The True Touchstone

Part Six of my series on the canon continues here. Please begin at the beginning, or you won’t be able to follow along with the mystery.

Few Protestants have been made aware of the fact that the Great Reformer, Martin Luther, actually ADDED a word to his translation of Holy Scripture to make a point. When heretical groups commit this gross SIN, Christians are rightly appalled. Martin Luther, however, has inexplicably gotten a historical free pass from his fellow Protestants….

Our Protestant protagonist is understandably shaken when he learns about the insertion of the extra word “alone” into Luther’s Bible translation, but his original questions remain: Where did the Apocrypha come from? Why were those books added to Catholic Bibles? And why were they in the first Protestant Bibles?? What does Martin Luther have to do with all this?

If you are trying to solve this mystery along with our hero, pay special attention to Luther’s attitude towards the books of James and Esther – this will play an important role later on in the story!

Luther’s approach to the translation of the New Testament was interesting, to say the least. Again, according to the Hastings Dictionary of the Bible:

Moreover, the Bible is sorted and arranged in grades according as it does so more or less clearly, and to Luther there is ‘a NT within the NT,’ a kernel of all Scripture, consisting of those books which he sees most clearly set forth the gospel. Thus he wrote: ‘John’s Gospel, the Epistles of Paul, especially Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter—these are the books which show thee Christ, and teach all that it is needful and blessed for thee to know even if you never see or hear any other book, or any other doctrine. Therefore is the Epistle of James a mere epistle of straw (eine rechte stroherne Epistel) since it has no character of the gospel in it’ (Preface to NT, 1522; the passage was omitted from later editions).

Luther did not merely accept the books that he found in the New Testament; he graded them. Jesus said in John 5:39 that the Scriptures bear witness to Him. Luther applied this criterion to the books that he translated and ranked them according to how faithfully he felt that they “preached Christ.” Luther used this criterion to dismiss certain books as less worthy of their place in the Bible. As he explains in his original preface to the book of James:

The true touchstone for testing every book is to discover whether it emphasizes the prominence of Christ or not.

He further explained:

That which does not preach Christ is not apostolic, though it be the work of Peter or Paul, and conversely that which does teach Christ is apostolic even though it be written by Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod.

The epistle of James, in Luther’s view, did not pass that test! He wrote:

Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.

In his Table Talk, written many years later, Luther is quoted expressing his misgivings about the Book of James:

We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning [Jas. 1:1; 2:1]. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did. He wrote not a word about the suffering and resurrection of Christ, although this is what all the apostles preached about. Besides, there’s no order or method in the epistle. Now he discusses clothing and then he writes about wrath and is constantly shifting from one to the other. He presents a comparison: ‘As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead’ [Jas. 2:26]. O Mary, mother of God! What a terrible comparison that is! James compares faith with the body when he should rather have compared faith with the soul! The ancients recognized this, too, and therefore they didn’t acknowledge this letter as one of the catholic epistles.

Luther used this reasoning to shunt the book of James out of the main body of the New Testament, out of its place between Hebrews and I Peter, into a “special section” at the end of the New Testament. And James was not alone there, for Luther (and according to him, the “ancients” as well) had misgivings concerning three other New Testament books, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation! Although Luther considered Hebrews to be “a marvelously fine Epistle,” and felt that Christians should “accept this fine teaching with all honor” he insisted that “to be sure, we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles.” This was his reasoning:

The fact that Hebrews is not an epistle of St. Paul, or of any other apostle, is proved by what it says in chapter 2, that through those who had themselves heard it from the Lord this doctrine has come to us and remained among us. It is thereby made clear that he is speaking about the apostles, as a disciple to whom this doctrine has come from the apostles, perhaps long after them. For St. Paul, in Galatians 1, testifies powerfully that he has his gospel from no man, neither through men, but from God himself.

He had the same poor opinion of the book of Jude:

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 [Jude 17] and cites sayings and incidents that are found nowhere else in the Scriptures [Jude 9, 14]. 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.

And concerning Revelation, Luther stated:

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 not taught or known in it. But to teach Christ is the thing which an Apostle is bound above all else to do, as Christ says in Acts 1:8, ‘Ye shall be my witnesses,’ Therefore I stick to the books which give me Christ, clearly and purely.” “About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas, and would bind no man to my opinion or judgment; I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and this makes me hold it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic . . .. And so I think of it almost as I do of the Fourth Book of Esdras, and can nohow detect that the Holy Spirit produced it . . . . It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep.

And so, using his “true touchstone,” Luther single-handedly decided which books to “keep” – and Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation were eased out of their places into what one author calls a “kind of bibliographical ghetto” at the back of the Bible. The Canon of the New Testament tells you:

Luther’s lower estimate of four books of the New Testament is disclosed in the Table of Contents, where the first twenty-three books from Matthew to 3 John are each assigned a number, whereas, after a blank space, the column of titles, without numbers, continues with Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation.

This, you read, was the same way Luther dealt with the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament; he segregated them in a section between the Old and New Testament.

You had almost forgotten about the Apocrypha in your concern over the New Testament books. In his 1534 Preface to the Apocrypha, Luther wrote: “The books of the Apocrypha are not to be regarded as Holy Scripture, yet they are useful and good to be read”.

So the Apocrypha is “useful and good to be read,” but is NOT Holy Scripture – but as you just read in his preface to Revelation, Luther wrote “I think of it [Revelation] almost as I do of the Fourth Book of Esdras, and can nohow detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.” According to him, Revelation was “neither apostolic nor prophetic.” It certainly sounds like Luther put the book of Revelation, along with Hebrews, James and Jude, if not on the same level with the Apocrypha, then maybe just one step up!

The Old Testament apparently fared better than the New under Luther’s handling, although he felt that the books of I and II Kings were “a hundred thousand steps in advance” of I and II Chronicles, and “deserved more credit.” He expressed unhappiness with certain aspects of the books of Jeremiah, Jonah and the Song of Solomon. The book of Esther, however, he disparaged, saying that it “deserves more than all the rest in my judgment to be regarded as noncanonical.” He is further quoted (in Table Talk) as stating that “I so hate Esther and 2 Maccabees that I wish they did not exist. There is too much Judaism in them and not a little heathenism.”

Hmm… it certainly sounds like Luther is tossing the baby out with the bathwater. He would like to get rid of Esther, which everyone knows is Holy Scripture, along with 2 Maccabees, which everyone knows is not Holy Scripture! Obviously, his system of picking and choosing among the books of the Bible isn’t working very well!

You learn that Luther apparently had no real problem with 2 Maccabees or any of the other Apocryphal books, quoting from them as if he considered them to be Holy Scripture, until a debate opponent used a verse in 2 Maccabees to try to prove Luther wrong on the subject of purgatory. Luther’s response is his first recorded objection to an Apocryphal book, referring to 2 Maccabees as “not being in the Canon.”

The custom of segregating the Apocrypha in a section between the Old and New Testament began with Luther’s translation, you read. Both Wycliffe and Luther had Apocryphal books in their Bible translation, although Wycliffe included 1 Esdras in his Bible (as did the KJV), a book which Luther declined to translate. Wycliffe (who died 100 years before Luther was born) did not segregate the Apocrypha; he had the Apocryphal books mixed in among the rest of the books of the Old Testament.

This is bewildering – why would Wycliffe do that??? Does that mean that Wycliffe translated from a Bible manuscript that included the Apocrypha as if it were Scripture when he translated the Old Testament? Where did he find something like that???

For Part Seven please click here


On the memorial of St. Arnold Janssen

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Josh said:

    This is an outstanding series. I love the approach and style. Please keep writing installments. Thank you for your work.

  2. Mrk said:

    Okay, I understand the point of the series now–a takedown of the ‘reckless” handling of the Scriptures by protestant rabble-rousers. The strategy being: If I can sow doubt in the protestant’s mind about the authority of the Scripture, they MUST seek solace(and Truth) in the Church. But for fairness, it would be good to see a counter examination of how the Roman Catholic church handled the Canon on a parallel path. The Council of Trent had alot of dissenters on the status of the Apocrypha and their arguments are compelling.

  3. Actually, the point of the series is to expose the reader to the writings of respected conservative Protestant scholars on the subject of the discernment of the canon. If you read further, I think you will find that their understanding of the process is very different from the one usually trotted out when the average Protestant asks who determined the canon of Scripture….

    By the time our Protestant protagonist works his way around to the Council of Trent, I think you’ll understand why those arguments aren’t so very compelling.

  4. Mrk said:

    I’m still working my way through this series. I can see you’ve put alot of time and effort into it. I am finding it interesting. A couple questions:

    1. Jesus in John 5:39 was referring to Scriptures, which ones of the New Testament was he referring to at the time? I believe none of them were written at the time. Did he inlude the Gospel of Thomas or Barnabas in that? I think this is another example of putting a modern (or at least Council of Trent) magnifying glass to examine Luther’s words. You can find many more Catholic and Protestant scholars vetting all the books at one time or another. Why is Luther singled out an others are ignored?

    2. You keep referring to Wycliffe. Is that the same Wycliffe that was tormented by the Church for trying to reform it(200 years before Luther popped on the scene), whose remains were dug up and burned by infallible order of Pope Martin V? I’m surprised you slipped passed Wycliffe’s arguments for biblical authority as they heavily influenced the Reformation.

  5. Thank you for the kind words – I did put a great deal of work into this series. At the end of the series you will find a bibliography. To your questions:

    1. Jesus in John 5:39 was referring to the Old Testament Scriptures which bore witness to Him, Scriptures such as:

    “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”

    These are the words of the Old Testament book of Wisdom, words so prophetic that the Jewish rabbis decided to remove the deuterocanonicals from their Scriptures rather than continue to allow their witness to the messiahship of Jesus Christ.

    2. It is the same Wycliffe whose Bible translation was so riddled with error that even the modern-day Wycliffe Bible Translators, an organization named after him, refuse to use it. This was the Church’s objection to Wycliffe’s Bible – a valid one, I think you have to admit.

    I did not discuss Wycliffe’s beliefs as they lay outside the scope of this series on the discernment of the canon which, at 38 posts, was long enough…. Any thoughts on why his biblical beliefs caused him to view the epistle to the Laodiceans as Holy Scripture?

    I’m not sure to what torment of Wycliffe you are referring. His ideas were condemned, the bishops forbade him to speak on certain subjects, he was finally excommunicated. If that is “torment,” I believe you can make the case that the Presbyterians are “tormenting” Jason Stellman. (It remains to be seen if they will burn him posthumously.)

    You misunderstand Catholic teaching on papal infallibility. The Church teaches:

    “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.”

    When the pope proclaims a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals, he is kept by the Holy Spirit from proclaiming error, because if he did teach error on those subjects, the gates of hell would prevail against Christ’s Church. An order given by the pope, as you can see, cannot be infallible.

  6. Mrk said:

    I understand. Papal infallibility was only codified at Vat I, so it makes it easy for historians to go back and carve out the “bad parts” of history, by claiming fallibility during those times, regardless of the intent of the pope at the time. (Which begs the question: Can a pope know when his response is infallible and when it’s not?) Nevermind, this is probably off-topic….

    • No, it is not off-topic. You do have to understand the importance of infallibility. If the Church could teach error pertaining to faith and/or morals, Satan would have won. The Church is only guarded from teaching error in those two areas. This is not a matter of popes being “fallible” whenever those of us living in later centuries need them to be! Popes are always fallible, just as I am – until they officially promulgate doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. When they do that, God in His mercy preserves them from error so that Renée and her fellow Catholics will not be delivered into the hands of the evil one. Thus, Pope Paul VI’s teaching on contraception was infallible (morals) – Pope Martin V’s order that Wycliffe’s remains be exhumed and burned simply could not be.

      And you actually believe a version of this: you believe that God rendered the first pope, St. Peter, infallible on two occasions – when he wrote 1 Peter, and when he wrote 2 Peter. As you can see, God HAD TO render St. Peter (and St. Paul, and St. John and St. James, etc.) infallible on those occasions, lest they teach error! An unbeliever would scoff at this, but all Christians believe that certain people in history have been rendered infallible. So the concept of infallibility is not utterly foreign to you as a Protestant….

      • Mrk said:

        Renee, I apologize, but with work and vacations, I will be slow to read through this series. I still would be confused as to how infallibility played out during the great schism, babylonian captivity, etc. I’m certain that pronouncements by these popes, at the time would have been “infallible” especially if one asked them so. Why would God allow them to be deceived, thereby deceiving His followers? And what about the bishops appointed by these anti-popes, and thereby the priests appointed by those bishops?

        • The thing to keep in mind is the infallibility is a part of the OFFICE, not inherent in the man. To give a recent example, when Benedict XVI stepped down the media was asking what kind of repercussions this would have vis-à-vis infallibility: what if his successor asserted one thing and Benedict another?? This betrays a thorough-going lack of comprehension of papal infallibility. Once Benedict left office, his declarations could no longer be perceived as infallible. It is the holder of the office whose formal declarations on the subjects of faith and morals are considered infallible. Sadly, anyone can claim to be Pope. I could claim to be Pope. I might even get my cousin Bernie and my next-door neighbor to back me up on that, but no matter how many signatures I got on my petition, I still wouldn’t be Pope, and my formal declarations on the subjects of faith and morals would be just as fallible as they are now! 🙂 The fact that Bernie, my neighbor and I all somehow managed to convince ourselves that I was pope wouldn’t change any of that. Why does God allow people to be deceived? Why did God allow Dr. Walter Martin to wander off into the Incarnational Sonship heresy before his death, thereby leading others astray? That’s a deep subject – I can think of several reasons off the top of my head.

          As for clergy appointments, since they are not formal declarations on the subject of faith or morals, they would not be considered somehow infallible when made even by a legitimate pope.

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