Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
Lessons from Luther on the Inerrancy of
by John Warwick Montgomery
A most dangerous method of resolving
arguments is the appeal to human authority. A disagrees With B; A Cites great
man C in his behalf; B Claims that great man D supports his view; and the
discussion degenerates into an attempt on the part of A to show that his
authority is superior to B's, While B endeavors to demonstrate the superiority
of his authority. In the course of such discussions the protagonists generally
forget the real point at issue, namely, the relative value of the evidence
marshalled by the authorities appealed to. In the final analysis, it is not the
judgment of the alleged authority that determines the question, but the value
of his evidence. Why? because, God excepted, authorities are like the rest of
us: they can make mistakes.1
On the vital question of the extent of biblical reliability, therefore, we must be particularly careful not to engage in a "can-you-top-this" appeal to theologians and church leaders through the centuries, as if their judgments would ipso facto arbitrate the question. Ultimately, the issue of scriptural inerrancy can be settled only by the evidence to Which all authorities on the subject must themselves necessarily appeal: the claims made by the God of Scripture, through prophets, apostles, and His incarnate Son, concerning the Bible's entire truthfulness.
But, having accepted this important caveat, we must not go to the opposite extreme and neglect the judgments of history's greats as to the reliability of Scripture. It is surely of more than routine significance that belief in the unqualified accuracy of Holy Writ conditioned the thinking of nearly all influential western minds from the beginning of the Christian era to the rise of modern secularism in the 18th century. Conceivably - though the notion hardly accords with the arrogance of modernity - Augustine, Aquinas, Michelangelo, Luther. Calvin, Pascal, Bach, Kepler, Wesley, and a host of others too numerous to mention may have had better reason to hold to Scriptural authority than 20th century man has to reject it.
Were we allowed to pose the question as to the Bible's inerrancy to but a single figure in western history outside of the scriptural writers themselves, the choice of Luther would be entirely natural. Robert Southey, poet laureate of England, did not hesitate to formulate a new beatitude: 'Blessed by the day of Martin Luther's birth! It should be a festival only second to that of the nativity of Jesus Christ." 2 Perhaps this strikes us as excessive, but we can hardly gainsay Carlyle's parallel historical judgment:
The Diet of Worms, Luther's appearance there on the 17th of April, 1521, may be considered as the greatest scene in modern European history; the point, in-deed, from which the whole subsequent history of civilization takes its rise. The world's pomp and power sit there, on this hand; on that, stands up for God's truth one man, the poor miner Hans Luther's son. Our petition - the petition of the whole world to him was: "Free us; it rests with thee; desert us not." Luther did not desert us. It is, as we say, the greatest moment in the modern history of men - English Puritanism, England and its Parliaments, America's vast work these two centuries; French Revolution; Europe and its work everywhere at present - the germ of it all lay there. Had Luther in that moment done other, it had all been otherwise .3
No individual in the entire history of the
church has had the revolutionary impact upon its development that Luther
exercised: and all branches of Protestantism-the third great division of the
Church Militant - stand equally and directly in his debt. Ought not such a
man's attitude to biblical authority have more than passing interest to
Christians today who are concerned with the same problem?
It is the thesis of this essay that we have much to learn, not only positively but also negatively, from Luther's attitude to the Bible. Even his misconceptions were those of a great man, and therefore instructive. Though he did not possess the systematic spirit of a philosopher, he had the scholar's mind and the teacher's heart. 4 His vast literary legacy thus provides us with a very full picture as to how he regarded the Holy Scriptures and expected his students and readers to view them. Let us take our place, then, in Luther's classroom, and - retaining our critical faculties to be sure - go to the corpus of his writings5 and to the existential heart of his career to learn his way of approaching Holy Writ. Our specific interest is to determine whether the great Reformer considered the Bible entirely, or only partially, revelatory: did he, or did he not. View it as inerrantly the Word of God?6
Luther on the Trustworthiness of Scripture
To say that the Bible was important to Luther is as informative as to say that mathematics was important to Einstein. Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with the Reformer's work knows that for him the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone were the only true source of true theology and the place where he rediscovered the central teaching of the Christian religion: that a man is saved, not by what he does, but by what God as already done for him in Jesus Christ. A passage such as the following - from one of Luther's sermons on John 3:16 - is entirely typical:
If a different way to heaven existed, no doubt God would have recorded it, but there is no other way. Therefore let us cling to these words, firmly place and rest our hearts upon them, close our eves and say: Although I had the merit of all saints, the holiness and purity of all virgins, and the piety of St. Peter himself, I would still consider my attainment nothing. Rather I must have a different foundation to build on, namely, these words: God has given His Son so that whosoever believes in Him whom the Father's love has sent shall be saved. And you must confidently insist that you will be preserved; and you must boldly take your stand on His words, which no devil, hell, or death can suppress. Therefore no matter what happens, you should say: There is God's Word. This is my rock and anchor. On it I rely, and it remains. Where it remains, I, too, remain; where it goes, I, too, go. The Word must stand, for God cannot lie; and heaven and earth must go to ruins before the most insignificant letter or tittle of His Word remains unfulfilled.7
The great monumental statues of Luther are
indicative of his lifelong attitude toward Scripture. They invariably show the
Reformer holding an open Bible. This is true of the statue by Siemering in
Eisleben, the East German town where the Reformer was born and died
8; Schadow's statue of Luther in the
Wittenberg town square; and - greatest of all, with six replicas in the United
States alone - the statue by Rietschel at Worms, commemorating Luther's stand
before the Emperor. Those who wished to give the Reformer permanent artistic
representation could not think of him apart from the Bible.
But the centrality of Scripture in Luther's experience is conceded even by those who claim that he did not hold to the inerrancy of the Bible. Their argument goes that Luther's strong affirmations of scriptural authority apply to its Christic content, which he experienced so deeply: as for the biblical "details," Luther was impatient with them and ought not to be regarded as a modern plenary inspirationist. This is the position espoused by Kostlin in his standard older treatment of Luther's theology, 9 and more recently by the Dutch Luther-scholar Kooiman in his influential book, Luther and the Bible (warranting the extended review given to it in my Addendum to the present essay). Philip Watson, in his otherwise masterly study, Let God Be God! writes: "For Luther, all authority belongs ultimately to Christ, the Word of God, alone, and even the authority of the Scriptures is secondary and derivative, pertaining to them only inasmuch as they bear witness to Christ and are the vehicle of the Word."10 Neo-orthodox theologian J. K. S. Reid echoes this theme, concluding: "For Luther. Scripture is not the Word, but only witness to the Word, and it is from Him whom it conveys that it derives the authority it enjoys." 11
What can be said in critique of this interpretation of Luther's bibliology? Much, but one point is all that is needed: the view is simply not Luther's. (The story comes to mind of the barrister who was ready to give twelve reasons why his client was not in court; hut after hearing the first - the client had died the night before - the judge did not bother to hear the other eleven.) Listen to some of Luther's representative - and often pungent - affirmations on the extent of inerrant biblical authority: "It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it only appears so to senseless and obstinate hypocrites."12 "Everyone knows that at times they [the fathers] have erred as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they prove their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred." 13 "Mr. Wiseacre is a shameful, disgusting fellow. He plays the master if he can discover that [in our Bible translation] we have perchance missed a word. But who would be so presumptuous as to maintain that he has not erred in any word, as though he were Christ and the Holy Spirit?"14
To argue that Luther located the trustworthiness of Scripture only in its theological or Christic aspect, not in its "details,'' is to misunderstand the very heart of the Reformer's conception of the Bible. It was his belief, from the days of his earliest theologizing, that "the whole Scripture is about Christ alone everywhere." 15 Heinrich Bornkamm confirms this by numerous illustrations in his comprehensive study, Luther and the Old Testament, and, faithful as he wants to be to the Reformer, is troubled by it: "Any research which thinks historically will have to give up, without hesitation or reservation. Luther's scheme of Christological prediction in the Old Testament.''16 But surely if Luther saw Christ everywhere in Scripture, to say that he considered only the Christological material inerrant is to talk nonsense. For Luther, all genuine Scripture was Christic, and all of it was inerrant. Thus comments such as the following abound in his expositions of the Bible:
He who carefully reads and studies the Scriptures will consider nothing so trifling that it does not at least contribute to the improvement of his life and morals, since the Holy Spirit wanted to have it committed to writing.17
We see with what great diligence Moses, or rather the Holy Spirit, describes even the most insignificant acts and sufferings of the patriarchs.18
Who can think this through to his satisfaction? A man [Jonah] lives three days and three nights in solitude, without light, without food. in the midst of the sea, in a fish, and then comes back. I dare say that is what you would call a strange voyage. Indeed, who would believe it and not consider it a lie and a fable if it did not stand recorded in Scripture?19
The two incidents - that not a bone of the Lord Christ was broken and that His side was opened with a spear - do not appear to be of any particular significance. And yet, since the evangelist John adduces clear testimonies of Scripture, proving that Moses (Ex. 12:46) and Zechariah (12:10) predicted these things centuries before, we must confess that they are of great importance, no matter how insignificant the incidents seem to be; for the Holy Spirit does not speak anything to no purpose and in vain.20
Just as Christ is everywhere present in
Scripture, so the Holy Spirit is everywhere its Author. Declares Luther: "In
the article of the [Nicene] Creed which treats of the Holy Spirit we say, ''Who
spake by the prophets.' Thus we ascribe the entire Holy Scripture to the Holy
Spirit."21 "Not only the words which the
Holy Spirit and Scripture use are divine, but also the phrasing."22" The Holy Spirit is not a fool or a
drunkard to express one point, not to say one word, in vain."23
Luther's straightforward belief in Scripture's inerrancy cannot be downplayed as representing only his "callow youth" or - mutatis mutandis - his "senile old age." From his commentaries on the Psalms of 1513-1516, written before the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses ("All the words of God are weighed, counted, and measured") 24 to his final major attack on the papacy in 1545, the year before his death ("Let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture" ), 25 the Reformer's attitude to Scripture remains categorical. He embraces the bibliology of the historic church: "St. Augustine, in a letter to St. Jerome, has put down a fine axiom - that only Holy Scripture is to be considered inerrant."26
How else can we explain Luther's unshakable appeal to Scripture in his debates with Romanists such as Eck, or his reliance on Scripture when, at Worms, the Emperor himself thundered against him and his very life hung in the balance? How else can we make sense of his concentration on the single scriptural phrase. "This is My body," when in dialogue with Zwingli at the Marburg colloquy, and in numerous treatises he wrote on the Real Presence against the sectarians?27 When we stand awestruck in that little cell at the Wartburg castle where Luther strove to translate Scripture so "every ploughboy could hear God's Word" and see there a printed edition of Luther's translation with his painstaking marginal corrections - to bring his rendering into the closest verbal accord with the original - and remember that he kept up this "sweat and toil" all his life to produce editions of his German Bible always better than the earlier ones; can we doubt that he was serious in claiming that only belief in Scripture as entirely Christ's Word sustained him? "No one would have persuaded me by favors or gold to translate a book," he said more than once; "I have done it for the sake of my Lord Christ."28
Thus the classic treatments of Luther's scriptural position - the foremost in English being Reu's Luther and the Scriptures - conclude that he did indeed hold to the inerrancy of the Bible.29 Of considerable significance is the criticism leveled against Luther by the great rationalist historian of dogma Adolf von Harnack: he "confounded the word of God and the Sacred Scriptures" and consequently did not "break the bondage of the letter. Thus it happened that his church arrived at the most stringent doctrine of inspiration." 30 On examining the efforts of theologians of less historical objectivity (such as Seeberg and Emil Brunner) to argue that Luther held a limited inspiration view. Theodore Engelder commented in his indispensable work, Scripture Cannot Be Broken: "It is one of the mysteries of the ages how theologians who claim to be conversant with Luther's writings can give credence to the myth that Luther did not teach Verbal, Plenary Inspiration. . . . [But] the moderns are going to believe the myth till doomsday." 31
A Mysterious Myth Mediated
Why the persistence of this myth in spite of Luther's Scripture-controlled life and biblical affirmations by the thousands?32 In large part, certainly, because of the common human failing we all have to want great men to agree with us. It is most interesting to observe that a Neo-orthodox such as Brunner discovers a Luther who refuses to identify "the letters and words of the Scriptures with the Word of God."33 while a post-Bultmannian advocate of the New Hermeneutic such as Ebeling finds a Luther who devotes himself "to the service of the word-event in such a way that the word becomes truly word."34 How easy it is to meet a Luther who is one's own mirror image! This tendency is especially strong among those whose theological position allows such transformations in principle, that is to say, among liberal theologians who will not accept an objective, determinative standard for their beliefs. but who allow their own experience a constitutive role in the creation of theology. Such theologians are used to bending Scripture to fit their own ideas or the dictates of the Zeitgeist, so performing the same operation on Luther comes easily. To be sure, confessional Christians are also subject to this temptation, but their willingness in principle to subject themselves to biblical teaching whether they like it or not makes them less likely to twist the subsequent history of the church to fit their interests; if they do it, they act against their own principles, which cannot be said for liberals embracing the famous "hermeneutical circle" of Bultmannianism.35 The remedy, however, is the same for all reworkings of history in the interest of the present, whoever performs them: let the primary documents correct modern misinterpretations. Let Luther speak for himself.
But precisely here the knowledgeable opponent of Luther-as-plenary-inspirationist steps forward to plead his case on far better, and apparently primary source, grounds. The argument is that Luther's practice belied his profession where scriptural authority was concerned, for (1) Did the Reformer not handle Scripture with utmost freedom when he translated it? (2) Was he not indifferent to contradictions and errors, showing that his real concern lay only with the central theological teachings of the Bible? and (3) Does not his wholesale rejection of books from the very Canon of Scripture prove beyond question that he could not have taken every word of the Bible as God's Word? A worthwhile point de depart for our response is the caution expressed by Paul Althaus - a caution made even more valuable when we recall that Althaus is embarrassed by Luther's belief in the infallibility of Scripture: "It is not a question of how far Luther may have gone in one-sided or forced interpretations of the Scripture. Neither would we speak about his criticism of the canon. These matters do not alter the fact that Luther - even when he criticized Scripture - never wanted to be anything else than an obedient hearer and student of the Scripture." 36 Precisely. Even if the worst could be shown concerning Luther's treatment of the Bible in practice (which is hardly the case, as we shall immediately see), it would be manifestly unfair to use this to negate his repeated asseverations that he believed in an inerrant Scripture. Where would any of us be, inconsistent sinners that we are, if our practice were allowed to erase our profession? Just as the problem-passages in Scripture must not be allowed to swallow up the Bible's clear testimonies to its entire reliability, but must be handled in light of these testimonies, so Luther's treatment of Scripture must always be viewed from the standpoint of the unequivocal words we have heard him express again and again: "The Scriptures have never erred." With this perspective clearly in mind, let us examine in turn each of the apparent deviations of Luther's scriptural practice from his biblical profession.
(1) Luther As Free Translator. Even in his own time the Reformer was criticized by his theological opponents for rendering Scripture into German too freely. In particular, he was castigated for inserting the word "alone" into his translation of Romans 3:28 ("a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law"). Since the word "alone" does not appear in the original text, his Roman Catholic opposition saw clear evidence of Luther's willingness to modify Scripture to fit his own doctrinal peculiarities and experience, rather than to subject these to God's objective revelation. Modern critics of biblical inerrancy who want Luther on their side find his action in this regard ground for holding that he did not really consider the Bible verbally inspired - else how could he have altered its verbal content?
The answer to this charge is, of course, that it seriously misunderstands the translator's work. No sensible translation can match the original text word for word. Some years ago a nincompoop who had studied biblical languages for a short time at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles embarked upon a project which would finally provide a definitively faithful rendering of the Scriptures into English. The fundamental translating principle was that "each word of the Original is given only one exclusive English rendering." The result - the so-called "Concordant Version" - contains such gems as: "And saying is God. 'Roaming is the water with the roaming, living soul, and the flyer is flying over the earth on the face of the atmosphere of the heavens' " (Gen. 1:20).37 The result is exactly the opposite of what the translator desired: God's Word is hopelessly obscured. Indeed, the more faithful one wants to be to an original text, the more careful he ought to be to render it so idiomatically that it really will convey the full impact and exact signification of the original text in the second language.
As one of the greatest translators the world has ever known he did single-handedly for German-speaking peoples what required an entire corps of King James translators to do for the Anglophonic world - Luther knew full well what was required to produce a great translation. Listen to his own defense of his rendition of Romans 3:28:
I knew very well that the word solurn [solely] does not stand in the Latin and Greek texts, and the papists had no need to teach me that. True it is that these four letters ,s-o-l-a do not stand there. At these letters the asinine dunces stare as a cow stares at a new gate. Yet they do not see that this is the meaning of the text and that the word belongs there if a clear and forceful German translation is desired. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since I had undertaken to speak German in the translation. It is the nature of our German language that when speaking of two things. one of which is granted while the other is denied, we use the word "solely" along with the word "not" or "no." Thus we say: The farmer brings only grain and no money: no, I have no money, but only grain; I have only eaten, not drunk; did you only write, and not read it? There are innumerable cases of this kind in daily use...
We must not, as these jackasses do, ask the Latin letters how to speak German: but we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the market place, how this is done, Their lips we must watch to see how they speak, and then we must translate accordingly. Then they will understand us and notice that we are talking German with them.38
So conscientious was Luther to convey the exact force of each word of the Hebrew and Greek texts that he even visited the butcher to find out the German terms for the parts of animals mentioned in the accounts of Levitical sacrifice. In all this incredible labor it was the Reformer's confidence in the text as God's very Word that impelled him to give it the best German rendering possible. Hear his testimony:
This I can say with a good conscience: I have used the utmost faithfulness and care in this work, and I never had any intention to falsify anything. I have not taken nor sought nor won a single penny for it. Neither do I intend to win honor by it (that God, my Lord, knows); but I did it as a service to the dear Christians and to the honor of One who sits above, who does so much good to me every hour that if I had translated a thousand times as much or as diligently, I still should not deserve to live a single hour or to have a sound eye. All that I am and have is due to His grace and mercy, aye, to His precious blood and bitter sweat. Therefore, God willing, all of it is to be done to His honor, joyfully and sincerely. If scribblers and papal jackasses abuse me, very well, let them do so. But pious Christians and their Lord Christ praise me; and I am too richly repaid if only a single Christian recognizes me as a faithful worker.39
Paradoxically, therefore, Luther's fidelity to the original text of Scripture was the very cause of his seemingly free translations, since only thus could he convey God's Word with the ease with which he sometimes treats the received text indicates not a cavalier attitude toward the Bible, but just the opposite. If the existing texts posed problems, it might be in the interests of God's inerrant Word as originally given to emend the faulty transmitted version to vindicate His trustworthiness. In reviewing a number of typical examples of Luther's textual modifications, Skevington Wood properly observes:
Luther's recognition of biblical inerrancy was confined to the original autographs, and was not tied to the transmitted text. This gave him him the freedom to query the accuracy of the existing readings and on occasion to offer emendations of his own. . But it must be emphasized that Luther allowed himself this freedom only within the limits already prescribed - namely, that infallibility attaches solely to the original autographs of Scripture. He had no thought of doubting the reliability of the underlying text. His aim was to reach it. 40
(2) Luther As Bible Critic. But our
anti-inerrancy Luther interpreters hasten to remind us-the problem does not lie
merely with Luther's translations or his textual conjectures; this is the mere
surface of the iceberg. What about his indifference to contradictions and
errors in the text when he cannot resolve them? and what about his judgments -
one must call them Higher Critical judgments - on the scriptural writings
Köstlin argues that whereas with reference to "saving truth... it is to Luther inconceivable that there should be any contradiction whatsoever, or any error, in the canonical Scriptures whose origin is to be traced to the Holy Spirit," the Reformer attaches "no great importance" to such problems in the biblical "narratives of external historical events." 41 Köstlin's evidence is that in several instances Luther does not provide a resolution of the historical problems he observes in the biblical materials. "Nor did he hesitate, finally, to acknowledge even patent errors." 42 The single passage cited; Stephen's speech in Acts 7, where Luther considers Moses rather than Stephen correct in regard to Abraham's call (v. 2) and notes that Stephen, in relying on the Alexandrian version of the Old Testament, cites an inaccurate statistic (v. 14). To be sure, it is rather odd that Luther, "who here expresses his mind so freely as to the reliability of books and their contents, should, under other circumstances, as especially in the sacramental controversy, cling so stubbornly to the very letter of the Scriptures."43
As even Kostlin must admit, where historical problems exist in the text Luther "labors with conscientious assiduity and acumen to remove the difficulties." 44 It is precisely where he does not succeed in resolving the problem that what Kostlin and others have called his posture of "no great concern" appears. This is not an indifference to the problems (otherwise Luther would hardly have "labored assiduously" to solve them) nor an indifference to alleged errors in Scripture; it is just the opposite: because the Reformer is so convinced that God's Word cannot err or contradict itself, he refuses to be shaken by an unresolved difficulty. His confidence in the entire trustworthiness of the Bible allows him to do what he said he always did in regard to the mystery of the Holy Trinity: like a peasant, he doffed his cap and he went his way.
Klug, in his recent Free University of Amsterdam doctoral dissertation, goes in detail into Luther's style of handling alleged factual errors and contradictions in Scripture. His discussion is worth quoting in extenso particularly since he refers in passing to Luther's supposed acknowledgment of "patent error" in Acts 7.
He [Luther] endorses every honest effort to reconcile problems to the extent possible: "Therefore answers that are given in support of the trustworthiness of Scripture serve a purpose, even though they may not be altogether reliable." His position is the same in connection with Haran's age, if Abraham was the elder brother and married Haran's daughter, Sarah. Luther allows for the possibility that Haran married a widow, and "that the daughter was brought along with the mother." Thus he seeks to squelch what he calls "the foolhardy geniuses who immediately shout that an obvious error has been committed" by averring that finally "it is the Holy Spirit alone who knows and understands all things." With truly wry touch Luther adds: "I wanted to call attention to these facts, . . . in order that no one might get the impression that we either have no knowledge of such matters or have not read about them." Luther likewise dealt with the problem of reconciling Genesis 12:4 with Acts 7:2, the accounts of Moses and Stephen concerning Abram's age at the time of his departure from Haran. He grants that while "each of the two is a trustworthy witness, . . . they do not agree with each other." His suggested solution is to rely on Moses' historical accuracy and to suggest that Stephen is emphasizing not details as much as the fact that God discloses Himself and His mercy through the promised Seed, Christ.
Undoubtedly, this sort of dutiful and childlike surrender when the problem went over his head, appears naive and evasive to much of modern scholarship, which boldly enters in where Luther - and the angels - feared to tread. But Luther resolutely refused to budge one inch from the Holy awe he felt before the Holy Spirit's handiwork in Scripture. This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that as translator over a period of years Luther had to take that Scripture literally apart to get its meaning into his native German. To imply that it contained error was to him not only contrary to what the Scripture itself testified concerning its truthfulness and inerrancy. but, above all, an insolent affront to God who gave it.45
Retorts the liberal Luther-interpreter: And
yet the Reformer's Prefaces to the Bible books he translated display an
attitude which today would be termed Higher Critical! Here Luther was
introducing the common man to the Scripture, and he obviously wanted him to be
concerned, not with traditional questions of the consistency of the text or its
authorship, but solely with the gospel message. 46 Of the Book of Isaiah, Luther writes:
Isaiah "does not treat them [the three subjects of the book: preaching against
sin and proclaiming the coming of Christ's Kingdom: prophesying about Assyria:
and prophesying concerning Babylon] in order and give each of these subjects
its own place and put it into its own chapters and pages; but they are so mixed
up together that much of the first matter is brought in along with the second
and third, and the third subject is discussed somewhat earlier than the second.
But whether this was clone by those who collected and wrote clown the
prophecies (as is thought to have happened with the Psalter), or whether he
himself arranged it this way according as time, occasion, and persons
suggested, and these times and occasions were not always alike, and had no
order - this I do not know." Similarly of Jeremiah; The prophetic subjects he
treats "do not follow one another and are not reported in the hook in the way
that they actually came along. . . . There is often something in a later
chapter which happened before that which is spoken of in an earlier chapter,
and so it seems as though Jeremiah had not composed these books himself, but
that parts of his utterances were taken and written into the book. Therefore
one must not care about the order, or be hindered by the lack of it." Luther
says in his Preface to Hosea; ''It appears as though this prophecy of Hosea was
not fully and entirely written, but that pieces and sayings out of his
preaching were arranged and brought together into a book." .Are not these
remarks of Luther the sentiments of a scholar who, though he had the misfortune
to live before the era of modern biblical criticism, nonetheless thought in
Higher Critical terms?
In a word: no. Luther admittedly points up non-chronological arrangement within biblical books, and, as a possible explanation for this, suggests later compilation by one or more persons other than the author to whom the book is traditionally attributed. This may seem like Higher Critical concession. but it is nothing of the kind. The modern biblical critic combines with such judgments as to inner arrangement and authorship of Biblical materials one or more of the following assumptions: (i) Miracles and genuine prophecies do not occur (thus, for example, portions of Isaiah are attributed to a "Second-" or "Third - Isaiah" who wrote them after the events supposedly prophesied). (ii) The non-chronological arrangement of the biblical material involves factual errors and internal contradictions; indeed, the discovery of such faults in the text is a prime means of determining organizational lapses in the scriptural writings and therefore instances of multiple authorship. (iii) The ultimate editors or compilers did their work in a far from perfect manner: coming after - sometimes long after - the materials they deal with, they can and often do misunderstand them and render the resultant text confusing and misleading. The task of Higher Criticism thus comes into being: to strike back behind the present text to its (supposed) sources so as to discover their original signification.
Luther would have been horrified at all three of these Higher Critical assumptions. (i) As we have already seen, his approach to the entire Bible was so thoroughly Christocentric that he found genuine prophecies of Christ everywhere in the Old Testament - to such an extent that even a scholar as sympathetic to Luther's mind-set as Heinrich Bornkamm asserts that contemporary man must "give up, without hesitation or reservation, Luther's scheme of Christological prediction in the Old Testament." 47 For Luther. miraculous prophecy was the heart of the Old Testament, and his questions as to the authorship or internal arrangement of biblical books never impugned their supernatural character. (ii) The same thing can be said - and has been said many times in our essay to this point - with regard to alleged biblical contradictions and errors. Luther categorically, and in principle, rejected the idea of an errant Scripture, and his observation of non-chronological order in some biblical books was in no sense negative criticism of these books. Luther recognized the obvious fact that an author or editor has every right to organize his material on a non-chronological basis. Just as the gifts of the Spirit are diverse, so are the possible schemes for putting a book together, (iii) Most important of all, Luther's suggestion that a biblical book might have been written down by someone other than the traditional author had nothing whatever to do with the modern conception that scriptural books are unreliable compilations reflecting inaccurate later editorializing, If an ultimate redactor was involved, Luther believed him to be no less than the Holy Spirit, who, in such activity as in His inspiration of biblical writers in general, guaranteed the truth of scriptural utterances. Typical of Luther's approach to this matter are his prefatory remarks on the Psalms, which (as we have seen) he agreed might well he a compilation:
The Psalter ought to be a dear and beloved book, if only because it promises Christ's death and resurrection so clearly, and so typifies His Kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom that it might well be called a little Bible. It puts everything that is in all the Bible most beautifully and briefly, and constitutes an "Enchiridion," or handbook, so that I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble to compile a short Bible and example - book of all Christendom, or of all the saints.
Where compilation is involved, the Holy
Spirit is the compiler, and "we must stand by the words of the Holy Spirit."48 So far distant is Luther's "biblical
criticism'' from the rationalistic Higher Criticism that becomes articulate in
the deistic 18th century, grows to maturity in the anthropocentric 19th
century, and dominates the world of contemporary biblical scholarship.49 While Higher Criticism poses its questions
in a posture of rationalistic dominance over the text, Luther asks his
questions of God's Word on his knees. The contrast could hardly be sharper.
(3) Luther As Independent Canonist Those who would draw the Reformer into the orbit of limited biblical infallibility have saved their most powerful salvo until last. If - they argue with smug satisfaction - you continue to read Luther's Prefaces to his Bible translations, and come to those for the New Testament, you find that Luther actually went beyond most radical higher critics of our own time: he removed entire books from their place in the Canon of Scripture! Using his newly rediscovered doctrine of salvation-by-grace-alone-through-faith as a personal criterion of canonicity, he judged certain New Testament books as canonically inferior, hardly worthy of canonical status at all. Surely this is biblical criticism writ large: the "internal criticism" of the Canon of Scripture. Post-Bultmannian Luther scholar Gerhard Ebeling commends Luther for it; "The manner in which Luther used this internal criticism of the canon is well known, though perhaps not as well known as it should be; he placed the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James after the Johannine epistles, and the unnumbered series of what now become the last four New Testament writings, namely, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, and the Revelation of St. John outside the numbered sequence of the other twenty-three books of the New Testament; he also made value judgements, 'which are the authentic and noblest books of the New Testament,' and correspondingly negative utterances about other New Testament writings.''50
In his general Preface to the New Testament of 1522, Luther says of James that it is "really an Epistle of straw." for "it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it." The Reformer goes into more detail in his Preface to the Epistle itself; "James does nothing more than drive to the law and to its works. Besides, he throws things together in such disorderly fashion that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took some sayings of the Apostles' disciples and threw them thus on paper; or perhaps they were written down by someone else from his preaching." Luther employs the "straw" motif again, though much less harshly, in his Preface to Hebrews: it is "a marvelously fine Epistle," yet "my opinion is that it is an Epistle put together of many pieces, and it does not deal systematically with any one subject." Although, as the author "himself testifies (Heb. 6;1), he does not lay the foundation of faith, which is the work of the Apostles, nevertheless he does build finely thereon with gold, silver, precious stones, as St. Paul says in I Cor. 3;12. Therefore we should not be hindered, even though wood, straw, or hay are perhaps mixed in with them, but accept this fine teaching with all honor; though, to be sure, we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles." Concerning Jude, Luther states that "the ancient fathers excluded this Epistle from the main body of the Scriptures," and "therefore, although I value this book, it is an Epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are to lay the foundations of faith." Finally, in his 1522 Preface to the Revelation of St. John, Luther is supposed to sum up his philosophy of individualistic, internal theological criticism of the Bible: "Let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is not taught or known in it. But to teach Christ is the thing which an Apostle is bound above all else to do, as Christ says in .Acts 1:8, 'Ye shall be my witnesses,' Therefore I stick to the books which give me Christ, clearly and purely."
What can be said in answer to such apparently powerful primary-source evidence? Much in every way! Let us begin with some textual considerations. Even in his strongest remarks on the four antilegomena (Hebrews, James, Jude, Revelation), Luther intersperses positive comments and makes quite plain that the question of how to treat these books must be answered by his readers for themselves. If he can speak of James as an "Epistle of straw," lacking the gospel, he can also say of it-simultaneously: "I praise it and hold it a good book, because it sets up no doctrine of men but vigorously promulgates God's law." Since Luther is not exactly the model of the mediating personality - since he is well known for consistently taking a stand where others (perhaps even angels) would equivocate - we can legitimately conclude that the Reformer only left matters as open questions when he really was not certain as to where the truth lay. Luther's ambivalent approach to the antilegomena is not at all the confident critical posture of today's rationalistic student of the Bible.
Especially indicative of this fact is the considerable reduction in negative tone in the revised Prefaces to the biblical books later in the Reformer's career. Few people realize - and liberal Luther interpreters do not particularly advertise the fact 51 that in all the editions of Luther's Bible translation after 1522 the Reformer dropped the paragraphs at the end of his general Preface to the New Testament which made value judgments among the various biblical books and which included the famous reference to James as an "Epistle of straw."52 In all the editions after 1522 Luther also softened the critical tone of his Preface to the Epistle itself; in 1522 he had written: James "wants to guard against those who relied on faith without works, and is unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. and rends the Scriptures and thereby resists Paul and all Scripture," but he subsequently dropped all the words after "unequal to the task." He also omitted the following related comment: "One man is no man in worldly things; how then should this single man alone [James] avail against Paul and all the other Scriptures?" Moreover, Luther's short and extremely negative Preface to the Revelation of St. John was completely dropped after 1522, and the Reformer replaced it with a long and entirely commendatory Preface (1530).53 Because "some of the ancient fathers held the opinion that it was not the work of St. John the apostle," Luther leaves the authorship question open, but asserts that he can no longer "let the book alone." for "we see, in this book, that through and above all plagues and beasts and evil angels Christ is with His saints, and wins the victory at last." In his original, 1532 Preface to Ezekiel, Luther made a cross-reference to the Revelation of St. John with no hint of criticism; in his later, much fuller Preface to Ezekiel, he concludes on the note that if one wishes to go into prophetic study more deeply, "the Revelation of John can also help."
True enough, all the editions of Luther's German Bible - right to the last one he himself supervised (1545) - retain the classification by which the four antilegomena are grouped together, in a kind of bibliographical ghetto, after the other books.54 Comments remain in the Prefaces (e.g., Romans) indicating that Luther always held to a hierarchy of biblical books, with the Gospel of John and Romans constituting the empyrean. A careful study of Luther's remarks on and treatment of James throughout his career has shown that, wholly apart from the Prefaces, the Reformer consistently held a low view of the book's utility.55 Yet in fairness to Luther, is not this frank attitude just the recognition of what we all must admit, however high our view of scriptural inerrancy, namely that the biblical books do not all present the gospel with equal impact? Even the fundamentalist of fundamentalists distributes portions of the Gospel of John and not II Chronicles. Wesley was saved at Aldersgate listening to the reading of Luther's Preface to Romans; it would not have surprised Luther - nor should it surprise us - that the effect was not produced by the reading of the Preface to Obadiah. To paraphrase George Orwell, all the Bible books are equal, but some are more equal than others. Moreover, the successive editions of Luther's German Bible show the Reformer concerned that the general public not be led away from any portion of Scripture by his own personal opinions or prejudices.
But does our response really meet the issue? Is not the key issue that Luther did not personally regard the antilegomena as Scripture in the full sense? His manner of cataloging them apart as an unnumbered unit exactly parallels his way of dealing with the Old Testament Apocrypha: does not this make plain that Luther was personally revising the Canon? And was he not doing it purely on the subjective ground that certain books did not accord well with his personal religious experience?
We must admit that in one sense Luther does reevaluate the Canon. though haltingly, tentatively, sensitively - not at all like a modern radical critic and certainly not as a spokesman for the church (we have already noted his hesitancy to influence others at this point). As for his reasons for reopening the canonical question, they were not at all as subjective, arbitrary, and cavalier as they are often made to seem. In his Preface to Jude we heard Luther say: "Although I value this book, it is an Epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are to lay the foundations of faith"; why? "The ancient fathers excluded this Epistle from the main body of the Scriptures." Again and again in his Prefaces we find Luther arguing in this vein: "Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation." "This Epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients." "Many of the fathers also rejected this book [Revelation: Luther's Preface of 1522] a long time ago." Here Luther appeals not to subjective considerations but objectively to the judgments of the early church, specifically to what Jerome says in his De viris illustribus, chap. 2. and to what Eusebius reports in his Ecclesiastical History, Bk. II, chap. 23 and Bk. III, chap. 25. The negative evaluations of antilegomena by certain church fathers were certainly unjustified, as history proved. but Luther had every right to raise the question in terms of the fathers, Unless one is going to make the fatal error of accepting the content of Scripture because the institutional church has declared it such (which necessarily subordinates Scripture to Church and brings the Protestant back to his Romanist vomit), there is no choice but to refer canonicity questions to the earliest judgments available historically concerning the apostolic authority of New Testament books. Christ promised to the apostolic company a unique and entirely reliable knowledge of His teachings through the special guidance of His Holy Spirit (John 14;26), so the issue of the apostolicity of New Testament writings has always been vital for the church. As a theologian, Luther had the right, even the responsibility, to raise this issue, and did not become a subjectivist by doing so.
However, it would be impossible to claim that Luther's questioning of the antilegomena was motivated purely by historical concerns. (What, indeed, in the Reformer's life, was ever so motivated? One of his favorite sayings was that he did his best theological work when angry!) Is it not indicative that the Revelation of St. John gains in stature for him as he sees its apologetic possibilities vis-à-vis the papacy ("the whore that sitteth on the seven hills," etc.)? Is it pure coincidence that James, the New Testament book which Luther cares for the least, is the one that stresses works the most - that seems most in tension with the Pauline doctrine at the heart of Luther's entire "Copernican revolution in theology": salvation by grace alone through faith, apart from the deeds of the law?
Here, if anywhere, those arguing against Luther's biblical orthodoxy have a point. Though it is unfair to call him a subjectivist on the canonical question, there is no doubt that he developed a personal criterion of canonicity that took its place alongside of apostolicity and perhaps even swallowed it up. He unabashedly states this new criterion in his Preface to James: "All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate Christ. And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ.56 For all the Scriptures show us Christ (Rom. 3:21), and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ (I Cor. 2:2). Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it."
The dangers in such an approach to canonicity are legion, and they were fully recognized by Luther's own contemporaries - not only by his theological opponents but also by his colleagues and supporters. Thus, as early as 1520, Luther's Wittenberg University co-reformer Bodenstein von Carlstadt - hardly a traditionalist (his radically negative attitude to ecclesiastical adiaphora eventually caused his rupture with Luther) condemned Luther's rejection of James and argued that one must appeal either to known apostolic authorship or to universal historical acceptance (omnium consensus) as the test of a book's canonicity, not to internal doctrinal considerations.57 " In spite of certain deficiencies in Carlstadt's treatment, a 19th century student of the subject was certainly right in noting that unlike Luther on the Canon, "Dr. Bodenstein's reforming approach was based on history and not on feelings, on critical evaluation and not on piety." 58 As is well known, the church that carries Luther's name has never adopted his canonical judgments.
Though it is understandable that, passionate reforming spirit that he was, Luther would reintroduce the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith everywhere, it is unfortunate that he misused it as a canonical criterion. One must first establish the Canon and then set forth all that the canonical books teach: canonicity before doctrine. If one reverses the procedure, personal doctrinal emphasis, however commendatory, may turn into weapons by which genuine Scripture is rejected or down-played unnecessarily. Had Luther begun with a purely historical view of the Canon, he would have been forced to discover the entire compatibility between James and Paul; his misleading criterion of canonicity opened the floodgates to subjectivity - in spite of his best intentions - and short-circuited the kind of exegesis of James that would have revealed its harmony with Pauline teaching and its vital complementary place in the corpus of New Testament doctrine.59
Having delivered these blasts against our hero, 60 we must nonetheless take away from the anti-inerrancy critic with one hand what we have apparently bestowed upon him with the other. Luther's canonical deficiencies in no sense impugn his belief in the entire infallibility of Holy Writ! How can this be? Simply because, as Adolf Hoenecke well put it:
One must distinguish well between the extent of the Canon and the inspiration of the books which are canonical without question. Here Wilhelm Walther says correctly that for Luther the extent of the Canon was an open question, but the books that were canonical were absolutely authoritative for him as the inspired Word of God. But this distinction is always being overlooked. Modern theologians always want to draw conclusions from Luther's remarks concerning individual books as to his attitude towards the Word in general and its inspiration and thus make Luther share their liberal views regarding inspiration.61
Perhaps the point can be made most clearly
and effectively by two analogies. Imagine that your essayist (who has made
himself objectionable for many years by his hard-nosed defense of the inerrancy
of Scripture) is one day confronted on the street by a guru-like figure
carrying a huge pulpit Bible. Jumping suddenly at me with a religious whoop,
the guru opens this Bible, points to a section and says in a booming voice: "Is
this or is this not verily the Word of God?" I look at the open Bible and find
that the Pittsburgh telephone directory for 1973 has been carefully bound in.
"No," I reply, "this is not the Word of God." "Aha," shrieks the guru. "Just as
I suspected. Your professions of the inerrancy of Scripture are but sounding
brass and tinkling cymbal. You outrightly reject the Word of God. It would be
bad enough if you denied individual verses; but your impiety knows no bounds:
you reject whole portions of the Word." The point does not require belaboring:
to deny the inerrancy of what I consider non-canonical (non-biblical) hardly
means that I do not believe in the infallibility of what I do regard as
Or if the first analogy is too bizarre or personal (or too personally bizarre), take the widely recognized difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the canonical acceptance of the Old Testament Apocrypha. If a Roman Catholic were to tell you as a Protestant that all your claims to hold to the plenary authority of Scripture are worthless because you downgrade Tobit and II Maccabees, would the argument impress you as logical? Hardly, for you cannot properly he judged as to your doctrine of inspiration except with reference to books you accept as genuinely revelatory, i.e., canonical. Reu asks the inevitable rhetorical question: "How can Luther's opinion about a non-canonical book change our findings concerning his attitude toward the canonical books?"62
And here Luther makes himself (as usual) unambiguously plain:
I have learned to ascribe the honor of infallibility only to those books that are accepted as canonical. I am profoundly convinced that none of these writers has erred. All other writers, however they may have distinguished themselves in holiness or in doctrine, I read in this way I evaluate what they say, not on the basis that they themselves believe that a thing is true, but only insofar as they are able to convince me by the authority of the canonical books or by clear reason.63
What to Learn from Luther
In present-day evangelical circles, the battle over the inerrancy of Scripture is in full swing. Can anything be learned from the 450-year old example of Luther? Our instinctive response is a negative, for as evangelicals - representatives of a tradition that attains self-awareness only in the 18th century, after the modern secular era has begun-we look not to the past for help, but to future possibilities or to present experience.64
But here precisely we lose the battle before it starts. For we do not recognize that it is our very heritage of present-directed, experiential-orientated religion that has betrayed us. How can evangelicals so easily give up the full authority of Scripture? we ask helplessly. The answer is simply that evangelicals have seldom placed the stress on Scripture that they place on the personal experience of salvation, so it has never been too difficult for them to accept the specious argument that the inerrancy of the Bible need not be maintained as long as the saving gospel is witnessed to. Is it really so strange that the Reformation principle of Solo Scriptura should lose its imperative in circles (and they are not limited to the South!) where the following typical description applies?
The Southerner's God tends to be immediately accessible to his emotions; only with the greatest difficulty can he grasp a description of an objective concept of assurance. The note of mystery in the knowledge of God is obscured, inasmuch as the divine presence is reckoned to be near at hand. The Kingdom of God is brought into the present through the miracle of conversion. In some quarters of popular regional piety, relations with deity become "chummy" God is essentially one's partner, guardian, and benefactor, a sentimental picture which omits the dimension suggested by classical Christianity's "terrible presence of God." In any case, God is deemed knowable under stated conditions. For example, church revivals and mass evangelistic crusades are predicated on the assumption that souls will be saved, on the spot; if congregations pray and witness, and if the preacher is "Christ-centered," men will be born again.
Since the knowledge of God is primarily connected to a man's emotions, southern evangelicals are apt to correlate uncritically the upsurges of a person's emotions with the divine presence. This truth was vividly illustrated by the reaction of an evangelical leader to his visit to a football rally at a church-related college, during which a student led the well-wishers in singing several "gospel choruses": "I have never felt the presence of God more real in any church than I did on that football field to-night." 65
In point of fact, not only do evangelicals tend to let their present spiritual experience dominate over biblical teaching; their new theologians expressly pick up this theme to justify a non-inerrancy approach to Scripture. Donald Bloesch, for example, first lays down as axiomatic (and it is: hut only to the Neo-orthodox and to evangelicals!) that "revelation is essentially an encounter between the living Christ and the believer," and then finds it painless to convince his readers that the Bible is but a "relative or dependent norm" which, taken by itself, has to be considered "fallible and deficient"; thus "the indefeasible criterion is not simply the Word but the Word and the Spirit." 66 "What we advocate," he writes, "is that Evangelicalism rediscover the mystical elements in its own piety and tradition" 67 and he appeals to Luther as one who "illustrates the position of evangelical fideism." 68 But this is exactly what Luther was not, and if we could once catch the vision of the difference. it might be just the factor needed to pull us out of our present bibliological bog. Declared Luther: "You are just and holy from outside yourself. It is through mercy and compassion that you are just. It is not my disposition or a quality of my heart, but something outside myself - the Divine Mercy - which assures us that our sins are forgiven." 69 After considering a host of such passages illustrating Luther's fundamental theme that salvation is entirely extra nos, a conscientious Roman Catholic scholar concluded: Luther was able to discover the certainty of salvation solely because he broke free of his entanglement with the subjective, inner world and turned to the objectively valid message of salvation. . . If we were to use the ideas of contemporary psychology-naturally, mutatis mutandis - we might say: Luther found peace and the certainty of salvation by releasing himself from his introverted attitude and adopted that of an extrovert, the "world outside" being understood of course as God's world of salvation. What he was as a religious man and as a theologian, he became precisely by turning away from his subjective states and towards the objective.70
Adolf Koberle, author of the classic, The Quest for Holiness, makes the same point concerning Luther's perspective on experience, and contrasts it sharply with another religious life-style (does it not uncomfortably remind one of evangelicalism at least of the Bloesch variety?):
Mystical-spiritualist enthusiasm also knows the certainty of salvation. . . . But when inner experience, an exalted mood, the strength of visions, are made the measure of belief, the person is involved in a dubious dependence on the ups and downs of his psyche, of his subjectivity. The reason for salvation lies solely in the loving and redeeming will of God. Of course such a certainty demands personal faith. It is also possible, according to Luther, for this grasp of faith to be accompanied by experience and feeling. But what goes on in the soul in this respect can never be the reason for certainty of salvation. We live solely on the gift that is offered to us.71
To "turn to the objectively valid message of salvation" and to "live solely on the gift offered to him" Luther had to have a Scripture whose message was itself indefeasible. Its reliability could not be dependent upon any personal experience, or the very saving relation with Christ would be put in jeopardy. At Worms, when his life was on the line, there could be no mixing of God's Word with man's word or God's inerrant Truth with man's experiential vagaries:
Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason (for I believe in neither the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures that I have adduced, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God; and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.72
"Conscience captive to God's inerrant
Word": that is the strength of Luther's reform. So convinced was he that to put
the Spirit's leading or spiritual experience in tandem with Scripture would
bring all theology to ruin that he expended tremendous energy fighting the
Schwarmer of his day-the religious enthusiast or spiritualist who set his own
feelings above Holy Writ.73 Radical
reformer Thomas Muntzer considered himself sufficiently led by the Spirit to
cry, "Bible, Babel, bubble!" Luther's reply was that apart from the
inscripturated Word he would not listen to Müntzer even if "he had
swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all." 74
Let us learn from Luther both positively and negatively. His experiential criterion of canonicity shows how even a great theologian committed to the objective, theocentric authority of God's Word can slip into subjective, anthropocentric thinking. If this was possible for Luther, is it any wonder that the lesser theological lights of our own day easily fall victim to the parallel temptations of using their spiritual experience to create a "canon within the canon" and a Bible that is not indefeasible in its own right? We should remember how readily the experiential pietism of the late 17th century became the rationalism of the 18th century, and see the dangers in our own revivalistic heritage. The weaknesses in our heritage should impel us to strike back into Christian history beyond the evangelical revivals to the Reformation for guidance in the present crisis of scriptural authority. No one can offer us better resources in this life-or-death struggle than Luther. for he knew what it was to stand alone before a hostile world with nothing but Scripture to speak for him. With Luther as our model, the words of the great 19th century French Protestant leader Theodore Monod can become our confession too: "We will not appeal to experience- only to the Word of God." 75 And if the forces minimalizing scriptural commitment seem at times to drive us to sadness and bewilderment, Luther's example will permit us to join the saints of three and a half centuries ago when they sang.76
As true as God's own Word is true,
Not earth or hell with all their crew
Against us shall prevail.
Over Against Words of Angels and Devils
A review of Luther and the Bible, by Willem Jan Kooiman, translated by John Schmidt (Muhlenberg Press. 1961, 243 pp,)*
The Luther research movement of the last half century, stemming largely from the work of Karl Holl and the editors of the great Weimarer Ausgabe of the Reformer's writings, has virtually revolutionized our understanding of Luther's theology and world view. As with most such movements of European origin, considerable time elapsed before American scholars and, more especially, pastors and laymen, became aware of the new emphasis; and it is safe to say that even now many non-Lutherans are unacquainted with the results of the new Luther research. Roland Bainton's Here I Stand has provided an excellent biographical introduction to the Reformer on the basis of recent scholarship, and now, with the translation from the Dutch of Kooiman's Luther and the Bible, we have perhaps the best theological starting point for those who would understand the essence of Luther's thought in regard to Scripture and Gospel.
The most striking characteristic of Luther's biblical approach, as revealed in this excellent study by a professor of church history at the University of Amsterdam, is undoubtedly its diametric opposition to the presuppositions of large segments of present-day Protestant biblical scholarship. "Luther sees the whole truth of the Gospel already revealed, even though veiled, in the Old Testament. Just like the New, it is 'full of Christ" (p. 209). "How completely he means this is made clear by the fact that he placed a 'Praefatio Jhesu Christi' (a prefatory word from Christ himself) in the edition of the Psalter to be used by the students. This introduction consists of Bible passages directly or indirectly spoken by Jesus, intended to show that he is the true Author of the Psalms" (p. 32). In his treatment of the Bible. Luther was "not concerned with a mere collection of individual texts, but with the Author who stands behind them and wishes to reveal himself through them" (p. 84 ).
Not only in regard to the unity of the Bible, but also in the matter of its power and authority, Luther holds a position unacceptable to man',' moderns. "We see the essential elements of Luther's theology appearing early. Christ is the content of the scripture and he desires to come to us through them, both in his judgment and grace. Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) is the same as solus Christus (Christ alone)" (p. 12). "For Luther the Bible itself is a weapon with which God fights in his great and comprehensive battle against Satan. With it he defeats his enemy and gives victory to those who believe in him. And it is because of this fact that 'every word of the scriptures is to be weighed, counted, and measured' " (p. 54). The following assertions by Luther are as typical of him as they are disturbing in the present theological milieu; "Over against all the statements of the fathers and of all men, yes, over against words of angels and devils, I place the scriptures" (p. 80); "I have learned to ascribe the honor of infallibility only to those books that are accepted as canonical. I am profoundly convinced that none of these writers have erred" (p. 78).
Two negative criticisms of Kooiman's volume are in order, though one of these will be leveled at publisher and not author, and neither is to be considered sufficient to detract from the general value of the book. First, Professor Kooiman's very accurate depictions of Luther's views suffer on occasion from the conclusions that he draws from them. Thus, in spite of the wealth of material indicating that Luther held as "strong" a view of biblical inspiration as possible apart from Romanist mechanical inspirationism, the author insists on claiming that Luther was no "verbal inspirationist" (p. 236). This is true, of course, if we equate verbal inspiration with dictational inspiration, but such an equation muddies the theological water. Granted, the verbal inspiration controversy postdates Luther, but it is difficult to feel after reading Kooiman, that Luther, if he lived today, would not in fact consider "verbal inspiration" the biblical view most congenial to his own. In line with Kooiman's negative attitude toward verbalism, one finds in chapter 17 that the author attributes an anti-bookishness to Luther; that this is inconsistent with a proper understanding of the Reformer's life and thought will be seen in this reviewer's article on "Luther and Libraries" in his In Defense of Martin Luther (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1970).
A second criticism has to do with the treatment of Kooiman's book at the hands of its publisher. Copy editing is substandard (bibliographical citations are inconsistent and frequently at variance with accepted practice e.g., on p. 93 Bornkamm's Luther's World of Thought is cited in English translation, but on p. 239 it is cited in the German original with no indication of English translation); the index is abominable (e.g.. "Ein Deutsch Theologian" is entered under E: and the strange entry "Random comments by Luther" appears under R!); misprints are evident (e.g. on p. 25, "Erdmans" for "Eerdmans": on p. 50, "profeticus" for "propheticus"-cf. p. 31); no indication is given as to the date of the original edition from which the translation was made: there is poor registration and typographical smearing throughout the book: and even the spinecloth on my copy is unaligned. Surely a hook of the quality and importance of Kooiman's volume deserves better bibliographical dress than this.
1. Not "must make mistakes" but and often do make mistakes." For our discussion of the misleading axiom, Errare est humanum,. see Chapter One of the present work.
2. Quoted in P. C. Croll (ed.), Tributes to the Memory of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: G. W. Frederick, 1884), p. 39.
3. Ibid.. pp. 49-50. Cf. Junius B. Remensnyder, What the World Owes Luther (New York: Revel. 1917), passirn.
4. See E. Harris Harbison. The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York:Scribner, 1956), pp. 103-35: and F. V. N. Painter, Luther on Education (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia 118891), passim.
5. Citations will be made to the standard, critical Weimarer Ausgabe(WA).
6. I have dealt elsewhere with the related hermeneutic question (did Luther regard Scripture as objectively perspicuous?) and shall not therefore treat that subject here: see "Luther's Hermeneutic vs. the New Hermeneutic." in my In Defense of Martin Luther (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House. 1970). pp. 40-85: also in my Crisis in Lutheran Theology (2d S.; 2 vols.; Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1973). 1, pp. 45-77,
7. WA, 10 III, 162 (Kirchenpostille-a sermon collection which Luther considered his "very best book"
8. A photograph of this statue appears in my Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis:Bethany Fellowship, 1970). p. 22.
9. Julius Kostlin, The Theology of Luther in its Historical Development and Inner Harmony. trans. from the 2d German ed. by Charles E. Hay (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society. 1897). II, pp. 252-57.
10. Philip S. Watson. Let God lie God? An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (London: Epworth Press. 1947). p. 175.
11. J. K. S. Reid. The Authority of Scripture: A Study of the Reformation and Post-Reformation. Understanding of the Bible(London: Methuen. 1957), p.72.
12. WA, 9,356.
13. WA. 7, 315: cf. WA. 15. 1481: "The Scriptures have never erred."
14. WA, 38.16.
15. Vorlesung liber den Rinnerbricf, 1515-16, ed. J. Ficker t4th S.: Leipzig. 1930), p. 240.
16. Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther and the Old Testament. trans. E. W. and H. C. Gritsch: ed. Victor I. Gruhn (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), p. 262.
17. WA, 42, 474 (on Gen. 12:11-13).
18. WA, 44, 91-92 (on Gen. 32:21-24).
19. WA, 19, 219 (Exposition of Jonah) 1536fl
20. W4, 52, 811 Ion John 19:25-37).
21. WA, 54, 35
22. WA, 40 III, 254 (on Ps. 127:3).
23. WA, 54. 39 (discussion of Gen. 19:24 and I Chron. 17:10).
24. WA, 3, 486 (Dictata super Psalterinm, at Ps. 73:19-20).
25. WA, 54, 263 (Wider das Papsttum zu Rom, vom Teufel gestiftet).
26. WA. 34 I, 347 (sermon on John 16:16-23 115311): for evidence of the genuineness of the sermon, see WA, 34 II. 572. Luther was quite correct in attributing belief in the inerrancy of Scripture to Augustine: see Charles Joseph Costello. St. Augustine's Doctrine on the inspiration and Canonicity of Scripture (Washington. D. C.: Catholic University of America, 1930), especially pp. 30-31. The letter from Augustine to Jerome to which Luther refers is doubtless the one containing the following passage (Luther expressly quotes it in WA. 7, 308): "I confess to your charity that I have learned to defer this respect and honor to those Scriptural books only which are now called canonical, that I believe most firmly that no one of those authors has erred in any respect in writing" (Augustine, Epistolae, 82. 1.3).
27. In particular: "That These Words of Christ, 'This is My Body,' etc.. Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics," in Word and Sacrament II!, ed. Robert H. Fischer, Vol. XXXVII of Luther's Works, American Edition. ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961).
28. WA-T (Tischreden), II. No. 2623b [recorded by Cordatus, 21-31 August l532]. Cf. M. Reu, Luther's German Bible: .An Historical Presentation Together with a Collection of Sources (Columbus, Ohio: Lutheran Book Concern, 1934), passim.
29. M. Reu. Luther and the Scriptures (Columbus. Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1944); this exceedingly important publication was reissued, with corrections to the notes, as the August, 1960, issue of The Springfielder (Concordia Theological Seminary, Springfield. Illinois). Cf. also the essays, "Luther's Solo Scriptura" by Lewis SW. Spitz, Sr., and "Luther As Exegete" by Douglas Carter, both included- in Amy Crisis in Lutheran Theology (op. cit. [in note 6 above]), II, pp. 123-38; and "Luther and the Bible" by 3. Theodore Mueller, in Inspiration and Interpretation. S. John F. Walvoord (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 19571, pp. 87-114. A. Skevington Wood, in his valuable book, Captive to the Word. Martin Luther: Doctor of Sacred Scripture (Exeter. Eng.: Paternoster Press, 1969), marshals considerable primary source evidence to support his contention that "Luther's doctrine of inspiration is inseparably linked with that of inerrancy" (p. 144: see the -full discussion, pp. 135-47). Eugene F. A. KIug comes to the same conclusion in his Free University of Amsterdam doctoral dissertation, From Luther to Chemnitz. On Scripture and the Word (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1971), pp. 105-114.
30. Adolf von Harnack, Outlines of the History of Dogma, trans. Edwin Knox Mitchell; intro. Philip Rieff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 561-62. (Cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, "Adolf von Harnack on Luther." in Pelikan's Interpreters of Luther Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), pp. 253-74.) Harnack's recognition-cum-critique of Luther's belief in scriptural inerrancy is echoed by Paul Althaus: Luther "basically accepted it (the Bible) as an essentially infallible book, inspired in its entire content by the Holy Spirit. It is therefore 'the word of God,' not only when it speaks to us in law and gospel and thereby convicts our heart and conscience but also-and this is a matter of principle-in everything else that it says.....Here is the point at which the clarity of Luther's own Reformation insight reached its limit. For it was at this point that Luther himself, in spite of everything, prepared the way for seventeenth century orthodoxy.... Theology has had plenty of trouble in the past-and in many places still has-trying to repair this damage by distinguishing between the 'Word of God' in the true sense and a false biblicism" (The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz I Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966). pp. 50-52).
31. Theodore Engelder, Scripture Cannot Be Broken: Six Objections to Verbal Inspiration Examined in the Light of Scripture, pref. W. Arndt (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 19441, pp. 290-91 n.
32. W, Bodamer observes that over a thousand unequivocal assertions identifying Scripture with the Word of God can be found in only ten volumes of Luther's collected works: in his article he quotes a hundred of them ("Luthers Stellung zur Lehre von der Verbal inspiration," Theologische Quartalschrift. 1936, pp. 240 ff).
33. Emil Brunner. The Theology of Crisis (New York: Scribner. 1929) p. 19; see also his Revelation and Reason, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946), pp.273-76. Cf. Paul King Jewett. Emil Brunner's Concept of Revelation (London: J. Clarke, 1954). and the same author's essay, "Emil Brunner's Doctrine of Scripture," in Inspiration and lnterpretation (op. cit. [in note 29 above)), pp.210-38.
34. Gerhard Ebeling. "The New Hermeneutics and the Early Luther," Theology Today. XXI (April, 1964), pp. 45-46. Cf. my essay. "Luther's Hermeneutic vs. the New Hermeneutic," op. cit. (in note 6 above), passim.
35. See Montgomery, "Toward a Christian Philosophy of History." Where Is History Going? (reprint ed.; Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1972), pp. 182-97.
36. Althaus, op. cit. (in note 30 above), p 5.
37. Cf. The Concordant Version: A Contribution to the Battle for the Bible, and a host of other pamphlets illustrating and defending this remarkable exegetical operation I all published by Concordant Publishing Concern, Los Angeles and Saugus, California).
38. WA. 3011,636-37 (Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen [15301).
39. Ibid., p.640.
40. Skevington Wood, op. cit. (in note 29 above), pp. 145-46.
41. Kostlin, op. cit. (in note 9 above), II, pp. 255-56.
42. Ibid. (Köstlin's italics).
43. lbid.. p. 257,
44. Ibid., p. 255.
45. Klug, op. cit. (in note 29 above), pp. 109-110. Klug's primary source citations of Luther are to be found in WA, 42, 425-26. 431, and 460.
46. Thus implies Concordia Seminary (St. Louis) professor and "moderate" Lutheran Edgar Krentz in his editorial introduction to the reprint in pamphlet form of Luther's Prefaces to the New Testament. trans. Charles M. Jacobs, rev. E. Theodore Bachmann (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia [1967). This reprint has been made from Vol. XXXV of the American Edition of Luther's Works, which contains all the Prefaces-both for the Old and for the New Testament. The complete set of Prefaces is also conveniently available in Vol. VI of the Philadelphia Edition of Luther's Works (Charles M. Jacobs' unrevised translation).
47. See above, our text at note 16.
48. W4,42, 23 (on Gen. 1:6).
49. Cf Part Two of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, Being an lnvestigation of True and Fabulous Theology (l795): Religion. erudition et critique a La fin du XVIIe siècle el au debut du XVIIe by Baudouin de Gaiffier et. at. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. 1968): Jerry Wayne Brown, 7'he Rise of Biblical Criticism in America, 1800-1870 (Middletown. Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969).
50. Gerhard Ebeling. The Word of God and Tradition. trans. S. H. Hooke (Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1968), p. 120.
51. Krentz. in his reprint of the New Testament Prefaces (op. cit. in note 46 above. gives no indication whatever that the depreciatory remarks on James were omitted from the general Preface to the New Testament in the editions from 1534 on.
52. WA -DB (Deutsche Bibel), VI, 10
53. WA.DB. VII. 404 and 406 ff
54. WA DB. VI 12-13.
55. Wilhelm Walther. Luthers spàtere Ansicht uber den Jacobusbrief. Zur Wertung der deutschen Reformation (Leipzig, 1909), especially pp. 170 ff1 The evidence is summarized in Reu. Luther and the Scriptures (op. cit. [in note 29 above]), chap. iii. Here belongs Luther's widely quoted-though hut a table-talk-remark: "Some day I will use James to fire my stove" WA - T, V. 5854 (unknown date, perhaps 1540).
56. Or "deal with Christ/lay emphasis on Christ" (Christurn treiben)
57. Carlstadt, De canonicis ,Scripturis libellus (Wittenberg. 1520) para, 50.
58. Samuel Berger, La Bible au XVIIe siècle (Geneva, Switz.: Slatkine Reprints, 1969), p. 96: cf the whole of chap. vi ("Luther et Carlstadt"), pp. 86-96. Berger is quite wrong, however, to locate the ' origins of biblical criticism" in the 16th century and to argue that the Reformation in general operated only with the "material principle" (justification by grace through faith), subordinating the "formal principle" (Holy Scripture) to it. On Carlstadt's radicalism-well characterized as moderate illuminism-cf. Fritz Blanke, "Anabaptism and the Reformation," in Guy F. Hershberger (ed.). The Recovery of the Anabapist Vision (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1957), p.57.
59 . Cf my essay. "Some Comments on Paul's Use of Genesis in his Epistle to the Romans." Evangelical Theological Society Bulletin (now: Journal). IV (April, 1961). 4-lI.
60. However, we have to agree (for once!) with Lessing when he declares: "In such reverence do I hold Luther. that I rejoice in having been able to find some defects in him, for I have been in imminent danger of making him an object of idolatrous veneration. The proofs that in some things he was like other men are to me as precious as the most dazzling of his virtues" (quoted in CroIl, op. cit. [in note 2 above], p.29).
61. Adolf Hoenecke. Ev-Luth. Dogmatik. ed. W. and 0. Hoenecke (4 vols.: Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House. 1909), I. 362. Cf Francis Pieper's excellent discussion of the whole question of Luther and the Inspiration of Holy Scripture." in his Christian Dogmatics (4 vols.: St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 1950-1957), 1,276-98.
62. Reu. Luther and the Scriptures. lot'. cit. (in note 55 above).
63. WA, 2. 618 (Contra malignum Iohannis Eccii iudicium Martini Lutheri defensio 11519). The early date of this affirmation is noteworthy: two years after the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.
64. Cf Bruce Shelley. "Sources of Pietistic Fundamentalism," Fides et Historia. V/1-2 (FaIl, 1972 and Spring. 1973), 68-78.
65. Samuel S. Hill, Jr., Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart. and Winston, 1967), p. 87.
66. Donald G. Bloesch, The Ground of Certainty: Toward an Evangelical Theology of Revelation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971), pp.71-74.
67. Ibid., p. 155.
68. Ibid.. p. 178. That Bloesch sees himself as a spokesman for contemporary evangelicalism is evident from his more recent book. The Evangelical Renaissance (Grand Rapids, Mich.:Eerdmans, 1973)
69. WA, 4011, 353.
70. Stephanus Pfurtner. O.P.. Luther and Aquinas-a Conversation, trans. Edward Quinn
71. Adolf Korberle, "Heilsgewissheit," Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon, ed. H. Brunotte and O. Weber (Gottingen, 1956 to date). II. 90-91. Cf. Wilhelm Pauck: Luther's "own position was that of a theonomous Biblicism, i.e.. in the Bible he found the Word of God, by faith in which God could became his God. Thus he overcame a heteronomous objectivism which excludes personal commitment, as well as an autonomous subjectivism which disregards super-personal authority" (The heritage of the Reformation [Boston: Beacon Press. 1950] p.4).
72. WA, 7, 836-38.
73. See Regin Prenter, Spiritus ('reator. trans. ,John M .Jensen (Philadelphia: Muhleriberg Press, 1953). especially Pt. II ("In the controversy with the Enthusiasts")
74. WA, 17 1, 361-62. On Muntzer, see the balanced essay by Hans Hillerhrand in his A felloship of Discontent (New York: Harper. 1967). pp. 1-30. [67-70.
75. Theodore Monod, The Gift of God (London: Morgan and Scott, 1876). p. 13, These addresses were originally delivered in English; the following year a French edition was published in Paris with the title, Le don de Dieu.
76. "Fear not, 0 little flock, the foe" (Altenburg), Stanza 3. lines 1-3, in Lyra Germanica. trans. Catherine Winkworth (New York: Standford & Delisser, 1858). p. 17. Altenburg published this hymn in 1631, during the Thirty Years War; it was soon called Gustavus Adolphus' battle song, for he sang it often with his army, the last time just before the battle of Lutzen.
Taken from God's Inerrant Word, copyright 1974. You can order God's Inerrant Word for a total of $22 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.
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