The Augsburg Aha! A second look at article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.

Author:Schroeder, Edward H.
Position:Critical essay

Part I. An Aha! for Interpreting the Bible

Thesis 1: The Augsburg Aha! happened first at Wittenberg, an Aha! about biblical-hermeneutics.

That is not the usual description of Luther's reformation Aha! The standard description in Luther scholarship doesn't mention hermeneutics. Here's an example from Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the editors of the 55-volume edition of Luther's works in English:

Luther became the Reformer, he tells us, when he was pondering the meaning of Paul's words (Rom. 1:17), "In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'" How could it be the content of the gospel of Christ, as "good news," that God was a righteous judge, rewarding the good and punishing the evil? Then he suddenly broke through to the insight that the "righteousness of God" here was not the righteousness by which God was righteous in himself (passive righteousness) but instead the righteousness by which, for Christ's sake, God made sinners righteous (active righteousness) through justification. When he made that discovery, Luther said, it was as though the gates of Paradise had opened.(1) Here Pelikan is drawing on Luther's own words in the year before he died, in the preface for the Complete Edition of His Latin Writings (Wittenberg 1545). But in another place--a few years earlier--Luther describes the same Aha! and highlights the hermeneutical element in it. So which was chicken and which was egg? The Aha! about justification or the Aha! about how to read the Bible? Here's the Aha! about hermeneutics:

Table Talk #5518: Around the time Luther turned sixty someone asked him: What was the primary Bible verse that moved the doctor?

His answer:

For a long time I was confused (misled, mistaken). I did not know what I had gotten into. I knew I had my finger on something, but I did not know what it was until I came to the passage in Rom. 1:17, "The righteous one shall live by faith." That text helped me. I saw just what sort of righteousness Paul was talking about. [Because] in the previous verse (v. 16) was the word righteousness [of God], so I connected (rhymed) the abstract concept (righteousness in God's own self) with the concrete term (an actual person righteous "by faith"). And I got clarity about what I was doing. I learned to distinguish between the law's righteousness and the gospel's righteousness. Previously I was off-base on one thing, namely, that I made no distinction between the law and the gospel. I held them both to be the same and said that Christ differed from Moses only in historical time and in degree of perfection. But when I discovered the "discrimen" (dividing line, interval, distinction, difference), that the law is one thing and the Gospel is something else, that was my breakthrough. [That was my "Aha!"] So was the Aha! about the righteousness of faith or about hermeneutics; how the righteousness of God works, or how to read the Bible? Answer: Yes. But Luther uses the "breakthrough" word for the hermeneutical Aha!

Thesis 2: Melanchthon then took this Aha! to Augsburg in 1530-1531, where it became the public hermeneutics of Lutheran confessional theology.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Apology IV on justification: In the fourth, fifth, and sixth articles, as well as later in the twentieth, they [our critics] condemn us for teaching that people receive the forgiveness of sins not on account of their own merits but freely on account of Christ, by faith in Him. They condemn us both for denying that people receive the forgiveness of sins on account of their own merits and for affirming that people receive the forgiveness of sins by faith and are justified by faith in Christ. But since this controversy deals with the most important topic of Christian teaching which, rightly understood, illumines and magnifies the honor of Christ and brings the abundant consolation that devout consciences need, we ask His Imperial Majesty kindly to hear us out on this important matter. Since the opponents understand neither the forgiveness of sins, nor faith, nor grace, nor righteousness, they miserably contaminate this article, obscure the glory and benefits of Christ, and tear away from devout consciences the consolation offered them in Christ. But in order both to substantiate our confession and to remove the objections that the opponents raise, we need first to say a few things by way of a preface in order that the sources of both versions of the doctrine, the opponents' and ours, can be recognized. All Scripture should be divided into these two main topics: the law and the promises. In some places it communicates the law. In other places it communicates the promise concerning Christ, either when it promises that Christ will come and on account of him offers the forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life, or when in the gospel itself, Christ, after he appeared, promises the forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life. ... Of these two topics, the opponents single out the law (because to some extent human reason naturally understands it since reason contains the same judgment divinely written on the mind), and through the law they seek the forgiveness of sins and justification. But the Decalogue requires not only outward civil works that reason can produce to some extent; it also requires other works that are placed far beyond the reach of reason, such as, truly to fear God, truly to love God, truly to call upon God, truly to be convinced that he hears us, and to expect help from God in death and all afflictions. Finally, it requires obedience to God in death and all afflictions so that we do not flee or avoid these things when God imposes them. The "sources" of "both versions of doctrine" are not differing texts from which the doctrine is drawn--Bible only vs. Bible and tradition--but different ways of reading the agreed-upon text, the Bible. The hermeneutic is the source for the differing doctrine. Change this source and you change the doctrine.

It was that way in Jesus' own day as he debated the agreed-upon text with his critics. The same for Paul in Galatia. And ever since in church history. Gerhard Ebeling: "Church history is the history of how Christians have read the Bible."

Thesis 3: So was it a hermeneutical Aha? or a soteriological one? Answer: yes.

I don't think I learned the hermeneutical aspect of this Augsburg Aha! in my seminary days in St. Louis sixty years ago. Nor even in Erlangen fifty-six years ago where I took Lutheran Confessions from Paul Althaus and Dogmatics from Werner Elert. I must have learned this from Robert Bertram. In the days of the LCMS turmoil about biblical inspiration Bertram wrote...

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