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Luther and Canon

Original Testament Writings

Luther did not believe canonicity was a closed issue.

For example, he rejected the Solomonic origin of Ecclesiastes and declared Job to be mere allegory. Kings, he said, was "more to be believed than Chronicles."

Incidentally, the author(s) of Chronicles probably lived after the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B.C. Chronicles revises the accounts in the books of Samuel and Kings, changing some facts and adding other material.

Luther also said Esther was "without boots or spurs." In one discussion, Luther lumped it with 2 Maccabees (a book in the Apocrypha) and said: "I am so hostile to this book and to Esther that I could wish they did not exist at all; for they judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety." (Luther,Tischedren (Weimar Edition, 1912) Vol. I at 208; Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957) at 10.) This quote is also found in William Ramsay, Westminster Guide to the Books of the Bible (John Knox Press, 1994) at 141.

Luther also had doubts about Jeremiah, Jonah, and the Song of Solomon.

New Testament Writings

Of Jude, he wrote, "He quotes sayings and stories found nowhere else," an allusion to Jude's quote of Enoch. Luther then said: "Although I praise the book, it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books."  (William Harrison Bruce Carney, "Luther and the Bible, Its Origin and Content," chap. 2 in O. M. Norlie, ed., The Translated Bible 1534-1934,Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Translation of the Bible by Martin Luther (Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1934) at 21.)

Luther ended up disparaging four writings in the New Testament:

  • Hebrews because it refuses a second forgiveness to apostates
  • James because it declares that 'faith without works is dead',
  • Jude because it derived from 2 Peter and gave no clear witness to Christ
  • Revelation because, he said, it did not properly teach Christ, was neither apostolic nor prophetic, and was subject to personal interpretation.

George Moore in History of Religions (Scribners, 1920) at 320 records Luther's views with an introductory comment:

“Luther created by a dogmatic criterion a canon of the gospel within the canon of the books. Luther wrote: ‘Those Apostles who treat oftenest and highest of how faith alone justifies, are the best Evangelists. Therefore St. Paul’s Epistles are more a Gospel than Matthew, Mark and Luke. For these [Matthew, Mark and Luke] do not set down much more than the works and miracles of Christ [My Note: this is false: the gospels constantly describe the very Gospel as Jesus preached it]; but the grace which we receive through Christ no one so boldly extols as St. Paul, especially in his letter to the Romans.’ In comparison with the Gospel of John, the Epistles of Paul, and I Peter, ‘which [says Luther] are the kernel and marrow of all books,’ the Epistle of James, with its insistence that man is not justified by faith alone, but by works proving faith, is ‘a mere letter of straw, for there is nothing evangelical about it.’”

 

His quote from Luther can also be found in Documents of the Continental Reformation (Ed. Reverand B.J. Kidd)(Wipf & Stock, 2004) at 55.

The consequence of such dogmatic reading of Paul is obvious. Moore explains:

“It is clear that the infallibility of Scripture has here, in fact if not in admission, followed the infallibility of popes and councils; for the Scripture itself has to submit to be judged by the ultimate criterion of its accord with Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith.” (Moore, History of Religions (Scribners, 1920) at 320).

Luther, in other words, replaced one dogmatic system with another, making what is Holy Scripture submit to his own process of selection. Luther used a Pauline filter.

Luther also wrote, "St. John's Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul's epistles, especially Romans, Galatians and Ephesians and St. Peter's first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is good and necessary for you to know." He went on to call these books the "kernel and marrow of all books," but declared that "St. James is really an epistle of straw compared to them for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it . . . [It is] not the writing of any apostle." (Quoted in Timothy Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther: An Introductory Guide (Baker Academic, 2013) at this link.)

Incidentally, the James who authored James is the brother of Jesus. Paul mentions James, "the brother of Jesus" is an "apostle" in Galatians 1:19. He was not among the 12, but neither was Paul. So Luther disregarded that Paul himself viewed James as an apostle on par with Paul himself. For Luther in the prior quote says James is "not the writing of any apostle."  

OTHER SOURCES OF PRIOR QUOTE FROM LUTHER: C. M. Jacobs, Holman's Edition of Luther's Works, 6:444, also cited in William Harrison Bruce Carney, "Luther and the Bible, Its Origin and Content," 21. All citations are found in Holman's Edition of Luther's Works, Vol. VI, "Preface," translations by Dr. C. M. Jacobs, and this in turn by William Harrison Bruce Carney, "Luther and the Bible, Its Origin and Content," chapter 2 in O. M. Norlie, ed., The Translated Bible 1534-1934, Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Translation of the Bible by Martin Luther (Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1934) at 105. See also Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible? (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957) at 34.

Luther's statement regarding the relative value of the New Testament books in which he calls James "straw" are in the September 1522 first edition of Luther's NT translation, the December 1522 second editions and the 1524 third edition (1524) as well as the small octavo edition of 1530. In his Vorrhede to the epistles of James and Jude, Luther gave a further evaluation.

Luther disliked James because it stressed the necessity of works for salvation besides faith. Luther regarded this as opposed to Paul's emphasis on faith alone. Luther said James "does not mention the Passion, the Resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ." Luther concluded his preface to James, "All of the genuinely sacred books agree in this that all of them preach Christ and deal with Him. That is the test to judge all books, when we see whether they deal with Christ or not, since all the Scriptures show us Christ (Rom. 3) and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ (I Cor. 15)." Luther concludes: "What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul taught it; again, what preaches Christ would be apostolic, even though Judas, Annas, Pilate and Herod did it."

SOURCES: [1] Sydney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Eerdman's 1999) at 119, citing Luther, Church Postil, cited in Reu, Homiletics, at 62-63.

[2] C. M. Jacobs, Holman's Edition of Luther's Works, preface, cited by William Harrison Bruce Carney, "Luther and the Bible, Its Origin and Content," chapter 2 in O. M. Norlie, ed., The Translated Bible 1534-1934, Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Translation of the Bible by Martin Luther (Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1934) at 104.

Luther's contempt for the epistle of James is clear in this excerpt from his Table Talk:

Let us banish this Epistle from the university, for it is worthless. It has no syllable about Christ, not even naming him except at the beginning. I think it was written by a Jew who had heard of the Christians but not joined them. He had learned that the Christians insisted strongly on faith in Christ, and so he said to himself, "Well, you must take issue with them and speak only of works," and so he does. He says not a word of the passion and resurrection of Christ, the text of all the other apostles. Moreover, he has no order nor method. He speaks now of clothes, now of wrath, jumping from one topic to another. He has this simile: "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." Mary, mother of God! He compares faith to the body, when it should be compared to the soul. (Preserved Smith, "The Methods of Reformation Interpreters of the Bible," Biblical World 38/4 (October 1911) at 242.)

OTHER SOURCES: Luther's same quote is found in Rupert E. Davies, The Problem of Authority in the Continental Reformers (Wipf & Stock, 2009) at 36.

In his 1522 preface to the book of Revelation, Luther wrote:

About this Book of Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinion. I miss more than one thing in this book and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic. First the apostles deal not in visions but prophesy in clear and dry words, as to Peter, Paul and Christ in the Gospel. It befits the apostolic office to speak clearly, without imagery, about Christ and His doing. There is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals exclusively with images. For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras. I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it . . . They are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book and yet no one knows what it is, to say nothing of keeping it . . . My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book . . . Christ is neither taught nor known in it . . . Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me, clearly and purely . . . This is the way it has been with this book heretofore. Many have tried their hands at it. But until this very day they have also let it alone until now, especially because some of the ancient fathers held it was not the work of St. John the Apostle . . . For our part, we share this doubt.

SOURCE: [1] Martin Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament (2010) at 38 (entire Preface excerpted.)

[2] Jaroslav J. Pelikan (ed.) and George V. Schick (transl.), Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress and Concordia, 1960), 35:398-400. See also C. W. Jacobs, Holman's Edition of Luther's Works, 6:488-489. See also, Penny Enclyclopedia (1833) Vol. 1 at 162.

COMMENT: One cannot help but note that Paul did not fit the categorization that Luther said made the writings of Peter authoritative. Paul said Jesus appeared to him on a road that others saw the light, heard the voice (and  also did not hear the voice), but saw no man yet saw the light (depending on which version you read in Acts.) See our discussion of inconsistencies of the three appearance accounts in Acts.

Inspired by Luther, Ulrich Zwingli similarly opposed the book of Revelation. Calvin denounced it as unintelligible and forbade his pastors at Geneva to attempt to interpret it. Calvin never did a commentary on Revelation.

However, several of Luther's grounds to dismiss Revelation are faulty. Some prophets did mention images in visions such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. In fact, their writings are very similar to Revelation.

Luther's declaration that "Christ is neither taught nor known in it" is also patently absurd unless one realizes it is the anti-Pauline slant of Revelation that Luther means when saying 'Christ' is not known in it. (On the anti-Pauline slant of Revelation, see Paul's biographer Renan's famous work St. Paul.) For a book where "Christ" is supposedly unknown, the book of Revelation begins:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand. John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:1-6)

Christ is named eighteen times in the book of Revelation. Many other times Jesus is depicted as the "Lamb of God," the name given Jesus by both John the Baptist (John 1:36) and Peter (1 Peter 1:19). .

Luther moved James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation from their normal priority of position, and placed them at the end of the New Testament. This Luther did to signify they did not have the same status as other books in canon. In his New Testament table of contents, he numbered books 1-23 and then placed the four rejected ones without numbers.

Tyndale used Luther's order in his English translation, as did Coverdale in 1535. The Great Bible of 1519 put Hebrews and James back in their original positions, and this is the order kept in the King James Version.

The Apocrypha

The 1611 KJV had the Apocrypha which the Jews added at the time of the Septuagint Greek translation in 257 BC. The KJV in 1824 was revised to eliminate the Apocrypha. However, the twelve books of the Apocrypha were included in Luther's Bible. In the 1534 edition, Luther called them "books not on a level with Holy Writ and yet profitable and good to read."

Luther removed all of them from the Old Testament and placed them in a special section after the Old Testament, just as he moved questionable New Testament books to the end of that collection.

Observations

Is it a coincidence that three of the four books Luther believed were non-canonical for the NT -- Jude, James and Revelation -- were books that Christian scholar Renan recognized as veiled criticisms of Paul by the original apostolic church? See our page on Renan's book St. Paul.

Conclusion

As Stephen Feldman, a non-Christian, correctly observed in Please Don't Wish Me A Merry Christmas (NY U Press, 1998) at 312 fn 45:

Luther...was downright reactionary. As discussed, Luther sought to return to a Pauline and Augustine Christianity.

Luther in the end realized this was a mistake. The canon for Luther at time of death, in his mind, we shall see, would have removed Paul. Luther realized that Paul's writings were a test from God, and to be rejected. Suprised? Please continue reading.

First, the earliest Church had taught this, so Luther evidently stumbled across these well-known writings. These writings must have awoken the spirit of Luther to recognize the danger of Paul -- a realization that began in 1536 and remained until Luther died in 1546.

What Luther had previously missed until late in life was that God allowed Paul's writings to be added to the Writings read in Church as a test. The early church recognized this issue. 

The earliest Christians were called Ebionites - an Hebraism meaning the Poor. See our article on Ebionites. As that article explains, in their Clementine Homolies -- written in the 200s - speaking of Paul using the coded-name Simon Magus,  they attributed to Apostle Peter a speech where he explains why God has allowed "Scripture" sometimes to include false prophets like Simon Magus - as a test. It goes on, and Peter said God long ago explained the "mystery of the books [added to Scripture] which are able to deceive...since even the falsehoods of Scripture are with good reason presented for a test." (See link.)

This is exactly what God says in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 -- God allows 'true signs and wonders,' and predictions of a prophet "to come to pass" as a test whether you love God with your whole heart, mind and soul by seeing if you will accept such prophet if they also try to seduce you from following God's Law given that day - in context at least the Ten Commandments. That passage says such a prophet with true signs and wonders and prophecy must be rejected as a false prophet if he "seduces you from following" the Law. God says the attractiveness of such a prophet is a test whether you truly love God.

In the Antinomian Theses of 1537 AD, Luther 20 years after he started the Reformation realized that Paul was just such a test from God. Luther from 1517-1535 had said Paul abrogated the Law, and that included the moral law of the Ten Commandments. This was most strenuously put forth in Luther's Commentary on Galatians written in 1531 and published in 1535.

However, now 20 years after writing numerous times to that affect, Luther in 1537 now radically wrote that anyone who teaches you to no longer follow God's Law, or it was abrogated, including not obeying Sabbath (although conceding it was moved to Sunday), is a "false prophet" even if they preach alot about "Christ" or "grace." See Did Luther Call Paul A False Prophet In the End? Luther in Antinomian Theses does not explain the elephant in the room - Paul - and never tries to reconcile his prior view about Paul to his new view on what the Bible teaches is a false prophet. But to those who have ears to hear, the point was obvious and blunt.

Hence, in the end, Luther's Paulinism died in Luther's own spirit. His actions thereafter speak louder than words. He, Bucer, and Melancthon in 1541 at the Diet of Regensburg in an ecumenical conference with Catholics tried using the cover that the conference would provide to back-pedal, and make the Gospel be "Double Justification."

What is that?

Double Justification was first advanced in the Reformation as the cure to Paulinism by Erasmus, Menno Simons, and Tyndale. Double Justification is that you are initialy justified by faith alone (Paul), but every Christian needs a second justification of works as they live their Christian life (James) - reconciling Paul and James thereby. See our Preface to Jesus' Words on Salvation that thoroughly reviews this 1541 Conference.

Thereafter, Melancthon as Luther's successor in 1546 fought to change Lutheran doctrine to Double Justification, and succeeded by 1555 at a conference. However, after Melancthon's death, then in 1580 the Sola Fidists held a conference, and pronounced the Book of Concord. That book changed Lutheranism back to what the founder believed in from 1517 to1535 (faith alone at all points) but which Luther had rejected in 1537 until his death in 1545.

Thus, current Lutheranism (and the sola fidist Pauline Christianity it spawned) is a religion that its founder would reject if he were alive today. This means the final canon for Luther was of Christ's apostles  - Matthew and John, aided by non-apostles - Luke and Mark. James was no longer straw but the fundamental impetus to the Double Justification doctrine which Bucer and Melancthon were all advancing in 1541 at the Council of Regensburg on Luther's behalf.


Study Notes

Further study can be done on these following quotes attributed to Luther which I have not yet verified:

"The history of Jonah is so monstrous that it is absolutely incredible." (The Facts About Luther (O'Hare, TAN Books, 1987) at  202.)

"The book of Esther I toss into the Elbe. I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much and has in it a great deal of heathenish foolishness." (Ibid.)

"...the epistle of St. James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical." (Preface to the New Testament, ed. Dillenberger Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. by Dillenberger, Anchor Books, 1962, p. 19.)

"If nonsense is spoken anywhere, this is the very place. I pass over the fact that many have maintained, with much probability, that this epistle was not written by the apostle James, and is not worthy of the spirit of the apostle." (Pagan Servitude of the Church, ed. Dillenberger, p. 352.)

Luther ranked the gospels: "John records but few of the works of Christ, but a great deal of his preaching, whereas the other three evangelists record many of His works, but few of His words. It follows that the gospel of John is unique in loveliness, and of a truth the principal gospel, far, far superior to the other three, and St. Paul and St. Peter are far in advance of the three gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke." ('Preface to Romans,' ed. Dillenberger, pp. 18-19.)

And he complained about the Book of Revelation: "to my mind it bears upon it no marks of an apostolic or prophetic character... Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it." (Sammtliche Werke, 63, pp. 169-170, 'The Facts About Luther,' O'Hare (TAN Books, 1987) at 203.)

And finally, he admitted adding the word 'alone' to Rom. 3:28 of his own volition: "If your Papist annoys you with the word ('alone'), tell him straightway, Dr. Martin Luther will have it so: Papist and ass are one and the same thing. Whoever will not have my translation, let him give it the go-by: the devil's thanks to him who censures it without my will and knowledge. Luther will have it so, and he is a doctor above all the doctors in Popedom." (Amic. Discussion, 1, 127,'The Facts About Luther,' O'Hare (TAN Books, 1987) at 201.)

 On Swan's effort to defend Luther's position on canon, see Luther's View of the Canon of Scripture.