Published: RTR 73, no. 2, 2014
An Exposition of Genesis
Johann Oecolampadius, trans. Mickey Leland Mattox, Reformation Texts with Translation No. 13, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2013
Oecolampadius is significant in the development of covenant theology, although the extent of that significance has been hard to judge for those not versed in Latin. It is thus a blessing that some of his lectures on Genesis have been translated into English. The lectures were first delivered in 1531, and student notes were published in Basel in 1536. Oecolampadius had covered Genesis 1-16 in the 2 months before his death. The current translation gives only the first three chapters, with a dedicatory letter from Capito.
Oecolampadius had earlier (1523) translated Chrysostom’s homilies on Genesis, Chrysostom may have been more synergetic than the Reformer cared for, but he gave the sensus genuina of Scripture, whereas Origen only gave allegory.
The lectures affirm creation ex nihilo, but in six days, not instantaneously. ‘Spirit’ in Gen. 1:2 is ‘wind’, but let ‘us’ refers to the Trinity. The image of God is interpreted in the light of Eastern rather than Western fathers, with an emphasis on union with Christ. Adam and Eve had children in the garden—an endorsement of marriage. The ‘seed’ of Gen. 3 is not Christ, and we would be ‘ridiculed’ by the Jews if we said it was (p. 185).
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil comes to be called that because of its role in the fall of humankind (pp. 128-129). The word, ‘covenant’, is not used, but it is a sacramental tree all the same. Like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it ‘did not have within itself that kind of power’ (p. 129, sed non habebat huiusmodi efficaciam per se). The basic elements of the covenant of works are present, for the tree was a ‘sign’ of the possibility of ‘immortal life’ upon ‘obedience’. Obedience would allow access to the tree of life. This is placed into the context of the ‘justification’ of Adam (iustificationem Adae, p. 139). He was created righteous, but did no ‘good work’ and rather fell, so that his justification now comes from ‘divine benevolence alone’.
Oecolampadius’s work is at every point in contact with both the Hebrew OT text and the early church fathers. The lectures are also pastoral and remarkably relevant for our own day: whoever believes in creation ex nihilo ‘believes that God is able easily to restore a body that has fallen into ruin and been scattered as ashes. But if any one wishes instead to comply with the demands of reason, he will afterwards forever be the prison of his own reason, unable to believe anything that reason has not determined beforehand’ (p. 55).
Mattox cautions that the English translation is a little stilted, but the warning is not necessary. It is a pleasure to read. The translator is to be thanked for making these valuable lectures readily accessible.