Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Luther and Inerrancy

The Dutch Reformation scholar Heiko Oberman (1930-2001) once gave a guest lecture at a Lutheran seminary, after which he answered students' questions. He was asked to comment on Luther's understanding of inerrancy (the doctrine that Holy Scripture contains no formal errors). Oberman replied, "Do not import Reformed problems into Luther's thought!" If Oberman only meant to suggest that Luther was not preoccupied with the question of scripture's inerrancy in the way later theologians were we might grant his point, but I think he was implying something more. It was common among 20th century Luther scholars to project their own views onto Luther and to aver that he was not interested in a formal doctrine of scripture but only in scripture as the living Word of God. Certainly, we can say, Luther did emphasise the power of the preached Word and never wrote a formal treatise dealing with the attributes of scripture as God's written Word; he was, after all, pre-eminently a preacher and doctor (teacher) in Biblia and not a dogmatician. But to use these facts to parlay Luther into a sort of proto 20th C. neo-orthodox theologian (the neo-orthodox denied the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture while still attesting to its power - for them scripture becomes the Word of God only when we hear it as such) is a case of special pleading (i.e. ignoring counter-evidence). Luther's attitude to the question of scripture's inerrancy can be found thoughout his writings wherever he touches upon the subject either directly or in passing. Here are a few examples:
"It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it only appears so to senseless and obstinate hypocrites WA, 9,356.

"Everyone knows that at times they [the fathers] have erred as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they prove their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred." WA. 7, 315: cf. WA. 15. 1481
"We see with what great diligence Moses, or rather the Holy Spirit, describes even the most insignificant acts and sufferings of the patriarchs." WA, 44, 91-92 (on Gen. 32:21-24).

 "Who can think this through to his satisfaction? A man [Jonah] lives three days and three nights in solitude, without light, without food, in the midst of the sea, in a fish, and then comes back. I dare say that is what you would call a strange voyage. Indeed, who would believe it and not consider it a lie and a fable if it did not stand recorded in Scripture?" WA, 19, 219 (Exposition of Jonah) 1536fl

"He who carefully reads and studies the Scriptures will consider nothing so trifling that it does not at least contribute to the improvement of his life and morals, since the Holy Spirit wanted to have it committed to writing." WA. 42, 474 (on Gen. 12:11-13).

"The two incidents - that not a bone of the Lord Christ was broken and that His side was opened with a spear - do not appear to be of any particular significance. And yet, since the evangelist John adduces clear testimonies of Scripture, proving that Moses (Ex. 12:46) and Zechariah (12:10) predicted these things centuries before, we must confess that they are of great importance, no matter how insignificant the incidents seem to be; for the Holy Spirit does not speak anything to no purpose and in vain. " WA 4 52, 811 (on John 19:25-37).

"In the article of the [Nicene] Creed which treats of the Holy Spirit we say, ''Who spake by the prophets.' Thus we ascribe the entire Holy Scripture to the Holy Spirit." WA, 54, 35 (for Luther it was axiomatic that the Spirit could not err).

"Not only the words which the Holy Spirit and Scripture use are divine, but also the phrasing. WA, 40 III, 254 (on Ps. 127:3).

"The Holy Spirit is not a fool or a drunkard to express one point, not to say one word, in vain." WA, 40 III, 254 (on Ps. 127:3). WA, 54. 39 (discussion of Gen. 19:24 and I Chron. 17:10).
I've culled these quotes from John Warwick Montgomery's essay 'Lessons From Luther on the Inerrancy of Holy Writ'. Another valuable on-line resource readers might like to consult is J. M. Reu's 'Luther and the Scriptures'.
Modern scholars may not be able to believe in the inerrancy of scripture, but merely asserting that Luther shared their scepticism does not make it so. The theologians who, in the 17th century and later, explicated the teaching of Biblical inerrancy were closer to Luther than Oberman thought.



joel in ga said...

Good quotes, but didn't Luther sometimes cast doubt on whole books of the NT?

Mark Henderson said...

At one point, yes. But he later retracted and as far as the Lutheran Confessions go they didn't follow him on this.

joel in ga said...

Retractions? Would you happen to have any references at hand? My dogmatics book by conservative Lutheran theologian Theodore Mueller (his book was a condensed version of Pieper's famous larger work) made the distinction between the undoubted books of the NT and the 'antilegomena' which were basically still in doubt even today (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation).

Mark Henderson said...


The "epistle of straw" comment re James appeared in Luther's Prefaces to the New Testament in 1522. In later editions in his lifetime he saw that the comment was edited out. Already in The Babylonian Captivity in 1520 Luther had remarked that James should be received "as is customary", though he had doubts about its apostolic authorship - doubts shared by Erasmus and Cajetan it should be noted. So, firstly, Luther appears to have wavered on this matter before resolving the issue in his mind; the "epistle of straw" comment is best seen as a characteristic polemical remark. Secondly, it wasn't as if Luther's view of James was an idiosyncratic view in the pre-Trentine church.

The distinction between the antilegomena and homolegomena is an ancient one and for Lutherans means that doctrine should not be drawn from the antilegomena (ie doctrine can be found in them but it is always derived first in the homolegomena). But note that the the antilegomena are still included in the NT canon.

Mueller's Dogmatics is an excellent handbook of Lutheran doctrine - I'm glad to hear you have a copy. One thing with his scripture references, though, is that they have been handed down in catenae from the Lutheran orthodox fathers and the exegesis is no longer readily available. Sometimes, then, his references might leave us scratching our heads. As you mention it is a condensation of Pieper, where we find longer discussions and more polemics too. The four volume set of Hoenecke's Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics put out by Northwestern Publishing House is a good supplement to Pieper/Mueller as he is less combative and has more explicit references to the Lutheran orthodox.

Matthias said...

First of all greetings for this New year
Secondly thank you for this clarification. I was also wondering if you know where i can get a copy of Babylonian Captivity. i hesistate to go to koorong,for when i asked this week about another Lutheran publication -The Lutheran Book of Prayer-,the young girl at the counter said "who and how do you spell Lutheran"?? and at the Catholic bookshop i once asked for i think THE IMITATION OF CHRIST by thomas akemphis- and the response -who is that. And as for WORD Bookshop when i once asked for TABLE TALK by martin luther ?Who is he.

joel in ga said...

Pr. Mark,

thanks so much for taking the time to explain that.

Mark Henderson said...

You're welcome.
It's a pleasure, Joel.

Mark Henderson said...

Just go to Koorong and ask for 'Three Treatises' (as a bonus you'll get 'To the Christian Nobility' and 'The Freedom of a Christian' as well as'The Babylonian Captivity') by Martin Luther (product code 0800616391; price $22.99); they have 4 copies in stock in Australia. The quickest way to get it is actually to order it on their website because they will send it directly to your address; otherwise you'll have to wait for the Melbourne store to process the order. A Google search wshould also turn up on-line versions if you can stand reading that way. Personally I can't.
'The Lutheran Book of Prayer' should be available from 'Australian Church Resources' (www.acresources.com.au) for $20 plus postage.

Mark Henderson said...

Oh, and a blessed New Year Matthias!

Chris said...

You can get Babylonian Captivity here online:


Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Chris.

Matthias said...

Pastor here is a link to Cranmer's blog about the pope,and hopefully a new era in Accountability if the Constantinian (Babylonian) captivity of the RC Church gets rid of the Imperial papal style
I say yes and bring it on. Time for the Vatican vultures to be turned out once and for all. Cardinal Pole and then Luther could not remove this next of vipers perhaps ordinary catholics will.

Matthias said...

And before any of my fellow catholics get hot under the collar,my comments are not directed at the Pope but rather at ensuring a return to a more accessible and accountable Hierarchy,deinstitutionalised but preaching and living the Gospel in simpler surroundings.

Mark Henderson said...

In regard to papal primacy the Vatican will never renounce it. For one thing infallibility would fall with it. Never the less, many Roman Catholics are living under the delusion that the Papacy can be reformned and that Vatican II set out the template for that reform. Here's what Vatican II actually said,
"This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. Continuing in that same undertaking, this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God...the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope's power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power." (Lumen gentium).

You see, it all comes down to "supreme, universal power"; no institution which claims such prerogatives could ever renounce them and survive.

Gervase Crouchback said...

Sorry for lateness in replying but thank you for this Pastor. I have abit to think about and i can see why not only Lutherans,Old Catholic and polish national catholic and Anglicans- get suspicious, but also the Orthodox (who are sheepstealers themselves).