Thursday, May 04, 2006

Luther's Canon: A Response To "Catholic Dude" (Part one)

A guy with handle “Catholic Dude” has reviewed my paper *Luther’s View of the Canon of Scripture* twice. The first time, I ignored it due to time constraints, and what appeared to be many misunderstandings on the dude’s end. The second evaluation came recently. I figured it would be interesting to tackle both, and show a dedication to a theological worldview that refuses to see the facts of history in their context. Also, I think it would be interesting to compare both reviews to see if Catholic Dude’s criticism is consistent.

My paper was an attempt to show within a Roman Catholic framework, Luther had every right to debate and discuss the canon. In essence, when Luther is placed in a historical Roman Catholic context, my paper argues that Roman Catholics don’t even have the right to criticize Luther’s theological opinions on the canon. In many ways, I’m arguing Luther’s view from a Roman Catholic perspective. The canon wasn’t dogmatically closed for Roman Catholics until the Council of Trent. Luther, Erasmus, and Cajetan all argued their views previous to this declaration. Thus, they were within their rights to discuss the canon.

The first review from Catholic Dude, found in 3 parts, comes from the Catholic Answers Forums (May 2005):

Re: Protestants: Here is what Luther did to some NT books you use... (part one)

Re: Protestants: Here is what Luther did to some NT books you use... (part two)

Protestants: Here is what Luther did to some NT books you use... (part three)

The second review was posted recently here:

CARM review (April 2006)

I’m going to begin with Catholic Dude’s review from May 2005, part one, in dialog form. Catholic Dude’s words will be in Red. The words from my article will be in blue. My responses will be in black. I hold no animosity to Catholic Dude. We have dialoged occasionally in the past year or so.

1. A Response to my term “Luther Card”: Do I understand the Roman Catholic charge against Luther?

Catholic Dude claimed I misunderstand the Catholic charges against Luther on the canon:

“…I just got back from HERE. It is TertiumQuid's webpage of his defense of Luther who he claims is being unfairly portrayed by Catholics and the tactic is known as playing the "Luther Card" in attempt to make Luther look bad by misquoting what Luther said, especially concerning the books Luther removed. I took notes and here are my thoughts on a few of the quotes from that page:

It is a simple historical fact that Luther’s translation of the Bible contained all of its books.’

Here is a theme that pops up all through the page. It claims that Catholics use the term "throw out" as in if you opened a Bible you wouldn’t [sic] see them. That is not what Catholics are saying there, we are going on the grounds that Luther has no business degrading those books the way he does, and all through the page this point is downplayed.”

I do assert that many Roman Catholic laymen frequently play the “Luther Card” in discussions about the canon, and they do selectively cite Luther’s words to make him look as bad as possible. I couldn’t put a number on how many of these type of discussions I’ve been in- all paint Luther as out-of-control when it came to the canon. I can provide numerous examples from discussions, but even in the footnotes of paper I provide examples, for instance, footnote #46.

A careful reading of my paper will show that I did more than simply accuse the Catholic position on Luther to be that books were “thrown out”. I said specifically, “Sometimes [Roman Catholics] make the radical charge that Luther removed books from the Bible; more often they accuse Luther of creating his own canon. The charge most often says Luther’s opinion is the result of subjectivism.” By paying attention to my footnotes (#1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6) Catholic Dude would have seen that these three points were documented by Catholic opinion, and a close reading would have also shown that I cover these three points and provide counter-responses as well.

As to Luther having “no business degrading” books of the Bible being the correct Catholic opinion on this matter, I guess I could add a fourth Catholic opinion that states: “Luther is wrong because we say so, and he is not allowed to discuss issues we say he shouldn’t”. Of course, a position like this requires no response. “Because we say so” is not an intelligent way to discuss this issue.

2. Do I deny Luther’s “religious opinion” in his view on the canon?

Catholic Dude claimed I miss another reason Catholics are against Luther on the canon:

Second Catholics claim that Luther's actions were a direct consequence of passages getting in the way of his religious agenda/opinion.”

Well, “agenda” and “opinion” are two different things. It is true I never did discuss Luther’s “agenda”- simply because I don’t think he had one- nor do I recall ever reading a valid Roman Catholic source documenting Luther’s “agenda” as a determinate factor in canonicity. Contrary to Catholic dude’s claim, I did indeed discuss the aspect of Luther’s “opinion” on the canon. Very early in my paper, I stated the following:

Understanding Luther on this issue demands approaching him from two perspectives:

1. Luther’s perspective on the canon as a sixteenth century Biblical theologian
2. Luther’s personal criterion of canonicity expressed in his theology

My primary focus will be on the first point since Roman Catholics tend to completely disregard it. Any attempt though to understand Luther’s view of the canon that neglects either of these is prone to distortion and caricature

Note the bolded #2 above. I later went on to explain this point. I consider Luther’s theological opinions to be what I mentioned earlier: Luther’s subjective opinion. My emphasis throughout the paper was on point #1, and I have become even more convinced that historical concerns on canon issues together with Luther’s interpretive hermeneutic cannot be separated if one wants to understand him on this subject. I didn’t spend an extraordinary amount of time on this simply for the reason I stated out the outset: Luther had every right previous to the dogmatic canon declaration at Trent to present his views.

3. Catholic Dude claims Luther used a “smoke screen”.

The dude quotes me saying, “These books are not held equal to the Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.” He then comments:” Another smoke screen used by Luther to pretend he accepts them when he really doesn’t[sic.], this claim occurs a lot in many forms on the www.”
The selected comment in blue is Luther’s view on the Apocrypha (which he translated into German and included in his Bible). That Luther was not “pretending” is blatantly obvious to anyone who has access to Luther’s Works. Simply look in the indexes, and one will find Luther did indeed positively quote from the apocryphal books, in many instances. He most definitely lived up to what he held: the apocryphal books were useful to him and good to read.

As to the comment, “this claim occurs a lot in many forms on the www”- this is totally irrelevant since the subject is Luther’s treatment of the books- not how often a comment like this is made by others in cyber space.

4. Catholic Dude claims I missed the point: Luther ideologically removed books from the canon.

The dude quoted a paragraph I utilized from Jaraslov Pelikan in part three. In a nutshell, Pelikan points out that Luther retained the canon as given by tradition- but it would be mistaken to think Pelikan means “infallible Roman Catholic tradition.”

Luther wasn’t like Marcion. He translated and included all the books that were currently in the Bible. Pelikan said:

“[Luther] did not pretend that the church could undertake the construction of the canon anew, or that it could function with a canon open at both ends. Never, even at the height of his criticism of James, did he drop it from his editions of the Bible, any more than he dropped the Old Testament Apocrypha. From his own experience he could testify that often a Christian found one or another book of the canon difficult or useless to him at a particular time, only to discover later on that it was just what he needed in a time of trouble or temptation. Had such a person been permitted to re-edit the canon on the basis of his passing mood, he would have been deprived of the patience and comfort of the Scriptures when he needed them most. Within the received canon Luther made sharp distinctions, to the point of constructing a private miniature canon. But he was realistic enough in his theology to know that one had to operate with the canon as given by tradition. That realism provided the framework within which he could say and do the things he did in relation to the canon without involving himself in a hopeless set of contradictions.”

The dude comments:

Here is the whole page in a nutshell. It starts off making the claim that Luther would never even go there, but as you read on you find the recurring problem, and that is Luther had an agenda and this simple observation is ignored/downplayed using smoke screens. Look it says that messing around with the books just because something bothers your is A BAD IDEA because in the future you will need them. It finishes off by saying that he had a "framework" to do what he was doing, so does this admit that he had an agenda, but wanted to stay under the radar as long as possible?”

Again, Catholic Dude refers to the mysterious “agenda” Luther had, but never tells us what it is. As a typical Catholic interacting with this subject, the Dude completely disregard the canon issues Luther faced. This perspective fails in many ways. When one looks at the totality of Luther’s New Testament canon criticism, it is quite minute: four books. Of his opinion he allows for the possibility of his readers to disagree with his conclusions. His overall opinion softened later in life by the exclusion of many negative comments in his revised prefaces. Of the four books, it is possible that Luther’s opinion fluctuated on two (Hebrews and Revelation). Even while criticizing James and Jude, he positively quoted from them throughout his career. In the case of Jude he did a complete series of lectures. In the case of James, he preached from the book, and positively quoted the book. These points obliterate an “agenda” theory.

The idea that he removed them to the trash physically is what the author claims that Catholics are saying. What the author misses is the issue that Luther removed them ideologically/spiritually to the trash, which is just as bad, that is what Catholics are saying.”

Again, I did not claim the Catholic opinion was solely Luther removed books of the Bible (see point #1 above). Generally, I have though found this opinion frequently stated by Catholic laymen. It’s not my fault Catholic laymen frequently don’t know this subject well enough to articulate the facts accurately. Luther “removed [books] ideologically/spiritually to the trash” is simply a misreading of his prefaces. He presents his opinion in short “prefaces” and makes no dogmatic declarations. Of his opinion he allows for the possibility of his readers to disagree with his conclusions.

What Martin Luther thought about the canon of sacred scripture, or anything else for that matter, really doesn’t matter. He is not the Protestant pope. He’s just a man- a talented man with much insight, but he’s not the infallible authority for Protestants. My interest though is in historical theology, and I find the Reformation period very interesting. I became interested in studying Catholic approaches to Luther- and my writings reflect this.

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