Did Luther say, "Remove Christ from the Scriptures and there is nothing left"? This popular Luther quote circulates cyberspace, often found in pictorial form, like that pictured above. Yes, Luther appears to have said something like this... as did theologian John Stott: "Take Christ from Christianity, and you remove the heart from it; there is practically nothing left," and also, "Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left." Let's take a closer look at Luther's version.
Of the cyber-pictures using the quote I checked, none provided a reference. Similarly, a basic Google search for the quote did not yield a reference. A Google Book search gave some interesting hits. A 2008 book uses the exact quote without a reference, mentioning Luther's interaction with Erasmus. Another Google Books hit states: "Remove Christ from the Scriptures and what more will you find in them? [De servo arbitrio WA 18:606]." Even though it places the quote in the form of a rhetorical question, it sounds a lot like the quote in question.
"De servo arbitrio" refers to Luther's response to Erasmus, "The Bondage of the Will" (1525). This seems like a likely candidate for the source. WA 18:606 reads,
The sentence in question is "Tolle Christum e scripturis, quid amplius in illis invenies?" De servo arbitrio has been translated into English a number of times. The quote can be found in LW 33:26 and also in the Packer / Johnston translation on page 71.
I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar; but these texts in no way hinder a knowledge of all the subject matter of Scripture. For what still sublimer thing can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals have been broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher [Matt. 27:66; 28:2], and the supreme mystery brought to light, namely, that Christ the Son of God has been made man, that God is three and one, that Christ has suffered for us and is to reign eternally? Are not these things known and sung even in the highways and byways? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find left in them?
The subject matter of the Scriptures, therefore, is all quite accessible, even though some texts are still obscure owing to our ignorance of their terms. Truly it is stupid and impious, when we know that the subject matter of Scripture has all been placed in the clearest light, to call it obscure on account of a few obscure words. If the words are obscure in one place, yet they are plain in another; and it is one and the same theme, published quite openly to the whole world, which in the Scriptures is sometimes expressed in plain words, and sometimes lies as yet hidden in obscure words. Now, when the thing signified is in the light, it does not matter if this or that sign of it is in darkness, since many other signs of the same thing are meanwhile in the light. Who will say that a public fountain is not in the light because those who are in a narrow side street do not see it, whereas all who are in the marketplace do see it? (LW 33:25-26)
In the complete context of LW 33:24-28 (a section entitled, "The clarity of Scripture"), Luther's comment about Christ, while important, is actually more of a passing comment. Luther was reacting to Erasmus's point that there were many passages in Scripture that are obscure:
Thus there are many passages in the sacred volumes on which many commentators have tried their skill, but no one has really removed their obscurity, as for example: the distinction between the persons in the Godhead, the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, and the unforgivable sin. (LW 33:24 fn. 13; cf. Diatribe EAS 4,12 f)For those difficult areas like "the Trinity" or the two natures of Christ, for Luther, Scripture confesses them, and how exactly they are what they are is not necessary to know. What we need to know "has been placed in the clearest light." Luther was gearing up to attack Erasmus on the scriptural clarity of nature of the will of man and its freedom in regard to salvation.