The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Luther and the Epistle of Straw

By: Thomas Clayton Booher

Luther and the Epistle of Straw – Part 1

The rediscovery of justification by faith in Christ alone (without works) was so paramount in Luther’s experience that he began to look at the whole Bible from that single perspective. There was an advantage to that. The principle of justification by faith alone in Christ alone opened up the New Testament to reveal many things that were hidden before. In the very moment of his ‘Tower Experience’, Luther tells us how this insight into God’s justification of the sinner instantly affected his understanding of the rest of scripture.

Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. [Luther’s preface to his Latin works (1545)]

Looking at scripture from a particular perspective, as Luther did, is very helpful in taking away truths that may otherwise be overlooked. I had a seminary professor who taught a course on taking a multi-perspective view of theology. [1] It was an eye-opener for me.

As advantageous as the perspective of justification by faith was for Luther, there was a disadvantage as well. Luther was so overwhelmed by the principles of sola fide (faith alone) and sola Christi (Christ alone), that he ranked the value of various New Testament books according to how they presented Christ to the reader. Luther wrote:

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’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. [Preface to the New Testament, 1546]

What was the problem with the Epistle of James, as Luther saw it? In his opinion, among other things, “it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works,” so Luther wrote in his preface to the epistle.

James does speak of how Abraham and Rahab were justified by their works. Because Luther was so keen on guarding the doctrine of justification by faith without works, he was ready to throw the Epistle of James out of the New Testament canon (the books considered to be scripture). Was he right?

--RE Tom Booher

[1] Vern S. Poythress, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pa. Dr. Poythress’s studies and course lectures led to a book on the subject, Symphonic Theology, P&R Publishing, 1987.

Luther and the Epistle of Straw – Part 2

Martin Luther held the Epistle of James in low esteem in part because, as he saw it, “it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works.”

Does the Epistle of James contradict Paul? Remember that Paul’s teaching is that God does not declare us righteous because we keep the law. Rather, it is when we trust in Christ, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us and on the basis of that imputation, God the Mighty Judge, declares us righteous, Rom 3:20-28; 4:1-5, 11,19-25; 5:19; Gal 2:16; 3:11; 5:2-4.

And yet, James writes, Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? (James 2:21) And again, Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:25). These two statements greatly influenced Luther to call the epistle an ‘epistle of straw.’ To him, it had little worth compared to Paul’s letters.

So, again we ask, Does James contradict Paul?

If we believe that the New Testament is a collection of divinely inspired writings such that they are without error and are not in contradiction to one another, and that we include both Paul’s letters and the Epistle of James to be a part of that collection, then we must answer, no, there is no contradiction. Luther circumvented the problem by essentially denying the canonicity[1] of James. But if we recognize James as scripture, how can we harmonize the two without introducing a faulty interpretation of either James or Paul?

I would suggest that James does not use the word justification in the same way as Paul. James is concerned that his readers might make a claim of faith without having any evidence of it. In chapter 1, he speaks of enduring trials, seeking wisdom (for godly behavior, cf. James 3:15-17), being slow to wrath, being a doer and not just a hearer of the word, bridling the tongue, and keeping oneself unspotted from the world. So, right away we see James is concerned about behavior, what is visible in our lives to those around us. In chapter 2 he begins with the sin of showing partiality, that is, showing more favor to the rich than to the poor (James 2:1-6). This violates the law of love (James 2:8, 9).

It is at this point James asks the question, What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? (2:14). He is now making a general observation, which is, if his readers are behaving in so blatant a sinful manner, how can they verify or validate or justify their claim to faith. It is in this way, I think, that James is using the word justify. James’s challenge, Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works, 2:18, is another way of saying no one can justify a claim to faith without also having works, for works always accompany faith.

-- RE Tom Booher

[1] Canonicity is the evaluation of a writing to be part of the divinely inspired biblical canon. The canon is the officially recognized set of scriptures.