Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians, gagged...

Error message

The second group of men have now matriculated in our pastors college and, as part of the heart religion emphasis during the first of three years' study, I'm leading a seminar on Luther's commentary on Galatians. I have an old copy of the commentary published in 1953 by London's James Clarke & Co. which I've used preaching through Galatians the past couple of years. But I went ahead and bought a second copy of the commentary since the most widely available and cheapest printing today is a paperback edition sold by Wheaton's Crossway Publishers. It's one volume in their Crossway Classic Commentaries series and we had assigned it as the edition of Luther's commentary the men were to read for the seminar. It made sense for me to be on the same page with the men. Literally.

Still, I wasn't entirely happy with the situation. Concerning evangelical publishers and their theological trustworthiness, I have a naturally suspicious mind. "Surely no need to worry about Crossway, though," I thought. "They publish many good authors and, although Alister McGrath is one of the series' editors, Jim Packer is the other and he wouldn't allow them to bowdlerize Luther." In his essay, "Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification," Packer cites the same edition of Luther on Galatians I use, translated by Philip S. Watson and published by James Clarke & Co. He's drunk at the same well so he'll not allow anyone to ruin Luther.

And yet I had a nagging thought at the back of my mind that we'd made a mistake by going with Crossway's edition... 

For starters, the Crossway edition had 303 pages but the old James Clarke & Co. edition had 567. Not a good sign. Some years back, after reading the Banner of Truth edition of my favorite book on the pastorate, Richard Baxter's The Reformed Pastor, I'd been given a copy of another edition issued by Multnomah Press as a volume in their Classics of Faith and Devotion series. It sat on my shelves for a while, but one day I pulled it down and, looking at how slim it was, wondered what they'd cut to get it that short. True, every book ever written by Baxter has to be abridged; he's the prince of verbosity. But the Multnomah edition was so very, very slim.

Flipping it open, I began to compare its text to Banner of Truth's edition. First off, I noticed Multnomah's edition was about twelve point type whereas Banner of Truth's was only ten or so. Then I saw Multnomah's had 151 pages whereas Banner of Truth's had 256. Intrigued, but with a growing sense of ominous forboding, I began to compare paragraphs and words. It didn't take long to find this note from the publisher inserted between brackets into Baxter's text on page 82:

[At this point, Baxter inserts a long discussion on the methods of exercising "church discipline." Much of this is omitted here because it is related to the conditions of his own time in the seventeenth century, rather than to our own circumstances today.]

Yup, that's exactly as it appears, quote marks around the words 'church discipline' and all. What's with those quote marks, anyhow?

And thus one of the three central thrusts of Baxter's work is dispatched to the dustbin of history. Really, it's quite a convenient one to kill, isn't it?

When preaching through Galatians, I kept commenting in my sermons that we cannot take the theological content of Galatians and reject the pastoral content. The Apostle Paul's method of arguing is part of the God-breathedness of Galatians, too; it also is profitable; and it also is desperately needed in our effeminate age when strong leadership and argument is viewed as arrogance. To reinforce this point during our sermons, I'd read excerpts from both Luther's commentary and Calvin's sermons on Galatians, seeking to revive the manly principle by giving them a dose of our Reformed Fathers each Lord's Day.

So today, we all were to have read Luther's comments on Galatians 1. When we got together, a couple of the men complained that they hadn't found any of Luther's strong comments condemning Rome in what they'd read. When they mentioned it, I thought about it and realized they were right. It had seemed a rather tame forty pages of Luther.

When the class was over, we decided to look at my old James Clarke & Co. version of Luther's commentary and see if there were any strong segments condemning Rome that we'd been robbed of. Opening to Clarke's text, here is the first paragraph my eye fell on. And of course, it was entirely missing from Crossways' version:

Such we were under the Popedom: verily no less, if not more, contumelious and blasphemous against Christ and his Gospel, than Paul himself, and specially I; for I did so highly esteem the Pope's authority, that to dissent from him, even in the least point, I thought it a sin worthy of everlasting death. And that wicked opinion caused me to think that John Hus was a cursed heretic, yea and I accounted it an heinous offence but once to think of him; and I would myself, in defence of the Pope's authority, have ministered fire and sword for the burning and destroying of that heretic, and thought it an high service unto God so to do. Wherefore if you compare publicans and harlots with these holy hypocrites, they are not evil. For they, when they offend, have remorse of conscience, and do not justify their wicked doings; but these men are so far from acknowledging their abominations, idolatries, wicked will-worshippings and ceremonies to be sins, that they affirm the same to be rightiousness, and a most acceptable sacrifice unto God, yea, they adore them as matters of singular holiness, and through them do promise salvation unto others, and also sell them for money, as things available to salvation.

Checking further, the paragraphs immediately before and after this paragraph remain intact in Crossway's version, yet this specific one is missing. Why? Is it that we have no need for such intemperate language today, and that young men reading such words might be led to sin the sort of sins Luther sinned? Is it that such rhetoric might give birth to Luther's warrior sons--er, I mean children?

Yes, there are other issues that may bear on this matter, including the fifteen years separating various editions of Luther's multiple commentaries on Galatians. But after a little reasearch, I'm pretty confident that the reason the Crossway edition is so much shorter than Clarke's is that one of the principals in the Evangelicals and Roman Catholics Together lovefest has not found it necessary to keep Luther's glorious "Here I stand" intact.

So again, I learn a lesson I've already learned too many times in my life: Always read primary rather than secondary sources, and always read old rather than new books. (Unless, of course, I'm the one who wrote the book.)

So if you're going to buy Luther on Galatians get this edition: A COMMENTARY ON ST. PAUL'S EPISTLE TO THE GALATIANS Based on Lectures Delivered By Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg in the Year 1531 and First Published in 1535 (translated by Philip S. Watson.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!