Worms is another one of those moments that we all wish we could have seen first-hand. Luther, adorned in his simple monk’s garb, stood before—and against—princes and nobles, cardinals and priests, all wearing the trappings of their offices. On the throne sat the twenty-one-year-old Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. Luther’s books were spread out on a table before him. He was commanded, “Revoco!” —to recant his writings, to recant his views of sola fide (faith alone as the instrument of justification) and of sola Scriptura. That was April 17. Luther asked for a day to consider, and he was granted it. He spent the night in prayer and appeared again the next day. Then, he delivered his famous speech:
I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.
That moment led to one more moment that would have been wonderful to have seen firsthand. Actually, it was not a moment, but a few months, as Luther was holed up in Wartburg Castle overlooking the town of Eisenach. There he translated the Greek New Testament into German, and there, in his modest study, he wrote a series of sermons called the Church Postils (Kirchenpostille). The New Testament is, of course, the Word of God, and the Church Postils are a series of sermons that expound the Word of God. The Word needed to be proclaimed, but the Word also needed to be interpreted and taught. Ezra set the precedent in Nehemiah 8. Luther was not doing anything new. Instead, he was doing something very old.
Sola Scriptura may be considered a Reformation plank, but it is also, more accurately, a biblical one. It is fruitful, however, to consider how the Reformers thought of sola Scriptura. We see this best in the way Luther responded to his critics.
One of the incessant criticisms Luther received amounted to this: You have thrown away fifteen hundred years of church history. The second criticism was this: You have thrown away the church. By claiming that your conscience is captive to the Word of God, you need neither tradition nor the church. You need not bother with the communion of saints through the centuries or even now.
Luther was never one to back down from a fight, so he took these criticisms head on. Before we look at his criticisms, however, it is important to see how some people who profess sola Scriptura justify these objections. Some contemporary evangelicals take sola Scriptura to mean that they do not need teachers and that they can jettison two thousand years of church history. But the affirmation of sola Scriptura by Luther and the other Reformers was not a call for radical individualism or a rejection of church authority. One text that is helpful here is Luther’s On the Councils and the Church.
In this text from 1539, Luther responds to two decades of criticism. One of the things he points out is the value of church history, the value of healthy tradition, and the value of the councils. It’s a mistake to think that Luther thought so highly of his own views that he totally disregarded the views of all others. While not elevating tradition to the position of final authority, he did see it as necessary, helpful, and instructive. Tradition, to the Reformers, is a fallible authority, unlike Scripture, which is an infallible authority.
Paul tells Timothy to train faithful men who will be able to teach others. These are men entrusted with the “deposit of faith,” men who are trustworthy. They are to be trained by Timothy, who was trained by Paul. They, in turn, train others. The word Paul uses in 2 Timothy 2:2, translated as “entrusted,” means to hand over, as if you are passing on an inheritance. The word in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, is tradidit, from which we get the English word tradition.