L is for Luther

Martin Luther is a magisterial figure in Church history. Whilst opinions about his life, theology and legacy vary, his impact on Christianity is enormous. This post has a singular focus which come as no surprise in this A to Z series. Luther taught on Psalm 51 on at least three occasions. We know this because much of Luther’s work survives today. This not only means we have his published teaching on this psalm, but we can also see how these interactions with this psalm cohere with the wider events of his life and his emerging theology.

The first occasion that Luther taught on this psalm was during his earliest years of lecturing on the Bible, before the landmark episode with the ninety-five theses in 1517. These early lectures which took place between 1513 and 1515 were later published as Dictata super Psalterium. The term Dictata refers to the mode of teaching that had developed In the Middle-Ages whereby the lecturer would dictate and expect their students to annotate the text which was the subject of the lecture.

Before the Dictata was published, however, Luther published the results of subsequent work on the seven penitential psalms. This work was to be his first published work and appeared in print in 1517, a few months head of the October ninety-five theses debacle. Luther’s work here on Psalm 51 is much more detailed than in the Dictata. Much of this work is redolent with the key theological issues that he would promulgate in his infamous theses and in the years of theological, religious and political turmoil beyond. There is significant refection on both penitence and confession. It is hardly an exaggeration to understand that Luther’s theology was founded on the threefold legacy of Psalm 51 and Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians.

His The Seven Psalms, or Die Sieben Bußpsalmen, was later revised in 1524 and was a hugely popular book. It might seem odd that a psalm so closely connected with Penance should be so welcome to Luther. His work on this psalm was a reading which focused tightly on the grace portrayed there and the need for the sinner to be penitent rather than do penance as a response to such mercy. Luther’s third work on Psalm 51 dwarfed both previous studies, running to over one hundred pages.

This third exposition of Psalm 51 was the result of a series of lectures in the Summer of 1532. Throughout the introduction to the psalm and the verse by verse exposition its meaning and significance is indissoluble from his mature doctrine of salvation by faith. This is how Luther seems the importance of Psalm 51 for his theology:

A knowledge of this psalm is necessary and useful in many ways. It contains instruction about the chief parts of our religion, about repentance, sin, grace, and justification, as well as about the worship we ought to render to God. These are divine and heavenly doctrines. . . This psalm is commonly called a “penitential psalm,” and among them is the most widely used in church and daily prayers. Whoever first gave it this name, knew what he was doing. But the rest of the crowd, who either chant or pray it daily in order to perform the works required by the bishops, have understood nothing of it all. They have applied the psalm to the penance of works, to actual sin, which they define as “anything said, done, thought against the Law of God.” This definition is far too narrow to portray the greatness or power of sin. We must look at sin more deeply and show more clearly the root of wickedness or sin, not simply remain with the “elicited acts,” as they call them.

Luther Works, volume 12

This raises topics that will require two further of our posts—letters O and P— in this A to Z series to unpack.


Further Reading
A helpful overview of Luther’s three studies of Psalm 51 can be found in C. Clifton Black, ‘Unity and Diversity in Luther’s Biblical Exegesis: Psalm 51 as a Test Case’, pp.325–345 in Scottish Journal of Theology, volume 38 (1985).

Luther’s work can be found in Luther’s Works a massive project of Concordia Publishing House:
Dictata on Psalm 51 is in volume 10.
Die Sieben Bußpsalmen account of Psalm 51 is in volume 14.
• The massive lecture on Psalm 51 is in volume 12.

The Psalter as Mirror: Reflecting on a Metaphor

The Psalter is not only full of rich imagery and metaphors, but throughout church history interpreters have used metaphors to try and capture what it is. One of the most valuable of these metaphors is that of a mirror. In modern treatments of the Psalms it is often John Calvin (1509–1564) who is cited for this metaphorical insight [1]. We will return to his use of this metaphor below. The application of such a metaphor, however, predates Calvin by more than a millennium.

As far as I am aware, it was Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296–373) who first applied such a metaphor to the Psalms:

And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and of the succor available to believers—how this kind of grace exists for him—he exults and begins to give thanks to God.
Athanasius, The Letter to Marcellinus [2]

Athanasius’ wonderful work known as The Letter to Marcellinus gives an account of the psalms, their value, and their use. He tells of them as though he learnt everything from an old master of the Psalms which I take to be a modest self-reference. In the quote above, we see Athanasius referring to a mirror in its most basic function, reflecting a person. He claims that in singing a psalm there is an emotional dynamic in which the singer perceives themselves with new insight. This is an active process in which unperceived emotions are made tangible, and positive change is actualised. The focus for Athanasius is specially connected with penitence.

Before we return to Calvin, we note that Martin Luther (1483–1546) also used this metaphor of a mirror for reflecting on the Psalms. There is both continuity with Athanasius, and novelty in his application of the image. Just as Athanasius’ insight was made in his major work on the Psalms, for Luther too the metaphor is employed in a major work—his fresh translation of the whole Psalter into German. Luther produced many works on the Psalms but it his translation of the Psalter into the vernacular that was a central achievement. This book was so popular it went through a huge number of print runs in short space of time. Luther saw fit to revise it twice. This quote comes from the second edition, as well as all subsequent editions to this day:

In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton [Know yourself], as well as God himself and all creatures.
Luther, Preface to the Psalter, second edition (1528) [3]

Here, for Luther, in addition to the Psalms reflecting their reader they reflect Christendom. This additional dimension owes much to Luther’s claim that the Psalms are a Bible in miniature. It is unclear whether Luther is consciously or unconsciously following Athanasius or coming afresh to a similar metaphorical insight.

Turning to Calvin, we find him using essentially the same imagery, also in his major work on the Psalms—the preface to his massive commentary on all 150 biblical psalms. It is worth quoting him at length:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandment which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.
John Calvin, Preface to Psalms Commentary [4]

Again, his dependence on Athanasius and/or Luther is unclear. Whatever the inspiration for Calvin, I judge that his claim is the richest. It has the pithy precise hermeneutical claim that we, as readers and singers of the Psalms, are reflected with an actualising clarity in this remarkable book. It also points to not only penitence, but salvation and virtue too.

This metaphor, whether in the hands of Athanasius, Luther, or Calvin, is hermeneutically rich. It makes a claim about the nature of the text, about us, and about how God works salvation and sanctification. Such a claim is vital in complementing modern critical insights. For all their rich detail we cannot get from their literary, religious, and cultic insights to substantiate the life-changing dogmatic claims implicit in the pre-critical work of the three interpreters above.

Taken together with modern criticism, the mirror metaphor brings us close to the insight of Brueggemann that in these ancient texts we find ourselves. Whether we read whilst in a state of orientation or disorientation they reflect our experience. Perhaps, unlike Brueggemann, we can look directly to God’s providence and grace through his Holy spirit for the actualisation of a new reflection or revelation—the reorientation that we so frequently need, and we are so often promised in this small Bible. These songs need to be sung regularly, for in Christ we need to be reoriented continually, even from the status quo of orientation that all too quickly loses its brightness as we look elsewhere than to the one on whom we should fix our eyes. On other occasions we need to own these words to perceive the crucified one amidst the brokenness that is our primary disorientation.

Whatever state we are in, we look at the Mirror to perceive ourselves so as to be changed. To look at this reflection is no narcissistic preoccupation, this is the beginning of our receding from the spotlight, our growing strangely dim, that we can see Christ who is in this book and who also lies behind both it and us.



  1. See for example, The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schutzer and David M. Howard Jr. (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013, pp.52–54 which plays on Calvin’s associated insight into the Psalms as a language of all seasons of the soul which is a corollary of the mirror metaphor. See also Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p.17.
  2. Athanasius, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Latter to Marcellinus, Robert C. Gregg (translator), Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980, p.111.
  3. Luther, ‘Preface to the Psalter’ (1528), in Luther’s Works Volume 35, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, pp.256–257.
  4. Calvin, Psalms Commentary Volume 1, James N. Anderson (translator), 1845, p.19.