Martin Luther stands apart as, along with Jesus of Nazareth, one of the most studied figures in the known history of the world. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were, if nothing else, the match that set ablaze that series of events now known as the Protestant Reformation of the Western Church. His subsequent reforming efforts, appearance before the Diet of Worms, translation of the German Bible, and plethora of theological and socio-political writings number him among the most prolific and opinionated known Christian writers. Along with his Ninety-Five Theses, and his Small and Large Catechisms, Luther’s response to Erasmus’s conception of the human will in De Servo Arbitrio remains one of his most widely known works. In attempting to understand Luther’s views on scripture, canon, and authority, we turn here to a review of several scholar’s on Luther’s views before examining his perspective in The Bondage of the Will.
Perhaps most apparent in any adequate study of Luther is his radical shift in thinking and interpreting the scriptures during the first few decades of the sixteenth century. In examining Luther’s interpretation of the Psalms, Samuel Preus notes that the young Luther read the Psalms in a typically Catholic manner, identifying with an allegorical, typological, and largely christological reading of the theology found within the Psalms (Preus, 166-8). His work with the later Psalms, however, reflected a growing transformation, as he began to largely read them in terms of the historical subject matter, though still allowing for certain Christological and gospel-centered themes to be understood beneath the literal reading of the scriptures (Preus, 173-4). Along similar lines, Bernhard Lohse argues that Luther experienced a transformation of sources he accepted as authoritative for Christian theology. Lohse writes that the early Luther followed the medieval tradition of following the church fathers, councils, and ratio of philosophy alongside the authority of the scriptures (Lohse, 187).
This all changed, however, as Luther became embroiled in his battle with Rome and increasingly argued for the sole sufficiency of scripture, especially when arguing against specific traditions and doctrinal opinions that he found to be in tension with or actually opposed to scripture (Lohse, 187). In writings such as the Babylonian Captivity of the Christian Church (Treatises, 113-260) and The Freedom of the Christian (Treatises, 261-316), Luther identified true faith with the scriptures, while casting non-scriptural concepts as the opinions of men, thereby significantly problematizing the traditional Catholic view that scripture, traditions, and ecclesiastical leadership were of one accord in matters of faith (Lohse, 187-8). At the Diet of Worms Luther is widely attested as saying that unless he was convinced by the testimony of scripture and plain reason, he could not deny his theological understandings, especially that of justification by faith alone. For Luther, the good news found in scripture was a precious thing that was to have authority over all matters of faith and life (Soulen, 119). Eventually Luther and his followers became identified as those professing a doctrine of sola scriptura, scripture alone, as the only adequate basis for the construction of Christian theology, rejecting all other sources of authority for Christian faith.
Luther also advocated the reading and interpretation of authoritative scripture in a specific manner. Foremost was his conviction that the central theme of the scriptures was the Gospel, the good news that God forgives sins in Christ, and that such good news is to be received by faith alone (Soulen, 115). Luther read the entirety of the scriptures through the paradigm of Law and Gospel—those writings that evidenced humanity’s sinfulness and judgment, and those that proclaimed the good news concerning Christ. Though many Old Testament writings contained the Law, there were for Luther in certain places evidences of the Gospel; similarly, though the New Testament writings were mainly composed of Gospel material, there were also places where the Law was shown (Lohse, 191). To read the Old Testament, one needed be aware of the possibility of a Christocentric Gospel-type reading, though Luther was careful to caution an immediate christological interpretation of an Old Testament passage (Lohse, 189). More common for his developed thinking was the claim that the Gospel brought the light of understanding to the Law (Lohse, 191-2). Practical interpretive matters drove Luther’s understanding of Law and Gospel, as his main concern appears to have been the need for clarifying which parts of authoritative scripture applied to the people of Israel and which were binding on contemporary Christians (Lohse, 192-3).