Was Martin Luther's revision of the Bible a return to the "true Bible" of the early Church?
Full QuestionA non-Catholic co-worker claims there were early Christian councils that upheld the 66 books of the Old Testament, but the Catholic Church suppressed them, and it was Martin Luther who finally stood up to the Church and reclaimed the true Bible for Christians. Is there any truth to his statement?
No. There were no early councils that endorsed the 66 books Protestants honor (check the facts in your local library). The current canon of Scripture was affirmed at the Council of Rome in 382 under Pope Damasus, which included all and only the seventy-three books Catholics honor today. This canon was repeated at Hippo and at Carthage (A.D. 393 and 397, respectively) and has been repeated ever since.
It was Martin Luther who tossed out the seven books considered canonical since the beginning of Church history. He also rejected the epistle to the Hebrews and the book of Revelation. He also called the epistle of James "an epistle of straw" because James 2:14–26 conflicted with his personal theology on good works. He also added the word (in his German translation) only in Romans 3:20 and Romans 4:15, and he inserted the word alone in Romans 3:28.
Almost all of the assertions in Peggy Frye's answer have been responded to before. For instance, on the Council of Rome, see this link, this link or this link. On Hippo and Carthage, see this interesting tidbit here and here. As to Luther "tossing" out books from the Bible. see this link. As to the "epistle of straw" see this link. As to Romans 3:28, see this link.
What interested me was Peggy's assertion,"He also added the word (in his German translation) only in Romans 3:20 and Romans 4:15." This sentence appears to be a version of another sentence.
I certainly didn't find the word "only" in Luther's rendering of Romans 3:20 from online sources. Luther's German Bible reads, "darum daß kein Fleisch durch des Gesetzes Werke vor ihm gerecht sein kann; denn durch das Gesetz kommt Erkenntnis der Sünde." This other online Luther Bible reads similarly. I'd like to offer Peggy the benefit of the doubt that perhaps an earlier version of Luther's translation contained the word "only" in Romans 3:20, but I didn't come across sources (yet) confirming it.
In The Bondage of the Will, Luther states, "For this also must be observed, that just as the voice of the law is not raised except over those who do not feel or acknowledge their sin, as Paul says in Romans 3[:20]: “Through the law comes knowledge of sin,” so the word of grace does not come except to those who feel their sin and are troubled and tempted to despair" [LW 33:137] (cf. LW 35:241, "By works of the law no one becomes righteous before God"). My gut tells me Peggy simply mis-remembered something she read previously. But, I'm certainly open to correction from either Peggy or Catholic Answers. Maybe she found it here, or here, or here.
That something she read previously may have been Patrick O'Hare's Facts About Luther. Father O'Hare states, "Romans IV, 15; 'the law worketh wrath,'' he translates, 'the law worketh only wrath,' thus adding a word to the text and changing its sense." Luther's translation reads, "Sintemal das Gesetz nur Zorn anrichtet; denn wo das Gesetz nicht ist, da ist auch keine Übertretung." Father O'Hare is certainly correct as to the way Luther translated the verse.
On the other hand, is the sense of the meaning changed by using the word "only"? Luther states in The Bondage of the Will, "Again, since the law is the power of sin [I Cor. 15:56] in that it serves only to reveal and not to remove sin, it makes the conscience guilty before God, and threatens it with wrath. That is what Paul means when he says: “The law brings wrath” [Rom. 4:15]. How, then, could there be any possibility of attaining righteousness through the law?" [LW 33:271]. Or as he states elsewhere,
The Law cannot restore the soul, for it is a Word that makes demands on us and commands us that we shall love God with all our hearts, etc., and our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37, 39). It damns him that does otherwise and pronounces this sentence upon him (Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26): “Cursed be everyone who does not do all the things written in the Book of the Law.” Now, it is certain that nobody on earth does that; therefore the Law comes in due time with its sentence and only grieves and frightens the souls. Where no help is provided, it presses them so that they must despair and be lost forever. St. Paul therefore says (Rom. 3:20): “By the Law comes only knowledge of sin,” and (Rom. 4:15): “The Law brings only wrath” [LW 12:164].I would certainly be interested in any Roman Catholic explaining why the way Luther rendered the verse changes its sense (as Father O'Hare argues). In the context of Romans 4, the Law certainly is bringing only wrath. Perhaps it's because Father O'Hare believed the works of the law aid justification. If that's the case, Luther responds:
Paul excludes all works so completely as to say that the works of the Law, though it is God's law and word, do not aid us in justification. Using Abraham as an example, he argues that Abraham was so justified without works that even the highest work, which had been commanded by God, over and above all others, namely circumcision, did not aid him in justification. Rather, Abraham was justified without circumcision and without any works, but by faith, as he says in Chapter 4: "If Abraham were justified by works, he may boast, but not before God." So, when all works are so completely rejected — which must mean faith alone justifies — whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this rejection of works will have to say "Faith alone justifies and not works." The matter itself and the nature of language requires it.
"But," they say, "it has an objectionable tone, and people infer from it that they need not do any good works." Dear me, what are we to say? Is it not much more offensive when Paul himself, while not using the term "faith alone," spells it out even more bluntly, putting the finishing touches on it by saying "Without the works of the Law?" And in Galatians 1 (as well as in many other places) he says "not by works of the law." The expression "faith alone" may perhaps be glossed over somehow, but the phrase "without the works of the law" is so blunt, offensive, and scandalous that no amount of interpretation can help it. How much more might people learn from this that "they need not do any good works," when they hear this teaching about the works themselves stated in such a clear strong way: "No works", "without works", "not by works"! If it is not offensive to preach "without works," "not by works," "no works," why is it offensive to preach "by faith alone"?
Still more offensive is that Paul does not reject just ordinary works, but works of the law! One could easily take offense at that all the more and say that the law is condemned and cursed before God, and so we should be doing nothing but what is against the law, as it is said in Romans 3: "Why not do evil so that there might be more good?" This is what one Rottengeist of our time began to do. Should we reject Paul's word because of such "offense" or refrain from speaking freely about faith? Dear me, Saint Paul and I want to offend like this, for we preach so strongly against works and insist upon faith alone just so that people will be offended, stumble and fall, that they may learn that they are not saved by good works but only by Christ's death and resurrection. Knowing that they cannot be saved by their good works of the law, how much more will they realize that they shall not be saved by bad works, or without the law! Therefore, it does not follow that because good works do not help, bad works will; just as it does not follow that because the sun cannot help a blind man to see, the night and darkness must help him to see.
I am amazed that anyone can object to something as evident as this. Just tell me: Is Christ's death and resurrection our work, that we do, or not? Of course it is not our work, nor is it the work of any law. Now it is Christ's death and resurrection alone which saves and frees us from sin, as Paul writes in Romans 4: "He died for our sins and rose for our justification." Tell me, further: What is the work by which we take hold of Christ's death and resurrection? It cannot be any external work, but only the eternal faith that is in the heart. Faith alone, indeed all alone, wihtout any works, takes hold of this death and resurrection when it is preached through the gospel. Then why all this ranting and raving, this making of heretics and burning them at the stake, when it is clear at its very core that faith alone takes hold of Christ's death and resurrection, without any works, and that his death and resurrection are our life and righteousness? As this fact is so obvious, that faith alone conveys, grasps, and imparts this life and righteousness — why should we not say so? It is not heretical to believe that faith alone lays hold on Christ and gives life; and yet it seems to be heresy if someone mentions it. Are they not insane, foolish and absurd? They will admit that it is right but they brand the telling of it as wrong, though nothing can be simultaneously right and wrong.