This continues a short work by Dr. Alan MacRae and edited by Dr. Ed Panosian that began yesterday for this year’s Reformation Sunday, October 25. You can order printed copies at our store page.
This brings us to another factor which was central to Luther’s life—the importance of the Bible as the sole source of knowledge in religious matters. One of the outstanding features of Luther’s life is his constant stress on the vital authority of the Word of God.
There are those today who try to represent Luther as a revolutionist, revolting against church authority, but mistakenly failing to go further and reject Bible authority as well. This is an utter misrepresentation of Luther. Luther did not originally revolt from church authority at all. What happened was that he came to see that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. He came to see that God’s Word is the only real authority in religious matters. When he found that church authorities of his day were taking positions contrary to what is clearly taught in the Scripture, he strongly took the stand that nothing else can compare in authority with the Bible.
Some writers in these days try to select a sentence or two out of context from the writings of Luther or Calvin and make it look as if these great reformers did not hold solidly to the complete inspiration and inerrancy of the Word of God. All such efforts overlook the attitude that was constantly shown by these two great men. To each of them a clear teaching of God’s Word was sufficient to decide any question, not only in religion, but also in all other areas. One has only to look at some of the outstanding events in Luther’s life to see his attitude toward the Bible.
Let us turn our attention to the critical situation when He stood before the emperor at the Diet of Worms. The emperor’s chancellor pointed to a table on which Luther’s books were spread out. He said, “Did you write these books?”
Luther admitted that he had done so. Then he was asked, “Are you willing to recant the teachings of these books?”
Luther answered that every statement in his books belonged in one of three categories. He spoke somewhat as follows: “There are doubtless statements in them that are contrary to clear teachings of the Bible. Wherever I can be shown by clear and convincing evidence or argument that one of my statements is contrary to something in God’s Word I shall be very glad to withdraw it. There are other statements in my books that deal with matters not directly handled in the Word of God. Such statements represent only my own fallible human judgment and I shall gladly defer to the emperor’s wishes as to giving up any statement of this type. However, there is a third type of material of these books. They contain many statements that express ideas clearly taught in the Bible. In every such case it would be impossible for me to recant without being disloyal to God. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”
Thus, in one of the most crucial situations in his whole life, Luther took the position that God’s Word is inerrant and infallible, and that he was ready to bow to its authority in any matter whatever, if only he could be shown by clear and reasonable discussion exactly what the Bible teaches.
Not long after Luther stood before the emperor at Worms, he began one of the major activities of his life. This was the attempt to translate the Bible into German. There had been various attempts before, but never one to which as much effort was given as Luther gave to making his great translation of the Bible into his mother tongue. Luther desired that the Bible should be available
to all who knew German. The Germans spoke many different dialects. Luther had a wide acquaintance with these dialects. He selected one of them which he thought would be understandable to more sections of the country than any other and took it as the basic form of speech for his translation. Then he selected from various dialects features that would be best suited to the clear presentation of the Word of God. Luther’s translation became the foundation of modern German.
Luther’s translation had a tremendous influence upon the German language and upon German thought, and also upon the thought of all Protestant nations. When the King James Version of the Bible was published, it was stated on the title page that in making the translation the ideas of the translators had been carefully compared with the German at every point. Thus, recognition was given to the long years of labor that Luther devoted to this great task. To the very end of his life, Luther was constantly working at the task of finding the best possible way of expressing the precise thought of the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament in understandable German. He issued edition after edition of the Bible.
Not long before the end of Luther’s life someone told him of a plan to issue a complete edition of all his works. Luther opposed the idea. He said that his writings were only the expression of human ideas. “Do not reprint them,” he said. “Reprint the Bible. That is where you find the truth of God. Let my writings perish. Let the Word of God be published and distributed as widely as possible.”
It is customary among those who do not accept the historic Christian truth of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word of God to try to make it appear that Luther felt that he could discard certain portions of the Bible. The particular point of attack is the Book of James. Luther is often quoted as having made two statements derogatory to this book. One of these is that he called it “an epistle of straw.” The other is that he said that he would throw the Book of James into the Tiber River.
We should not discard simply on the basis of two quotations the clear emphasis of his life as shown by the attitude that he expressed so frequently regarding his absolute confidence in the Word of God. However, we do not have to content ourselves with merely saying this. We must look further into the nature of what Luther said about the Book of James.
First let us notice the source of these quotations. In the latter part of his life Luther entertained many guests at his large home in Wittenberg. There would usually be quite a number of people at the table. After the meal was over Luther would often talk freely on many different subjects. He was a great character and his remarks on almost any subject were interesting. A man who visited there for quite a time was so impressed with Luther’s casual remarks that he made a practice, after he would go to his room, of writing down all that he could remember of what Luther had said. Eventually these statements were put together into a book called Luther’s Table Talk. (The two statements that have been quoted about the Book of James come from this source.) We have no certainty that what the man remembered afterwards was precisely what Luther had said. There is no doubt, however, that he occasionally spoke about the Book of James in a way to show that he felt it to be in some way less important than certain other books of the New Testament.
Then, too, it must be remembered that Luther was of peasant extraction. He knew the language of the common people. His sermons were very popular because they put great truths in such simple language that everyone could understand. Sometimes he would use very strong language. To know exactly what he meant, one should compare his remarks with other statements of his on the same subjects.
In every edition of the New Testament that he published, Luther always included the Book of James. This makes it perfectly clear that he never rejected James as the Word of God. He never suggested that it was in any way less true, less dependable, or less inerrant than any other book of the Bible. His criticism was that it did not stress truths that he felt particularly vital at his time. The Epistles of Paul stress the great truths of salvation. These are tremendously important as the very foundation of the Christian life. Much of the Epistle of James is devoted to emphasizing the importance of certain aspects of the Christian walk and the necessity of carefully avoiding various types of subtle temptations.
There is no evidence that Luther ever questioned that this is a true and inerrant portion of the Word of God. He did consider it less important, or at least less primary, than certain other parts of the New Testament. If one were to take this epistle by itself and to ignore those portions of the New Testament where the foundation truths of salvation arc developed more at length, he might reach false conclusions. For this reason Luther may have called it “an epistle of straw.” He may have said that he would throw it into the Tiber, meaning by this remark that those who were holding to a mere religion of ceremonies and who were seeking to win salvation by works were wrongly building on this epistle, taken by itself and not interpreted in relation to other equally true writings.
The attempt to use these two brief statements to offset the solid emphases of Luther’s life is quite mistaken. Over and over again Luther stressed the fundamental authority and primacy of God’s Word. One does not find in Luther or Calvin any denial of the inerrancy of the Bible. It is only by taking sentences out of context and interpreting them in a way different from what their authors actually meant that such a claim can be advanced.