Disputes over the General Epistles

The following is an excerpt from Lutheran Bible Companion. This selection is from the “The General Epistles” in volume two.

The Early Church and the General Epistles

Before studying the General Epistles, readers should gain some understanding of their history in the life of the Church. In the fourth century AD, when Eusebius wrote his Church History, he distinguished between “agreed-upon” writings (Gk homologoumena) and “spoken-against” writings (Gk antilegomena) in the General Epistles. Eusebius made this distinction based on whether or not a letter was universally received and used in the churches. Never disputed in the Early Church, 1 Peter and 1 John were received in the same way as the Pauline Epistles.

Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John, whether they belong to the evangelist or to another person of the same name. (NPNF2 1:156)

Elsewhere, Eusebius pointed out that Hebrews and Revelation were disputed (NPNF2 1:134, 156).

Martin Luther and the General Epistles

During the Reformation, Luther and others had the difficult task of reviewing all these matters and making decisions about what books would be published in new editions of the Bible. Regarding the General Epistles, Luther noted in his preface to Hebrews:

Up to this point we have had [to do with] the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow [Heb, Jas, Jude, Rv] have from ancient times had a different reputation. . . . We should not be deterred if wood, straw, or hay are perhaps mixed with [the works of the apostles; cf 1Co 3:12], but accept this fine teaching with all honor; though, to be sure, we cannot put [Hebrews] on the same level with the apostolic epistles. Who wrote [Hebrews] is not known, and will probably not be known for a while; it makes no difference. We should be satisfied with the doctrine that he bases so constantly on the Scriptures. For he discloses a firm grasp of the reading of the Scriptures and of the proper way of dealing with them. (AE 35:394–95)

Luther considered the books based on their history, their qualities as literature, and their use in the life of the Church. First, note that Luther accepted the Epistles of Peter and John without hesitation. Also note that Luther added some distinctions to those made by Eusebius. Luther distinguished between (1) writings that were clearly from apostles and represented apostolic doctrine (Grm apostolisch) and (2) writings that had disputed authorship and focused on the Law rather than on Christ (see pp 690–91). (3) Finally, Luther emphasized the importance of doctrine based “constantly on the Scriptures” over against issues of authorship or literary style.

Based on his review of the General Epistles, Luther ordered the books differently than what we find in English Bibles. He placed the most disputable books last. Luther’s order is still found in modern editions of the German Bible.

With characteristic vigor, Luther pointed out what he believed were weaknesses in Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. But with characteristic conservatism, Luther also kept them in the New Testament, cited them as authoritative, and preached from them. He held within himself a freedom to critique books of Scripture as literature, yet to honor them as God’s Word. 

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From Lutheran Bible Companion, volume 2, pages 647–48. Text © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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Written by

Laura Lane

At CPH since 2003, Laura Lane is an editor for the professional book team. She has worked on numerous titles for the adult consumer and church professional markets, including The Lutheran Study Bible (CPH 2009) and The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes (CPH 2012).

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