James – an epistle of straw?

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther called the Letter of James an “epistle of straw.” While some claim he wanted to remove it completely from the Canon of New Testament scripture, that likely claims too much.  What is clear is that he held less importance than other NT books. He relegated James, as well as Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation to a second tier status. Why? Luther wrote: “Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.” Luther never offers substantive proof of his rejection claim and in any case relies on two “ancients” (Origen and Eusebius) who don’t actually reject James but think of them as of lesser importance. A thought not shared among the whole of the patristic saints.

Luther essentially reintroduced the criteria that the Church had never used: it was either Spirit-breathed (2 Tim 3:16)) and thus canonical, or it wasn’t.  Luther’ novelty is the reintroduction of “not as Spirit inspired as other books.” There are not levels of inspiration in Scripture. Some books are not more inspired than others. True, some books may be more central to the overall message of Scripture. But this does not make them more inspired. Romans may be more significant than Philemon, but both are just as inspired as the other.

Luther concluded that its author “James” was not an apostle. Luther noted that the epistle of James contains sayings found in Peter’s first letter and Paul’s Galatians. Yet the apostle James (son of Zebedee) was martyred earlier than Peter and Paul. And thus, the “James” who wrote this letter must have done so after the death of James Zebedee. Luther concluded that the “James” who authored the letter “came along after St. Peter and St. Paul. Hence the letter was not of Apostolic origin.

Christ sent his twelve apostles. But over and above these he sent further apostles (1 Cor 15:7). The “last” apostle was Paul (1 Cor 15:8) – but note that is Paul’s self-assertion. But even accepting Paul’s claim, there was another apostle: James the brother of Jesus. He was not one of the twelve but later became an apostle (Gal 1:19). It appears the resurrected Christ himself commissioned him (1 Cor 15:7). Moreover, this James was not any apostle but one of the three “pillar” apostles alongside Peter and John (Gal 2:9). Indeed, this James became the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 21:18; Gal 2:12). He seems to have had a special authority at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13). And given these credentials, scholars have concluded that James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus, who was an apostle, is the best candidate as the author of James.

Luther also believed James could not be apostolic due to its content. In the first place James never once mentions the death or resurrection of Christ, the very heart of the gospel. Rather he holds that James simply preaches law. Luther introduced an assumption about the content of apostolic preaching: apostles must always preach the death and resurrection of Christ for salvation.

A crucial aspect of apostolic preaching was the repentant lifestyle that is worthy of the gospel. This matches Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels. He preached the gospel itself, but also the way of life befitting the gospel, seen in say the Sermon on the Mount. There is no reason in principle that an apostolic writing could not be largely instruction about the Christian standard of living. It was a necessary aspect of apostolic preaching. So, the books of Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John do not specifically mention the death or resurrection of Christ but focus on issues of practical living. Then why not James? Furthermore, Luther failed to account for the occasional nature of the letter of James. It is not simply a timeless summary of the Christian lifestyle. The epistle was written to certain believers in a particular historical setting for a specific purpose.

But primarily, Luther judged that James failed the apostolic content test in a second way: it contradicted justification by faith alone. He stated that James is “flatly against St. Paul and the all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works.” That is a narrow reading of James and based on his translation of Romans 3:28 to read “by faith alone.” It was a flawed translation. Luther translated the Greek chorus as alone. The word means “apart from” and it was not apart from “works.”  It was apart from “works prescribed by the Law (nomos)” which Romans clearly speaks to the regulations that Jewish thought surround the 10 Commandments (e.g. only able to walk so many steps on the Sabbath lest it be counted as working on the Sabbath)

All that being said, Luther preached on James at least 5 times in major homilies and quotes from James almost as much as the Synoptic Gospels throughout his works – he clearly found something edifying in its content.

An epistle of straw? Luther was a person given to hyperbole.

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