christian Cyclopedia. Significantly, Luther's opinions regarding James and Revelation, for example, did not prevent him from revering these books and teaching from them as God's Word; in fact the Scripture lesson read in Lutheran churches in Luther's time on the Feast of the Reformation was from Revelation.

Indeed Luther used a considerable amount from the book of Revelation, for some reason we acknowledge the concept that Luther pointed us to the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy as the anti-Christ and yet some in the Adventist church like Dr. Cole still assume Luther's rejection of the book of Revelation. This reflects but one of the many area's of cognitive dissonance which can plaque contemporary Adventists.

An excellent article is available entitled Luther and English Apocalypticism: The Role of Luther in Three Seventeenth-Century Commentaries on the Book of Revelation by Benjamin A. Ehlers. This gives a good overview of Martin Luther and the book of Revelation. The first line of the essay sets the stage for the confusion that surrounds the book of Revelation even today.

In his satire The Devils Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce included the following definition: "Revelation, n. A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing."

The essay is pretty straight forward so I will not summarize it, the footnotes will follow the article. Especially consider footnote 15

In this paper I will examine Luthers role in three English interpretations of the Revelation, discussing both his influence as an intellectual precedent, and his appearance as a character within these texts. Luther himself never wrote a detailed commentary on the Apocalypse, but in a preface to the 1530 edition of his German New Testament, he outlined a mode of exegesis which emphasized the application of the Revelation to history. This literal approach first appeared in England in a 1545 commentary by John Bale, a transitional figure often considered the progenitor of the English apocalytic tradition. Later works utilized Luthers model more completely, and I will cite three of these in particular: Arthur Dents Ruin of Rome (1603), an excellent introduction to the mainstream of English commentaries; Thomas Brightmans Revelation of St. John (1609), which epitomized the Anglocentric slant inherent to the English version of the paradigm; and Joseph Medes Key of the Revelation (1627), which superseded all previous works in its sophisticated juxtaposition of history with Scripture, bringing the tradition to a kind of conclusion. Although these later scholars cited Luther as an important figure in church history, they did not acknowledge (or realize) any methodological debt to him; adopting a mode of interpretation outlined by Luther, they redirected these ideas towards a scheme which was Calvinist in its hope for worldly improvement.

The phrase "Calvinist millenarian," upon further examination, joins two sets of seemingly incompatible ideas without explaining the origins of this odd combination. Calvin himself expressed little interest in either history or eschatology. William M. Lamont has noticed that like St. Augustine, Calvin "viewed the Apocalypse with detachment: it had a circumscribed, allegorical significance, and that was all. Calvin remained wedded to a view of God as, in all significant things, Unknowable."2 He concerned himself more with personal salvation than with the salvation of the world, and his sparse and unsystematic views on history tended to look for progressive improvement rather than rapid upheaval. Calvin spoke in terms of a "zeal for daily progress" among the community, and his followers expanded his ideas to encompass the betterment of a much larger group. "Indeed, despite Calvins Augustinian avoidance of historically oriented eschatology," writes Robin Bruce Barnes, "the hint of progressivism in his thought left the way open for the frank meliorism and chiliasm of many later Calvinist thinkers."3

Luther alone among the magisterial reformers displayed a healthy interest in things apocalyptic, and even he only gradually overcame his disdain for the book of Revelation. In a 1522 preface, he condemned the text as "neither apostolic nor prophetic," and suggested that Jerome, who had taken an interest in it, should have devoted his attention to more worthy areas of scripture.4 He concluded a three-paragraph introduction with the decidedly uninspired opinion, "My spirit cannot fit itself into this book. There is one sufficient reason for me not to think highly of it,--Christ is not taught or known in it."5 In his revised preface to the Apocalypse in 1530, however, he abandoned the traditional Augustinian interpretation for a more literal stance. Trained in the via moderna, Luther inherited the Quadriga, or four-fold sense of scripture, the standard medieval hermeneutical tool. Augustine had set a precedent by insisting on the priority of the literal sense of scripture over the other, higher meanings: the allegorical, which concerns what is believed; the anagogical, which concerns what is hoped for; and the tropological, which concerns moral conduct. Luther further divided the literal component into two senses; the literal-historical, and the literal-prophetic. The first of these emphasized the specific historical situation described in the Bible, and the second addressed the ways in which scripture had been played out in history since the time of the early church.6 Luther used this distinction primarily as a means of interpreting the Old Testament in light of the New, but his methodology yielded interesting results when applied to Revelation.

Despite his increased interest in Revelation, in 1530 (as compared to 1522) Luther made only a few cautious attempts to identify its various vials, trumpets, and seals with events from church history. He stated at the outset that the Revelation fell under the most obscure sort of prophecy, which foretold the future "without either words or interpretations," but with dreams, visions, and symbols.7 After commenting on previous expositors relative lack of success in explaining the Revelation, he presented the basis for his own approach:

Since [the book] is intended as a revelation of things that are to happen in the future, and especially of tribulations and disasters for the Church, we consider that the first and surest step toward finding its interpretation is to take from history the events and disasters that have come upon the Church before now and hold them up alongside of these pictures and so compare them with the words. If, then, the two were to fit and agree with each other, we could build on that, as a sure, or at least an unobjectionable interpretation.8

Luther then embarked on a brief chapter-by-chapter explication of the text, in which he described the physical and spiritual tribulations of the church since the time of Christ. He did not make any attempt to modify the chronology of the book, but read it as a linear account of church history. He identified the four bad angels of Revelation 8 as Tatian, Marcion, Origen, and Novatus, leaders of heretical sects of the second and third centuries.9 The trials of the faithful were capped by the three woes, in the form of Arius, the fourth-century heretic; Mohammed and the Saracens, "who inflicted a great plague on the Church, with their doctrines and with the sword"; and the papal empire, which committed both spiritual and temporal "abominations, woes, and injuries."10 "Thus the Church is plagued most terribly and miserably, everywhere and on all sides, with false doctrines and with wars, with book and sword."11 The remainder of the book after chapter 14 contained only "pictures of comfort" for Luther; in the angels he saw preachers of the true Gospel revealing the false nature of the papacy, and the seven vials he interpreted as continued attacks on false doctrine which would lead up to the ultimate victory over Pope and Turk alike. He refrained from attributing specific events or names to these angels and vials, but wrote instead of anonymous "learned and pious preachers" who spread the Gospel. He likewise hesitated to assign specific dates to the events of past and future. The overall tone of the 1530 preface, however, suggested that "things are at their worst," and that the recent turmoil associated with the Reformation prefigured an imminent end--a concept which he expanded upon amply elsewhere."12

Luthers interpretation of the Revelation, tentative as it was in terms of specifics, nonetheless contained new and seminal insights into the study of church history. Barnes phrased it well, writing that the "crux of all that was new in Luthers reading of biblical prophecy, and the most influential of all his prophetic discoveries, was his identification of the Antichrist with the papacy at Rome."13 Most medieval commentators believed that the Antichrist was yet to come, and focused their attention on predicting the nature of the coming evil. The few early critics who did associate the pope with the Antichrist, such as Jan Hus and Savonarola, did so on moralistic grounds, using the Antichrist as a rhetorical device to criticize corruption in the Catholic church.14 By contrast, Luthers attack was rooted in the firm ground of Scripture. He rejected the old church because he perceived its teachings to be perversions of the Word of God, and in so doing he modified the traditional approach to the Revelation.15 As he saw it, ". . by means of [the papacys] book, the world has been filled with all kinds of idolatry--monasteries, foundations, saints, pilgrimages, purgatory, indulgence, celibacy and innumerable other creations ofhuman doctrines and works."16 Unlike some medieval commentators, who also identified the pagan Turk with Antichrist, Luther chose to apply the image strictly to the papacy, and associated the Turk with the beasts unleashed by the devil after his millennium of bondage.17

Thus Luther used both history and Scripture to attack the Pope, and this doctrinal foundation allowed him to carry his polemic one step further. He believed that under the influence of the ungodly papacy the Church had diverged from the true, "hidden" Church which continued to uphold the Word of God under persecution. Luthers reinterpretation of the two cities of Augustine appeared in his 1530 preface, where he stated that one could read the Revelation as a warning against the trials the church will face. In these battles, the enemies of the faithful will obscure the church under heresies and other faults, calling the elect "them damned heretics who are really the true christian Church."18 Luther was far from being the first to interpret history as Gods work, but his insistence on the agreement between the Bible and history led him to mount a novel, doctrinally based assault on the Catholic Church.

1. Ambrose Bierce, The Devils Dictionary (New York, 1958).
2. William M. Lamont, Godly Rule (London, 1969), 22-3.

3. Robin Bruce Barnes, Prophecy and Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation (Stanford, 1988), 33.

4. "Many of the fathers, too, rejected this book of old, though St. Jerome, to be sure, praises it highly and says that it is above all praise and that there are as many mysteries in it as words; though he cannot prove this at all, and his praise is, at many points, too mild." Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, the Philadelphia Edition (Philadelphia, 1932), 6:488-89.
5. Luther, Works, 6:489.
6. Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Oxford, 1987), 153, 158.
7. Luther, Works, 6:480.
8. Luther, Works, 6:481.
9. Here Luther confuses Novatus with Novatian, the Roman leader of an elitist schismatic movement. Luther, Works, 6:482; see also 6:490.
10. Luther, Works, 6:483-4.
11. Luther, Works, 6:484.
12. Luther, Works, 6:484-88. Despite his overall reluctance to engage in specifics, Luther could not resist taking a shot at three of his opponents in his discussion of Revelation 15-16: "The frogs are the sophists, like Faber and Eck and Emser. They croak much against the Gospel, but accomplish nothing, and continue to be frogs," ibid., 6:485. For a representative example of Luthers belief that he lived in the last age, see his Signs of Christs Coming, and of the Last Day (London, 1661), 27.
13. Barnes, Prophecy and Gnosis, 42.
14. Barnes, Prophecy and Gnosis, 42-3.
15. "Luther paved the way for the modification of [traditional] eschatology by his historicist approach to the last book of the Bible . . Henceforth most Protestant writers who commented on the Apocalypses of John and Daniel followed his lead and saw in their highly symbolic visions and dreams prophecies of the downfall of the Turks, of the destruction of the city of Rome, of the demise of the Papacy, and of the ultimate triumph of the protestant Biblical religion." Peter Toon, Puritan Eschatology (London, 1970), 6.
16. Luther, Works, 6:484.
17. John M. Headley, Luthers View of Church History (New Haven, 1963), 246; see also Luther, Works, 6:486.
18. Luther, Works, 6:486-7.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I was looking through the webserver logs during a routine upgrade and found the referrer link to this blog. I just wanted you to know that I really appreciated knowing this information since I have also used the quote from Luther as a way to substantiate my views on The Reformation - and apparently I have been wrong. I also agree with your reasoning that it is hypocritical to give Ellen White the room to grow in our defense of her writing and then in the same breath refuse to extend the same to Martin Luther. Again I must admit, I've been guilty of this.

I for one will use this information to make sure I don't continue doing it.


- Marco Belmonte

PS: I didn't want to sign up for an account, so I used the anonymous poster link - but if you question the validity of the post, feel free to send me an email: marco-at-heavenlysanctuary-dot-com (don't want to give the spam troller bots anything to work with ;-)