When Martin Luther began giving a series of lectures on the Book of Genesis in the summer of 1535, he did not anticipate that it would become the last and longest of all his series. He had already preached earlier about various passages from Genesis, but his later lectures on that biblical book from between 1535 and 1545 constitute a more mature and detailed exposition than his earlier treatments.
It is well‑known among scholars that the present text of Luther’s Genesis lectures reflects the notes of his students and the editorial work of the publishers rather than what he himself had actually written. Several writers have pointed out that the concept of creation ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) was pivotal to both Luther’s doctrine of creation and his doctrine of justification. Johannes Schwanke studied Luther’s Genesis lectures specifically from the perspective of that concept, suggesting that it is the overruling theme of these lectures.1
In Luther’s lectures on the biblical creation account as found in Genesis 1:1 through 2:4, it was not so much the concept of “creation out of nothing,” but the idea of ultimate creation, preservation, and governance by God’s spoken word that formed the main emphasis. Thus, many of the themes touched on in these lectures center in Luther’s picture of God’s nature and character.
Luther’s Basic Presuppositions
Before looking at Luther’s interpretation of the biblical creation account, it is helpful to take note of explicit premises and underlying presuppositions found in his lectures. The premises and presuppositions of a person influence his or her interpretations and conclusions. Paying attention to underlying assumptions may shed light on other topics and themes. Luther seemed to emphasize (1) the authority of the sources, (2) the concept of time, and (3) the nature of God.
1. The authority of the sources. Martin Luther approached the issue of origins from the basic premise that the Bible is the only safe and reliable source of information on that topic, being superior to the writings of philosophers, theologians, astronomers, and scientists. His lectures reveal, nevertheless, that he interacted with the writings of a wide range of ancient and medieval Greek, Jewish, and Latin philosophers and theologians.
In matters of science, he considered the ancient Greek philosophers superior to Christian theologians and philosophers. Their reflections were “more advanced” and “more clever” than the “childish ideas” of Ambrose and Augustine.2 Luther regarded it expedient to follow the advice of Jerome and Averroës, who recommended refraining from attempts to explain scientifically the exact procedure of creation.
Such attempts were considered futile because God is not necessarily bound to the laws of nature but is able to alter them. Although Moses’ creation account may not be able to explain in every detail how creation occurred, there is no better teacher in matters of origins than Moses. Hence, Luther advised his students to follow the biblical creation account rather than philosophers and church fathers.3 Science was assigned the place to observe and ponder over the divine works, for it cannot clarify their origin.
One should remember that the terminology of Scripture may differ from the language employed by scientists and philosophers. Thus, for example, the entire area that the Bible calls “heaven” was divided by astronomers into “spheres,” “apsides,” and “epicycles.”4 Yet, in his attempt to assess the views of ancient and medieval scholars from an independent and critical perspective, Luther was not always able to divest himself of their presuppositions.
2. The concept of time. Luther’s understanding of time and timelessness may be an example of his having been influenced by ancient and medieval scholars. Though rumors of Nicholas Copernicus’ heliocentric worldview had already spread throughout Europe in the mid‑1510s, the majority of the astronomers still rejected that system at the end of the 16th century. Luther was not an exception; being a child of his time, he still reasoned that the Earth is at rest and everything moves around it, including the Sun.5
In the Genesis creation account, he stated that Moses “is speaking of the natural day, which consists of twenty-four hours, during which the . . .[sun] revolves from east to west.”6 In his understanding it was not merely the earthly reckoning of time, but time in general that came into existence on the first day of the creation week. The heavenly bodies were actually made specifically for humans in their physical life on this Earth, since they were able to count; an ability that animals did not possess. He argued that both the counting of definite times and time in general are strictly connected to the movement of the heavenly bodies. Thus, in his opinion, there was no time before that first day.
Speculations about what happened and what God was doing previous to the existence of time were to be avoided, however. In fact, God is “outside the scope of time,” which is why all things are present to Him; “nothing . . . is earlier or later, swifter or slower.”7 Hence, when this present world will come to an end, time will cease as well, and the saints, too, will exist in a realm of timelessness. Luther’s suggestion that the Father “begets the Word in eternity and in time establishes this world through the Word”8 resounds the idea of the eternal generation of the Son. It is apparent that Luther unconsciously depended on the Greek philosophical notion of time, despite his affirmation of the Bible as the last norm in the interpretation of biblical passages.
3. The nature of God. The Genesis account provided much material for discussions about the nature of God. Luther admitted that the New Testament speaks with more clarity about the Trinitarian concept than the Old Testament, but he insisted that the patriarchs knew this concept through the Holy Spirit as indicated by a few biblical passages. He noticed the different usages of the divine names in Genesis 1 and 2: elohim (“God”) is used in Genesis 1; whereas, the divine covenant name Yahweh does not appear in that chapter. He interpreted this as Moses’ attempt to highlight the divine plurality, an effort that he saw in various ways throughout the chapter.
Thus, Luther argued that Genesis 1:1 to 3 portrays how each of the divine persons became active in the creation process—the Father began to create in the beginning of the first day (vs. 1), the Holy Spirit seated Himself above the work of creation (vs. 2), and the Son became active when God “spoke” all things into existence (vs. 3). As all things were made through the Word (John 1:1‑3), so everything is made alive through the Spirit.
That the various creation acts are preceded by the phrase “God said” was a circumstance that Luther regarded as a reference to the creative activity of the Word. His allocation of the phrases “God said,” “He made” (Gen. 1:7, 16, 25, 31; 2:2, 4), and “He saw” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) to the respective divine Persons obviously stems from Augustine. The first phrase pointed to the eternal generation of the Son and the establishment of the world through the Word “in time.” The second phrase referred to the Son, who is the image of both the divine majesty and all created things, which is why He can bestow existence on all things. The third phrase points to the Holy Spirit who “sees the created things and approves them.” According to Luther, the action verbs—said, made, and saw—were intentionally chosen to assist the reader in understanding more clearly the doctrine of the Trinity. He acknowledged that this argumentation is not explicitly articulated in the biblical text, yet he saw nothing wrong with the teaching as such.
As may be expected, the phrase “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:27) called for a lengthy commentary on God’s nature. Luther sensed that this statement was intended to assure the reader of the divine mystery that “from eternity there is one God and that there are three separate Persons in one Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”9
Being aware of various arguments proposed by Jewish scholars in objection to the Trinitarian interpretation of verse 27, he took time to critique those arguments. He concluded that the three divine persons cooperated in their creative activity. Therefore, they express the deliberation of their council by saying “Let us make man” (vs. 27). The Father did not make one man, the Son another, and the Holy Spirit still another, but “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one and the same God, is the Author and Creator of the same work.”
Adam was not the image of only one of the three divine persons but of all three, signifying that he was made by “three separate persons in one divine essence.”10 Yet, the Father is only known in the Son and through the Holy Spirit. Thus God cannot be divided subjectively because he is one God “so far as His substance or essence is concerned. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three distinct Persons in One Godhead.”11
Creation–An Act of Divine Benevolence
• Creation out of nothing in six literal days. Interestingly, Luther could not discern any complications or difficulties between the idea of God’s timelessness and the biblical affirmation of the divine creation activity in time. God created all things by speaking, “by the uncreated word.”12 Everything—Sun, Moon, stars, conditions on Earth, plants, and animals—came into existence through the Word.
Some have argued that the phrase “creation out of nothing” lies at the heart of Luther’s creation theology; yet, it appears that he often referred to that concept by mentioning the power of the Word without explicitly bringing up the phrase per se. His view of “creation out of nothing” was obviously in harmony with Irenaeus’ concept.
Irenaus had opposed three different cosmogonies—(1) the Gnostic view that the world emanated from God; (2) another Gnostic idea that the world is wicked per se and was not created by God Himself; and (3) the Platonic idea that God used already existing matter. Irenaeus countered the first two views by emphasizing that God created the world out of nothing and the third view by underscoring that God had invented matter.
Similarly, Luther stated that God did not need pre‑existing matter to create, for He merely spoke and things, animate and inanimate, were generated. Thus, the reference to the creative activity of the Word emphasizes God’s ability to create out of nothing. Yet this concept was not only found in Genesis 1:1 to 3, but also supported by many other biblical passages. Exodus 20:11 was especially significant because it emphasizes that “the heavens and the earth” were made “in six days.” The primary matter of the heavens and the earth and everything that is therein was not created “outside the six days but at the beginning of the first day, . . . according to the plain words of the Decalogue (vs. 11).”13 His literal understanding of the creation days led him to reject the views of Augustine and Hilary who had argued for an instantaneous and simultaneous creation.
• Creation as a manifestation of divine charity. Luther was concerned not only with apologetic questions, but also—and even more—with what the creation account teaches its readers about God’s character and personality. He viewed almost everything in the account as a revelation of God’s benevolence and grace. Thus the creation of the heavenly bodies, the physical conditions of the Earth, and the plant life reveal God’s benevolent character. In fact, He prepared “a home and an inn” furnished with every joyful thing for humanity. In this way God had already taken care of human needs even before He created humans, suggesting that divine providence is far greater than all “anxiety and care.”14 The heavenly bodies—Sun, Moon, and stars—were intended as service agents to humanity because the motion of those bodies allows for the counting of days, months, seasons, and years. Luther emphasized that God repeatedly expressed His satisfaction and delight with the results of His creation, which was intended to be the realm of life for humanity.
A further difference between the living beings that God created occurred by “the creation of man” because that activity was regarded by Luther as “the last and most beautiful work of God.”19 It was by the “special plan and providence of God” that “man was created.”20 The repetition in Genesis 1:27 was supposed to be understood, according to Luther, as an emphasis of the “Creator’s rejoicing and exulting over the most beautiful work He had made.” God was more delighted and pleased to make “so beautiful a creature” than with “the other creatures” for he created “man . . . according to His own similitude” so that God “is truly recognized” in him. This is why Luther declared: “In him [man] there is such wisdom, justice, and knowledge of all things that he may rightly be called a world in miniature. He has an understanding of heaven, earth, and the entire creation.”21 Yet, he recognized still another difference: “No other beautiful sight in the whole world appeared lovelier and more attractive to Adam than his own Eve.”22 Between them there was a union of hearts and wills that was not possible between them and any other animal.
After God had finished all His work of creation, His character became especially visible. For He did not abandon the Earth, but He expressed His love toward and approval of the created things. His preserving and governing activities still prove His nearness and presence in the affairs of the world. Luther regarded the entire process of creation in the beginning of the world and the continual upholding of the universe and the Earth as an amazing, attracting, benevolent, generous, and selfless act of God that testifies of His goodness and love toward humanity.
• The significance of the Sabbath. Another sign of God’s benevolence was the Sabbath. That God rested on the seventh day was not an indication that He entirely ceased from doing anything. The German reformer argued that the Creator did not so much cease the work of “preserving and governing the heaven and the earth,” rather that he refrained from creating “a new heaven, a new earth, new stars, [and] new trees.”23 Yet, questions arise as to what the Sabbath rest of God was and how He sanctified the Sabbath. He sanctified the Sabbath not for anyone else but for Himself. That it is sanctified signifies that it is made holy or set aside for a sacred purpose, which in turn means that the time on that day should be devoted to divine worship. On that day, Adam would have instructed his descendants about the divine will and the worship of God. They would have praised Him and given thanks to Him. Luther made various remarkable statements about the envisioned observance of the Sabbath:
“Therefore from the beginning of the world the Sabbath was intended for the worship of God. Unspoiled human nature would have proclaimed the glory and the kindnesses of God in this way: on the Sabbath day men would have conversed about the immeasurable goodness of the Creator; they would have sacrificed; they would have prayed, etc.”24
The Sabbath shows specifically that humanity was created to know and worship its Creator. While a domesticated animal may learn to recognize the voice of its owner, humans are different in that they are capable of hearing God, knowing His will, and communing with Him through prayer and faith.
Creation—a Continuous Divine Activity
It is striking that Luther considered creation and the physical world inherently good. Everything that God did in and through creation was driven by His love, benevolence, kindness, and goodness. He explained the original meaning and the abiding significance of the seventh day, the Sabbath, without even addressing once Sunday as the modern day of worship. The central statement in Luther’s comments on the biblical creation account is that everything was created out of nothing through the Word. It is this aspect that will be of great significance for his descriptions of God’s continuing interaction in present and future times.
• Preservation, governance, and ongoing creation. One has to remember that Edward Herbert’s De Veritate and the philosophy of Deism were still future when Luther made the following remark, which otherwise could be easily understood as a direct attack against Deism: “God did not create things with the idea of abandoning them after they had been created, but He loves them and expresses His approval of them. Therefore He is altogether with them. He sets in motion, He moves, and He preserves each according to its own manner.”26
God is interested and directly involved in human affairs. An observer of the events and developments in nature and the heavens may not understand what happens behind the scenes, yet God does not cease to be supreme and the only Master of order. Philosophers may wonder about the growing of seeds and plants; Luther ascribed the cause behind that phenomenon simply to the divine Word. It is through the Word of God that the human realm of life is continually preserved—a fact not recognized by philosophers. It is through the “power and effectiveness” of that Word that the entire creation is still preserved and governed.27 God’s preserving and governing activity can be seen, as Luther pointed out, in His continual moving of the heavenly bodies, in His holding back of the sea so that the territory necessary for habitation and life is preserved. It is, in fact, through the Word that created everything out of nothing that everything is continually preserved and governed.
Luther considered the nature of the divine Sabbath rest also as indicative of several aspects of the divine work of preservation. Though God ceased to create a new heaven and a new earth as a result of His satisfaction with the ones that had been “created by the Word,” He was still working, although He rested from his work. He merely ceased to establish; whereas, He did not cease to govern and preserve. The Sun, the Moon, and the stars still continue their course on the seventh day—their motion is actually caused by the divine Word. On the first seventh day God refrained from creating new classes of creatures, for whatever He wanted to make He had already made. But now, after sin has come into the world, God not only preserves His creation but also changes and renews it; thus new classes come into existence—a signifier of the many species and races that exist today, even those who are “troublesome and harmful.”28
Seeing that God prepared a home for the first humans and already took care of their needs before they were even created may convince the reader of the divine providence that is greater than all his or her “anxiety and care.”31 It moves the reader to an appreciation of God’s kindness, goodness, generosity, and solicitude, as can be seen from the following quotation:
“Therefore I prefer that we reflect on the divine solicitude and benevolence toward us, because He provided such an attractive dwelling place for the future human being before the human being was created. Thus afterwards, when man is created, he finds a ready and equipped home into which he is brought by God and commanded to enjoy all the riches of so splendid a home. On the third day He provides kitchen and provisions. On the fourth, sun and moon are given to man for attendance and service. On the fifth the rule over the fish and the birds is turned over to him. On the sixth the rule over all the beasts is turned over to him, so that he might enjoy all this wealth free, in proportion to his need. And all this generosity is intended to make man recognize the goodness of God and live in the fear of God. This care and solicitude of God for us, even before we were created, may rightly and profitably be considered here.”32
God’s goodness and power are also seen in His preservation of life on Earth as well as in His governing of the heavenly bodies. Even this will have a positive impact on the spiritual life of the believer if he or she ponders it.
“For me it is enough that in those bodies, which are so elegant and necessary for our life, we recognize both the goodness of God and His power, that He created such important objects and preserves them to the present day for our use. These are views which are proper to our profession; that is, they are theological, and they have power to instill confidence in our hearts.”33
Some have speculated why God may have started to equip or adorn the earth on the third day, whereas Luther emphasized that it is far more profitable to study the creation account in order to learn more about God’s kindness, to meditate and wonder now and in the future at His “concern, care, generosity, and benevolence.” God makes humanity rich and wealthy before it is able to concern itself with itself.34 Thus, Luther believed that creation by God was something inherently positive so that “the care and the concern for nature” should be “the response to the belief that God is the cause and source of all creatures.”35
Luther saw parallels between Christ’s adorning of the Eden home for the first, but as yet uncreated, human beings and Christ’s furnishing of the heavenly home for the saints who still live on Earth. That is why he regarded the world in its first finished form and way as “a type and figure of the future world.”37 Though he noticed clear terminological and thematic parallels between aspects of the creation account and Christ’s earthly and heavenly activities now and in the future, Augustine’s allegorizations—considering the Moon, e.g., as a signifier to the church—appeared too speculative to the German reformer. Adhering closely to the literal meaning of the text seemed to guard from such conjectures.
“Without a doubt, just as at that time God rejoiced in the counsel and work by which man was created, so today, too. He takes pleasure in restoring this work of His through His Son and our Deliverer, Christ. It is useful to ponder these facts, namely, that God is most kindly inclined toward us and takes delight in His thought and plan of restoring all who have behaved in Christ to spiritual life through the resurrection of the dead.”40
At the same time, God dwelt in a realm of timelessness but, in Luther’s view, God was not confined to that realm. God, consisting of three distinct persons, was deeply interested and active in human affairs. Though the Father began to create, it was the Son—the Word—who became active when the Father spoke, whereas the Spirit made everything alive. Luther’s main emphasis was not so much on the concept of “creation out of nothing” as on the idea that everything was created, is preserved and governed by God’s spoken word. The reference to the Word is certainly indicative of the idea that God did not need primary matter to create, yet it is not necessarily bound to it. For although God’s continual preserving and governing activities occur through the Word, it does not create new things but preserves what has been created before and sustains it.
The German reformer strongly insisted on the historicity of a literal six‑day creation that occurred about 6,000 years ago, in contrast to the notions of such church fathers as Augustine and Hilary who believed in an instantaneous, one‑day creation. It seems that Luther regarded the moral and spiritual purpose of the creation account and its significance for the picture of God as being almost more important than the question of historicity. The creation account revealed divine goodness, kindness, providence, love, generosity, selflessness, benevolence, wisdom, justice, knowledge, and power. Creation was not something evil but something amazing, attracting, beautiful, pleasant, and inherently good.
According to Luther, the Sabbath was intended as a time for divine worship, for the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, and for the growing relationship with God. The Sabbath points believers specifically to God’s goodness for, on that day, He continues to sustain the universe, and to govern and preserve the realm of human life. All this happens through the constant benevolent activity of the Word. God’s creative, preserving, and governing activities make believers wonder at His power. They build up faith that He will preserve and defend them too. It shows them that God is able to take care of their needs before they are even aware of them, and that He can resurrect them from the dead. All this is possible through the power of the Word. Yet, his positive statements should not be understood as an affirmation of the perpetuity of the fourth commandment.
Though Luther addressed every verse of the Mosaic creation account, he focused specifically on divine activities. The creative, preserving, governing, and re-creating activities of the Word stand out distinctly. Luther not only addressed the biblical text but was also able to apply it to the daily life of the believer. He emphasized that God was not only active in the past but is still active today and wants to play a role in the life of every individual person.
Denis Kaiser is currently completing a Ph.D. in Adventist Studies and Historical Theology at the Seventh‑day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES