Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Luther was no fundie

In the comments section Tom Van Dyke points to Martin Luther's position on the Book of Revelation. At least it was a position he held at one point in his life while he was pondering which books of the canon were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Luther wrote:
Preface to the Revelation of St. John (1522) 7

About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.

First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions. Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images. For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; 8 I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.

Moreover he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly — indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important — and threatens that if anyone takes away anything from it, God will take away from him, etc. Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep.

Many of the fathers also rejected this book a long time ago; 9 although St. Jerome, to be sure, refers to it in exalted terms and says that it is above all praise and that there are as many mysteries in it as words. Still, Jerome cannot prove this at all, and his praise at numerous places is too generous.

Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1, “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.
The bold face is mine.  

A few thoughts. First, this sounds Quakerish to me. Luther is the founder of Protestantism and Quakerism is a form of Protestantism. Quakerism is I would describe Spirit trumps Letter (and there's textual support in the canon for that). You could say Spirit trumps written Revelation. But that would be not precise enough.

Perhaps Spirit trumps the written word.

Or rather the Spirit speaking to the individual, Priest that she is, in good conscience determines which books are inspired and how to understand them. As opposed to some external collective authority determining the matter.

In common discourse we hear the term "the Bible" bandied about. And that's fine. I don't mean to deconstruct the notion of  a canon of books that contains, for those who so believe, revelation in a God speaking to man sense.

However, once one studies the history of the canon -- and I admit there are those who know more about it than I do; I haven't yet read but am familiar with the cliff notes argument of Jaroslav Pelikan's "Whose Bible Is It?: A Short History of the Scriptures" -- it's hard to take seriously the notion of "the Bible" as "a book" in which you simply look something up. Rather it's a collection of books -- a canon -- whose contents are disputed; in particular which books belong are disputed.  (To say nothing of the interpretation thereof.)

Reformed Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all have different exact books. And there are two incompatible quick narratives I have heard from the Protestants v. Roman Catholics.

On the one hand Position 1 of evangelical or fundamentalist oriented Protestants seems to argue that the Bible is 66 books and only 66 books, and always has been. Roman Catholics added additional books to the canon in Trent.

On the other Position 2 of the Roman Catholics is that the Bible actually contains and always has since the early Church guided by the Spirit selected them, 73 books until Luther removed seven of them. (And he would have removed more, like the Book of Revelation, until his friends stop him. That part doesn't seem to be part of the "quick narrative," but is an interesting nuance that isn't too well known.)

Then we got the King James Bible, with its bowdlerized 66.  And Trent was needed to formalize the Roman Catholic position against Luther's/the Protestants' novel act.

The truth is probably somewhere in between the positions, but I have concluded closer to position 2. In fact, from the very start when the early Church began to compile a "canon" of books, the exact contents -- which books belonged -- were disputed and different regions had different exact books.

Belief in the divine inspiration of the deuterocanonicals was hardly novel to Trent. Early Church Fathers (who among themselves differed on which exact books they believed were inspired) believed in them. And the Eastern Orthodox believe in those books and add a few others that Roman Catholics don't consider part of their canon. And the different capital O Orthodox Churches themselves differ on the exact books depending on region.

The Eastern Orthodox split with Rome in 1054 way before Trent.

I'm not interested in the various reasons Protestants have for the King James Bibles that the canon is these 66 and no others. Rather I'm looking for evidence that their position is not novel to the reformation.

Some evangelical-fundamentalist types take it as a matter of faith that once the last book of the 66 was written, "true Christians" always just knew it was these 66 and no more, no less. I haven't been able to find any historical evidence to support such position.

On a personal note, I don't deride the Book of Revelation like Jefferson does; my position is probably closer to Luther's. I see the book as interesting poetry; but if someone tries to proof text it at me as containing divinely inspired doctrine, I would simply write it off.

(My exact religious views are complicated. I'm open to certain religious truths, but not others. And my religious views can change from day to day. Ultimately, I try to operate "in good conscience.") 

Clearly I'm no fundie. But then again, neither was Luther.

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