Martin Luther on the Creation Story in the Bible

The Genesis 1 creation.

Genesis 1 Creation Examined, part 6

6   Martin Luther

On Monday the 31st of March, 1535, Martin Luther held his final lecture on Psalm 90, and declared: "I will devote the remaining years of my life to an exposition of the books of Moses." On the next lecture he started explaining his views on Genesis.

       The text that we have was neither written by him nor strictly compiled from notes at those very lectures, but edited later by others, who allowed themselves some evident changes of Luther's lectures — but substantially the thoughts presented in the book are those of Martin Luther.

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       He agrees completely with Augustine, regarding the triple nature of God being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To Luther, this is the obvious explanation to the plural being used for God, Elohim, and he repeats it frequently all through his text. He also sees the Trinity revealed in the three expressions used repeatedly during creation: "God said," "He made," and "He saw." The first is God begetting the Word, which is the Son who is thereby the maker by bestowing existence on things. The Holy Spirit approves the things created when seeing them.

       Instead, he opposes firmly the somewhat symbolic interpretations that Augustine allows himself. To Luther, Genesis is written by Moses, and it is a straightforward account of how creation was orchestrated: "Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively," he determines. Those who have other views, Luther regards as childish or outright stupid. He finds plenty of them:

For apart from the general knowledge that the world had its beginning from nothing there is hardly anything about which there is common agreement among all theologians.

Martin Luther, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528.
Martin Luther, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528.

       Luther has no doubt that the world was created out of nothing, ex nihilo, six thousand years ago. The initial verse of Genesis 1 he explains as the creation of the "formless mass" of heaven and earth, later to be structured. He compares it to the primary matter, as did Augustine. To Luther, this initial mass is moist, like a mist, which is why God later makes heaven out of water, and also it explains where rain comes from it. He admits to being puzzled at the sun being placed in a heaven made out of water, and still not having its fire extinguished. But God can make his own rules about such matters, and Luther has to accept his bewilderment: "I for my part shall confess that I do not understand Moses in this passage."

       Some other inconsistencies or questions of Genesis 1, Luther brushes off as futile because they simply cannot be understood by man. One such issue is what God might have been doing before the creation of time: "our mind cannot grasp what lies outside time."

Frontispiece by Lucas Cranach the Younger of the 1541 edition of the Martin Luther Bible.
Frontispiece by Lucas Cranach the Younger of the 1541 edition of the Martin Luther Bible. The first edition of his complete Bible was published in 1534, but the New Testament already in 1522.

       Regarding the Trinity being hinted by the plural Elohim, Luther claims that this and other secrets were to be revealed by Christ, and therefore were incomprehensible to earlier people:

Of course, he [Moses] does not say in so many words that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the one true God; this was to be reserved for the teaching of the Gospel.

       He also explains our lack of understanding with the Fall, the original sin, after which man became a cruder being, distanced to God and to truth. When man and woman were created and given dominion over all the plants and animals of the world, they were splendid creatures, superior in every way to the other animals, immortal, and blessed with a closeness to their maker:

I am fully convinced that Adam's sin his eyes were so sharp and clear that they surpassed those of the lynx and eagle. He was stronger than the lions and the bears, whose strength is very great; and he handled them the way we handle puppies.

The Fall, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1530.
The Fall, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1530.

       In this and many other ways they were the image of God, far beyond what we are able to imagine. With the Fall, mankind lost much of its capacity, and although still able to think and feel, completely lead astray by the devil.

       Luther regards the creation of the formless heaven and earth as having taken place the same day that later saw the creation of light, which immediately was put to such motion that it resulted in day and night. But it was not as "clear and brilliant" as later, when the sun was created to light the day.


7   Some conclusions

Genesis 1 Creation

The first creation of the Bible

  1. Genesis — The Text

  2. The seven days

  3. Good for man

  4. Commentaries

  5. Augustine of Hippo

  6. Martin Luther

  7. Some conclusions

This article was originally written for a seminar at the Department of History of Ideas and Learning, Lund University, as a part of my dissertation in progress on creation myths and their patterns of thought. Transforming the text to webpages, I have excluded footnotes, or edited them into the text.

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I'm a Swedish author and historian of ideas, researching the thought patterns in creation myths. I've also written books about Taoism, the Tarot, and life force concepts around the world. Click the image to get to my personal website.