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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What does this mean?

Every Lutheran remembers this phrase from their days of catechesis. "What does this mean?" is Luther's famous question in the Small Catechism, most notably in the part that deals with the Ten Commandments.

Here we have one of those situations where the translation doesn't do justice to the original text. The original German says, "Was ist das?" which properly translated is "What is this?" or "What is that?" "What does this mean?" would be something like "Was bedeutet dies?" Clearly, Martin Luther had something more in mind than "meaning" when he penned his famous catechetical question.

The First Commandment is: You shall have no other gods. Luther asks: What is this? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Luther is describing intent and actions with this explanation. What intent or actions follow from having no other gods? Answer: Fearing, loving, and trusting in the one, true God.

"What does this mean?" has an intellectual or academic sense. The danger here is that we might fall prey to the temptation to quantify God and define Him. Luther's answers are more than merely understanding or defining what God expects. Luther's answers involve both the mind and the body. The Apostle James tells us that faith leads to good works. Here, too, Luther says the same with his "Was ist das?" Not only must we understand the commandment, but we must do the commandment. We haven't understood the meaning of the commandment if we only intellectually know that we should fear, love, and trust in God. We must go a step farther; we must actually fear, love and trust in God with all our heart, soul, and strength.

Here the full force of the law (and Luther's answers) bear upon us. We cannot think, desire, or do what the commandments require. We cannot fear, love, and trust God as He commands. Which is why Luther wrote that beautiful explanation to the Second Article of the Creed.

What is this?
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

Christ crucified and risen is not merely an intellectual statement to grasp, but it is a real action performed by a real person who redeemed us! We don't just know the facts; we also believe that Jesus did die and rise again to make us righteous. That's what it is.

Are we going to see a wholesale reprinting of Luther's "What does this mean?" into "What is this?"? No. The translation is too well ingrained in our memory and catechesis. But we don't want to imply that "meaning" merely has to do with academics, memorizing, and then forgetting about it once the confirmation quiz is complete.

We can get "What is this?" out of the translation "What does this mean?" We just need to be aware of what Luther is doing with this question and where he's taking us with it. He's taking us to the cross and the empty tomb, and these aren't rational equations, but actions by our Lord Jesus Christ who brings life to us. That is what it is; that is what it means.


Pastor Kelly J. Leary said...

most excellent -- may I edit and use this piece in our newsletter? I am short of time and this is a great letter to start with -- i want the newsletter to teach more and list dates less

with you permission of course


Peter said...


Feel free to go ahead and use it.

I might blog on this topic in greater depth at a later date.

Pastor Kelly J. Leary said...

thanks pete