“Inherently full”

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This striking painting, by Michael Mathias Prechtl, is titled “Martin Luther: An Inherently Full Figure.” Painted in 1983, Oswald Bayer refers to it (and reproduces it) in the opening pages of his book, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation.

Bayer describes the painting in a footnote on page 2:

Prechtl adapts a picture of Luther as an old man, sketched in 1545 by the Reformer’s assistant, Johann Reifenstein. […] His conceptualization of the aged Luther is overlaid by the figure of Luther from the central panel of the triptych at the altar of the city church at Weimar (by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1553). Prechtl takes Luther’s face from Reifenstein’s sketch; from Cranach’s portrait he takes the collar with conspicuous streak of cardinal red, the way the hands are positioned around the open Bible, and the figure of the Crucified that Cranach positioned separately from Luther but which is positioned “inside” the body of Luther by Prechtl, along with the stream of blood that spurts from the wound in the Lord’s side. Prechtl’s watercolor leaves the pages of the open Bible blank. ln Cranach’s portrait they have writing on them and can be read by anyone who looks at the scene depicted by the altar. Luther’s index finger points to Heb. 4:16 […]: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness [= freedom. sincerity; Greek: παρρησία], so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

On page 6, Bayer adds:

As the artist makes it clear to see, the Crucified One does not simply remain merely a figure in the picture, but lets himself be heard; he has something to say: he comes in the Word of the Bible that is preached. The ray cast forth by his blood opens the meaning of Holy Scripture, opens the testament, as the message from the cross, which bequeaths to us eternal communion with God by means of forgiveness, in the midst of our hellish personal history and our world’s history.

Luther, as the servant of the divine Word, points to this message from the cross, promises the forgiveness of sins in the name of God, offers it, imparts it. The Bible is not somehow — bound up tightly — a closed document, not a weapon of fundamentalism, but it is open — opened by the One who alone can open it: opened by the Crucified One, who lives (Luke 24:30-32).

This is a vital element of Lutheran theology and practice: that it is not the Word of the Bible per se that is God’s Word to us, but the Word of the Bible that is preached, a living Word that proclaims Christ Crucified, in which the Crucified One is heard; a dynamic process in which, as the gospel is proclaimed in word and sacrament, Christ is revealed to us through the Word that Christ opens to us through that proclamation, by (since I haven’t forgotten that today is Pentecost!) the Holy Spirit working faith in us.

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4 thoughts on ““Inherently full””

  1. it is not the Word of the Bible per se that is God’s Word to us, but the Word of the Bible that is preached … as the gospel is proclaimed in word and sacrament

    But John, doesn’t that make hash of Sola Scriptura, as commonly understood? Because if the Bible must be encumbered with the context of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental ministry (per Augustana V) before it can be properly understood as God’s Word, it’s not really alone, is it?

    You know me well enough to know that these questions are facetiously rhetorical. But still … are you sure that this is a “vital element of Lutheran theology”? Or is it not trumped (as a practical matter in contemporary Lutheranism as it really is) by “Scripture Alone”?

    1. Well, if you’re arguing that AC V – and hence the church’s liturgical and sacramental ministry – takes priority (or should take priority) over a slogan like “sola scriptura”, you’ll find no disagreement from me. Similarly if you’re arguing that too much of contemporary Lutheranism is dominated by slogans and ideology.

      Sola scriptura, ISTM, should not be regarded as a standalone principle, but as a principle which guards and defends the more important principle that Christ’s word of promise in the concrete gospel of the church’s ministry can be trusted (AC IV, V). IOW, once the promise is declared to us – “ego te absolvo”, “this is my body given for you” – there is no competing authority that can come along and qualify that promise with extra conditions.

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