February 5, 2014

What was Martin Luther's theology of the Word of God?

Luther sought to make the Word of God the starting point and the final authority of his theology. As a professor, the Bible was for him of paramount importance, and it was in it that he found an answer to his anguished quest for salvation. But this does not mean that he was a rigid biblicist.

What he understood by the Word of God was more than the writing of the Bible. In its primary sense the Word of God is nothing other than God. This is supported by the first verses of the Gospel of John where it is written that, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The Bible itself declares that, strictly speaking, the Word of God is none other than God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us, therefore, when God speaks we are not simply given information.

Also, and above all, God acts. This is what is meant in the book of Genesis when the Word of God is a creating force, God said, “let there be light and there was light.” When God speaks that which is uttered is also created. God’s Word, besides telling us something, does something in us and in all creation. That creative and powerful word was incarnate in Jesus who is both God’s greatest revelation and God’s greatest action.

In Jesus, God was revealed to us, and also in Jesus, God overcame the powers of evil that had us in subjection. God’s revelation is also God’s victory. So, for Luther, the Word of God is actually a spoken word, it is first and foremost a spoken word. And when that Word is spoken to us, it enters our ears and it resides in our hearts and so for Luther the Gospel is primarily and in its first instance a spoken word.

Luther loved to talk about the deus dixit, “the God who speaks,” for even as God spoke creation into being, so he speaks us into renewed relationship with himself. He puts the old to death and raises the new up to life and this is done and accomplished by the Word of God.

Luther in his little treatise What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels says that the Gospel is primarily a spoken word and we only have the written word because we might forget the spoken word, so the written word is written down for us. So the Gospel, in the first instance, is a living word.

The Bible is the living Word, because in it Jesus the Word incarnate comes to us. Any those who read the Bible and somehow do not find Jesus in it have not encountered the Word of God. And this is the reason why Luther, while insisting on the final authority of Scripture, could make deprecating comments about parts of it. The Epistle James, for example, seemed to him “a right strange epistle,” because he could not find the Gospel in it, but only a series of rules of conduct.

The Book of Revelation also caused him difficulty. He, in commenting on the book, says that “it is not altogether revealing, its symbols seem to be really quite confusing.” On the other hand, later on in his preface to the Book of Revelation, later on in his career, he says very positive things about the Book of Revelation, because as he was experiencing life and as he continued to delve into Scripture he began to see that he was living in the end times and so that Word really came alive to him.

We need to recognize that the notion that the Word of God is Jesus Christ himself allowed Luther to respond to the main objections Catholics raised to his doctrine of the authority of Scripture over the Church. They argued that since it was the Church that determined which books to be included in the Canon of Scripture it was clear that the Church had authority over the Bible. Luther responded that it was neither the Church that had made the Bible nor the Bible that had made the Church, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ that had made both the Bible and the Church. Final authority rests neither in the Church nor in the Bible, but in the Gospel, in the message of Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate Word of God.

Since Scripture gives a more trustworthy witness to that Gospel than the Pope’s corrupt Church or even the best in Christian tradition, the Bible has authority over church, Pope, and tradition. This is so, even though it is also true that in the early centuries of Christianity, it was the church that recognized the Gospel in certain books, but not in others, and thus determined the actual content of the Bible.