Theological hobbyists of a hyper-Catholic sort continue to misconstrue Luther’s “errors.” Oh, I hardly think he was error-free, but (having recently been one) I know Lutherans who pretty much think he was essentially infallible. But I also know Catholics (me having recently become one) who are of the opinion he was devilish at best and, at his worst, out to destroy the Church.

Neither extreme will do, yet examples keep coming. I just ran across one by a respected lay Catholic blogger, one who is also a friend, so I won’t include links to the page. I want to preserve some feeling here.

Among the assertions was that Luther referred to the Letter of James as an “epistle of straw.” Yes, he did, once.

In his original preface introducing James in his German translation of the Bible, Luther said exactly that. He complained the book wasn’t Christological and therefore possibly not Apostolic. He had good company.

As late as AD 325, James was among six “disputed” books in Eusebius’s The Church History (2 Peter, Jude, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation). While James may be read almost as a parody of St. Paul, in the same preface Luther nonetheless noted it had many good sayings, adding, “I praise it and hold it a good book.” The “straw” remark was removed by Luther in subsequent editions.

The blog post also said that Luther taught that “doing good works was not necessary for salvation.” No, not quite so. Luther taught they were not necessary for “justification” through Christ. There is a difference. Salvation itself is an unmerited gift through the merits of Christ, given exclusively in God’s love. But you might want to say thank you.

There’s good works—tending to your neighbor and family, for instance. Our works then become a thankful response to God’s love received in faith. Good works are the fruit of a justifying faith. After a couple decades or more of formal dialogue discussing the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ, Lutherans and Catholics officially declared the issue was no longer church dividing.

More “error” follows. Luther “removed” seven books from the Bible? Specifically, as our blogger has it, those are the intertestamental books commonly called the Apocrypha (hidden things) among Protestants and the “second canon” (deuterocanon) among Roman Catholics. For good measure, adds our blogger, Luther also tried to remove James and Revelation, both of which, so the blogger says, “disproved his theology.”

Um, no, he didn’t. Luther made no attempt to “cleanse” the canon, but he did put the intertestamental books in a separate section. In this, he followed St. Jerome and the Jewish canon. The intertestamental books were originally written in Greek. Jerome, like most rabbis, held the opinion that canonical books were only in Hebrew.

Sometime late first century, after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, Hebrew synagogues came to recognize the Hebrew canon as comprised of those books written in Masoretic Hebrew or Aramaic, and  nothing written after Ezra. Jerome thought that was a nifty way to separate (not remove) the Greek books.

So did many of Luther’s opponents. The Council of Trent, voting on April 8, 1546 (24 yes, 15 no, 16 abstain), approved the present Roman Catholic canon including the deuterocanon. This was the first and only time an Ecumenical council acted to stabilize the canon. At other times, it simply coalesced around different lists produced by several churches (Rome among them) and some local councils.

The worst thing Luther ever said about the deuterocanon was that the books could not be “considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.”

Next, the blogger attributes to Luther a sense of guilt for “changing to a ‘faith alone’ theology [that] allowed him to absolve himself of responsibility for his sins.” That’s the trouble with a blog; it really doesn’t permit one to draw out the nuance of history or theology, both of which can be incredibly messy and weirdly conflicted.

Besides that, it is even more fraught to psychoanalyze historical figures from a distance of five hundred years. Nonetheless, our blogger has it neatly wrapped up: According to “many theologians” (though more of Eric Erikson’s Young Man Luther, I suspect), guilt propelled Luther to invent a doctrine to “correct” the Church and absolve himself of sin.

Though it was a guilt-haunted era (what else made indulgences a booming business?), it is truer to say that Luther sought the heart of Christ and found it in St. Paul quoting Habakkuk:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith: as it is written, “But the righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

Here is Pope Benedict XVI on the subject, from his speech in Germany on September 23, 2011:

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of [Luther’s] whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ, who is both true God and true man.

Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.

Russell E. Saltzman is book review editor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.

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