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Luther and the ‘Epistle of Straw’

Luther JamesLuther famously referred to the book of James as an “epistle of straw,” purportedly because of its lackluster portrayal of the gospel and the ease with which it might be used to foster doctrines of works-righteousness. Here’s the full context of Luther’s evaluation from his preface to the New Testament:

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)

He goes on to treat the subject more substantively in his preface to the book of James, where he opens with the confession: “I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.” He goes on to say that the author must not have been an apostle, but instead “must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper” or based his writing on the preaching of James. Luther concludes that the author “wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task,” and so Luther “cannot include him among the chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him” (LW 35:395-97).

I wonder, though, whether at least at some level Luther’s negative relative evaluation of James has something to do with Luther’s own penchant for loose talk and the letter’s rather harsh judgment of the same. That is to say, Luther had a big mouth and may not have taken too kindly to James’ rebuke of those with wagging tongues.

Consider the following from James 3:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check…. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.

I love Luther, but as James makes clear, nobody other than Christ is perfect or faultless in every way. When you think of Luther and the book of James, it might be good to think as much about James’ warnings about wagging tongues as about Luther’s comments on the “epistle of straw.”

By Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.