Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Apocalyptic Luther: His Noahic Self-Understanding

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Apocalyptic Luther: His Noahic Self-Understanding

Article excerpt


In defining apocalypticism in the period of the European reformations R. B. Barnes suggests that its main element, its most salient feature, is the expectancy of the imminent end of history. On the basis of that teaching apocalypticism seeks to offer insight into "the crucial role of the present in a cosmic struggle."1 He suggests also that apocalyptic thinking is prophetic. It is so because "it undertakes to warn evildoers and to console the righteous, and it seeks definite insight into God's plan for the world."' And of course, in a sense, this has to be true of such an eschatological framework of thought. In many ways, apocalypticism becomes prophetic as a necessary corollary to its own belief in the imminence of the end time, it is that which gives its urgency and which impels its search for divine perspective. Similarly, Heiko Oberman singles out three elements of the traditional apocalypticism of the period, namely, the belief in the approaching end time, the struggle between God and the devil, and the appearance of antichrist.3

Society at the time of the Reformation was permeated by fervent apocalyptic ideas and expectation, as was the Medieval period previously. This is well documented.4 Robert Kolb expresses it as follows: "Luther's was an age of urgent and ardent expectations. Humanists longed for the restoration of good learning-and thus for societal order and wellbeing. Exhibiting various degrees of apocalyptic dreaming, the common people yearned for a new age. A crisis of pastoral care also gripped Western Christendom, and many were listening and looking for God's direct intervention in their lives."5 This, in itself, underscores an interesting conjunction between apocalypticism and pastoral crisis, a conjunction noted below from Luther's writing. Kolb speaks further in the same context of the "deeply felt hopes of peasants and humanists alike" and of "the apocalyptic restlessness of the late Middle Ages."6

There seems to be no argument concerning apocalypticism in general terms. However, when we specify Martin Luther's theology within these more general parameters, the question of the reformer's apocalypticism becomes a moot one. Clearly, he is an apocalyptic thinker, but with how much significance should this be endowed? Are Luther's apocalyptic ideas merely a superficial acceptance and continuance of current and popular thought or are they part and parcel of his own contribution? Is it the case that Luther becomes more apocalyptic during the course of his (largely frustrated) career to reform the church or can we say that the "old Luther" intensifies the substance of what was there in the first place, the apocalypticism of his earlier years? These are matters that continue to arouse discussion among Reformation scholars.

The modest purpose of this short essay is twofold. First, it surveys and analyzes some of the recent comment on the subject, drawing conclusions where possible through a reading of Luther's work. Because of both the size and the nature of the corpus this process will be necessarily somewhat superficial. The second purpose is to present a close and detailed examination of Luther's treatment of Genesis 6-9 (the Noahic narrative) in order to summarize the reformer's self-understanding as an end-time, apocalyptic reformer. This will reinforce the conclusions already reached. On the basis of the foregoing, the essay offers some reflections on the nature of Luther's self-understanding.


The question of Luther's apocalypticism tends to divide scholars' opinions into two broad responses. Some would advocate that, though showing apocalyptic tendencies in his theological work, the reformer's thought is not essentially apocalyptic. Conversely, others would argue that an understanding of Luther's apocalypticism is vital for an understanding of his thought. This second general response is not entirely uniform in itself, of course, in that some argue that apocalypticism is significant only toward the end of Luther's career, while others see it as prominent throughout. …

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