Luther on the “Center” of Scripture – an Excerpt from The Christian Faith

Cover ArtThe following is an excerpt from The Christian Faith, by Hans Schwarz.

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Martin Luther found a way that we can still pursue today. On the one hand, he emphasized Scripture alone. But he did not view everything in Scripture as on the same level; instead, he distinguished between the center and the periphery.

Unbeknownst to him, he went back to that which had led to the formation of the canon. We remember that most important Scriptures were first accepted into the canon, and then gradually those that were more on the fringe. In determining what was at the center, Luther started with that which had led to the formation of the New Testament Scriptures, namely, the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ, or as Luther said, the writings that “inculcate [treiben] Christ.”

That which proclaims Christ most clearly is central; that which proclaims Christ less clearly moves toward the periphery; and that which does not proclaim Christ at all, Luther argued, does not belong in the canon. Therefore Luther was very harsh concerning the Letter of James because, as Luther asserted, this letter preaches the law and does not mention Christ’s teachings even once.

With this hermeneutical principle Luther could be very open to the tradition as long as it proclaimed Christ. He often referred to the church fathers, and especially to Augustine, not just because Luther had once been an Augustinian monk, but because Augustine emphasized that we have a future beyond this life only by grace and not through our own merits.

This shows that for Luther the proclamation of Christ includes the affirmation that Christ offers salvation through grace alone. The apocryphal gospels, which often depict Jesus as a powerful miracle worker but are less interested in the salvation of humanity, have no right to be considered as proclamations of the gospel. Therefore they were not received into the canon.

©2014 by Hans Schwarz. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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