Now I come from Luther’s discussion with the Roman church,. . Erasmus, and Thomas Muenzer, to Luther’s doctrines themselves. There I am starting with the principle of biblicism which is attributed to Luther. Whenever you see a monument representing Luther, you will always find that he is represented with the Bible in his hands. This is a little misleading, and the Catholic church is right when it says that there was biblicism in the whole Middle Ages – and I have emphasized that in this class very often; the biblicistic attitude is especially strong in the late Middle Ages immediately preceding the Reformation. And in a Catholic nominalist theologian such as Ockham, we have already a radical criticism of the Church by the Bible.
Nevertheless in Luther the biblical principle means something else. What did it mean before? In the nominalistic theology of people like Ockham, it meant the law of the Church, which may be turned against the actual Church but which remains a law. And on the other hand, we have the Renaissance relationship to the Bible, in which the Bible is the source book of the true religion, to be edited by good philologians such as Erasmus. These were the two attitudes – the legal attitude in nominalism, the doctrinal attitude in humanism. But neither of these was able to break through the fundamentals of the Catholic system, which are anyhow the system of the law. Therefore only a new principle of the understanding of the Bible was able to break through the nominalistic and humanistic doctrines.
Luther had many of these elements in himself. He valuated the philological edition of the New Testament by Erasmus; he often falls back into nominalistic attitudes of a legalistic character in connection with the doctrine of inspiration, that every word of the Bible is inspirated by the dictate of God. This happened to him again and again, and especially when he had to defend a doctrine as in the case of the Lord’s Supper, where a literal interpretation of the biblical word seemed to support his point of view. But beyond this he had something which is quite different from all this, and which brings his interpretation of the Bible in unity with, his new understanding of the relationship to God. I can make this clear when I speak of the word of God.
Now you don’t hear any term more often – in Lutheran traditions here and in Europe, and in Neo-Lutheran Reformation tradition, as in Barth, and others – than the term “word of God.” Now if you hear this term, then you hear a term which is more misleading than you can perhaps realize. In Luther himself it has at least six different meanings. But let’s go to the first one which is of importance, namely the relationship to the Bible.
Luther said – but he knew better – that the Bible is the word of God; but he often said, when he really wanted to express what he meant, that in the Bible there is the word of God, the message of the Christ, and His work of atonement, His creation of the forgiveness of sins, and salvation. He makes it very clear, when he says, it is the message of the Gospel, which is in the Bible; and therefore the Bible contains the word of God. But he also says: The message existed before the Bible, namely, in the preaching of the Apostles. And as Calvin says, later, Luther says that the writing which led to the books of the Bible was an emergency situation; it was necessary, but it was emergency. Therefore only the religious content is important; the message is an object of experience. “If I know what I believe, I know the content of the Scripture, since the Scripture does not contain anything except Christ.” The criterion of Apostolic truth is the Scripture, and the standard of what is truth in the Scripture is whether they deal with Christ and His work. (ob sie Christum treiben) , i. e., whether they deal with, or concentrate on, or drive toward Christ. And only those books contain powerfully and Spiritually the word of God which deal with Christ and His work.