It is frequently said that Luther did not regard the whole Bible as the divinely-inspired Word of God, but only such parts of it as “urge Christ” (Christum treiben.) He thus assumed “a canon within the canon” (atque ita velut canonem in canone constituit; Grimm, Institutio Theologiae Dogmaticae, p. 118).
Rightly understood, this “canon within the canon” may be admitted as representing a principle which Luther applied in all his teaching and preaching, for he treated with special emphasis and predilection those writings of Scripture which set forth Christ and his redemptive work as, for example, Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, Peter’s first Epistle, the Christological portions of John’s Gospel, and the like. But in the sense in which moderns commonly interpret the expression, Luther’s “canon within the canon” is a myth, that is, an invented tale without a determinable basis of fact—indeed, a piece of fiction which contradicts his actual profession and practice. If, according to the current explanation of the phrase, Luther held that only those sections of the Scriptures are God’s inspired Word that treat of Christ and his redemption, there would have to be excluded from his perspective of scriptural inspiration the major part of the Old Testament. Actually, however, Luther accepted all the canonical books of the Bible as the divinely-inspired Word of God and as such the only divine norm of the Christian’s faith and life.
Since, then, Luther is commonly charged with having entertained a liberal view of Scripture, it is well for the impartial student of reformational dogma to consider his conception of scriptural inspiration.
The distinction of homologoumena and antilegomena applies properly to the books of the New Testament; for when the New’ Testament canon was finally fixed as, for example, at the First General African Church Council of Hippo Regius in 393, and again at the Council of Carthage in 397, both of which listed all the New Testament writings as we have them in our Bibles today, some were “most certainly” (homologoumenos) approved as having been written by the apostles, the divinely authorized teachers of the Christian Church, while others were accepted with considerable doubt and even contradiction as to their apostolic authorship (cf. Eusebius, Church History, III, 25). The generally acknowledged New Testament books were received as protocanonical or homologoumena, while the others were accepted as deuterocanonical or antilegomena, that is, books whose apostolic authorship was “spoken against.” The medieval church, in which Luther was reared, ignored this distinction, and for all practical purposes also Protestants today may ignore it, since all the deuterocanonical books have sufficient witness in favor of their apostolic authorship to entitle them to a place in the canon.
The distinction of homologoumena and antilegomena, however, may also be applied to the books of the Old Testament as maintained by the medieval church. The Old Testament homologoumena are the canonical books that were accepted by the Jewish synagogue, Christ, and his apostles as divinely inspired and authoritative. The so-called apocrypha are 14 spurious, uncanonical books which passed from the Septuagint into the Latin Vulgate and which Luther, in agreement with his moderate reformation policy, published in his German Bible, but with the express proviso that they as antilegomena are not a part of the Old Testament canon. Protestant Bibles, for valid reasons, omit the apocrypha. They are of doubtful authenticity and frequently contain erroneous teachings contradicting those of the canonical Scriptures.
Luther, of course, did not place the apocrypha of the Old Testament and the deuterocanonical books of the New Testament on the same level, for while he repudiated the apocrypha as totally uncanonical, he, especially in his later years, evinced considerable appreciation of the New Testament antilegomena.
All Canonical Books Inspired
While moderns usually cite only those passages of Luther’s writings which make him appear as championing a liberal view of Scripture and commonly do not publish such quotations in their proper context, they omit those clear and unmistakable statements of Luther in which he very emphatically professes his acceptance of all the canonical books of the Bible as the divinely-inspired and authoritative Word of God. A notable exception to this unfair practice we find in Reinhold Seeberg’s Lehrhuch der Dogmengeschichte, of which he dedicates an entire volume to Die Lehre Luthers (cf. Vol. IV.1; Deichertsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Leipzig, 1933). Seeberg too supports the view of modems that for Luther the inspired Scripture is only that part which urges Christ or, more properly, the “doctrine of the Gospel” (op. cit., p. 416). But he also, at least in part, states passages from the Reformer’s writings which clearly show that he regarded all the canonical books as given by divine inspiration.
Seeberg thus writes inter alia (op. cit., p. 414 f.): To Luther the words of Scripture are indeed the true words of God, for the Holy Spirit expressed his wisdom and mystery in the Word and revealed it in Scripture (Weimar ed., 36, 501). The truthful God speaks in Scripture wherefore we must accept without dispute what he says (W 40.2, 593). Whatever Paul says, the Holy Ghost says; hence whatever goes counter to Paul’s Word goes counter to the Holy Spirit (W 10.2, 139 f.). According to God’s decree the apostles are infallible teachers; therefore they are authoritative as are the prophets (op. cit., ibid.). In addition, they received the Holy Spirit so that their words are God’s Word (W 40.1, 173 f.). As human beings they are subject to sin and error as was Peter at Antioch, but the Holy Spirit corrected their deviations (W 40.1, 195 f.). He moved them to speak the divine truth even when they committed grammatical irregularities (W 40.1, 170). For this reason Scripture is God’s Word and not that of man (W 5, 184; 8, 597). God is the author of the Gospel (W 8, 584) and the Holy Spirit is the writer of Genesis (W 44, 532; W 43, 475.628; 44, 18.19.327). The Bible is the peculiar Scripture of the Holy Spirit (W 7, 638; 46, 545; 47, 133). Such quotations might easily be multiplied. However the cited passages seem sufficient to prove satisfactorily that Luther took over the later medieval theory of inspiration. But from the very start it must not be overlooked that at all times Luther merely presupposes inspiration and that he does not express himself on the process itself in any accurate or comprehensive way. This, however, makes it appear all the more convincing that he simply reproduced the traditional doctrine. So far Seeberg.
In his Christian Dogmatics (Concordia Publishing House, 1950) Dr. Francis Pieper quotes many more passages to show that Luther without reservation accepted all the canonical books of Scripture as divinely inspired and authoritative (cf. Vol. I, pp. 276 ff.). But Seeberg’s quotations prove convincingly Luther’s acceptance of the plenary inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures.
Expressions Against Romanism
A third important observation that must be kept in mind in connection with Luther’s alleged liberal view of scriptural inspiration is the fact that his extreme expressions were commonly made in opposition to papistic error and concerned only the antilegomena. This is true especially of his remark that only such biblical books are apostolic as preach or urge Christ. That rather extreme comment occurs in his “Preface to the Epistles of James and Jude,” written in 1522 (cf. St. L. Ed. XIV, pp. 129 ff.; WA Bibel VII, 384). It is well known how assiduously Roman theologians used James 2:17–26 against the sola fide-doctrine of the Reformation. While it is not within the scope of this article to go into exegetical detail on Romans 3:20–28 and James 2:17–26, it may be said that Protestant theologians long ago have pointed out that between the teachings of Paul and James there is perfect agreement, though they differ in orientation.
In 1522, however, Luther was wholly unaware of this perfect agreement between Paul and James just as also later he did not solve the problem of the seeming discrepancy. He therefore wrote in the introductory paragraph of his Preface: “This epistle of St. James I praise, though it was rejected by the ancients, and I regard it as commendable because it does not teach human doctrine, but earnestly inculcates the divine law. But if I may express my opinion, without, however, putting anyone else to a disadvantage, I do not consider it to be the writing of an apostle, and that for the following reason.”
Luther then states his twofold objection to the epistle, namely, first, that, contrary to Paul’s letters and all other Scriptures, it ascribes justification to works, and, secondly, that it does not mention at all the suffering, resurrection, and the Spirit of Christ. While James does mention Christ several times, he does not teach anything definite about him, but speaks merely of the common faith in God. Then Luther goes on to say that it is the office of a true apostle to testify of Christ’s suffering, resurrection, and office and so to lay the foundation of the Christian faith, as the Lord himself says: “Ye shall bear witness” (John 15:27). After that he comments: “And all true sacred Scriptures agree in this that they with one accord preach and urge Christ, since the whole Bible teaches Christ (Rom. 3:21) and St. Paul is determined not to know anything save Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:2). Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul should inculcate it. Again, whatever does preach Christ that would be apostolic even though Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod should teach it.”
Luther concludes his preface to the epistle of James with the words: “In short, he [the writer] wanted to restrain those who relied on faith without works, but in trying to do this, he proved himself too weak and so he endeavored to accomplish by legal stress what the apostles bring about by urging Christian love. Therefore I cannot classify the letter among the true chief Scriptures. But this is not to prevent anyone else from placing or exalting it as it pleases him, for it contains many fine passages.” This is the shorter form of the conclusion; there is one somewhat longer though it does not add anything that is essential.
From these words it is obvious that in 1522 Luther did not understand the relation of James to Paul. Nor did he later acknowledge the letter as one written by an apostle. But it is clear that the suggested criterion, that only those are true apostolic books which preach or urge Christ, was declared in opposition to the papistic error of work-righteousness, and that it was to apply only to the antilegomena or uncanonical writings whose apostolic authorship had been doubted or even denied by the ancient church. By accepting the homologoumena or canonical books of the Old and the New Testament as divinely inspired and authoritative, Luther himself exemplified the limitation of this criterion of judging biblical books. Within the acknowledged canonical Scriptures he did not accept “a canon within the canon” in the sense in which the phrase is commonly, but erroneously, interpreted.
Judging Luther In Context
It cannot be denied that Luther, in blazing a trail through the labyrinth of papistic biblical confusion, at times made extreme statements and voiced extravagant opinions. That was quite in agreement with his impulsive, emotional nature, for, unlike Melanchthon or Calvin, he often was excessively frank in his judgments especially when they concerned opponents who bitterly opposed him. Nor did Luther later revise, carefully and critically, his printed works since for this chore he had neither leisure nor inclination. An exception, of course, was his German Bible which he painstakingly edited and revised till shortly before his death. To the end of his life Luther was an extremely busy man, ceaselessly writing, lecturing, preaching, and doing odd ecclesiastical chores which really should have been delegated to others. So it happens that moderns may find in his writings statements that might make it appear as though he inclined to a liberal view of scriptural inspiration. But had Luther desired to lecture only on books that preach or urge Christ, he never would have accepted the Wittenberg professorship of the Old Testament on which he lectured practically throughout his life. And always he declared the canonical books of the Bible to be divinely inspired and authoritative. In his sermons and lectures he treated even the deuterocanonical books of the New Testament, some of which he later rated rather highly, as, for example, the striking differences between his earlier and later prefaces to the Apocalypse, namely, those of 1522 and 1545, show (cf. St. L. Ed., XIV, 141.130; WA Bibel VII, 404.406). In short, moderns cannot claim Luther for their liberal view of Scripture. As a matter of fact Luther’s view of biblical inspiration, so far as the canonical books of the Old and the New Testament are concerned, differs very little from that of John Calvin. As Seeberg rightly remarks, he took over the medieval doctrine of biblical inspiration; but so also did the learned Genevan Bible scholar.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineEve’s Legacy Is Both Sin and RedemptionThe first woman tried to get free of God. But when she aligned herself with God’s purposes, she became the ‘Mother of All the Living.’
- Editor's PickBecome a Shadow of Your Future SelfManifesting isn’t the answer. Consenting to holiness is.