Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Protestantism


The Epistle of St. James and Luther's Evaluation

Fr. Georges Florovsky

Emeritus Professor of Eastern Church History Harvard University


Source: http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/fathers_florovsky_4.htm#_Toc27729548


Luther's attitude toward the Epistle of St. James is well-known. In fact, Luther positioned not only James at the end of the German Bible but also Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. And his criterion was that they lacked evangelical "purity." He was not the first to do so. His colleague at Wittenberg, upon whom Luther later turned, Carlstadt, had distinguished among the books of the New Testament — and the Old Testament — before Luther took his own action. As early as 1520 Carlstadt divided the entirety of Scripture into three categories: libri summae dignitatis, in which Carstadt included the Pentateuch as well as the Gospels; libri secundae dignitatis, in which he included the Prophets and fifteen epistles; and libri tertiae dignitatis.

Luther rejected the Epistle of St. James theologically but of necessity retained it in the German Bible, even if as a kind of appendix. The ending of Luther's Preface to his edition of the German Bible, which was omitted in later editions, reads in the German of his time: "Summa, Sanct Johannis Evangel, und seine erste Epistel, Sanct Paulus Epistel, sonderlich die zu den Romern, Galatern, Ephesern, und Sanct Peters erste Epistel. Das sind die Bucher, die der Christum zeigen, und alles lehren, das dir zu wissen noth und selig ist ob du sohon kein ander Buch noch Lehre nummer sehest and horist. Darumb ist Sanct Jakobs Epistel ein recht strohern Epistel, gegen sie, denn sie doch kein evangelisch Art an ihr hat" — "for that reason St. James' Epistle is a thoroughly straw epistle, for it has indeed no evangelical merit to it." Luther rejected it theologically "because it gives righteousness to works in outright contradiction to Paul and all other Scriptures... because, while undertaking to teach Christian people, it does not once mention the passion, the resurrection, the Spirit of Christ; it names Christ twice, but teaches nothing about him; it calls the law a law of liberty, while Paul calls it a law of bondage, of wrath, of death and of sin."

Luther even added the word "alone" — allein — in Romans 3:28 before "through faith" — durch den Glauben — precisely to counter the words in James 2:24:"You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith only” — οράτε ότι εξ έργων δικαιούται άνθρωπος και ουκ εκ πίστεως μόνον. What is more is that Luther became very aggressive and arrogant in his response to the criticism that he had added "alone" to the Biblical text. "If your papist makes much useless fuss about the word sola, allein, tell him at once: Doctor Martin Luther will have it so and says: Papist and donkey are one thing; sic volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. For we do not want to be pupils and followers of the Papists, but their masters and judges." Luther continues in a bantering manner in an attempt to imitate St. Paul in the latter's response to his opponents. "Are they doctors? So am I. Are they learned? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they writers of books? So am I. And I shall further boast: I can expound Psalms and Prophets; which they cannot. I can translate; which they cannot... Therefore the word allein shall remain in my New Testament, and though all pope-donkeys should get furious and foolish, they shall not get the word out." In some German editions the word "allein" was printed in larger type! Some critics of Luther's translation have accused him of deliberately translating inaccurately to support his theological view. As early as 1523 Dr. Emser, an opponent of Luther, claimed that Luther's translation contained "a thousand grammatical and fourteen hundred heretical errors." This is exaggerated but the fact does remain that there are numerous errors in Luther's translation.

Indeed, the entire Reformation in its attitude towards the New Testament is directly in opposition to the thought on this subject of St. Augustine, who was highly esteemed in many respects by the Reformation theologians and from whom they took the basis for some of the theological visions, especially predestination, original sin, and irresistible grace for Luther and Calvin. On this subject, as on some many others, there is no common ground between Luther and Calvin on the one hand and St. Augustine on the other. St. Augustine wrote: "I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Church" — ego evangelio non crederem, nisime moveret ecclesiae auctoritas. It should be pointed out that Calvin did not take objection to the Epistle of St. James.

Luther was so caught up in the abstraction of a passive righteousness, so infuriated by his experience as a monk in practicing what he would refer to as "righteousness of works," so caught up in attempting to create a specific meaning to one line of the thought of St. Paul that he misses the very foundation from which the theological thought of St. James comes forth — and that is the initiative and will of God. Luther's criticism that St. James does not mention the passion, the resurrection, and the Spirit of Christ is inane, for his readers knew the apostolic deposit — there was no need to mention the very basis and essence of the living faith which was known to those reading the epistle. Such a criticism by Luther reveals the enormous lack of a sense for the historical life of the early Church, for the Church was in existence and it is from the Church and to the Church that the epistles are written. Historically, the Church existed before any texts of the "new covenant" were written. The Church existed on the oral tradition received from the apostles, as is clearly revealed from the pages of the New Testament itself.

The very foundation of the theological vision of St. James is the will of God. In 1:17-18 St. James writes: "Every good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom change has no place, no turning, no shadow. Having willed, he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." In 4:15 St. James writes: "You are instead to say: if the Lord wills, we will both live and will do this or that” — αντί του λέγειν υμάς εάν ό κύριος θέληση, και ζήσομεν και ποιήσομεν τοντο ή εκείνο.

One theologically weak text in the Epistle of St. James is in 4:8: "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you "Taken by itself it has a Pelagian ring to it. And in monastic and ascetical literature one often encounters such expressions. But the meaning in both this epistle and in monastic and ascetical literature must be understood within their total context. Once the synergism of the redemptive process takes place in the human heart, then the existential reciprocity of grace and response is so dynamic that one can, as it were, use such expressions, precisely because it is assumed that God has initiated and that grace is always at work in the human heart, in all the depths of the interior of man as well as in external life. The text in the Epistle of St. James must be understood within the context of 1:18 and 4:15. Moreover, it is to be noted that this text is preceded by "Be subject, therefore, to God" — υποτάγητε ουν τω Θεω. In being “subject to God,” a relationship is already in place, a relationship which presupposes the initiative of God and the response of man.

The Epistle of St. James contains many expressions that will be used in monastic and ascetical life. Temptation (1:14), the passions (4:1), purifying, cleansing, humbling oneself (4), and “be distressed and mourn and weep” (4:9) — ταλαιπωρήσατε και πενθήσατε και κλαύσατε. The excoriating words against the rich (5:1-6) underguird the monastic vow of poverty.


Article published in English on: 13-11-2007.

Last update: 13-11-2007.