Luther’s Canon

Luther’s canon or Luther Bible is the biblical canon attributed to Martin Luther, which has influenced Protestants since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. While the Lutheran Confessions[1] specifically did not define a canon, it is widely regarded as the canon of the Lutheran Church. It differs from the 1546 Roman Catholic canon of the Council of Trent in that it rejects the Deuterocanonical books and questions the seven New Testament books, called “Luther’s Antilegomena”,[2] four of which are still ordered last in German-language Luther Bibles to this day.[3][4]

Luther’s 1534 Bible

Deuterocanonical books

Luther included the deuterocanonical books in his translation of the German Bible, but he did relocate them to after the Old Testament, calling them “Apocrypha, that are books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.” He also considered the relocation of the Book of Esther from the canon to the Apocrypha, because without the deuterocanonical additions to the Book of Esther, the text of Esther never mentions God.

Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation

Luther made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (notably, he perceived them to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola gratia and sola fide) but his followers did not generally accept Luther’s personal judgment in this matter. However, these books are ordered last in the German-language Luther Bible to this day.[5]

Some historians contend that until the definition of the Council of Trent issued on April 8, 1546, the Roman Catholic Church had not yet precisely defined the contents of the biblical canon for Catholics,[6] though in the 4th century the Council of Rome had outlined the books which now appear in the Catholic Canon,[7] and Luther considered Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation to be “disputed books”, which he included in his translation but placed separately at the end in his New Testament, published in 1522. This group of books begins with the book of Hebrews, and in its preface Luther states, “Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation.” Some[who?] opine that Luther’s low view of these books was due more to his theological reservations than to any historical basis regarding them.[2]

In his book Basic Theology, Charles Caldwell Ryrie countered the claim that Luther rejected the Book of James as being non-canonical.[8] In his preface to the New Testament, Luther ascribed to several books of the New Testament different degrees of doctrinal value:

“St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and St. Peter’s Epistle-these are the books which show to thee Christ, and teach everything that is necessary and blessed for thee to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book of doctrine. Therefore, St. James’ Epistle is a perfect straw-epistle compared with them, for it has in it nothing of an evangelic kind.”[9]

Thus Luther was comparing (in his opinion) doctrinal value, not canonical validity.

However, Ryrie’s theory is countered by other biblical scholars, including William Barclay, who note that Luther stated plainly, if not bluntly: “I think highly of the epistle of James, and regard it as valuable although it was rejected in early days. It does not expound human doctrines, but lays much emphasis on God’s law. … I do not hold it to be of apostolic authorship.”[10]

Sola fide doctrine

In The Protestant Spirit of Luther’s Version, Philip Schaff asserts that:

The most important example of dogmatic influence in Luther’s version is the famous interpolation of the word alone in Rom. 3:28 (allein durch den Glauben), by which he intended to emphasize his solifidian doctrine of justification, on the plea that the German idiom required the insertion for the sake of clearness. But he thereby brought Paul into direct verbal conflict with James, who says (James 2:24), “by works a man is justified, and not only by faith” (“nicht durch den Glauben allein”). It is well known that Luther deemed it impossible to harmonize the two apostles in this article, and characterized the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw,” because it had no evangelical character (“keine evangelische Art”).[11]

Martin Luther’s description of the Epistle of James changes. In some cases, Luther argues that it was not written by an apostle; but in other cases, he describes James as the work of an apostle.[12] He even cites it as authoritative teaching from God[13] and describes James as “a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.”[14] Lutherans hold that the Epistle is rightly part of the New Testament, citing its authority in the Book of Concord,[15] however it remains part of the Lutheran antilegomena.[16]

Lutheran teachings resolve James’ and Paul’s verbal conflict regarding faith and works in alternate ways from the Catholics and Orthodox:

Paul was dealing with one kind of error while James was dealing with a different error. The errorists Paul was dealing with were people who said that works of the law were needed to be added to faith in order to help earn God’s favor. Paul countered this error by pointing out that salvation was by faith alone apart from deeds of the law (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:21-22). Paul also taught that saving faith is not dead but alive, showing thanks to God in deeds of love (Galatians 5:6 [‘…since in Christ Jesus it is not being circumcised or being uncircumcised that can effect anything – only faith working through love.’]). James was dealing with errorists who said that if they had faith they didn’t need to show love by a life of faith (James 2:14-17). James countered this error by teaching that faith is alive, showing itself to be so by deeds of love (James 2:18,26). James and Paul both teach that salvation is by faith alone and also that faith is never alone but shows itself to be alive by deeds of love that express a believer’s thanks to God for the free gift of salvation by faith in Jesus.[17]

Similar canons of the time

In his book Canon of the New Testament, Bruce Metzger notes that in 1596 Jacob Lucius published a Bible at Hamburg which labeled Luther’s four as “Apocrypha”; David Wolder the pastor of Hamburg’s Church of St. Peter published in the same year a triglot Bible which labeled them as “non canonical”; J. Vogt published a Bible at Goslar in 1614 similar to Lucius’; Gustavus Adolphus of Stockholm in 1618 published a Bible with them labeled as “Apocr(yphal) New Testament.”[18]

Protestant laity and clergy

There is some evidence that the first decision to omit these books entirely from the Bible was made by Protestant laity rather than clergy. Bibles dating from shortly after the Reformation have been found whose tables of contents included the entire Roman Catholic canon, but which did not actually contain the disputed books, leading some historians to think that the workers at the printing presses took it upon themselves to omit them. However, Anglican and Lutheran Bibles usually still contained these books until the 20th century, while Calvinist Bibles did not. Several reasons are proposed for the omission of these books from the canon. One is the support for Catholic doctrines such as Purgatory and Prayer for the dead found in 2 Maccabees. Another is that the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, during the English Civil War, actually excluded them from the canon. Luther himself said he was following Jerome’s teaching about the Veritas Hebraica.

Modern Evangelical use

Evangelicals tend not to accept the Septuagint as the inspired Hebrew Bible, though many of them recognize its wide use by Greek-speaking Jews in the first century.[19]

Many modern Protestants point to four “Criteria for Canonicity” to justify the books that have been included in the Old and New Testament, which are judged to have satisfied the following:

  1. Apostolic Origin – attributed to and based on the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
  2. Universal Acceptance – acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the fourth century).
  3. Liturgical Use – read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord’s Supper (their weekly worship services).
  4. Consistent Message – containing a theological outlook similar or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.


  1. “Welcome to the Book of Concord” Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  2. Luther’s Antilegomena at
  3. “Gedruckte Ausgaben der Lutherbibel von 1545”. Archived from the original on 2001-05-14. note order: …Hebräer, Jakobus, Judas, Offenbarung
  4. “German Bible Versions”.
  5. “Archived copy”. Archived from the original on 2001-05-14. Retrieved 2016-02-05. note order: … Hebr�er, Jakobus, Judas, Offenbarung; see also
  6. Edmon, L. Gallagher (Oct 26, 2017). The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis. U.K.: Oxford University Press, Oct 26, 2017 -. p. 1.
  7. The Decree of Damasus
  8. Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Basic Theology.
  9. “Vorrhede.”. Das Newe Testament Deutzsch. Translated by Luther, Martin. Wittenberg. 1522.
  10. Martin Luther, as quoted by William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, The Letters of James and Peter, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1976, p. 7.
  11. “History of the Christian Church, book 7, chapter 4”.
  12. Die deutsche Bibel 41:578-90
  13. Luther’s Large CatechismIV 122-24
  14. Luther’s Works (American Edition) 35:395
  15. The Lutheran Study BibleConcordia Publishing House, 2009, p2132
  16. “Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod – Christian Cyclopedia” Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  17. “Faith and Works”WELS Topical Q&AWisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Archived from the original on 2013-12-20. Retrieved 30 Sep 2015.
  18. Metzger, Bruce. Canon of the New Testament.

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