Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Luther and Esther: Another Response To a Defender of Rome

I noted to a defender of Rome that Luther’s Bible and Prefaces tend to be his definitive statement as to how he felt about which books were canonical. In that material, missing are comments about the non-canonicity of Esther, found is Esther among the canonical books in his translation of the Bible. My basic question to Rome's defender is the following: how does this fact fit into a view that argues Luther rejected the canonicity of Esther? I sifted through the response offered to me, and it can be summarized in three basic points:

1. Luther was subjective in regard to the canon
Luther had a subjective view of the canon. Luther does not accept the canon as an extra-biblical infallible fact defined by an infallible church. Luther relies on his own opinion to establish the canon. Luther’s opinion on the canonicity of Hebrews and Revelation fluctuated, why couldn’t the same be said of his view of Esther?

2. Luther accepted the received tradition to avoid disputes
Sometimes Luther accepts the received tradition of the church to avoid time-wasting disputes. Therefore, Luther kept a non-canonical book (Esther) in the canonical section of his Bible for such a reason.

3. The evidence supports Luther’s lifelong commitment to the non-canonicity of Esther
The evidence of Luther’s writings suggests he held a lifelong commitment to the non-canonicity of Esther. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther says Esther has less basis than any other apocryphal book to be regarded as canonical. In an older version of the Table Talk, Luther says Esther is at least as bad as 2 Maccabees, this proves Esther is non-canonical as well.

Here is an evaluation of these three points.

1. Luther was subjective in regard to the canon
This point allows for Luther to at least have held to the canonicity of Esther and then changed his mind, or vice versa, or even repeatedly changing  his view throughout his life. I do not have a problem with the logic of this answer. In applying this answer to Luther’s Bible and his Prefaces, it would be possible that Luther included Esther as canonical, and later changed his mind. This defender of Rome isn't really arguing this, he seems to simply raise it as a possibility. Thus, I grant this hypothetical point.

As a point of tedium, in his response this defender of Rome cites Paul Althaus as holding Luther was subjective on the canon, particularly page 336 of The Theology of Martin Luther. Had one continued reading Althaus, the next few sentences say: “Roman Catholic theology has up until the present day, frequently condemned Luther’s method of approaching and validating the authority of Scripture as subjective and arbitrary. But Luther is as far from heaven is from the earth in determining the center of Scripture by himself and self-confidently presenting his theology as this center” [Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 336 – 337]. By “center of the Scripture” Althaus is referring to that which determined canonicity for Luther. Of course, this particular defender of Rome can list numerous scholars who hold Luther was subjective. That’s not the point. The point I’m making is Althaus cannot be lumped in with them, based on his own context. This was a clear misuse of Althaus.

2. Luther accepted the received tradition on the canon to avoid a dispute
In regard to his writing against Erasmus in Bondage of the Will, this appears to be the case. When compiling his Bible though, Luther made a strong effort to sort out the canonical material from the non-canonical material in both the Old and New Testaments. His method was to sort the books according to his own theological purpose combined with the testimony of church history. Perhaps this defender of Rome could argue Luther made a mistake, simply didn’t care, or was simply accepting a tradition to avoid a dispute. This would be an argument from silence, and to my knowledge, it would be his argument only (I've not encountered it previously). I have not read any scholar using it. Simply because it is his own personal theory does not mean it’s wrong. It would mean though, a case would need to be presented that included evidence from Luther’s Bible and Prefaces substantiating this claim.

The defender of Rome cites a quote I used from Jaroslav Pelikan about Luther’s “canon within a canon.” The citation should have been given a fuller context (which I provided in the paper he cited). Pelikan begins the quote by saying, “[Luther] did not pretend that the church could undertake the construction of the canon anew, or that it could function with a canon open at both ends. Never, even at the height of his criticism of James, did he drop it from his editions of the Bible, any more than he dropped the Old Testament Apocrypha.” True, Luther retained the Old Testament Apocrypha in his Bible, but he made sure to place these books in a clearly defined section at the end of the Old Testament. Recall, Esther was included with canonical books. The received tradition was all of the books purported to be Scripture in the 16th Century. Luther though made very specific points and arguments to substantiate what the canon within the canon was. Those books falling outside of the true canonical material were regulated to the back of both Testaments.

3. The evidence supports Luther’s lifelong commitment to the non-canonicity of Esther
The evidence available in English on this subject is sparse. In the standard English set of Luther’s Works, only The Bondage of the Will Esther quote addresses the canonicity of the book. The comment would be around the time Luther translated Esther for his Bible. Perhaps supporting point 2? Or perhaps supporting point 1? Or both? Or neither? I don’t know.

I noted previously, Roger Beckwith (author of The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church) has said, “It is sometimes said that Luther, following certain of the Fathers, denied the Canonicity of Esther, but Hans Bardtke has questioned this, as not taking into account of all the evidence (Luther und das Buch Esther, Tubingen Mohr, 1964).” I have this book. Bardtke offers around seventy instances in which Luther refers to Esther. Most often, these passing references demonstrate the canonicity of the book.

In regard to the Table Talk quote, the Table Talk cannot be used to dictate Luther’s opinion, as it is not an official writing of Luther’s. It can provide perspective on an already established fact, but it itself cannot establish Luther’s opinion. .

I think this defender of Rome's point #1 can be valid in regard to Luther’s Bible and prefaces. It is indeed possible his opinion fluctuated even if Esther was considered at first canonical, and then later rejected. To my knowledge, this did not happen to any of the books in Luther’s Bible. That is, I know of no book he considered canonical, and then later went on to doubt as being canonical. But it could be the case. Is it likely? I don’t think so, because there is no evidence of him ever doing this. Could it be Luther was simply using the apocrypha against Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will? Yes it could. Could it be Luther woke up every day with a different view of Esther? Indeed it could. When one bases an opinion on Luther’s subjectivity, anything is possible.

Point #2 is the obstacle for this defender of Rome. He needs to explain why Luther did not place Esther with the other apocryphal writings. It doesn’t help to suggest Luther accepted the received tradition on Esther to avoid disputes. If there is one thing Luther didn’t care about, it was avoiding disputes. He was very accurate in how he wanted his Bible laid out. It does not follow that the placement of Esther provoked him to avoid a dispute, as Esther is not nearly as important for Luther as the books of the New Testament and many of the Old Testament books. Also, there was already a dispute on Esther, so whatever Luther did would not have been so shocking. Also note, the dispute in The Bondage of the Will about the validity of biblical books would have indeed sidetracked the discussion with Erasmus. In the subject of the canon, Luther hit this head on in his Prefaces. It would not have been a sidetrack to the topic.

Point #3 really rests on one citation, The Bondage of the Will quote. The Table Talk is interesting, but it’s a Table Talk. It is evidence, but evidence that will always have more than an element of doubt, because of reasons I noted above, and also for the reason that brought about this entire discussion: a mis-citation that I brought back to the light, buried in books from the 1800’s.

First update after the posting of this blog entry: Ok, I tried to take this Roman defender seriously and I got back exactly what I expected. He has given me an entire response filled with mocking and silliness, mixed in with attempts at fruitful dialog.

Second update after the posting of this blog entry: Well, he has edited his response, after one his "fans" said:
"Please find below some highlighted portions of your discussion with Mr Swan, that if painlessly excised, would strengthen your argument by not denigrating your antagonist and removing from him any excuse about "mocking and silliness". I know it is very hard to avoid them, but sometimes an impartial "charity editor" on tone and connotation is important."
And then he posted these "highlights from his response:
-we get the usual tired, boring recourse
-(almost surrealistically)(again, time-tested textbook anti-Catholic methodology).
-pitifully weak
-mercilessly, absurdly butchering
-muddleheadedness and incomprehension here, in light of the numerous arguments I presented, boggle the imagination.
-(where does Jimbo think I got the idea, after all?; I didn't pull it out of a hat):Jimbo"

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2007. The original can be found here. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.