Luther and Erasmus: Luther’s Background (P2)

This post is part of our ongoing series comparing Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam’s perspectives on scripture, canon, and authority during the Age of Theological Reformations.
Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Though his hermeneutic of interpretation was primarily driven by his doctrine of justification by faith alone, Luther also employed additional hermeneutical concerns in his understanding of scripture (Soulen, 115). Luther never advocated an individualistic or isolated reading of the scriptures; indeed, scripture, faith, and community all evidenced a practical influence within his churches (Lohse, 188). But against the community of scholasticism and its detailed glosses and commentaries, Luther argued that scripture was “most easy to understand, most clear, its own interpreter, testing, judging and illuminating everything by everything” (Lohse, 190). By this line of thinking, Luther advocated a literal sense of scriptural interpretation, with scripture functioning as its own clear interpreter. In this position Luther argued both against the hierarchical interpretative method of magisterial Rome as well as the spiritualizing fanatics who emphasized the Spirit over the scriptures (Lohse, 190). Because of the understanding of the clearness of the scriptures and the idea that the gospel represented a unique portion of the scriptures, Luther tended to emphasize the portions of the canon that clearly represented his central interpretive concerns, namely justification by faith alone (Soulen, 119).

In reviewing the works of Luther, one tends to find a great number of references to the Gospel According to John and Paul’s Epistles to Galatia and Rome (Soulen, 119). Another implication of this understanding, however, was Luther’s willingness to question the authority and canonicity of the writings that did not clearly proclaim the doctrine of justification by faith alone, such as the “epistle of straw” James (Soulen, 119). This tendency of Luther’s was so strong that in his German Bible he relegated the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, and the Apocalypse of St. John to an “unnumbered” appendix section, in a very pointed way separating them from the rest of the New Testament writings (Soulen, 119-20).

To briefly summarize Luther’s wider perspective on scripture, canon, and authority before turning to his perspective in De Servo Arbitrio, it remains clear that Luther placed a great emphasis the doctrine of justification by faith. While the young Luther accepted the traditional allegorical interpretive method of the Church and the writings and philosophical perspectives of church tradition, the Luther shaped by conflict with Rome developed a strong hermeneutic of sola scriptura. Within the interpretation of the scriptures, Luther emphasized those portions clearly demonstrating the Gospel, namely the centrality of justification by faith. Within his own writings and translation of the German Bible, he privileged certain writings based on the hermeneutic of justification by faith, favoring the Gospel of John, Romans, and Galatians while denigrating James, Jude, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Therefore for Luther the writings of the Christian canon, especially those within the paradigm of Gospel found in the New Testament that clearly proclaimed justification by faith in Christ alone were the ultimate sources of authority for the church.

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