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Word of God, Theology of the Cross, and Language of God: Luther’s Commentary on the Joseph Narratives


Word of God, Theology of the Cross, and Language of God:

Luther’s Commentary on the Joseph Narratives

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Table of Contents

Short Version


Introduction                                          3

Two Senses of the Performative                  7

 I. Resources for this Investigation

Theses of the Heidelberg Disputation:           16

The Theology of the Cross                  16

Robert Alter: the Art of Biblical Narrative     18

James Samuel Preus: Naked Words                 24

Walter Brueggeann: Performative Songs           31

Paul Ricoeur’s Dialectic                             32

John Dominic Crossan: Living in Language        35

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Language Game             35

Abraham Joshua Heschel: In Depth Theology       37

A.C. Thiselton: Language Events                 38

Turning to Luther’s Joseph Novella Commentary        44

II. In Depth Theology                                   46

Dreams, prophesies, and visions                 46

Summary                                         61

III. Words that Enter the Heart                      63

IV. Theology of the Cross 71

The Games God plays                             98

V. The Language of God     101

VI. Re-covering the Themes 123

Performative language                         142

Luther’s Theology and

Heschel’s In Depth Theology               146

Language Event and Language World              154

Bibliography                                        157




Martin Luther’s expositions of the Joseph narratives, sometimes called, the “Joseph Novella,” in the last chapters of Genesis, are also his very last lectures, because he died on February 18, 1546, i.e., three short months after completing them. In these lectures we have some of his most mature theology, his Theology of the Cross, and many allusions to what he called the language of God. He began his Commentary on Genesis (chapters 37 – 50),[1] containing the stories about Joseph, starting in the second half of 1543 and ending his series of lectures on November 17, 1545.[2]  Martin Brecht, who wrote the definitive biography of Martin Luther, introduces these last lectures with the following words:


Among the stories of the patriarchs, Luther ascribed to the stories about Joseph, coming at the end of the narrative, a very high standing in Scripture. Joseph began his life in such a sorrowful way, that his father, Jacob, had a very difficult time persevering in hope [through all the bitter circumstances] until the story finally came to a happy end. Luther felt that he was not equal to the task of explicating this material and would have liked to leave it to someone else. Nevertheless, having once begun, he continued his exposition, although he considered it a penetrating review rather than a proper treatment of the text. But this was too modest a judgment on his part. Once again his rich empathy with the profoundly troubled in a situation filled by suffering leaves a strong impression on us. He gives the Joseph narrative a psychologically deep interpretation. Again and again the unshakable faith in the providence of God comes to the fore. Melanchthon is certainly correct when he ascertains that like other highly gifted intellectuals, Luther’s exposition became more simple and nearer to life with advancing age. Melanchthon rushed Veit Dietrich to get Luther’s Genesis commentary published. Luther himself, on the other hand, felt his work to be too verbose and not weighty enough. When the year 1545 began, he yearned to end his lectures or to die before their completion.[3]

Martin Brecht’s judgment can serve to give direction to this investigation of Luther’s exposition of the Joseph Novella. Luther certainly underestimated his own work. He gives the narrative a psychologically profound interpretation, shows uninhibited empathy for the sorely oppressed biblical characters, and celebrates the salvific outcome of the steadfast faithfulness of God. Melanchthon’s judgment is quite true to the mark as well. To “simplicity and nearness to everyday life,” he could have added an “intense poignancy of human feeling” in the face of the ultimate questions, disappointments, and assurances in life.

Brecht and Melanchthon’s characterizations of Luther’s work expounding these final chapters of Genesis are helpful. For the purposes of this investigation of Luther’s commentary focusing on the Theology of the Cross, the Word and Language of God, however, Brecht would probably agree that Luther’s deep psychological interpretation of Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers, for example, could also be understood as a profound theological interpretation rather than merely a psychological one. Thus going beyond Brecht, I will argue that

1/ Luther’s Theology of the Cross, contained in these last lectures, is an in-depth theology.[4]

I am also interested in language and its assault on the inexpressible carried out in the richly diverse symbolism of Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Thus I will also argue that

2/ Luther’s uninhibited and profound empathy derives from his finding a language that penetrates and moves the heart, indeed, plummets the spiritual heights and depths of the existential human condition.

And 3/ The steadfast faith in the providence of God is nothing but charting the human struggle for faith continually confronted by contraries, disappointments, and set-backs that are experienced while anticipating the fulfillment of the promises of God. In other words, Luther’s commentary depicts the epic drama of faith of a believer standing before the inscrutable ways of God.[5]

Gerhard Ebeling notes that Luther is a theologian, not by reading and reflection, but by experience.[6] In these lectures written in Latin, because of Luther’s experience – and I will argue, his experience of a language-event, he has a command of language that could move the heart at its very deepest level.[7]     It is performative language,[8] which in the Philosophy of Language and speech-act theory, does not have referents, but creates that to which it refers. Performative language brings the reality it expresses into existence (“God spoke and it was done” Psalm 33:9.) and it is such language that I will try to trace to its source in Luther’s Word of God Theology.

The Two Senses of Performative Language

To continue reading this monograph, please purchase this PDF on Luther’s Exposition of the Joseph Narrative


[1]Luther’s last lectures are found in Jeroslav Pelican, ed. Luther’s Works, (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970, 1965, and 1966 respectively) page 312 – 407 in Vol. VI, and the complete volumes VII and VIII. Henceforth abbreviated to:  L.W.

For the original Latin: D. Martin Luthers Werke, (Kritische Gesamtausgabe) Band 44 (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1915), pages 230 – 825. Henceforth abbreviated: W.A. Vol. 44.

[2]Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Volume III, Die Erhaltung der Kirche 1532 – 1546, (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1987), 143, 139.

[3]Ibid., page 143. This is my own somewhat free translation. For that of James L. Schaaf, see Brecht’s third volume, Martin Luther: the Preservation of the Church: 1532-1546, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 140.

[4]Along the lines of Abraham Heschel’s in-depth theology. See Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1987). Also see page (XX) (25ff) below.

[5]Reading Luther’s last lectures is like reading an epic drama of faith. As a genre of the Word and Language of God, it thus needs further thought and exploration in relation to the Theology of the Cross.

[6]Gerhard Ebeling, The Study of Theology, (St. James Place, London: Collins, 1979), p.165.

[7]“Teaching that moves the Heart” comes from the title of an article about Martin Chemnitz, which is, however, very apt for Luther as well. Bernt Torvild Oftesad, “Lehre, die das Herz bewegt – Das Predigt Paradigma bei Martin Chemnitz”, Archive for Reformation History, (Güterslohe Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn) 80/1989, 125-153.

The Rev. A.C. Thiselton theorizes that having experienced a language event provides a person with a new command of the language in “The Parables as Language-Event” Some Comments on Fuch’s Hermeneutics in the Light of Linguistic Philosophy,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 23, 1970:337-468, here p. 447.

[8]In this context “performative” means language that bends and shapes realities to itself, rather than merely reflecting realities. (Note the ambiguity in the word, “reflecting,” because it can also mean “to bend”. Some words bend the world to themselves, while some are bent by the world to itself. A better contrast may be language that represents reality versus that which transforms it.) On a personal level, the performative has to do with language that changes the heart, rather than remaining detached and abstract, avoiding encounter. Significantly for Luther’s theology, promises and commands standing for the Gospel and the Law are performative speech acts with opposite features.

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