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.