Luther on Gender Relations-Just One Reading of Genesis?

By Bultmann, Christoph | Currents in Theology and Mission, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Luther on Gender Relations-Just One Reading of Genesis?

Bultmann, Christoph, Currents in Theology and Mission

It is not easy to assess the impact of biblical texts on the understanding of the relationship between men and women during the Reformation at a time when Genesis 3 is echoed on grocery bags of a major U.K. supermarket chain in the question "Why did Eve want to move to New York?--She fell for the Big Apple!" From a biblical scholar's point of view, the most intriguing aspect of the subject "women after the Reformation" is the claim to authoritative scriptural support for a particular concept of gender relations and the place of women in society. In the following observations on Luther's sermons on Genesis, which he delivered two years before he got married himself (in 1525), the biblical background of his views on sexuality, chastity, and marriage is addressed.

Passages that carry the argument in Luther's numerous sermons, treatises, and pamphlets on these issues are from both the Old and the New Testament. They include among others Genesis 1-3; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Corinthians 7; 11:2-16; 14:26-40; Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Peter 3:1-7; and, not to be overlooked, Romans 6:12. These words of the Scriptures are complemented by biblical examples, not least the stories about Deborah (Judges 4) and Huldah (2 Kings 22). (l) There can be no question about the authority of Scripture for the reformers in the sixteenth century. One might wonder whether scriptural authority for them extended to matters of ordinary life in family and society, but one will soon find that this was clearly the case, notably with regard to marriage. (2) Thus the Reformers' use of the Bible could be seen as providing a model for reflecting upon gender relations in the light of the biblical tradition today.

On the other hand, it is a commonplace that the Bible has lost its authority in many areas of modem life, that our situation today is characterized by pluralism, and that people are free to make their own choices and therefore adopt an enormous variety of lifestyles. It seems important right at the outset to acknowledge this aspect of choice over against any hasty attempts at claiming a normative status for recommendations of particular forms of relations between the sexes even if these come close to what certain biblical texts seem to demand. (3) The foremost aspect of this change may be seen in equal access to education--Luther never met a female fellow student at university!

Reading Moses

Because the situation of women in today's world seems so profoundly different from their situation in earlier centuries, the following analogy suggests itself as one reads Luther's comments on gender roles in his interpretation of Genesis: Just as the biblical tradition is no longer an authoritative source of information about the age and the origin of the world, it can no longer be quarried for normative assertions about gender relations. The history of biblical interpretation shows that until the late eighteenth century--and in some circles even beyond that time--the Bible allowed everyone who read the Genesis story of creation to think they knew that the earth was almost 6,000 years old (Archbishop Ussher's famous date for the creation was 4004 B.C.E.) and that, for example, plants and trees had covered the ground even before the sun had been formed. Geology and the other natural sciences helped to overcome such ideas.4 In an analogous development, the Bible, which shaped the predominant view of the role o f women right into the twentieth century, has lost its status as a standard for defining gender roles. Feminism and the social sciences may not have the same scientific character as geology and the natural sciences, but their effect on certain forms of reception of the Bible is just as strong, no matter whether it arises from a new human self-awareness or from an accumulation of knowledge. (5)

A brief discussion of Luther's reading of Genesis 1-3 will serve to explain and justify the suggested analogy. Three preliminary points should be noted.

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Luther on Gender Relations-Just One Reading of Genesis?


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