Luther Against the Neo-Orthodox on Inerrancy

Many modern interpreters debate Luther’s doctrine of inerrancy: they argue that Luther held a position later associated with Neo-orthodoxy (e.g., Karl Barth). Luther, it is said, did not hold to a view of verbal-plenary inspiration nor of an inerrant text. For Luther, it is claimed, the form of Scripture was not inerrant and authoritative: inerrancy was an attribute of the Word of God, which is not the text but Christ acting upon one reading the text (Barth 2013, 436) or hearing a sermon (Wengert 2013, 19). Alternatively, inerrancy referred to Christ alone as the subject matter of Scripture (Rogers 1983, 204). There is a certain plausibility to these interpretations, for Luther makes various claims such that Scripture is only secondarily a written book (Luther 1997, 1:44, 357) and that Scripture teaches nothing but Christ (Luther 1997, 1:358). Yet, we can acknowledge these statements without rejecting Luther’s clear statements regarding the inerrancy and authority of each word and all the content of Scripture: for Luther, all Scripture refers to Christ, but in doing so it makes inerrant claims about other things, such as history and geography (Woodbridge 1982, 53). As to the secondary nature of written Scripture, Luther frequently teaches that Scripture is intended for application, to be preached and taught in relation to the hearers’ experiences; the written nature of Scripture was, therefore, a historical necessity in order that God’s revelation to the apostles could continue to speak throughout the ages without corruption (e.g., Luther 1997, 1:357; 1974, 1:462).

Works Cited

Barth, Hans-Martin. 2013. The Theology of Martin Luther. Fortress.

Luther, Martin. 1997. Sermons by Martin Luther: Volume 1; Sermons on Gospel Texts for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Edited by John Nicholas Lenker. Vol. 1. AGES Bible Software.

———. 1974. First Lectures on the Psalms I: Psalms 1-75. Edited by Hilton C. Oswald. American Ed. Vol. 1. Luther’s Works 10. Concordia.

Rogers, Jack B. 1983. “The Church Doctrine of Biblical Authority.” In The Authoritative Word, edited by Donald K. McKim. Eerdmans.

Wengert, Timothy J. 2013. Reading the Bible with Martin Luther. Baker Academic.

Woodbridge, John D. 1982. Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal. Zondervan.

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