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God has come to talk to us: Martin Luther and the Word of God—An interview with Luther scholar Robert Kolb

In the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Sola Scriptura,” Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, talks to Luther scholar Robert Kolb about Luther’s understanding of sola scriptura. Robert Kolb (Ph.D, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin) has taught at Concordia College, St. Paul, in the departments of religion and history. He also served as acting president from 1989-1990. In 1993 Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, called him to be Missions Professor of systematic theology and director of the Institute for Mission Studies. Kolb is well-respected and world-renowned Luther scholar. His most recent book is Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and Its Scripture-Centered Proclamation.

Here is the start of the interview:

When the Reformation is discussed today, sola fide is thought to be the central issue in Martin Luther’s break with Rome. However, historians have often pointed out that underneath the debate over sola fide was another debate that proved to be just as foundational: biblical authority or sola Scriptura. Why did Luther put up a fight against Rome’s view of biblical authority and how did Luther’s affirmation of sola Scriptura set the Reformation on an irreversible trajectory?

Luther believed not only that God had not only “co-authored” the Scriptures with the prophets and apostles but also that the Holy Spirit addresses people in every age from its pages and from the words that proceed from it, in oral, written, and sacramental form. In Scripture God promises his people forgiveness and life, and they encounter him talking about human life in such a way that they receive comfort, power, and instruction from it. Luther might have accepted some papal authority if the Pope had admitted that his governance of the church was of human, not divine, origin, and if the Roman curia had not persecuted the gospel. But Scripture alone contains God’s authoritative revelation of his will for human behaviour and above all his will to bring forgiveness and life to those who trust in him. The insistence of medieval theologians that lay people could venture into Scripture only with great danger to their souls disturbed Luther profoundly. He believed that the Holy Spirit makes God’s message clear to those who trust in Christ.

It is no secret that Luther entered into major debate with certain radical reformers, some of whom started out under Luther’s teaching only to depart later on. Often this conflict revolved around the proper relationship between the Word of God and the role of the Holy Spirit. How did the radical reformers understand Word and Spirit, and what was Luther’s response?

Our use of the term “radical” for anti-Trinitarians as well as Spiritualists and Anabaptists groups together form three quite different streams of thought, and even within sixteenth-century movements that fall into these categories there was a wide difference of opinion. Luther most criticized those who depended on inner revelation, which he thought to be subjective and unreliable. He insisted instead on the “external Word of God,” as found in Scripture and as it proceeds from the Bible, especially through preaching, the promises of forgiveness attached to the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and all sorts of written works such as hymnals, devotional literature, and catechisms.

He had gained some good insights from the monastic tradition that embraced mystical elements, but his own experience taught him that in moments of severe spiritual crisis and doubt, not inner feelings or movements but the objective revelation of Scripture alone is the rock on which to find firm footing. He did not regard these groups as “radical” but rather conservative, repeating ancient anti-Trinitarian heresies or the biblicistic, moralistic, anti-clerical, anti-sacramental, and millenarian protests that had persisted for a millennium or more within the church.

When churchgoers think of Luther they immediately think of his 95 Theses. Few remember Luther as a Bible translator. When Luther went into hiding after the Diet of Worms, why did he decide to devote himself to translating the New Testament into German, and what role did Bible translation play in Luther’s Wittenberg in the decades that followed?

He wanted to get the Word out, for God’s Word – God’s speaking to humankind as the Word made flesh and through the words of the prophets and apostles – rather than human performance of good works—especially sacred works, such as attendance at mass—had become for Luther the center of what it means to be Christian. High on his list of priorities as he recognized the role he was being cast into, as a leader of reform, was getting the Word of God out in good preaching, so he worked on a “postil,” a collection of model sermons to demonstrate how to preach the gospel in an evangelical way.

While he was still in the midst of that project in 1521 and 1522, he turned to translating the Bible. As a professor of Bible he had been using the most recently developed tools for biblical study, prepared by the so-called “biblical humanists,” such as Erasmus of Rotterdam who had published the first printed edition of the New Testament in the original Greek in 1516. With other new grammars and dictionaries, Luther was delving into the Bible in new and fresh ways. His finely-tuned ear knew how to catch the language of the people and still maintain an elegance of expression. So his translation of the New Testament became a best-seller immediately. Then he organized a team of colleagues and friends to help him revise the New Testament and translate the Old. It came out in parts, and finally he published the entire Bible in his sprightly German in 1534. The Wittenberg theologians reshaped the medieval theology curriculum, concentrating no longer on the systematic theology of Peter Lombard but instead on Scripture, especially the Psalms, Genesis, John’s gospel, Romans, and Galatians. …

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Protestantism today faces a crisis in authority. Living in the twenty-first century means we are born into a world that has experienced the full effects of the Enlightenment, Protestant Liberalism, and Postmodernism. Yet at the same time, God’s Word continues to stand undefeated. No doubt, the Bible is under fire today as critics, both secular and evangelical (oddly enough), attack the Bible’s full authority. But if we’ve learned anything from the sixteenth-century Reformation, we know that God’s Word will prevail in the end.

As he stood there trembling at the Diet of Worms, certainly it must have seemed to Martin Luther that the whole world was against him. Yet Luther could boldly stand upon the authority of God’s Word because he knew that not even his greatest nemesis was a match for the voice of the living God.

While our circumstances may differ today, the need to recover biblical authority in the church and in the culture remains. The next generation of Christians need to be taught, perhaps for the first time, that this is no ordinary book we hold in our hands. It is the very Word of God. In other words, if Christians today are to give an answer for the faith within them against those who would criticize the scriptures, then they need to be taught the formal principle of the Reformation: sola Scriptura—only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.

Contributors include Justin Holcomb, Gavin Ortlund, Robert Kolb, Chris Castaldo, Paul House, and many others.






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