Reading Luke with the Reformers
By Timothy George
When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer published the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, he included this prayer as a collect for the Feast Day of Saint Luke:
Almighty God, who called Luke the Physician—whose praise is in his Gospel—to be a physician of the soul: May it please you by the wholesome medicine of his holy doctrine to heal all the diseases of our soul; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This simple prayer reveals several things about how the Gospel of Luke was understood in the age of the Reformation. First, Luke was a real person who wrote the Gospel that by tradition bears his name; second, he was trained in medicine, “Luke the beloved physician,” as the New Testament calls him (Col. 4:14); and, finally, his Gospel was written with a salvific purpose in mind, the spiritual healing of our souls. These assumptions about Luke were shared across all confessional lines in the sixteenth century. They differ markedly from the way “the most beautiful book ever written” (as French rationalist critic Ernest Renan referred to the Third Gospel) has been treated by many modern critical scholars.
How was Luke understood in the world of Cranmer and his contemporaries? The newly published volume on Luke
in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture
from InterVarsity Press helps us to answer that question. The RCS is a twenty-eight-volume series of sixteenth-century exegetical comment intended to serve as a resource for pastors and other teachers of the Scriptures. Luke is the seventh volume to appear in the series. (The first of two volumes on the Psalms, edited by Dutch scholar Herman J. Selderhuis, is slated for release later this year.)
The RCS is a sequel to the highly acclaimed Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
, for which Thomas C. Oden is general editor. Both series are committed to the renewal of the Church through careful study and meditative reflection on the Old and New Testaments, the charter documents of Christianity. Like the medieval and ancient Christian teachers before them, early modern commentators would all have repudiated the notion—had they encountered it—that the Bible can be studied and understood with dispassionate objectivity, like a cold artifact from antiquity. Despite their many differences of interpretation, they all believed that the careful study and listening to the Scriptures, what the monks call lectio divina
, could yield transformative results for all of life.
The RCS volume on Luke has been ably edited by Dr. Beth Kreitzer, who is the director of the program in Liberal Studies at Belmont Abbey College
in North Carolina. A former student of David C. Steinmetz at Duke University, Kreitzer is the author of Reforming Mary: Changing Images of the Virgin Mary in Lutheran Sermons of the Sixteenth Century
(Oxford University Press, 2004). Her expertise in the sermonic literature of the period shines through in the Luke
volume. She allows us to “listen in” to what was said about Luke from Reformation pulpits as well as to “read after” those reformers who wrote full-length commentaries on the Third Gospel.
One of the strengths of Kreitzer’s work is the polyphony of different voices she brings together in this work. Not only are the greater lights here—Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Zwingli, Calvin, Erasmus—but many lesser lights as well, including Konrad Pellikan, François Lambert, Kaspar Huberinus, John Boys, Richard Taverner, Johannes Mathesius, Miles Coverdale, Thomas Becon, Veit Dietrich, Valentine Ikelshamer, and many others. In addition to Erasmus, a number of other pre-Tridentine scholars who never left the Catholic Church are also represented. They include the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples and the Dominican theologian Thomas de Vio, better known as Cardinal Cajetan, who had a famous encounter with Martin Luther in 1518.
Kreitzer also does an excellent job of giving the Anabaptists some important arias to sing in this Reformation chorus. While few Anabaptists published commentaries in the sixteenth century, they were avid readers and quoters of the Bible. Their distinctive ecclesiology shows through in their emphasis on believers’ baptism, congregational discipline, nonswearing, and rejection of “the sword.” Among those we hear in this commentary on Luke are Hans Denck, Pilgram Marpeck, Dirk Philips, Peter Walpot, and Balthasar Hubmaier. Even the militant Thomas Müntzer, the quixotic Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, and the quiet but prolific spiritualist Kaspar von Schwenckfeld all have a say. Because the RCS works with the concept of the long sixteenth century, roughly from the late 1400s to the mid-seventeenth century, Kreitzer is able to introduce some later figures not often grouped with the reformers but who reflect their central biblical concerns, including the Puritans William Perkins and Richard Baxter and the great literary lions, John Bunyan and John Donne.
The prominence of female figures in what has been called “the Gospel of women” is well known. Not only are Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna prominent in the opening chapters, but a number of Jesus’s female disciples show up at pivotal moments in the Gospel, including his death (23:27–31), burial (23:55–56), and resurrection (24:1–12). In the sixteenth century, very few women had the education or the opportunity to write commentaries on the Bible, much less preach sermons to listening congregations. But there were some exceptions and Kreitzer features two of them throughout this volume. One is Katarina Schütz Zell (1498-1562), who has been rightly called the “church mother” of the Reformation in Strasbourg. She wrote a biblical exposition of Psalm 51 and is represented in this volume by her commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. Kreitzer also includes a number of comments on Luke by Catarina Regina von Greiffenberg (1633-1694). This Catarina was an Austrian Lutheran poet who studied the languages of the Bible and wrote meditations on Jesus’s life, suffering, and death. In what might be called a proto-feminist reading of the passion narrative, von Greiffenberg comments on the women who gathered around the cross as Jesus died.
In general the fear of God has always found more of a place with women’s simplicity than with men’s cunning, as they have always followed Christ in greater numbers and more frequently, as did then these women from Galilee. . . . To follow Jesus, many [of these women] must have abandoned their husbands, children, friends and relatives, and also their household and housekeeping for a few days and perhaps did not leave them all that well provided for and instead in danger of unpleasant circumstances. The heavenly Bridegroom must be given precedence not merely for a few short days but always over all earthly things. One has to persevere in one’s intentions with heroic courage and to think of Christ’s words: ‘He who does not love me more than his own family is not worthy of me.’
Another major theme in Luke is the mercy and compassion Jesus extended to others, especially to the poor and downtrodden; to the hungry and the sick (whom he regularly healed); to children, lepers, and those possessed by demons. Kreitzer points out that for the reformers the fact that Jesus chose to be baptized was itself a way of showing his deep compassion for us. He himself had no need for repentance, but he identified with sinners and from the waters of the Jordan began his long journey toward the cross. This focus on Jesus as the merciful Savior prompted Dante, two centuries before the Reformation, to describe Luke as “the scribe of the gentleness of Christ” (De Monarchia 1.18). And yet there is a sterner side to the Lucan portrait of Jesus as we see when he kicked the “soul murderers” (Kaspar Huberinus) out of the temple (19:45–48), and when he condemns the pride and hypocrisy of the Pharisee who boasts of his own good deeds and righteousness before God (18:9–14).
One strand in the modern critical study of the Third Gospel argues that the apocalyptic hope of the early Church was obscured by Luke’s stress on salvation history. Thus Ernst Käsemann’s well-known dictum: “You do not write the history of the church, if you are expecting the end of the world to come any day.” Apparently the reformers of the sixteenth century never received that memorandum, for they seemed to hold the two Lucan motifs together in balanced equipoise. Kreitzer brings together a number of witnesses for the pericope on persecution and the end times (21:5-38). Some of them are more given than others to apocalyptic speculations. Luther, for example, allows that the shaking of the stars in the heavens (21:26) refers to a conjunction of the planets (which happened in 1524), and Hugh Latimer sets forth his own doctrine of the “rapture” that will take place when Christ comes again. But, as Kreitzer points out, the overall emphasis among these commentators is on preparedness and repentance:
These interpreters remind us to prepare ourselves so that we are not found dozing off; we must keep our hearts free from the cares of life and live as if that day is coming very soon. The things of which Christ spoke will not come at once but gradually and sequentially. Though we do not know when, we know it is coming. Once the day is here, it will be too late to beg for mercy. We cannot wait until the last minute to repent but must work throughout our lives to do God’s will.
In the sixteenth century no one said this better than Desiderius Erasmus who was certainly no wild-eyed enthusiast:
Therefore, because it is certain that this terrible time is going to come, prepare yourselves for its coming, so that it does not catch you yawning. You will accomplish this if you take care that your hearts are not weighed down by excess and drunkenness and by the rest of the cares of this present life. Rather, you should live as if that day might come very soon, loving nothing in this world, with your entire hearts and minds focused on heaven. That is how we can ensure that the day does not catch us unawares.
Luke addressed his “orderly account” (the Greek word diēgēsis)of Jesus’s life and ministry to a certain Theophilus—whether a specific person or a generic “friend of God” was debated in the Reformation as today. He wanted him to “know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:3-4). Beth Kreitzer summarizes Luke’s purpose in writing what is the longest of the four Gospels in these words:
This Gospel was written, then, according to the stated intention of the author, to convey the truth about Jesus, to convey God’s Word through words, to confirm and deepen the faith of its readers. The Gospel of Luke may also do many other things—the stated intention of an author is never the only factor in a text’s interpretation (it may not even be the author’s only intention)—but we should remember that it is first and foremost the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation that he brings for us.
Published at First Things, March 9, 2015
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. Listen to Beth Kreitzer discuss her new RCS volume on Luke here