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Luther on Scripture 2 – The Meaning is in the Scriptures

Taken from this paper on Luther's exegesis of Genesis 3...


The meaning is in the Scriptures, not conferred on them
Rescuing Scripture from the Magisterium

In Luther's commentary on Genesis he stands against the tradition at key points.  First, we will note this issue of 6-day creation:

Therefore it is necessary to understand these days as actual days, contrary to the opinion of the holy fathers.  Whenever we see that the opinions of the fathers are not in agreement with Scripture, we respectfully bear with them and acknowledge them as our forefathers; but we do not, on their account, give up the authority of Scripture… Human beings can err, but the Word of God is the very wisdom of God and the absolutely infallible truth.

He highlights disagreement with the Vulgate on 3:1 but far more strongly on 3:15:

‘How amazing, how damnable that through the agency of foolish exegetes Satan has managed to apply this passage, which in fullest measure abounds in the comfort of the Son of God, to the Virgin Mary!  For in all the Latin Bibles the pronoun appears in the feminine gender: “And she will crush.”  Even Lyra, who was not unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, is carried away by this error as by a swollen and raging torrent.’

Luther is unhappy in general with the interpretation of 3:15 in history:

‘[this text] should be very well known to everybody… [yet it] was not expounded by anyone carefully and accurately so far as I know… I am speaking of the ancient ones, who are held in esteem because of their saintly life and their teaching.  Among these there is no one who adequately expounded this passage.’

Perhaps then Luther had not read Irenaeus on this. (cf Adv. Her. V.16.3.)  But of course, the Scriptures themselves provided him with great support for such a stand: Genesis 22:18; Habakkuk 3:13; Romans 16:20; Galatians 3:16; 4:4.

Ever since his revolution on Romans 1:17, Luther determined to prefer the plain testimony of the Word to the authority of the fathers.  In opposition to Eck at Leipzig in 1519, Luther proclaimed: ‘a layman who has Scripture is more than Pope or council without it.’

The logic for this is clear – the Church does not beget Scripture, but Scripture begets the Church.  From this the doctrine of sola Scriptura formed one of the true distinctives of Reformation theology.  Scripture alone interprets Scripture.  Clearly Luther listened to the tradition (as the above quotes testify) yet in order to treat Scripture according to its true nature it must have the supremacy.

While this is one of Luther’s greatest triumphs, it also opened the door to unresolved doubt over the canon of Scripture.  As Farrar notes, Luther’s views on the canonicity of various books is uneven to say the least.  He claims that while John’s gospel, Romans and 1st Peter are ‘the right kernel and marrow of all books’, Jude is unnecessary, second-hand, and non-apostolic and James is a ‘right strawy epistle’ which flatly contradicts Paul.  Luther saw Job as a ‘drama in the glorification of resignation’ and that while all the prophets built on the one foundation (Christ), some built only with hay, and stubble!

On Genesis 3:15, Luther allows himself to feel the force of an objection to its Gospel content.  Luther admits that if the challenge were true then ‘Christ would be nothing, and nothing could be proved about Christ by means of this passage.’  For Luther, the integrity of the Scriptures is guaranteed by their proclamation of Christ:

‘There is no doubt that all the Scripture points to Christ alone’ (WA, 10:73);

‘All of Scripture everywhere deals only with Christ’ (WA, 46:414);

‘That which does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if a Peter or a Paul taught it.’ (quoted in Farrar, p335)

‘In the words of Scripture you will find the swaddling clothes in which Christ lies. Simple and little are the swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies in them’ (LW, 35:236).

If Christ were not proclaimed in Genesis we can infer that Luther would have considered the book at least sub-Christian and therefore sub-canonical.

‘This is the true touchstone by which all books are to be judged, when one sees whether they urge Christ or not.’

Thus, in considering this issue of the canon and sola Scriptura, Luther brings sola fides and, most significantly, solus Christus into the centre where it belongs.  The meaning of the Scriptures is in them if by that we mean that their meaning is not externally conferred by pope or council.  But in a deeper sense, the meaning of the Scriptures is outside them since the meaning is Christ - to Whom the Scriptures alone bear witness.

The Church cannot stand above the Bible (as happens either with the Roman magisterium or with modern historical-critical scholars).  However it is not as though the power of authentication lies in any inherent qualities within the Scriptures.  Rather, because they ‘urge Christ’ they are authoritative.  He is the One who stands above the Scriptures and guarantees their authoritative character.

The Bible must be considered as witness to Christ (John 5:39) and only then does it have the self-authenticating power which it claims for itself as God’s Word.

More on this next time...


0 thoughts on “Luther on Scripture 2 – The Meaning is in the Scriptures

  1. John B

    This view of the canon is stunning and I think quite untenable. It seems to exclude any meaningful ecclesiology and reduces revelation to 'me and Jesus as I find Him in my Bible'.

    It's one thing for Luther to say that he hasn't found any sound exegesis for some specific verses in the church fathers. But it's quite another matter to say that we judge the biblical books by "whether they urge Christ or not". If I say no, I exclude it from the canon. If I find this 'urging of Christ' anywhere else, I deem that source to be canonical. If carried to it's inevitable conclusion, only massive confusion and chaos would result.

    The Articles of Religion in being concise may oversimplify, but I think that it adheres to a scriptural view of the church when they say "those Canonical books of the Old and New testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church".

    The apostles gave witness to Christ, which was providentially received by the early church, who, we might say, notarized the apostolic testimony.

    Leaving it to Luther's subjective view, then the Song of Songs, among others, is out!

  2. Bror Erickson

    John B,
    luther's view of the scriptures I would argue is actually the only one truly tenable. But the fullness of the issue has not been given due justice here. To be fair I don't think Glen was meaning to treat the issue in its fullness, it more or less being a side issue to what he is talking about.
    Part of the problem is calling it "Luthers" view, when before the council of Trent it was accepted pretty much throughout Christendom, was the view of Eusebius, Augustine, Jerome and other early church fathers, as well as that of Erasmus and Cajetan during the reformation. These three didn't agree on much, but they all agreed that James was not in the canon.
    I have treated this problem
    unfortunately the footnotes didn't come through. However there is great treatment of this issue in M. Reu's "Luther and the Scripture" particularly as it pertains to James. and JAO Preus the second had a wonderful article dealing with the issue in Concordia Journal which was reprinted in an issue earlier this year.

  3. Daniel Blanche

    It's probably worth bringing Uncle Karl into play, since I think he picks up what's good about Luther's point of view - namely, that it bases the authority of Scripture on Christ and the Gospel, not vice versa - whilst qualifying some of the apparent individualism. He basically says that the role of the church in all this is to tell us where the word of God has been heard in the past - and therefore to bind us to that location (i.e. the canonical Scriptures) even if we don't hear that word there at the moment. Of course, this creates an ambivalent relationship to some parts of Scripture. Luther can't see Christ in James, and so his relationship to James is awkward: many other Christians have seen Christ in the Gospel there, so what does he do? What he should do, I think, is keep reading it, and commend it to others as a book through which Christ has been seen, whilst frankly admitting that he doesn't see it right now.

    One of the issues with the doctrine of Scripture that continually gets me is that we want a system that doesn't require God to be currently active. We can recognise the word of God on the authority of the church, or because of the (somewhat shadowy) concept of the Canon. What I find refreshing about Luther in our context is that he points us back to Christ, and traces all authority in Scripture back to his present activity.

  4. Bror Erickson

    It should be noted that Luther did commend the book of James to Christians as being worth a read, even though he did not find it to be canonical. he found it to be a good teacher of the law, but not the gospel.
    After all he did translate it so they actually could read it.

  5. Glen

    Yes - important to distinguish the 'individual judgement' issue from the 'christocentricity inherent to canonicity' issue. On the latter I think we should all be agreed.

  6. Bror Erickson

    John B. I just read the Articles of Religion curious because you brought them up. On the Canon of Scripture they are contradictory and totally ignore the testimony of the church and early church fathers. If they are to accept only those books which have never been in any doubt in the church, well the 19th and 20th centuries leave them with nothing, but even if they just read Eusebius they would have to leave out James and Jude.
    For the rest of it I thought they were pretty well Lutheresque concerning canon.

  7. Dan

    Late to the game here and hope you don't mind my intrusion to your blog.

    It's probably more accurate to say that Luther would regard James as sub or non-apostolic and not sub or non-canonical. Luther didn't reject the canon as it was received. L's yardstick for anything, including Scripture was, Was Christum treibet, "What pushes Christ." That he did not see James explicitly pushing Christ and even more importantly pushing Christ's benefits is why he called it an epistle of straw. Luther put James and other "sub apostolic" texts in the back of his German translation. Again, they were canonical but were "sub apostolic." He was bold enough to say that if any one, including Peter or any other apostle, failed to push Christ and his benefits, then whatever was preached was not apostolic. On the other hand if the likes of a Herod or Pilate did, then that was indeed apostolic.

  8. John B

    Hi Bror,

    Was Luther's denial of the canonicity of some books because he believed that historically they had never been received by the church? Or did he reject them because of his own assessment that they weren't christocentric? If the former, then it was just a difference in determining the historical record of the judgments made by the early church. But if the latter, then Luther set his own authority over Scripture and the church, and that's an entirely different matter.

    Glen's series here on "Luther on Scripture" is wonderful and these questions about the canon are secondary to it, as you've noted. But I think the canon is important in relation to any affirmation of Sola Scriptura. As you've observed, prior to Trent the church didn't assert that there was a rigid list of books in the canon. They didn't see a need to close the canon, as they saw Scripture as within and part of the Tradition and not something separate from it. Times changed in the sixteenth century.

  9. Bror Erickson

    John B,
    I think the answer is that for Luther the book had to carry it's own authority or non at all. It wasn't a matter of "his" authority over the "churches" authority, but the apostolic authority of the book. And Luther was convinced that since Christ was the one who "sent" the apostles then it had to preach Christ to be "apostolic."
    People say this is subjective to Luther, but it is actually the position of Christ, John 5:39. If it doesn't bear witness to Christ, well then it isn't scripture. I don't know if you read the paper I linked to or not. But I explain it in more detail there.

  10. John B

    Hi Bror,

    I'll read the paper that you linked to. Haven't had a chance to yet, but I'm very interested in reading it.

    I can't read John 5:39 as Jesus telling us how to validate apostolic authority within Scripture. Seems He's saying that the Scriptures *do* bear witness about Him, yet the Jews refused to see it and come to Him.

    I love the phrasing of the last paragraph of Glen's post. Anglicans have a great gift for nuance!

  11. p160

    Some Protestants have the notion that Catholics do not “believe” in the Bible, so they bring up Second Timothy 3:15-16 to support their belief of Sola Scriptura:"... from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."

    Certainly Catholics believe in the Bible (Catholics put together the Bible!) but this verse does not really support the belief of Sola Scriptura; it does not say that scripture alone is an adequate guide to the faith For that matter, the whole Bible does not say that we should believe in the Bible alone, nor does it say which books are inspired by God. This is only one hole in the belief of Sola Scriptura; there are many more.

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