Forgotten in the Dust: Martin Luther, Scripture, and the Insignificance of Theological Writing (Reformission Monday)

This past Friday I had the privilege and opportunity to debate Don Ermis Segatti, an eminent Catholic priest and professor of theology, on the topic of Martin Luther and the start of the Reformation. Although both of our presentations were well received by those in attendance, it was clear that we had both prepared quite differently. Don Ermis spent most of his time addressing the various religious, cultural, historical, and political factors that contributed to turning Luther into the Reformer that we remember. I, on the other hand, endeavoured to spend less time speaking about Luther himself and more time on that which, I am convinced, Luther himself would have wanted: Holy Scripture. Luther, in fact, expressed concern later in his life about the tremendous reception that his writings had received. I find this fascinating. Wouldn’t most people be thrilled if their works were published, let alone achieve the far-reaching influence that Luther’s did? I know I would be!

However, as had happened to many books written in the history of the church, Luther feared that his own works would be disseminated, read, and studied more than the Bible, the very thing to which his works intended to point people. How tragic, Luther believed, would it be for his (or anyone else’s!) writings about Scripture to supplant Scripture itself as the primary school of Christian instruction and discipleship! Thus, in the preface to the 1539 edition of his collected works, Luther wrote:

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board. Among other reasons, I shudder to think of the example I am giving, for I am well aware how little the church has been profited since they have begun to collect many books and large libraries, in addition to and besides the Holy Scriptures, and especially since they have stored up, without discrimination, all sorts of writings by the church fathers, the councils, and teachers. Through this practice not only is 0000001655Lprecious time lost, which could be used for studying the Scriptures, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is also lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah)

Although it has been profitable and necessary that the writings of some church fathers and councils have remained, as witnesses and histories, nevertheless I think, “Est modus in rebus,” and we need not regret that the books of many fathers and councils have, by God’s grace, disappeared. If they had all remained in existence, no room would be left for anything but books; and yet all of them together would not have improved on what one finds in the Holy Scriptures.

It was also our intention and hope, when we ourselves began to translate the Bible into German, that there should be less writing, and instead more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writing is to lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30], in order that each person may drink of the fresh spring himself, as all those fathers who wanted to accomplish something good had to do.

Neither councils, fathers, nor we, in spite of the greatest and best success possible, will do as well as the Holy Scriptures, that is, as well as God himself has done. (We must, of course, also have the Holy Spirit, faith, godly speech, and works, if we are to be saved.) Therefore it behooves us to let the prophets and apostles stand at the professor’s lectern, while we, down below at their feet, listen to what they say. It is not they who must hear what we say.[1]

I am profoundly convicted by these words. How often I (and I’m sure many like me) spend more time reading books about the Bible than reading the Bible itself! How often I tend to overestimate the importance of my own teaching, preaching, and writing in comparison to the inestimable worth and power of Scripture! Would that all of us who are in some way involved in speaking or writing about the Word of God have the same humility as Luther did in relation to his own, far more insignificant words. Luther well knew, as he himself testified, that he had done nothing to spark the Reformation, for the Word had done everything. He would simply drink Wittenberg beer with his friends while the Word was busy toppling kingdoms! Thus, rather than posing any risk to the supremacy of Scripture, Luther hoped that his own works would eventually fall into obscurity. Luther preferred to be forgotten so that the Word of God would not be. Had we the kind of literary output and influence of which Luther could have boasted, how many of us would say the same?

This is the passion of a true reformissionary: the Word of God must increase while my own words must decrease. If all that we say and write does not ultimately lead people to look away from all that we say and write and give ear above all else to Scripture alone, then we have failed in our mission. Jesus did not send us out into the world to make disciples by teaching all the things that we command! Christian mission is witness to Christ and his Word, not to us and our own theological prowess. Of the writing of books there is no end, but only the Word of our God will stand forever.

The famous exhortation of Count Zinzendorf is an appropriate conclusion to this matter: “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” Even so, amen.

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), pp.39-40.

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