The recent almost world-wide Luther renaissance, which has again made the Reformer’s teachings a matter of popular interest, has also produced a renewed discussion of his doctrine of biblical inspiration. Conservatives appeal to him for support of their position as well as the neo-orthodox and the neoliberals.

Since all quote passages from his writings to substantiate their claims, it would appear that Luther held heterogeneous and conflicting opinions on this issue. The resulting confusion justifies the question as to what Luther really believed and confessed with regard to the doctrine of biblical inspiration.

Luther’S Opposition To False Views

Only when we view the objective of Luther in its proper perspective can we rightly gauge his attitude toward Scripture. But this will lead us also to assign to him his rightful place as a true reformer of the biblical doctrine of Scripture in general over against the erroneous views of his day. As the first of the evangelical church reformers, Luther had to blaze a new Scripture-oriented trail through a veritable theological jungle of errant opinions in which Scripture, tradition, reason, mystic intuitions and the like were hopelessly jumbled.

Luther’s interest therefore was not attached primarily to the doctrine of inspiration, as was, for instance, that of the later Swiss divines. He accentuated, above all, what is now commonly known as the sola scriptura, that is, the proper source and norm of the Christian faith and life. That exalted position and function of Scripture Luther endeavored to establish and clarify against the Romanist view of Scripture plus church tradition, the humanist view of Scripture plus reason and the enthusiast view of Scripture plus private revelation.

The Bible’S Authority Decisive

To all these varying forms of unequally yoking together “what God says” and “what man says,” Luther once for all called a halt. Very early in his career as an evangelical reformer, he recognized that he could not maintain the central Gospel doctrine of Scripture, the glad tidings of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ, unless the Bible alone is accepted as the decisive authority in religion.

He knew from both Scripture and experience that the sola gratia, or the sola fide, is a message of divine revelation, entirely foreign to a false church tradition, perverted human reasoning, erroneous mystic speculation, alleged private revelation and other standards which rationalizing theologians of all sorts desired to place side-by-side with Scripture as normative for doctrine and life.

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Luther rightly maintained that the Christian way of salvation by grace through faith in the redemptive blood of Christ can come only from God Himself, and not from philosophy or any other manifestation of human thought. It was thus in the interest of the sola gratia that Luther so greatly stressed the sola scriptura. It was also for this reason that he inculcated the entire body of Christian truth from the viewpoint of Christ crucified and risen for sinful man’s deliverance and justification. Luther’s whole theology was indeed Christocentric, but this absolute Christocentric orientation did not flow from any speculative motif. His evangelical teachings were centered in Christ simply because, as he puts it, Christ is the beginning, middle and end of Scripture. Over against the vainglorious arrogance of perverted human reason his theology proved itself triumphantly theocentric.

Protest Against Rome’S Position

To understand properly Luther’s doctrine of biblical inspiration, we must keep in mind, moreover, that in the interest of the sola scriptura Luther also rejected, on the one hand, the false Romanist synthesis of the canonical Scriptures and the Apocrypha and on the other, the Romanist equalizing of the New Testament Homologumena and Antilegomena. Since neither Christ nor the apostles quote the Apocrypha of the Old Testament and since, moreover, Jewish tradition did not accept them as a part of the canon, Luther regarded it as an impious undertaking on the part of Romanism to place them on the same level with the prophetic Scriptures of the Old Testament. Luther’s protest against the Romanist attempt at placing on the same level the Homologumena, that is, the universally received books of the New Testament, and the Antilegomena, or those that were not unanimously received, such as James, Jude, Hebrews and others, was not quite as stern as was his repudiation of the Apocrypha. Nevertheless, he held that since the ancient Christian church, which alone was capable of deciding this matter, had made this distinction, the later (Romanist) church had no authority to abolish the established difference. This conviction largely explains Luther’s well-known condemnation of the Epistle of St. James.

Development In Luther’S Thought

At this point, however, it should be stated in justice to Luther that he later somewhat modified his earlier opinions on the Antilegomena. Thus his last preface to the Epistle of St. James is much more favorable than was his first.

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Luther therefore should not be judged merely from certain expressions, often quoted without due consideration of the context, but from his theology as a whole, and that especially in its later development. There is no doubt that Luther increased in wisdom and stature as year by year he occupied himself with the profound Gospel content of Scripture. Hence, what the “young Luther” said must be compared with what the “mature Luther” had to say.

At the beginning of his work as a reformer, Luther had no dependable pattern to go by. Even so helpful a guide from the ancient church as St. Augustine usually failed him, as he faced doctrinal or exegetical problems. Then, too, it should be remembered that Luther was an extremely busy man who commonly wrote under heavy pressure. At one time he complained that his manuscript was taken from his desk by the printer even before the ink could become dry. That accounts largely for what has been called the “uncritical character” of his writings. Lastly, it may be noted that Luther was lacking in the literary punctiliousness, or precision that characterized, for example, such scholars as Melanchthon and Beza. Luther’s writings are like rugged gems, usually unpolished and often unfinished in form, but gems, nevertheless. Therefore the student of Luther may occasionally find in his theological treatises lapses or even contradictions, though these do not pertain to essentials, but to peripheral or accidental matters and may largely be explained by their orientation and emphasis.

But with regard to the doctrine of biblical inspiration there is nothing in his works that denies the verbal and plenary inspiration of the canonical books of the Bible. In Luther’s estimation every canonical biblical book is God’s Word, no matter whether it teaches a Gospel mystery or an intelligible precept and whether it pleases perverted human reason or not.

Champion Of Plenary Inspiration

While Luther did not use the scholastic terminology of the later Lutheran and non-Lutheran dogmaticians such as verbal or plenary inspiration, he in substance held what these terms signify, though he never taught what has been called a “mechanical dictation theory.” To him it sufficed that Scripture, given to perishing mankind by the merciful God through his divinely called prophets and apostles, is God’s own Word and therefore efficacious, authoritative, sufficient and perspicuous.

To Luther, God’s Word, set forth in Scripture, is never anything dead, but always something divinely alive, effective and powerful to work that which God wills, through the Holy Spirit operating in the written living Word. Therefore it must be regarded as efficacious and, as a divine message, also authoritative. But Scripture as the Word of God is also sufficient to quicken the hearts of men and convert them to Christ by a living faith, the Law humbling the conceited natural heart and the Gospel, the message of divine grace in Christ Jesus, as the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth, engendering saving faith in Christ. For that very reason Scripture, in all its essential parts, is also perspicuous, or clear, though obscure portions occur in its prophetic utterances.

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Luther very earnestly urged all students of the Bible to turn from such obscure passages and portions, if these should perplex them, and study with unabating zeal the divine plan of salvation in Christ Jesus, which Scripture everywhere sets forth in lucid terms. Luther himself never attempted an exposition of the Book of Revelation, which he regarded historically as deuterocanonical, and doctrinally as inexplicable in its prophetic visions.

The Central Interest Is Christ

On the other hand, Luther never wearied of expounding the fundamental Scriptures of sin and grace and to accentuate those Bible books that treat Christ, not because he regarded the others as non-inspired or less inspired, but because in his opinion Scripture serves no other purpose than to make men know, trust, love and follow Christ. Beyond that Luther did not develop the doctrine of biblical inspiration, not merely because there was no controversy on this subject, since both the Romanists and the Swiss reformers agreed with him on the doctrine of inspiration, but because he perceived no need of any further scholastic formulation of the doctrine. Nevertheless, essentially his teaching on inspiration is the same as that of the later Lutheran and non-Lutheran dogmaticians; for Christians who honestly accept what Scripture witnesses of itself are bound to reach the conclusion that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God and as such the only legitimate authority of doctrine and life, just as it is God’s power to convert and sanctify sinners, sufficient for man’s salvation and clear in all its teachings that pertain to man’s salvation.

Luther never changed or modified his doctrine of biblical inspiration which he had inherited from his medieval teachers, namely that Scripture, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is God’s own saving Word. Having been made a “Doctor of Sacred Scripture,” on October 19, 1512, he, at Wittenberg, eagerly took over the prescribed lectures on the Holy Bible, the so-called Lectura in Biblia, which obligated him to offer continuous discourses on Scripture.

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What Scripture Says, God Says

In spring, 1513, he began to expound the Book of Psalms, to which he devoted that entire year. In these his first lectures he again and again impressed upon the students his conviction that the Scriptures are God’s Word, and that therefore such expressions as “God speaks” and “Scripture speaks” must be regarded as interchangeable. Luther thus says, to quote but a few of his many statements on this point: “The Scriptures are divine; in them God speaks, and they are His Word” (Weimar Ed., III, 41,6; 451,26). In 1520 Luther published his famous polemic Concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in which he states that the church has no authority to set forth new divine promises of grace “… (but that) God’s Word stands incomparably high above the church” (W. VI,561). In 1521, at the Diet of Worms, he refused to recant his statements against the Roman church, because he “was overcome by the Scriptures” and his “conscience was taken captive by the words of God” (W. 7,838). According to Luther, Scripture is always above the words and wisdom of men, because it is God’s own Word.

That remained Luther’s doctrine of biblical inspiration till the end of his life. To him the canonical Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament were at all times the authoritative Word of God and this he asserted over and over, almost ad nauseam. In matters of salvation only Scripture is to be believed, and not any pope or church council, for my faith must be certain and have a sure foundation in Scripture (W. 15,195). Whatever is asserted without Scripture or without its sure revelation need not be believed (W. 6,508; 10,2,191; 2, 297,279,309,315). The true God speaks in Scripture, wherefore we must accept in simple faith what it says (W. 40.2,593). Whatever Paul says, the Holy Spirit says; and whatever is contrary to Paul’s word, is contrary also to the Holy Spirit (W. 10.2,139 f.). The apostles received the Holy Spirit; therefore their words are God’s Word (W. 40. 1,173 f.). So, then, Scripture is God’s Word and not the word of men (W. 5, 184; 8, 597). God is the author of the Gospel (W. 8,584). The Holy Spirit is the author of Genesis (W. 44,532). The Bible is the peculiar Scripture of the Holy Spirit (W. 7,638; 46,545; 47, 133).

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Studies Of Luther’S Doctrine

Dr. Reinhold Seeberg, from whose Die Lehre Luthers (Vol. IV) of his Dogmengeschichte (Leipzig 1933), we have quoted these thoughts and words of Luther, rightly remarks: “Such quotations (from Luther) could easily be multiplied.” That is true, and there are many that have performed this task. Luther’s doctrine of biblical inspiration has been very adequately and convincingly set forth by Dr. M. Reu, in his excellent book Luther and the Scriptures (1943). It has been treated still more comprehensively by Dr. Francis Pieper in his three-volume Christian Dogmatics (English translation, 1950). More briefly the writer of this has summed up the matter in his Christian Dogmatics (1934).

A fair and unbiased study of what Luther has written time and again on biblical inspiration should convince any reader that he always and fully recognized the canonical books of the Old and the New Testament as the inspired Word of God, from which a Christian dare not depart nor to which he dare add anything.

Luther acknowledged no degrees of inspiration. He did not look upon some books of Scripture as more inspired than other but considered all canonical books of the Bible to be equally inspired, though not equally important for Christian study so far as the way of salvation through faith in Christ is concerned; for first, as he says, those writings deserve consideration that set forth the fundamentals of sin and grace.

It is commonly said that Luther took over the doctrine of biblical inspiration from his medieval teachers. Rightly understood, that statement may stand. But medieval theology did not develop a peculiar doctrine of its own concerning biblical inspiration. It rather taught what has always been the belief of the Christian church, ever since the time of the church fathers, the apostolic fathers and the blessed apostles themselves, who in their teaching of biblical inspiration followed their divine Master.

A Sacred Tradition

To Christ, the entire Old Testament canon was the inspired Word of God, which he quoted authoritatively as the divine Word, and that not merely according to its general scope, but according to its particular passages or statements. To establish monogamy as the divinely instituted form of marriage over against his opponents, he quoted Genesis 1:27 (Matt. 19:4). To repulse the temptations of Satan he quoted distinctive Scripture passages against him from the Old Testament (Matt. 4:1–11). To our blessed Lord, the Old Testament passages were the authoritative divine Word, and in that sense they were understood also by his adversaries, Satan no less than the Pharisees and Sadducees.

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This was the practice also of St. Paul, who as a called apostle of Jesus Christ did not only proclaim in divinely inspired words the divine truths revealed to him (1 Cor. 2:12,13) and wrote by divine inspiration the “commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37) but also, in support of his apostolic teachings, quoted Old Testament passages as, for instance, Habbakuk 2:4 (Rom. 1:17).

That was done also by the other apostles, so that from the days of Christ and his apostles up to the time of crass rationalism the canonical Scriptures of the prophets and apostles were unanimously regarded in Christendom as the divinely inspired Word of God.

High View The Prevalent One

This fact was incontestably affirmed some years ago by the learned German theologian, Dr. H. Echternach, in a treatise on biblical inspiration entitled The Lutheran Doctrine of the Autopistia of Holy Scripture, which he delivered before a convention of Lutheran pastors and professors at Berlin Spandau in 1951. He wrote inter alia: “The infallibility of Scripture was the consensus of the church, irrespective of denominational lines, until long after 1700 A.D.” Again: “Lutheran theology … refused to surrender the doctrine of inspiration also for another reason. It was aware of the heinousness of false doctrine, something the moderns have lost.… The 17th century still knew something of ‘being constrained by the truth’ and of the moral implications of religious knowledge. It therefore recognized that both in the secular and in the ecclesiastical realm every error is blasphemy and soul-murder” (cf. Concordia Theological Monthly, April, 1952; pp. 241 ff.).

Acceptance Of The Biblical Witness

Luther took the Bible seriously. When, for example, it declares: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), or: “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Tim. 3:14), he accepted these statements as the inspired Word of God from which neither he nor any other person had the right to deviate.

Modern liberalism gave up this doctrine of biblical inspiration and with that fatal surrender also the objective Christian truth of Scripture, which Luther valued so highly. It lapsed into a deadly subjectivism tantamount to religious agnosticism; indeed, that tolerating human error and repudiating as false the Gospel of Christ’s free and full salvation as taught in Scripture.

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But this agnostic subjectivism is not only subversive of all positive supernatural truth; it is also unfair to Scripture which approaches man as a divine Book, authoritatively demanding, as God’s own Word, both faith and obedience. If this divine Book, the glory of the Christian world, with its Spirit-inspired message of salvation, is not given a chance to sanctify sinners and transform our perishing civilization by its preserving moral precepts, the light of Christ will fail our western peoples as darkness once fell upon rebellious Israel when it declined to listen to the warning of the prophet: “To the law and testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20).

Luther predicted that very thing to his own generation and people. Those who know history know what has happened. There is much that his prophetic voice may tell our own age on how to regard and treat the inspired Scriptures of God.


We Quote:


Editor, Christian Herald

Always the high purpose, the veritable passion of the Reformers, was to know God through Jesus Christ; to open and release the Bible as the Word of God; to bring men, as individuals, to redemption, and to save the whole world, its institutions and its peoples from sin—sin corporate and personal. Always the message of the Reformation was, and always it must be, just this; Jesus Christ, Who is Very God of Very God, the one and only sufficient Saviour.—From a Reformation Day sermon November 4 in Jacksonville, Florida.

J. Theodore Mueller, whose earlier years were spent instructing in Lutheran colleges and serving Lutheran churches, in 1921 began his long and useful career as Professor of Systematic Theology and Exegesis at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. His books include Luther’s Commentary on Romans and The Lutheran Confessions. Born 1885, he received the Th.D. degree from Xenia Theological Seminary in 1927.

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