The New Testament Canons of Martin Luther and of Lutheranism

It is well known that Martin Luther questioned the canonicity, or authority of 4 books of the New Testament. Those same four books are the four books make up the antilegomena of Lutheranism, the books which are ‘not used to establish doctrine’. Furthermore, Lutheranism does not have a closed canon of Scriptures.

I have tried to understand how this does not lead to a reduction of the authority of Holy Scripture, and also how doctrines can be defined at all when the canon of Scripture is left undefined. Possibly the best way to flesh out the subject is with an article from an LCMS Pastor, who I think does an excellent job of pointing out the potential problems associated with the Lutheran approach to Scripture.

Excerpts from Moeller’s “Missouri’s Critical Issue” (taken from The Christian News, Oct. 14, 1974) are in black. My comments intersperced within Moeller’s text will be in blue.

“In the doctrinal conflict within The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, beneath the charges and counter-charges, beneath the cash of two admittedly district theologies, is there any single issue which can be Isolated as the crucial one? The writer, a clergyman of The Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod, believes there is, and will attempt to demonstrate it. Furthermore, he believes that the same issue exists for every evangelical, conservative Christian individual, congregation, and church body.
**
In formalized statements of faith the historical Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the modern Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have never articulated a complete doctrine of Scripture as set forth in Scripture. This lack has permitted, as will be demonstrated, an incomplete statement with a frequently-occurring erroneous, extra-Scriptural and therefore anti-Scriptural, doctrinal addition. Consequently the Missouri Synod now experiences the tragic division in its midst. “**

According to Moeller, a ‘tragic division’ within the LCMS is the consequence of having ‘never articulated a complete doctrine of Scripture’. The consequences of this problem, according to this LCMS Pastor has resulted in ‘frequently-occurring erroneous, extra-Scriptural and therefore anti-Scriptural, doctrinal addition(s).’

“In the New Testament church of the** third and fourth centuries certain books were not accepted **in some geographical areas as being God’s New Testament Word **because there was not unanimous evidence from previous generations that the book had been written by an apostle. **

Hebrews was accepted in the Eastern churches as the product of Paul; it was not considered Paul’s epistle in the West and was not accepted there. John’s Apocalypse was accepted in the West as from the hand of John the Apostle; in the East the author was not so identified and the book was not accepted. The apostolic authorship of James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude was similarly doubted.

Meanwhile, the Mediterranean world in the fourth century, under the blessing of a Roman government that sponsored Christianity, proved to be a fertile field for the growth of a unified church. The councils and church leaders agreed on canonical” books, in the practice accepting the evidence “for” as outweighing the objections “against” authorship by apostles. The subsequent lists of New Testament books carried Hebrews by Paul, James by James the Less, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and the Apocalypse by John the Apostle and Evangelist, and Jude by the Apostle Jude.

The “disputed” character of these books surfaced at the time of the Reformation.** Luther, for instance, placed Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Apocalypse at the end of his New Testament, as books from which one did not draw doctrine. He felt that certain of their teachings could not have come from apostles, since some teachings disagreed, he thought, with what e.g. Paul had written in his undisputed letters. **(The apocryphal books of the Old Testament, the surplus of the Alexandrian canon as compared to the Palestinian canon, were likewise not to be considered canonical. In general, when Lutheran teachings were later delineated, the antilegomena books were not used to establish doctrine in the church. In the Missouri Synod up through the 20’s this same attitude and approach prevailed.”

Moeller mentions 7 books that were doubted by some in the ancient Church. Yet Luther, (and now subsequently Lutheranism) include only four books in the antilegomena, “books from which one did not draw doctrine.” Not surprisingly, Luther’s antilegomena match up exactly to that of Lutheranism.

Why were the other three doubted (2 Peter, 2 & 3 John) not incorporated into the antilegomena by either Luther or the Lutherans?

Furthermore, Moeller indicates that in the 1920’s the LCMS changed its approach to the antilegomena. From what to what? Is the LCMS done changing it approach to what is and what it not Scripture yet? Or are there more changes to come? One would think that after 1900 years, Christianity would sort of ‘settled down’ and quit changing the canon of Scripture and how we are to deem the canonicity of the 27 books that most Christians consider to be the NT. But then, to Lutherans, the NT is only ‘relatively closed’. I am very interested to learn what it is, specifically and exactly, that changed in the LCMS approach to the canon in the 1920’s. Could a member of the LCMS please explain?

God Bless, Topper

Hi Tim,
Since it seems you are interested enough in the topic to research Moeller, I would encourage you to seek out expert sources. You might start with the LCMS website, or look into
wittenbergtrail.org/.

Jon

Tim,
This might be a good place to start.

Jon

cyclopedia.lcms.org/display.asp?t1=c&word=CANON.BIBLE

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your responses.

I appreciate your recommendation. I looked at the Wittenbergtrail blog and didn’t really find anything specific about the antilegemonena or the Lutheran canon of the NT. Maybe I missed something.

In the first section of the article Moeller mentions that the in the 20’s the LCMS changed its “attitude and approach” to the antilegomena books. I am very interested in learning what the LCMS teaching on the antilegomena was specifically prior to the 20’s and of course, what it is officially now.

Could you please explain this to me Jon? What was it specifically that changed in the 20’s?

I will look at your LCMS cyclopedia article but in the meantime, the next installment of the Moeller article is as follows, with again, Moeller’s text in black (and red) and my comments in blue:

**“It is interesting to note that the German Bible available to homes in the Missouri Synod in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Altenburger Bibel (Concordia Publishing House), contained Luther’s introductions to the New Testament books, giving his views about Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. **The laymen therefore were acquainted with the view of Scriptures which associated inspired New Testament authority with authorship by apostles.”

This floored me. From my reading, I was under the impression that Luther’s disrespectful comments about whole books of the Bible had been eliminated from the Bible shortly after his death (by Christians who revere Scripture). It is astonishing that those comments were printed in American Bibles as late as the last century.

“One notes what had happened. From areas of scholarship both outside confessing Christianity and within it, conclusion of critical scholarship were making themselves felt and were being taken for granted. “A majority of scholars” concluded that Paul did not write Ephesians or the Pastorals, that Matthew did not write the canonical Greek Matthew, etc.** But how can one be really a “scientific” Bible scholar and still uphold the authority of Scripture within the confessional context of membership in a conservative Lutheran church body’? Answer: by simply holding to an inspired, inerrant Bible, which in the New Testament is inspired regardless of who wrote the individual books.”**

So, it is by holding to an ‘inspired, inerrant Bible’ that one can uphold the authority of Scripture. OK, so how can Scripture be considered to be ‘inspired and inerrant’, if the canon of Scripture has not been finalized? The answer of LCMS Pastor Moeller’s is to reject the position of the LCMS on Scripture.

That’s amazing!

“Meanwhile the Missouri Synod scholar and clergyman who has arrived at this same point in his “scholarly” Biblical views is still bound by his oath of office and by the confessional paragraph of his church’s constitution to the Inspired characters and complete authority of the Scriptures. How to solve the problem now? Answer: an inspired erring Scripture, which is however authoritative and “inerrant” in achieving its purpose; namely, to make wise unto salvation. The Holy Spirit supposedly leads one to believe the “Gospel,” and one uses historical-critical scholarship to pick out of the Scripture that which the Holy Spirit intends one to believe as content of the Gospel. It comes as no surprise, then, that it becomes difficult and finally sometimes impossible for such a Missouri Synod Lutheran to uphold the distinctive Scriptural doctrines of Lutheranism; for obviously “the Holy Spirit” has supposedly led all sorts of scholars to all sorts of other conclusions as to what is the Gospel and as to what Scripture clearly states.”

Moeller points out that the ‘solution’ to the problem of the Lutheran concept of the canon is a Scripture that is ‘an inspired erring Scripture’, which is however authoritative and ‘inerrant’. This is obviously a contradictory statement.

This is shocking. Here we have an LCMS Pastor who actually admits that it is sometimes impossible to uphold the distinctive Scriptural doctrines of Lutheranism, mentioning that scholars have supposedly been led (by the Holy Spirit) to non-Lutheran conclusions. Is Moeller suggesting that while Lutheran Scholars are led by the Holy Spirit to correctly identify what Scripture teaches, somehow, the other’s Scholars are NOT led by the Spirit, and as such, don’t get it ‘right’?

God Bless You Jon, Topper

=Topper17;12425322]

I probably can’t personally help you much. Further,

This floored me. From my reading,** I was under the impression that Luther’s disrespectful comments about whole books of the Bible **had been eliminated from the Bible shortly after his death (by Christians who revere Scripture). It is astonishing that those comments were printed in American Bibles as late as the last century.

…leads me to believe that you may already have your mind made up, and therefore I’m really quite uninterested in pursuing the issue with you. However, you may be able to find more of the information that you seek here .

Regarding Wittenburg Trail, there are a number of groups, including an “ask the Pastor” group, where you may find a more scholarly answer than I can provide.

As I said, you’ve appeared to have done enough research already to spur the question. Hopefully I’ve directed you to resources that can better help you answer the question.

Jon

A very interesting topic, much to learn as to how this is happening and continuing going on.

It’s an old story - “did God really say ______”

Luther wasn’t infallible; I look at the fact that we modern Lutherans still have all those books PLUS are being reacquainted with the English translation of the deuterocanonical books as being proof that the Holy Spirit is preserving the Word.

Hi Stilldreamn: You are correct, but a story that still needs to be told.

Then you either didn’t look very hard, or you didn’t find the “Gotcha!” answers you may have hoped for. The Wittenberg Trail is full of generally respectable (especially for an online forum) Lutheran resources on practically every topic. I hope you post there. Public interaction between you and Lutheran pastors would certainly be intriguing.

Something tells me that you know darn well what “The Christian News” is, and who it’s published by. But for the benefit of those who do not (and in case you truly are ignorant on this subject), that publication is not -and never has been- associated with the LCMS. Its editor is an individual who was never certified for ministry by the Synod. He is not even a member of the LCMS. He is an outlier. Not so unlike today’s online trolls, his goal is annoyance and slander (in this case, of the LCMS). Any respectable researcher can, and ought to, ignore that publication just as one might ignore Greg Reynolds and his “Inclusive Catholics” or the SSPX or Nancy Pelosi as accurate procurers of Catholic doctrine. And I think the forum rules say something about expecting members of any faith to defend excesses or extremism of others. Unless you have an axe to grind, of course. In that case, keep on keepin’ on.

If you really, truly, actually want to understand LCMS doctrine, then I suggest you use the LCMS as your source. Primary sources will always be more reliable than outsiders. But if you do not seek real, true, actual understanding, then by all means, ignore what the LCMS itself says it teaches.

Luther’s comments were not “disrespectful,” but yours come across as ignorant. “Christians who revere Scripture” can and do share some of Luther’s views regarding the disputed books - including some prominent Roman Catholics, up until Trent. But, this has been rehashed over and over and over. You appear to have already made up your mind and you don’t seem to be swayed by historical facts.

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your response.

It appears to me that you are upset because I characterized Luther’s comments as being ‘disrespectful’ towards Scripture. Obviously we don’t share the same opinion about those comments. I don’t know how you would describe them, but disrespectful towards Scripture seems pretty mild to me. Maybe we should review those actual comments and let the readers of this thread come to their own conclusions.

“In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. **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. **But more of this in the other prefaces.” Luther’s Works, 35:362, “Preface to the New Testament” (1522 version)

“I will say nothing of the fact that many assert with much probability that this epistle is not by James the apostle, and that it is not worthy of an apostolic spirit; although, whoever was its author, it has come to be regarded as authoritative. Luther’s Works 36:118, from 1520

**“We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school [Wittenberg], 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.” Luther’s Works, 54:424, 1542

Jon, if these comments are not disrespectful towards Holy Scripture, then what could be?

Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, 1546 (1522)

“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 [2:24]…….Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works [Jas. 2:23] **of Moses’ statement in Genesis 15:6]. All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate [treiben] Christ. And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ…Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching.

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. **Or it may perhaps have been written by someone on the basis of his preaching…….
**
In a word, he wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task. **(54) **He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore (55) I cannot include him among the chief books, **though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him.” Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 35, pp. 395–398). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Footnote 54: “Editions prior to 1530 here added, “in spirit, thought, and words.** He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture.”** WA, DB 7, 386, nn. 14, 15.”

Footnote 55: “Editions prior to 1530 read from this point, “Therefore, I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him. One man is no man (cf. the proverbial expression: Einer ist keiner. Wander [ed.], Sprichwörter-Lexikon, I, 784, ‘Einer, ’ No. 44) in worldly things;** how, then, should this single man alone avail against Paul and all the rest of Scripture?**” WA, DB 7, 386, nn. 17–21.”

The question that Luther directs at James could just as easily be turned back on Luther. Should this single man, meaning Luther, have presumed it was within his authority to decide (incorrectly as it turns out) that James was not written by an Apostle and that the book of James should not be used to make doctrinal decisions?

As I know you agree Jon, these are important questions.

God Bless You Jon, Topper

=Topper17;12428559]
It appears to me that you are upset because I characterized Luther’s comments as being ‘disrespectful’ towards Scripture. Obviously we don’t share the same opinion about those comments. I don’t know how you would describe them, but disrespectful towards Scripture seems pretty mild to me. Maybe we should review those actual comments and let the readers of this thread come to their own conclusions.

Upset, Tim? Of course not. I expect it.

The question that Luther directs at James could just as easily be turned back on Luther. Should this single man, meaning Luther, have presumed it was within his authority to decide (incorrectly as it turns out) that James was not written by an Apostle and that the book of James should not be used to make doctrinal decisions?

Authority? Where does he claim authority? While you were busy bolding the parts you think support your bias that Luther was disrespectful, you forgot:

“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

"Therefore (55) I cannot include him among the chief books,** though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him.”**

A claim of authority would require submission to that person’s opinion. He does not do this here, in this his 1522 preface which, incidentally, does not appear again in his published translations.

But your focus on this one comment I made speaks volumes, and confirms my suspicion that you may already have your mind made up.

As I know you agree Jon, these are important questions.

I do think the issue of the canon is important, though, with due respect, I frankly have no interest in pursuing it with you. So I again encourage you to seek out the sources I offered in previous posts, in order to get your original question answered.

God Bless You Jon, Topper

His peace also with you,
Jon

Hi Jon: You asked Topper what authority did Luther claim? it seems to me that Luther if he did not actually claim authority he no doubt used it by his actions and his teachings, whether or not it was accepted by all in opposition to the CC.

Authority: the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.

Authority implies that one is in a position to enforce. I see no evidence that Luther felt he had such power. In fact, I think he knew he did not.
I read a comment by Jaroslav Pelikan somewhere that Luther was smart enough to know that he had to operate within the canon passed down through history.
Note that Luther never excluded James. He never even excluded the DC’s, regardless of his feelings for them. He knew he had no authority to do so.

Jon

Hi Jon: I understand that and I am not disputing that what you state. it is more the authority he claimed of his teachings and the no one is to question what teachings, that implies an authority.

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your response.

My expectations are normally met also Jon.

Jon, he didn’t actually claim authority so much as he simply seized it. Luther’s amazing claims to personal authority would probably an excellent thread of its own, but suffice it to say here that he based his authority to determine his own personal NT canon on his personal interpretations of Scripture. With that private judgment, he picked out 4 books of the NT and placed them into his own personal version of the antilegomena, the books from which doctrines are not to be decided. That judgment was about, among other things, the authorship of James, and that judgment was faulty as you know, which means that the Lutheran antilegomena is based on that faulty judgment.

You seem to be willing to mention my ‘bias’, but are you suggesting that you don’t also have one?

Jon, the comments that you highlighted do not negate the comments that I quoted, and your ‘more positive’ comments cannot be ‘averaged out’ with the less. The comments stand as he wrote and meant them. A summary of those comments is as follows:

**“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.”

“I will say nothing of the fact that many assert with much probability that this epistle is not by James the apostle, and that it is not worthy of an apostolic spirit”

“We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school [Wittenberg], for it doesn’t amount to much.”

“I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any.”

“I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle; and my reasons follow.

Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works

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.

but (James) was unequal to the task. (54) He tries to accomplish by harping on the law"**

I think that people are capable of reading these quotes and determining for themselves whether they agree with Luther’s ‘approach’ to Holy Scripture.

Jon, as you know, at this point in Luther’s career, he counted on his reputation and his charisma to convince people to follow his lead. It wasn’t until a few years later that doctrinal disagreement with Luther had rather more serious consequences. As you know, people actually DID follow him and today all of Lutheranism has followed his lead on the issue of the 4 NT books ‘in question’.

The fact that he took some of his most disrespectful comments about Holy Scripture out of successive editions does not negate the fact that he included them initially.

It’s not just ‘one comment’, Jon but a series of comments over the years, which in total reveal Luther’s ‘attitude’ towards Holy Scripture.

As for my “focus”, it is true that I have a position on the matter, but I can assure you that my mind is never really made up. I am constantly looking for additional evidence and arguments from logic and reason, which either confirm my opinion or refute it. If evidence or compelling logical arguments indicate that I am in the wrong, then I will modify my position, because to me the most important thing is the Truth. I am perfectly happy to submit my positions for review and scrutiny by all, and to have them be compared to the positions of others. Let the people review the arguments of all sides and make their own determinations. That’s fair isn’t it Jon?

I can appreciate that Jon. I did look through those sources but didn’t find anything which specifically details the criteria that Lutheranism used in their establishment of the antilegomena. If you have anything specific from those sources which would shed light on this subject, then please post it so everyone can read along.

As you know I am also very interested in this supposed ‘change’ of approach in the 20’s towards Scriptures by the LCMS. Do you know anything about this thing that LCMS Pastor Moeller mentioned?

God Bless You Jon, Topper

Luther should never have read any of Jerome’s commentaries or even some of his own contemporaries.

Oddly, some of his teachings are contradicted in the confessional documents he approved, such as the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, and in the fact that no confessional document states the canon as “Luther’s canon”.

Further, Luther regularly says in his prefaces that they are his opinion. See the quote on his preface to James as an example.
**“However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone,…” **

Luther’s preface of 1 Macc.

This is another book not to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Yet its words and speech adhere to the same style as the other books of sacred Scripture. This book would not have been unworthy of a place among them, because it is very necessary and helpful for an understanding of chapter 11 of the prophet Daniel. For the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy in that chapter, about the abomination and misfortune which was going to befall the people of Israel, is here described—namely, Antiochus Epiphanes—and in much the same way that Daniel [11:29–35] speaks of it: a little help and great persecution by the Gentiles and by false Jews, which is what took place at the time of the Maccabees. This is why the book is good for us Christians to read and to know.

Here Luther states this book is worthy of a place, and yet he doesn’t claim special authority to place it “among them.”

Jon

=Topper17;12431596]

Tim, as I told you, I have no interest in pursuing the issue with you. I hope you take the time to use the “ask the pastor” link I gave you, to answer your question.

Jon
.

Hi ben,

Thanks for your response.

I am not aware of anything that Jerome wrote that would support Luther’s criticism of those 4 NT books. If there is such a thing, please post the quotes and we will all be able to see why you mentioned Jerome.

If all you are doing is referring to Jerome’s questioning of some OT books, it would appear to me that what the story of Jerome proves is something quite different than what you might think.

After all, when Pope Damasus corrected Jerome on the issue of the OT canon, Jerome basically withdrew his position. As you know, Luther was never one to back down, no matter how many and no matter the level of authority that opposed him. In essence, Jerome, in this respect, was the “anti-Luther”.

Of course, there is also the issue of Jerome spending about 20 years to studiously and carefully translate the Scriptures in compling the Vulgate, as opposed to Luther’s obviously extremely hurrried 11 week NT translation. The rushed translation quite frankly appears to be more of an effort to place his criticisms of those 4 books before the people, and also an effort to gain support for his radica theory of Salvation by Faith Alone. Of course we always hear about Luther’s giving credence to early canonical questions, but we also know that his judgments of those books were also largely based on their agreement (or disagreement) with his views of Salvation.

ben, if you have any quotes from Jerome on the canon of the NT could you please post them?

God Bless You ben, Topper

Hi Jon,

I have read quite a few of Pelikan’s books, all of them from before he quit Lutheranism, and I am not aware of any comment like what you have described. If you could, I would appreciate it if you could tell us which Pelikan book you are referring to here.

God Bless You Jon, Topper

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