The New Testament Books Luther Liked (and the Ones He Didn’t Like)

The New Testament Books Luther Liked (and the Ones He Didn’t Like) June 30, 2016

Did you know that Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, liked some books in the Bible a lot more than he liked other books?

CC0 Public Doman via Pixabay
CC0 Public Doman via Pixabay

Actually, he didn’t just like them better, he even thought some were “true” and “noble,” whereas others (like the epistle of James)–not so much.

Here’s what Luther writes at the conclusion of his Preface to the New Testament (in 1522):

Which are the true and noblest books of the New Testament:

From all this [what he had just previously written about the primacy of the “gospel” as the preached message of salvation through Christ, over the synoptic gospels, and the superiority of the gospel over law] and you can now judge all the books and decide among them which are the best. John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books. They ought properly to be the foremost books, and it would be advisable for every Christian to read them first and most, and by daily reading to make them as much his own as his daily bread. For in them you do not find many works and miracles of Christ described, but you do find depicted in masterly fashion how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death and hell, and gives life, righteousness and salvation. This is the real nature of the gospel, as you have heard.

If I had to do without one or the other–either the works or the preaching of Christ–I would rather do without the works than without his preaching. For the works do not help me, but his words give life, as he himself says [John 6:63]. Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about his preaching, while the other evangelists write much about his works and little about his preaching. Therefore John’s Gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

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 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 gospel about it. But more of this in the other prefaces.

Now, it must be said that this portion of the preface is dropped out of editions of Luther’s New Testament after 1537, but that’s likely due to pragmatic reasons rather than to any recanting of these ideas.

So, it’s rather interesting, to say the least, to hear Luther being so forthright about his preferences of New Testament books–to the point of suggesting that James isn’t even in the same league (the “gospel league,” let’s say) as Paul’s epistles, Peter, and John.

This is a prime example of a “canon within a canon,” or a kernel/husk approach to the Bible. Fact is, we all have preferences and–functionally anyway–operate with a canon within a canon. But here’s the father of the Protestant Reformation laying his out for us unambiguously. Interestingly, the functional evangelical approach to the Bible pretty much mirrors what Luther articulates here. Who cares about the synoptic gospels when you have Romans and John? Who cares about the works of Jesus when you have his preaching?


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