Luther & James

Everyone loves the book of James. Or do they? Well there is one noteworthy dissenter to this opinion that stands out in the history of the church. The venerable Dr. Martin Luther. I am definitely no expert on Luther but I do enjoy reading him and reading about him. As I get ready to preach out of James I am of course reminded of Luther’s well-known critique of this book which, in his words, was a “right strawy epistle.”

 And so the question often arises: Did Martin Luther deny the inspiration and canonicity of the book of James? After all, how could he believe it was a part of the New Testament if he said it was an epistle of straw? Let’s consider this a little more carefully.

Here is Luther’s quote (in context) from his Preface to the New Testament in 1522:

 “In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ, and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’s epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”[1]

 Well, what do we make of that?

 Luther was a man of his times, as well as a man who shaped his times. In both respects he was a man of controversy. In the heat of the theological battles of the Reformation, Luther passionately defended the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. With characteristic rhetorical force, then, Martin Luther also addressed himself to the question of the theology of the epistle of James, in which we are told that a man “is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). It was in this climate of controversy that Luther made his statement about James.

 In this particular situation, Luther’s authoritative biographer, Roland Bainton, points out that:

 “Luther read the New Testament in the light of the Pauline message that the just shall live by faith and not by the works of the law. That this doctrine is not enunciated with equal emphasis throughout the New Testament and appears to be denied in the book of James did not escape Luther, and in his preface to the New Testament of 1522 James was stigmatized as ‘an epistle of straw.’”[2]

 So did Luther believe that James should not be part of the Bible? There are different views on this.

 Thomas Manton seemed to think that Luther took a hard line with the book of James early on, and even wholeheartedly rejected it at the time, but then apparently changed his mind later. Manton says:

 “Luther plainly rejecteth it; and for the incivility and rudeness of his expression, in calling it straminean epistolam, as it cannot be denied, so it is not to be excused. Luther himself seemeth to retract it, speaking of it elsewhere with more reverence…‘This epistle, though not owned by many of the ancients, I judge to be full of profitable and precious matter, it offering no doctrine of a human invention, strongly urging the law of God…’”[3]

 Others, like Douglas Moo in his commentary on James, disagree saying that “we should be careful not to overemphasize even the strength of [Luther’s] early critique. He did not explicitly exclude James from the canon and he does quote the letter rather frequently in his writings.” [4]

 Luther himself is less than clear. For instance, he said:

 “‘I cannot include him among the chief books, though I would not prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him’ (LW 35:397).”[5]

 So where does that leave us? Personally, I would say that Luther seems to be a man in transition. I think there are two points to observe.

 First, Luther was a man of conviction. If he was going to feel the liberty to embrace James openly, he needed to be able to understand it theologically. He needed to know how the doctrine of this book could fit with the glorious gospel that he had already become convinced of in the pages of the rest of the New Testament. It may be that he was leaning towards rejecting it but because of the tremendous consensus of the church up to that point in favor of the epistle he was hesitating to pull the trigger, so to speak. When he figured out how the theology of James was actually compatible with Paul his conscience eased up on him, and his suspicions of James began to dissipate.  So, ironically, I believe this was a case where Luther’s conscience was bound to the Word of God in a way that caused some tensions for him due to his inadequate understanding of the doctrinal implications of James.

 As Bainton says:

 “Once Luther remarked that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile James and Paul. Yet he did not venture to reject James from the canon of Scripture, and on occasion earned his own beret by effecting a reconciliation. ‘Faith,’ he wrote, ‘is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith.’ This was simply to put a Pauline construction upon James.”[6]

 Second, Luther was a man of often unbridled passion.

 And this passion got him in trouble more than once. Luther made some rash statements early on that seemed necessary to him while under the pressure of controversy but that he apparently later regretted. In his defense, he never explicitly denied the canonicity of James (contra Manton). Furthermore, when he called James a “strawy epistle,” he said that “in comparison with” the other letters of the NT which elevated the doctrines of grace. Admittedly, the inconsistency of talking about any portion of the Word of God in this way is troubling to his readers (then and now) but he nevertheless did not actually go so far as to say that James was on the same level with other non-canonical writings. And it seems that as time went on Luther hedged his bets a bit and eased up on his earlier critique. This was seen in the fact that he felt the liberty to appreciate the unique theological contribution of James to the rest of the New Testament corpus of writings.

 So what can we learn from this? I don’t think we have to excuse Dr. Martin of his errors in order to learn from them. We all have blind spots and controversy often exposes them. When lines are drawn in the sand hastily in the heat of controversy, mistakes are often made. Luther is an example of that, whether he actually rejected the canonicity of James at one point in his life or not. At the same time, we can also thank God for the great good that He accomplished through Luther’s life and ministry in the recovery of the gospel for the Church. Luther’s conviction that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls was spot on. And we would do well to remember that.

 And there is one more thing we should learn from Luther’s life…to God alone be the glory.

[1] Denis R. Janz, A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, p. 109.

[2] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 259.

[3] Thomas Manton, Exposition on the Epistle of James, p. v.

[4] Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, p. 5.

[5] Moo, p. 5.

[6] Bainton, 259-61.


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