Every year when the Christmas season rolls around, pulpits and televisions recite as though under orders Matthew 2 in all its glory. Anyone strolling the streets will find Nativity scenes full of donkeys, mangers, stables, shepherds, wise men, and often a bright star. The star itself is a staple, but rarely do the faithful stop and consider the oddity of its place in the beloved story. In Matthew 2:2, the wise men claim of the newborn king, “we have seen his star at its rising and have come to worship him.” These astrologers from the East are themselves also a famous part of the story, but the implications of their role usually escape notice. Do not the Scriptures condemn astrology? Is it not foolish at best or demonic at worst to attempt to read the heavens for signs? That these wise men followed a star to the birth of Christ should be shocking under the common terms of modern theology and science.
Of course, whenever moderns cannot account for something in the Scriptures, it can be worthwhile to ask what people though before the modern era. From a broadly Reformed Protestant, it can also make sense to ask specifically what the first Reformers thought. This paper, then, will briefly analyze and summarize the approaches of a three early Protestant sources to the question of Matthew 2:2, specifically Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Lightfoot. What shall emerge from this brief survey is a very different picture than that with which many contemporary Christians operate, one with more ancient roots and thus quite possibly closer to what the biblical authors themselves intended. First to consider will be Luther.
Many have recognized Luther as the most medieval of the Reformers, and this is not particularly surprising given that he is the first in the Reformation proper. Luther’s medieval mindset becomes vividly apparent in one of his sermons on Matthew 2.1
Of the three writers under consideration in this paper, Luther had by far the most to say about the subject of the Magi and their craft. With an eye to pastoral concerns, he discussed along the way magic, its composition in both natural forces and demonic ones, philosophy, his hatred of Aristotle, and astrology itself. The key section is where he responded to the possible conclusion from the text that men ought to teach and learn astrology. He begins:
Keep to the example and learn as these wise men learned from the star, and then you will do right and not fall into error, for there is no doubt about it that the sun, moon and stars were created to be signs and to serve the earth with their light, as Moses says, Gen. 1:14.2
So the first point of Luther’s understanding is that the heavens do tell signs and that the wise men did rightly use them. For the most part, however, the signs he conceded were fairly mundane. The sun marks the beginning of the day or the proper season for harvest. However, he also acknowledged more spectacular examples, such as an eclipse or a comet portending disaster.3
From there he moved to ward off more superstitious uses, such as predicting personal destinies by birth stars. Indeed, he claimed that the stars “have no power over any human being” and called astrology thus “tomfoolery.”4
He did not attempt to explain how the Magi specifically knew of a great king in Judah. Of this he claimed ignorance, but only pointed out that the births of many great leaders in history have been documented as preceded by heavenly signs. He also suggested that perhaps they only knew the meaning of the star by divine revelation.
Luther’s view, then, seems to allow that the heavens can in some way image impending events on earth as a part of God’s natural design, but also warns that the practice of astrology is generally full of nonsense, superstition, and demonic influence. There may be a legitimate science, to use the later term, of heavenly semiotics. Nonetheless most people should content themselves with the basics of day and night and seasons. This is a deeply premodern perspective, and in many ways it seems similar to what the biblical authors often intimate about the skies. Next, then, is Calvin.
What did Calvin make of the star of Jesus’ birth? To ask this of him is particularly interesting, inasmuch as he is generally known for his vigorous opposition to all possible forms of idolatry. If anyone were expected to condemn all forms of astrology, Calvin would be a predictable candidate. His view on the matter can be found in his commentary on the harmonized Gospels.5
Unlike Luther’s long coverage in sermon, Calvin’s exposition of the relevant portion of Matthew 2:2 is quite short. In the first portion, he discussed whether the star was a natural, original star or a special creation. He judged from the events of the narrative that a natural star was quite unlikely and that its properties make more sense as an exceptional light. Rather than a star per se, Calvin suggested that it was something which “resembled a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air.”6 This naturally has at least some relevance to the astrological question, so he proceeded:
This almost decides likewise the second question: for since astrology is undoubtedly confined within the limits of nature, its guidance alone could not have conducted the Magi to Christ; so that they must have been aided by a secret revelation of the Spirit. I do not go so far as to say, that they derived no assistance whatever from the art: but I affirm, that this would have been of no practical advantage, if they had not been aided by a new and extraordinary revelation.7
There are a few noteworthy features of this exposition. First, Calvin qualified the limits of astrology as those of nature, implying that those limits do in fact define a legitimate domain for the discipline. However, the Incarnation of the Son of God is not merely natural. Therefore, he reasoned, astrology alone could not have lead the Magi to Christ. This is a questionable inference in some respects (e.g. perhaps even a “natural” association of stars with great kings could have led them), but it is more interesting how he went on from there. He was not willing to go so far as to say that the Magi received no assistance from their astrological art. This curiously positions any complete denial of astrology as a position too far from plausibility. To Calvin, it would be an unnecessary extreme to deny any role of plain astrological study in the Magi’s appearance. This again indicates a belief that the sky may in fact contain signs of earthly events. Even so, Calvin gave no simple condonation to the whole of astrology. Elsewhere he, like Luther, ridiculed and harshly condemned the view that the heavens control or signify the destinies of individual men at their birth.8 Indeed, the positions of Calvin and Luther look, in the end, quite similar. Therefore Lightfoot shall be the next subject.
Lightfoot, the latest of the sources in this paper, also had the least to say about the subject. Both the length and the content itself seem to indicate the transition out of the more medieval worldview with which Calvin and Luther operated. In his commentary on the harmonized Gospels, he wrote the following on the matter:
μάγοι in Scripture is always taken in the worst sense for men practicing Magical and unlawful Arts; and if it be to be understood so in this place, it magnifieth the power and grace of Christ the more…They seeing a new and uncouth Star in the Heavens, (it may be the light that shone about Bethlehem-Shepherds seemed to them at distance a new strange Star hanging over Judea) are informed by God two years after what it signified; and are wrought upon by his Spirit to come and homage Christ whom it pointed out.9
Immediately this view contrasts somewhat with Luther’s. Luther conceded the Magi may have simply been skilled true readers of whatever knowledge may be genuinely found in the heavens; Lightfoot assumed the worst sense of forbidden magic. His account of how the Magi actually came to Bethlehem has no place at all for genuine learning from the skies. He instead identified the star with the glory of the angels who appeared to the shepherds, something which the Magi could have seen from their great distance and understood as a “new and uncouth Star.”10 Presumably he understood that they could make nothing of this until two years later, and then God revealed to them what it meant.
In this account, there seems to be no place at all for a natural order of celestial signs. Lightfoot’s account does not appear to consider any possibility that the Magi had any source even of temporal knowledge from the skies. The opinion seems perfectly at home in a modern worldview, in which perhaps God might make exceptional displays of His own, but there is otherwise no apparent connection between the events of the heavens and the earth. Some resemblance to Calvin’s and Luther’s views do remain, however. They all agree that divine revelation was either necessary or plausible to explain the final result of the Magis’ appearance, and they likewise speak in condemnatory terms about the broader field of astrology as wicked or foolish.
Having surveyed these three early Protestant writers on the top of Matthew 2:2, it remains only to summarize the results. Both Luther and Calvin apparently agreed that, in some ways and to some extent, events in the skies may symbolize happenings on earth. Indeed, Luther took it for granted that some celestial events, such as eclipses and comets, are obviously meaningful. Therefore both of these writers conceded some possible contribution of astrological study to the coming of the Magi. Nonetheless, they and Lightfoot all strongly agreed that the larger field of astrology is quite unprofitable, whether as foolishness or diabolical ensnarement, especially where the prediction or regulation of individual fortunes is involved. Even if the heavens forewarn of great earthly events, the stars do not control men or tell anything about their character. They all likewise agreed that the star over Bethlehem was most likely no ordinary star, but a great and special sign. So even the normal patterns of astrology could not have quite applied. Luther suggested, and Calvin and Lightfoot certainly believed, that divine revelation was also needed to draw the Magi to the worship of newborn King.
The resulting perspective is intriguing for the modern Bible reader. If he is to listen to these commentators, he would hear that Matthew 2:2 gives no credence to the general field of astrology with its personal signs and horoscopes, with its pretensions to understand, predict, or control the lives of men. Yet he would also be given pause, needing to ask how it is that men so thoroughly opposed to superstition and idolatry as Calvin and Luther could have taken it for granted that there is at least some element to the study of the stars that may pertain truly to earthly events. Resonances with other parts of Scripture may come to mind, such as the many prophetic references to disturbances of the sun, the moon, and the stars. If nothing else, reading the Christmas story will always have a slightly different flavor, the hint of mystery and a forgotten view of God’s world.
Calvin, John. “A Warning Against Judicial Astrology.” Translated by Mary Potter. Calvin Theological Journal 18 (1983): 157–89.
―――. Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke. Translated by John Owen. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d. https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom31/calcom31.ix.xix.html.
Lightfoot, John, George Bright, and John Strype. The Works of the Reverend and Learned John Lightfoot, D.D. London : Printed by W. R. for Robert Scot [et al.], 1684. http://archive.org/details/worrever01ligh.
Martin, Luther. The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 3. The Complete Works of Martin Luther. Delmarva Publications, Inc., 2000.
 Luther Martin, The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 3, The Complete Works of Martin Luther (Delmarva Publications, Inc., 2000), Matt. 2:1-12.
 John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, trans. John Owen, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), Matt. 2:1-6, https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom31/calcom31.ix.xix.html.
 Ibid, italics original.
 See John Calvin, “A Warning Against Judicial Astrology,” trans. Mary Potter, Calvin Theological Journal 18 (1983): 157–89.
 John Lightfoot, George Bright, and John Strype, The Works of the Reverend and Learned John Lightfoot, D.D. (London : Printed by W. R. for Robert Scot [et al.], 1684), 205, http://archive.org/details/worrever01ligh.