In the controversy that followed the posting of Luther’s 95 theses in 1517, it is readily apparent Luther and his opponents are vast distances from one another on the question of interpretive authority. Luther’s opponents agreed with him on the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture (the nature of being free from error) and its authority, but differed on the authority by which Scripture was to be interpreted. The first Papal Bull declaring Luther’s teachings heretical or spiritually unhealthy was distributed in 1520 (Exsurge Domine); the refutation relied not on Scripture but on the tradition and councils as independent authorities and the preeminent, authoritative, interpreters of Scripture.1
Throughout his career, Luther maintained that he was open to refutation from Scripture, as he famously declared at the Diet of Worms; yet in the Papal Bulls issued against him and the debates in which he engaged, there is a glaring absence of arguments against his position that are rooted in appeals to Scripture. In their stead are appeals to the authority of the councils and tradition. In the Papal Bull Decet (1521), excommunicating Luther, Pope Leo maintained that “Our previous instructions [cf. Exsurge] were so clear and so effectively publicised and we shall adhere so strictly to our present decrees and declarations, that they will lack no proof, warning or citation”; this effectively excommunicated Luther on the authority of the Pope expressed in the previous Bull and its supporting appeals to the Councils, specifically the condemnation of Hus at Constance.
Against these appeals to the interpretive and normative authority of the Church as expressed through the councils, tradition, and Pope, Luther maintained that the inerrant Scriptures alone were a Christian’s primary authority. That is, Luther maintained that each word of the Bible was God’s Word and that Scripture bore His authority and truthful character: all teachings of the Church were to be subject to the measure of Scripture. Whereas the Fathers erred, “The Word of God is perfect: it is precious and pure: it is truth itself. There is no falsehood in it” (in Godfrey, 227). “One letter, even a single tittle of Scripture, means more to us than heaven and earth” (in Woodbridge, 53). Therefore, writes Luther, “I am willing to put confidence in [the Fathers] only so far as they give me proofs for their opinions out of the Scriptures, which never yet have erred” (Luther 1997a, 12).2 As we see here, Luther’s first argument for biblical authority is from inerrancy: if something is to function as a primary authority, it must be free from error—it must not require external verification. For Luther, it was clear that the Fathers and councils were full of errors, thus their needed to be another standard by which they could be tested (Luther 1960a, 150). Scripture, as God’s very word, is free from error (Woodbridge, 53); therefore, Scripture functions as the standard by which all relevant claims can be measured. For Luther, inerrancy did not require the reconciliation of all potential tensions or apparent contradictions. Though he attempted harmonisations in various places, he did not believe that the absence of a plausible harmonization endangered this doctrine: he was consistent in believing that Scripture, as God’s authoritative word, was above reproach and that a resolution to difficulties existed even if it was beyond man’s grasp (Luther 1997, 1:340; 2003, 315-317).
For support, Luther turned to Augustine: “Herein I follow the example of St. Augustine, who was, among other things, the first and almost the only one who determined to be subject to the Holy Scriptures alone, and independent of all the fathers and saints” (Luther 2015, 4:481). He quotes Augustine to this effect, “I have learned to do only those books that are called the Holy Scriptures the honour of believing firmly that none of their writers have ever erred. All others I so read as not to hold what they say to be the truth unless they prove it to me by Holy Scripture or clear reason” (in Wood, 125).
However, lest he betray his own position, Luther does not argue for this doctrine with such quotes from the Fathers but with appeals to Scripture. Noteworthy in this regard, he appeals to Titus 1:14 and Galatians 1:8-9, arguing that all teachings must be measured by Scripture and no teaching that diverges from the Scriptures—no matter its source—should be accepted (Luther 1960a, 144). From 1 Thessalonians 5:21, he argues that the believer has the responsibility to “prove all things; [to] hold fast that which is good” (Luther 1997, 1:331; 1997b, 257). Yet against these claims, Luther’s opponents raised another objection: though Scripture is authoritative, it is obscure and unclear, there needs to be some external arbiter of interpretation. Luther, however, was not without an answer: to sustain his claim that Scripture functioned with primary authority in the Church, he argued that it was completely clear.
1 Exsurge Domine: [Error #29:] A way has been made for us for weakening the authority of councils, and for freely contradicting their actions, and judging their decrees, and boldly confessing whatever seems true, whether it has been approved or disapproved by any council whatsoever….…Now Augustine maintained that [the Church’s] authority had to be accepted so completely that he stated he would not have believed the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church had vouched for it. For, according to these errors, or any one or several of them, it clearly follows that the Church which is guided by the Holy Spirit is in error and has always erred. This is against what Christ at his ascension promised to his disciples (as is read in the holy Gospel of Matthew): “I will be with you to the consummation of the world”; it is against the determinations of the holy Fathers, or the express ordinances and canons of the councils and the supreme pontiffs. Failure to comply with these canons, according to the testimony of Cyprian, will be the fuel and cause of all heresy and schism.
“Decet Romanum Pontificem.” 1521. Papal Encyclicals. January 3. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo10/l10decet.htm.
“Exsurge Domine.” 1520. Papal Encyclicals. June 15. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo10/l10exdom.htm.
Godfrey, Robert W. 1992. “Biblical Authority in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: A Question of Transition.” In Scripture and Truth, edited by D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge. Baker.
Luther, Martin. 1960a. “Avoiding the Doctrines of Men and a Reply to the Texts Cited in Defense of the Doctrine of Men, 1522.” In Word and Sacrament, edited by E. Theodore Bachmann, American ed. Vol. 1. Luther’s Works 35. Concordia; Fortress Press.
———. 1997. Sermons by Martin Luther: Volume 1; Sermons on Gospel Texts for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Edited by John Nicholas Lenker. Vol. 1. AGES Bible Software
———. 1997a. “An Argument in Defense of All Articles.” In Works of Martin Luther. Vol. 3. AGES Bible Software.
———. 1997b. “Dr. Martin Luther’s Answer to the Superchristian, Superspiritual, Superlearned Book of Goat Emser of Leipzig.” In ibid.
———. 2015. The Annotated Luther, Volume 4: Pastoral Writings. Edited by Mary Jane Haemig. Vol. 4. Fortress.
Wood, A. Skevington. 1969. Captive to the Word. Paternoster.
Woodbridge, John D. 1982. Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal. Zondervan.