Why a Lutheran Church cannot have an Official Position on the Canon: Lessons from Martin Chemnitz

A generation after Luther, Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586) ably defended true Lutheran doctrine. He helped write the Formula of Concord in the Lutheran Confessions. He also wrote a massive commentary/expose in response to the Council of Trent–Rome’s official reaction to Luther’s teaching. Chemnitz’ extensive Examination on the Council of Trent (5 large volumes in English) is helpful for placing the doctrine of Scripture in context for us today, due to current debates over what is Scripture and what is not the Word of God (Chemnitz’ words follow in bold).

The papists say that Scripture has that authority from the Church, which [the Roman Catholic] Pighius interprets to mean that in some degree the authority of the Church is superior to that of Scripture, since indeed the authority of the Church has imparted canonical authority to certain Scriptures, and especially to those which do not have it of themselves or from their authors.

If a church can authorize Scripture—deciding what books are actually a part of Scripture—then it must logically be above, or superior to, Scripture. You do not authorize or approve what is beneath you, after all.

Others say that the authority of the Church is so far above Scripture that the Church could reject gospels by apostles, such as those written by Matthias, James, Bartholomew, Thomas, Philip, Peter, and Andrew; and again could impart canonical authority to those which were written by Mark and Luke, who were not apostles….

But Scripture cannot be judged like any other book. While it has a textual tradition, in how it came to us, it is of God, wholly and completely, even while clothed human words. Unlike moromism, Christianity is not ahistorical, with books falling from heaven without human intervention, so we do value the testimony of the early church regarding the Scriptures. But no human judgment can make a writing inspired. This requires God’s own Spirit in a unique historical act: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). This inspiration happened through various men—who became instruments, or “penmen,” of Christ, by the Spirit, in various times. So we cannot ignore history, but its reception in the past by men cannot decide what is the Word of God and what is merely human writing. A human reaction does not make a writing inspired by the Holy Spirit—it comes after the actual act of writing.

There are those who do not fear to blaspheme the divinely inspired holy Scripture and say that if the church should withdraw its authority from Scripture, it would not have more value of itself than the fables of Aesop.

The authority of Scripture comes from inspiration—that the source of the words is God Himself. This allows Scripture to decide what is true Christian doctrine when men disagree. The Word of God makes the Church, by creating faith. The leaders of the churches cannot judge what is actually Scripture. The Spirit is given to the believer to recognize His own words, first given to the prophets and apostles. Any other authority cannot be directly God’s, and is therefore inferior, and must be judged by Scripture.

Therefore, Scripture has its pre-eminent authority principally from this that it is divinely inspired, 2 Tim. 3, that is, that it came not by the will of men, but holy men of God spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, 2 Pet. 1. In order that this whole necessary matter may be absolutely certain in the face of all deceptions, God chose certain definite men for writing and ornamented them with many miracles and divine testimonies, so that there would be no doubt that those things which they wrote were divinely inspired.

Man cannot test scientifically for the Spirit, who gave the inspired writings. Their age and human origins (apostolicity) are not the determining factor. Are we are lost in logical circle, if no one can tell us what is the content of the Scriptures? Chemnitz looks to the earliest testimony of the church—not to learn about inspiration–but about the human authors and the credibility of the human men who wrote Scripture.

And as the ancient church in the time of Moses, Joshua and the prophets, so also the primitive church in the time of the apostles, could testify of a certainty as to which Scriptures were divinely inspired, For she had known the authors whom God had commended to the church by special testimonies, for she had known which were those which had been written by them, and from those things which she had received by tradition orally from the apostles she could judge that those things which had been written were the same doctrine which the apostles handed down orally.

This is a very carefully worded argument. The early church, as the original audience of the human writers of Scripture, or very close to it, could judge who was an impostor claiming to be an apostle and who was not, humanely speaking. They also knew what was an original Christian teaching and what did not come from the apostles themselves.

We must actually know the content of Scripture to be able to understand its claims and what it actually says. Too many Christians praise the inspiration and authority of Scripture without actually knowing what it says or using the authority of its words over them in their life and conscience. The confidence we need to hold fast to the teachings of Christ cannot come from man–not experts, academics, scholars, professors, pastors, or church leaders. This would be a false, merely human confidence. We cannot die in trust and confidence if mere men are the authority for our beliefs. Only God gives a Word that we can die for, and know for certain that we will be resurrected, just as Christ Himself was raised from the dead by the Father, in the Spirit.

Therefore, the Scripture has canonical authority principally from the Holy Spirit by whose impulse and inspiration it was produced, Secondly, from the writers to whom God Himself showed definite and special testimonies of the truth. Afterward, it has authority from the primitive church, as from a witness in whose time those things were written and approved.

We do not judge God or His Word, nor can a church. Yet, we respect history, and Scripture is a real human word, in addition to being God’s own Word. So the Scriptures, after their initial inspiration, are historical documents. We humbly receive what has been passed down, considering the testimony of the earliest Christians, but none of these can make human writing God’s Word. Only inspiration gives God’s authority to a writing. And God does not need our stamp of approval to speak His Word. The fact that the early Church received the Scriptures, is necessary, but not sufficient. If the early church universally case doubt on a human author or the historical facts of a book, then that would cast doubt on it’s historical authenticity–since God has not promised continuing revelations. But only God can authenticate His own inspired Word.

[It is asked] whether the church which succeeded that primitive and most ancient church or the church of the present can make authentic those writings which in this way have been rejected and disapproved, And manifestly it cannot.

The early church testimony carries more weight than modern opinions. The first witnesses knew more about the human authors of Scripture than we do. Living experts, despite their high opinions of themselves, have no special authority or spiritual weight, but that which is from the Scriptures themselves.

Pighius replies that the Church has the authority that it can impart canonical authority to certain books which do not have it of themselves or from their authors.

But the Church is formed by the Word—not the other way around. The Word makes Christians, who follow Christ. Christ’s voice cannot be authenticated by any expert witness, even entire church bodies, without sinning by judging God and His Word. So while there is great value in historical witnesses, only God’s Spirit, who wrote it, can authenticate it within the believer’s heart.

But it is absolutely plain from what has been said that the church in no way has that authority, for by the same reasoning it could either reject canonical books or canonize adulterated ones.

Bibles have to be printed with certain books in them, and there is not much controversy today over which books should be in the Bible. Yet, there is debate over certain passages, like the ending of Mark and the account of the adulterous women in Jn. 8. Did the Christians of the generations closer to Jesus doubt them? We don’t have much evidence that they did. The fact that some fallible witnesses ignored a part of the accepted Scripture, or a particular manuscript did not include it, is not the same as denying it is God’s Word. There are other possible explanations.

While is tempting to rely on tradition, and maintain that because my parents, pastor, or a particular printing of the Bible told me it was the Word of God, it must be so–that is not Christian. This approach leans on the human authority (of sinners), instead of God. The authority of your Bible’s publisher is nothing compared to God’s divine authority.

This teaching, that no man may authorize Scripture’s authority, is necessary to maintain the doctrinal basis for Scripture. As God’s own Word, no one may judge Scripture, but it judges all. So we may criticize churches, theologians, leaders, and their positions, with God’s Word–even if you are a simple layman.

To be prepared against critics, we must deal with the real facts of history, since Scripture is in human words and its coming to us has a real, earthly timeline.

The Church does not have the power to make true books out of false ones, or false out of true, out of uncertain and dubious books certain, canonical and legitimate ones, without any documentation which is required for such a thing

We accept the Word of God, which came from the apostles and prophets—and we have valuable testimony to that fact–on the authority of God Himself. It cannot be ultimately based on any human judgment, which can be mistaken. God Himself is the only rock on which we may depend fully.

We can test, to an extent, whether books were from the apostles—though no historical investigation will lead to absolute certainly, but we cannot test whether a book is inspired. To judge Scripture’s inspiration would be to treat it like any other human writing and sit over it in judgment.

The entire dispute depends upon this question, whether it is certain and undoubted that those books over which there is this controversy are divinely inspired Scripture, either published or approved by prophets and apostles who had the divine authority.

Despite the claim that the LCMS has changed its position, thankfully, it never has had a position, nor can it, without denying the very Scriptural principle on which it depends. May you trust in Scripture with a holy and divine authority. Amen. –ed.