Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Luther was no fundie

In the comments section Tom Van Dyke points to Martin Luther's position on the Book of Revelation. At least it was a position he held at one point in his life while he was pondering which books of the canon were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Luther wrote:
Preface to the Revelation of St. John (1522) 7

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; 8 I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.

Moreover he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly — indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important — and threatens that if anyone takes away anything from it, God will take away from him, etc. Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep.

Many of the fathers also rejected this book a long time ago; 9 although St. Jerome, to be sure, refers to it in exalted terms and says that it is above all praise and that there are as many mysteries in it as words. Still, Jerome cannot prove this at all, and his praise at numerous places is too generous.

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.
The bold face is mine.  

A few thoughts. First, this sounds Quakerish to me. Luther is the founder of Protestantism and Quakerism is a form of Protestantism. Quakerism is I would describe Spirit trumps Letter (and there's textual support in the canon for that). You could say Spirit trumps written Revelation. But that would be not precise enough.

Perhaps Spirit trumps the written word.

Or rather the Spirit speaking to the individual, Priest that she is, in good conscience determines which books are inspired and how to understand them. As opposed to some external collective authority determining the matter.

In common discourse we hear the term "the Bible" bandied about. And that's fine. I don't mean to deconstruct the notion of  a canon of books that contains, for those who so believe, revelation in a God speaking to man sense.

However, once one studies the history of the canon -- and I admit there are those who know more about it than I do; I haven't yet read but am familiar with the cliff notes argument of Jaroslav Pelikan's "Whose Bible Is It?: A Short History of the Scriptures" -- it's hard to take seriously the notion of "the Bible" as "a book" in which you simply look something up. Rather it's a collection of books -- a canon -- whose contents are disputed; in particular which books belong are disputed.  (To say nothing of the interpretation thereof.)

Reformed Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all have different exact books. And there are two incompatible quick narratives I have heard from the Protestants v. Roman Catholics.

On the one hand Position 1 of evangelical or fundamentalist oriented Protestants seems to argue that the Bible is 66 books and only 66 books, and always has been. Roman Catholics added additional books to the canon in Trent.

On the other Position 2 of the Roman Catholics is that the Bible actually contains and always has since the early Church guided by the Spirit selected them, 73 books until Luther removed seven of them. (And he would have removed more, like the Book of Revelation, until his friends stop him. That part doesn't seem to be part of the "quick narrative," but is an interesting nuance that isn't too well known.)

Then we got the King James Bible, with its bowdlerized 66.  And Trent was needed to formalize the Roman Catholic position against Luther's/the Protestants' novel act.

The truth is probably somewhere in between the positions, but I have concluded closer to position 2. In fact, from the very start when the early Church began to compile a "canon" of books, the exact contents -- which books belonged -- were disputed and different regions had different exact books.

Belief in the divine inspiration of the deuterocanonicals was hardly novel to Trent. Early Church Fathers (who among themselves differed on which exact books they believed were inspired) believed in them. And the Eastern Orthodox believe in those books and add a few others that Roman Catholics don't consider part of their canon. And the different capital O Orthodox Churches themselves differ on the exact books depending on region.

The Eastern Orthodox split with Rome in 1054 way before Trent.

I'm not interested in the various reasons Protestants have for the King James Bibles that the canon is these 66 and no others. Rather I'm looking for evidence that their position is not novel to the reformation.

Some evangelical-fundamentalist types take it as a matter of faith that once the last book of the 66 was written, "true Christians" always just knew it was these 66 and no more, no less. I haven't been able to find any historical evidence to support such position.

On a personal note, I don't deride the Book of Revelation like Jefferson does; my position is probably closer to Luther's. I see the book as interesting poetry; but if someone tries to proof text it at me as containing divinely inspired doctrine, I would simply write it off.

(My exact religious views are complicated. I'm open to certain religious truths, but not others. And my religious views can change from day to day. Ultimately, I try to operate "in good conscience.") 

Clearly I'm no fundie. But then again, neither was Luther.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The tall weeds here for philology buffs.

Well, you can see how Luther let the toothpaste out of the ontological tube--once you start writing your own Bible on your own authority* and not the Church's, anything is possible.

Jefferson creating his own "Bible" is no surprise then, considering his era and his ego. He no doubt considered himself the equal of any man ever born. {Martin Luther, even Jesus of Nazareth, with whom he had a fundamental disgrrement about the nature of the universe.]

The "unitarian" fad of the colonial era, which rejected Jesus's divinity, was inevitable, and indeed one of the first victims of the Reformation was one Michael Servetus, who was burned in John Calvin's Geneva.

[If anyone can help, I've been trying to track down a quite from Luther's right-hand man Philipp Melanchthon to the effect that the return of "the Arian heresy" was inevitable once the Reformers put virtually the entire Christian religion on the table.]

*Luther. Makes Jefferson's own theological pomposity sound downright humble. Now you see where he got it.

[I do not think Jefferson had access to this letter; my only point is that once you toss the baggage and ballast of the Catholic Church overboard and substitute "free inquiry," the ship sails very light upon the water, subject to the slightest tide or breeze for its direction.]

"But I will return to the subject at hand. If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: "Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing." Sic volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. (2) For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine! Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I.

I will go even further with my boasting: I can expound the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, I can use their rhetoric and philosophy better than all of them put together. Plus I know that not one of them understands his Aristotle. If any one of them can correctly understand one preface or chapter of Aristotle, I will eat my hat!"

Brad Hart said...

Great stuff! I was under the impression that Luther was FAAAR from being a scriptural literalist. Am I wrong in that assumption?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad Hart said...
Great stuff! I was under the impression that Luther was FAAAR from being a scriptural literalist. Am I wrong in that assumption?

Hey, Brad, good to see you here again! ;-)

It's all about anti-Catholicism. [America was founded on anti-Catholicism! Otherwise we'd be Tory Canada...]

The Protestant claim--and you can find it also in the "unitarian" John Adams--is that the Catholic Church perverted the scriptures for its own [nefarious] purposes.

The Catholic countercharge is that Luther perverted the scriptures for his own nefarious purposes

Not a lot, mind you. But a bit.

The point being that for the purposes of our blog, we were not a Christian nation as much as a Protestant nation, and that theological Christian "liberalism" is part and parcel of "Protestantism," semper reformanda, "always reforming."

"Protestantism" has no central authority--by the 1600s, its raison d'etre became not "reformation" but rejection of the Catholic Church, "papism."

Martin Luther was a theological liberal, no fundamentalist he. Jon's quite right.

Mark DeForrest said...

Answering Jon's question, I think that in the early Church, both St. Jerome and Melito of Sardis (one Latin Father and one Greek Father) favored the shortened Hebrew canon personally, but they submitted to the Church's judgment as to which books belonged. So, one finds Jerome quoting from the Deuterocanonical Books as Scripture in his works, and he included them in his Vulgate translation after he was told to. From what I have read, there was objection to those books by other fathers as well, but it was hard for those arguments to get traction because the Deuterocanonical Books were used extensively in the liturgy. Once the power of the liturgy was broken in the Protestant movement, things were opened up for serious revision of the canon. FYI, if one looks at the Book of Common Prayer, it kept large portions of the Deuterocanonical material in its original lectionary and the content of many of its prayers, leading at least in part to the ambiguity regarding the Deuterocanonical Books in the 39 Articles -- not Scripture, but more than just ordinary books too.