Luther's Treatment of the 'Disputed Books'
of the New Testament

Lutheran theologians like to make a distinction between the books of the New Testament which were unanimously received as canonical in the early church (the so-called Homologoumena or undisputed books) and the books which were disputed by some (the Antilegomena). In this class of 'disputed books' are the Epistle to the Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Revelation of John. These books are considered to be canonical in modern Lutheran churches, with the caveat that they are not quite on the same level as the other books as complete expressions of evangelical truth, and should be used with care.

Luther himself took the liberty of criticizing some of these books in a polemical manner which few Lutherans today would find completely acceptable. He had a low view of Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation, and so when he published his New Testament in 1522 he placed these books apart at the end. In his Preface to Hebrews, which comes first in the series, he says, "Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation."

Luther's criticism of these books will perhaps be found disgraceful and even shocking to modern Christians, but it should be pointed out that his attitude was not so shocking in the context of the late Middle Ages. Erasmus had also called into question these four books in the Annotationes to his 1516 Greek New Testament, and their canonicity was doubted by the Roman Catholic Cardinal Cajetan (Luther's opponent at Augsburg. See Reu, Luther's German Bible, pp. 175-176). The sad fact is, the Roman Catholic Church had never precisely drawn the boundaries of the biblical canon. It was not necessary to do so under the Roman system, in which the authority of the Scriptures was not much higher than that of tradition, popes, and councils. It was not until the Protestant Reformers began to insist upon the supreme authority of Scripture alone that a decision on the 'disputed books' became necessary.

If Luther's negative view of these books were based only upon the fact that their canonicity was disputed in early times, we would have expected him to include 2 Peter among them, because this epistle was doubted more than any other in ancient times. But it is evident from the prefaces that Luther affixed to these four books that his low view of them had more to do with his theological reservations against them than with any historical investigation of the canon.

We give below Luther's prefaces to James, Jude and the Revelation, from the first edition of his New Testament. The English translation and notes are derived from the American edition of Luther's Works, vol 35 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963), pp. 395-399.

Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude (1522)

Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, 1 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. It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac; though in Romans 4 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. Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation 2 devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works of Moses' statement in Genesis 15. For Moses is speaking here only of Abraham's faith, and not of his works, as St. Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. This fault, therefore, 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, "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; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2. Whatever does not teach Christ is not 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.

But this James does nothing more than drive to the law and to 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," though Paul calls it a law of slavery, of wrath, of death, and of sin. 3

Moreover he cites the sayings of St. Peter: "Love covers a multitude of sins," and again, "Humble yourselves under the hand of God;" also the saying of St. Paul in Galatians 5, "The Spirit lusteth against envy." And yet, in point of time, St. James was put to death by Herod in Jerusalem, before St. Peter. 4 So it seems that this author came long after St. Peter and St. Paul.

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. 5 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 the rest of Scripture? 6

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 and cites sayings and incidents that are found nowhere else in the Scriptures. 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 falth.

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.

1. Luther's statement that the epistle was "rejected by the ancients" is only partly true. Its canonical status was doubted by some. Eusebius (died 339) in his Ecclesiastical History (II, xxiii, 25) writes "Such is the story of James, whose is said to be the first of the Epistles called Catholic. It is to be observed that its authenticity is denied, since few of the ancients quote it, as is also the case with the Epistle called Jude's." Eusebius also includes both epistles in his list of 'Disputed Books' (History, III, xxiv, 3). See also the statement by Jerome (d. 420) in his Liber de Viris Illustribus (II) concerning the pseudonymity ascribed to the epistle of James and its rather gradual attainment of authoritative status.

2. By Glose (literally "gloss") Luther means an interpretation which explains away the apparent meaning.

3. Cf. Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13, 20; 6:15-22; 7:5-13; 8:2; I Cor. 15:58; Gal. 3:23-5:1.

4. The James to whom the book is traditionally ascribed is not the brother of John martyred by Herod (Acts 12:2), as Luther seems to think, but the brother of the Lord (Matt. 13:55) who became head of the apostolic church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13; Gal. 1:19).

5. The edition of 1530 omitted "in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture."

6. The edition of 1530 put intead of these last two sentences, "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."

7. This short preface appeared in the September Testament of 1522 and in other editions up to 1527. It was supplanted from 1530 on by a much longer preface which offers an interpretation of the symbolism of the book.

8. Luther means II Esdras, which was called IV Esdras in the Vulgate.

9. The canonicity of Revelation was disputed by Marcion, Caius of Rome, Dionysius of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem and the Synod of Laodicea in A.D. 360, though it was accepted by most as Eusebius reports. In the annotations of his edition Erasmus had noted in connection with chapter 4 that the Greeks regarded the book as apocryphal.