Saturday, May 23, 2009

Luther, The Biblical/Textual Critic

Here's some interesting stuff for you---apparently Martin Luther didn't take to heart his moto, sola scriptura, as he had less than kind words to say about James, Jude and Revelation:
Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude (1522)

Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, 1 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. It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac; though in Romans 4 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15. Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation 2 devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works of Moses' statement in Genesis 15. For Moses is speaking here only of Abraham's faith, and not of his works, as St. Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. This fault, therefore, proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.

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. Now it is the office of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and resurrection and office of Christ, and to lay the foundation for faith in him, as Christ himself says in John 15, "You shall bear witness to me." 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. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2. Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.

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. He calls the law a "law of liberty," though Paul calls it a law of slavery, of wrath, of death, and of sin. 3

Moreover he cites the sayings of St. Peter: "Love covers a multitude of sins," and again, "Humble yourselves under the hand of God;" also the saying of St. Paul in Galatians 5, "The Spirit lusteth against envy." And yet, in point of time, St. James was put to death by Herod in Jerusalem, before St. Peter. 4 So it seems that this author came long after St. Peter and St. Paul.

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. 5 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, 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 in worldly things; how, then, should this single man alone avail against Paul and all the rest of Scripture? 6

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 falth.

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.

I can almost agree with Luther on his views on Revelation---almost that is---as if Revelation had been left out of the canon perhaps then today we wouldn't see so many gloom and doomsday cults based around said text. However that said most of these gloom and doom End Times cults are centered on the man-made invention of belief in the rapture as created in the psychotic and Gnostic babblings of visions by Margaret Macdonald and exploited by Scofield, Darby, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Anyways, here is what Peter Cameron has to say about Luther's biblical/textual criticism:
...even Luther did not entirely believe in his slogan, scripture alone. His historical sense was too acute, and in practice he made distinctions between the books of the New Testament, describing the letter of James as 'an epistle of straw' which should have no weight beside the letters of Paul. Now when you begin to talk like that, you're admitting a new and overriding criterion. It's no longer scripture alone that counts, it's what you think of scripture. You've opened the door to criticism---logical, historical, and theological criticism.

And in the field of criticism we've come a very long way since the Reformation. It has become possible, and I think advisable, to look at the New Testament no longer as a divinely dictated book which has the last word on any subject to do with man's relationship to God, but as a collection of very human responses to the man Jesus. It records the beginnings of Christianity, but not the end: it is not the last word on the matter, and it should not control us to the extent of muzzling us and preventing us from making our own responses, in our own perhaps very different and indeed even contradictory terms.

There are, after all, very different and even contradictory responses within the New Testament itself. The four gospels for example give quite separate accounts of the life and person of Jesus. In the old days people used to produce so-called harmonies of the gospels, in which all differences were ironed out and the discrepancies removed. But what these harmonies failed to recognise were the totally different atmospheres which the various gospel writers convey.

The Jesus of John's gospel, who makes long and profound speeches about his relationship with the Father, is quite different from the Jesus of Mark's gospel, who rarely utters more than two or three terse sentences at a time. The description which Mark gives of the disciples is quite different from that of Luke: in Mark they are obstinate, obtuse, and unreliable whereas Luke has nothing derogatory to say about them.

But all this does not mean that one version is true and the other untrue. We now recognize that the writers of the gospels were not trying to write factual biographies or histories in our modern sense. In fact such things did not exist then, even in the secular world. Modern historians try to state the facts objectively and then add their interpretations. Ancient historians short-circuited the process: they put across their interpretations. So that Mark, when he describes the dull-wittedness of the disciples, is trying to tell us something about the message of Jesus and the response it elicits---he's not telling us something about the disciples which the other gospel writers did not know.

In this way each gospel is conditioned by the theological reflection of its author, and those authors are all human beings, of the same status as ourselves, so that we are at liberty to make our own equivalent response, and if necessary to reject any particular aspect of their response in favour of a different one---just as Luther felt impelled to reject the response embodied in the epistle of James. (Necessary Heresies: Alternatives to Fundamentalism, pgs. 87-88).

No comments: