The Troublesome Doctrine of Biblical Authority
In the years 1518–1519, the Leipzig Debates were called and conducted between Johann Eck and Martin Luther, among others, in Pleissenburg Castle in Leipzig Germany. At the time, Luther would have presented the latest instance of the annoying humanists and reformers who seemed to be popping up across the theological landscape over the previous century.
Inspired by the classicalism of the Renaissance, and a general humanistic desire to original sources, innovative scholars had made headway into the study and interpretation of the biblical texts. New grammars of Hebrew, like the one published by Johann Reuchlin in 1506, modeled on the great Rabbi David Kimchi’s grammatical work, opened up the Hebrew text to interpreters who previously had to go to great lengths to learn the ancient language for themselves.
In the midst of the renewal of interest in the original texts, Europe experienced a vast democratization of knowledge happening at every level of society, inspired further by the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. The significance of the printing press matched that of other leaps in informational technology like the alphabet in the late second millennium B.C., the codex around the time of Christ, and the internet in recent years. This new access to printed material fundamentally shifted intellectual discourse across the disciplines.
Interest and access to primary sources, including those of Scripture, fueled a theological awakening that questioned some of the most entrenched political and ecclesiastical power structures of its day.
This ideological revolution loomed in the background of the Leipzig Debates, particularly as it pertained to the authority of the Pope as head of the church and arbiter of Christian doctrine. It was a grand confrontation; think William Jennings Bryant vs. Clarence Darrow, but with habit and cowl. The two met on July 4 to commence debate. One attendee, the humanist Peter Mosellanus, described the two opponents in vivid detail. For Luther: “Martin is of medium height; his body is slender, emaciated by cares and study; one can count almost all the bones; he stands in the prime of his age; his voice sounds clear and distinct.” How did Eck appear? “He has a huge square body, a full strong voice coming from his chest, fit for a tragic actor or a town crier, and more harsh than distinct; his mouth, eyes, and whole aspect give one the idea of a butcher or a rude soldier rather than of a theologian.”1
For Eck, the debates substantivized the charge of heresy against Luther, because Luther admitted that he sympathized with the opinions of the followers of Jan Hus who had already been condemned by the church as a heretic. For Luther, the debates helped him clarify the raison d’etre of his early and fervent opposition to certain Roman doctrines. He was not merely dissatisfied with ecclesiastical corruption or errors made by the church authorities. Rather, his was a difference on the issue of authority itself, where it lay and what that meant for the world.
In the next year later, Luther would write, “But that we fight not with our own words, let us bring forth the Scriptures.” His doctrine of biblical authority had developed further. Everyone, including the church leadership, should be held accountable by the teaching of scripture. To illustrate the point, Luther proposed a hypothetical situation of ecclesiastical corruption, and drew counsel from two biblical passages in which the authority of God’s word trumps other hierarchies. He writes,
“If it were to happen that the pope and his cohorts were wicked and not true Christians, were not taught by God and were without understanding, and at the same time some obscure person had a right understanding, why should the people not follow the obscure man? Has not the pope erred many times? Who would help Christendom when the pope erred if we did not have somebody we could trust more than him, somebody who had the Scriptures on his side.”
Never one to let a vivid illustration pass by without utilization, he goes on:
“Long ago Abraham had to listen to Sarah, although she was in more complete subjection to him than we are to anyone on earth. And Balaam’s ass was wiser than the prophet himself. If God spoke then through an ass against a prophet, why should he not be able even now to speak through a righteous man against the pope?”2
The authority is not in the person (or ass) who teaches but in the divine word that undergirds and authorizes the teaching–so that no one may boast.
Even more, if Scripture is authoritative for all, from least to greatest, then it must be accessible to all. What value is the word of God to those who worship him, if its teaching is not made available to them? The technological innovations and spirit of the age coincided with this theological commitment of the Reformation.
For Luther, translation was the next logical step. He set about this work immediately if a bit begrudgingly. As he reflected on his translation of the Bible into German, he realized that the task was much greater than he had previously imagined.
“We are now sweating over the translation of the Prophets into German. O God, what a great and hard toil it requires to compel the writers against their will to speak German! They do not want to give up their Hebrew and imitate the barbaric German. Just as though a nightingale should be compelled to imitate a cuckoo and give up her glorious melody, even though she hates a song in monotone.”3
For all of the literary and aesthetic offense he endured, he understood it was a necessary suffering so that the word of God could be communicated to the German rank and file.
The profound insight that Luther and the Reformers stumbled upon was the basic need to remove the wall of separation between the Word of God and the individual soul, to put the Scriptures’ clarity on display for all to see, through translation, yes, but also through preaching that explained the Biblical text on its own terms, in light of the whole counsel of God, and testified to by the Spirit.
On this side of the Leipzig Debates, such an insight seems hardly profound, but it should be. In its day, the authority of Scriptures represented a radical change in direction for the community of faith, and the church has not been the same since.
The Reformed tradition offers a constellation of doctrines and insights drawn from the teaching of Scripture, but only insofar as they are clearly articulated and accessible to the those with ears to hear. As Reformed believers, we should be sure to steward well the rich biblical theology with which we have been entrusted. We must offer it to the world with clarity and generosity, even when it is painful to our sensibilities, preferences, and tastes. Just like Luther.
1. T. M. Lindsay, Luther and the German Reformation (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1900), 84.
2. Martin Luther, “Address to The German Nobility,” in Three Treatises (2nd. ed.; trans. By C.M. Jacobs; rev. by J. Atkinson; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 20; 21-22.
3. Martin Luther, correspondence with Wenceslas Link, June 14, 1528.