Luther’s Radical Views on the Biblical Canon

Luther’s Radical Views on the Biblical Canon April 11, 2016

His Outrageous Assertions, Protestant Scholars’ Opinions & “Debate” with John Warwick Montgomery


Woodcut for the frontispiece of the 1541 edition of Martin Luther’s German Bible, by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]



Martin Luther’s words will be in blue.

* * * * *


Historian Preserved Smith writes (emphasis added):

But Luther was not the man to be bound by his own rule; few of his followers have ever interpreted, commented on, and criticized the Bible with the freedom habitual to him. The books he judged according as they appealed to his own subjective nature, or according to his spiritual needs. He often exercised his reason in determining the respective worth of the several books of the Bible, and in a way which has been confirmed to a surprising degree by subsequent researches. He denied the Mosaic authorship of part of the Pentateuch; he declared Job to be an allegory; Jonah was so childish that he was almost inclined to laugh at it; the books of Kings were “a thousand paces ahead of Chronicles and more to be believed.” “Ecclesiastes has neither boots nor spurs, but rides in socks, as I did when I was in the cloister.” (Smith, 268)

The Lutheran scholar and Luther expert Paul Althaus, observed, similarly:

He thereby established the principle that the early church’s formation and limitation of the canon is not exempt from re-examination . . . the canon is only a relative unity, just as it is only relatively closed. Therewith Luther has in principle abandoned every formal approach to the authority of the Bible. It is certainly understandable that Luther’s prefaces were no longer printed in German Bibles. One may characterize his attitude in this way: The canon itself was, as far as Luther was concerned, a piece of ecclesiastical tradition and therefore subject to criticism on the basis of God’s word.

(Althaus, 85, 336)

The latter paragraph is, of course, circular reasoning. “God’s word” presupposes certain books in the Bible which make up its contents. The Bible doesn’t list its own books. Therefore, any canon must necessarily involve “ecclesiastical tradition” (whether Luther likes that or not) and the Bible alone cannot resolve the question. Luther chooses to ditch longstanding apostolic Tradition regarding the canon, and substitutes his own judgments as to the sub-canonicity or quasi-canonicity of four New Testament books.


This was so radical that virtually no Protestants have ever accepted it, and even his own Lutheran successors (Melanchthon, Chemnitz, and the confessional Book of Concord) rejected it.

Lutheran Mark F. Bartling (WELS), in his informative paper, Luther and James: Did Luther Use the Historical-Critical Method?, although unwilling to grant that Luther’s view amounted to subjectivism, arbitrariness, and liberal higher criticism, nevertheless, stated:

It must be admitted that Luther did develop a personal criterion of canonicity that took its place along side of apostolicity and universality (those books unanimously accepted by the early church, homologoumena) . . . It was, of all people, Carlstadt who condemned Luther for this criterion. Carlstadt said: “One must appeal either to known apostolic authorship or to universal historical acceptance as to the test of a book’s canonicity, not to internal doctrinal considerations.” [De Canonicis Scripturis libellus, Wittenberg, 1520, p. 50]. This position of Carlstadt was also the position of Martin Chemnitz and of C. F. W. Walther [Compendium Theologiae Positivae, Vol. I. p. 149]. (Bartling, 3)

Carlstadt rhetorically asked Luther about his opinion of James:

Why, if you allow the Jews to stamp books with authority by receiving them, do you refuse to grant as much power to the Churches of Christ, since the Church is not less than the Synagogue? (in Westcott, 486)

In this instance, Carlstadt’s reasoning is exactly correct, as to the general Christian and Catholic (and Church) understanding of canonicity prior to Luther. Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), the great Lutheran theologian, is cited in footnote 14 (Bartling, 5-6) at length, contra Luther:

Of the books of the New Testament which lacked sufficiently reliable, firm, and harmonious testimonies of their certainty and authority in the first and ancient church, these are listed: (Eusebius, Bk, 3, chr. 25) The writings which are not considered to be undoubted but which are spoken against, although they were known to many, are these: The Epistle of James, that of Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John; the Apocalypse of John some reject, while others number it with the certain and undoubted writings. It also must not be ignored that some in the Roman church rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, asserting that it was spoken against as not being Paul’s…The Epistle of James, it is asserted, was published by some other person under his name…The epistle which is put down as the first among the general epistles is said to be by that James who was called the Just and Oblias. But we must know that it was not judged to be genuine and legitimate but spurious and counterfeit. Therefore not many of the ancients make mention of it, as also of that of Jude.

Since some of the most ancient writers had ascribed some of these books to apostles, others, however, had contradicted, this matter, even as it was not indubitably certain, was left in doubt. For this whole matter depends on sure, firm, and harmonious testimonies of the first and ancient church, and where these are lacking, the later church, as it cannot make genuine books out of spurious ones, so also it cannot make certain writings out of doubtful ones without clear and firm proofs.

(Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I, p. 100-150 and 168-196)

Amen! This view is not merely a Catholic one, but also the mainstream Protestant opinion on the canon. Bartling also provides further relevant commentary from another Lutheran theologian:

One must distinguish well between the extent of the Canon and the inspiration of the books which are canonical with question. Here Wilhelm Walther says correctly that for Luther the extent of the Canon was an open question, but the books that were canonical were absolutely authoritative for him as the inspired Word of God. But this distinction is always being overlooked. Modern theologians always want to draw conclusions from Luther’s remarks concerning individual books as to his attitude towards the Word in general and its inspiration and thus make Luther share their liberal views regarding inspiration.” Cf. also Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I, p. 276-98. (Bartling, 4; footnote 11)


According to Bartling, Luther’s very view of the inerrancy of Scripture led him to adopt a radical position regarding James’ canonicity:

Luther, when thus faced with what he believed to be an error or a contradiction between James and Paul, rejected James as canonical since the canonical Scriptures can never err or contradict. We might well question this approach. Instead, we might offer ways of harmonizing Paul and James [footnote 18: “Apology Augsburg Confession” Art III, 123]. We can say Luther was wrong, but we must admit he was wrong for the right reasons. (Bartling, 3)

One might reply that it is better to be right for the wrong reasons. But whatever the reasons, they must be regarded as secondary. In any event, Luther was wrong about the NT canon. Our concern is with what such a huge error tells us about the mindset of the man who made it, and especially the relationship of this error to the larger question of Christian authority.

Bartling also notes that it is not only Catholics who regard Luther’s view of the NT canon as subjective and prone to liberal tendencies of destructive higher criticism of the Bible. He cites two “liberal Bible scholars” Heinrich Voigt: “Luther could not have regarded Holy Scripture word for word the product of the Holy Ghost, since he felt at liberty to express the most liberal views on whole books of the Bible” (Fundamentaldomatik, p. 536), and Edgar Krentz:

“Some feel that Luther here introduced a subjective element as justification for present day content criticism” (Historical-Critical Method, p. 9-10).

And on the same web page that includes Bartling’s article, a 1963 paper from Lutheran scholar Elmer J. Moeller, “The Authority of a N.T. canonical book,” delves into the relationship between apostolicity, inspiration, and canonicity. Note how Luther diverges from these, and the implications for those books (Hebrews, James, Jude, Revelation) that he regarded as “lesser”:

10. The distinction between homologoumena and antilegomena which the early church made, and which has been followed in our own Church, indicates three
criteria which on investigation are found to be echoes of Scriptural requirements for imposition of authority in doctrine:

a. Authenticity. Cf. 2 Th 2,2.3-15;3,14.17; 1 Co 14,37.
b. Authorship by an apostle. Cf. John 14, 26;15, 19.20, 26;16, 12-14; 17,20 and Ro 1,1.2.5. et al.
c. Authorship by someone whose person and message were commended to the Church by apostles. For the apostles were normative to 1) N.T. prophets. Eph 3,5; 2 Th 2,2; 1 Co 14, 37.38. 2) Co-workers of apostles.
Col 4,7. 10-11. 17; 1 Ti 3, 14-15; 4,11-12;6,2; 2 Ti 1,12; 1 Co 16,10; 2 Ti 4,11; Eph 6,21; Co 8,6.23; Tit 2,15.

11. The homologoumena meet criteria a and b. In the instance of Mark and Luke a and c apply. The Church indicates that Mark and Luke held unique positions to Peter and Paul, and that living apostles, particularly John, approved the writings of Mark and Luke.
12. To deny that such criteria applied to and were fulfilled in the homologoumena is to deny any Scriptural reason for accepting them as authoritative. Doubt as to the fulfillment of any of these criteria in the early church caused a book to be antilegomenon, therefore not absolute authority (cf. 9 above.)
13. N.T. books themselves, therefore God the Holy Spirit, indicated these criteria and through them imposed themselves on the early church as indicated by the evidence. To deny these criteria is to assume instead a process of canonization which predicates an inspired choice of authoritative books, something which Scripture knows nothing about. Cf. 2 Th 2,2,2,15; 3,14. To uphold inspired canonization is to uphold a false doctrine of inspiration. . . .
. . . 15. Canonics and inspiration are inseparable related. God inspired known apostles to write known books which were accepted as inspired; or (Mark, Luke) God inspired known men, whom the church knew from apostles to be inspired, to write known books which were accepted as inspired under apostolic authority.

Catholic Luther biographer Hartmann Grisar wrote:

. . . his criticism of the Bible proceeds along entirely subjective and arbitrary lines. The value of the sacred writings is measured by the rule of his own doctrine. He treats the venerable canon of Scripture with a liberty which annihilates all certitude. For, while this list has the highest guarantee of sacred tradition and the backing of the Church, Luther makes religious sentiment the criterion by which to decide which books belong to the Bible, which are doubtful, and which are to be excluded. At the same time he practically abandons the concept of inspiration, for he says nothing of a special illuminative activity of God in connection with the writers’ composition of the Sacred Book, notwithstanding that he holds the Bible to be the Word of God because its authors were sent by God. As is well known, during the age of orthodox Lutheranism its devotees fell into the other extreme by teaching so-called verbal inspiration, according to which every single word of the Bible has been dictated by God. Catholic theology has always observed a golden mean between these extremes.

 . . . It is a fact that must not be overlooked that parts of the Bible which Luther retained were taken over from the tradition of the past. By way of exception and as a matter of necessity, he thus conceded the claims of tradition. Though otherwise opposed to it, he took it as his guide and safeguard in this respect without admitting the fact. Thus his attitude towards the Bible is really burdened with ‘flagrant contradictions,’ to use an expression of Harnack, especially since he ‘had broken through the external authority of the written word,’ by his critical method. And of this, Luther is guilty, the very man who elsewhere represents the Bible as the sole principle of faith!

If, in addition to this, his arbitrary method of interpretation is taken into consideration, the work of destruction wrought by him appears even greater. The only weapon he possessed he wrested from his own hand, as it were, both theoretically and in practice.

His procedure regarding the sacred writings is apt to make thoughtful minds realize how great is the necessity of an infallible Church as divinely appointed guardian and authentic interpreter of the Bible. (Grisar, 263-265)


How does a Protestant have certainty on any book apart from authoritative Church tradition (something most Church Fathers never attained to)? What gives Luther any authority to decide apart from that tradition? Lutheran scholar John Warwick Montgomery makes a very similar point. Though he was not applying it to Luther, I would surely do so:

A most dangerous method of resolving arguments is the appeal to human authority. A disagrees With B; A Cites great man C in his behalf; B Claims that great man D supports his view; and the discussion degenerates into an attempt on the part of A to show that his authority is superior to B’s, While B endeavors to demonstrate the superiority of his authority. In the course of such discussions the protagonists generally forget the real point at issue, namely, the relative value of the evidence marshalled by the authorities appealed to. In the final analysis, it is not the judgment of the alleged authority that determines the question, but the value of his evidence. Why? because, God excepted, authorities are like the rest of us: they can make mistakes.
(Montgomery, first paragraph)

I would only disagree insofar as there is such a thing as Church authority which can be protected by God from error. It is precisely because of the guidance of the Holy Spirit that errors can be avoided. In other words, more is at play than simply fallible man. The supernatural protection of God is the crucial factor. Catholics believe this in faith. Luther and Protestants deny it, with regard to any human institution, and apply it only to the Bible. That being the case, Luther’s own opinions can be questioned, rather than accepted as from some oracle on high, as he often demanded, if not in so many words, then by the practical effect of his demeanor when disagreed with. Many Protestant scholars fully accept Christian tradition in this matter. I’ve cited several above and below.

Luther says ridiculous things about various biblical books, as if he is some sort of prophet or oracle from heaven. It it weren’t such a serious issue, it would be utterly laughable as a farce of the first order: the hubris of man writ large, even onto Holy Writ.


Luther’s view of the canon was dealt with in Luther’s Works (the 55-volume standard set of Luther writings in English, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan):

In terms of order, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation come last in Luther’s New Testament because of his negative estimate of their apostolicity. In a catalogue of “The Books of the New Testament” which followed immediately upon his Preface to the New Testament… Luther regularly listed these four—without numbers—at the bottom of a list in which he named the other twenty-three books, in the order in which they still appear in English Bibles, and numbered them consecutively from 1–23 . . . a procedure identical to that with which he also listed the books of the Apocrypha. (LW, 35, 393, footnote 43) [emphasis added]

As books of secondary rank come Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. (LW, 35: 231-232)

Note that Luther denied the apostolicity of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. Now, how can a book be included in the NT if it were not written by an apostle?

Paul Althaus wrote:

Luther did not intend to require anyone to accept his judgment, he only wanted to express his own feeling about these particular books.  
(Althaus, 84)

But this is part of the point. It is obvious that Luther carried no authority of his own in this regard, because he is not the Judge of the Bible (nor of Christian received Tradition, as far as I am concerned, though he, in effect, assumes that he can judge and modify that, too). It’s not up to him to decide. Our concern is with the absurdity of his opinions, period, and what they tell us about his own state of mind, his rash presumption, and his illegitimate Christian epistemology.

The Church determined that James’ book was canonical. If Luther wants to start re-questioning the ancient Church’s judgment on such matters as biblical books, why not also in matters of the Holy Trinity, and Christology, which were hammered out for many centuries, too? I understand that James was late to be included in the canon, but the fact remains that eventually it was considered canonical. Luther, then, has to explain why he rejects this ancient determination by the Church. On what grounds? It is ultimately decided on the basis of his own subjective opinion, as so often . . .

What Luther has to also account for is the fact that the canonicity of 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John (books he accepted as fully canonical) were also questioned very late: as late as the Council of Nicea in 325. If he wants to make an historical argument, he will lose every time, due to such inconsistencies with his own opinion. Bible scholar F.F. Bruce made the same point in his book on the canon (I discovered these words after I wrote the above):

Luther knew that those books had been disputed in earlier days: that, however, is not his main reason for relegating them to a secondary status. He appears to have had no difficulty with 2 Peter or 2 or 3 John, which had also been disputed. His main reason is that in the four relegated books he could not find that clear promotion of Christ which was the principle note of holy scripture. (Bruce, 244)


Here is Luther’s famous (or infamous) comment from his original Preface to the New Testament, 1522 version (my emphasis):

In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. But more of this in the other prefaces. (LW 35:362)

Luther dropped the “epistle of straw” insult passage from his 1545 revision of this preface. But even renowned Protestant Bible scholar F.F. Bruce not only did not mention that Luther later dropped the phrase “epistle of straw”; he also incorrectly stated which preface it was from:

It is in his preface to James in his 1522 New Testament that he calls it ‘an epistle of straw’. (Bruce, 243)


But seriously, Luther may have changed his mind about this description, but that doesn’t mean his overall opinion of James changed all that much. This was only one negative description among many. I see no indication that Luther’s opinion of the book’s apostolicity or its theological content (supposedly contrary to his false faith alone soteriology) was ever modified. Hartmann Grisar, S.J. author of a six-volume biography of Luther, stated in his additional one-volume biography, after citing the “epistle of straw” comment (which he noted was from 1522):

Luther always adhered essentially to his opinion of the Epistle of St. James as quoted above. (Grisar, 264)

Paul Althaus writes:

In the Preface to James in 1522 and still in 1543 Luther speaks of the “really main books.” He cannot include the Letter of James among them because James preaches the law instead of the gospel . . .

After 1530, he even omitted the sharpest phrases in the Preface to James (for example, “Therefore I do not want to have him in my Bible”). Luther therefore did not intend that the congregations should continue to read these judgments. For himself and in speaking before his theological students he maintained his judgment of James even later. In this, however, he was for the most part concerned with preventing his Roman opponents from continually using James as an argument against the Reformation gospel than he was about the letter as such. (Althaus, 84-85)

Luther wrote in 1520:

I will say nothing of the fact that many assert with much probability that this epistle is not by James the apostle, and that it is not worthy of an apostolic spirit; although, whoever was its author, it has come to be regarded as authoritative. (LW 36:118)

In 1542 Luther stated (as recorded in one of the versions of Table-Talk):

We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school [Wittenberg], for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning [Jas. 1:1; 2:1]. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did. He wrote not a word about the suffering and resurrection of Christ, although this is what all the apostles preached about. Besides, there’s no order or method in the epistle. Now he discusses clothing and then he writes about wrath and is constantly shifting from one to the other. He presents a comparison: ‘As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead’ [Jas. 2:26]. O Mary, mother of God! What a terrible comparison that is! James compares faith with the body when he should rather have compared faith with the soul! The ancients recognized this, too, and therefore they didn’t acknowledge this letter as one of the catholic epistles. (LW 54:424)

Preserved Smith includes the prior paragraph:

Many sweat to reconcile St. Paul and St. James, as does Melanchthon in his Apology, but in vain. “faith justifies” and “faith does not justify” contradict each other flatly. If any one can harmonize them I will give him my doctor’s hood and let him call me a fool. (Smith, 269)

Mark Bartling cites the same passage, but states that it is from 1532, not 1542:

Luther, in a Table Talk in 1532, however still believed Paul and James could not be harmonized. He says, “Many have tried hard to make James agree with Paul, as also Melanchthon did in his Apology, but not seriously (successfully). These do not harmonize: Faith justifies, and faith does not justify. To him who can make these two agree I will give my doctor’s cap and I am willing to be called a fool.” Weimar, “Tischreden” (3), p. 3292. (Bartling, 6; footnote 18)

Smith also documents some of Luther’s “marginal notes in one of his own Bibles”:

To James i, 6 (But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering), he remarks, “That is the only good place in the whole epistle”; to i, 21 (Receive with meekness the engrafted word), “Others engrafted it, not this James”; to ii, 12 ff., “What a chaos!” and to ii, 24 (Ye see then that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only), “That is false.” (Smith, 269-270)

By what authority does Luther deign to make such judgments at all, and how does he prove that his own opinion carries more weight than (or even equal weight with, as an opinion) the determination of the ancient Church to proclaim definitively on the canon (including the book of James)? Luther acts much like the “higher critics” and liberal Bible scholars today. Preserved Smith made a similar observation:

Luther’s attitude to the Bible contains one striking contradiction. He insisted that it should be taken as a whole and literally as God’s inerrant Word; and at the same time he was himself the freest of “higher critics.” (Smith, 267)

It’s interesting to note in passing that Smith seems to have also labored under the same misconception concerning the 1545 version of the Preface of the New Testament, viz., that it contained the “epistle of straw” remark, since on page 268 he introduces the larger passage which contains it, with “In the preface of 1545 he says . . .” But Smith was writing in 1911 and perhaps had less information than we do now.


Another rather silly Luther utterance is also from 1542:

That epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest. Up to this point I have been accustomed just to deal with and interpret it according to the sense of the rest of Scriptures. For you will judge that none of it must be set forth contrary to manifest Holy Scripture. Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did. (LW 34:317)

Mark Bartling cites something similar to this:

Only the papists accept James on account of the righteousness of works, but my opinion is that it is not the writings of an apostle. Some day I will use James to fire my stove. (Bartling, 2; Weimar, Tischreden [5], p. 5854)

Without further context, we cannot be sure of the exact meaning, but Bartling seems to have assumed that Luther was referring to the book of James.


Whatever he meant, we have his clear opinions about James in his Preface to James and Jude. The following citation is the complete preface. Luther revised the second to last paragraph, which I will present in both versions (emphasis is added):

Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle, and my reasons follow.

In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works (2:24). It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac (2:20); Though in Romans 4:22-22 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15:6. Although it would be possible to “save” the epistle by a gloss giving a correct explanation of justification here ascribed to works, it is impossible to deny that it does refer to Moses’ words in Genesis 15 (which speaks not of Abraham’s works but of his faith, just as Paul makes plain in Romans 4) to Abraham’s works. This fault proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.

In the second place its purpose is to teach Christians, but in all this long teaching it does not once mention the Passion, the resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ. He names Christ several times; however he teaches nothing about him, but only speaks of general faith in God. Now it is the office of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and resurrection and office of Christ, and to lay the foundation for faith in him, as Christ himself says in John 15[:27], “You shall bear witness to me.? All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate [treiben] Christ. And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3[:21]; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2[:2]. Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.” (ibid).

But this James does nothing more than drive to the law and its works. Besides, he throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper. Or it may perhaps have been written by someone on the basis of his preaching. He calls the law a “law of liberty” [1:25], though Paul calls it a law of slavery, of wrath, of death, and of sin.

Moreover he cites the sayings of St. Peter [in 5:20]; Love covers a multitude of sins” [1 Pet. 4:8], and again [in 4:10], “Humble yourselves under he had of God” [1 Pet. 5:6] also the saying of St. Paul in Galatians 5[:17], “The Spirit lusteth against envy.” And yet, in point of time, St. James was put to death by Herod [Acts 12:2] in Jerusalem, before St. Peter. So it seems that [this author] came long after St. Peter and St. Paul.

1522 version: In a word, he wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture. [PE version: “rends the Scriptures and thereby resists Paul and all Scripture] He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him. One man is no man in worldly things; how then, should this single man alone avail against Paul and all Scripture.

1545 version: In a word, he wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law [PE version: “insisting on the Law”] what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore I cannot include him among the chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him.

Concerning the epistle of St. Jude, no one can deny that it is an extract or copy of St. Peter’s second epistle, so very like it are all the words. He also speaks of the apostles like a disciple who comes long after them [Jude 17] and cites sayings and incidents that are found nowhere else in the Scriptures [Jude 9, 14]. This moved the ancient Fathers to exclude this epistle from the main body of the Scriptures. Moreover the Apostle Jude did not go to Greek-speaking lands, but to Persia, as it is said, so that he did not write Greek. Therefore, although I value this book, it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are supposed to lay the foundations of faith. (LW, 35:395-398; cf. PE, 6:477-479)

Another translation of the preface by Bertram Lee Woolf, from The Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, vol. II, The Spirit of the Protestant Reformation (London: Lutterworth Press, 1956, 306-308), can be read in the paper, Did Luther consider James Scripture?: A look at the preface to James and Jude, by Catholic apologist “Matt1618.” Here are a couple of Woolf’s more notable renderings of Luther’s pungent language: “in direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the Bible, it ascribes justification to works” (1545), and “He does violence to Scripture, and so contradicts Paul and all Scripture” (1522). This was also reprinted in Dillenberger, pages 35-37 (see sources).

Readers can make up their own minds what all this means, and whether it is acceptable. I trust that my own opinion of such utterances has been made very clear by now.


We have seen Luther’s opinion of the book of Jude in the last paragraph of the preface above. Luther denies its apostolicity, too. Some argue that because Luther cited Jude in sermons, therefore he thought it was okay and fine and dandy. But the latter is not in question; rather, we are concerned with its canonicity and inspiration as a fully biblical book (not a secondary book, less than “chief”). Luther denies this on arbitrary grounds, against the witness of the ancient Church. I want to know how and why he thought he could do this. Luther wrote, in introducing his sermons on Jude:

But this letter does not seem to have been written by the real apostle, for in it Jude refers to himself as a much later disciple of the apostles. Nor does it contain anything special beyond pointing to the Second Epistle of Saint Peter, from which it has borrowed nearly all the words. (LW 30:201)


Turning to Luther’s opinion of the book of Revelation, here is an excerpt of his original 1522 preface:

About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas, and would bind no man to my opinion or judgment; I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and this makes me hold it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic . . .

And so I think of it almost as I do of the Fourth Book of Esdras, and can nohow detect that the Holy Spirit produced it . . .

. . . It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep.

. . . Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit gives him to think. My spirit cannot fit itself into this book. There is one sufficient reason for me not to think highly of it, — Christ is not taught or known in it; but to teach Christ is the thing which an apostle is bound, above all else, to do, as He says in Acts i, ‘Ye shall be my witnesses.’ Therefore I stick to the books which give me Christ, clearly and purely. (PE, 6:488-489)

The later 1530 revision was infinitely more positive (and we Catholics are delighted that Luther seems to have had a change of heart), but I want to know why that is, and why Luther wrote the ridiculous nonsense of the first preface. As I noted in my earlier paper, this was a year after he expected the Church to accept his novel teachings (Diet of Worms, 1521: “Here I stand,” etc.). He could write this sort of radical, subjective material, and yet everyone was simply to bow down and accept everything he taught? So I think it is a valid question to pursue, as part of an overall analysis of the mind of Luther and implications for the Protestant rule of faith and rejection of the apostolic authority of the Catholic Church. Paul Althaus and John Warwick Montgomery describe Luther’s opinion of Revelation (along with Jude, James, and Hebrews):

But for the rest of his life, he continued to put a different value on the books which he had put together at the end of his Bible than on the “main books.” (Althaus, 85)

True enough, all the editions of Luther’s German Bible – right to the last one he himself supervised (1545) – retain the classification by which the four antilegomena are grouped together, in a kind of bibliographical ghetto, after the other books. Comments remain in the Prefaces (e.g., Romans) indicating that Luther always held to a hierarchy of biblical books, with the Gospel of John and Romans constituting the empyrean. A careful study of Luther’s remarks on and treatment of James throughout his career has shown that, wholly apart from the Prefaces, the Reformer consistently held a low view of the book’s utility. (Montgomery, comments preceding footnotes 54 and 55)


Luther wrote in his 1522 Preface to this book:

The fact that Hebrews is not an epistle of St. Paul, or of any other apostle, is proved by what it says in chapter 2[:3], that through those who had themselves heard it from the Lord this doctrine has come to us and remained among us. It is thereby made clear that he is speaking about the apostles, as a disciple to whom this doctrine has come from the apostles, perhaps long after them. For St. Paul, in Galatians 1[:1], testifies powerfully that he has his gospel from no man, neither through men, but from God himself. (LW 35:394)

Luther concludes: “. . . to be sure, we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles” (LW, 35, 394).


John Warwick Montgomery makes some curious remarks (prior to his footnote 56) that will serve as a springboard for a general critique of Luther’s attitude towards the canon:

We must admit that in one sense Luther does reevaluate the Canon, though haltingly, tentatively, sensitively – not at all like a modern radical critic and certainly not as a spokesman for the church (we have already noted his hesitancy to influence others at this point). As for his reasons for reopening the canonical question, they were not at all as subjective, arbitrary, and cavalier as they are often made to seem.

This is easy to say, but much harder to demonstrate and to defend under scrutiny. It smacks too much of a “distinction without a difference.”

Luther appeals not to subjective considerations but objectively to the judgments of the early church, specifically to what Jerome says in his De viris illustribus, chap. 2. and to what Eusebius reports in his Ecclesiastical History, Bk. II, chap. 23 and Bk. III, chap. 25. The negative evaluations of antilegomena by certain church fathers were certainly unjustified, as history proved, but Luther had every right to raise the question in terms of the fathers.

One wonders where to begin in replying to this: so full is it of muddled thinking and illogical assertions! The bottom line is the inconsistent notion that Luther “had every right” to question the canon by appealing to certain fathers, yet (by implication) Catholics have no right to accept the traditional canon by appealing to the ancient Church in council. History shows — nay, even “prove[s]” — that these negative judgments of certain NT books were “certainly unjustified” yet it was okay for Luther to again bring them into question.

One must ask, then: how does “history” prove anything? By what criteria was the canon established? How is it that Luther can appeal to fallible Church fathers who happened to agree with him in particulars, but Catholics may not appeal to the authoritative Church; you know: the same body that did things like clarify the doctrine of the Holy Trinity at the Council of Nicea in 325, and the Two Natures of Christ at the Council of Chalcedon in 451?

That same Church authoritatively proclaimed (as opposed to “creating”) the books of the canon. But we mustn’t listen to the ancient Church — the Church of the Fathers — when it does that. Instead, we must dredge up some dissenting voices of individual Fathers or even historians like Eusebius. St. Jerome, it should be noted, yielded to Church authority when his views conflicted with it. He did so with regard to the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament. Luther lacked this quality of submitting to the Church, as we all know.

Unless one is going to make the fatal error of accepting the content of Scripture because the institutional church has declared it such (which necessarily subordinates Scripture to Church and brings the Protestant back to his Romanist vomit),

How is it “fatal”? It seems to me that it is the only plausible, non-subjective choice. One either accepts the ancient canon, or they fall back on the subjective judgments of individuals like Luther, based on the subjective judgments of other men like Jerome and Eusebius. The Fathers disagreed amongst themselves about the canon. It was only when the Church declared the matter as settled, in the late 4th century, that the differences ceased. But for some reason, Luther wanted to reopen the canon. Thus, even the question of “what books are in the Bible?” must be an open question, as with so much else in Protestantism.

Moreover, accepting the traditional canon (I speak primarily of the NT, in the context of dealing with Luther’s opinions of it) does not at all entail “subordinating” Scripture to the Church. It is simply a practical reality that, since men differed in their opinions, the corporate Church had to settle the matter. Does it subordinate God to men, for men to merely describe the nature of God as One God in Three Persons? Do men now define and create God because they declared His Nature (i.e., engaged in what is called “theology proper”) and bound Christians to hold to this definition? Of course not. God is Who He is, no matter what we say about Him.

Likewise, Scripture is infallible, inspired, and the sum total of a certain set of books, no matter what we say. It is what it is, and men do not make it what it is; God does. This is the position of the Catholic Church, as stated in Vatican I and Vatican II (see my paper, “The Canon of Scripture: Did the Catholic Church Create It Or Merely Authoritatively Acknowledge It?”) . This doesn’t “necessarily” put Scripture “under” the Church, but it does put men under the authority of the Church, whose function is to protect them from believing errors and falsehoods. This is true regarding the canon.

History bears this out, by illustrating how the fathers disagreed in the early centuries about which books were in the canon (often thinking books were in it which are not in fact, such as The Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistles of Ignatius and Clement). This shows us that we cannot rely on the fathers and must rely on the dogmatic pronouncements of the Church. But Montgomery absurdly defends the reliance on individual fathers while characterizing reliance on the traditional canon as (in a most delightful phrase) returning to “Romanist vomit”. This is sheer Protestant polemics, which, as usual, is found wanting as soon as it is closely examined.

there is no choice but to refer canonicity questions to the earliest judgments available historically concerning the apostolic authority of New Testament books.

If we do that then we are doomed to “canonical relativism,” as the “earliest judgments” could not resolve the question of the canon. It is the “later” judgment of the Church (late 4th century) which resolved the question.

Christ promised to the apostolic company a unique and entirely reliable knowledge of His teachings through the special guidance of His Holy Spirit (John 14;26), so the issue of the apostolicity of New Testament writings has always been vital for the church. As a theologian, Luther had the right, even the responsibility, to raise this issue, and did not become a subjectivist by doing so.

An individual doing this, over against the judgment of the ancient Church is not only subjective indeed, but outrageously arrogant and absurd. The guarantee of doctrinal truthfulness was given to the Church, not atomistic individuals who were not subject to the Church. The reliance on individualism and private judgment is precisely what has created the mess of doctrinal relativism and ecclesiological chaos that is Protestantism today.

Montgomery continues:

One of his favorite sayings was that he did his best theological work when angry!) Is it not indicative that the Revelation of St. John gains in stature for him as he sees its apologetic possibilities vis-à-vis the papacy (“the whore that sitteth on the seven hills,” etc.)?

This makes perfect sense to me: that Luther would mull over whether a traditionally-accepted biblical book was fully canonical based on anger and its polemical utility in his never-ending slanderous opposition to the Catholic Church. It’s entirely subjective (and quite ridiculous and offensive). Montgomery agrees to a large extent, though for somewhat different reasons. Though continuing to distance himself from the charge that Luther was a subjectivist, he bolsters one of my main points and even goes very far towards admitting it, offering some valuable and cogent insights into this question:

Here, if anywhere, those arguing against Luther’s biblical orthodoxy have a point. Though it is unfair to call him a subjectivist on the canonical question, there is no doubt that he developed a personal criterion of canonicity that took its place alongside of apostolicity and perhaps even swallowed it up . . .

The dangers in such an approach to canonicity are legion, and they were fully recognized by Luther’s own contemporaries – not only by his theological opponents but also by his colleagues and supporters . . . As is well known, the church that carries Luther’s name has never adopted his canonical judgments.

Though it is understandable that, passionate reforming spirit that he was, Luther would reintroduce the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith everywhere, it is unfortunate that he misused it as a canonical criterion. One must first establish the Canon and then set forth all that the canonical books teach: canonicity before doctrine. If one reverses the procedure, personal doctrinal emphasis, however commendatory, may turn into weapons by which genuine Scripture is rejected or down-played unnecessarily. Had Luther begun with a purely historical view of the Canon, he would have been forced to discover the entire compatibility between James and Paul; his misleading criterion of canonicity opened the floodgates to subjectivity – in spite of his best intentions – and short-circuited the kind of exegesis of James that would have revealed its harmony with Pauline teaching and its vital complementary place in the corpus of New Testament doctrine.

. . . Let us learn from Luther both positively and negatively. His experiential criterion of canonicity shows how even a great theologian committed to the objective, theocentric authority of God’s Word can slip into subjective, anthropocentric thinking. If this was possible for Luther, is it any wonder that the lesser theological lights of our own day easily fall victim to the parallel temptations of using their spiritual experience to create a “canon within the canon” and a Bible that is not indefeasible in its own right? We should remember how readily the experiential pietism of the late 17th century became the rationalism of the 18th century, and see the dangers in our own revivalistic heritage . . . (Montgomery; sections preceding footnotes 56-59 and 75)


Luther opined on the book of Esther:

I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities. (Table-Talk, #XXIV, p. 13)

Esther…which despite their [the Jews] inclusion of it in the canon deserves more than all the rest in my judgment to be regarded as noncanonical. (LW 33:110)

The great evangelical biblical scholar F.F. Bruce, commented on the first statement:

It is noteworthy that he shows his exercise of private judgment here by including Esther under the same condemnation as 2 Maccabees: Esther is one of the books which Jerome acknowledged as acceptable for the establishing of doctrine . . . (Bruce, 101)


I would like to close by citing three Protestant critics of Luther’s approach to the NT canon:
F.F. Bruce (citing another scholar) observes:

If those who adhere to the principle of an inner canon concentrate on that inner canon to a point where they neglect the contents of the ‘outer canon’ (as they might call it), they deny themselves the benefits which they might derive from those other books. N.B. Stonehouse gave as his ‘basic criticism’ of Luther’s viewpoint ‘that it was narrowly Christocentric rather than God-centred, and thus involved an attenuation and impoverishment of the message of the New Testament . . . formulating his criterion in narrow terms, and insisting upon the same manifestation of it in each writing of the New Testament’, Luther ‘missed much of the richness of the revelation of the New Testament organism of Scripture’ . . .

In short, it must be acknowledged that the churchmen of the age after Marcion were right when they insisted on a catholic collection of Christian scriptures in opposition to his sectarian selection.

(Bruce, 273-275; citing from N.B. Stonehouse, ‘Luther and the New Testament Canon’, in Paul Before the Areopagus and Other New Testament Studies [Grand Rapids, 1957], pp. 196 ff.; earlier, Bruce had noted, contra Luther’s mentality: “the catholic church, and the catholic scriptures, made room for both Paul and James and for other varieties as well” — p. 152)

Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901), the great biblical scholar, was equally direct in his disagreement with Luther:

The freshness and power of Luther’s judgments on the Bible, the living sense of fellowship with the spirit which animates them, the bold independence and self-assertion which separate them from all simply critical conclusions, combined to limit their practical acceptance to individuals. Such judgments rest on no definite external evidence. They cannot be justified by the ordinary rule and measure of criticism or dogma. No Church could rest on a theory which makes private feeling the supreme authority as to doctrine and the source of doctrine. As a natural consequence the later Lutherans abandoned the teaching of their great master on the written Word. (Westcott, 483-484)


Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.

Bartling, Mark F., Luther and James: Did Luther Use the Historical-Critical Method?

Bruce. F.F., The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Dillenberger, John, editor, Martin Luther : Selections From His Writings, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1961.

Grisar, Hartmann, Martin Luther: His Life and Work, translated by Frank J. Eble, edited by Arthur Preuss, Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1930.

Luther, Martin, Luther’s Works (LW), American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (volumes 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (volumes 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (volumes 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (volumes 31-55), 1955.

Luther, Martin, Works of Martin Luther (PE), Philadelphia edition (6 volumes), edited and translated by C.M. Jacobs and A.T.W. Steinhaeuser et al, A.J. Holman Co., The Castle Press, and Muhlenberg Press, 1932.

Luther, Martin, Table-Talk, translated By William Hazlitt, Esq. Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, no date.

Montgomery, John Warwick, Lessons From Luther On The Inerrancy Of Holy Writ, Westminster Theological Journal, Volume 36.

Smith, Preserved, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911

Westcott, Brooke Foss, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, 6th edition (1889); reprinted by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, Michigan) 1980.


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