Monday, May 15, 2006

Luther's Canon: A Response To Catholic Dude (Part Four)

I have found James Swan’s work credible in the past, that doesn’t mean I agree with everything but I do take into consideration valid points.” - Catholic Dude

This will part four in my response to a Roman Catholic named “Catholic Dude” who reviewed my paper *Luther’s View of the Canon of Scripture*. The first three responses were directed towards entries from the Catholic Answers boards:

First response: Luther's Canon: A Response To "Catholic Dude" (Part one),
Second Response: Luther's Canon: A Response to Catholic Dude (Part Two).
Third Response: Luther's Canon: A Response To Catholic Dude (part Three)

The material from the Catholic Answers boards was from May 2005. I was sent a private message from Catholic Dude who stated: “I went to your page yesterday and read that luther card page. I went through it and posted my response.” At the time, I read through the Dude’s material and did not respond for two reasons: time constraints, and the Dude’s criticisms appeared trivial. In retrospect, after now responding to his charges a year later, my reactions were justified. So, why did I bother to respond now?

I’ve recently become active again in another discussion forum, a forum that has a good number of laymen Catholic apologists. In April 2006, a person with the nickname “Catholic Dude” again reviewed my paper. Seems to me to be the same person. I figured it was time to put his criticisms to the test. Catholic Dude’s latest review of my paper on Luther’s Canon can be found here. Generally, the Dude presents a number of irrelevant criticisms, sometimes making me wonder if he’s disagreeing with me simply for the sake of disagreeing. I believe Catholic Dude has an underlying bias that skews his ability to understand this issue and dialog with the material cogently.

Catholic Dude’s words will be in Red. The words from my article will be in blue. My responses will be in black. The Dude went through my entire paper, commenting sections-which is how I’ll respond to his comments.

Chapter 2: Luther’s Concept of The Canon Of Scripture
After reading this section, the Dude comments: “According to the article [Luther] did include [all the New Testament books] but he put them in a sort of doubtful category. None the less I found this quote to be interesting: ‘[23] Luther treated Scripture with amazing freedom, with so much freedom indeed that one wonders why he did not disrupt the canon. Tradition at this point was presumably too strong for him.’ Ill be interested to find out what "Tradition" was so "strong" for him.”

The quote is from Roland Bainton. Bainton doesn’t explain “tradition” in either book The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century or Studies on the Reformation. However, it seems to me that Bainton simply means the corpus of the books contained in many of the Bibles at the time of the Reformation. Now, “tradition” was not an infallible guide for Luther- thus I think Bainton is simply pointing out Luther was not radical in his re-evaluation of the canon. Luther realized that, for the most part, the Bible of the sixteenth century comprised of canonical and non-canonical books.

Chapter 3: Luther’s Liberty With The Canon And Trends In Church History
“[Swan’s paper] tries to point out [Luther] took on a scholastic view when "regarding James as the writings of a second century Christian", yet it only cites Eusebius as a major source. It should have included multiple quotes from ECFs.”

My paper pointed out that historical questions were an aspect of Luther’s understanding of the canon, but never do I say these issues were the sole determining factor. I’m simply taking Luther’s words at face value- Luther notes the question of the apostolic nature of James as one of his reasons for doubting its canonicity. Luther was not alone in this- the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus and the Catholic Scholar Cardinal Cajetan did as well.

The editors of Luther’s Works include a footnote in Luther’s Preface To James noting that both Eusebius and Jerome raised or confirmed doubts to the apostolicity and canonicity of James. Even the NIV Study Bible says similarly: “As Eusebius noted long ago, one interesting fact connected with the General Letters is that most of them were at one time among the disputed books of the NT. James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John and Jude were all questioned extensively before admitted to the canon of Scripture [NIV Study Bible, 1878].

As to quoting multiple early church fathers- Is truth determined by a majority opinion? Eusebius notes that he doubts the authenticity of James “since few of the ancients quote it.” Hence, it is the lack of citation that provoked Eusebius to question James- not the abundance of citation:

The Epistle of James is classed by Eusebius (in Bk. III. chap. 25) among the antilegomena. The ancient testimonies for its authenticity are very few: It was used by no one, except Hermas, down to the end of the second century. Iren`us seems to have known the epistle (his works exhibit some apparent reminiscences of it), but he nowhere directly cites it. The Muratorian Fragment omits it, but the Syriac Peshito contains it, and Clement of Alexandria shows a few faint reminiscences of it in his extant works, and according to Eusebius VI. 14, wrote commentaries upon "Jude and the other catholic epistles." It is quoted frequently by Origen, who first connects it with the "Brother of the Lord," but does not express himself with decision as to its authenticity. From his time on it was commonly accepted as the work of "James, the Lord's brother." Eusebius throws it among the antilegomena; not necessarily because he considered it unauthentic, but because the early testimonies for it are too few to raise it to the dignity of one of the homologoumena (see Bk. III. chap. 25, note 1).”
Source: Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. 1


Most writing from before 200 do not mention the Epistle of James. One significant text does quote James: The Shepherd of Hermas, written before 140 M66. The theologian and biblical scholar, Origen, quotes James extensively between 230 and 250. He mentions that James was Jesus' brother, but does not make it clear if the letter is scripture M138. Hippolytus and Tertullian, from early in the third century, do not mention or quote James. Cyprian of Carthage, in the middle of the third century, also makes no mention. The "Muratorian Canon," from around 200, lists and comments on New Testament books, but fails to mention James, Hebrews, and 1 and 2 Peter. Yet by 340 Eusebius of Caesarea, an early Christian historian, acknowledges that James is both canonical and orthodox, and widely read. However, he categorizes it, along with the other catholic epistles, as "disputed texts" M203. Two Greek New Testaments from that time each include James, along with the other catholic epistles M207. In 367 Athanasius lists the 27 New Testament books we presently use as the definitive canon M212. But the battle for James was not won. Bishops in 428 and 466 rejected all the catholic epistles M215. Early bibles from Lebanon, Egypt, Armenia, India and China do not include James before the sixth century M219. A ninth century manuscript from Mount Sinai leaves out the catholic epistles and the Syriac Church, headquartered in Kerala, India, continues to use a lectionary without them still today M220.

Source: James and Canon: The Early Evidence

Chapter 4: Martin Luther Called The Book Of James “An Epistle Of Straw”

The Dude then takes a look at Luther’s most famous canon comment and says,

then [Swan’s paper]goes onto the part of Luther calling James "an Epistle of Straw" and tries to point out some "context" in which Luther said it, yet despite the "conclusion" of the foot notes I don’t see any grounds for this: ‘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.’ On what grounds does he "compare" and conclude this? Then it turns the subject to the fact his commentaries dropped this "epistle of straw" talk later in the "Reformer’s career".”

The ground of course, is the Gospel. What did Luther mean, “epistle of straw”? The answer may be found in his Preface to Hebrews. Luther says the author of Hebrews wrote his book on the foundation of faith laid by the apostles. The author used “gold, silver, precious stones, as St. Paul says in I Corinthians 3[:12]”[LW 35:395]. Luther then says, “Therefore we should not be deterred if wood, straw, or hay are perhaps mixed with them...”[LW 35:395]. Luther says that James “has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” The gospel would then be gold, silver, and precious stones. Luther dropped the comment “epistle of straw” as well as many other statements from his prefaces. In some instances, he eliminated comments because his opinion had changed, in other instances his attitudes had softened. In the case of the “epistle of straw” comment, I can only speculate that perhaps his opinion softened.

Chapter 5: Luther’s Opinion Of The Book Of James

Catholic Dude says:

To top that off here is the very next section: "Luther appears to have held lifelong doubts about the canonicity of James." And look what he said "toward the end of his life": We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school [Wittenberg],  for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning [Jas. 1:1; 2:1]. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did. ... Pretty amazing, does this sound like reasoning based on historical sources? "Some Jew wrote urge works alone" I smell "not by Faith Alone" as the real test.”

The Dude needs to read carefully. I said Luther appeared to have lifelong doubts about the canonicity of James. The emphasis is on “appeared”. At times, it appears Luther accepted James as an apostle and his book as canonical. For instance, in 1536 Luther preached on James 1:16-21. It is curious that in the sermon, Luther refers to James as “the apostle,” and it is also interesting that he does discuss the gospel and the Resurrection.

Luther was also aware of the common protestant harmonization of Paul and James, and even at times offered it himself:“This is what St. James means when his says in his Epistle, 2:26: ‘Faith without works is dead.’ That is, as the works do not follow, it is a sure sign that there is no faith there; but only an empty thought and dream, which they falsely call faith.” (Sermons of Martin Luther 2:2:308)

In regard to the quote that the Dude used, keep in mind it’s a comment from Luther’s Tabletalk. I always caution the Catholic folks who dialog with me to be careful with Luther’s Tabletalk. It is a collection of comments from Luther written down by Luther’s students and friends. Thus, it is not in actuality an official writing of Luther and should not serve as the basis for interpreting his theology.

As to the Dude smelling “faith alone”- as the “real test” in determining canonicity for Luther, I have never denied that Luther used the Gospel in his determining of canon. What I have suggested is understanding Luther on this issue demands approaching him from two perspectives: 1. Luther’s perspective on the canon as a sixteenth century Biblical theologian 2. Luther’s personal criterion of canonicity expressed in his theology.

The Dude’s comment is most revealing, and this is what I think is going on: the Dude thinks Luther evaluated the canon solely on the basis of sola fide, and historical concerns were merely a “smoke screen” used to justify his approach. Such of course is nonsense- it assumes Luther is fundamentally dishonest, and secondly- if we apply the Dude’s understanding to Luther’s evaluation of Jude, one finds Luther’s comments directed towards historical and textual concerns. Where is Luther’s “faith alone” in his criticism of Jude? It isn’t there. Catholic Dude shows a dedication to a theological worldview that refuses to see the facts of history in their context.

The Dude continues by evaluating my comments on a Catholic who selectively cited Luther’s preface to James:

“[Swan’s paper] goes onto cite Catholic deception: … This Catholic author cites Luther as saying, “ I therefore refuse him a place among the writers of the true canon of my Bible.” There is no period after the word “Bible.” The sentence in its fullness reads, “ I therefore refuse him a place among the writers of the true canon of my Bible; but I would not prevent anyone placing him or raising him where he likes, for the epistle contains many excellent passages.” Now the question is was this deception on the Catholic Apologist's part? No, he was singling out the key passage "I refuse James a place among the true canon" what does this say about his intentions?”

I did not use the word “deception.” This is the Dude using inflammatory words to provoke emotion. What I would point out in this instance is the particular Catholic webpage I cited selectively used Luther’s words to the exclusion of other of his statements- to the point where the webpage placed “periods” in Luther’s writings where there weren’t any. In other words, the webpage was not seeking to understand Luther’s view, but rather present a caricature of Luther’s view. Now, I do not believe the author of that web page had a malicious deceptive intention. What I do believe though is that his pre-commitment to Roman Catholicism makes him see only what he wants to see. And of course, this is the same charge I level against Catholic Dude: he shows a dedication to a theological worldview that refuses to see the facts of history in their context.

Catholic Dude then says:

At this point I strongly suggest people read Part 5 of the article (especially paragraph 2). In this issue I don’t believe he makes a good case in regards to historical evidence, it also includes a biased agenda as paragraph 2 states. Paragraph 3 is simply a sad display of scholarship on Luther's part, its clearly an agenda oriented problem. Paragraph 4 is very unfounded. Paragraph 5 is very Damming in the realm of "scholarship"!”

Of course, I deny the charge that my case was not “good.” I’m not exactly sure what my “biased agenda” was in paragraph 2- as has been demonstrated, at times Luther embraced the harmonization of Paul and James as suggested by Protestants. I can only conclude that Luther did not fully embrace the paradigm because of his commitment to the notion that James was not written by an apostle, but came later. I deny that Luther’s scholarship is “sad” in paragraph 3. The Dude would have to prove this assertion- the “sad” part I find is that the Dude himself has “an agenda oriented problem” when reading Luther- The dude can’t help but treat Luther as dishonest, no matter what he says. My commentary on Paragraph 4 is not unfounded- the Dude simply needs to do some study on the book of James. In paragraph 5, I pointed out that Luther made an error in his exegesis. I doubt this error “damned” him.

Chapter 6: Luther Cited and Preached From The Book of James

Part 6 of the article is inconclusive, given that Luther quoted even from the DC books when commenting on stuff.”

No, part 6 was not “inconclusive”. I proved exactly what Luther held about James. While he didn’t think it was canonical, like the duetero-canonical books it still had value. He quoted from it positively throughout his career and also preached on it. One can find the same thing with Luther’s treatments of Jude, Revelation, Hebrews, and some of the apocrypha as well.

Chapter 8: Martin Luther’s Opinion of the Book of Jude

Part 8 (another non issue to me) is about what Luther thought of Jude, it has something good to point out, here is what Luther said: ‘This epistle is ascribed to the holy apostle St. Jude, the brother of the two apostles James the Less and Simon, the sons of the sister of the mother of Christ who is called Mary the wife of James or Cleophas, as we read in Mark 6:3’ For those protestants out there who talk about the "brothers of Christ" we see Luther understood what that meant: relatives, cousins, etc., not the typical evangelical incorrect view.”

What’s so striking about the Dude’s comment here is how completely irrelevant it is. The comment has nothing to do with Luther’s view of the Canon. If there was ever an example of a commitment to an underlying bias this is it. Luther’s views on Mary have nothing to do with the Canon.

The Dude says though this section is a “non issue”. That he calls it a “non issue” is a clear example of an underlying bias. The Dude has said that Luther’s Canon is the result of Luther’s devious “agenda” – and downplays my documentation of the historical concerns Luther had toward the canon. Here though in Luther’s evaluation of Jude, what does one find? One finds Luther raising historical and exegetical concerns about the authenticity of the book of Jude. The Dude makes the same type of statement about Section 9: Martin Luther’s Opinion Of The Book Of Revelation. He says, “Part 9 a non issue for me, just interesting how Luther's views change from one moment to the next.” So much then for Catholic dude’s charge of Luther’s “agenda”. Luther’s comments on these books don’t fit Catholic Dude’s paradigm- so he ignores them. The same can also be said of the Dude’s comments about Luther’s opinion on Hebrews.

Conclusion: Removing The “Luther-Card”

The concluding paragraph "Removing the Luther Card", the evidence is against the author of this article. There are clear statements by Luther to the effect the individual can decide if a book is canonical AND that personal religious views do go into deciding this. I see in this article a clear and deliberate confusing of the idea of historical grounds and personal religeous grounds.”

No, the “evidence” is not against my material. Catholic Dude needs to study a little Roman Catholic history at this point. The New Catholic Encyclopedia has honestly pointed out,

According to Catholic doctrine, the proximate criterion of the Biblical canon is the infallible decision of the Church. This decision was not given until rather late in the history of the Church (at the Council of Trent). Before that time there was some doubt about the canonicity of certain Biblical books, i.e., about their belonging to the canon.”

If the New Catholic Encyclopedia is correct, Erasmus, Cajetan, and Luther had every right within the Catholic system to engage in Biblical criticism and debate over the extent of the Canon. All expressed “some doubt.” Theirs was not a radical higher criticism. The books they questioned were books that had been questioned by previous generations. None were so extreme as to engage in Marcion-like canon-destruction. Both Erasmus and Luther translated the entirety of Bible, and published it.

There was no attempt to confuse Luther’s historical concerns and his theological concerns. As has been demonstrated in this response, a reading of Luther’s comments shows both. With some of the books, the scales tipped toward historical concerns. With others, the scale tipped toward theological concerns. Both though were factors. Any attempt to deny either is to distort Luther’s view.

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