James the straw apostle and Martin Luther

Posted: December 28, 2013 by J in Bible, Church history, Theology

We evangelicals don’t seem to know what to do with the NT letter of James. Luther famously called it ‘the epistle of straw’. He actually questioned its place in the canon, because he didn’t find any gospel in it.

Some evangelicals get keen on James, but they tend to be the active, ministry minded types who frown on the slackness of the rest of us and like the way James gives us a lashing. The not-very-gracious types, in other words. Other evangelicals just try to avoid the letter.

What is lacking is Christians who are able to integrate James into their gospel faith, rather than doing a Jeckyl and Hyde, grace and law kind of split personality Christian act.

This stalemate situation has persisted for a long time. Here at The Grit we’re suspicious of this sort of thing. (We’re suspicious of many things).

Today I’m ready to question our problem with James. I’m just not convinced about it. The early church clearly felt ok about him – he’s in the canon. So what’s the problem these days?

Here’s what I’ve noticed: when I read James, I keep getting reminded of Luke’s Gospel. It seems to share many of the same preoccupations. After spending the last two years with my head in Luke-Acts, I am finding Luke-style gospel material all through James.

For example:

– the letter is written to the poor, the weak and the oppressed, facing painful trials: exactly the people Jesus includes in his new covenant when he comes down from the mountain (Luke 6). “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom …? “

– these ones are to rejoice in being raised up by God (like in Luke 6:23), and set their hope on the crown of life that follows the painful trial. I.e. In James’s view discipleship takes part in Jesus’ story of death then resurrection. It is gospel shaped.

– James accordingly warns the rich and powerful and those who side with them that they are on the wrong side of the kingdom: the very people warned by Jesus (see Luke’s sermon on the mount, Luke 6).

– participating in Jesus’ kingdom is about siding instead with the poor and despised. This is of the essence of Christian faith: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, keeping oneself from being polluted by the (power-loving) world. ” Jesus’ habit of caring for these ones is emphasised throughout Luke-Acts: he saw this as the heart of his calling, for his gospel was ‘for the poor’ (Luke 4: 18f).

–  James refers to something Christians look at, which he calls ‘the royal law, the law of freedom’. Whose law do you think that might be? The king’s? Freedom is what Jesus announces when he comes as King of Israel, in Luke (Luke 4:18ff). Luke presents Jesus’ kingdom as  kind of new torah or law, a new mode of living (Luke 6). James describes the gospel in these same terms. The royal law of freedom is a brilliant way to describe the gospel of Jesus to a Jewish audience.

-here is James’s take on Christian life, in his opening paragraphs: “By his will he gave us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” In other words, God is restoring and renewing the whole creation by the gospel of Christ, and the church is the beginning of that future, now. Just like in Peter’s sermon, Acts 3:19-21.  NT eschatology is very strong in James.

– the gospel then is seen as God’s powerful word of salvation, unless it is resisted. Resisting it is, of course, what Israel did, rejecting King Jesus when he arrived at his city. In its nationalistic fervour and aggression Israel refused to receive his vision for a kingdom of peace (Luke 19:42). It preferred the path of strife and war, which it took soon afterwards. So James says “Therefore, get rid of all the impurity and abundance of strife by gentleness. Receive the word planted in you, which can save you…do not merely listen to the word…”

– so James’s gospel is a call to Jewish Christians to embrace the peace that Jesus preached. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  20 because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

– for James the gospel word is deeply transformative. It brings change to all who receive it: “he gave us birth through the word of truth”. It effects new creation.

That’s chapter 1. The rest of the letter is pretty much the outworking of those themes.

– You can’t profess faith in Jesus and favour the rich, and neglect the poor. Faith that does that is dead. (ch.2)

– The peacemaking of the kingdom of God involves transforming the tongue, so that it no longer creates strife but friendship. (ch.3-4)

– The poor, oppressed, sick and troubled need perseverance to inherit the kingdom when the Lord returns. The rich will then be overthrown. (ch.5)

I’m not suggesting Lukan authorship of James! I’m suggesting that they are singing from the same song-sheet. Like Luke, James is totally on about understanding what God is doing bringing his kingdom through Jesus. He calls people to participate in that by truly embracing the gospel of Jesus. He’s on about letting that gospel do its transforming work so that we take part in the renewal of the creation. He especially challenges Jews about the ways they tend to resist this gospel. Just like Luke.

So anyone who doesn’t like James had better be prepared to deal with Luke also. And he wrote one quarter of the NT!

In other words, James is stuffed full of gospel like a Santa sack is full of presents.


Why do we stumble at James? Why can’t we find the gospel there? Seems to me we’ve got a straw man, rather than a straw epistle. Anyone who can’t hear the gospel in this epistle, has a problem.

Martin Luther’s disappointment with James casts some serious doubt over the great reformer’s understanding of the gospel. And how about the church movement he sparked off (ours)?

  1. David McKay says:

    This article shows that Luther’s view of james is a bit more involved than the “epistle of straw” quote:
    Takes some time, but it’s worth a read, I think.

    • J says:

      Thanks for the link David. The article confirms that Luther could find no gospel in James. That was the main thing he had against it.

      I think it may have been partly an exegetical problem – Luther just didn’t know how to read the letter. But I fear there’s more to it than that.

  2. Michael says:

    I have a personal testimony that James’ epistle is inspired, is of God, and is scripture, as valuable as any other post-crucifixion epistle. And, as I understand it, there were fewer translation issues/mistakes in epistle of James than many of Paul’s, in the original translation to the King James version.

    Isn’t it interesting as well that certain of the translators wanted to exclude the epistle of James, but were afraid it would offend his namesake, King James, and they might lose their heads!

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