Friday, January 09, 2009

Luther on the Book of James...Revisited

I've written a lot on Luther's opinion on the book of James and the canon . I've asserted that Luther appears to have held lifelong doubts about the canonicity of James. This is something beyond dispute. I have found though that those who chastise Luther on his rejection of James tend to ignore the many statements in which he questions the book because of authorship. For Luther, the book was not written by an apostle, but rather a later Christian. He repeats this often, and also notes others before him did as well.

Luther detractors tend to focus on his statements asserting a contradiction between James and Paul. The most popular passage comes from his preface to the book of James. Luther states: “In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works [2:24]."

Protestants have had a cogent harmonizing solution between Paul and James for quite some time. The book of James describes a real true faith in Christ: a real saving faith is a living faith. If no works are found in a person, that faith is a dead faith (c.f. James 2:17). James then describes a non-saving dead faith: the faith of a demon. A demon has faith that God exists, that Christ rose from the dead- I would dare say a demon knows theology better than you or I. But is the faith of this demon a saving faith? Absolutely not. James describes a living and saving faith, as opposed to a dead faith.

Luther clearly taught the concept of living vs. dead faith throughout his writings. My paper here goes into this in great depth. It may be surprising though to some that Luther was actually aware of a harmonization between James and Paul, and even at times uses it.

In Luther's Disputation Concerning Justification, Luther answered this spurious proposition: “Faith without works justifies, Faith without works is dead [Jas. 2:17, 26]. Therefore, dead faith justifies.” Luther responded:

“The argument is sophistical and the refutation is resolved grammatically. In the major premise, “faith” ought to be placed with the word “justifies” and the portion of the sentence “without works justifies” is placed in a predicate periphrase and must refer to the word “justifies,” not to “faith.” In the minor premise, “without works” is truly in the subject periphrase and refers to faith. We say that justification is effective without works, not that faith is without works. For that faith which lacks fruit is not an efficacious but a feigned faith. “Without works” is ambiguous, then. For that reason this argument settles nothing. It is one thing that faith justifies without works; it is another thing that faith exists without works.”

In The Sermons of Martin Luther 2:2:308, Luther offers the harmonizing solution quite clearly: “This is what St. James means when his says in his Epistle, 2:26: ‘Faith without works is dead.’ That is, as the works do not follow, it is a sure sign that there is no faith there; but only an empty thought and dream, which they falsely call faith.”

But here's the citation that provoked this blog entry. Recently I've been reading Luther's early Commentary on Romans. Here's a very interesting passage:

Here the question arises: How can a person be justified without the works of the Law, or how can it be that justification does not flow from our works? For St. James writes: 'We see how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (Jas. 2:24). So also St. Paul: "Faith . . . worketh by love" (Gal. 5:6); and: "The doers of the law shall be justified" (Rom. 2:13). To this we reply: As the Apostle distinguishes between the law and faith, the letter and grace, so also he distinguishes between the works resulting from these. He calls those deeds "works of the Law" that are done without faith and divine grace, merely because of the law, moved either by fear of punishment or the alluring hope of reward. But works of faith he calls those deeds which are done in the spirit of (Christian) liberty and flow from love to God. These can be done only by such as are justified by faith. Justification, however, is not in any way promoted by the works of the Law, but they rather hinder it, because they keep a person from regarding himself as unrighteous and so in need of justification. When James and Paul say that a man is justified by works, they argue against the false opinion of those who think that (for justification) a faith suffices that is without works. Paul does not say that true faith exists without its proper works, for without these there is no true faith. But what he says is that it is faith alone that justifies, regardless of works. Justification therefore does not presuppose the works of the Law, but rather a living faith, which performs its proper works, as we read in Galatians 5:6 [Commentary on Romans (Michigan: Kregel, 1976), 75].

In the Luther's Works version of Luther's Commentary and writings on Romans, Luther gives a rather lengthy and curious explanation of James, somewhat different than anything stated above:

The question is asked, “How can justification take place without the works of the Law, and how by the works of the Law can there be no justification, since James 2:26 clearly states: ‘Faith apart from works is dead’ and ‘a man is justified by works,’ using the example of Abraham and Rahab (James 2:23–25)?” And Paul himself in Gal. 5:6 speaks of “faith working through love,” and above in chapter 2:13 he says that “the doers of the Law will be justified before God.” The answer to this question is that the apostle is distinguishing between the Law and faith, or between the letter and grace, and thus also between their respective works. The works of the Law are those, he says, which take place outside of faith and grace and are done at the urging of the Law, which either forces obedience through fear or allures us through the promise of temporal blessings. But the works of faith, he says, are those which are done out of the spirit of liberty and solely for the love of God. And the latter cannot be accomplished except by those who have been justified by faith, to which justification the works of the Law add nothing, indeed, they strongly hinder it, since they do not permit a man to see himself as unrighteous and in need of justification.

Here is an example. If a layman should perform all the outward functions of a priest, celebrating Mass, confirming, absolving, administering the sacraments, dedicating altars, churches, vestments, vessels, etc., it is certain that these actions in all respects would be similar to those of a true priest, in fact, they might be performed more reverently and properly than the real ones. But because he has not been consecrated and ordained and sanctified, he performs nothing at all, but is only playing church and deceiving himself and his followers. It is the same way with the righteous, good, and holy works which are performed either without or before justification. For just as this layman does not become a priest by performing all these functions, although it can happen that he could be made a priest without doing them, namely, by ordination, so also the man who is righteous by the Law is actually not made righteous by the works of the Law at all, but without them, by something else, namely, through faith in Christ, by which he is justified and, as it were, ordained, so that he is made righteous for the performance of the works of righteousness, just as this layman is ordained a priest for the performance of the functions of a priest. And it can happen that the man who is righteous by the Law does works which are more according to the letter and more spectacular than the man who is righteous by grace. But yet he is not for this reason righteous but rather may actually be more impeded by these works from coming to righteousness and to the works of grace.

Another example. A monkey can imitate the actions of people, but he is not a man on that account. But if he should become a man, this doubtless would not take place by virtue of these actions, by which he has imitated a man, but by some other power, namely, God’s; but then having become a man, he would truly and rightly perform the actions of a man.

Therefore, when St. James and the apostle say that a man is justified by works, they are contending against the erroneous notion of those who thought that faith suffices without works, although the apostle does not say that faith justifies without its own works (because then there would be no faith, since, according to the philosophers, “action is the evidence that form exists”), but that it justifies without the works of the Law. Therefore justification does not demand the works of the Law but a living faith which produces its own works.

But if faith justifies with its own works, but without the works of the Law, then why are heretics regarded as beyond justification, since they also believe and from this same faith produce great and sometimes even greater works than the other believers? And all the people in the church who are spiritually proud, who have many and great works which also surely proceed from faith, are such people also unrighteous? Does something other than faith in Christ with its good works seem to be required for justification?

James answers the question briefly: “Whosoever … fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (2:10). For faith is indivisible. Therefore it is either a whole faith and believes all that is to be believed, or it is no faith, if it does not believe one part. The Lord thus compares it to one pearl, to one grain of mustard, etc. Because “Christ is not divided” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:13), therefore He is either completely denied in one unit, or else He is completely affirmed. He cannot be at the same time denied in one word and confessed in another. But heretics are always picking out one thing or many from those which are to be believed, against which they set their minds in their arrogance, as if they were wiser than all the rest. And thus they believe nothing which is to be believed and perish without faith, without obedience toward God, while still in their great works, which are so similar to the real ones. They are not different from the Jews, who themselves believe many things which the church also truly believes. But one only does the thought of their own proud heart oppose, namely, Christ, and thus they perish in their unbelief. So also every proud man in his own mind always opposes either the precept or the counsel of him who is correctly guiding him to salvation. Since he does not believe this counsel, he likewise believes nothing, and his entire faith perishes because of the tenacity of one thought. We must always humbly, therefore, give way in our thinking, lest we stumble over this rock of offense,34 that is, the truth which in humility stands against us and opposes our own thinking. For since we are liars, the truth can never come to us except as an apparent adversary to what we are thinking, for we presume that we think the truth, and we wish to hear and see as truth only that which agrees with us and applauds us. But this cannot be.

The works of all of these men, therefore, are the works of the Law, not of faith or of grace, indeed they are opposed to and in conflict with faith. Thus justification not only can but must take place without them, and with the apostle must “be counted as refuse for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:8).

Source: LW 25: 234-236

Now of course, one must be very careful with Luther's early works, as the last passage from his work on Romans shows. Luther was not yet at his full understanding of justification that he became famous for. The early statements though are very intriguing.

Even though Luther knew how to harmonize James and Paul, it may be the case that the question of James’ apostleship out-weighed it. Further, I do recall reading of Luther's disdain for his Catholic opponents repeatedly quoting the book of James to him. This indeed provoked him, but I wonder why he didn't simply fight back with something similar to the above.


PaulSceptic said...

Paul's epistles weren't written by Paul but by Marcion and then a proto-Catholic added a bunch of OT quotations to them and some light orthodox material to clean them up a bit. Its time for "Paul" to go.

PaulSceptic said...

...not because Paul cannot be harmonized with James, but because Paul cannot be harmonized with Paul!!!!

James Swan said...

Mr. Paul Sceptic, I see a pattern to your comments. You may wish to visit

They spend time dealing with things like this.

I don't have time to engage you in your crusade.

Lvka said...

Luther rejected part of the NT writings for the same reason he rejected the OT books not in the Hebrew: no universal [both geographical and historical] patristic consensus. And he also fancied they were both wrong (both sets of books) because they preached what he took to be "another Gospel" (James, Tobit, 2 Maccbees: all taught in his opinion what he called works-righteouness). Yet other were fables, frauds, or fabrications.

He does not accept Esther either: no early Jewish or Christian consensus about it; the book was disputed in both faiths during the first few centuries of our era. -- until now, he's pretty much using the same rule: no ancient and universal consensus about these books. This, and purported wrong teachings (i.e., things which did not square with his newly discovered 'lex credendi' or 'regula fidei': "sola fide") contained in them.

But he goes even beyond that when saying that Jonah is a mere fable. (Curiously, I think Christ wouldn't have agreed with this: `the sign of Jonah`). That again, one might argue that since Paul and Jude also made mention of other OT non-canonical books like Jannes and Jambres, Acension of Isaiah, Assumption of Moses and I Enoch, then Christ's reference to it didn't imply canonicity either.

Lvka said...


if he added all those OT quotes in Paul, why did he lose all that time to purging Luke of any OT quotation found therein, not to mention speak or write against the OT and its God with every chance he got? Did he also happen to have suffered from schizophrenia? :-\

James Swan said...

But he goes even beyond that when saying that Jonah is a mere fable.

You may want to re-evaluate this statement after searching this blog (try ntrmin as well). I'm sure you're just repeating something you've never actually studied about Luther & Jonah.

Careful, careful, careful!

Lvka said...

Yes. You're right. The text is undoubtedly clear. (Thanks for clearing things up). Your other attempts at "clearing" his name, however, fail. (Not that -in my opinion- either him or his name need any 'clearing': he is how he is, and that's it). Your effort is rather admirable, but -in the end- useless. There were however some outright lies about him, which You did indeed expose as such, though if I were in Your shoes, I would have not even bothered addressing them in the first place (such as him supposedly believing Jesus was an adulterer, and other aberations)

It's not really helpful, in my opinion, to try to harmonize in any way the three (or five) Solas. Luther had a German upbringing and his entire theology of God the Father is permeated by that, and it was Sola Fide which brought him confort. He should not be pushed on to a Procust's bed along with Sola Scriptura (he did not start with 66 books -he didn't even start with fewer books-, he started with the same thing that the Church started in discerning the Canon of the Bible: namely the Canon of truth, a creed, the lex credendi, in huis case: Faith Alone -- of course, the Church did not use *[t]his* rule). He should not be pushed into the corner of being aligned to Sola Gratia either: he belived in simple and not double predestination; and his paradigm was God's wrath [from which one escapes through Faith Alone], and not God's sovereignity. Nor should Neo-Protestants try to left-handedly insinuate or imply that he "didn't went too far, or that far": there were Anabaptists in his day, and he combated them and their teachings; the same for eucharistic views that deny any real presence of Christ in the Sacrament: whether Calvin's or Zwingli's: he knew them both and combated them both from Scripture: and history cannot be re-written.

Similarly, Calvin is not of stunch German upbringing, projecting the shadow of one's father onto God the Father; nor does he have any problems steming from such a view. His is an intellectual approach, Calvinism being until today the most scholastically ratonalized approach to Scripture there is: none of Luther's heart-wrenching emotive states are discerned in him: God sits there on his Heavenly Throne like Calvin did on his armchair, and out of His unfathomable will (or bored whim) decides to rescue some ... not all ... after all, why should He? And as far as the others are concerned, He just simply decided to damn them for all eternity into the unquenched flames of hell ... NO hard feelings (or any feelings at all) attached. Just like that. [No, I'm honestly not trying to be sarcastic here].

Both their views are rooted in undisputed texts: Paul's writings. As for their rejection of the books not in the Hebrew: blame it on St. Jerome. As for their various dogmas: original sin as inherited or genetical punishment, dualistic view of God-good/man-bad and obsession with predestination and lessening of the presence of Christ in the Sacrament: blame it on St. Augustine (and Thomism, and Scholasticism, which are rooted in Hellenism's concept of description by oposition). Luther was an Augustinian monk, and Calvin takes Augustine's ideas to their logical (and expressed) end, which the Western Church tried not to, because it still had an idea about patristic consensus, and tried to balance the respective views. (Semi-Augustinianism, Synod of Orange, exclusion of full Augustinianism, finding a middle-way).

James Swan said...

Yes. You're right. The text is undoubtedly clear. (Thanks for clearing things up). Your other attempts at "clearing" his name, however, fail. (Not that -in my opinion- either him or his name need any 'clearing': he is how he is, and that's it). Your effort is rather admirable, but -in the end- useless. There were however some outright lies about him, which You did indeed expose as such, though if I were in Your shoes, I would have not even bothered addressing them in the first place (such as him supposedly believing Jesus was an adulterer, and other aberations)

I've covered many Luther quotes and issues. Almost all of them were brought up by Roman Catholics. I wouldn't have about 80% of the blog entries here if it weren't for the fact that many Catholics don't know how to do research, and have a history of misquoting Luther.

I've enjoyed doing the research, and I'll continue to do the research. If you find it useless, you can visit other blogs that have what you deem "important information."

Lvka said...

Well, I didn't mean to offend, but when I see You write stuff like 'he said he'ld wish these books were not in the Bbile, and he even said he'ld rip them apart or pluck them out of the Bible, and even toss them in the Elbe ... BUT he was 100% convinced of their canonicity!' I get the distinct feeling that this sort of well-meant attempt at a defense is as brave and heroic as it is un-convincing. The communists made the Bibles into toilet-paper: at least they had an excuse; what was Luther's? Do You see any normal, level-headed, (not to mention Bible trumpin`) Christian man dare speak that way about ANY of the sacred books? Not even Catholics and Orthodox speak this way, and they're the ones that supposedly hate the Scriptures. :-) Seriously now...

[You won't probably believe this, but the word-verification is SILLY]

James Swan said...

I get the distinct feeling that this sort of well-meant attempt at a defense is as brave and heroic as it is un-convincing.

I get the distinct feeling you are not reading my blog correctly. I have no desire to make Luther anything other than he was. I'm not even "Lutheran." But, Catholics have typically gone too far and don't understand what he says. Even in this blog entry, the point is not to say Luther really did accept James, but rather to explore his writings and see what he actually said. If anything- this blog entry agrees with the typical Catholic mantra that Luther wasn't always consistent. Because you think you've got me pigeonholed, you missed it.

when I see You write stuff like 'he said he'ld wish these books were not in the Bbile, and he even said he'ld rip them apart or pluck them out of the Bible, and even toss them in the Elbe ...

Do you mean this?

Off the top of my head, I don't recall Luther wanting to throw anything other than the third book of Esdras into the Elbe. I would join him in throwing it.

You, like many of the others I've dealt with make Luther worse than he was by using out of context quotes. So far, I've got you twice repeating standard Luther myths.

Perhaps it's time for you to step away from commenting on my blog and do a little study. Sure, you can disagree with Luther, but why not actually disagree and chastise Luther for things he's said, rather than repeat misquotes?

PaulSceptic said...

Too bad he didn't throw Romans in the Elbe.

Matt said...

I know it's not central to your argument and my concern with the quotation is, admittedly, not explicitly stated. But I found that the following statement

"I wouldn't have about 80% of the blog entries here if it weren't for the fact that many Catholics don't know how to do research, and have a history of misquoting Luther."

is suggestive in a number of erroneous ways.

First of all, it is a general statement about the scholarship of Catholics. But some of the best and most interesting scholarship on Luther in this century has been done by Catholics (Lortz, Pesch, Wicks, etc.) It also ignores the fact that volumes can be written about Protestant misinformation about the Roman Catholic Church. And, finally, it overlooks the extent to which Lutheran-Reformed polemic (and misinformation!) in the centuries after the Reformation could be said to have outweighted the same vis-a-vis Rome and from Rome to the Reformation Churches...

Anyway, again, I know that you did not explicitly state any of these three things, but, as a general pattern on this blog, I find that the implication is often there. If I am mistaken, then I apologize. But it is not entirely the fault of the reader when an incorrect inference is drawn, right?

James Swan said...


I think you know who I mean.

It's the Mardid/Sippo/Staples/DA/Ray/etc.... and their followers I have in mind. It's these recent Catholic apologists & Internet apologists I mean by "many." Keep in mind also, "Lvka" was using some of the typical misquoted Luther sayings that are common with the group I've mentioned.

We both know I have cited Catholic scholars worthy of reading.

Matt said...

I know exactly who you are referring to. I just wonder about the extent to which you associate the "real Catholics" with the apologists and not with the serious scholars...