Luther and the canon

This month our thoughts should return continually to that prince of a man of God, Martin Luther. During this 500th anniversary of the theses heard ‘round the world, I wish to offer some miscellaneous reflections on some Luther-an themes that I have found challenging. In this installment, I invite you to reflect with me on Luther’s famous questioning of the canonicity of James early in his career as Reformer.

I defend the deepest intent of Luther’s complaint this way: no text of revelation does much good for the soul if in it one is not (subjectively) hearing the very voice of God. Luther was saying, at that moment, “I don’t hear the voice of God here.” The insight to win here is that we must really hear the voice of God in any text that we claim as the Word of God, or it is vacuous.

Luther comes under the most violent attack for this posture from polemicists (often but not exclusively Catholic) that are eager to overthrow Sola Scriptura in favor of a church epistemology that posits Scripture and Tradition (and sometimes, Reason) as coordinate sources of authority. It is often not clear how they would unpack their polemic, being enthymematic. It is meant to be an “obvious” reductio I guess. The thrust seems to be that Scripture can only be recognized as the Word of God either by (i) private conviction or (ii) church authority, and in neither case do we arrive at Luther’s Sola Scriptura. Luther’s example shows (i) in an embarrassing way. Of course, even at first blush, this form of the argument can be answered in kind, in that the opponent also had to rely on subjective private conviction at the moment he accepted (say) Church Authority as that which vouchsafes the canon. In other words, at some level, subjective internal conviction is inescapable regardless of what is finally laid hold of as the ultimate authority. On the face of it, then, this form of the objection is vacated, in that each party should grant the moment of persuasion as unavoidable, and each can add that the persuasion is itself not the norm, but simply the historical coming to recognize the norm. Each side can cry tu quoque at this point. Is it just a Mexican standoff then? I think not: it means we can now return to the meat of the real disagreement.

The Argument

If sola scriptura is incoherent, then we should be able to do a reductio to show the contradiction. Let me call this The Argument, proceeding in three steps:

1. Suppose a text is the very word of God and can and should be received by men for the authority of God speaking in that text, without additional reliance on a separate authority.

2. But this cannot be carried out in practice

3. Therefore, (1) cannot be the case.

The case of Luther and the book of James is one way that we are supposed to see the truth of (2).

Note that there are at least three “canons” within Christendom that are not identical. It is significant that the anti-Lutheran polemic at this point is not in regard to Bel and the Dragon. The force of the polemic seems to hinge essentially on the fact that James is included in the canon of all the putative institutional branches of the church. In other words, picking out James is meant to be embarrassing to Protestants since they also agree (as Luther himself eventually did) that James is part of the canon. There is, therefore, something of an ad hominem cast to picking out this particular point of Luther’s early posture. The indignation at Luther not accepting Bel is reserved for later, after The Argument has been established. The case of James functions to establish The Argument in the first place.

Rather than trying to evade The Argument by mentioning that Luther eventually came to accept James, let us freeze the moment when he had problems with it, and see if The Argument is valid at that point.

The Argument seems to work best when the entire canon is substituted for “a text” in step 1. However, we can learn something by substituting an individual book and see where it goes.

Start by substituting any of the books that all Christians have always received: say, any one in the set S = {the four gospels, Acts, the central Pauline corpus, and I John}. Every book in this set was evidently soon received as the word of God by all Christians — and significantly, they did so without any Council having delivered on it. Thus, The Argument fails when we restrict the scope of (1) in this way.

The opponent might object at this point that even S was only received universally because authoritatively advocated by the bishops as carriers of the “living tradition,” even if this was not yet formalized by Council. Note first that this claim would be an a priori assertion that could not be proven from the historical record. Moreover, if the bishops did all receive S, and teach their sheep to do so, this would not be evidence against (1); it is what would be expected if (1) were true. Only if each bishop not only put S forth, but did so on the basis of their own personal authority, would it be telling against (1); and I have found no evidence that this was ever the case.

In short, The Argument only seems to get legs if we jump immediately to “the entire canon” as the substitution term in (1). But at just this point, we find discrepancies or lacunae in the canonical lists that circulated for several hundred years. There are lists here and there in this or that of the fathers, such as Origen; Irenaeus’ list does not include James. There is the Muratorian fragment (which also does not include James). There is the list drawn up by the (non-ecumenical) Council of Carthage.

So the punchline of The Argument — that we don’t know what Scripture (qua completed canon) is until The Church tells us — dies the death of scant evidence that it ever took place, at least until centuries after the Apostles were gone. It is simply an a priori assertion without solid historical basis.

Historically, what we find is actually a bit messy. The core canon S is quickly accepted by all, consistently with assumption (1). Some books (e.g. Hebrews, Revelation) were slow to be accepted universally, and others (e.g. the Shepherd) were accepted by some but eventually rejected.

Augustine’s famous statement, “I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so” is not weighty for The Argument. First, many Christians throughout history could make either that or a similar claim: “I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of my parents did not influence me to do so.” Or substitute any of a dozen other authorities. Per se, this is a biographical statement, not an assertion of trumping authority. For, unless the gospel carried its own authority, the influence and authority of my parents could not convey it.

The existence and catholic testimony of the Church is indeed part of the overall apologetic for accepting the Christian faith. If there was no church, and I alone discovered, Joseph Smith-like, the Bible tucked away in a cave somewhere, I might be impressed by the majesty of its contents, yet need to conclude, “if only this were true; but it must not be, because it says the gates of hell will never prevail against the church, but evidently they did, as it is no where to be found.” In this and other ways, the existence and testimony of the Church is a necessary part of the total case for Christianity, and this fully justifies Augustine’s statement, but not in a way that makes its authority prior to that of Scripture, or even coordinate with it.

A similar reasoning applies to the assertions of Irenaeus, which I have no reason to quibble with or depart from. We accept what Irenaeus said, without needing to grant point (2) of The Argument.

Indeed, we agree that the Church, constituted by an authoritative succession of ordination, does exercise authority — a ministerial authority, always in subjection to the prior authority of the word of God.

As someone has said, “they kiss the closed Bible.” Luther, in contrast, embraced it with an open, lively heart. His very struggle with James exemplifies how one should come to terms with the word of God: by listening and being changed.

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