History: Martin Luther and the Primacy of Scripture

Statue of Martin Luther in Worms GermanyI did not know much about Martin Luther until I began teaching Christian History. I knew he was credited with helping begin the Reformation, that he nailed a document to a church door challenging some of the Catholic Church’s doctrines and practices, is said to have taught “salvation by faith alone,” and that a major religious group, Lutherans, look to him as their founder. I turns out there is so much more to know about him, his reforms, and his work.

Maybe I should preface the next several articles I write about Luther with the expression, “Credit where credit is due.” I do not agree with everything Martin Luther taught, and there were occasional personal flaws in his character and conduct. But of every person except Jesus, including myself, I would say the same. Yet, Martin Luther was a monumental person who changed the history of Christianity for the better, and we would all benefit by knowing more about the good he did.

So in this first episode, let me briefly present a viewpoint that Martin Luther developed very early as a Bible student and then teacher. It was the basis of his 95 Theses nailed to the Wittenberg Church door in 1517, the core of his defense at his trial at the Diet of Worms in 1521, and served as his compass and guide throughout the rest of his life. This viewpoint was that Scripture, God’s revealed Word, always take precedence over the doctrines and practices of the church, over tradition, and over personal opinion and preference. And what is so amazing to me is he developed this view almost in a vacuum as far as others around him initially holding to the same convictions.

Let me share a few instances where we hear Martin Luther’s convictions on this. These can all be found in Christian History Magazine, Issue 34. A copy of the text of this issue is available on the Christian History Institute website.

  • Dr. Timothy George in his magazine article, “Dr. Luther’s Theology,” describes Luther’s first plain declaration of this principle during the Leipzig Debate with Catholic scholar John Eck in 1519: “He (Eck) forced Luther to admit that popes and church councils could err, and that the Bible alone could be trusted as an infallible source of Christian faith and teaching. Under duress, Luther articulated what would come to be the formal principle of the Reformation: all church teaching must be normed by the Bible.”
  • In 1520 Luther issued a book, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Again Dr. George: “…in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther stated: ‘What is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed.’ Late medieval theologians placed Christian tradition alongside the Bible as a source of church doctrine. Luther emphasized instead the primacy of Scripture.”
  • At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther attended believing he would be given opportunity to explain and debate his views. When he arrived he instead discovered he was on trial! At the end of the proceedings, when the church court demanded he recant his written and spoken words from the previous four years, his response was succinct. “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” (Quoted with footnote giving due credit of source in Wikipedia article)

Many later quotes and stories could be reproduced in a similar vein about Luther’s view of Scripture. But consider that the above references all occurred within four years of his first public questioning of the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice! And he had come to this conviction not by the influence of others, but by his own study and teaching of Scripture as a professor at the University of Wittenberg.

Our image is of a statue of Martin Luther that now stands in Worms, Germany. It is provided in the article on the “Diet of Worms” on Wikipedia.org.

This article is from reprinted Richard Cravy. Please see original for comments.

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