July 20, 2019

Thinking About The Canon: A Lutheran View

canonchem.jpgUPDATE: A good and comprehensive collection of information on the various canon lists. Lots of good information.

This second post in our discussion of canonization is from a frequent Internet Monk guest, Lutheran blogger Josh Strodtbeck. Josh will tell us about the Lutheran concept of the Canon, which is quite different from what many may assume.

The 1580 Book of Concord is easily the longest confessional standard coming out of the Reformation, dwarfing the various Reformed statements, the post-Reformation Westminster Standards, and even clocking in at about double the length of the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. So it may surprise you to learn that unlike Trent, Westminster, the 39 Articles, etc, there is no definition of the canon of Scripture in the Lutheran Confessions. This is relevant because between Catholics and Protestants, the canon debate is framed in such away that either you believe in an inerrant Protestant canon of 66 books based on their self-evident, internal witness to their own divine inspiration, or you believe that the infallible Church inerrantly defined the canon, and that it is accepted only on that authority. But as with many theological issues, the Lutheran position takes neither of the supposedly only two possible options without being a synthesis, either.

The Lutheran approach to Scripture begins with faith in Jesus and confession of belonging to the apostolic church. This implies two basic premises:

1. It is the apostolic witness to Jesus that tells us who he is as opposed to secret oral traditions of gnostic communities (thus we accept the four canonical Gospels, and not spurious gnostic texts).

2. “Scripture” is whatever Jesus pointed to as authoritative (which according to the Gospel records is apostolic teaching and the Old Testament).

Now the fact is you have to begin somewhere. So this is where Lutheranism begins, and if you look at the records we have, this is where many in the early Church began as well. The problem is that these two rules don’t immediately define a list of books, but push us to revisit which books are in fact part of this confession. After all, what did Jesus mean by “Scripture?” Which NT books are actually apostolic? Thus the canon is for us primarily a historical question rather than a doctrinal question. But when you look at the early history of the Church, while some NT books are universally attested as apostolic testimony to the Gospel, some, such as Revelation, James, and Philemon, were heavily disputed. There is little evidence that Palestinian Jews in Jesus’ day would have understood the Old Testament Apocrypha to be included when Jesus referred to “Scripture,” and acceptance of these books as divinely inspired by later Christians was hardly universal, even in the century before the Reformation. An authoritative, absolutely reliable, Scripture requires an authoritative, absolutely reliable table of contents, but there is no easy way around the historical question. Rome answers by asserting that the Holy Spirit guided the Council of Trent to vote correctly on the truth, and Protestants tend to look for earlier, divinely guided events
leading to canonization.

The Lutheran approach to this problem is surprising in that we don’t seek to establish such a table of contents. We hold that the lack of definitive historical evidence cannot simply be eliminated by properly consecrated people getting together and taking a Spirit-guided vote, and so there ultimately isn’t anything we can do about it. In other words, no amount of voting, liturgical development, or theological reflection can answer for us whether Hebrews was written by an apostle or at least a close associate. The evidence just isn’t there.

So what’s our answer? Well, go back to that word, “canon.” “Canon” means “rule.” So the point of a canon isn’t to just have some final Table of Contents on which to draw up a dogma and so that we can excommunicate everyone who refuses to stop asking the historical questions, it’s to have a rule of faith for settling doctrinal disputes and the like. Thus the Lutheran approach to the canon is to have a rule of interpretation essentially defined by the certainty to which we can establish a book’s origin:

1. A dogma must be established by the universally attested books (homolegomena).
2. Dogma may be corroborated by the contested books (antilegomena), and they may be read for historical background, advice, and other edifying purposes, but no dogma can be established from the antilegomena alone, nor can the antilegomena be pitted against the homolegomena.

An example of the application of this is that Lutherans will never make some particular interpretation of Revelation a church-defining issue. Yes, we preach from it, write commentaries in it, and read it in our lectionaries, but because the early church witness to the origin of this book is divided, our confessional principles on eschatology are ultimately drawn from the Gospels and Epistles. This principle also leaves the door open to textual criticism, which is why we have no trouble with including the longer ending of Mark in our Bibles or the story of the adulterous woman. Textual criticism is always a problem for people who insist on an inerrant canon of divinely inspired texts. Does your inspired canon of inspired texts include the longer ending of Mark or not?

The conservative principle fuels the Lutheran belief that the entirety of the Gospel is repeated again and again throughout Scripture. While some readers, both Protestant and Catholic, may feel that the conservative principle eliminates their ability to proof-text their favorite doctrines, I challenge you to question yourself along the following lines:

Do I really believe that an essential truth of the Christian faith was only ever referred to by one person in the entirety of the Biblical witness? Do I really believe that a whole multitude of biblical writers were so ineffective and communicating the essential truths of the faith, despite many of them overtly setting out to do this, that only only one writer in one book ever managed to nail it on this issue?

Finally, I would ask the following rhetorical questions: Is not the conservative principle truly the most “catholic” in that it listens to the entirety of the early Church when dealing with the canon rather than trying to vote the first three centuries out of existence, forbids nothing traditionally used by Christians in teaching and worship, and seeks to avoid unnecessarily dividing the Church? Is it not the most “protestant” in that it upholds Scripture as the source and norm of faith and scrupulously avoids establishing binding dogmas upon things that may in fact not be Scripture at all? In my opinion, it is those things and more. I think it is the most manifestly reasonable and unobjectionable approach to Scripture, yet few churches in the world seem to think so.

The Lutheran approach to the canon is expounded in more detail in Volume 1 of Martin Chemnitz’s Examination of the Council of Trent.


  1. Nicholas Anton says


    “Is not the conservative principle truly the most “catholic” in that it listens to the entirety of the early Church when dealing with the canon rather than trying to vote the first three centuries out of existence…”

    Though there is much merit in studying the post apostolic fathers, one must be careful not to place too much emphasis on the trends that were developing in the early church at that time, in that many were more a direct outgrowth of the political climate of the time than a careful following in the footsteps of Jesus as given to us in the Gospels and Epistles.

    Some events that had significant effects on Christian belief and practice;

    1) The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D.

    2) The salvation of the Gentiles.

    3) The disassociation of the church from it’s primitive Jewish roots.

    4) Gnosticism, and overreactions to Gnostic concepts.

    5) Arius.

    Some extra Christ apparitions that immerged as a direct result of the above were;

    A) Institutionalized and formalized hierarchical church government.

    B) Institutionalized and formalized praise and worship.

    Non of the above (A+B) can be deduced from the teachings of Christ and His Apostles alone.

  2. Nicholas Anton: This is not a thread discussing the “institutional” church. On topic or it won’t get past moderation.

  3. Nicholas Anton says


    Most comments are based on a shrouded history of past inferences and statements, many of which are not being articulated or addressed in the present. It seemed to me that there was a discrepancy in what was being expressed in this article versus many statements you had made in the past regarding the ultimate authority of the institutional church in defining the Canon. I erred in not recognizing that the above article was not your own, and that it represents some views to which you may not hold.

    Though I strongly agree with the thesis of the above article in defining the Gospels and Epistles, built on the foundation of the Old Testament, as the basis of our faith and practice, I question many of the early church developments as having been built on that foundation.

    In that the Lutheran statement of faith was a composite of a fragment of a fragmented church, according to the thesis of the article, who then has the final authority to decide “What is Truth”?, the individual believer, the scholar, or the church institution?

  4. I found this, and its consequences, very interesting.

    1. A dogma must be established by the universally attested books (homolegomena).
    2. Dogma may be corroborated by the contested books (antilegomena), and they may be read for historical background, advice, and other edifying purposes, but no dogma can be established from the antilegomena alone, nor can the antilegomena be pitted against the homolegomena.

    And you include Revelation in the latter category. Should I suppose that the “epistle of straw” is also included?

    I don’t wish to paint this blacker than I mean, but it sounds to me like a “two-tier” approach to the Bible. Are all Scriptures equal, but some more equal than others?

  5. I hope this is sufficiently on topic.

    Nicholas, what you say about the post-apostolic fathers can equally be said about any time period
    since then and the theologians which they produced, including the reformers. All of them were influenced to some extent by the political climate, and it is not always easy to determine to what extent. Thus discussions and decisions on the canon by the reformers or others since then are no more reliable than the discussions and decisions of the first three centuries, and thus Josh’s question still stands.

  6. Philip Walker, if you’re going to spit polemics about me about Luther calling James an “epistle of straw,” there will be no discussion.

    However, I will answer your question with another question: If it cannot be proved that a book is apostolic, what business do we have excommunicating anyone over its interpretation as long as we agree concerning the main teaching of the books that are certainly established?

  7. *I should also add that most Protestants have a two tier approach to Scripture as well: Everything highlighted in the footnotes in the Nestle-Aland 4th Edition, the longer ending of Mark, and John’s story of the adulterous woman are treated as questionable material which shouldn’t be used as the sole foundation for doctrine.

  8. Philip,

    I see not so much a two-tier approach to Scripture (a la “Red Letter Bible”) but rather an admission that we are not sure that certain writings are, indeed, Scripture.

    And I don’t see how one could get around that unless one were willing to accept, at least for the NT, the verdict of Trent as authoritative; that of course raises the question why then wouldn’t we accept their verdict for the OT.

    In a sense, of course, the desire to have an undisputed canon in the form of a specific table of contents is as much a desire for a definitive, tangible earthly authority as the desire for an undisputed magisterium in the form of a pope.

    The problem seems to be, how can you have the former without recognizing the authority of the latter.

    Lutherans, recognizing this, seem to conclude that you can do without either.

  9. Patrick Kyle says


    You are correct. It is essentially a two tiered system. Who would argue that the Gospels have no primacy over 3 John or Philemon? Even the ancient Jews placed primacy on the Books of Moses and considered the Prophets and Writings to be commentary on the Torah. This view is attractive to me because it deals with all the variables in an even handed way and brings some sanity to bear on the subject.

  10. Josh–

    I’m intrigued to find out the Lutherans use this approach. It strikes me as the most common-sensical view to take. I was kind of wondering how my own questions of “how do we know they got the canon right?” would be viewed by others. I find it entirely possible that they were mistaken in some cases (in principle), but I’ve seen online that that often gets taken as a Protestant view by Catholics (who hold to the idea that canonization was a divinely inspired process) and a liberal view by some Protestants (who hold to certain forms of inerrancy).

    I’m a scientist, and I keep thinking of this in terms of observational data and our attempts to understand a physical law from them. In this case, the books of the Bible are our data points. The collecting of the data was carried out over many years through Church history, and we have access to much of their analyses and procedures: debates over provenance, authenticity, authorship, and so on. If we don’t hold to a divinely-guaranteed list, then we should be able to revisit the debates today, if we need to. Like a scientist reviewing another’s work, we can look at how the earlier work was done and correct mistakes, if we’ve really found them.

    For those who say that without believing in a divine guarantee of perfect knowledge of the canon, that we can’t know anything in religion: we operate in physics without “perfect” knowledge of physical laws, but we are able, by our imperfect efforts in experimentation and observation, to establish the laws to greater and greater accuracy. We keep pushing the error bars smaller and smaller.

    We can use the laws we’ve discovered, as long as we keep in mind how much uncertainty we have (the error bars).

  11. Here are some questions/musings that are floating in my mind as a result of reading this and the previous post.

    1. It seems there is a difference between a canon of authoritative books and an authoritative canon of books. If so, which approach is proper to how understand the nature of the canonical books? (HT to Paul Owen at Evangelical Catholicity for this distinction.)

    2. It seems that some sort an authoritative role for the Church in discerning the scope of the canon is unavoidable. That being said, one does not have to fall into the Roman error of an intrinsically infallible magesterium. However, there must be some degree of infallibility just by the very fact that the canon is, well, the canon. Perhaps some sort of consensual/Vincentian Canon approach is the best model?

    2.a There seems to be a kind of symbiosis in the early Church between rule of faith, the liturgy of the Church, the tradition (paradosis) of the Apostles and later Fathers at work in discerning the canonical books (and probably a bunch of other things too). So should the canonical books be seen as embedded in the total life of the Church — in other words they are “Churchy” not “extra Churchy?”

    This is a complex topic — these just some thinking out loud points.


  12. Patrick Kyle says

    Brilliant point.

  13. Fr Peter, the Lutheran approach is essentially the Vicentian approach. Those books attested everywhere, always, and by all are what we use for settling doctrinal disputes. Those books that fail to meet this criteria are used in a subordinate fashion, whether OT or NT. No amount of voting or liturgical popularity can undo the fact that certain books were contested to various degrees in the early Church, and that certain textual traditions we have are unknown in the oldest records. In other words, to use a truly Vicentian approach, “always,” “everywhere,” and “all” must really mean that and not have “until we take a vote” appended to it.

    Anyway, a concrete example might be instructive. Where the conservative Lutheran rule of interpretation would come into play in the case of Jude would be the story of the body of Moses. It’s not unthinkable that in an inerrancy/inspiration fight, a Protestant church body could make the historicity of the dispute between Satan and Michael a litmus test for fellowship, ordination, etc. Likewise, it is not unthinkable that in some future age, the Roman Catholic Church could get over its pathological antipathy toward the Pentateuch, institute a series of cultic rites and feast days dedicated to Moses, including a Feast of the Heavenly Conflict based on the passage in Jude. Some academics may contest this based on textual criticism, and a particular conservative pope might react by promulgating a dogma about said conflict with language damning those who do not believe it, similar to Ineffabilis Deus.

    The conservative hermeneutic effectually prevents this sort of thing from happening. It prevents us from creating binding dogmas without having textual certainty behind them.

  14. Whoa, okay. I wasn’t trying to be polemical.

    I see what you mean about the rest of us having a two-tiered approach; I guess the fact that our “second tier” is smaller is a difference. And that’s a fair question to which I don’t have an answer.

  15. This brings up an interesting question, because fundamentally are we not asking “What in fact is the Word of God?” And by that don’t we mean to ask NOT so much what is the official brand, per se, but “What actually has God spoken and communicated to us. I want to be careful here and not imply some loose goose going into a spiritual atmosphere and thereby hearing “messages” other than what is God’s Word. But isn’t that what we are asking, isn’t that why Luther initially had difficulty with James for example.

    Maybe an example will help. John 3:16 for example, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” We say that’s the Word of God right. But it can be “given” depending upon theological moorings in different ways. The giving of it may be explicit or implied due to the dogma in a “group”, but the point is, is it still the Word of God if not unvarnished?

    E.g. 1 From a double predestinarian format – explicitly spoken or implied it could be stated/understood as: “For God so loved the world (the elect) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

    E.g. 2 From a more arminian format – explicitly spoken or implied it could be stated/understood as: “For God so loved the world (that renders up faith from within) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

    E.g. 3 From a Lutheran format – stated and taken AS IS (take hold of your nose as Luther once said): “For God so loved the world (literally) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

    Here we have one verse from the Word of God, Scripture, but three different “words”, supposedly, from God. What has God actually spoken to us, that HIS WORD.

    This is why I understand why Luther could call at one time James an epistle of straw. Because the central message of Christ and Him crucified did not come from it as it was being interpreted at the time. To me he, Luther, was simply taking Paul seriously in Galatians, “if an angel or apostle…give another gospel…”. And this COULD be and is MOST of the time from the Word of God itself. The devil always twists the real thing.


  16. I appreciate Josh Strodtbeck’s comments on a Lutheran perspective on the canon. Americans too often posit a simplistic Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian dichotomy when discussing theology. There are other voices which we should listen to beside our own heritage or position, whatever that may be. Thanks for the guest post, I found it thought provoking.

  17. James simply has very poor attestation in the earliest centuries, and many of the early 16th century textual critics on both sides of the Reformation/Catholic divide questioned its authenticity. When Luther says that he thinks it’s a Jewish writing someone added a few Christian emphases to, he’s not just making things up because he hates chapter 2. He’s going with the scholarly consensus of his own day.

  18. re: “James simply has very poor attestation in the earliest centuries”

    Forget “poor attestation”. James is the only book that I know of that had the h-bomb (“heretical”) thrown at it before it was added to the canon. Yes, the h-bomb was about the faith/works thing. Marius Victorinus did NOT love the book of James …