Thursday, April 4, 2013

Martin Luther on the New Testament

A few weeks ago I posted a couple of excerpts from Martin Luther’s introduction to the Old Testament. In one of those excerpts, he asserts that the Old Testament is analogous to the manger and swaddling-clothes in which Jesus is laid, suggesting that the Old Testament is not to be equated with Christ. In the other he insists that “all laws aim at faith and 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

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, was equal in inspiration and authority.  But, in fact, I do not think there is anyone who does not in practice, if not in theory, give priory to some scriptural texts or themes by which the rest are measured. Luther was just more up front about it. I have suggested my own here: Getting off the Fence – Interpreting Scripture and more broadly here: The King or a Fox? Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture.

While I am sympathetic, I am less reductionist than Luther – at least as he is in these texts. 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 reflect what Jesus taught or, for that matter, Paul.

In any event, Luther’s introductions to the Old and New Testaments present an approach to the Bible other than what is common among modern American Fundamentalists and indicates that from the beginning of the Reformation there has been more than one way to come at the Bible and understand it’s inspiration and authority.

No comments: