“Those Words Are Pure Heavenly Thunder”: Luther on Attending to Every Word

Premodern readers of the Bible make much of every single word of the sacred text as a vehicle not for pedantry but for divine revelation. They illustrate well the dictum of Nietzsche–that inveterate foe of all pedantry–in Morgenrรถthe about what the philologist ought to be: “A teacher of slow reading.”

Martin Luther illustrates such an outlook perfectly in his comments on Galatians 1:4, “Who handed himself over for our sins.” According to Luther, every word of Galatians is freighted with Christ, with the good news of free acceptance with God through the blood of Jesus. Every phrase, every word, can be paused over and chewed on, can illuminate the gospel of grace and its radically existential import–can, that is, “wondrously console and strengthen fearful hearts.” If you read too fast, you’ll miss it.

Luther on Galatians 1:4

Paulus ferme singulis verbis tractat argumentum epistolae. Nihil aliud sonat quam Christum. Ideo in singulis verbis est ardor spiritus et vita. Attende autem, quam diserte loquatur. Non dicit: Qui recepit a nobis opera nostra; non: Qui accepit sacrificia legis Mosaicae, religiones, missas, vota, peregrinationes etc.; sed: tradidit. Quid? Non aurum, non argentum, non pecudes, non agnos paschales, non angelum, sed semetipsum. Pro quo? Non pro corona, non pro regno, non pro sanctitate aut iustitia nostra, sed pro peccatis nostris. Ista verba sunt mera tonitrua coelestia contra omnes iustitias, ut et iste locus: ‘Ecce agnus Dei qui tollit peccata mundi.’ Ideo singula verba sunt diligentissime consideranda, non frigide inspicienda et percurrenda, quia mirabiliter consolantur et confirmant pavida corda.

Martin Luther, Commentarius in Epistolam ad Galatas, ad 1:4 (WA 40.1, 82-83)

Paul treats the argument of the letter almost in each of his individual words. He sounds forth nothing other than Christ. For that reason, the burning of the Spirit and life is present in each of his individual words. And pay attention to how clearly he speaks. He does not say, “Who received from us our works”; not, “Who accepted the sacrifices of the law of Moses, religious observances, masses, vows, pilgrimages, etc.” Instead, he says, “Who handed over.” “Handed over” what? Not gold, not silver, not cattle, not paschal lambs, not an angel, but himself. For what? Not for a crown, not for a kingdom, not for our holiness and righteousness, but for our sins. Those words are pure heavenly thunder against all kinds of righteousness, as the following passage also says: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” For that reason, each of his individual words must be most carefully considered, not coldly surveyed and scanned, because they wondrously console and strengthen fearful hearts.

The translation is my own.


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