Monday, March 19, 2007

Luther and the Antilegomena

Update 03/26/2007: I had originally thought to include the material on which books of the canon had been questioned here as an update. But the more I've reviewed the material, the more I've realized that if I'd like to do a thorough job it will have to become its own post, and that if I want the material not to overwhelm this piece, likewise, it will have to be separated into its own post. That's aside from the fact that the material is useful for other reasons, not the least of which is reviewing the lists of books which "almost made it but didn't" to show that the books often quoted by the modern conspiracy theorists weren't even on those lists and simply never had any standing in the church. So as time permits I will put together a separate post on the books which were borderline (barely in or barely out of the canon).

Back to the original post:
I was going to save this post for next weekend, but as I'm already receiving questions on the material in the comments section to the post below, I'll set forward the post now. It's not quite as finished as I'd like, but it should get to the points in question. I've left in some parenthetical comments on the parts I'd intended to fill out before I published; I still would hope to get to those before the weekend.

What are the "antilegomena"?
The antilegomena are books that were disputed during the process of canonizing the books of the Bible. The majority of the books of both the Old Testament and the New Testament were never disputed. However, several of the books were disputed. For example, in the Old Testament, Esther is among the antilegomena, as is Song of Solomon. In the New Testament, Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Revelation of John were at times either spoken against, or accepted with reservations, or omitted from some canonical lists, or noted as accepted only in some localities in the early church. (Given time, I'd intended to add the history of which books had sustained which objections; in case of updates, check here.)

The Open Questions of Erasmus
Some readers may already be familiar with the translation work done by Erasmus, important as it was in the Middle Ages. His lasting legacy includes the decisions as to texts made during the course of the translation, most famously Erasmus' decision to include 1 John 5:7. Readers may be less familiar with the fact that Erasmus raised questions about the status of the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation in his Annotationes to his 1516 Greek New Testament. (Given time, was intending to chase down a more precise content of his comments.)

How did Luther treat the antilegomena?
Luther, like Erasmus slightly before him, took the witness of the early church very seriously. I wouldn't want to overemphasize Luther's dependence on Erasmus, since Luther did leave 1 John 5:7 out of his translation which most modern scholars believe was the correct decision; but Luther likewise had reservations about Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. It is fairly easy to find Luther making unfriendly comments towards these books, such as against James because the book does not proclaim the gospel as do Peter and Paul and John, and against Revelation because it reveals so little. In this, Luther used his characteristic "pull no punches" style, leaving friends shaking their heads and enemies with plenty of colorful quotes.

Those who wish to see "Lutheran biases" in his opinions of these four books have not carefully considered the evidence. The very first of Luther's "lesser books" is the book of Hebrews, containing the "Faith Hall of Fame" chapter which was friendly to Luther's own theological views. Still, Luther disputed it along with several others that had found opposition in the early church. Luther's grounds for treating these books was not a difference in his theology, but a difference in how the early church had received them. And, as we have seen, he was not the only translator of his era to have the same reservations.

However, as with the Old Testament Apocrypha, Luther did actually show some restraint when it came time to produce his translation. He included them in his translation of the New Testament and (unlike the Old Testament Apocrypha) did affirm their place in the canon. But he placed them last of the New Testament books, including a note, "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". Then followed Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. By the implication of his comment, these four books would then be less true or less certain, not the chief books of the New Testament, but still books of the New Testament, based on the fact that from ancient times they had a different reputation.

The Modern Church and the Antilegomena
Lutheran theologians, to this day, follow both Luther and the earliest church in treating the antilegomena with more reservation than the books which had always been accepted in the church. The Roman Catholic church today accepts the antilegomena without apparent reservation. This is, again, important to modern disagreements, in particular the faith/works controversies that fueled the Reformation.


Dan923 said...

James and Hebrews obviously
contradict salvation by grace
alone. It requires considerable
invention to harmonize them.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Dan

I only saw your comment tonight. It's possible that you signed up for comment notification so I'll go ahead and reply.

Thing 1: I'm not here to be a "Luther's advocate" so whether he was right or wrong on any given topic isn't something I personally have a stake in.

Thing 2: Luther didn't bother to harmonize with James, but simply noted that the early church didn't use the book of James. (In the early church, there was some concern that the book of James might be heretical. It's why it was among the antilegomena.)

I'm curious, what are your thoughts -- not so much on Luther but on how God's salvation comes to us?

Take care & God bless