Martin Luther and the “Epistle of Straw”

In the previous post I asked Protestants to please consider that Martin Luther called the Epistle of James, which is a divinely inspired writing, an “epistle of straw”. That Luther said this seems to be common knowledge among those who care – Catholic, Protestant, whoever. Often times though what is accepted as common knowledge is not known in its proper context nor is it as simple as we typically think. Since I did not know the context for this little quote from Luther, I decided to do a quick internet search. Over at The Calvinist International there is a post with the quote in context.

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. (LW 35:362)

The above was stated in Luther’s preface to his translation of the New Testament. In the preface specifically to the epistle, he also says that the author “wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task” and, therefore, “cannot include him among the chief books” (emphasis mine; cherry-picking of quotations follows that used in the article linked above).

Over at Alpha and Omega Ministries, James Swan has a piece explaining the greater historical and textual context of Luther’s statement that James “is really an epistle of straw.” The piece is apologetic in nature. In it Mr. Swan gives a defense of Luther against what he sees as an unjust use of the “epistle of straw” quote by those who scrutinize Luther. I very much appreciate what Mr. Swan has written. Luther made his comment that James was an “epistle of straw” in 1522, five years after posting his 95 theses. This is relatively early in Luther’s protestations since he would die 24 years later. In later editions of his translation of the New Testament this statement was excluded. Luther, himself, was the one to do this. I was glad to hear that Luther made this comment relatively early in his career and seemed to step it back later. However, I do not think that the exclusion of his comment from later editions is a simple case of retraction as Mr. Swan implies. While there were others who questioned the canonicity of James, it was simply not acceptable to treat with such disparity a book that was so widely accepted and had been for so long. Speaking in such a way of a book that many believed to be inspired would only hurt Luther’s cause.

Mr. Swan admits that “Luther does appear to have held lifelong doubts about the canonicity of James,” but says that these were more objectively rooted than in simply having a problem with the content of James. He points to Eusebius and St. Jerome both disputing the authenticity of the book and that even Catholic contemporaries of Luther such as Erasmus and Cardinal Cajetan questioned its canonicity. He goes so far as to say that a Catholic taking issue with Luther is hypocritical because of his shared opinion with Erasmus and Cajetan, and that the canon of Scripture for the Catholic Church was not infallibly decreed until the Council of Trent (see Swan’s quotation from the New Catholic Encyclopedia). The problem here is that it isn’t the question of canonicity with which there is an issue. It’s a question of Luther’s attitude toward the book. He also apparently called into question the canonicity of Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelations. Did he speak of them in the same manner as he did James? Did he call them straw? If he didn’t treat these other books in the same way as he did James then it begs the question: Why James? It’s one thing to believe a book is not canonical; it is another to say it is “straw”, “has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it,” and that the author was “unequaled to the task.” (Mr. Swan also says that Luther’s praise of the book should not be ignored; however, I would respond that his praises do not outweigh such criticism as found here).

Contra Swan, it appears that Luther’s primary problem with James is not its questioned canonicity by some such as St. Jerome, or its not being authored by either apostle with the name “James” (which is wholly irrelevant), but rather its content. It is undeniable that Luther did find the content of James problematic, not in regards to Paul’s doctrine, but for Luther’s doctrine. Luther said that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile Paul and James. If the reconciliation of Paul (rather Luther’s interpretation of Paul) and James was a great enough feat to earn Luther’s own doctor’s beret then it must have truly been a problem for Luther. Though Luther apparently reconciled the two for himself, can we really downplay the issue of content in James when this posed such a problem for Luther? This especially when it is Luther who created this problem for himself by his novel understanding of justification through faith alone, a problem compounded Scripturally when he added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28.

One must also wonder though if the content of the Epistle of James was not only a problem doctrinally for Luther, but also morally. Luther does praise the moral value of James and its “vigorously [promulgating] the law of God.” However, Luther seemed to have suffered from scrupulosity before his rejection of the true faith (see Gerald R. McDermott’s The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide for Luther’s struggles as a monk). At The Calvinist International linked above, Jordan Ballor wonders about this pointing to Luther’s “big mouth” and James’s rebuke of those with “wagging tongues.” Mr. Ballor gives an excerpt from James 3 as an example of James’s rebuke. In this passage James says to his audience that not many of them should become teachers because they “will be judged more strictly.” He then goes on to speak of falling short in speech, how the tongue can be a small fire setting “a huge forest ablaze,” and can “[defile] the whole body.” Even more challenging than James 3 is James 1:26 – “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.” Luther certainly took pride is his being a doctor of Holy Scripture and vigorously defended his doctrine and, therefore, his religion. Considering his struggles with scrupulosity and the bitterness of his tongue these words from James would certainly be difficult to hear. For a small sample of Luther’s bitter tongue there are these little gems. (Actually, some of them are pretty good, but in charity I cannot use them).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s