Monday, March 04, 2013

Luther's Canon According to Roman Apologist, Mark Shea

There's a certain script that most Roman evaluations of the canon of Scripture follow. One scene will typically feature Luther. The scene has slight variations. Luther is portrayed as a radical who either removed books from the Bible, or wanted to remove books from the Bible. Sometimes Melanchthon is brought in in a supporting role restraining Luther from any moves against the canon. In the version below, Roman apologist Mark Shea gives his particular version:
At the Reformation, of course, the deuterocanon, both OT and NT, gets challenged. Luther wanted to chuck, not just the OT deuterocanon, but the NT deutercanon (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Revelation) as well. (He remarks of James that it is an “epistle of straw” and says of Revelation something that many modern readers can empathize with: “A Revelation ought to reveal.”)[A reader puzzles about the deuterocanon]
Mr. Shea should have had a historian check his script.

1. Luther was simply one of a number of theologians that questioned the canonicty of certain books during the 16th Century. His Roman Catholic contemporaries Cajetan and Erasmus did the same, as did some of the representatives at the Council of Trent. It is a simple historical fact that Luther’s translation of the Bible contained all of its books, even the Apocrypha (or Deutercanon).

2. Mr. Shea is in error that Luther had significant issues with 2 Peter. Luther's Preface to St. Peter, both the 1522 and 1546 versions do not indicate in any way that Luther thought this writing non-canonical.

3. In regard to Hebrews, Luther's opinion as to canonicty is not certain.The editors of Luther’s Works note  Luther’s opinion fluctuated throughout his career: “… Luther was never consistent in either accepting or rejecting the Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews but spoke of Paul as its author even when he had set forth the bold and brilliant suggestion that it was written by Apollos.”

4. Mr. Shea is correct that Luther held a negative view in regard to James, but has presented a caricature of the actual facts. Luther says James “is really an epistle of straw” compared to “St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle.” Luther wants his readers to see a comparison in regard to the presentation of the Gospel. That's why Luther would also praise James and considers it a “good book” “because it sets up no doctrine of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.” Luther clearly values the law of God, but the Gospel, as presented elsewhere in the New Testament, stands as the "true kernel and marrow of all the books."  An interesting fact  that Shea may not know is that "the epistle of straw" comment only appears in the original 1522 Preface To The New Testament. For anyone to continue to cite Luther’s “epistle of straw” comment against him is to do Luther an injustice. He saw fit to retract the comment. Subsequent citations of this quote should bear this in mind.

5. Mr. Shea states Luther "says of Revelation something that many modern readers can empathize with: 'A Revelation ought to reveal'." This negative assessment from Shea intrigued me because elsewhere Shea affirms what Luther's alleges to have said:
"Anybody who says that Revelation is 'perspicuous' is simply a fool. Calvin was smart enough to not attempt a commentary on it because he knew it would give the lie to the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture. Luther, with his characteristic bluntness, sized the book up by remarking “A Revelation ought to reveal.” He tried to solve the problem by just excising it from the New Testament."
Regardless of whether Shea agrees with what Luther is alleged to have said in regard to the perspicuity of Revelation, this quote is all over cyber-space typically without any sort of documentation. As far as I can tell it isn't in either of Luther's prefaces to the Book of Revelation.  A few books (found via Google) use this quote. This book uses it and documents it by referring to another book which gives a short (and helpful) overview on Luther's view of Revelation. Scott Hahn uses it here. He provides a helpful clue, documenting it by referring back to Bainton's Here I Stand.

Bainton states, "He mistrusted Revelation because of its obscurity. 'A revelation,' said he, 'should be revealing'" (Bainton, 261). Bainton documents it as "CF. Fullerton" which refers to Fullerton, Kemper. "Luther's Doctrine and Criticism of Scripture," Bibliotheca Sacra, LXIII (1906), 1-34, 284-99. I found it odd that Bainton doesn't give a page number reference. I found Fullerton's articles. Part one (pages 1-34) can be found here; part two (pages 284-99) can be found here. After quickly going through these pages, I didn't find anything resembling that which Bainton cites. The closest thing I found was a discussion on pages 21-22. Fullerton states, "His chief objection to the book is its obscurity... the apostles prophesy with clear words, as it is proper to the apostolic office to speak clearly and without figure, of Christ's person and work." Unless I've missed it in Fullerton's articles, Bainton appears to be the popular source for Mr. Shea's Luther quote, and Bainton has either mis-documented the quote, or summarized Fullerton in such a way as to create a Luther quote. [See the pertinent section from Fullerton's article below].

Luther actually shares his own view of Revelation in his 1530 /1546 preface revision. In other words, contrary to Mr. Shea, Luther's solution was not to "chuck" the book. Even in the earlier 1522 version, Luther explains that his opinion is not to be binding: “About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment,” and also, “let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him.”  By 1530, Luther took the opportunity to interpret Revelation. He begins by stating:
There are many different kinds of prophecy in Christendom. One is prophecy which interprets the writings of the prophets. Paul speaks of this in I Corinthians 12 and 14, and in other places as well. This is the most necessary kind and we must have it every day, because it teaches the Word of God, lays the foundation of Christendom, and defends the faith. In a word, it rules, preserves, establishes, and performs the preaching ministry. Another kind foretells things to come which are not previously contained in Scripture, and this prophecy is of three types. The first expresses itself simply in words, without images and figures—as Moses, David, and others of the prophets prophesy about Christ, and as Christ and the apostles prophesy about Antichrist, false teachers, etc. The second type does this with images, but alongside them it supplies their interpretation in specific words—as Joseph interprets dreams, and Daniel both dreams and images. The third type does it without either words or interpretations, exclusively with images and figures, like this book of Revelation and like the dreams, visions, and images that many holy people have had from the Holy Spirit—as Peter in Acts 2[:17] preaches from Joel [2:28], “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” So long as this kind of prophecy remains without explanation and gets no sure interpretation, it is a concealed and mute prophecy and has not yet come to the profit and fruit which it is to give to Christendom. This is the way it has been with this book heretofore. Many have tried their hands at it, but until this very day they have attained no certainty. Some have even brewed it into many stupid things out of their own heads. Because its interpretation is uncertain and its meaning hidden, we have also let it alone until now, especially because some of the ancient fathers held that it was not the work of St. John, the Apostle—as is stated in The Ecclesiastical History, Book III, chapter 25. For our part, we still share this doubt. By that, however, no one should be prevented from regarding this as the work of St. John the Apostle, or of whomever else he chooses. Since we would nonetheless like to be sure of its meaning or interpretation, we will give other and higher minds something to think about by stating our own views. Since it is intended as a revelation of things that are to happen in the future, and especially of tribulations and disasters that were to come upon Christendom, we consider that the first and surest step toward finding its interpretation is to take from history the events and disasters that have come upon Christendom till now, and hold them up alongside of these images, and so compare them very carefully. If, then, the two perfectly coincided and squared with one another, we could build on that as a sure, or at least an unobjectionable, interpretation. [Luther, M. (1999, c1960). Vol. 35: Luther's works, vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald and H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (35:399). Philadelphia: Fortress Press].

Here is the only pertinent section from Fullerton on Luther's view of Revelation:

While the historical arguments are chiefly influential with Luther in the case of Jude and Hebrews, though the argument from contents is by no means ignored, the latter is the conclusive reason for his very unfavorable opinion of Revelation. He will not force others to adopt his opinions, but he proposes to say what he feels. His chief objection to the book is its obscurity (recall what has been said upon Luther's demand for a perspicuous Bible). The apostles prophesy without figure, of Christ's person and work. Not even in the Old Testament is there a prophet who deals so much in figures. The Apocalypse is more like Fourth Ezra [the same comparison is also made elsewhere], and Luther cannot discover that it is by the Holy Spirit. He finds fault with its threats and promises with regard to those who respectively add to or take from the book, or who keep its words when nobody knows what it means, and, as far as we are concerned, it need never have been written. In fine, his spirit cannot adjust itself to the book (Mein Geist kann sich in das Bitch nicht schicken), though he will let others think what they please about it. He notices also the doubts of the book in the early church, but this difficulty is entirely subordinate to the difficulties raised by the contents. It is enough reason for him to think little of the book because Christ is neither taught nor recognized in it, though that is the chief work of an apostle. In a sermon of the same year (1522) he actually classes the Apocalypse with the prophecies of Lichtenberger. 
When it is remembered how hostile Luther was to Fourth Ezra (he would not even translate it), and to Lichtenberger, these comparisons are all the more surprising. But, as in the case of Jude and Hebrews, we must recognize here also the assumption of a much more conservative attitude in Luther's later writings. In a subsequent edition of the sermon just mentioned, the reference to the Apocalypse as being on the same plane with Lichtenberger is left out, and in the edition of his works in 1545 a new and much more moderate preface was substituted for the old one. He still finds trouble with the obscurity of the book. On account of this he had formerly let it alone, and especially because of the doubt of it in the early church, as attested by Eusebius (H. E. iii. 25). Many have attempted to explain it, but up to the present time have bought out nothing certain from it, but have read into it much inappropriate stuff out of their own heads (a timely warning still). But Luther will now make an earnest effort to give it an interpretation. It is noticeable how the emphasis now falls on the testimony of Eusebius, an historical argument as contrasted with the earlier emphasis upon the content.
After going through Fullerton's article a second time, I'm of the opinion that the exact quote used by Bainton, "He mistrusted Revelation because of its obscurity. 'A revelation,' said he, 'should be revealing'" is a summary statement created by Bainton rather than a direct quote from Luther. This is how the quote came about:

Luther (1522) :"First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions." .

Fullerton: "His chief objection to the book is its obscurity (recall what has been said upon Luther's demand for a perspicuous Bible). The apostles prophesy without figure, of Christ's person and work."

Bainton: "He mistrusted Revelation because of its obscurity. 'A revelation,' said he, 'should be revealing.'"


Anonymous said...

Very nice. I especially appreciate #4, a refutation of a commonly heard statement. It is, as you say, an injustice to continue to beat someone with a retracted statement.

On Revelation- very nice, and thank you. I am greatly annoyed when running across quotes from people online that cannot be substantiated.

Thanks for this piece.

Martin Yee said...


Thanks for this succinct and incisive strike against Romanist allegations of Luther's impropriety in handling the canon

Stupendous job!


James Swan said...

Thanks. It was actually Mr. Shea's Revelation comments that provoked this entry. I had not come across the "Revelation ought to reveal" comment before.

Pete Holter said...

“It was actually Mr. Shea’s Revelation comments that provoked this entry. I had not come across the ‘Revelation ought to reveal’ comment before.”

Augustine also noted the irony in the title of the book of Revelation:

“No doubt, though this book is called the Apocalypse, there are in it many obscure passages to exercise the mind of the reader, and there are few passages so plain as to assist us in the interpretation of the others, even though we take pains; and this difficulty is increased by the repetition of the same things, in forms so different, that the things referred to seem to be different, although in fact they are only differently stated” (City of God, Bk. 20, Ch. 17).

In Christ,

PeaceByJesus said...

Thank God for your hard work.