Milton's Burden of Interpretation

By Dayton Haskin | Go to book overview

1. Introduction: Finding a Place

Worldly-Wiseman]. How camest thou by thy burden at first? Christian ]. By reading this Book in my hand.

-- Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (p. 18)

In the year 1545, shortly before his death and long after the event in question, Martin Luther wrote an account of what he took to be the turning point in his life. He connected it with an interpretive insight into a "place," as he called it, a particular biblical text. The dread phrase "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17 had long been a plague to him, he explained, so that he "raged with a fierce and troubled conscience." Yet he had kept "beat[ing] importunately upon Paul at that place [Latin, eo loco ], most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted" when he spoke in these terms. The insight, when it came, involved making a connection between two "places," Paul's own words about "the righteousness of God" and his quotation from the prophet Habakkuk, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." Here, according to Luther, was the beginning of a whole new life for him. His account does not proceed to describe that new life in relation to the public forum, where for more than twenty-five years he had been a powerful force. Rather it emphasizes the private pleasure that he experienced in discovering analogies as he continued to read: "There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy [ analogiam ], as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us." Luther goes on to list other phrases that made exhilarating sense to him once he had seen that they implied God's agency and human receptivity. Then he makes a powerful identification of his reading with the regaining of Eden: "Thus that place [ iste locus ] in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise."1

The interpretive discovery, we should notice, is presented in a topographical language that suggests a conception of the Book as a vast field, or set of fields, filled with "places" (Greek, topoi) that bear potential relations

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