Every now and then, in reading publications that deny the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture, we find Luther’s evaluation of the Bible quoted as the manger or cradle of Christ in the sense that Luther, highly esteeming the Christ of Scripture, regarded less highly the Scriptures setting forth Christ. They may also add that according to Luther the words and stories of the Bible are unpretentious swaddling clothes, while only Christ, who is the treasure that lies within, is precious. This interpretation of Luther’s statement calls for examination.
CLIMAX OF AN ARDENT APPEAL
Luther’s evaluation of the Bible as the cradle and swaddling clothes of Christ occurs as a climax in the third paragraph of his “Preface to the Old Testament,” which appeared in 1523 and then again in 1545 in the last edition of the Bible which he edited. In this Preface he entreats Bible students to study the Old Testament diligently as Christ himself commands us in John 5:39. So also Paul used the Old Testament to prove from it Christ’s atoning death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3), and Peter referred to it frequently. Luther expresses his deep regret that so many persons in his day were spurning the Old Testament as though it were written only for the Jews, and holding that they could rest satisfied with the New. That is the gist of the first paragraph of Luther’s Preface. Properly speaking, Luther had been serving as professor of Old Testament at the divinity school of the University of Wittenberg. While he interpreted also books of the New Testament, his specialty was expounding the Old Testament to his students from the viewpoint of the coming Christ.
In the second paragraph of his Preface, Luther urges his readers to study the Old Testament because the holy Apostles prove from it so convincingly New Testament Gospel truths. As highly as we esteem their motivation and proof in the New Testament, so highly we must regard the Old. Luther closes his paragraph with this impressive appeal: “What else is the New Testament than a public preaching and proclamation concerning Christ, declared in the passages of the Old Testament and fulfilled by Christ?”
THE CRADLE IS PRECIOUS
In the third paragraph of his Preface Luther extols the Old Testament wholly because it is the cradle of Christ, that is, because it foretells and describes the coming of Christ. I quote the paragraph as it is given in the Muhlenberg edition of Luther’s works (Vol. 6, pp. 367–368, Philadelphia, 1932). This version was carefully compared with the German (St. Louis) edition of Luther’s works (Vol. 14, pp. 2–3, Concordia, 1898), which is very reliable and cites the Preface as it is contained in Luther’s Bible of 1545.
But in order that those who know no better may have incentive and instruction for reading the Old Testament, I have prepared this introduction with whatever ability God has given me. I beg and faithfully warn every pious Christian not to stumble at the simplicity of the language and stories that will often meet him there. He should not doubt that, however simple they may seem, these are the very words, works, judgments, and deeds of the high majesty, power, and wisdom of God; for this is Scripture and it makes fools of all the wise and prudent and stands open to the small and foolish, as Christ says in Matthew XI [11:25]. Therefore let your own thoughts and feelings go, and that of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be worked out, so that you may find the wisdom of God that he lays before you in such foolish and simple guise in order that he may quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the mangers in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simple and little are the swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure. Christ, that lies in them.
THE FACTS OF THE CASE
One cannot help but conclude from these words that Luther’s view of the Bible was not that of a liberal but that of a believing Christian. He regarded the Bible and particularly Genesis of the Old Testament, to which he no doubt refers most of all in his Preface, as the divinely inspired Word of God. It was Luther’s firm belief that the simple expressions and seemingly foolish stories are the very words, works, judgments, and deeds of the divine Majesty, Power, and Wisdom.
This means that Luther believed in both verbal and plenary inspiration. He regarded Holy Scripture as making fools of all men who refuse to believe it, and he held that it stands open or is revealed only to babes who believingly accept it as God’s true, inerrant, and saving Word. It is for this reason also that he begs and warns his readers to abandon their self-conceit and unbelief and to receive the Bible as the highest and most precious sanctuary, indeed as a rich mine that can never be exhausted no matter how great are the treasures of divine wisdom one draws from it. Only those who approach the Bible with this childlike faith will find the wisdom which God sets forth to quench the arrogance of self-conceited, over-bearing and unbelieving Bible critics.
When, therefore, Luther concludes his urgent appeal with the climactic thought that the simple and seemingly foolish Bible stories are the swaddling clothes and manger of Christ, he does not mean to disparage them but rather to express his most reverent esteem of Holy Scripture which offers to man the supreme blessing of eternal salvation in Christ, the incarnate and crucified Saviour of sinners.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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