Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Luther: The Church Created the Canon of Scripture?

Many of the arguments from Rome's defenders have been around a long time. For instance, ever heard the argument that without the Roman church infallibly declaring the canon of Scripture, one cannot know which books are supposed to be in the Bible? Here's how Luther answered this. Keep in mind, he wasn't directly responding to one of Rome's defenders; Rather, the following comes from a a 1529 sermon:

Further they object: The church has accepted the four gospels, others they have not accepted. Thus the church is master over them. If not, who would know which gospel were true, perhaps Bartholomew's gospel or another? That sounds just as if we had the gospels from the church and not from God. Christianity has accepted the book, they say, therefore Christianity is over the book. I accept the teaching of Paul, therefore I am over his teaching. Oh that they had made the distinction between confessing and having authority! The Christian church confesses that the teaching, the Gospel, the book are true. Bot thereby the church is not given the authority over it. Then I could also say: I accept Christ, therefore I am over Christ. Or I would say of the prince of the land: Duke Hans of Saxony is my prince, not Duke George and the Margrave. I accept the former, not the latter; therefore because he is my prince, I am over him. Would he allow this? Would he allow his command to be changed? Is that indeed consistent?

Similarly, a lawyer could say: This command the emperor has fixed, that one a false teacher has fixed. Therefore this scholar stands over the emperor because he can distinguish between what the emperor has fixed and what another fixes. You've got to be kidding yourself! So they conclude quite foolishly: The Christian church confesses that this book and its teaching are true, therefore it is over them. These are rotten hoaxes. Christ has given the church this authority, to separate between truth and falsehood, as he says in Matthew 7:15: "Beware of false prophets!" When the evangelical teaching spread throughout the world from the apostles, upright teachers saw and received it; but other books that did not correspond to this, they discarded. So we also do. Bot I cannot conclude: Because I accept John's gospel, I am over the same. For this reason say: It is not true; the Christian church does not have the authority to change a single letter. For it is written in Matthew 5:19, "Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." Add nothing and take nothing away. It should remain as Christ has ordered it.

But here God's ordinance concerns the two kinds of the sacrament, bread and wine, body and blood. Whoever changes this is not of the Christian church, but of the synagogue of the devil. The Christian church has no authority to change anything but only to judge, so that we do not accept false teaching as true. The gospel was not written first, but first the apostles had to preach it orally. Therefore it cannot be said that the church is over the Gospel. Only confession, judgment, recognition of what is false and true, is within the Christian church's authority. Therefore I can indeed recognize whether your wife is upright, but still I have no authority over her. For this reason they are crude buffoons who conclude: I can recognize this and judge it; therefore I am over it. But their desire to have the power to change amounts to nothing. The Christian church has accepted only the Gospel, and the gospel has stood by the church. Whether St. Bartholomew's gospel is right or not, the church has accepted the true Gospel. The church has had the true Gospel from the beginning and from this has judged what is unjust and false.  (The 1529 Holy Week and Easter Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), pp.40-42)


Jugulum said...

"Similarly, a lawyer could say: This command the emperor has fixed, that one a false teacher has fixed. Therefore this scholar stands over the emperor because he can distinguish between what the emperor has fixed and what another fixes."

That's an incredibly useful analogy! Very intuitive & natural.

It pushes the discussion to the question, how did the church recognize what belongs in the canon? Do we have legitimate criteria for doing it? (And then the question "How did it work with the books of the Old Testament?" will come up.)

But on its own, it's a clear, intuitive example of how a subordinate can be involved in recognizing which commands come from the highest authority.

James Swan said...

I've always considered the Romanist conclusion about the canon being closed as the result of an infallible church to be... not thinking deeply enough about the canon.