Sunday, December 29, 2013

Luther and the canon of Scripture

James Swan published a most interesting page of links and observations in 2004 on this topic called Luther and the canon of Scripture
Here are a few of his most interesting comments:
The most frequent charge against Luther’s view on the canon is his opinion on the book of James.  Luther wrote this statement in his original Preface To The New Testament in 1522:
In a word 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 necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw,  compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. But more of this in the other prefaces.”
Rarely is Luther accurately quoted on this topic. Luther says James “is really an epistle of straw” compared to “St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle.” Luther wants his readers to see a comparison.

An interesting fact about this quote (hardly ever mentioned by Luther-detractors!) is that it only appears in the original 1522 Preface To The New Testament. John Warwick Montgomery points out: “Few people realize — and liberal Luther interpreters do not particularly advertise the fact — 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.” Montgomery finds that Luther showed a “considerable reduction in negative tone in the revised Prefaces to the biblical books later in the Reformer’s career.”  For anyone to continue to cite Luther’s “epistle of straw” comment against him is to do Luther an injustice. He saw fit to retract the comment. Subsequent citations of this quote should bear this in mind.

John Warwick Montgomery has rightly concluded:
“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.”

1 comment:

Gordon Cheng said...

Now that's more like it! :-)