IV. Romans, Martin Luther, and the Bible within the Bible
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | July 16, 2020Romans is arguably the most influential letter ever written and, rightly or wrongly, possibly the single most influential book in the New Testament. For example, the great reformer Martin Luther had this to say of Romans: “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel.” Luther’s assertion provokes a fundamental question for Christians: are some parts of scripture more important than others? With some mischief, we might rephrase that question: is there a bible within the bible? Today I want to consider three possible answers: No, Strong Yes, and Gentle Yes.
Before getting to our answers, however, let’s take another look at our question. What do I mean by a asking, ‘is there a bible within the bible?’ In simplest terms, I am asking whether it is possible to take the whole, giant book of the Christian Bible and make it smaller without losing anything essential. As I will show below, it is not easy to say No, but neither is it a simple thing to say Yes. If we answer yes, we also run into the question of how one might distill the bible to its core message, though this question will not be our primary concern here.
So: is there a bible within the bible?
I will say up front that I want very badly to say No. Picking and choosing verses, over-emphasizing certain themes, ignoring particular passages and figures—all of this has done far too much damage. We human beings are diverse in our experiences, and we need at least the whole of scripture to be our common language. The problem, however, is a practical one: if we say No, then let’s face it, we’re probably lying.
The reality is that we do value some portions of scripture over others, and we use the pieces that seem to us most important to interpret the others. To put it bluntly: does any of us actually think 2 Chronicles is as important as the Gospel of Luke? Do we really spend as much time reading the real estate bits of the book of Joshua as we do poring over the love passage of 1 Corinthians? Even more to the point: if you had a non-believing friend who asked you for something to read that would help them get to know God, something that would really help them get the gist of Christianity, would you hand them Revelation, or would you reach for John’s Gospel?
If it’s true that each of us in practice prioritizes some parts of the bible over others, maybe it’s worth considering whether there really is a bible within the bible. This is certainly Martin Luther’s position, which we might call a Strong Yes. For him, Romans (Romans 3 in particular) was “purest Gospel” and “truly the most important piece in the New Testament.” But how do we choose which ones are the most important?
Let’s see how Luther arrives at Romans. One of Luther’s big takeaways from Romans is the primacy of faith over works. The theme of faith over works is an important one for Christians because it’s a way of always privileging the action and initiative of God over our own action and initiative. A big concern for Luther was that the Church of his day had too much authority; it seemed to Luther (and others) that the Church was claiming for itself power that only belonged properly to God. Because this is of paramount importance for Luther, the theology of privileging faith over works is also paramount. Finally, because in Romans Luther finds so much good stuff on faith over works, he arrives at his Strong Yes: Romans is the “purest Gospel.”
A full treatment of all this is far beyond this little newsletter. I raise this example because Luther’s Strong Yes raises a major problem of identifying a bible within the bible. In short, if there’s a bible within the bible, what do we do with the rest of scripture once we’ve found it?
This is where Luther goes wrong: Luther explicitly demotes texts that seem to him not to jive with his reading of Romans. When Luther translates the New Testament into his own vernacular language—a feat which all of us non-Latin readers should celebrate!—he writes an introduction to go with it. In his introduction, Luther brackets out four books of the New Testament that seem to him to be contradictory to the ‘purest Gospel’ of a letter like Romans. Thus, when Luther lists the books of the New Testament, James, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation are listed separately and are not numbered with the other twenty-three books. It is also worth noting that Luther explicitly describes John’s Gospel as far above Matthew, Mark and Luke because, in Luther’s mind, John gives so much more attention to Jesus’ words (i.e. preaching of faith) than to his works.
We might forgive Luther’s extremes given his context and that, in practice, everyone who reads the bible has a ‘bible within the bible’ in some way. I spend so much time on Luther’s example for two reasons. First, Luther’s Strong Yes still impacts us to a huge degree. For example, I run into folks regularly who do not think twice about reading the whole of the New Testament through the lens of ‘faith vs. works’ as Luther saw in Romans. But we miss a lot if we try to cram the Gospel of Jesus Christ into these two categories. This is particularly true when many of the core themes of Romans—sin and justification, for example—just aren’t that important in other letters written by Paul himself.
Second, Luther’s reading of Romans is not the only way of approaching Romans, let alone the whole of the New Testament. Our own Wednesday bible study is deliberately trying to be looser and more attentive to Paul’s context, but without trying to arrive too confidently at an alternative reading. This is difficult to do, not only because of the long history of Christians like Luther who have interpreted Romans for us in the past, whose voices still ring in our ears, but because Romans is just hard. When we meet something that is as complex as Romans is, we begin grasping for ways to simplify it that we might hold on to it better. Resisting this temptation is itself a kind of work, but it’s also one of the ways the Spirit gets in.
As noted, the problem with Luther’s Strong Yes is that it involved demoting, or even trying to remove from the field of inquiry entirely, other scriptural books that might call his bible within the bible into question: Hebrews, Jude, Revelation and, most of all, James don’t obviously chime with Luther’s core theme. But what if we try a Gentle Yes? What if there might be a bible within the bible, but it’s not so much about finding the most important book amongst all of them so much as it is about distilling a summary of the whole.
We’re on surer footing here. We’re also in good and ancient company. For example, there were 613 commandments in the Law, the Torah of the Israelites, and the rabbis debated and discussed how best to fulfill all of them. One of the most common, and most successful, tactics was to offer a summary. For example, a rabbi named Hillel, who would’ve been an old man when Jesus was a young boy, said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and do this.”
Another example in the same spirit might be the prophet Micah’s famous words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). Jesus himself, in good rabbinical fashion, when asked about the greatest commandment, replied with a combination of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 for his summary:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39)
Paul may have something like a summary in mind when he writes about the Law in the early chapters of Romans. Paul has this to say:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles [non-Jews], who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. (2:13-14)
There’s a tension here. It is clear that the Law is important, but it’s also clear that there is some kind of core purpose to the Law that not everybody understands. Some people only hear it, but some people do it. Moreover, because Gentiles who don’t even have the Law are sometimes able to do what the Law requires anyway, it seems that this core purpose of the Law is deeper even than the text itself! In other words, it at least sounds like Paul is saying there’s a bible within the bible, an essential spirit of the scriptures that can be distilled or summarized without losing anything necessary.
So, is there a bible within the bible? For my own part, I am just not sure. I am certainly not a Strong Yes. I do not have Luther’s confidence that I could identify the specific texts or books that are to be the rule against which I judge the rest, and to take the further step of trying to isolate our chosen core themes at the expense of potentially contradictory texts seems to me to be squarely out of bounds.
As noted above, I want to say No, but if I am honest, the actual practices of my life suggest I’m a Gentle Yes. To discern a ‘bible within the bible’ is almost natural in any process of learning. Plus, the examples of Micah, Rabbi Hillel, Paul, and Jesus himself suggest that a distilled summary of scripture is both possible and to be desired.
But even a Gentle Yes must come with a strong word of caution. For people of faith to identify a summary, core theme or key text as a ‘bible within the bible,’ for either dogmatic or practical reasons, is not the same thing as saying God deliberately placed it there for us to find. Therefore, whatever ‘bible within the bible’ we identify, we cannot cling to it too tightly, but must instead hold it gently.
Finally, if it is true that a certain degree of adopting a ‘bible within the bible’ is inevitable, perhaps we can take our cue from the summary examples noted above. Pauls’ emphasis on doing the Law; Rabbi Hillel’s final “Go and do this;” Micah’s do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God; Jesus’ own emphasis on loving God and neighbor—each of these is simple, expansive and active. As bible-reading people, we could do worse than to test our own scriptural learning with these questions: is this simple? Is this expansive? Is this active? We need all three. Simple as daily bread, expansive enough for the whole human community, and active in the little particulars of our actual days and weeks.
 See https://www.ccel.org/l/luther/romans/pref_romans.html for the text.
 Of the 23 books of the NT he takes no issue with, he says, “Thus far we have had the right knowledge of the books of the New Testament, but these next four have a different look to them.” He highlights places where Hebrews seems to disagree with the Gospels and St. Paul. Luther goes so far as to call the letter of James an “epistle of straw.”
 These examples do not seem to me quite clinching entirely simply because for each of these figures, “the bible” was at most the Old Testament in its entirety, and none of them had a bible that included the New Testament. Thus, our own position as bible readers has significant differences.