[From the Christian Intelligencer for May 15, 1879]
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In my reply to Dr. Todd (Christian Intelligencer for April 24), I pointed out the futility of his objection to President Woolsey’s statement that I John v. 7 was a “passage which Luther would not express in his translation.” – a statement which, in the plain fact that Luther did not insert it in any one of the numerous editions of his translation published in his lifetime, Dr. Todd presumed to call a “mistake.” I will here simply remind the reader that Erasmus introduced the passage into his third edition of the Greek Testament in 1522, and that Luther died in 1546. It has been contended, however, by some writers, that, at least in the latter part of his life, the great Reformer changed his mind, and received the text as genuine. (See Knittel’s Neue Kritiken, Braunschw. 1785, p. 133 ff.) The argument rests on the fact that in an exposition of the First Epistle of John, written probably between the years 1543 and 1545, Luther commented on the verse without expressing any doubt of its genuineness. The question whether Luther changed his mind is not important in itself, but is on several accounts not without interest. I will therefore state the circumstances of the case.
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“These words are not found in the Greek Bibles; but it seems as if this verse had been inserted by the Orthodox against the Arians. This, however, has not been done even fittingly, for he [the Apostle] speaks here and there not of the witnesses in heaven, but of the witnesses on earth.” (Col. 1059.)
We see here that Luther felt not merely the deficiency of the external evidence for the passage, but its internal incongruity.
The other exposition was certainly written after 1532, and probably between 1543 and 1545. (See Knittel, ubi supra, pp. 134, 135.) It first appeared in 1743, in Walch’s edition of Luther, vol. ix. Coll. 1080-1251. In this exposition Luther not unfrequently remarks upon Greek words, showing that he had the Greek text before him. He is said to have used as a manual in the later years of his life the edition of the Greek Testament published at Basle in 1540 by Thomas Platter, which reproduces substantially the text of the third edition of Erasmus, (See Luther’s Bibelubersetzung kritisch bearbeitet von Blindseil und Niemeyer, Theil vii., Vorrede, p. xv. note +.) This edition contains 1 John v. 7, like nearly all of the editions of the sixteenth centuries published after 1522. In his remarks under 1 John v. 6, which include the larger part of what he says about the seventh verse, Luther begins with observing that “this passage is certainly very difficult and obscure.” Speaking of the three heavenly witnesses, he rejects the supposition that the apostle refers to their testimony at the baptism and the transfiguration of Jesus, because that was a testimony borne on earth, not “in heaven”; and then explains it as given in what some later theologians would call “the covenant of redemption” made between the three persons of the Trinity. Apparently, however, not very well satisfied with this explanation, he concludes with saying, “If this is not the true meaning of these words, I confess that I know of no other.” (Col. 1225)
On the seventh verse itself, after quoting the words, he only says: “This is the testimony which is borne by the three witnesses, [which] is in heaven, and also remains there. The order here should be observed, namely, that the witness which is the last among the witnesses in heaven is the first among the witnesses on earth; and with reason.” He then proceeds to expound the eighth verse.
In this second exposition, Luther could no longer say that 1 John v. 7 was not in the Greek Bibles: it had already appeared in a large number of editions of the Greek Testament. Having it before him, he gave such an explanation of it as he could. It does not necessarily follow that he had re-examined the subject, and convinced himself of the genuineness of the passage; but only that he did not choose to go into the critical question. If he had really found any new evidence in favor of the text, here was the place for him to have said so. That he had not become convinced of its genuineness appears from the fact that he did not insert it in the edition of his translation published in 1545, the year before his death. This is confirmed by the circumstance that he seems never to have quoted the passage as a proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity, though he has often treated of this doctrine in his voluminous writings.
For example, in his Auslegung der letzten Worte Davids, 2 Sam. xxiii. 1-7, 65-96 (Walch, iii. 2835-59), he sets for the doctrine at length, quoting as proof-texts Ps. Xxxiii. 6; Matt. Xxvii. 19; Luke iii. 22; John v. 17, x. 30, 33, and other passages, but ignoring 1 John v. 7. This treatise was written in 1543. See also, other discussions of the Trinity by Luther, his works as edited by Walch, x. 1215-30; xi. 1548-55; xii. 852-69; xiii. 1508-29, 2624-39. Neither here nor anywhere else have I been able to find the passage quoted by Luther, though it was interpolated into his Catechism by Lyser in 1600. (Rickli, Johannes erster Brief, Anhang, p. 40.) It is omitted in his Auslegung der Epistel [I John v. 4-12] am Sonntage nach Ostern. (Walch, xii. 698, 710.)
In view of all these facts, the judgment of Michaelis seems reasonable. His remarks : - “As for the circumstance that Luther in his lecture explained I John v. 7, after he had read it from the Greek Testament, without entering into any critical inquiry into its authority, it shows nothing more than that Luther distinguished exegetical from critical lectures, and that in explaining the Greek Testament he interpreted what he and his hearers had before them. That he received it as genuine is an inference which we are not authorized to make.” (Introd. To the N. T., trans. by Marsh, 2d ed., iv. 440 f.)
Bengel takes the same view. He says, “It is clear that the passage was omitted by Luther not accidentally, but deliberately; nay, his colleague Bugenhagen, with solemn adjuration, warned all person against ever inserting it.” (Apparatus criticus ad N.T., ed. 2da. 1763, p. 459.) Luther’s own warning; prefixed to editions of his own translation of the New Testament from 1530 onward, ought to have been sufficient. His words were as follows: -
“Martin Luther. I beg all my friends and enemies, my masters, printers and readers, to let this Testament be mine. If they find it faulty, let them make one of their own for themselves. I know well what I make; I see well what others make. But this Testament shall be Luther’s German Testament. For of playing the master and the critic [or “of conceited correcting and criticising,“ meisterns und klugelus] there is nowadays neither measure nor end. And let every man be warned against other copies. For I have had full experience how carelessly and falsely others reprint what I have printed.” (See Luther’s Bibelubersetzung von Bindseil und Niemeyer, Theil vi. P. 15. Compare also the Warnung prefixed in Luther’s Bible of 1541. Ibid., Theil vii. P. 21 f.)
The warning of Luther and the protest of Bugenhagen (occasioned by the interpolation of I John v.7 in an Evangelieu – und Epistelbuch printed at Wittenburg in 1549) were not without effect, for at least one generation. The first edition of Luther’s German Bible which contains I John v.7 appears to have been printed at Frankfurt-am-Main in 1582, 4to. Panzer and Monckenberg are wrong in saying that the verse was inserted in a Hamburg edition in 1574.
(See Huther, Krit. Exeg. Handb. Uber die drei Briefe des Ap. Johannes, 3te Aufl., p. 222, note.) It is found in none of the numerous editions printed at Wittenberg before 1596. In the Swiss-German version (not published under Luther’s name) printed by Froschover at Zurich in 1529, it was inserted in smaller type, and so in the edition of 1531; in nearly all the later editions from 1534 to 1589 (that of 1561 is said by Ebrard to be an exception), in brackets; in 1597 without brackets, at which time it was also introduced as a proof-text into the Zurich Catechism. The Basle edition by Byrlinger in 1552 is said to have it without brackets. It was still omitted in Meissner’s Wittenberg edition of 1607, and in a quarto edition printed at Wittenberg in 1620; also, in Hamburg editions of 1596, 1619, and 1620. Since this last date the interpolation has appeared in the numberless editions of Luther’s German Bible without mark of doubt, except that it has been bracketed in the recent authorized “revised edition” of his version of the New Testament (Halle, Canstein’sche Bibelanstalt, 1871), with the following note: “The bracketed words are wanting in Luther’s translation, and were not added till later.” It should be understood that the words auf Erden, “on earth,” in verse 8, are not included in the brackets. They were inserted by Luther in the five editions of his German Bible printed at Wittenberg from 1541 to 1545 inclusive; but this very fact shows that his attention was directed to the passage, and that the omission of the three heavenly witnesses was intentional.
(Perhaps I may be pardoned for turning aside a moment to correct two errors which have been repeated from Rickli (1828) by a large number of respectable scholars. As De Wette, Tischendorf in his editions of 1841, 1849, 1859, and 1869-72, Berthau in his edition of Lucke on the Epistles of John (1856), Davidson, Braune in Lange’s Commentary, etc. They all speak of Robert Stephens as receiving the passage in his editions of 1546-69, and Beza in his editions 1565-76. They should have said “Robert Stephens the elder in his editions of 1546-51, and Robert Stephens the younger in his edition of 1569” (the great Robert died ten years before); also, “Beza in his editions 1565-98.” Beza published no edition in 1576: the one of that date erroneously ascribed to him by several writers was edited by Henry Stephens.)
We may observe, finally, that the other early reformers and friends of Luther generally rejected the passage; so Zwingli, Bullinger, CEcolampadius, Bugenhagen (Rickli, ubi supra, pp. 35, 36). So, also, according to Kettner (Historia dicti Johannei…I John v.7, etc., 1713, cap. 13), Melanchton, Cruciger (or Creutziger), Justus Jonas, Forster, Aurogallus. (See Semler, Hist. U. krit. Sammlungen uber I John v. 7, I. 248.) Bugenhagen, as we have seen, was especially strenuous against it; see his Expositio Jonae, 1550, cited by Rickli, p. 39. It was also omitted in the celebrated Latin version of the Bible by Leo Judae, Pellicanus, Peter Cholin, Rudolph Gualther, and others, printed at Zurich in 1543, fol., and commonly called the Zurich Bible or Versio Tigurina. A marginal note explains the reasons for its rejection. The passage was received, though with hesitation, by Calvin, and without hesitation by Beza. Both of them, however, explain “these three are one” as relating not to unity of essence, but agreement in testimony.
To trace the history of this gross corruption of the text in modern translations, Catechisms, and Confessions of Faith, especially the Greek Church since the sixteenth century, and in modern editions of some ancient versions, as the Peshito Syriac, Armenian, and Slavonic, might be interesting and instructive, psychologically as well as critically; but there is no room for it here.