Query: How Did Luther Resolve This Bit?

Since various Protestants have been known to frequent this blog, maybe they can clear something up for me: Luther famously held Scripture to be the sole guidance to the true Christian ("sola scriptura"), always trumping the supposed authority of the Church. But, of course, just what Scripture consisted of had been decided by... the authority of the Church! (There were many candidates vying for inclusion in the status of being scriptural books, and hot debates about which ones would be so stamped with approval.)

So, once Luther rejects the authority of the Church, how can he insist on just those four gospels being scriptural? What if a Protestant wants to follow, say, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of James, the Gospel of Judas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the alternative Gospel of Luke, the Diatessaron, or the Gospel of Peter? They all had their adherents back in the day, but were declared infra dig by the authority of the Church. So on what basis can Luther criticize a Protestant who finds one of them "more his style"?


  1. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Hey, I'm a protestant and I frequent this blog! How convenient.

    I guess the simplest answer is that we view causation in running the other way: That is, books in scripture are not canonical because church authority says so. The church authority says so because they are.

    [i]"So on what basis can Luther criticize a Protestant who finds one of them "more his style"?[/i]

    On the basis of criteria for canonicity that have emerged (self-attesting, written under the guidance of apostles/prophets, self-consistent, historically accepted, etc.) If you look at protestant literature on the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, the authors reject it because it was likely written in the second century (and therefore not written under the guidance of the apostles) , and because its teachings are inconsistent with the rest of scripture.

    Canonicity for protestants is a more emergent process. An interesting example is that of John 8 and Mark 16:9-20. Most protestants no longer accept the canonicity of these passages. This was not the result of an official church decree. Rather, it was found that the passages were absent from the earliest and most reliable manuscripts that have been discovered in the last century and therefore were not likely in the original text.

  2. Anonymous3:37 PM

    I guess that doesn't directly answer your question on how Martin Luther himself clarified that bit. I don't know that.

  3. Gene, when you were confessing your sins to another man, did he put you up to this?

  4. Anonymous6:47 PM

    Hey Gene,

    You bring up a point similar to one I made on Andrew Cusack's post at Norumbega on Solzhenitsyn, wherein I argued as follows:


    You said:
    “I think, at the last day, you may regret that post. It is extraordinarily frivolous and impious.

    “Did not the Apostle Paul say that ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’? (2 Timothy 3:16)

    “Do we not see in Christ’s use of the scripture - e.g. ‘Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God’ (Matthew 4:10) - the clear fact of Biblical authority? It was sufficient that ‘it is written’. Christ needed not to point to any hierarchy or action of man for his guarantee.”

    The problem with this argument is that, at best, it would tend to show that the writers of certain of the books which ultimately came to comprise the canon of the New Testament took most of the books which ultimately came to comprise the canon of the Old Testament as authoritative. This leaves entirely which books count as Scripture! When writing his epistles, St. Paul never (to my knowledge) stated that they were themselves scripture. As you probably know, the decision as to what books would be included within the canon (which of course was a highly contested question, given the existence of various gnostic texts which Elaine Pagels has made so much hay with) was ultimately made by the Church several hundred years after Christ’s death, under the inspiration of the Holy Spririt.

    I suppose you could say that the early Church was inspired in assembling the canon (and in making that decision enjoyed a kind of infallibility), but that sometime thereafter such inspiration disappeared. But, then, that position runs up against Christ’s (1) guarantee that “the gates of hell would not prevail against” His Church, (2)the giving to Peter of the Keys of the Kingdom, and (3) promise, that through the bestowal upon the Church of the Holy Spirit, that He would lead the Church into “all truth.”


  5. If Protestants ought to accept the authority of the Church (meaning the current Catholic Church) due to the selection of the New Testament canon in the early centuries of the church, shouldn't all Christians accept the authority of the Jewish rabbis due to the selection of the Old Testament canon (also considered authoritative by Christians) by the pre-Christian Jews?

  6. I like Jeff Henderson's answer! I was kind of using "Luther" as a synechdoche for "Protestants".

    And Stephen, my idea wasn't that Protestants ought to become Catholics (after all, I'm not one!), but what's to stop all of them from, say, using the Pali Canon as an important scripture? (And I think that would be a good thing!)

  7. Anonymous6:30 PM

    Letting the one true church determine the canon does not fix the problem. The Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church have different canons. They are both the "one true church", so you would need some way to decide between them in order to decide which canon to use.

  8. Not if you're Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox you don't! (In other words, you've decided canon by your choice of church.)

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