From Faith to Faith: Exitus-Reditus in Luther’s Galatians Preface

Martin Luther begins the preface to his 1535 Galatians commentary by saying, more or less, “Wow, I cannot BELIEVE how verbose I was in the lectures that form the basis for this commentary. Like, way over the top; SOMEBODY SHUT ME UP!”

Maybe they’ve been heavily interpolated, then? Somebody added a bunch of stuff? Might could happen, since it was others who wrote down what had erupted from Luther’s viva vox.

Luther considers this possibility and says, “Nope.” “I perceive that all the thoughts are mine,” he says, and so “I am forced to confess that I said it all.”

He then gives an explanation for why he would have gone on at such length, and it comes back to the source and end, the principium et finis, of all his theology: faith in Christ. Faith in Christ gives rise, in Luther’s explanation, to a kind of exitus-reditus pattern in his theological thought. Everything therein takes its rise from faith and has its terminus in faith. And before the incomprehensible mystery of faith, even Luther’s loquacity is a piecemeal stuttering. As Augustine puts it in Confessions 1.1, “And what have we said now, my God, my life, my holy sweetness, or what does anyone ever say in speaking of you? But woe to those who are silent about you; however garrulous they are in general, they are mute about what counts” (trans. Sarah Ruden).

Here is how Luther states it, linking Neoplatonic emanation with Romans 11:36, whose reference to “God” Luther clearly takes as a reference to Christ:[1]

Nam in corde meo iste unus regnat articulus, scilicet Fides Christi, ex quo, per quem et in quem omnes meae diu noctuque fluunt et refluunt theologicae cogitationes, nec tamen comprehendisse me experior de tantae altitudinis, latitudinis, profunditatis sapientia nisi infirmas et pauperes quasdam primitias et veluti fragmenta.

For in my heart there reigns that one article alone: namely, faith in Christ, from whom, through whom, and to whom all my theological thoughts flow and flow again night and day. And yet I experience myself to have grasped nothing but some weak and poor first-fruits and, as it were, fragments of the wisdom[2] of such great height, breadth, and depth.

Martin Luther, Commentarius in Epistolam ad Galatas, Praefatio (WA 40.1, 33). The translation is my own.


1 See also 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 2:10.
2 Does he mean the wisdom of faith? The wisdom of Christ? The wisdom that is Christ? Yes, and amen.


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