A review of Catholic Apologist Gary Michuta’s examination of Luther and the Apocrypha
For many Roman Catholics, no discussion on the canon of Scripture is complete without at least some reference to Martin Luther. In the case of Gary Michuta’s book, Why Catholic Bible Are Bigger (Michigan: Grotto Press, 2007), Luther’s position on the Apocrypha is discussed for twelve pages, and then revisited in an appendix at the end of the book for another ten pages. On the Catholic Answers forum in March 2007, Gary mentioned his forthcoming book was going to include “bombshells” on Luther. Since I have done at least a little research on Luther’s view of the canon, this teaser was enough to prompt me to purchase the book. Gary was kind enough to send me a signed copy.
Michuta’s goal is to demonstrate Luther’s crucial role in the elimination of the Apocrypha from Protestant Bibles. Since Michuta argues Catholics did not add these books to the Bible, perhaps a devious theological reason exists for their extraction. Typical in many Catholic treatments of Luther, heretical motivations from the heart are that which prompted Luther. Michuta states, “Like the Marcionites, Ebionites, and Gnostics before him, Luther’s theological convictions determined what constituted the canonical Scriptures” (p. 252) , and, “Luther is quite literally, guilty of the charge commonly launched against Catholicism by Protestants today. He has, to paraphrase Scripture, ‘[made] void the word of God by [his] own tradition…’ “(p. 253, n.648). Of course, if it is true that Luther did play a role in removing the Apocrypha, and the Apocrypha is not sacred Scripture, a similar type of charge could be leveled against Roman Catholicism: they, like the Mormons, have added to the Word of God. Luther would be owed gratitude for his role in the removal of spurious and burdensome non-biblical books.
Michuta’s section on Luther follows after 244 pages of argumentation that the Apocrypha is indeed sacred Scripture, so his treatment of Luther will have to fit in to what has already been established. This is my main criticism of Gary’s treatment of Luther. He forces the facts to fit his conclusion. As typical of many Luther studies, the facts don’t always fit the way one wants them to, be they Catholic or Protestant. Luther did not arbitrarily remove the Apocrypha. He had particular reasons for placing it in a separate category, and those reasons were not simply based on his subjective opinion. Luther expressed both historical and theological reasons, following in the tradition of some of the great Biblical scholars that came before him, as well as expressing the same opinions as some of his contemporaries.
Michuta states, “Catholic apologists sometimes claim that Martin Luther removed the Deuterocanonical books from Scripture. This assertion is not entirely true” (p.246). Indeed, some Catholic apologists do mistakenly claim Luther took Apocryphal books out of the Bible, like Jimmy Akin, who stated Luther “cut” 2 Maccabees out of his Bible (Akin, Defending the Deuterocanonicals). This assertion though is entirely true: Luther translated and included the Apocrypha in his German Bible, as did many Bibles after Luther’s. Gary attempts to argue that despite this, Luther introduced “certain innovations which were the culmination of a process of development within Luther’s theology“(p.246). This was the impetus for their eventual removal. For Michuta, Luther accepted the Apocrypha as sacred Scripture up until 1518, and then, because of his ever-developing theology, began denying it in 1519, eventually culminating in the Apocrypha receiving non-canonical status in his translation of the Bible.
Did Luther Accept The Canonicity Of The Apocrypha Prior To 1519?
Michuta begins his historical treatment of the Reformer’s seeming acceptance of the Apocrypha by stating, “…it appears that Luther did not always consider the Deuterocanon to be mere apocrypha. In at least one of his early controversies, he appears to have used the Deuterocanon as Scripture in its fullest sense” (pp. 247-248). Michuta posits Luther “freely quoted” from Sirach and Tobit against his Catholic opponents in 1518, and did so in a way that proves he considered both of these books canonical.
Michuta doesn’t provide either Apocryphal citation from Luther. The quotation from Sirach though is easy enough to find. In Luther’s Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, expounding on those who trust in letters of indulgence for salvation, Luther states, “They dare to expound this monstrous doctrine without shame in order to take away from men the fear of God and through indulgences hand them over to the wrath of God, contrary to the word of that wise one who said, ‘Do not be without fear concerning the propitiation for sin’ [Sirach 5:5], and of the Psalmist, ‘Who understands his faults?’ [Ps. 19:12]” (LW 31:208-209). Here, Luther refers to Sirach as “that wise one.” This usage is actually quite consistent with Luther’s general opinion and citations from Sirach throughout his career. In 1533 in his Preface to the Book of Jesus Sirach, Luther states, “the ancient fathers did not include this one among the books of sacred Scripture, but simply regarded it as the fine work of a wise man. And we shall let it go at that,” and also “This is a useful book for the ordinary man”[LW 35:347].
One finds Luther “freely quoting” from Sirach and many of the Apocryphal books throughout his career. That he quoted from them in 1518 does not prove he thought any of them canonical. One could pull many quotes from Luther throughout his career that similarly neither affirm nor deny their canonicity, nor consider the point one way or the other. For instance, even towards the end of his life, Luther included citations of Sirach in his lectures on Genesis.
What Gary should have done, was actually refer to Luther’s specific treatment of the Apocrypha in Luther’s Works. Luther included a number of pages specific to his understanding of the Apocrypha, and his reasons for denying their canonicity. Gary would have found that Luther’s writings are fairly consistent with the overviews he gives to these spurious books. One would think, in the twenty+ pages of discussing Luther’s view of the Apocrypha, Mr. Michuta would actually refer to those writings in which Luther writes specifically about his position on the Apocrypha…but he does not! I find it suspicious that a book outlining the views of the most important theologians in regard to the Apocrypha would not consult the primary material to establish the view of a particular historical person. From Michuta’s selected bibliography, he appears to only have used the older six-volume Philadelphia edition of Luther’s Works, which doesn’t include Luther’s prefaces to the Apocrypha. This set isn’t in print any longer, while the current 55 volume set of Luther’s Works is readily available in many college libraries, and also available on an affordable CD-ROM.
The Leipzg Debate: Did Luther Reject 2 Maccabees Because of Purgatory?
Luther’s “career moves” of 1519 are apparently some of the “bombshells” Michuta alluded to in March 2007. He discusses Luther’s debate with Johann Eck during that year. During the debate, a discussion arose on Purgatory. According to Michuta, “Eck appealed to 2 Maccabees 12:46 as a clear and incontestable proof from Scripture that Purgatory exists.” Gary states, “Luther refused to allow Maccabees into the argument” (Michuta, pp. 248-249), and “This denial of canonical status [of 2 Maccabees] was something new” (p.250). Michuta posits, “Consequently, Maccabees could never be allowed full canonical authority because it contradicts Luther’s theology” (p.252). “Luther taught that Scripture alone is the highest and ultimate authority for the individual Christian. When confronted with Scripture that contradicted his theology (as he was with 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, used as a defense of Purgatory), Luther took advantage of the doubts raised by Jerome to deny that ancient book’s full canonical weight” (p.309). One can see the picture of Luther being painted: the only way to get out of Eck’s scriptural argument for proof of purgatory was to deny that the scriptural proof was truly Scripture!
A major problem though, is that Luther went into this debate with Eck affirming the reality of Purgatory (though with reservations). If one actually checks the points Luther wished to defend, theses six states, “Perhaps the souls in purgatory do render satisfaction for their sins. it is brazen rashness, however, to assert that God demands more of a dying person than a willingness to die since in no way can this assertion be proven” [LW 31:317]. Theses nine states, “We are familiar with the assertion of would-be theologians that souls in purgatory are certain of their salvation and that grace is no longer increased in them; but we marvel at these very learned men that they can offer the uneducated no cogent reason for this their faith” [LW 31:318]. Ewald Plass points out,
“When in 1518 [Luther] further explained his fifteenth thesis, he remarked: ‘I am very certain that there is a purgatory,’… In the Leipzig debate of the following year purgatory was discussed at length…Luther there said he knew that there is a purgatory. The dispute was about the nature of the institution rather than its existence. The ‘orthodox’ Romanists contended for the meritorious character of the purging. But increasingly Luther could find no room for this figment in Scripture theology. By November 7, 1519, he had progressed far enough to write to Spalatin: ‘It is certain that no one is a heretic who does not believe that there is a purgatory,’ although he had still professed to believe in its existence in February of that year. In fact, also in the following year in 1520, he still holds to it. But thereafter his language becomes different until…he calls it a fabrication of the devil” [Plass, What Luther Says Volume 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), p. 387-388 n.25].
So the typical Catholic argument that Luther had to deny the canonicity of 2 Maccabees at Leipzig in order to maintain his belief in the non-existence of purgatory fails. Luther at this point still believed in purgatory. On the Catholic Answers forum, Michuta stated, “Luther was forced to reject (or down-grade) the authority of Maccabees because its meaning unmistakably affirmed Purgatory and all that goes along with it.” One must question the motivation applied to Luther by Mr. Michuta in light of the fact that Luther had not yet denied purgatory.
One interesting fact that Mr. Michuta brings forth is a comment of Luther’s directed toward Eck: “There is no proof of Purgatory in any portion of sacred Scripture, which can enter into the argument, and serve as a proof; for the book of Maccabees not being in the Canon, is of weight with the faithful, but avails nothing with the obstinate” (Michuta, p. 249). What exactly is meant by “is of weight with the faithful, but avails nothing with the obstinate”? The “faithful” could mean those like Eck, devoted to Rome and its teaching on Purgatory. Of course it has weight with them. But for those who are “obstinate”, or those who hold this book is not canonical, it will not avail, nor could it ever be of use, or be used to prove a Biblical doctrine. Or, Luther could simply mean that Maccabees, though not canonical, is profitable and good to read, but can’t be used to establish doctrine. Either way, Luther denies the canonicity of 2 Maccabees, and does so while still affirming belief in purgatory. I tend to think Luther meant the later.