Note: The immediate question to be answered in this post (even if not fully) is whether or not Luther was right to add the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. This is separate from the ultimate question concerning Luther, Paul, and James which will not be answered in this post.
If anyone had told me a couple weeks ago that I would be writing even one post on Martin Luther let alone three or four, they would have received a look of great scepticism. I just don’t pay that much attention to Luther or Lutheranism. I prefer to stick with patristics, medievals, and current events/theology in the Catholic Church. However, when you know hardly anything about someone or their teaching, and you level an accusation that you simply take for granted, but have never investigated, then one little door opens another and another and another. I originally said that I can’t take Martin Luther seriously because he added a word to Scripture and called an inspired work of Scripture straw. Here. There was a problem though. These two accusations are something that I learned many years ago from Catholic Answers and other such groups. Now Catholic Answers is good for a quick reference and starting point but there is definitely something wanting there – a little too cookie cutter in their apologetical approach. This is problematic because it nurtures a danger of the thrust of one’s motivation being not a deeper knowledge of truth nor a more intimate relationship with Christ, but rather being able to win arguments. (For an example see this story from Karl Keating). Looking further into the issue of calling the Epistle of James an epistle of straw provided much more food for thought, which I wrote about here. In that post I stated that Luther’s real problem wasn’t reconciling Paul and James, but reconciling Luther and James. By adding the word “alone” to Romans 3:28, it is Luther himself who seemingly caused a problem between Paul and James. Now another door opens. Is it truly problematic that this word has been added? Does it really change what Paul wrote or does it accurately reflect Paul’s intended meaning?
When I first learned of Luther and his adding the word “alone” to Romans 3:28, it was not from Catholic Answers, but St. Joseph Seminar’s Beginning Apologetics series. (Before continuing my criticism, I must say that I am greatly indebted to both St. Joseph Seminar and Catholic Answers for giving me that initial spark. In particular, it is to St. Joseph Seminar that I am indebted to for first introducing me to the amazing beauty and audacity of the Eucharist which led me to a love for our Eucharistic Lord). What I learned was that Luther added the word “alone” to this Scripture verse so as to lend greater support to his own novel heretical teaching of sola fide, and that this addition made Romans 3:28 directly contradict James 2:24. (At this point, some non-Catholics will understandably take issue with my saying Luther’s teaching is novel and heretical, but that is another issue). While it is not implausible that Luther’s motivation for adding “alone” to Romans 3:28 was to lend stronger Scriptural support for his teaching, Protestant apologists are quick to point to three things in defense of Luther’s action (the first two coming directly from Luther):
- It conveys the sense of the text and is necessary for a clear and vigorous translation.
- Church Fathers such as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine said that faith alone makes one righteous. (On this note, Fr. Fitzmyer is much more helpful than Luther. See #4 here).
- Finally, three Catholic Bibles translate Romans 3:28 the same way:
- The Nuremberg Bible – German, published in 1483 (pre-Luther’s translation by 39 years)
- The Bible of Geneva – Italian, published in 1476 (even earlier) – and the Bible of Venice – also in Italian, published in 1538 (16 years after Luther’s translation).
At the very least, I do think the above shows that while Luther was wrong he was not necessarily being frivolous with Scripture nor adding the word simply to make his position seem stronger (though the above doesn’t disprove that either). Given the gap between ourselves and the principal player – Luther – for the sake of argument I’ll give the benefit of the doubt while still explaining why the addition of “alone” is wrong.
The primary issue here has to do with #1 above. The second and third points are superfluous to the discussion – though they are definitely relevant to discussing whether or not Luther’s teaching was novel. That there are Church fathers prior to Luther who have said we are justified by faith alone does not mean that one should add a word which is not there. Those fathers and saints who have said this were writing in commentaries on Scripture and speaking in homilies. There is a difference between commenting and making your commentary the translation. The translations in German and Italian mentioned above while interesting do not in and of themselves justify the addition of “alone” to Romans 3:28. Nor does their existence necessarily mean that the Church thought it good and laudatory. Unfortunately, in this respect Protestant apologists seem to hold quick answer stumping to the same degree as some Catholic apologists. Protestant apologists whom I’ve found have provided no other details concerning these translations. The most I could find was from the Catholic Encyclopedia – here. Just as there are today, there were back then poor translations, good translations with a regrettable choice or two, good translations, and better translations. Those translations, especially the ones pre-Luther, most likely were not met with the same kind of scrutiny concerning Romans 3:28 because the teaching of sola fide was not being put forth and, therefore, there was no controversy surrounding it. (It is due to the existence of the Nuremberg Bible that I believe Luther should be given the benefit of the doubt concerning the accusation of his being flippant with his translation of Scripture).
In defense of his adding “alone” to Romans, Luther says,
I also know that in Rom. 3, the word “solum” is not present in either Greek or Latin text–the papists did not have to teach me that–it is fact! The letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these knotheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text–if the translation is to be clear and accurate, it belongs there. I wanted to speak German since it was German I had spoken in translation–not Latin or Greek.
But it is the nature of our language that in speaking about two things, one which is affirmed, the other denied, we use the word “solum” only along with the word “not” (nicht) or “no” (kein). For example, we say “the farmer brings only (allein) grain and no money”; or “No, I really have no money, but only (allein) grain”; “I have only eaten and not yet drunk”; “Did you write it only and not read it over?” There are a vast number of such everyday cases.
In all these phrases, this is a German usage, even though it is not the Latin or Greek usage. It is the nature of the German tongue to add “allein” in order that “nicht” or “kein” may be clearer and more complete. To be sure, I can also say “The farmer brings grain and no (kein) money”, but the words “kein money” do not sound as full and clear as if I were to say, “the farmer brings allein grain and kein money.” Here the word “allein” helps the word “kein” so much that it becomes a clear and complete German expression. (Here)
Luther says that a particularity of the German language requires the use of “alone” to convey the sense of the text and for “the translation to be clear and accurate.” In German (the German of his time) it is common – indeed, it is the nature of the language itself! – to say “alone” when speaking of two things and one is affirmed while the other is denied. He illustrates this with the following: “The farmer brings only grain [grain alone] and no money.” Here the speaker speaks of two things, denying one (money) and affirming the other (grain). Luther says that this is done because the addition of “allein” (only, alone) makes the “no” of “no money” clear and complete in German. He admits that not including “allein” is possible in such a statement, but that it makes the “no” or “not” less full and clear. So in accordance with German grammar and usage when he translated Romans 3:28 he added the word “allein” to correspond with and make clearer the “not” of “not by works of the Law” [my paraphrase].
There are, of course, some problems with Luther’s approach. First and foremost, Greek grammar and usage is different than German grammar and usage. When translating Scripture that grammar and usage (the Greek) must be taken into account. Surely, the Greeks have an equivalent for the words “alone” and “only”, and the German “allein”. This is a rather common word and, yet, St. Paul did not use it. If Paul truly means what Luther thinks he does then “alone” certainly would have made this clearer and provided much greater emphasis. But he didn’t.
That Paul didn’t include “alone” is very important, and it is strange that Luther would seem to have missed this (the importance of it that is). He stated that “allein” is used when speaking about two things and one has been denied. He says this is done to emphasize what has been denied, to make clearer the “no” or “not”. However, this is not the only thing that the word “allein” does. It also affirms the other to the exclusion of anything else. Let’s use Luther’s example: “The farmer brings only grain and no money.” The word “no” already clearly states that the farmer didn’t bring money. The word “only” emphasizes this point, but it also means that the farmer didn’t bring anything other than grain. Had the word “only” not been included in this statement, it would be possible that there were other things brought by the farmer in addition to grain, while money was still not one of those things. St. Paul said that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” In regards to justification, Paul is speaking of the Law of Moses. Teachers often speak of one part of an issue, but not the issue in it’s entirety – in this case justification. By not including “alone” it is possible that Paul was focusing on a particular point within the broader issue of justification. Since we do not read a particular verse, passage, book, or testament of Scripture in isolation, when we look to James as well as the Gospels and other writings by Paul we see that there is more to justification than just faith versus works of the Law. Had Paul written “alone” in Romans he would have necessarily excluded all other possibilities in addition to the Law and in doing so would have directly contradicted James who said, “You see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.” In this case though, “works” does not refer to the Law of Moses. James is here referring to the Law of Grace (for example, the Sermon on the Mount). By not including “alone”, room is given by St. Paul (and the Holy Spirit!) for the works of the Law of Grace. Luther, however, not being inspired of the Holy Spirit decided to add “alone” to Romans 3:28 and pit Paul and James against one another while holding James suspect regarding its canonicity.
In addition to the above, Luther also states:
So much for translating and the nature of language. However, I was not depending upon or following the nature of the languages alone when I inserted the word solum in Romans 3. The text itself, and Saint Paul’s meaning, urgently require and demand it. For in that passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine, namely, that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the Law. Paul excludes all works so completely as to say that the works of the Law, though it is God’s law and word, do not aid us in justification. Using Abraham as an example, he argues that Abraham was so justified without works that even the highest work, which had been commanded by God, over and above all others, namely circumcision, did not aid him in justification. Rather, Abraham was justified without circumcision and without any works, but by faith, as he says in Chapter 4: “If Abraham were justified by works, he may boast, but not before God.” So, when all works are so completely rejected — which must mean faith alone justifies — whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this rejection of works will have to say “Faith alone justifies and not works.” The matter itself and the nature of language requires it. [emphasis mine; linked above – “See #4 here”]
He says that the text itself and Paul’s meaning “urgently require and demand it” and that if one is to “speak plainly and clearly” they “will have to say ‘Faith alone'”. This requires looking at the text of Romans in greater depth, which is a whole other post in itself; and, unfortunately, means that our ultimate question – Does the addition of “alone” accurately reflect St. Paul’s intended meaning? – will for the moment have to go unanswered. For now let it suffice to say that if “alone” truly is urgently required and demanded by the text and must be said in order to speak plainly and clearly then Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit would have written it himself.
Read Full Post »