Review: Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Creed

Title of Work:

Commentary on Luther's Catechisms: Creed

Author of Work:

Albrecht Peters


Souksamay Phestanghane

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Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Creed, by Albrecht Peters, (trans. Thomas Trapp).  St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 306 pages.

SS.29.Commentary on Luther's Catechism, CreedAlbrecht Peters (d. Oct 26, 1987) was a professor at Ruprecht-Karl-Univeristät in Heidelberg, West Germany. Peters started working on his commentary on the Catechism in the mid-1960s, presenting parts of it in essays, until the manuscript’s completion in the mid-1970s.  Due to other obligations, this work was never published in his lifetime, but instead was posthumously gathered by his junior colleague Gottfried Seebass and published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht in five volumes from 1990 to 1994.  This volume on the Creed appeared in 1991.

The translator, Thomas Trapp, is a LCMS full professor of religion and theology at Concordia University, St Paul, MN and pastor at Emmaus Lutheran Church, St Paul, MN.  He was a full-time Fulbright Scholarship student at Ruprecht-Karl-Univeristät in Heidelberg, West Germany, earning a doctorate in theology in 1980. He has numerous published translations of other German theological works. In addition to this work, he is also the translator of Peters’ commentary on Baptism and Lord’s Supper.

This is the third of five volumes (in the English and German) of Albrecht Peters’ colossal work on Luther’s Catechisms. (Four of the five volumes have been translated and published already: The Ten Commandments; The Creed; The Lord’s Prayer; and Baptism and Lord’s Supper.  The final volume on Confession with Prayers and Table of Duties, Marriage Booklet, and Baptismal Booklet is still in the works.)

In the preface to the first volume on the Ten Commandments, it reads “[I]n his work on the commentary he [Peters] felt somewhat like a Boethius at the threshold to the Middle Ages, marked by the decay of the Western Roman Empire. And in his commentary, Peters wanted to preserve and pass on what he had experienced as a source of spiritual strength in those years” (14).  That is what Peters has accomplished with this work on the Creed. With his compendium approach, Peters not only uses Luther’s work on the Small Catechism, but he quotes from seemingly all of Luther’s writing on the Creed, from his early years through to his later. In so doing, he traces Luther’s growth and line of thought. Peters also includes citations and comments from other scholars, Scripture, and the Confessions.

The book is divided into four main sections. The first main section includes a succinct and fascinating history on the Creed’s development. Then Peters discusses Luther’s understanding of the Creed.  He does criticize Luther here, “But Luther does not differentiate the self-revelation of God as the Father in the Son through the Spirit in this resumé of the Creed in sufficient detail to avoid the appearance of a ‘naïve Tritheism” (41).

The other three main sections deal with each article of the Creed in turn. Each section begins with a history of each article through the centuries, even discussing how specific words or phrases entered into the Creed e.g. “catholic/Christian” in the third article (267ff).  The copious footnotes to the Weimar edition of Luther’s works will allow any scholar access to Peters’ points.

There are two highlights in Luther’s understanding of the Creed, to which Peters keeps coming back.  First, Luther took God seriously at his Word. “To believe [up]on God thus means ‘to take with utter seriousness that God, He alone and no other, is the lord of my life and of the entire world in which I live” (69). This highlight is what made Luther stand out among those of his time. The second highlight is that Luther understood that the entirety of the Bible is “for me” or “for us” (24, 69ff, 106, 109, 134ff).

One caveat to keep in mind is the warning included in the publisher’s preface to this book. (x)  That warning concerns Albrecht Peters’ approach to exegesis. Peters is a follower of the higher-critical method and its quasi-reactionary response. (At the same time, neo-orthodoxy ended up being more of a related offshoot or illegitimate offspring of the higher-critical method.)  Therefore Peters uses the JEDP documentary hypothesis (93). “Luther merges the creation accounts of the Yahwist and the Priestly Writing” (87).  The evolutionary theory is favored over creation. (88-89) There are references to “the Christ event” (56, 141, 147, 211, 235, 237); “the kerygma” (116, 225); and “to demythologize” (184, 185).  At times, Peters also uses words that sound very biblical and thus orthodox.  Here are just two examples.

[T]he center of the catechisms for Luther is not the Second Article of the Creed, in a narrowly focused and isolated sense, though one might assume that to be the case merely by looking at the wording in the Small Catechism; instead, the center is the entirety of the way God turns toward us as our Father through the Son by means of the Holy Spirit (54).

All later expositions are shaped by the central thesis that receives exposition in these three theses, as identified in the Short Form of 1520 and in the Sermons on the Symbol from 1523: Jesus Christ as true man and true God has become my Lord and redeemer, in that He alone has opened for each of us the access point to the heart of the Father (108).

With some benefit of the doubt, both phrases could be understood correctly. Nevertheless one must keep in mind the question that Prof. Armin Schuetze asked about neo-orthodoxy fifty years ago, “Do they mean by these words and expressions what the latter have always meant to us?” (Schuetze, Prof. Armin. “Neo-Orthodoxy – The ‘New’ Threat to Our Christian Heritage”, 7).

In closing, there is one note about the translation. The translator’s choice of English words at times is archaic e.g. “to the fore … hereby … affords” (285), yet the book is readable “in the main.”

Even with the noted selective warnings and selected examples, this book would be a beneficial addition to any pastor’s library. Albrecht Peters is a Luther scholar of the first rank. His encyclopedic knowledge of Luther’s works is a special measure of God’s grace to him. As long as Peters stays with Luther and quotes Luther’s comments on the Creed, he offers beneficial insight into the Creed. When he gives his own thoughts, one must read those carefully. His choice of words sound good, but the actual meaning may not be. As always, one must be critical of the higher-critical and/or neo-orthodox approach to Scripture. By whatever name or form it takes, in any attempt to use human “knowledge” to judge the Bible, this still rings true: “Neo-orthodoxy is paleo-heterodoxy” (Prof. Brug, John. Senior Dogmatics Class).