By Chaplain Mike
Let’s say you walk into your local bookstore looking for a Bible. You scan the shelves and examine various translations and editions. Many contain 66 books: 39 in the OT and 27 in the NT. In some Bibles there is a section between the OT and NT with additional books called, “Apocrypha” or “Deuterocanonical Books.” When you peruse a “Catholic” Bible you see those “extra” books mixed in with the rest of the OT. On the off chance that you find an Orthodox Bible, you see that these books are called, “Anagignoskomena.”
So far, so good. You have a basic understanding of the differences between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. You realize that Catholic and Orthodox Christians accept additional books into their canon of Scripture while Protestants limit the canon to 66 books. That doesn’t bother you too much. The boundaries between those worlds are so well established in your mind and accepted that you don’t give much thought to the fact that their Bibles differ a little bit.
However, let’s say you find another Bible on the shelf. At first glance, it looks like a Protestant Bible, but upon closer inspection you notice something different. As you come near the end of the NT, there is a break before the last four books and a word of explanation:
Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation.
After this introductory word, you find the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation at the end of the NT, separated from the rest of the books.
The Bible you are looking at was translated and published by the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther.
Basing his judgment upon early church discussions about the New Testament canon and also upon his theological commitment to apostolic teaching on justification by faith, Luther upheld the distinction between NT books that were unanimously accepted by the church (homologoumena) and those that were disputed by some (antilegomena).
Even though Luther eventually included all 27 NT books in his Bible and contemporary Lutherans accept them as canonical, to this day they are considered on a lower level than the Gospels and other epistles in Lutheran circles. Luther held that they had debatable apostolic origins or were not complete or clear in their expression of the apostolic gospel. They should be used by believers with care.
Here are some excerpts of what Luther said about these books:
. . . my opinion is that it is an Epistle put together of many pieces, and it does not deal systematically with any one subject. Although, as the author himself testifies (Heb. 6:1), he does not lay the foundation of faith, which is the work of the Apostles, nevertheless he does build finely thereon with gold, silver, precious stones, as St. Paul says in I Cor. 3;12. Therefore we should not be hindered, even though wood, straw, or hay are perhaps mixed in with them, but accept this fine teaching with all honor; though, to be sure, we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles.
Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle; and my reasons follow.
In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works. . . .
In the second place its purpose is to teach Christians, but in all this long teaching it does not once mention the Passion, the resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ. He names Christ several times; however he teaches nothing about him, but only speaks of general faith in God. . . .
But this James does nothing more than drive to the law and to its works. Besides, he throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper. . . .
In a word, he wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore, I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books . . .
Concerning the epistle of St. Jude, no one can deny that it is an extract or copy of St. Peter’s second epistle, so very like it are all the words. He also speaks of the apostles like a disciple who comes long after them and cites sayings and incidents that are found nowhere else in the Scriptures. This moved the ancient fathers to exclude this epistle from the main body of the Scriptures. Moreover the Apostle Jude did not go to Greek-speaking lands, but to Persia, as it is said, so that he did not write Greek. Therefore, although I value this book, it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are supposed to lay the foundations of faith.
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. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.
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. Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images. For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it. . . .
Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1, “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.
So, here we have the father of the Protestant Reformation questioning the canonicity or at least the relative value of certain books in the New Testament.
- What would you think if you found a Bible like this on the shelf of your local Christian bookstore?
Come to think of it . . .
- What evangelical publishing house would consider publishing such a Bible?
- What Christian bookstore would consider stocking it?
- What evangelical Bible college or seminary would consider hiring a professor like Martin Luther once they found out his position on Scripture?
- What would the apologetics community and the watchblogs say when they spoke of Dr. Luther and his views?
- What would happen in an evangelical church if her pastor started preaching Luther’s views, or if a layperson embraced Luther’s position and wanted to teach about it in a Bible study?
I’m pretty sure that discussing this in church would be considered bad form and dangerous to the faith of the congregation. Why, it might cause people to doubt the Bible, the firm foundation of their faith!
I’m not saying we should adopt Luther’s view. I’m just wonderingâ€”why did the church ever stop talking about things like this?
103 thoughts on “A Bible You’d Never Find at the Christian Bookstore”
The Council of Carthage (AD 397) defined the Bible Canon to include the deuterocanonical (apocrypha) books.
King James I appointed the Apocrypha Translation Committee and the 1611 KJV contains the apocrypha and it states on the cover page that all books therein, including those of the apocrypha, are, “Appointed to be read in churches.”
Who changed these books’ status to “[Not] appointed to be read in churches”?
Likewise, how did Luther decide for Lutherans that James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation are “secondary”?
Wouldn’t each of these changes require a Church council and not one man’s opinion?
Also, wouldn’t another Church council making a change to the Bible canon be flatly contradicting the Council of Carthage’s canon?
Wulfila (ca. 311-380 AD)
Frankish Translations (9th century)
Augsburger Bible (1350, NT)
Wenzel Bible (1389, OT)
Mentel Bible (1466) First Printed Bible in German
Halberstaedter Bible (1522)
Actually I do believe there were some number of Germanic language translations before Luther. I will endeavor to find a good reference for that to back myself up. I think the pious belief of Luther as the lone hero in its own little bit of hagiography.
For Luther, the question wasn’t “is the Canon inspired?” but “what is the Canon?” I think we do no favors to either the Faith in general or conservatism in particular to ignore this question today. If this was an open question to the Fathers, why do we believe “scholars” of the last century have settled it?
Shifting gears to the Old Testament…how can anyone seriously not be a little uncomfortable with the book of Esther?
Lutherans don’t reject the Antilegomena completely, they just won’t accept any doctrine as proven if the proof texts come only from the disputed books. Sounds reasonable.
unless you follow the liturgical calendar with accompanying readings…..
You’re right, there were individual books that were not touched upon by the NT writers, but I’m told that these were often “bundled” together, as “minor prophets” for example, or 1st and 2nd Chronicles as one book. Rather than inisisting that Obadiah, for example be quoted from, it was enough that the minor prophets as a whole were recognized. What a lot of people don’t realize is how very Hebrew the New Testament is.
I recommend a book from a former professor of mine: Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith.
I’m not sure the typical evangelical perspective is best described as “bibliolatry”, because that implies that they are worshiping the Bible. Now, we all know they are not worshiping a leather-bound, smythe-sewn cultural artifact, and so we really mean that they are worshiping the teachings in the Bible. But most aren’t. They are worshiping their own worldview, then using the nuclear option (“the Bible says so!”) to justify their thinking. I think “idolotry” might be more accurate. At least, that’s how I see it.
Let’s remember that Luther was trying to “rescue” Christianity and Scripture from Roman Catholicism. He had already tossed the apocrapha, and was in the process of weighing all the books.
That being said, isn’t Luther just being honest about how we all feel sometimes? There is plenty in the Bible that I don’t understand and some that downright frustrates me. Like, why does Matthew’s beatitude add “in spirit” to Luke’s “blessed are the poor”?
Personally, I have always argued that the canon would be stronger without Paul. Paul not only contradicts James, he contradicts Jesus as well.
But laying aside that, I suspect that if we were able to measure what passages from Scripture were preached in an average year in the U.S. we would find that some books, like Romans, are weighted in practice far more heavily than others.
In other words, only in theory could we say that all books in Scripture stand equal to one another. In practice, it’s an entirely different thing. In practice, I bet that Paul is used 2 or 3 or even 10 times as often as one of the four gospels.
Absolutely. The Ziwikau prophets and Thomas Muntzer were famous for declaring the end of days, and for equating the pope with the antichrist. I recommend “Revelation and Revolution” for a sampling of Muntzer’s work (trans Michael Baylor, 1993, Associated Universities Press), and “Communal Christianity” for a thorough look at some aspects of culture at the time (David Mayes, Brill Academic, 2004).
Yes, actually there has been some good scholarly work done in Orthodox academic circles. The East accepted the Book of Revelation up until the late second century. However, the Montanists which the Church had to fight in Asia Minor so misused the book that some began to reject not only the Book of Revelation, but also the Gospel of John. By the third century the Gospel of John was clearly accepted in the East, but the Book of Revelation had become doubted because of the heretics.
He ain’t dead yet!
Well, the bit that makes me smile (so to speak) is that, in the extracts above, one reason he gives for downgrading James is that it’s not like the rest of Scripture.
Then he downgrades Jude because it’s just like 2 Peter.
In other words – if it’s different, it’s lesser and if it’s the same, it’s lesser!
Definitely more to do with his own preoccupations, I think. However, I do find myself agreeing with him about Revelation. I wonder if even at the very start of the Reformation, there were those going around declaring “This is it – the Last Days! See, it’s all in Scripture!” ? Probably.
I meant to list Enoch as Pseudepigrapha.
Below is a table of books for the Septuagint. Many books were added during the 100 years following the first translation of the books of Moses in the third century, but still predates the New Testament period. Of particular interest is the inclusion of books like Tobit and Sirach.
I can’t find my link to the scriptural allusions listed in the original Geneva Bible. I’ll need to do more digging. There are several websites which have their own lists of references to the apocrypha, but admittedly scriptural allusions can be very subjective.
I was joking about the secret Mark thing (but I see it did catch some attentioin). Did read some interesting analysis one time about the secret disciple being redacted though one could still pick up signs through Mark and John….but I digress…
I have heard those stating that Jesus and the apostles quoted from all parts of the OT – while the communities that wrote the Gospels did quote extensively from the OT, sometimes Masoretic, sometimes Septuagint and then sometimes from a source that didn’t match either,there were books in th OT they did not touch upon (will have to dig up the references). I will agree though that they were silent on direct references to the books later tossed out of the Jewish canon.
OK. I think you mean “references IN the New Testament passages TO Apocrypha passages.” Because the Apocrypha we’re talking about was written at least a couple of hundred years earlier than the NT .
But I don’t know about Apocryphal texts contained in the Septuagint. I have never heard that, and have never heard that Jews accepted the Apocrypha with the OT canon. I’m under the assumption that the Septuagint was very faithful to the Hebrew texts of the time. But this is out of my league.
And as for Enoch, that doesn’t show up in either of my copies of the Apocrypha. According to the website that Mike Bell cited above, Enoch only shows up in the Ethiopian canon. But at least that explains where Jude got the story about the body of Moses. As for the standard Apocrypha, I’m sticking with my understanding that Jesus and the apostles didn’t quote from that, and only from the OT (Paul’s quote from Greek poetry is an exception, and Jude appears to be an exception too, if we look at Enoch).
No, these were references to new testament passages from Apocrypha passages. It isn’t that surprising, considering many Apocryphal texts were contained in the Septuagint, which existed over one hundred years before the New Testament period. One more familiar reference is in Jude, regarding the fight over the body of Moses, which occurs only in the book of Enoch.
No. The church as it existed in the late patristic era.
By 367 the New Testament canon was universally recognized. Nothing has changed at all with regard to the New Testament canon since then.
It’s too good not to be true.
Thanks! I just added apostolicity, after reading yours.
You are correct. His views on some of these subjects changed over the years.
I just read a comment from Chaplain Mike, below. Add apostolicity to the list (duh). Eyewitnesses of His majesty, as in 2Peter1:16.
Actually, it’s even funnier than that. For example, listen to what Luther said in the intro to Romansâ€”“Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing.”
That sounds just like James to me!
Good list, Ted. I will use that.
Dumb ox, are you thinking of the so-called New Testament Apocrypha when you mention gospel allusions? Those books do depend on and allude to the Jesus stories, but are sensationalized foolishness. The Old Testament Apocrypha on the other hand was written mostly in the second century BC, and is more what’s in question. Those are well worth reading as history and as literature.
Probably not the Didache. According to Cyril Richardson, that’s from the second century. It’s a manual for Christian behavior, and based heavily (fundamentally) on New Testament verses and some Old Testament. The copy I have is heavily footnoted with NT references, demonstrating that it was written at a later date. Interestingly, the Didache wasn’t discovered until 1873! So maybe more good stuff will turn up.
As for the OT apocryphal books (we won’t even mention the NT apocrypha, which is tabloid-style nonsense), I’m with Luther that they are “good and useful” but not at the level of scripture. The Maccabees, for example, are excellent history of the intertestamental period, and we can learn about Hanukkah from there. But they are more on the level of Josephus and other historical writings of the time.
About whether Paul would have included the Apocrypha in his instruction of 2Tim3:16: If we can allow an argument from silence, Jesus and the apostles are not known to have quoted from the OT apocrypha, but they did quote extensively from all parts of the Old Testament canon itself. In fact, they lived and breathed Old Testament.
(Side note: I got into trouble at a Bible study once after saying that Jesus “quoted” Psalm 22 on the cross. A friend corrected me by insisting that Jesus wasn’t merely “quoting” but fulfilling; that the Psalm had been written 1000 years earlier for that very moment. My friend was right, of course, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post…)
One correction: Luther modified his views on Revelation. In a later revision (1530, if I recall correctly) of the preface to Revelation, he had a far more positive view of the book. I don’t have it to hand now, but will try to find it tomorrow and give you an excerpt. It’s in Luther’s Works, so if anyone else gets there first, be my guest.
Boy, chaplain, you are really gonna burn in hell for this one. Haven’t you ever read the threats in Revelation 22:18-19? On a more serious note though, those who hold to inerrancy must deal with the strong tendency towards Bibliolatry in conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches. For most of these groups, Scripture has become the lynchpin on which their faith stands or falls. Take away the Bible, or destroy it’s credibility, and their faith will crumble. This is also the weakness of an evidential approach to apologetics, imo. The only problem with this is that it isn’t even Biblical. The Bible clearly sets the resurrection of Christ from the dead as the lynchpin upon which the faith stands or falls, and the Bible is only good in so far as it testifies to this. The purpose of scripture is to deliver that message, not to deliver instructions. It’s a book about God, not about you. How could we ever expect such a work to be comprehensive and still fit on our planet? It gives us a sufficient glimpse or who God is enough to come to a saving knowledge of Christ with any 10 books alone, provided one of them is a Gospel.
I have always wondered about James disputing justification by faith alone. Calvinists have a pretty reasonable way of handling that passage, imo. James distinguishes between inactive faith (intellectual ascent to dogmatic claims) and saving faith (genuine trust that results in obedience). Just check the footnotes in the ESV study bible. If Luther had just listened to the Calvinists on this subject, he wouldn’t have had such a big problem with James 😛 And he might have been a Calvinist too, for that matter.
I’m in favor of a closed canon, too. I think that there are several layers to the canonization process, something like this–and all dependent on God’s inspiration:
1. God’s eternal truth
2. The original inspiration by God to the author (the “aha!”moment)
3. The writing of the work
4. The reading and recognition of each work as inspired
5. The preservation and survival of each work, against all efforts to destroy them
6. The collection and authorization of each work by Christians worldwide, in remarkable agreement
7. The continuity and cohesion of each work to the rest of the canon
8. The test of time
Any suggestions for other criteria? I think you’re right, that if another Corinthians should appear, that we could do without it being canonized. I mean, otherwise God would have preserved it and inspired people to include it , wouldn’t he?
On the other hand, if anything like that were to appear we should be all over it like flies on honey. It would no doubt add a lot of understanding to other parts of the Bible, as happens every time archaeologists turn up something from ancient near eastern literature. But we could do without it as authoritative.
Far out, man. Peace, love and tie-dyed Bible cover.
Luther held that the apostolic form of teaching was plain and simple, making the Gospel clear to anyone who reads. Revelation was rejected more for its form than for its content.
i.e. Too Trippy for Luther?
Interesting that you bring up the issue of the Jewish Council of Jamnia. That is a contentious issue for the “Masoretic vs. Septuagint” debate. But, perhaps that subject is for another post.
Even though Clement’s Epistles and the Shepherd of Hermas aren’t in the canon, they are still good reading, if only for their historical value; that is to say, “Why were these in consideration for the Canon?”
I would refer the issue of the Orthodox view of the Canon to Fr. Ernesto; from what I understand, the Canon is closed in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Ah yes- the old debate of “Masoretic vs. Septuagint”! 😀
And don’t even get me going about “secret Mark”; that book is just bizarre….
I’ve never heard or seen such so-called “weird tangents” in my life.
I see. Thanks for the clarification there, Chaplain Mike. I do appreciate it.
Of course every group has an order of importance. Even those whom claim, as you say, “everything is equally valid and valuable”, have a ranking system.
However, given that in general evangelicals and fundamentalists do not have any sense of history or guiding tradition, this ranking system can vary from congregation to congregation- even person to person!
“What would you think if you found a Bible like this on the shelf of your local Christian bookstore?”
I would sing out “Hosanna!” at having such a good Christian bookstore in my area. I would spend my money happily, and return frequently.
When I was in college some *mumble mumble* years ago, I decided I wanted a copy of the Jerusalem Bible: the Study Edition, not the Reader’s Edition. I don’t remember what brought on the urge for a study edition of a Catholic translation, but I have not regretted it. I still use it, if only for the perspective.
This was long before the web, and something like this could be tricky to get through a general bookstore even through special order. So I went to the local Christian bookstore, where it turned out they had it on the shelf. I also picked up a collection of short stories by George MacDonald, who was one of C.S. Lewis’s influences.
I didn’t realize at the time how wildly atypical my experience was. Honestly, I have never since set foot in a Christian bookstore without a feeling of disappointment soon following.
I’ve never heard that one before.
The others did not make the cut in Protestant circles partly because they were not included in the Jewish canon which was allgedly set in Jamnia around 90 AD. Wanting to clean out greek influences into Jewish thought Jewish leaders removed most books that were originally composed in greek or had more recent origin. That included the Gospels too.
Some things floated in and out of the early Canon like Clement’s Epistle and the Sheperd of Hermas which was an early favorite.
In literal terms the Canon did not close for the Catholic Church until the Council of Trent in response to the Canon being drawn up by Prtestant groups. On the Orthodox side it was never closed.
Well, nowadays “cult” often is used to mean “a religion I don’t like” with a strong undercurrent of “and am therefore going to dismiss it out of hand”. Let’s just say that Swedenborgianism is a sect (umm… that’s another loaded word: how about “subset”?) of Christianity which has limited membership and is doctrinally far from the mainstream.
On the other hand, if you find yourself in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia and you have a spare afternoon, use the time to visit the Swedenborgian cathedral in Bryn Athyn. It is spectacular: Gothic architecture constructed without modern shortcuts. The only things like it I know in the US are the National Cathedral in DC and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, but the Bryn Athyn cathedral is less touristy. They will have a lovely little old lady give you a tour, and they won’t try to convert you.
“How should we view 2Timothy3:16? â€œAll scripture is inspired by God (God-breathed) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousnessâ€¦â€ To many evangelicals, this verse is the proof text for â€œGod said it; I believe it; that settles it.â€ But what books were accepted as scripture when Paul wrote that? ”
And was his set of old testament scripture the Septuagint which contained the apocrypha (no set Jeiwsh canon yet). Or was he only focusing on the first five books? Certainly if he did write second Timothy there would not have been any Gospels written yet (or at least in final form we have today) and just maybe the Didache….
and what about secret Mark….
Luther was in a difficult position. He and Erasmus had a rather romantic version of what the tradition of the Early Church was. On the one hand, he would have found broad agreement in the Orthodox Church for various of his critiques of the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, we would see him as falling into the same trap as much of the rest of the West, which is defining salvation in such a way that it becomes a purely juridical matter.
He wanted to return to the Early Church, but like many, he was returning to a type of memory of an idealized Early Church, and he was doing it on his own (he had no other choice) rather than in community with others. That idealized Early Church also causes problems among Orthodox converts (or, frankly, converts to Roman Catholicism, or Baptists, or …) because the reality is never the idealized version. He never did make it back to the Church (by our theology).
But, Luther accomplished mighty things. He began to break the power of the Roman Catholic Church, something for which all of us (including Roman Catholics) should be grateful. He was not perfect, but if he is not with the Lord, then I have no hope for myself. GRIN.
“I was in a large, fast growing church centered around the pastor.”
When I teach about the first commandment this kind of fits the bill….
Seems if one starts following the guy instead of the Word we start running into issues….
Aaron – which Church? Rome at Trent?
This is a great discussion! Thanks for bringing it up, Chaplain Mike.
Excellent questions, Ted. And my answer to your “What if the third letter to the Corinthians should appear?” would be, “Cool!” 😉
I guess a more serious answer would be that we have gone so long now with the books of the Bible as we have them (with the differences between Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) that most likely the third letter wouldn’t make it in “officially.” But I bet some Bibles publishers would add it in at the end, with a note as to when it was found, who they think wrote it, etc. Hey, another reason to sell yet another version of the Bible!
“Itâ€™s got to be healthier to keep reading the parts that rub us the wrong way than to stick with the ones that make immediate sense to us.”
Excellent point, Damaris.
Joseph writes, “The Sermon on the Mount enough to keep me dependent on Godâ€™s grace & transformation for the remainder of my days.”
Me too, Joseph!
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Which orthodoxy? Catholic? Orthodox? Lutheran? Calvinist? Wesleyan? Simple evangelical “as long as you believe in Jesus you’re good?” What happens in the Lord’s Supper–transubstantiation, consubstantiation, just symbolic remembrance? Should icons be 2-D, 3-D, or destroyed as idols? Which ecclesial structure is the biblical one? Is the pope the visible head of the Body of Christ, or the Antichrist?
I’ve seen your comments about orthodox Christianity, and I agree that it is vitally important. You can’t make it up as you go, or pick and choose based on what you find to be sensible. But you have to admit, you don’t have to get into wild heresies to find people who disagree virulently on what should be included in orthdoxy.
I agree with your general point, but I think Luther was more balanced than that. His teaching on Christian living is strong, particularly with regard to vocation. His arguments against “good works” had as much to do with the perversion of Christian living as it did with saving faith.
It wasn’t just justification, but also apostolicity and the other criteria used by the early church.
Your phrase, “everything is equally valid and valuable” got me thinking. “Valid and valuable” to what? Or, to whom? I recently slogged through Exodus 35-39, a detailed (!) account of how to build the Tabernacle. How is this valuable or valid to anyone but the original builders of the Tabernacle? (And, by the way, I’m not holding my breath that this will all become relevant again in the end times. With apologies to Luther, Hebrews suggests this simply is not relevant to God’s purposes.) Likewise, the first ten or so chapters of Chronicles would have been useful to the returning exiles, but it doesn’t do much for us (with apologies to fans of Jabez). And, Ezekiel does tend to go on a bit about Temple visions (Ezekiel 40-46). If all Scripture is “equally valid and valuable,” it would seem to me that we’d be hearing a lot more sermons coming out of some of the passages I’ve mentioned here. Someone, try a sermon series on Exodus 35-39 or the first ten chapters of Chronicles and let me know how it goes! (Actually, if you have already done this, I’d love to hear about it.)
There are highways and there are by-ways in Scripture. The highways lead to Christ. The by-ways are worth exploring, wherever they may lead, but they remain by-ways, good for a Sunday drive, perhaps, but taking us nowhere. And, who knows. God may have some surprises for us on these by-ways! For example, I’m told that African Christians “get” Leviticus in ways we don’t; what seems a by-way for us, may be something more for them. So, maybe our cultural context affects what’s relevant for us, and what isn’t. I’d love to hear what an African Christian would say about my comments about Exodus 35-39 or Chronicles 1-10!
That never happens.
But Luther was free to quote from the Apocrypha. The gospel allusions in the Apocrypha are quite prevalent. Even the original Geneva Bible contained references to these allusions in its footnotes. I struggle with Luther’s criteria for canonical texts, but his view seemed to avoid the magic book-ism of many of those who today hold to a strict infallible view of scripture. Medieval church culture made justification a hot-button issue for Luther, but according to Paul, Jesus is for us much more than justification (ref. I Corinthians 1:30).
Well that certainly hasn’t happened.
Very interesting post. I can’t help but think, however, that Luther, in part, had the same problem I encountered when I went through the charismatic renewal back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, confusing emphasis with importance.
Despite some of the present-day charismatic weirdness, I have never regretted passing through a movement that restored a missing piece of the Christian life, the work and ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. But over the years I saw too many charismatics fail to integrate the missing-but-now-restored piece into the whole of the faith. A missing emphasis took on importance it was never intended to have until, right up the present, it has become a fixation and then an obsession among some charismatics.
The restoration of justification by faith, of course, was a huge pivot in church history. But couldn’t Luther have read the non-Pauline epistles and not seen the same emphasis as he was hearing from God, then jump to the conclusion that they were somehow “lesser” epistles?
Ironically, I find myself referring to James, Hebrews and the first three chapters of Revelation (the exhortations/ warnings to individual churches) quite frequently these days. Again, I believe this is due to a shift in emphasis. IMO, people have attached such importance to justification by faith alone that they’ve forgotten the practical, obedience of faith aspects, even rationalizing them away because “works” has no place in salvation.
You can think of the shifts in emphasis like the rebuilding of the wall by Nehemiah: the weak points, the points that have fallen into extreme disrepair, are the ones that currently need attention. At another time and place, other areas may need attention. All the parts are important, but working on one part can skew your point of view.
He may have seen himself that way, but he was simply wrong. The church reached a consensus that all 27 books speak with the same divine authority.
I remember hearing that one of the reasons “Revelation was also disputed in the early church” was the fear that people reading/studying it would go off on weird tangents.
When I saw the title “A Bible You’d Never Find at the Christian Bookstore”, my first thought was R. Crumb’s Illustrated Book of Genesis. Makes you wonder what R Crumb would have done illustrating the Book of Revelation…
This topic brings up the question, what exactly is the definition of canon? Chaplain Mike mentioned earlier about the “relative value of books of Scripture,” and I think it’s certainly true that some books communicate the essence of Christianity more fully than others. I guess my question, at what point does a book have enough “relative value,” so to speak, to be considered canon? James, Jude, Hebrews and Revelations made the cut, but (in the Protestant Bible) Tobit and Judith and the rest of the Apocrypha did not. What is the rubric/criteria for canonicity?
That may indeed be the core of Luther’s presupposition. He had found discovered hammer (justification by grace alone through faith), and thus saw most every issue as a nail. I think the Reformation was a tragic necessity, and I do love the Reformers. Some of their theology, however, seems a little reductionist in a similar vein to the politics of one-issue voters.
I’m reminded of something I heard NT Wright say (paraphrasing): “The Reformers had better answers to late-medieval questions. But that means that late-medieval questions are still dominating the conversation.”
Certainly Luther and Erasmus saw themselves in this way, but was that an accurate self-identification? Of course, that’s not a simple yes-or-no issue. For all the romanticizing folks do about the first century church or the patristic church, some of the later developments and changes were absolutely necessary. That said, I usually give the Fathers the benefit of the doubt.
The major difference is that Luther was orthodox. Spong et al. are throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and the tub. They don’t so much discuss canonicity and relative weights as they reject certain items no matter where they appear.
Ted, when I say “bookstore” culture, I’m referring to the kind of Christianity they represent, not just the stores themselves. I think we’re on the same page here.
But I wonder how seriously people take the Christian bookstores. According to HUG and others, the Christian Booksellers Association has a stranglehold on Christian(TM) novels, but in my area (rural coastal Maine) the Christian bookstores can’t even keep their doors open. They are run by nice Christian people who have resorted to selling junk-for-Jesus and padded Bible covers to make ends meet. They can’t compete with Wal-Mart in the selling of high-volume books such as Left Behind and Rick Warren’s books, so after a few years they shut down.
It’s for another blog post, but are Christian bookstores a large force in other parts of the country? I think Christian radio may be more of a factor.
Ted, your comment represents exactly the kind of discussion we should be having in the churches. But I’m afraid the “bookstore” culture remains far too prevalant ( which is why I framed the question as I did).
Perhaps, but he also said, “I wish I could throw Jimmy into the stove” which it’s a little bit harder to put a positive spin on.
“[W]hy did the church ever stop talking about things like this?”
I agree with Rick. The church hasn’t stopped talking about this; in fact we’re doing it right here.
And can we just not worry about what the “Christian Bookstores” will or will not sell? The seminary bookstores, and CBD, would certainly carry such material, and this is exactly the kind of discussion seminaries and healthy churches should be having. Luther was not wrong to ask the questions about the last four books even though he may have been overly harsh in his findings. In the end, though, he did accept them, although begrudgingly.
I’m reading through Early Christian Fathers (edited by Cyril Richardson) and am finding that some of these letters and sermons could have been considered for canonization. First Clement, for example, reads like a cross between Romans and Hebrews. Others, like Ignatius, Polycarp, and the Didache, are perfectly biblical too. But these works don’t really break any new ground, and are often echoes of scripture and practical applications of it. In the absence of the canon that we have, these might have been more highly considered, but they are neither necessary nor of apostolic origin. They are a few generations removed and do not have the authority and immediacy of eye-witness accounts. Perhaps Luther would have referred to these, as he did to the OT Apocrypha, as “good and useful for teaching” but not to be considered scripture.
How should we view 2Timothy3:16? “All scripture is inspired by God (God-breathed) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” To many evangelicals, this verse is the proof text for “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.” But what books were accepted as scripture when Paul wrote that? Many of the New Testament books hadn’t even been written (foremostly John’s gospel, let alone Revelation), nor had they been canonized. So what did Paul mean by “scripture”? Certainly he meant the books of the Old Testament, and we can assume it for some of the New Testament as well, of the ones that had already appeared. He would have trusted his friend Luke’s account, for example. And as for Paul’s own veracity, we have Peter’s testimony to that in 2Peter3:16.
Can we have any discussion about the parts of the 8th chapter of John (the woman caught in adultery), or the long ending of Mark 16? These may or may not have been with the originals, yet we accept them—but can we even question them without getting accused of apostasy?
What if the third letter to the Corinthians should appear? Paul mentions this now-missing letter in 1Corinthians5:9-11. Can we establish a contingency plan to accept it into the canon if archaeologists dig it up? Or would that make us heretics?
I think a follow-up to Chaplain Mike’s question could be: How sacred exactly is our Bible? Do we worship the Bible itself? Do we dare to question its origins? Can we hold a lively discussion, or should we consider that on the level of violating the Third Commandment, not to take the name of the Lord in vain? Do we really know what we believe about the Bible, and why we believe it?
[Note to potential stoners]: I really do have a high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and it comes out of asking questions like this…
Sorry, I thought I made it clear that these were from Luther’s Bible. The Bible itself is not easy to find online, but if you google “Luther’s antilegomena” you’ll find several articles that cite it.
Thanks Mike. Apparently we were writing at the same time.
I’d like to second this. Read the post last night. Very interesting. Woke up and thought, “Where did Luther write this”. Came to post the question and found that Jimmy had beat me to it.
I know this isn’t some academic journal, but understanding source and context is something fervently advocated on this site when discussing the meaning of scripture texts. We should certainly be considering (and be able to look for ourselves) it when looking at what has been said about scripture.
These are from the introductions to the individual books in Luther’s German Bible.
Hear hear!! That was my response as well–The church, in the larger sense, did not stop talking about such things. Only certain groups did.
Good perspective, Rick. But I do think that higher criticism grew out of a much different set of assumptions than Luther was working under. Luther asked his questions based on the tradition of the early church and a pre-critical (in the Enlightenment sense) view of God’s Word. For me, the evangelical church is right in reacting negatively to much of the critical tradition and its contemporary expressions (though in some cases they have gone too far). Luther, however, represents a man after our own hearts, who treasures Christ and the Gospel above all. His view of Scripture then, catches my attention and causes me to think.
Luther held that the apostolic form of teaching was plain and simple, making the Gospel clear to anyone who reads. Revelation was rejected more for its form than for its content. Revelation was also disputed in the early church.
Mark, point missed again. No one’s talking about “professing Christians” and their view of the “General Epistles.”
What post are you reading?
Would you call Luther an “antinomian gospel hating” person?
Further comments like this will be aggressively moderated. You seem to care about nothing but expressing your own view, no matter what the topic.
But Luther saw himself as carrying on the tradition of the early church. He did not see himself as an innovator on this. Erasmus held a similar position.
I don’t think the issue of canonicity is really the heart of the question here. Luther eventually accepted all 27 books, as have Lutherans since. I’m fine with a closed canon.
Luther’s position involved the relative value of books of Scripture. In my experience, evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to take a flattened view of the canonâ€”everything is equally valid and valuable. Luther instead upheld what he thought was the early church viewâ€”that books which are universally accepted and speak most clearly of Christ and the Gospel are to be more emphasized than those which have been disputed and are not as clear.
I love this quote “Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him.”
The “straw the broke the camel’s back” for me entering the post evangelical wilderness. I was in a large, fast growing church centered around the pastor. No one knew each other, but everyone adored the pastor. I wanted to start a small group bible study. He preached against me on Sunday morning to the effect “Some want to have a group that goes around the room and asks ‘what do you think’, we won’t have it here”
â€œIâ€™m just wonderingâ€”why did the church ever stop talking about things like this?â€
We didn’t. If “the church” includes the groups cited, then the whole German Higher Criticism movement and the counter-movement of Fundamentalism (in the broad historical sense and not the narrow pejorative sense so commonly used today) represent an extension of this conversation. In fact the conversation continues with Spong, Borg, etc.
“The church” stopped talking about it only in evangelical circles as far as I can tell because the conversation devolved into the Version Wars over dynamic equivalence versus literal translations and which one was “truer” to the originals. The conversation about canonicity of various passages consists largely of “liberals” asking questions, making statements, and Evangelicals plugging their ears and saying, “La, la, la, I can’t hear you.”
In this issue at least Luther seems like the Jesus Seminar people: starting from a presumption about the material and then judging the material by the presumption. Luther presumes grace alone then has to devalue parts of the very book that taught him about grace; the Jesus Seminarians, as I understand, presume no miracles and edit the Bible accordingly — as did Thomas Jefferson. But one of the great things about the Bible is that it is always unsettling to read. It challenges our presumptions. It’s got to be healthier to keep reading the parts that rub us the wrong way than to stick with the ones that make immediate sense to us. Good for Luther for keeping in the books that he questioned.
By the way, how could Luther say that Christ was not in the book of Revelation?
Swedenborgians accept the gospels, Acts, and the Revelation, but consider the epistles (whether Pauline, Petrine, or Johannine) not to form part of the “spiritual sense” of the Gospel.
Incidentally, Michael Spencer once dismissed Swedenborgianism as being “widely considered a cult,” or words to that effect. (I was reminded of Landover Baptist Church, whose “cults” page is illustrated by the Quaker Oats guy.)
I appreciate Luther’s honesty in wrestling with these texts. I wonder what the writers of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation would have to say about some of Luther’s writings.
I hope not. Because if you are… I’ll stop there, so I don’t say something I’ll regret.
Are you implying that Chap. Mike’s faith is not genuine?
Can we get citation references for your Luther quotes?
No surprises that Chaplain Mike would post this.
Of course the General Epistles aren’t the “fan” favorite among many professing Christians. It talks about judgment, necessity of good works, and the eternal consequences of failing to progress in the Christian life.
Only antinomian gospel hating people question those epistles (or at least, stay away from them). I’m not surprised though. People who call themselves Christians but lack genuine faith always despise any teaching that joins together justification and sanctification.
I think I recall Luther saying that if some tyrant were to destroy all copies of the Bible, and only John and Romans remained, the Gospel would be intact and believers would have all they needed….That says something to me about his assumptions about the purpose of Scripture- to communicate the grace of God in Christ, and that’s about it. I confess I lean towards this idea, and have trouble even with passages in epistles like Colossians that seem to go on about things like marriage or particular sins or authority. I reconcile these difficulties by emphasizing the parts, often preceding these exhortations, heavy with Christ and the Gospel. When people begin quoting something from these passages, I usually tune it out. I don’t believe that they’re “not canonical” or something, but I certainly see a difference in value between what various passages communicate. It seems like calling the Bible “inerrant, authoritative…etc etc” can act as a license to throw around moral imperatives with no context as if they have the same weight as passages like “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If Scripture is understood as a unit, by taking the Head as the context for everything, then I can hang with James urging us toward righteous works, even though he himself doesn’t necessarily give us a strong context. But if we just take James and use it isolatedly to push a Bible-y sounding agenda, I tend to want to call “misuse”….
These aren’t coherent thoughts really, I haven’t formed a solid opinion yet….
Oh yeah, in answer to Chaplain Mike’s question- I think one reason we don’t talk about this kind of thing is that it hasn’t crossed a lot of people’s minds. It’s an issue that doesn’t come to us necessarily, we have to go digging for it. So it might take a while, if ever, for people to really realize there even ARE questions raised regarding the canon. At least in my circle.
I credit the Internet Monk website with informing me to the fact that there are still varying opinions on this…
Well, I suppose that just depends on one’s theological persona. Generally speaking, there are three groups which can be categorized:
1) For some the Church has defined what is Scripture, and this comes to bear in what is called Holy Tradition. Thus, there is no need to discuss for Holy Mother Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has dogmatically defined and ratified the Canon.
2) For others, the various books that were “added” to the Scripture (i.e., the Apocrypha) have been removed, and the true Canon (i.e., 66 books ONLY) has been restored. This on the evidence of the so-called “Criteria for Canonicity”:
1. Apostolic Origin â€” attributed to and based on the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
2. Universal Acceptance â€” acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century).
3. Liturgical Use â€” read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord’s Supper (their weekly worship services).
4. Consistent Message â€” containing a theological outlook similar or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.
3) Finally, there are those whom are either in favor of an open canon – that is, other books may be added to (or removed from) Scripture per continual revelation (or some other criterion).
To be quite honest, I am not sure why the issue of Canonicity would come up again. It is a more-or-less rehashing of centuries-old arguments. However, I am open to listening and discussing, though my opinions of the Canon are pretty much set in stone. Conversations are an illuminating opportunity. And, given the atmosphere of iMonk, the discussion will likely prove to be a very engaging one 🙂
I think the church stopped talking about this because no one really ended up following Luther on this question. Luther’s doctrine of Scripture was definitely lacking, and I think it is no accident that Germany became the cradle of theological liberalism in his wake, though he himself never would have intended such an outcome. Luther’s “canon within the canon” is a very dangerous position to hold, for it puts the reader in a position to judge the authority of Scripture by some arbitrary standard.
But I love Luther on almost everything else.
“….the discussion about what constitutes the New Testament is over. ”
But should it be?
Thanks, Michael! Very helpful.
Was the selection of the canon for whatever faith expression less reliant on God’s ‘direct’ choice & more rightly within the choices of Church Fathers & early proponents based on a bandwidth of criteria that is well within the Church’s authority to do? Do we really need to ascribe to God every jot-and-tittle & translation & version & number of books included, etc.? I think the argument within faith tradition far enough up the scale of acceptance without making God out to be the absolute end determinant in this equation/argument. And really, within every one of those faith expressions, the actual content of those books hold more divine truth & godly standard than all those faith expressions collectively can follow to the nth degree anyway. Since the gospels record the final revelation of God for us in His Son Jesus, the other books can neither add nor subtract from that pinnacle of the Word made flesh that dwelt among us. Why there are no more ‘gospels’ included & just the four we all accept is the one common denominator no one seems to have major issues with. All other arguments for what other books should be or should not be included an interesting, thought provoking, effort at looking deeper into the history & tradition of the canon(s). For me, a good English translation where I must rely on the prayerful, scholarly, thoughtful, sensitive, academic, historic, careful, weighty, serious, reverent, approaches of the group of people dedicated to its end result has more than enough concise wording in it to make me realize just how unlike Jesus I am. No need for Greek or Hebrew training. No need for countless commentaries & supporting references. The Sermon on the Mount enough to keep me dependent on God’s grace & transformation for the remainder of my days. Thank God for all the other passages & books & supporting references. But the essence of what I believe to be God’s ultimate standard of humanness & holiness already has me wondering how His gospel is to be lived out let alone the ancillary books which bring that same message to bear in different ways…
This very cool canon comparison chart (credit to pursiful.com for drawing my attention to it,) shows the differences between the canons of different Christian traditions. Hover over the notes for more information.
The whole “epistle of straw” thing sounds really bad nowadays. However, you have to understand the context of which it was being used. Straw was a major filler for things being built, and was used for a whole slew of purposes. Thus, “straw” wasn’t valuable in and of itself; rather, it contributed to the overall whole.
“Iâ€™m just wonderingâ€”why did the church ever stop talking about things like this?”
Simply put, because various groups made up their minds. With the exception of those who hold to a so-called “open canon”, the discussion about what constitutes the New Testament is over. Now it is just a matter of everybody trying to convince everybody else that what they hold to is correct.
Evangelicals tend to function without an historical consciousness, especially when it comes to Scripture. We sort of “assume” Scripture rather than really see it in its historical context(s).
We also get so used to “our” reading of Scripture and our idea of what matters in Scripture, that we tend to ignore what doesn’t fit in. For the life of me, for example, I don’t understand why Luther had issues with James; the book wonderfully balances Paul. Faith that doesn’t change your life–that doesn’t result in new behavior and attitudes–isn’t really faith, is it? Luther’s real canon was Romans and Galatians. But, as important as those two epistles are, they need to be held accountable to Jame and Matthew (and vice versa).
Bishop Stephen Neill wrote a book about the NT many years ago called “Jesus Through Many Eyes.” It seems to me that the “eyes” of some Biblical writers may be better than the “eyes” of others! The Bible is indeed inspired by God, but the capacities of the human authors differ. They are all, if you will, equally inspired, but some of them are larger containers of that inspiration than others, perhaps.
Finally: Although some of the NT books were indeed questioned by (some of) the Fathers (e.g., 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation), there was also, finally, a general consensus among the same group of people that these texts deserved to be included in the canon. I’m content to trust their collective judgment on the matter.
Your question about canon, it seems to me, is a challenge to spend more time in the Biblical backwaters of Hebrews, James, Jude and 2 Peter to see why they were canonized, even if amid controversy. And, your question also is a challenge to spend some time in the Apocrypha to see what my Catholic and Orthodox friends see there that I don’t. (I haven’t read anything in the Apocrypha in years.)
Thoughtful reply. I just wish we could have more conversations like this in church!
In some circles, what you’ve just posted will be seen as a bomb being thrown into the room of evangelical theological discourse. Was Luther “higher” critical by modern standards? Yes and no, of course. He, like us, was constrained by his perceptual environment, both religiously and intellectually, not to mention emotionally. The books he disparaged I happen to love especially. One thing common to these books is their “Jewishness,” an issue connected to Luther in pretty dark ways. He wasn’t a Marcionite, but I suspect he had those tendencies, if we can accept the historical record of his words as accurate.
We do need to remember that Luther wasn’t alone in questioning the ruling magisterium. He just had backing from a strong German prince to give him a lasting voice that others weren’t able to enjoy. So while Luther may have been the turning point of the Reformation, he wasn’t the only voice questioning the status quo. And as I said just yesterday and many times before, being wrong on one issue is no basis for rejecting everything a person says. I finally decided to accept Judeo-Christian scripture as being “true” because it told such a painfully honest picture of its main protagonists. The ‘heroes” were just as broken as me. I saw truth in far too many passages to reject it as a mere fable from ancient times.
So, back to Luther. He disparaged these books. Saw them as less than inspired. I’ve read equally weighty theologians on the other side of the aisle who stand on the other side, standing with James, Jude, John, over Paul. Church history is replete with these typical divides.
Can it be? Can it be? Can it be that that God is bigger than our particular vantage point? And His vision, universal and eternal and unique, is always going to confound us? Yes. And I for one welcome that as a great comfort. Because it means that God, and His revelation, continues to be bigger than any of our limited visions.
But it is pretty interesting!
Wow. I had been under the impression that Luther’s description of James as “the epistle of straw” was some sort of one-off from, I dunno, one of his Table Talks and thus may have been attributable to indigestion if nothing else. I stand corrected.
Might a partial answer to why Luther was so much into these questions be that, unlike most other reformers, he was also a translator — THE translator — for a major European language? The Anglo tradition, for instance, was already fairly well developed in this regard by Luther’s time — Wycliffe, etc. lived considerably before Luther — and so they may not such issues in mind by the time Henry VIII was doing his thing. I can’t speak for the French, but most other European languages spoken in countries undergoing the Reformation just weren’t that important. So perhaps Luther simply filled a unique role. But I’m just speculating.
Luther, of course, advocated sola scriptura explicitly. Clearly, however, he was willing to first consider the question as to what “scriptura” was to mean. The irony is that his very own efforts in translating into the vernacular gave the Scriptures a concrete quality for the masses that they hadn’t really had before, and so the cannon as it was encountered therein came to be accepted simply because it was written down, literally, in so many words. Luther may have been iffy about James & Co, but the result of his efforts was to make them seem uncontestable.
As one who subscribes to the notion that the Christian faith could, in principle, have developed as a purely oral tradition, the fact that anything at all was written down has had both positive and negative effects on how we think about Christ. (Positive, in that a written tradition is small-c conservative and so maintains a hard core; negative in that we don’t think as broadly as we otherwise might.)
What is really funny is that evangelicals appeal to Luther’s understanding of “sola scriptura” (well, it’s more of a proof text than an actual deep understanding of his actual position, but I disgress), holding the Bible as verbally inspired and inerrant, without knowing how he accorded these four NT books a kind of “sub-cannonical” status. To them, Luther would be a heretic! To say nothing of his morbid anti-Semitism….