Thursday, August 13, 2015

Martin Luther on the New Testament

The last two posts have been excerpts from Martin Luther’s introduction to the Old Testament. In one of those excerpts, the great reformer asserts that the Old Testament is analogous to the manger and swaddling-clothes in which Jesus is laid, suggesting that not that is contained in the Old Testament is to be equated with Jesus Christ. In the other he insists that “all laws aim at faithand love, none of them can be valid, or be a law, if it conflicts with faith and love.”

Here are the last few paragraphs of Luther’s Preface to his German translation of the New Testament (1522):

Which are the true and noblest books of the New Testament?

From all this you can now judge all the books and decide among them which are the best.  John’s gospel and St. Paul’s epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books. They ought properly to be the foremost books, and it would be advisable for every Christian to read them first and most, and by daily reading to make them as much his own as his daily bread. For in them you do not find many works and miracles of Christ described, but you do find depicted in masterly fashion how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation. This is the real nature of the gospel, as you have heard.

If I had to do without one of the other – either the works or the preaching of Christ – I would rather do without the works than without His preaching. For the works do not help me, but His words give life, as He Himself says [John 6:63] . Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about His preaching, while the other evangelists write much about His works and little about His preaching. Therefore John’s Gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

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.
(The Protestant Reformation, Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1968, p. 42)

I am sympathetic to Luther’s approach to scripture. It is quite different from the approach I was taught growing up, i.e., that all of the Bible (except, of course, the Apocrypha), every word and verse, is equal in inspiration and authority.  But, my experience is that one way or another all readers of scripture give priority to some scriptural texts or themes by which the rest are measured. Luther was just more up front about it.

While I am sympathetic, I am less reductionist than Luther – at least as he is in the passage above. I would insist for example that the Gospel of John must not be read apart from the other three gospels. And I think the Epistle of James has much to teach us not least because the faith vs works dichotomy as Luther presents it is too simplistic and does not adequately reflect what Jesus taught or, for that matter, what Paul taught.

In any event, Luther’s introductions to the Old and New Testaments present an approach to the Bible quite different from what is common among many contemporary American Christians. Luther could be wrong. From the beginning of the Reformation (and before, actually) there has been more than one way to come at the Bible and understand its inspiration, authority and interpretation. No way of engaging the Bible dropped from the sky. And whether you were taught or consciously adopted a way of reading the Bible inherited from Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons, Thomas Aquinas, John Darby or someone else, it is not the only or obvious or authoritative approach. You either chose it or it was chosen for you by those who taught you. 

I have suggested an approach that I think is a faithful way of engaging the Bible here: The King or a Fox? Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture. And similar to Luther’s emphasis on faith and love, I have argued that a biblical way of reading the Bible will use love and mercy as Jesus taught and embodied them as the measure by which to interpret the Bible.


1 comment:

  1. What does it say about Martin Luther that he values Paul's Letter to the Romans over the Synoptic Gospels, which contain the oracles of the God-man Himself! He devalues these books, because Christ repudiates his belief in passive righteousness, by calling man to an active righteousness, including prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which Luther finds of little to no value in the matter of one's salvation. Christ even indicates that insistent prayer elicits grace from God (Lk Ch 11), and Luther will have none of that in his theology. What errant pomposity!