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A Response to Wayne M. Martin’s “The Judgment of Adam” and the Symbolism of the Snake

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A Response to Wayne M. Martin’s “The Judgment of Adam.”

By Dr. Peter D.S. Krey

A Preface addressed to Prof. Martin:

Thank you for leading me to your article, “The Judgment of Adam[1] after I responded to your study of “Hegel’s Bad Infinity.” Your thorough analysis of Lucas Cranach’s “Adam and Eve” painting in this study helped me see that there is a whole literacy involved in “reading” a painting that I did not know about. Lucas Cranach seemed to be presenting Luther’s theology through the medium of paint. The painting you analyzed was his Courtault picture of Adam and Eve of 1526.[2] In it all the layers of the interpretation of the snake 1) as the bronze serpent lifted onto a pole by Moses and 2) here painted on the tree with Adam and Eve and 3) as the snake that Cranach used for his signature can be reflected upon. Using the snake in his signature, Cranach following Martin Luther’s lead, probably wanted to imply that his painting like images and art per se were not evil, but just good or evil depending on their use or abuse, – the latter case if worshiped.[3] Islam strictly avoids all images. More relevantly for this study, at the time of the Reformation iconoclasm was in full swing, where Zwingli and Calvin white-washed the walls of their churches and proscribed not only art, but even music, both of which Luther championed.

When I first read the Genesis Lectures about how Luther called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil a church, it seemed bazaar to me. Now I realize that it was under trees that the ancients worshiped and they even sometimes worshiped the trees themselves – was it Boniface (or Winfrid?) who chopped down the sacred Oak tree of Thor? He did it to destroy a false ultimate. And in the book of Genesis, God appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.[4] That these trees are mentioned with the theophany seems significant. They may also have been a place of worship.

According to Cranach’s painting and of course the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, shame and consciousness were awakened in humanity there so like a lion, we could no longer cruelly eat the warm meat of an animal that had not yet even died. While nature is red in tooth and claw, we received a conscience and we could feel shame. We could do right and wrong. We became aware that there was such a thing as good and evil. The Garden of Eden story can be related to evolution in the sense that we became human by dint of God, the consciousness of the universe, raising us up.

I also thank you for getting to the basis of Luther’s anthropology by declaring that we are in a helpless estate – Luther calls it being passive before God. Finding ourselves quite a way “east of Eden” and then when we are completely honest, we have to admit that we face evil choices whichever way we turn unless the Holy Spirit helps us live out of a new birth and a new strength from God’s consciousness on high. Perhaps the latter could be opposed to what you call our ontological self-consciousness: Adam knowing himself just enough to recognize Eve as his mate, but not yet really having human consciousness and conscience?

To admit that we face evil choices whichever way we turn, I’m thinking about our negative legacy here in the USA: the genocide of the Native Americans that continues in the reservations; the hangover from slavery and colonialism, where so much of our high standard of living has been at the expense of the oppressed. We never gave the slaves forty acres and a mule and have attempted to short change them at every turn for the unfair advantage of us Whites ever since, now as we realize we are in a new version of a Jim Crow era. Where is our protest against these injustices?

Thank you so much for writing that study and getting me to read it.

Part II: Now I am taking one more step in thinking about the symbolism that Wayne Martin discovers in Cranach’s painting:

Through his painting Lucas Cranach is superimposing the later story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness[5] upon the snake in the sacred tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Paradise of the Garden of Eden. The former serpent, perhaps like a scapegoat absorbed all the evil venom of the people bitten by snakes, allowing them to be saved; the latter snake beguiles Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, making her become conscious and ashamed of being naked.

The symbolism of the snake or serpent has so many phenomenological layers, because one can take the next step into the New Testament as well: because Jesus also refers to his crucifixion with the same symbol: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[6] And thus the Lenten prayer:

Who by the tree of the cross gave salvation to all humankind, so that where death arose, life might rise up again, and that he (the snake) that once overcame by a tree, might also by a tree (the cross) be overcome, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Now we will not go even further and relate the serpent, Tiamat, the nature god of the sea, the personified ocean, representing chaos or Tohu va Bohu in Hebrew. Nor will we delve into the ubiquitous medical symbol, where two snakes are depicted climbing up a pole. Nor will we relate how a stick can be used to render a snake more harmless or the strange fact that poisonous snakes are milked of their venom to be used in vaccinations against snake bite.)

Lucas Cranach himself additionally, uses a winged snake with a crown, also looking like the primordial dragon, for his painting signatures. In this 1526 Courtault painting of Adam and Eve, he places his signature right onto the trunk of the sacred tree of the knowledge of good and evil.[7]

As already mentioned, Luther believed that that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the place of worship in the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit brought about the Fall of creation. Perhaps we could identify the cross of Jesus Christ as the Tree of Life, which brings about our human ascent and that of all creation, so that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. We may not be able to experience the feature presentation here on earth, but we can get the previews of coming attractions. We can go in reverse as well and say the same about hell.

Painting as an art deals with pictures and images and can be enhanced into sculpture so that churches are filled with statues and paintings. In Cranach and Luther’s time an iconoclastic movement was in full swing. Image makers had become image breakers. Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva emptied their churches of all the images and paintings, white-washing the walls of their churches. They did not even permit music, except perhaps, for intoning a psalm. On the other hand, Luther argued that Moses lifted up that bronze serpent in the wilderness, so an image was not good or evil per se, it all depended on its use or abuse. Thus to worship an image makes a person guilty of having a false ultimate and being idolatrous, but when someone like Cranach expresses Luther’s theology in paint, so that people can “read” his painting, then it represents no abuse, but a perfectly appropriate use of art. Wayne Martin asserts the latter conviction to be the most likely reason Cranach, Luther’s close friend, used the winged snake as his signature.

From the cross of Christ, absorbing all the sin of the world and becoming the scapegoat for the forgiveness of all our sin and evil, Christ was like that serpent raised up on the pole by Moses in the desert; and like that serpent in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, people trying to be like God, made all things ambiguous, now vulnerable and at the mercy of their use or abuse, able to be used for good or evil. But in the eating of the forbidden fruit consciousness was won as conscience, so that Adam and Eve realized that they were naked and became ashamed; but they became aware as well that they would one day die. After Eve eats the apple, the animals on her side of the painting also awake and the lion gets ready to pounce on the doe and take that poor creature out of Paradise. Thus consciousness was won, but Paradise was lost. They experienced how the earth also could be cursed and not yield its fruit, even with hard labor and the sweat of their brows. But Christ transformed that curse into a blessing on the tree of the cross, when he was lifted up like that serpent in the wilderness, drawing all of humankind heavenward too God:

“For when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”[8]

These are some of the symbolic layers of interpretation:

  1. Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness to save the snake-bitten people
  2. Christ describing his crucifixion by means of the Moses story
  3. Luther seeing Moses’ action as an affirmation of painting, sculpture, music and all the arts, because images are not evil per se, but good or evil in their use or abuse. Images cannot be done without in thought, language, and culture.
  4. Cranach superimposing the Moses story upon the story of the Fall. He depicts the sacred tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden as a snake on a pole once more, where consciousness and conscience are gained but paradise is lost.
  5. Cranach uses the image of a snake in his own painting signatures, even placing that signature on the trunk of the sacred tree affirming his vocation as an artist. But, of course, when culture represents the worship of elite secular people, it is an abuse of art. When art expresses the human condition before God, places a mirror before people, in which they can see themselves in, (like the deer in the painting seeing its reflection in the pond from which it drinks) generating consciousness and conscience for good and evil, right and wrong. Art can even be the painting the Gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified showing the way of salvation.


[1] Should you want to read Wayne M. Martin’s Study of Cranach’s painting, click on “Judgment of Adam”

[2] To view and study Cranach’s painting of Adam and Eve with a detail feature tool for the purposes of comparison, click on “Adam and Eve”: by Lucas Cranach

[3] Pope Gregory I (590-604) noted that “the illiterate could contemplate in the lines of a picture what they could not learn by means of the written word.” In a sense, Wayne Martin contemplates Cranach’s painting and in its lines reads Luther’s theology.

[4] Gen 18:1.

[5] Numbers 21:4-9.

[6] John 3:15.

[7] See a detail of his signature with the tool provided: Cranach’s signature

[8] John 12:32.


A Response to Wayne M. Martin’s In Defense of a Bad Infinity (2007)

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Wayne M. Martin’s essay, In Defense of a Bad Infinity: A Fichtean Response to Hegel’s Differenzschrift. To see his essay in the Internet:

A response by Peter D.S. Krey

Again, I would argue that Hegel is a Lutheran philosopher and he gets a good deal of his philosophical inspiration from Luther’s theology. For example, one could interpret Luther’s justification by faith experience in terms of the bad and true infinities: locked into one’s own finite effort and strength one cannot fulfill what the infinite God demands. Thus to bring Aristotle’s critique of Zeno to bear: finite moments cannot traverse the infinite moments of infinity. But those that are infinite can traverse the moments of infinity. So the infinite effort and strength of God can fulfill God’s commands in Luther’s justification by faith experience. The passive finite understood in a Pauline sense becomes filled with infinite grace in Luther’s divine linguistic event. His experience needs to be understood in the contours of a language event, because he was struggling to understand the Pauline Passage, Romans 1:17:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Hegel thought that an infinite limited by the finite was a bad infinite. (I will go along with Wayne Martin and not call it a spurious infinite which would mean that a bad infinite was no infinite at all.) When the Holy and Absolute Infinite enters the finite and fills it, we have the fulfillment of the infinite demands, by the infinite traversing the infinite.

In Luther’s eighth point of his “Freedom of a Christian” he writes:

The commands teach and prescribe for us many good works. Merely prescribing them, however, does not make them happen. Laws point the way, but they do not help; they teach us what we ought to do, but they do not give us the strength to do it. They are set up only so that persons become aware of their incapacity for good and learn to despair in themselves. That is why they are called “old” testament and why they belong in the Old Testament.[1]

Luther then shows in point 9 how faith in Christ, how the Infinite accomplishes what the finite or even a bad infinite could not do:

Believe and you have it; don’t believe and you won’t have it.[2] For what is impossible for you through all the works of the commandments, which are so many and are of no use anyway, is quickly and easily done by faith. For I have placed all things in a compact form inside faith, so that whoever has faith has all things and whoever does not have faith has nothing. In such a way the promises of God provide what the commandments require and accomplish what the commandments demand, so that everything belongs to God, command and fulfillment. God alone commands and God alone fulfills. Therefore, the promises of God are the word of the “new” testament and belong in the New Testament.[3]

Faith is the way the infinite (God) enters and fulfills the finite such that the promises of God through their true infinity can fulfill the infinite requirements and demands of the law, because “everything belongs to God, command and fulfillment,” meaning that the infinite is at work though the finite.

Another way to say it: the finite through faith receives the power to grasp and contain the infinite. This is the way William Blake describes it in his famous poem, “To See the World”:

See a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.[4]

Thus justification by faith is the way infinite grace transforms the person, who no longer limits the infinite. In the Incarnation, God became a human being, as the Word became flesh. Mary can be beheld as the Mother of God, the Theotokos. The infinite body and blood of Christ is in the Eucharistic bread and wine. And while the finite “I” of Fichte cannot live the infinite Christ, the infinite Christ comes and enters and lives the life of the believer. Thus Paul can write, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” I first could not see how Wayne Martin could resolve the Pauline infinite demands with the teaching of kenosis or the emptying out of a person. But perhaps he means that the finite ego must become nothing so that the Infinite can completely enter the finite person.

Taking the side of Fichte and the bad infinite’s ideals, Wayne Martin keeps looking at our human condition from a human and finite point of view. Reinhold Niebuhr also spoke of our being responsible for ever increasing approximations of justice. Just because a person cannot do everything is not an excuse to do nothing. A person remains responsibility for the little something that the person can do. The bad infinity is like the perfect becoming the enemy of the thing that is possible.

I wonder what made the early Greek Philosophers, Aristotle as well as the atomists look askance at the infinite regression and progression. It does not lead to nothingness, but perhaps it defines the edges of the finite, beyond which the Creator God, the Absolute Infinite, as consciousness and word, is out there coming to us in continuous creation, incarnation, and the use of the sacraments.

Thus what I am arguing for is Hegel’s true infinity, in terms of being filled by the Holy Spirit or concretely, by the Word of God, Christ, so the dynamic of the Infinite accomplishes untold wonders amongst us finite being. From the view point of the ideals of the bad infinite, we are locked into the incremental approximations, but they also will not be possible without the power of the True Infinity giving us those breakthroughs.


[1] Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 73.

[2] Glaubstu so hastu; glaubstu nit, so hastu nit. (In Luther’s German)

[3] Ibid., page 74.

[4] William Blake, Fragments from “Auguries of Innocence.”

Becoming the Friends of God, Sixth Sunday of Easter May 10th 2015 Christ Lutheran Church, El Cerrito, CA

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Sixth Sunday of Easter May 10th 2015 Christ Lutheran Church

Acts 10:44-48 Psalm 98 1 John 5:1-6 John 15:9-17

Becoming the Friends of God

Well, today, now-a-days, we have to be open to the way the world changes. I used to always speak about muddling through. All the Internet technology, for example: who can follow Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Snapchat, Linkedin, etc. But then in another case, while we pray to “Our Father,” one can sometimes hear a pastor refer to God as “she.” We have a new song after communion, which I remember with many masculine pronouns, six in all:

Thank the Lord and sing his praise; / tell everyone what he has done. / Let everyone who seeks the Lord / rejoice and proudly call his name. / He recalls his promises, and leads his people forth in joy / with shouts of thanksgiving. Alleluia, alleluia.[1]

The new translation that we are singing today takes all those masculine pronouns out:

Thankful hearts and voices raise; / tell ev’ryone what God has done. / Let ev’ryone who seeks the Lord / rejoice and bear the name of Christ. / Send us with your promises / and lead your people forth in joy / with shouts of thanksgiving. Alleluia, alleluia.[2]

And of course we now understand that using God to support Patriarchy is not helpful. My sisters always used to say, “It’s a man’s world” and we should try to overcome the subjugation of women, because all over the world it also leads to violence against them. So we have to struggle with these changes and follow after to where God is leading us.

So too, I believe fathers should become more mothering and mothers could become more fathering. It’s like realizing that God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ often compares God’s very self to a mother hen gathering us all up like little chicks under her protective wings. Have you ever seen a little chick pop out from under the wing of a mother hen and look around?

I don’t know what a mother hen is called in English. We used to call them Glucken, which is the German name for it. When a hen gets mothering in its head, it begins to go “gluck, gluck” and then insists on sitting on eggs to hatch them. They go “gluck, gluck,” meaning “come to me,” “gluck, gluck” and that way they bring and keep all their chicks around them until they grow up. It was a terrible trick to play on a poor hen, when you put duck eggs under her. They would go down to the brook together and the ducklings would jump into the water and the mother hen would become all discombobulated, be completely beside herself at the edge of the water.

I believe that there is such a deep natural love in mothering, that God the father also championed God’s love as that of a mother. But Jesus also uses the same words when he weeps and laments over Jerusalem: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)

So we have the mothering Father and Son. Of course, the Holy Spirit comes like a nurturing mother to us as well. When we walk and faint she carries us – so that she gives birth to all God’s promises and purposes in us, so that we are carried in love, grace, hope, and the faith that comes down from above.

We have to face this world in order to overcome it. Like the great song says:

We shall overcome, – We shall overcome, –  We shall overcome some day, –

Oh, Deep in my heart. I do believe. We shall overcome some day.”[3]

We have to understand what being born from this mothering God helps us overcome. What is it that our faith gives us the victory over? It is the disconnect, the alienation from God the source of our strength and being.

I think the old Negro spiritual says it well:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child!

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child!

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child!

A long way from home, a long way from home.

That is quite a lament. Some men are not good fathers. Some women are not good mothers. And what to do? A verse in the Bible tells us: “God gives the barren woman a home making her the happy mother of a house-full of children”[4] and in Isaiah, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.”[5] So a mother can experience so much pressure from her career that the child needs to find another mothering person. Mostly that has been the problem with fathers, but it is now also one that mothers make children experience.

That is one issue, but not the most negative. Isaiah asks, “Can a woman forget her nursing child at her breast or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”[6] and again a Psalm: “Even if my mother and father forsake me; the Lord will take me up!”[7] That’s God’s promise. In the realities of this world, however, we have to realize further that some mothers are abusive, some are hooked on drugs, some are narcissistic – all caught up in themselves and oblivious to the needs of their children, except how their children can help them. But on the other hand, the love of some mothers is a pure example of God’s love.

Now if I were to say, “Anyone here who has not had a mother, please stand up!” Who could stand? We have all had one or we would not be here. But every mother is only human, just like every father; and later in life, we have to come to terms with the limits to which they could bring us up. Then the way of maturity is to forgive them and let God bring you up farther – by providing you with the saints, who have matured farther in Christ and can bring you up to the extent of their maturity. Then you just have to turn to God, who in Jesus Christ, promotes you from a servant to a friend, so that you are not only into doing and serving, but also into being and becoming who you really are, a friend, a friend of Jesus, a friend of God. In that maturity, we become real women, real men, real persons. For the friends of God are like the sun when she rises in all its splendor. That is from the Book of Judges.[8]

And in the mothering of the Holy Spirit, there will no longer be the lost, those who feel like motherless children. In the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation among the Lakotas, there is an epidemic of suicides, some as young as 14 years of age, whose parents are alcoholic and drug addicted and they experience abuse all around.[9] They illustrate the story of our negative legacy against Native Americans, whom we’ve driven onto barren reservations.

Do you know the children’s book, “Are you my Mother?” Well, we have found that one, our friend, our mother, our father, in our wonderful God, who loves us and gives us the upbringing that is out of this world, so beautiful, our S-O-N-rise, our daughter-rise, so that in the breaking of a new day, we see the many who are lost in this sorry world, who await salvation from the children of God, from the friends of God. Amen.


[1] Lutheran Book of Worship, (Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), page 115.

[2] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Augsburg/ Fortress, 2006), hymn No. 207.

[3] With the passing of one of the Civil Rights song writers, Guy Carawan, who along with Pete Seeger, and others rewrote and introduced this song into the movement, it was featured in the New York Times, Friday May 8, 2015, page B14.

[4] Cf. Psalm 113:9.

[5] Isaiah 54:1.

[6] Isaiah 49:15.

[7] Psalm 27:10.

[8] Judges 5:31.

[9] In a letter to the Editor of the New York Times, Ethleen Iron Cloud Two Dogs – Victoria Shorr writes that 20% of the population at Pine Ridge attempt suicide before finishing high school. Concerning this, the poorest county in the United States, in another letter a pediatrician, Ron Schneebaum writes that the life expectancy is an average of 45 years of age and “Home for the once-great Lakota Nation stretched from the Black hills through the Great Plains. Our treaties forced them into the most barren, windswept and unproductive parcel, while prejudice reigns in the surrounding cities and towns.” New York Times, Monday, May 11, 2015, Editorial page A18.

Written by peterkrey

May 11, 2015 at 11:38 am

Posted in Selected Sermons