Luther and “The Epistle of Straw”

In this post below, the commenter “Roger” not only took issue with my suggestion that Moby held a Mormon view of Christianity, but took that post as an opportunity to attack the whole “unBiblical” notion of Justification by Grace alone through Faith alone.
Well, ol’ Rog raised an interesting question in the beginning of his mile-long diatribe: what about Luther and Scripture? What do Lutherans do with Luther’s assertions about books of the Bible such as James? (Interesting, isn’t it, that the same point is raised both by people who hate Lutherans, as well as “Lutherans” who want to go cafeteria-style through the Scriptures?)

On this, as on most other things, I like Sasse:

The Lutheran Church has adopted this view of the Reformer that there is an indissoluble connection betwween a correct understanding of the Scriptures and the doctrine of Justification. In its Confessions, from the Apology to the Formula of Concord, the Lutheran Church has made it a dogma. And this dogma has not been a mere theological theory. On the contrary, the entire church life of old Lutheranism, the message of its preaching and teaching, its liturgy, and its classical hymnody, give one great testimony to this understanding of the Gospel. Moreover, it cannot be claimed that the Lutheran Church adopted this teaching of the Reformer uncritically. It was not blind to the dangers which can attend a false application of the Lutheran principle of the Scriptures, and which Luther himself was not always successful in escaping. The necessity of bringing into prominence, as the essential revelation, that part of the Scriptures which contains a direct declaration of the Gospel’s promise of grace to the believing sinner, can result in failure to recognize the importance of other parts of the Scriptures. Luther’s celebrated dictum from his “Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude” (1522) [LW 35:395-398], that the “true test” by which all Biblical books are to be judged is to “see whether they deal with Christ or not, since all the Scriptures show us Christ,” can open the floodgates to a false, because altogether subjective, criticism of the Bible. [Witness the current morass in the elcA! T.W.]

No one can deny that Luther himself was occasionally a victim of this danger. There is even some basis for the charge of onesidedness and willfulness which is levelled against Luther’s attitude toward the Scriptures by Reformed and Catholic critics. Of course, we do not regard Luther as an infallible exegete. All exegesis has a very human–an artistic, if you will–side, and the reverse side of Luther’s ingenuity as an exegete and translator was the subjectivity of his judgment. He had a deeper understanding than anyone before him or after him of those experiences of the men of the Bible which were congenial to him. Everything else was foreign to him, and he sometimes expressed his sense of strangeness very naÔvely, as he did in the case of his famous opinon of the Apocalypse [LW 35:398f.]. The Lutheran Church has recognized these limitations in its Reformer and has departed from him in this point by not adopting such subjective judgments. So, after Luther had himself already modified some of his more extreme subjective opinions, it removed the prefaces to the individual books from the Luther Bible. (Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, 125-126)

What did Luther actually say? (I’m sure Roger has actually read the whole context.)

Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle; and my reasons follow. (LW 35:395-396)

Therefore, St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others [Gospel of John; 1 John; Paul’s letters, “especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians”; 1 Peter] for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.

But as for “an epistle of straw” see 1 Corinthians 3:11-13. Luther’s opinion was based on his desire to build doctrine on Christ alone, and he considered that if one were to (like Roger) consider James of equal authority as a “seat of doctrine,” one would end up in the exact same place as Roger, Moby, Pelagians and semi-Pelagians, and Mormons: counting works as a contributor to one’s salvation. With Roger’s comment (and, of course, the many, many other promoters of works), I think Luther has been vindicated in that opinion.


6 thoughts on “Luther and “The Epistle of Straw”

  1. Yes…and to say nothing of the problem of the antilegommena [sic?]. Why is it that those who love to argue about the Bible so often don’t even know what the Bible really is?

    Personally, I have no problem harmonizing James with Paul in Galatians and Romans. It only takes a very limited understanding of the two kinds of righteousness. But even if I did struggle, I would find myself incapable of ignoring the Church’s rather profound and in unison dictatum that there are some books contained with the “Bible” we buy from Zondervan press which cannot be questioned, and there are some which not only can, but perhaps always should be (granted, with caution and a severe dose of humility, recognizing that even the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas are among the earliest commentaries of the faithful who have gone before us.)

  2. I always like arguments that proceed along the lines of:

    1. Martin Luther was wrong about where snot comes from.

    2. Therefore, justification by faith alone is lie, and you have to earn your salvation by your works.

    3. Hence, the Pope is the infallible Vicar of Christ and Successor of Peter.

  3. Luther was wrong about where snot came from? Dang! I gotta run back through my newsletter articles–I’m sure I quoted him on that somewhere…

    Seriously, though, much as I admire Luther, I am a “Lutheran” because my theology is based upon the three Solas (which happened to come to us through Luther), as mapped out in the Lutheran Confessions, not in the mountain of writings which Martin penned.

  4. I’ve wondered if some of Paul’s own writings meet that qualification. Paul seems to say women should shut up when in church, and that they should wear the veil when in public. Jewish tradition actually sheds a dark light on those passages. Can I say al-Hadith?

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 )

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