"Christ Is neither Taught nor Known in It": Some Christological Fallout of Martin Luther’s Prefaces to the Revelation of St. John (1522 and 1546)

Martin Luther’s exegetical work on the Book of Revelation is restricted to two Prefaces. The first accompanied the publication by Melchior Lotther, in 1522, of Luther’s translation of the New Testament: Das Newe Testament Deutzsch (or the September Testament). Then from 1530 onwards a longer Preface superseded it, featuring from 1534 to 1546 in successive editions of Luther’s full Bible translation. The first Preface was famously dismissive of Revelation as a book that failed to do justice to “Christ and his deeds”: in the Reformer’s view, “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” The second Preface, by contrast, attached enough worth to the Book to undertake succinct commentary of Revelation; it contains occasional christological material which may be summarized as follows: brief acknowledgement of “Christ, the Lamb of God” when commenting on Rev 4–5; a note on how Christ begins “to slay his Antichrist” and a mention of “the city of Christ,” in relation to Rev 14; a passing reference to the fact that “the one called the Word of God (19:13) wins”; a terse comment on “the eternal marriage feast [when] Christ alone is Lord,” referring to Rev 21; and concluding remarks to the effect that “our holiness is in heaven, where Christ is” and that Christ is ever with us: “through and beyond all plagues, beasts, and evil angels Christ is nonetheless with his saints, and wins the final victory.” In neither Preface did Luther have anything to say about John’s opening vision of the one like a son of man (1:13–17) or, in particular, about John’s report of the figure’s extended opening speech (1:17b–3:22). Luther’s silence here is odd: as his Preface to the New Testament as a whole makes clear, it is precisely a concentration on Christ’s preaching that qualifies John’s Gospel to be “the one, fine, true, and chief gospel”: says Luther, “the works do not help me but the words give life, as [Christ] himself says.” This paper will measure Luther’s commentary on Revelation, from initial disparagement to later qualified approval, against the Reformer’s own christocentric hermeneutic as well as highlight the particular interpretative moves that govern his second Preface. The paper will then reflect on some of the christological fallout, for the reception and impact history of Revelation, from the stance adopted by the Reformation’s prime mover: through selective soundings, an attempt will be made to clarify the nature and gauge the degree of Luther’s ongoing influence over the interpretation and valuation of Revelation’s Christology. Finally the paper will consider whether and to what extent Revelation’s Christology has been (re)valued subsequently and might have recovered, or may yet recover, a role in constructive Christian theology today.