Friday, February 6, 2009

Martin Luther's Preface to the Revelation of St. John (1522)

About this Book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.

First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions. Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images. For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.

Moreover he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly [Revelation 22]—indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important—and threatens that if anyone takes away anything from it, God will take away from him, etc. Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep.

Many of the fathers also rejected this book a long time ago; although St. Jerome, to be sure, refers to it in exalted terms and says that it is above all praise and that there are as many mysteries in it as words. Still, Jerome cannot prove this at all, and his praise at numerous places is too generous.

Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1[:8], “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.

The 1522 “Preface to the Revelation of St. John” in Luther’s translation of the New Testament. Pages 398-399 in Luther’s Works Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I (ed. E. Theodore Bachmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960).


Dale said...

So interesting. I wish I had read this couple of months back, when I was turned me down as a pastoral candidate based exclusively on my interpretation of Revelation 19. Luther aside, what's your view of the place of Revelation in the canon and its value for faith and doctrine?

John Ottens said...

I couldn't stop laughing. This was my favorite part:

they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it.

d. miller said...

Dale, thanks for the comment, and my apologies for ignoring it so long. I attempted a reply here:

J. Smith said...

If Genesis is canon then Revelations cannot be. After Noah and the flood god says to Noah that never again will he wipe man from the earth."No more will all flesh be cut off by waters of a deluge and no more will there occur a deluge to bring the earth to ruin." "This is the sign of the covenant that I am giving between me and you and every living soul that is with you, for the generation to time indefinite." Rev 9 11-12. Do you honestly think this meant he promised not water but never said anything about fire and brimstone-that would say god ahd a sick sense of humor.

d. miller said...

Hello J.: My approach is to let the text be the text, bearing in mind, as Emerson said, that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." For my faith tradition, the "text" includes Revelation. It's a wonderful book, really.

Anonymous said...

The ESV bible makes this observation in its notes:
"the book of Revelation is one of the most sustained examples of symbolic reality in existence"

John Burger said...

Everyone is a fire breathing teacher. Cant we study a little more before we make bold proclamations.

Do you realize you just proclaimed God almighty has a sick sense of humor? Hold your tongue and think twice before you have the audacity to pick a fight with God.

John Burger said...

Just a thought. Most people understand now that Luther thought too highly of himself as did Calvin. The pendulum swung way too far with these two, interpreting scripture through the idea that we have no free will. Revelation has stern warnings about behavior and works....I have no doubt that this is what drove him.

The fact that there were more prophets in the NT church at one time than all the OT combined seems to have escaped Luther. So again....bias distorts thinking.. You better have better evidence than his feelings to dare to eliminate a book from the Bible.

d. miller said...

John Burger, I hope it is clear that my quoting Luther doesn't mean I agree with him.

Anonymous said...

Let's look as well to what the same Luther also wrote this about Revelation:
We can profit by this book and make good use of it. First, for comfort! We can rest assured that neither force nor lies, neither wisdom nor holiness, neither tribulation nor suffering shall suppress Christendom, but it will gain the victory and conquer at last. Second, for our warning, against the great, perilous, and manifold offense that inflicts itself upon Christendom.....
In a word, our holiness is in heaven, where Christ is; and not in the world, before men's eyes, like goods in the markent place. Therefore let there be offenses, divisions, heresies, and faults; let them do what they can! If only the word of the gospel remains pure among us, and we love and cherish it, we shall not doubt that Christ is with us, even when things are at their worst. As we see here in this book, that through and beyond all plagues, beasts and evil angels Christ is nonetheless with his waits, and wins the final victory. [AE 35:399-411]

K. Begnaud said...

Anonymous... Amen!

Another comment from Luther that is usually referenced in paraphrase is that he was the first to insist that much of what he wrote and said was not that important(!). He was prodigious in his writings as well as his pastoral proclamations from the pulpit. Apologies he proffered in defense of confessions were well-centered on truths to be found in the Word. However, he often also expressed severe diatribes against abuse of the church of the time, as well as addressing political and social ills, and oftentimes his vocabulary and bluntness could get the best of him. I imagine some from his time possibly passing out from the severity of his language. It could certainly have been compared to the apocryphal writings of St. John in its figurative, not necessarily literal, meanings.

God Bless you all!

Unknown said...

How did Revelation get into our Bible? Was the voting unanimous, or were there those who thought it did not belong? A study of the canonicity of Revelation would be insightful. If there were those who thought it did not belong, and yet it makes it into the canon of scripture, who's to say they were right or wrong? That is, on what BASIS did Revelation become scripture?

Unknown said...

Luther was both a genius and a revolutionary. He was a tough character, as was Calvin. God needs different personalities at different historical periods. I've never benefitted in reading Revelation. Many ministers and American christianity, as a whole, live in the world of predicting the future with this book, and remain passive.

"When will the end come, Master?"
Jesus replies, "Only my father in Heaven knows!" I'd say, that contradicts John's Book of Revelation.

Historically, the book has led some Christians to shut their eyes to evil, such as the Holocaust. I can only say, "Never, never again!"

(A minor point: When God says he will never destroy mankind with water, again, it doesn't exclude fire as with Peter's gospel, which seems to describe modern nuclear war.)

Anonymous said...

Why does Revelation speak of a 1000 year reign of Christ between the resurrection of the saved and the lost while both Daniel and Jesus said both the lost and saved will be raised on the day Jesus returns?