Luther and the Scriptures
One day, when Martin Luther was 20 years old, he saw something he had never seen before–a Bible –chained to the wall in the university library. Apparently, this was common as they were expensive and were chained to keep from being stolen. He was fascinated as he read the stories of Hannah and Samuel. When he later entered the monastery, he was given a red leather Bible, and he practically devoured it. “I read the Bible diligently. Sometimes one important statement occupied all my thoughts for a whole day.” He cherished the Scriptures. “It illumines everything just as the sun does.” Scripture “alone as the fountain of all wisdom.” He read it so much that when a passage was referenced he knew what page to find it on.
Luther eventually became an expert on the Scriptures, as he became the Bible professor at the university. He began to see that the Church as the creation of the Word, not vice versa. “The Scripture is the womb from which are born theological truth and the Church,” he said. “For the Word of God is incomparably superior to the Church, and in this Word the Church, being a creature, has nothing to decree, ordain, or make, but only to be decreed, ordained, and made. For who begets his own parent? Who first brings forth his own maker?” This is one of the key points of the Reformation—the authority of the Bible over the popes, councils, creeds and church fathers.
He didn’t reject these things—just that they should be measured against the Scriptures. For example, he agreed that the creeds of the church were authoritative, because they are grounded in Scripture. The Apostles’ Creed is “truly the finest of all” since “briefly, correctly, and in a splendid way it summarizes the articles of faith, and it can easily be learned by children and simple people.” He also valued the Nicene and Athanasian creeds; they are based on Scripture.
The Church Fathers have the same test. He quoted them often, but, he said, “Their authority is worth most when it has clear scriptural support.” He said, “I do not reject them. But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they have erred, as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they give me evidence for their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred.” He was suspicious however of the church fathers because of how the Roman Church used them to confirm unscriptural practices. “Neither councils, fathers, nor we, in spite of the greatest and best success possible will do as well as the Holy Scriptures, i.e., as well as God Himself has done.” He said, “If it agrees with what Christ taught us, then let us accept it and do according to it.”
Luther responded to the trite argument you hear even today, that the Church is the source of the Scriptures because it was responsible for selecting the books included in the canon. “it follows that the Church is superior to the Gospels, What a splendid argument!” Luther sarcastically responds. “I approve Scripture. Therefore I am superior to Scripture. John the Baptist acknowledges and confesses Christ. He points to Him with his finger. Therefore he is superior to Christ. The Church approves Christian faith and doctrine. Therefore the Church is superior to them.”
Luther sums it up: “The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world. Everything else, arts or literature, is pursued and practiced day and night, and there is no end of labor and effort; but Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it. Those who condescend to read it want to absorb everything at once. There has never been an art or a book on earth that everyone has so quickly mastered as the Holy Scriptures. But its words are not, as some think, mere literature; they are words of life, intended not for speculation and fancy but for life and action. But why complain? No one pays any attention to our lament. May Christ our Lord help us by His Spirit to love and honor His holy Word with all our hearts.