Taken from this paper on Luther's exegesis of Genesis 3...
The meaning is in the Scriptures, not conferred on them
Rescuing Scripture from the Magisterium
In Luther's commentary on Genesis he stands against the tradition at key points. First, we will note this issue of 6-day creation:
Therefore it is necessary to understand these days as actual days, contrary to the opinion of the holy fathers. Whenever we see that the opinions of the fathers are not in agreement with Scripture, we respectfully bear with them and acknowledge them as our forefathers; but we do not, on their account, give up the authority of Scripture… Human beings can err, but the Word of God is the very wisdom of God and the absolutely infallible truth.
He highlights disagreement with the Vulgate on 3:1 but far more strongly on 3:15:
‘How amazing, how damnable that through the agency of foolish exegetes Satan has managed to apply this passage, which in fullest measure abounds in the comfort of the Son of God, to the Virgin Mary! For in all the Latin Bibles the pronoun appears in the feminine gender: “And she will crush.” Even Lyra, who was not unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, is carried away by this error as by a swollen and raging torrent.’
Luther is unhappy in general with the interpretation of 3:15 in history:
‘[this text] should be very well known to everybody… [yet it] was not expounded by anyone carefully and accurately so far as I know… I am speaking of the ancient ones, who are held in esteem because of their saintly life and their teaching. Among these there is no one who adequately expounded this passage.’
Perhaps then Luther had not read Irenaeus on this. (cf Adv. Her. V.16.3.) But of course, the Scriptures themselves provided him with great support for such a stand: Genesis 22:18; Habakkuk 3:13; Romans 16:20; Galatians 3:16; 4:4.
Ever since his revolution on Romans 1:17, Luther determined to prefer the plain testimony of the Word to the authority of the fathers. In opposition to Eck at Leipzig in 1519, Luther proclaimed: ‘a layman who has Scripture is more than Pope or council without it.’
The logic for this is clear – the Church does not beget Scripture, but Scripture begets the Church. From this the doctrine of sola Scriptura formed one of the true distinctives of Reformation theology. Scripture alone interprets Scripture. Clearly Luther listened to the tradition (as the above quotes testify) yet in order to treat Scripture according to its true nature it must have the supremacy.
While this is one of Luther’s greatest triumphs, it also opened the door to unresolved doubt over the canon of Scripture. As Farrar notes, Luther’s views on the canonicity of various books is uneven to say the least. He claims that while John’s gospel, Romans and 1st Peter are ‘the right kernel and marrow of all books’, Jude is unnecessary, second-hand, and non-apostolic and James is a ‘right strawy epistle’ which flatly contradicts Paul. Luther saw Job as a ‘drama in the glorification of resignation’ and that while all the prophets built on the one foundation (Christ), some built only with hay, and stubble!
On Genesis 3:15, Luther allows himself to feel the force of an objection to its Gospel content. Luther admits that if the challenge were true then ‘Christ would be nothing, and nothing could be proved about Christ by means of this passage.’ For Luther, the integrity of the Scriptures is guaranteed by their proclamation of Christ:
‘There is no doubt that all the Scripture points to Christ alone’ (WA, 10:73);
‘All of Scripture everywhere deals only with Christ’ (WA, 46:414);
‘That which does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if a Peter or a Paul taught it.’ (quoted in Farrar, p335)
‘In the words of Scripture you will find the swaddling clothes in which Christ lies. Simple and little are the swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies in them’ (LW, 35:236).
If Christ were not proclaimed in Genesis we can infer that Luther would have considered the book at least sub-Christian and therefore sub-canonical.
‘This is the true touchstone by which all books are to be judged, when one sees whether they urge Christ or not.’
Thus, in considering this issue of the canon and sola Scriptura, Luther brings sola fides and, most significantly, solus Christus into the centre where it belongs. The meaning of the Scriptures is in them if by that we mean that their meaning is not externally conferred by pope or council. But in a deeper sense, the meaning of the Scriptures is outside them since the meaning is Christ - to Whom the Scriptures alone bear witness.
The Church cannot stand above the Bible (as happens either with the Roman magisterium or with modern historical-critical scholars). However it is not as though the power of authentication lies in any inherent qualities within the Scriptures. Rather, because they ‘urge Christ’ they are authoritative. He is the One who stands above the Scriptures and guarantees their authoritative character.
The Bible must be considered as witness to Christ (John 5:39) and only then does it have the self-authenticating power which it claims for itself as God’s Word.
More on this next time...