Thursday, September 14, 2006

More on Luther, Augustine, Jerome, and Paul's Epistles

Sometimes one sets out to write a long series, and then doesn't follow through. Sometimes, however, one falls into a series without really realizing it. That's what's happened in this case, where I have started a series on Luther and Augustine's commentary's on Paul's epistles. In this series the guiding principle is one I enunciated quite a while ago: "I would like to suggest that one's interpretation of a relatively small number of Biblical passages will determine one's theology."

As I've looked through Luther's commentaries on Paul's epistles, I am repeatedly struck by how aware Luther was of the important changes in approach brought in by Augustine, and how important those actual changes were in making Luther's own approach possible. I gave an example below, with circumcision, where Augustine challenged Jerome and Origen's dominant interpretation (you might also want to check out this more recent post where I discuss a passage I should have discussed earlier). I'd like to give a few more examples with the issue of calendrical festivals and the "man of Romans 7."

For calendrical festivals the difficult passage was Galatians 4:10: Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.

For Augustine and Jerome, the problem here was that the church year seemed to be a similar form of observing days, months, times, and years (this passage is, of course, pay-dirt for Puritan exegetes defending the regulative principle). Augustine seems to have had some sense that since it is OK for us to observe our church year, then it should have been OK for the Jewish Christians to continue to observe their Mosaic church year. Hence he tended to think that can't be what Paul is prohibiting here. In meeting this problem, his early exposition was more ingenious than plausible. In his 1519 lectures on Genesis, Luther noted that:

St. Augustine wavers in his exposition of this passage. Yet he explains it in the light of the religious ceremonies of the Gentiles rather than in the light of those of the Jews. For he says that it is a very common error of the Gentiles that, as they conduct their affairs or look aheard to the outcomes of life and of their business concerns, they observe the days, months, seasons, and years designated by the astrologers and Chaldeans.

But as Luther notes, even Augustine couldn't really believe in this opinion, since it seems so obvious that the "times" in question should be Jewish. By contrast,

St. Jerome understands this passage simply and correctly as referring only to the Jews. "Days," he says, as Sabbaths and new moons; "months," however, as the first and seventh month; "seasons," as those in which they came to Jerusalem three times each year; "years," however, as the seventh, the year of release, and the fiftieth, which they called the year of jubilee.

Jerome also asks whether we, too, are in the clutches of the same fault, because we observe the fourth day of the week (Wednesday), the day of preparation (Friday), the Lord's Day, the forty-day fast season (Lent), Easter and Pentecost, and various seasons appointed in honor of the martyrs and differing from land to land. In answer he says, in the first place, that we do not observe the days of the Jews but observe other days.

Or, as the Didache (8:1) inimitably says:

Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.

("Well that explains it; fasting on Thursday is different -- totally -- from fasting on Friday.")

Here we see the idea that after the Resurrection, Jewish ceremonies are in some inherent sense fatal for the Christian.

But as Luther adds, Jerome has other explanations too:

Secondly that the days have been appointed, not to give greater distinction to the day on which we assemble but in order that faith in Christ may not be diminished by a disorderly assembly of the people.

Thirdly, Jerome says that actually now every day is a Lord's Day, a resurrection Sunday, a day of celebration, and the real change has been that by concession certain days have been disallowed, "for the sake of those who have more time for the world than for God." In other words, every day should be a monk's day, but as a concession to human weakness, laymen are allowed to spend non-feast days in worldly occupations.

Luther adds that in his time, there are far too many feast days. Not until the end of his commentary on this passage, though, does he hit the crucial issue of justification:

Circumcision as well as feast days contributed nothing at all to righteousness. Nor did the other things which [Paul] recounts in greater detail in Col. 2:16. Accordingly, they were not to be observed as necessary, certainly no more than our feast days confer righteousness on us when we observe them or other burdensome traditions. But our righteousness comes from faith in Christ, which is not produced by ceremonies but freely makes use of ceremonies out of love for God and one's neighbor . . .

In his 1535 Lectures, however, he puts this point right up front. After discussing the controversy of what days exactly were the Galatians observing, he writes:

But Paul is instructing the conscience. Therefore he is speaking, not about the Gentile practice of observing days, etc. [as Augustine might think], something that pertains only to the body, but about the Law of God and the observance of days, months, etc., according to the Law of Moses. In other words, he is speaking [as Jerome realized] about religious days, months, and seasons, which the Galatians were observing, on the basis of instruction by the false apostles, as a means of obtaining justification.

He then answers the question which Jerome had asked:

Here someone may say: "If the Galatians sinned in observing days and seasons, why is it not sinful for you to do the same?" I reply: We observe the Lord's Day, Christmas, Easter, and similar holidays in a way that is completely free. We do not burden consciences with these observances; nor do we teach, as did the false apostles, and as do the papists, that they are necessary for justification or that we can make satisfaction for our sins through them.

He then refers to a famous incident in church history, when the second-century bishop of Rome, Victor, excommunicated the Anatolian Christians for observing Easter on a different day. This debate and St. Irenaeus's remonstance against Pope Victor's actions, were important for the Augsburg Confession's discussion of church traditions in Article 26 (scroll down to lines 44-45). Luther comments:

It was the utmost madness to hand the churches of the East over to the devil on account of such a trifle [i.e. the date of Easter]. Therefore this knowledge about the observance of days and seasons was rare, even among great men. Jerome did not have it, and Augustine would not have understood it if he had not been troubled and provoked by the Pelagians.

I wonder what particular passages from Augustine Luther is referring to here. Perhaps he means the texts from Augustine's letters and On Christian Doctrine, which he and the Augsburg Confession liked to cite. In the Confession (again in article 26, lines 16-17), Melanchthon writes:

Thirdly, traditions brought great danger to consciences; for it was impossible to keep all traditions, and yet men judged these observances to be necessary acts of worship. . . . [But] Augustine also forbids that men's consciences should be burdened with such observances, and prudently advises [in his letter to] Januarius that he must know that they are to be observed as things indifferent; for such are his words.

Luther liked to cite Augustine's On Christian Doctrine III.9. In a discussion of signs and what they signified, Augustine wrote:

In these times, since there has been revealed to us a clear sign of our liberty in the Resurrection of the Lord, we are not heavily burdened with the use of certain signs whose meaning we understand; rather we have a few in place of many, which the teaching of the Lord and the Apostles has transmitted to us, and these are very easy to perform, very sublime in implication, and most upright in observance. Such are the sacrament of Baptism and the celebration of the Body and Blood of the Lord.

But even in the late Enchiridion (chapter 81), Augustine still referred to his old astrological interpretation of Galatians 4:10:

Certain things we may suppose to be trifling if the view of Scripture did not show them to be more serious. Who would think that the observation of days and months and years and seasons may be a grave sin -- as those people observe them, who are willing or unwilling to begin anything on certain days or months or years because according to worthless human teachings they reckon such times lucky or unlucky -- unless we weighed the seriousness of this evil from the anxiety of the Apostle, who tells such people, I am anxious about you, that my work for you may have been wasted (Gal. 4:11) .

So how did Luther read Galatians 4:10? He had to accept Jerome's insight that it is exactly Jewish dates which are in question, thus rejecting Augustine's astrology fixation. But he then had to find a proper explanation (in place of Jerome's patently inadequate ones) for why observing Jewish dates were bad without invalidating the Christian observance of the church year. Here Augustine's writings on circumcision, that focused on the intent of the observance, were crucial. But on the dating issue, Luther had to travel most of the distance himself.

Next up: "The Man of Romans 7"

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