Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Luther, James, Canon and the Authority of Scripture

Every so often Luther’s view concerning James comes up and scandalizes Bible believing Christians everywhere, including many Lutherans. In our day the Bible is the Bible, but understanding of its history and making is little. For that matter, many people claim to believe the Bible, are scandalized by Luther’s dismissal of James, and have never themselves read the Bible. And it is the irony of ironies to many that Luther who stood so firmly on the idea of Sola Scriptura, or scripture alone, would to the very end of his life never change his view. I can sympathize with that. I grew up with many of the same views and was scandalized for a few weeks in college trying to reconcile the Lutheran view of the canon with that which I had been taught by countless well meaning Sunday School teachers, teachers and friends through the years. It took some time but the more I look into it the more I am disinclined to apologize for Luther and the more inclined I am to champion him on this issue. The more I see that this is really a matter of the authority of Scripture, and only Luther’s view preserves the authority of scripture over that of the church or tradition.
Luther at the Diet of Worms, did not appeal to the “Bible” alone, but to scripture alone, and with good reason. There is a bit of a difference. There was especially a difference in Luther‘s day. Now to be fair, all that there is as far as Holy Scripture goes is to be found in the Bible, the question is whether there is more in the Bible than can rightly be considered scripture. In Luther’s day were many books in the Bible that were not considered scripture, or at a minimum were suspect and therefore not deemed sufficient for deciding doctrinal controversy. Some of those books still remain in the modern English Bibles. After all, no one winces that the Old Testament Apocrypha, books like first and second Maccabees are no longer included in protestant Bibles. (Though in Lutheran countries this too is a modern development. Even in the Nineteenth Century it was common for Lutherans to read the apocryphal literature as devotional material.) The only books Luther gets chastised for questioning today, were those books of the New Testament that were open for question by all in his day.
It should be noted here that Luther, what ever his distaste for what these books said, would never have questioned them for that reason alone. He had good reason, it was not a matter of “I don’t like that.“ An attitude adopted by too many today. The question of canonicity or whether a particular scripture, such as James or Revelation, was God’s word or not, was never a matter of Luther’s own taste, likes or dislikes. His questioning of James is in no way the same as the pastime of higher critics today who wonder whether or not “Jesus really said that.” Or the liberal churches who like to mistake warm fuzzy feelings for the Holy Spirit guiding them as to what is and isn’t God’s word in scripture. Where Luther was convinced of the Apostolic origin, or approval of a book there Luther was subject to what it said, no matter what it said. This is more than I can say for many “fundamentalists” today who uncritically accept all 27 books of the New Testament as canon.
Many claim that Luther questioned James purely on subjective grounds. Even J.A.O Preus II claims that Luther’s “Christological criterion” is rather subjective. That is that Luther would judge the canonicity of the particular scripture in question based on whether or not it testified to Christ. Given Christ’s own words in John 5:39, I’m not sure that is as subjective as many would make it out to be. It seems to be Christ’s own principal. Yet this was hardly Luther’s only reason for questioning James and other books in the New Testament.
The truth is that in Luther’s day Luther’s view of the canon was quite common if not freshly dug up with a renewed interest in Scripture that had long been dormant. They were even shared by many of Luther’s opponents including Erasmus and Cajetan. Not until Rome decided that a room full of the Anti-Christ’s representatives could take a vote to decide whether a book was apostolic and therefore canonical in 1546 was the canon officially shut for them. To many this would look like Rome champions scripture even more than Luther, but that would be false. In doing this they have not granted scripture authority, but the church authority to decide what is scripture. Scripture then becomes subservient to the Church and tradition. You really can’t have all three on the same level.
The reformed churches since Calvin have more or less let the tradition of 27 New Testament books hold sway, and see no reason to investigate the origins of canon. For them it is Bible alone, putting the New Testament antilegomena (books that the early church never quite accepted as authoritative being suspicious of their origins)on fairly the same level as the legoumena (Books that had always been accepted as authoritative because their apostilic origin was beyond dispute) seeing little if any distinctions, despite the fact that even Zwingli , Calvin, Beza and other recognized that there was a distinction , and despite all the evidence that there is a distinction to be made. Here it isn’t so much the authority of the church that takes precedence over scripture, but perhaps a blind trust in tradition. The fall out from this approach seems to be that rather than having 27 books of the New Testament, they have two, James and Revelation. (The two most hotly contested of the antilegomena.) Rather than reconcile James to Paul, Paul and James are pitted against each other. Perhaps Luther was right to suspect that James and Paul could not really be reconciled. A view he held despite the fact that he thought James still had a lot of good to say to the Christian. Luther may have been a bit flamboyant in what he said concerning the canonicity of James, but in principle his thoughts were more or less accepted by all who had studied the matter.
But why James? Why did Luther have such a problem with James, and why is he so vilely attacked for this view? Perhaps here it would be good to read what Luther has to say in his famous preface to the book of James so often referenced and rarely quoted:

“Though this Epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and regard it as a good book, because it sets up no doctrine of men and lays great stress on God’s law. But to state my own opinion about it, though without injury to anyone, I consider that it is not the writing of any apostle. My reasons are as follows:
“first: Flatly in contradiction to St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture it ascribes righteousness to works and says that Abraham was justified by his works in that he offered his son Isaac, though St. Paul, on the contrary, teaches, in Romans 4 that Abraham was justified without works, by faith alone, before he offered his son and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15. Now, although this Epistle might be helped and a gloss be found for this work-righteousness, it cannot be defended against applying to works the saying of Moses in Gen. 15, which speaks only of Abraham’s faith and not of his works, as St. Paul shows in Romans 4. This fault, therefore leads to the conclusion that it is not the work of any apostle.
“Second: its purpose is to teach Christians, and in all its teaching it does not once mention the passion, the Resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ. The Writer names Christ several times but teaches nothing about Him, and only speaks of common faith in God. But it is the duty of a true apostle to preach about the foundation of faith, as He Himself says, in John 15, ’Ye shall bear witness of me.’ All the genuine sacred books agree in this that all of them preach Christ and deal with Him. That is the true test by which to judge all books when we see whether they deal with Christ or not, since all the scriptures show us Christ (Romans 3), and St. Paul is determined to know nothing but Christ (1 Corinthians 15). What does not teach Christ is not apostolic even though St. Peter or Paul taught it; again, what preaches Christ would be apostolic even though Judas, Annas, Pilate and Herod did it.
“but this James does noting more than to drive to the law and its works; and mixes the two up 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 on the basis of his preaching. He calls the law a ’law of liberty’ though St. Paul calls it a law of slavery, of wrath, of death, and of sin (Galatians 3, Romans 7).
“Moreover, in chapter 5 he quotes the sayings of St. Peter, ’love covereth the multitude of sins’ (I Peter 4) and, ’Humble yourselves under the hand of God’(I Peter 5) and of St. Paul (Galatians 5) ’ The spirit lusteth against hatred,’ and yet in point of time, St. James was put to death by Herod, in Jerusalem, before st. Peter. So it seems that he come after st. Peter and Paul.
“In a word, he wants to guard against those who relied on faith without works and is unequal to the task in spirit, thought and words, and wrests the Scriptures and thereby resists Paul and all Scriptures and would accomplish by inciting men to love. Therefore I cannot put it among the chief books though I would not thereby prevent anyone from putting it where he pleases and regarding it as he pleases; for there are many good sayings in it.” (Reu, M, Luther and the Scriptures, Pgs. 38-40)

Luther had other things to say about James elsewhere which were harsher than this particular preface of 1522, in which he tried best he could not to scandalize the hearts of many who perhaps already want to equate Scripture with the Bible and the Bible with the word of God. Most Lutheran theologians throughout the ages have been careful not to do this. Even the ordination vows of Lutheran Pastors have them only swear to canonical books, leaving open which books those are.
It is true, as J.A.O. Preus II points out, that overtime the distinction amongst the books has dwindled. Even Chemnitz was careful not to be as bombastic as Luther over the issue when he took the Council of Trent to task for pronouncing anethema on all who rejected the 39 canonical books of the O.T. the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, and the 27 books of the New Testament. Thereby anathematizing not only Luther and Chemnitz, not only Eusebius, Augustine, Jerome, Origen and a host of others from the early church, but even the most vehement defenders of the Roman Catholic church and its dogma during the Reformation including Erasmus, and Cajetan.
There are many reasons given for this. Gerhard seems to believe that no matter who wrote James it is the work of the Holy Spirit, and takes this attitude with all the antilegomena.
I fail to see how this can be. It certainly does matter who wrote what. If it was not written or approved by an Apostle sent by Christ, and given the direct promise of the Holy Spirit to guide them in John 16, then how can we be certain it has the Holy Spirit as its primary author? If the books did not have the necessary provenance to be accepted by the church in the fourth century by the leading theologians of that century as unqualifiedly canonical, as Eusebius makes abundantly clear was the case, what new evidence is there today by which these books can bind the consciences of Christians? And why should a generation that thinks it no big deal what is and isn’t scripture as long as it is in the Bible, think they can criticize Luther for his views concerning James? It should be the other way around. Christians are called to test the Spirits (1 John 4:1: 1 Tim.4:1; Col.2:8) at least Luther was willing to do that! We are not at liberty to say any more or any less than Holy Scripture. How then can we be at liberty to arbitrarily decide that which is and isn’t Scripture concerning books that fail to meet the criteria?
Some argue that James and Paul are easily reconciled, and that James can be given a gospel interpretation. My sermons can be given a gospel interpretation. That does not mean they are thereby given apostolic authority, and made scripture. What is worse is the abuse and torture of souls subjected to the preaching and interpretation of James that see no reason to bother reconciling him to Paul.
What’s more if there is no contradiction between Paul and James, why not just make one’s argument from Paul and the rest of the scripture we can be certain of? I, like Luther, would not take James from anyone. If they want to use it in their private devotions, or perhaps even study it with others. Luther quotes from it even in the Catechism with the self evident truth that “God tempts no one.” It does have some good things to say. The moral teachings it has are good. But this does not make it Scripture, or the word of God. It definitely does not make it gospel.
So it becomes problematic, unqualifiedly recognizing the antilegomena including James as scripture. In fact it erodes the authority of Scripture, yes even the Bible. For if absent the meeting of canonical criteria, Apostolic authorship, and not just Apostolic doctrine, being chief, a book can be declared by some entity, whether individual, church, or a neglect of thoughtful consideration to be scripture, then any book can be declared scripture, and there is nothing left by which to test spirits, but the warm fuzzies of liberals, and the burning bosoms of Mormons.


Bror Erickson said...

I has footnotes, but they didn't come through.

Larry said...


This is a SUPERB article on the subject, I mean SUPERB. I can't wait to read it again with my wife tonight!


Steve Martin said...

Nice one, Bror.

Thanks be to God that the Word is not dependent on what men say, think or do.

The Word will accomplish It's purposes in spite of our best or worst efforts.

Bror Erickson said...

Steve, Larry,
Thanks. Your word's of encouragement mean much right now. Not the easiest of days for me right now.

Bror Erickson said...

I saw that it needed a bit more editing. Hopefully this is better now.
The paper I originally wrote yesterday had many footnotes. I'm sorry those did not come through when I pasted this into the field.

Bryan said...

I really like this article too, Bror. I think I'll keep a copy to give out and read from time to time. Very helpful on the "testing of the spirits" and a true Lutheran view of Scriptural authority, which is very important around here.

Bror Erickson said...

Thanks Bryan. It is important around these parts. In fact I don't know that I would be so tenacious about it if I weren't here.