Martin Luther on Doctrinal Error
A: I searched my Luther library carefully, discovering that it only approximated these quotes. Perhaps someone possessing either a greater knowledge or a larger library might add more, but what I see sounds like a combination of various references to James 2:10, to which he referred several times, as well as his basic understanding of the unity of Christian theology. If any readers provide more or better information, I’ll gladly include it in a future column.
In the ESV translation, James 2:10 reads, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” I offer a sampling of some of the thirteen quotes or references I found in the 54 volume Luther’s Works, with volume and page numbers in parentheses. In his Lectures on Romans, he cites it in connection with justification by faith, apart from the works of the Law (25:234). It’s part of his rebuke of Erasmus in the 1525 opus The Bondage of the Will (33:44).
[NB: Since my online writing doesn’t struggle to fit the tighter time and space constraints of print publication, I am free to expand my columns and better develop my thoughts. Therefore, the following represents considerable editing and expansion of the closing paragraph that appeared in my original newspaper column.]
In his Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament, he accused those who deny the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood of sinning against all of Scripture (38:311). Luther built his arguments through the earlier pages of the Confession.
Confronting heretics throughout the ages, decrying the damage they do to the totality of Christian doctrine — which he treated as “a perfect ring” — Luther wrote, “The devil cannot be idle. Wherever he instigates one heresy, there he must instigate additional ones, and no error remains alone. If the ring is broken at one point, it is no longer a perfect ring; it no longer holds together and constantly comes apart. (38:307)”
Using his defense of the doctrine of the Real Presence, we gain insight into Luther’s thinking and methodology that helps us also as we make a solid Biblical confession. Therefore, I’ll include extended quotes from Dr. Luther that show how he integrated all orthodox Christian teaching into one unified doctrine, just as he also accepted all of the varying books part of one unified Holy Scripture. In Luther’s mind, all Scripture pointed to Christ, therefore, as Dr. David P. Scaer says, “All theology is Christology.”1
“If someone does not want to believe the article of faith concerning the Lord’s Supper, how will he ever believe the article of faith concerning the humanity and divinity of Christ in one person...? [Y]ou must surely have serious doubts ... about how the infinite and incomprehensible Godhead, who is and must essentially be everywhere, can be bodily enclosed and included in the humanity and in the Virgin’s body, as St. Paul says in Colossians 1 [2:9]: ‘In him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily.’
“And how is it possible for you to believe that the Son alone became man, not the Father or the Holy Spirit, since the three persons are nothing but the one God in a most completely single essence and nature of the one Godhead? How can this be explained? How is it possible that the single, completely perfect Godhead of the Son should divide or separate itself so that at one and the same time it is united with the humanity, and the same single Godhead of the Father and the Holy Spirit is not united with the humanity? Yet it is at the same time one and the same Godhead; one person is in Christ with the humanity, and it is not the Father or the Holy Spirit....
“[The adversaries] will find occasion to explain it, even as I hear they are already vigorously starting to do with Eutychianism and Nestorianism.2 For I thought and also said that they had to arrive at this point. The devil cannot be idle. Wherever he instigates one heresy, there he must instigate additional ones, and no error remains alone. If the ring is broken at one point, it is no longer a perfect ring; it no longer holds together and constantly comes apart. (38:306-307)”
After continuing in this vein, Luther noted that heretics, along with “the Jews” and “the Turks,” all may confess one god, swear on his name, and boast in what they believe. This, he said, is not enough, for “whoever is so bold that he dares to deny God or to accuse him of lying in one word ... also dares ... to deny God in all of his words and to accuse him of lying. For this reason we say that everything is to be believed completely and without exception, or nothing is to be believed. The Holy Spirit does not let himself be divided or cut up so that he should let one point be taught and believed as trustworthy and another as false.... [I]t is characteristic of all heretics that they start by denying one article of the faith; after that, all the articles must suffer the same fate and they must all be denied, just as the ring, when it gets a crack or a chink, is totally worthless. (38:308)”
Luther then turned to “examples from history” to prove his point. Singling out Arius, Maeedonius, and Nestorius, he showed how each started with one error and continued into greater, more complete heresy.
Not only this, they also led others astray. Finally, their evil was compounded by their heirs, as their heresies contributed to “additional heresies ... until the abominable Muhammad emerged. For all history books testify that Muhammad was a product of the Arians, the Macedonians, and the Nestorians to whom he adhered right from the beginning. (38:310)”
1 While Dr. Scaer may have popularized the phrase in Lutheran circles, the thinking is hardly new with him. In the Heidelburg Disputation (1518) Martin Luther wrote, “Ergo in Christo crucifixo est vera theologia et cognitio Dei. (Therefore in Christ crucified there is true theology and knowledge of God.)” Similarly, in a letter to Erasmus, he said, “Quicquid non est Christus, id neque via, sed error, neque veritas, sed mendacium, neque vita, sed mors est. (Whatever is not Christ, that is not a way, but an error; not a truth, but a lie; not life, but death.)”
Well before this, however, Jesus unified exegetical and systematic theology under the banner of Christology when He responded to Jewish leaders challenging Him about Sabbath healing and about calling God his own Father: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
“Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words? (John 5:39-47)” [Thanks to Chris Williams, who also included Luther hymns when commenting on this phrase.]
2 Concerning these heretical teachings about the person of Christ and his two natures, Luther associated Eutychianism with Schwenckfeld while equating Zwinglian Christology with Nestorianism. This latter was in large part because Nestorius differentiated sharply between Christ’s two natures and objected to calling Mary “Bearer of God” (theotokos), thus separating the human nature of Christ from his divine nature, precluding the full and perfect union of the God-man, Jesus Christ.
“Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament” quoted from Luther’s Works, Volume 38: Word and Sacrament IV, © 1971 by Fortress Press, part of Luther’s Works on CD-ROM.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #552:1