Biblical Citations in Early Modern Lutheran Loci Traditions

Storr’s Dogmatics arguably stands in the Lutheran tradition of the loci. Other dogmatic statements like the catechisms and creeds (sometimes called collectively the symbol), are also part of this tradition.

Question and Answer in Luther’s Small Catechism, 1557


Concrete examples include Luther’s Small Catechism, a series of questions and answers designed in hopes that parents and children would review them together daily.

Luther had linked the stability of the state to a shared sense about the divine order, and so made education a new priority. The Small Catechism was designed as much, some have argued, for forming of the parents’ minds in the Lutheran point of view as their childrens’—and with an eye on political and social stability. (Both the Small and Large Catechisms remained an integral part of Lutheran childhood education for the better part of two centuries; Kant and Storr both learned them early and knew them by heart.)


Another concrete example is the Augsburg Confession—a collection of doctrinal statements that outlined the positions of the German princes by comparison with Rome’s. With the Turkish military on the horizon, Charles V requested the outline in hopes of quieting internal discord sparked by the Lutherans. Lutheran reconciliation with Rome ultimately failed, but the Confession remains to this day the foremost statement of the Lutheran point of view. If the catechisms were initially pedagogical and became regulatory (for the educational system), the Augsburg Confession (and similar works gathered in the Book of Concord) was initially explanatory, polemical, and community-regulatory… and it became regulatory for political, social, economic, and religious life. In Storr’s and Kant’s lifetimes, for example, would-be clergy were required to swear they believed it and academics were prohibited from publishing ideas that contradicted it.


Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, meanwhile, are arguably the exemplar of Lutheran dogmatics. Although Lutherans maintained that Scripture was the sole source of reliable theology, they recognized that it is impossibly difficult to teach and learn theology using Scripture alone. For this we need heuristics, images—words that bring together and organize all the particulars so that they are manageable.

For example, to teach Oedipus Rex to average American secondary students is not to expose them repeatedly to its words (though this a necessary step), but to teach them to talk about it, to make sense of it, to remember it by making it meaningful. If you were teaching it, you might say something about the structure of the story, about the plot elements, etc. You might offer up words like ‘tragedy’ that might help students think about the play in relation to others with similar features. You might talk about Thebes and Corinth and Athens and how Athenians thought about the cities in relation to one another.

This is more or less what Melancthon attempted in the Loci, which were a kind of advanced catechism… for educating clergy and regulating their official words and actions.

Distinctive Features of Loci Genre

Loci writings were understood as human works whose reliability depended on their relation to the Lutheran highest reliable: Scripture on Scripture. But if Scripture was a divine work, the loci were not. The loci, Luther and his heirs insisted, ought not be read back into Scripture: the divine Author should speak for itself. But the loci were reliable insofar as they were ‘read out’ of Scripture. A primary distinctive feature of loci is that they take reliability from Scripture, but do not and cannot give reliability to a read of Scripture.

A second is closely related: the author of a creed or dogmatics follows a path from part to whole, from particular to general. He doesn’t start with a concept or a conclusion and then go looking for parts of Scripture that fit the concept or support his argument. Rather he starts with Scripture and, by sewing its parts into larger and larger wholes, arrives at a largest whole: a locus or topic. These wholes made it possible to talk about Scripture and its divine Author without getting lost in a cascade of tiny details. Topics were taken from Scripture, and they were reliable by virtue of their relation to Scripture… but they were human-built wholes for conversation, not the Word of the divine Author.

Parts of Scripture & Biblical Citations in Early Loci Traditions

I’ve talked about the parts of Scripture (e.g., Luther subordinated some parts to others; Melancthon combined its parts into wholes), and you have perhaps assumed that I meant clearly defined verses (e.g., Romans 1:17) to which Luther could gesture and expect a reader to easily access. But Luther, Melanchthon, and their early heirs did not have versified Bibles.

Rather, on the one hand, they had at hand several scholarly, rhetorical, theological and meditative ways to break Scripture into its smallest meaningful parts. Luther and Melanchthon, for example, referred to Greek and Hebrew grammar to discern complete thoughts or sentences. Erasmus and Melanchthon both drew on rhetorical traditions to distinguish units of thought that did not necessarily correspond to sentences or paragraphs. Melanchthon called these, following Cicero, schemata or hypotyposes.

On the other, they had at hand more or less Europe-wide shared systems (1) of printed in-text chapter divisions and (2) of sometimes printed, sometimes imagined divisions of chapters into quarters or eighths. Most early sixteenth-century Lutheran biblical citations are by book and chapter; some include a letter that corresponds to the quarter or eighth part (divided spatially) of the chapter. They could cite units smaller than a chapter, but not with perfect precision.

Biblical Citations in the Early Loci Traditions

You’ve probably heard that Luther’s conflict with Rome had something to do with the authority of Scripture: Rome maintained that Scripture and tradition were critical authorities, while Luther advocated for the authority of Scripture alone. From this story it might seem to follow that Luther thought about Scripture as the only reliable sort of evidence in an argument—that when Luther cited Scripture, he meant to show that some bit of Scripture supported some conclusion. Or, alternatively, it might seem to follow that Roman apologists were free to cite Scripture or tradition in a way that Lutherans were not.

It would be easy to assume that (at least sometimes) when Luther and his immediate heirs cited Scripture, they meant to point to authoritative evidence for a claim. While we can safely assume, for example, that Melancthon likely meant to show that each part of this statement on creation came from a divine authority.

Citation in Melanchton’s Loci, 1541

But it might be instead (or in addition) that Melancthon’s biblical citations indicate the parts of Scripture that a particular topic holds together. It might be that the citations tell us about the parts that make up a particular whole— the particulars for which the whole (as a symbol) stands in.

Logical-Argumentative & Aesthetic-Argumentative Evidentiary Reasoning

Put differently, there is a distinction between what we might call logical-argumentative evidentiary reasoning and what we might call aesthetic-argumentative evidentiary reasoning. And in the loci tradition, it is not always entirely clear whether and how far biblical citations are parts of logical evidentiary arguments or aesthetic-evidentiary arguments.

Let me give another example to illustrate the difference between the two kinds of reasoning. If a secondary-school art history teacher presents a painting and asks for an essay arguing that it is an example of, say, neo-expressionism, she’s asking you to use logical-argumentative evidentiary reasoning. You’ll start by defining a concept—neo-expressionism—and then you’ll point to particular aspects of the painting that match or fit with that concept.

If instead she presents a painting and asks for an interpretation of it, you’ll start with its parts (e.g., particular figure, shape, line, technique, hue, value, etc.) and say how particular parts relate to one another (contrast, repetition, motion, etc.). You’ll build wholes that become new parts. You’ll continue articulating how all the parts relate to all the other parts until you reach the highest whole (e.g., the edge of the painting or the space for which it was commissioned, etc.). As you defend a claim about a meaning of the whole, you’ll point to particular parts and their relations to one another. That’s aesthetic argumentation, aesthetic evidentiary reasoning.

In logical-argumentative evidentiary reasoning, we start with a concept or conclusion and point to reliable (e.g., authoritative) evidence that supports it. With aesthetic-argumentative evidentiary reasoning, we start with a part and bring it together with other parts until we see a highest whole; we then point to the parts and their relations to support a claim about the shape or a meaning of the highest whole.

In the Lutheran loci tradition, it’s difficult, especially after they are caught up in polemic, to distinguish whether biblical citations are evidence in logical arguments or aesthetic arguments. It’s unclear whether the topics simply hold a group of cited passages together… or if rather the passages show the reliability of the topics… or if both might be true.

Aesthetic Procedure in Biblical Interpretation Compared with Loci Tradition

In the essay about biblical citations in Luther’s Bible, I suggested that Luther used an aesthetic method to teach his readers how to read Scripture or how to see as a Lutheran: by training them to make new connections between parts of Scripture, he arguably taught his readers to see a newly reshaped whole.

I also suggested that Luther advocated a relatively fixed set of hierarchical relations between the parts of Scripture: all the parts were to be read inferior to Romans (what we know as 1:17 in particular—the site of Luther’s insight or gift of faith). The parts, in other words, did add (according to Luther) and must add (insofar as his reading methods were normative) up to the whole that was his insight (i.e., the form of Luther’s argumentation was arguably both aesthetic or part-first and logical or concept/conclusion-first).

But, I suggested, so long as neither of Luther’s forms of argumentation ended or began with something that wasn’t in Scripture (e.g., Roman traditions), he could claim ‘Scripture alone’ and pillory Rome ‘Scripture under human invention’). Put differently, because Luther’s conclusion or whole, like his evidentiary parts, was always something he could point to in Scripture, he could claim to merely be articulating the divine Author’s read of his own book… which was both highest reliable and a measure against which Rome could be judged.

The Lutheran catechisms and creeds and dogmatics, by contrast, began with parts of Scripture and ended with topics that were not in Scripture… but came from Scripture, indeed, they came from Scripture on Scripture or Scripture read under Romans… read under Luther’s insight. The loci, in other words, were wholes with a different status, a different reliability, than the status and reliability of the parts from which they were allegedly composed. And yet the loci were allegedly reliable precisely because of their relation to the divine Scripture.

This perhaps posed less a problem for the catechisms, which were for teaching than for the creeds and dogmatics, which were quickly swept up in a sea of polemic. Whether read as evidence in logical argumentation or aesthetic argumentation, biblical citations in these forms of the loci took a leading place within efforts to stabilize, destabilize, and re-stabilize points of view, highest-reliables, and above all, dogmatic assertions.

If, for example, one wanted to show that the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith was missing an important element (e.g., human striving toward God), one might cite a passage from James (e.g., “faith without works is dead”). One might assert that this passage was missing from the group of passages that the dogmatic statement held together… or assert that this passage, like Romans 1, is (just as Luther claimed) part of Scripture, a book that has the highest authority. One might say that Luther overlooked (cherry-picked) important evidence… or that the way he put together parts under a whole was misleading. In short, in conversations with Lutherans and others who recognized Scripture as the highest or only authority, one could cite Scripture to show the reliability of a dogma… or to show that the dogma was not reliable—to destabilize it.

Biblical Citations in 17th-Century Loci Traditions

Though the ambiguity about what sort(s) of argumentation biblical citations supported arguably remained—even if sometimes below the surface—a feature of the genre, by the end of the sixteenth-century, biblical citations pointed to a single set of clearly defined verbal units—a set recognized as far away as European explorers, travelers, and colonists could sail.

Robert Estienne divided Scripture into what Weaver aptly calls “units of discourse,” for, like the chapter divisions and subdivisions early Lutherans used, they do not cleanly map onto to the grammatical thought-wholes with which later modern and contemporary readers were and are most comfortable: sentences and paragraphs. Estienne’s divisions became the map of a widespread default principle — if not for dividing Scripture into units, at least for communicating more precisely with others about discrete its parts. Estienne marked each of these bite-sized wholes with a superscript Arabic number, and so birthed what remains a unique system of reference.

Europeans adopted the versification system with remarkable speed. William Weaver summarizes:

Estienne’s verselets first appeared in his 1551, 4th edition of the Greek New Testament. Within the decade, they appeared in French (1552), Italian (1555), Dutch (1556), and English (1557) editions of the New Testament. The verse divisions were taken over (with some variations) by the Calvinist Theodore de Beze in his nine editions of the Greek New Testament that appeared between 1565 and 1604. Estienne first printed an entire Bible with verse divisions in his 1553 French edition. These were soon adopted in English Bibles, including the Geneva Bible in 1560 and the Bishops Bible in 1568. Rome adopted the verse divisions in its authorized Bibles, the 1590 “Sixtine” and the revised 1592 “Clementine” editions of the Vulgate. By the time the King James Version appeared in 1611, the presentation of Scripture divided into numbered verselets, a novelty only sixty years old, was a standard of Bible printing. (Weaver, “The Verse Divisions of the New Testament and the Literary Culture of the Reformation,” 162.)

Missing from Weaver’s account (and several others’) are the German translations, which appeared in a Heidelberg edition of Luther’s Bible in 1568, and in a more widely circulated version of 1582. (See Eberhard Nestle, “Die Erste Lutherbibel Mit Verzählung,” Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen 20 (1903).)

Versification, Precise Citation, and Scripture as a Shared ‘Object’

The versification of Scripture perhaps supported the development of the notion (anachronistically implicit in Luther’s doctrine of the perspicuity) that Scripture was a shared “object” while simultaneously helping to subtly frame biblical interpretation and biblical argumentation as an exercise in part-whole relations. If the relations between parts of Scripture and Scripture as a whole (as in translation and annotation) and between parts of Scripture and confessional summaries or topics were obscured in ‘interpretive warfare’, the citations Estienne’s versification system obscured (by determining in advance whole units of discourse) and enabled clearer communication about these relations on the one hand… and enabled, on the other, a kind of precision in exegetical argumentation best suited to a modern sort of intellectual battle.

The sameness built into Bibles provided the illusion of a common ground for conflicts that sometimes had less to do with differences about interpretive technique or biblical authority than with the significance of Scripture in light of deeply held convictions about the shape of the divine order. The near ‘universal’ imposition of the series arguably made it seem, in other words, as if the comparisons the series made possible were made possible by a shared but never experienced common ‘object’ or ‘source’, and thus that the relations amongst verses within that common object or source were also (not merely could also be) shared via communication (invisibly revealed), but never experienced.

Estienne’s versification system made possible a ‘universally’ (Europe and colonies-wide) shared system of complete, precise citation, which would become the ideal and the model for academic citation more generally. It enabled further democratization of biblical document study (more participants in battle) and enabled a kind of precision in exegetical argumentation (which was frequently polemical) much better suited to modern intellectual battles in which documentation was the preferred weapon.

Biblical citations in later modern Lutheran loci traditions took cues from a host of novel modes of inquiry in which developed what would become a model for academic citation as we know it. Some proponents of these new modes of inquiry arguably linked, much as Luther had, allegedly self-authenticating highest-reliables with a distinctive, more or less fixed, both descriptive and normative notion about how the parts (of Scripture or nature or human artifice, etc.) of a whole are ordered in relation to one another. And some even tied this—again, as Luther had—to reciprocally reinforcing normative reading practices and notions about human limits and what can be done to overcome them (i.e., what must be done to claim that x is reliable).

This ambiguity about what sort of argumentation (e.g., what I’ve called logical or aesthetic) citations support some claim, we shall see, was not limited to the loci or biblical-polemical genres, but found its way into academic polemic… even if at times it went largely unnoticed. “X is reliable: here is the evidence,” and “X is reliable: it holds m, p, q together,” and “X is reliable, for it is undeniably true when one holds m, p, q together,” etc., in other words, perhaps continued to operate simultaneously, even as polemicists insisted more and more that complete, precise citations of evidence be given for any claim.

But we can take this up next time, as we descend toward the runway that is biblical & extra-biblical citation in Storr’s 1793 Dogmatics