It has been my experience that it's usually Roman Catholics bringing up Luther's infamous description of the book of James as an "epistle of straw." Go to virtually any Roman Catholic discussion board, place "epistle of straw" in the search engine, and you're bound to get a hit. For instance, on the CARM Roman Catholic discussion board, I read the following, "Your man Luther called James 'the Gospel of straw' Now who disrespects the Bible?" Well, OK, this defender of Rome almost got it right: the comment from Luther was "epistle of straw," not "Gospel of Straw," but it's close enough.
Should we thank Roman Catholics for so vigorously defending the book of James and chastising Luther for such a statement? I can appreciate Roman Catholics vigorously defending the canonicity of James, but they don't have the right, according to their own belief system, to criticize Luther, and I'll explain via the short dialog I had responding to the "Gospel of straw" comment.
Some years back, I took a close look at Luther's "epistle of straw" comment in a paper entitled, Luther’s View of the Canon of Scripture. I noted that an interesting fact about this quote is that it only appears in Luther's original Preface To The New Testament (1522). John Warwick Montgomery points out:
“Few people realize — and liberal Luther interpreters do not particularly advertise the fact — that in all the editions of Luther’s Bible translation after 1522 — the Reformer dropped the paragraphs at the end, of his general Preface to the New Testament which made value judgments among the various biblical books and which included the famous reference to James as an “Epistle of straw” [John Warwick Montgomery, “Lessons From Luther On The Inerrancy Of Holy Writ’s,” Westminster Theological Journal Volume 36, 295].Montgomery finds that Luther showed a “considerable reduction in negative tone in the revised Prefaces to the biblical books later in the Reformer’s career.” Therefore, for anyone to continue to cite Luther’s “epistle of straw” comment against him is to do Luther an injustice. He saw fit to retract the comment. Subsequent citations of this quote should bear this in mind.
I posted this information as a follow up to the "Gospel of straw" comment. Another defender of Rome had a response to this information about Luther's retraction of the comment:
Luther didn't retract his comment. At best you can only claim that he stopped publishing his comment. A retraction is a formal disavowal. I see no evidence that Luther ever retracted his statement about the book of James. That he did not continue to publish the claim is an indication that his claim was not well received. His lack of disavowal indicates he did not change his mind on the subject.
In my response I stated that I could understand the concern this Roman Catholic had for the book of James. I also appreciated the defense of the Scriptures when confronted with a comment like Luther's "epistle of straw" remark on the book of James.
Indeed, Luther held lifelong doubts about the canonicity of James. As I have researched it, even though Luther arrived at the harmonizing solution between James and Paul, it is probably the case that the question of James’ apostleship outweighed it. Luther's questioning of James primarily has to do with the book's status in Church history, and it’s internal evidence as to its apostolicity. For Luther, James was the writing of a second century Christian, therefore not an apostle nor an eyewitness of the risen Christ. Did Luther simply arrive at this conclusion without a basis? No. Throughout his career, he maintained a position that echoed other voices from church history. This trumped any type of harmonization between Paul and James.
But one thing I do not fully understand about Roman Catholics continually putting forth the "epistle of straw" comment, and maybe some of my Roman Catholic readers can explain it to me. For the sake of argument, I'm going to grant hypothetically that the Roman Catholic Church infallibly decreed the contents of the Bible. That is, in 1546 at the Council of Trent, the question of canonicity was put forth before the Council, and they issued a dogmatic pronouncement of which books were "canon." Once the Council declares something, all discussion is over! No longer can anyone question the Apocrypha, or James, Hebrews, Jude, or Revelation. The Roman Church meeting in a Holy Spirit led Council put forth the absolute truth on the canon, binding the entire Church. The New Catholic Encyclopedia has stated,
“According to Catholic doctrine, the proximate criterion of the Biblical canon is the infallible decision of the Church. This decision was not given until rather late in the history of the Church (at the Council of Trent). Before that time there was some doubt about the canonicity of certain Biblical books, i.e., about their belonging to the canon.”Let us remember that throughout Church history, many Christians did not hold the apocrypha to be sacred Scripture. In the 16th Century Catholic men like Erasmus, Luther, and the great Catholic scholar Cajetan expressed doubts on some of the New Testament books as well. These men all share one thing in common. They formed their opinions on the canon previous to the council of Trent. The liberty these men had was simply the liberty as allowed by the Roman Catholic Church. If the New Catholic Encyclopedia is correct, Erasmus, Cajetan, and Luther, and a host of others previous to them had every right within the Roman Catholic system to engage in Biblical criticism and debate over the extent of the Canon. In the case of Luther, Cajetan, and Erasmus, theirs was not a radical higher criticism. The books they questioned were books that had been questioned by previous generations. None were so extreme as to engage in Marcion-like canon-destruction. Both Erasmus and Luther translated the entirety of Bible, and published it. to read more about the views of Erasmus and Cajetan (contemporaries of Luther), see my paper, Luther’s View of the Canon of Scripture.
When one looks at the totality of Luther’s New Testament canon criticism, it is quite minute: four books. Of his opinion he allows for the possibility of his readers to disagree with his conclusions. I can show his overall opinion softened later in life by the exclusion of many negative comments in his revised prefaces. Of the four books, it is possible that Luther’s opinion fluctuated on two (Hebrews and Revelation). Even while criticizing James and Jude, he positively quoted from them throughout his career. In the case of Jude he did a complete series of lectures. In the case of James, he occasionally preached from the book. Add up the chapters Luther questioned in James and Jude, and the amount is quite small.
I suggest Rome's defenders follow the criterion put forth by their Church: theologians are granted the freedom to hold opinions on matters not settled dogmatically. If Rome's defenders do this, well, I'll at least respect them for being consistent with their authority paradigm. If they still maintain criticism of Luther's statements on James, perhaps they can explain on what basis they do so, for it is certainly not being consistent with the criterion put forth by the Roman Catholic Church and her infallible pronouncements.