Sunday, September 14, 2008
The Argument From Antiquity
Here's one of Luther's early responses to those who would argue that truth is determined by antiquity. This section comes from An Argument in Defense of all the Articles of Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull [Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia Edition) Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1930 pp. 12-17]. This writing is from Luther's lengthy response to the papal bull Exsurge Domine. The bull condemns 41 errors in Luther's writings, calling him to recant withing 60 days or be excommunicated, and decrees his writings should be burned.
They say also that I propose new doctrines, and it is not to be supposed that everyone else has been so long time in error. That too the ancient prophets had to hear. If antiquity were sufficient proof, the Jews would have had the strongest kind of case against Christ on that ground, for His doctrine was different from any they had heard for a thousand years. The Gentiles, too, would have done fight to hold the apostles in contempt, because their ancestors for more than three thousand years held a very different belief. There have been murderers, adulterers and thieves since the beginning of the world, and will be to the end; does that make these things right? I preach nothing new, but I say that all things Christian have gone to wrack and ruin among those who ought to have held them fast, to wit, the bishops and the doctors; yet I have no doubt that the truth has remained even until now in some hearts, though it were only the hearts of children in their cradles. In Old Testament times the spiritual understanding of the Law remained among some of the common people, though it was lost by the high-priests and the doctors, who ought to have kept it. Thus Jeremiah says that he has found less understanding and justice among the great men than among the laity and common folk [Jeremiah 5:4]. So it is even now: poor peasants and children understand Christ better than pope, bishops, and doctors. Everything is topsy-turvy.
If they will not have it otherwise, well and good; let them make me out a heathen! But what would their answer be, or how should we present our case, if the Turk were to ask us to prove our faith? He cares nothing how long we have believed thus and so, nor how many and how great the people are that have believed this way or that. We should have to be silent about all these things, and point him to the Holy Scriptures as our proof. It would be absurd and laughable if we were to say, “Lo so many priests, bishops, kings, princes, lands, and peoples have believed this and that ever so long.”
Let them now treat me the same way. Let us see where is our foundation and our precedent. Let us examine it, if only to strengthen and edify ourselves. Shall we have so great a foundation and not know it? Shall we keep it hidden, when it is the will of Christ that it shall be common property and known of all men, as He says in Matthew 5, “No man lighteth a candle and putteth it under a bushel, but on the candle-stick, that it may give light to all those that are in the house”? [Matthew 5:15] Christ allowed His hands, His feet, His side to be touched [John 20:27], that His disciples might be sure that it was He, Himself; why, then, should we not touch and prove the Scriptures, which are in truth the spiritual body of Christ, in order to be certain whether it is they in which we believe or not? For all other writings are perilous. They may be “spirits of the air,” which have not flesh and bone, as Christ has [Luke 24:30].
This is my answer to those also who accuse me of rejecting all the teachers of the Church. I do not reject them; but because everyone knows that they have erred at times, as men will, I am willing to put confidence in them only so far as they give me proofs for their opinions out of the Scriptures, which never yet have erred. This St Paul commands me in 1 Thessalonians, the last chapter, where he says, “First prove and confirm all doctrines; hold fast that which is good”[ 1 Thessalonians 5:21]. St Augustine writes to St Jerome to the same effect: “I have learned to do only those books that are called the Holy Scriptures the honor of believing firmly that none of their writers has erred; all others I so read as not to hold what they say to be the truth, unless they prove it to me by the Holy Scriptures or by clear reason.”
The Holy Scriptures must needs be clearer, easier of interpretation and more certain than any other scriptures, for all teachers prove their statements by them, as by clearer and more stable writings, and wish their own writings to be established and explained by them. But no one can ever prove a dark saying by one that is still darker; therefore, necessity compels us to run to the Bible with all the writings of the doctors, and thence to get our verdict and judgment upon them; for Scripture alone is the true over-lord and master of all writings and doctrines on earth. If not, what are the Scriptures good for? Let us reject them and be satisfied with the books of men and human teachers.
That many of the great hate me and persecute me on this account, frightens me not at all; indeed, it comforts and strengthens me, since it is dearly the case in all the Scriptures that the persecutors and haters have usually been wrong and the persecuted have usually been right. The lie has always had the majority, the truth the minority on its side. Nay, if it were only a few insignificant men who were attacking me, I should know that what I wrote and taught was not yet of God. St Paul raised much disturbance with his doctrine, as we read in Acts; but that did not prove the falsity of his doctrine [Acts 19:28 ff.]. Truth has always caused an uproar; false teachers have always said, “Peace, peace,” as Isaiah and Jeremiah tell us [Jeremiah 6:14; Jeremiah 8:11].
Therefore, the pope and his great following notwithstanding, I will joyfully come to the rescue and defense of the articles condemned in the bull, as God gives me grace. I trust, by God’s grace, to uphold them against the wrong that is done them; against force I have nothing else to oppose than one poor body; that I commend to God and His truth, which is still holy, though it has been condemned by the pope. Amen.