Monday, June 25, 2012

"Luther's Actions Disproved Sola Fide," So Says Tiber Swimmer

Here's a newsflash from the Crossed the Tiber blog: Luther's Actions Disproved Sola Fide!
"The Protestants claim that James 2 really doesn't mean that "we are not saved by faith alone." Instead, they claim that James was talking about a different kind of faith. A 'non saving' faith is one explanation they use."
The book of James describes a 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. Luther clearly taught the concept of living vs. dead faith throughout his writings.
"I believe Luther knew exactly what Saint James was talking about. I suspect Luther exegeted this verse exactly the same way the Church had for over a thousand years. Luther took this verse at its face value and concluded that these verses in chapter 2 would contradict his new theology of sola fide."
Luther appears to have exegeted the chapter differently throughout his career. At times he uses the traditional Protestant harmonization.  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.”
He didn't attempt to make it say the opposite of the "plain reading" of scripture as some of the reformers did. Instead, he took an easier route: "Let's throw Jimmy in the stove!" So he criticized the book of James and attempted to remove it from the canon of the NT.
Yes, Luther did say this. The quote comes from The Licentiate Examination Of Heinrich Schmedenstede, July 7 1542. In this treatise, forty-six theses are put forth. Theses eighteen through twenty-one read:

18. The papists and sophists believe in vain in God the Father and all the other articles of our faith, since they reject the work of Christ completed for us.

19. For they deny that we are justified by faith alone, or what is the same thing, solely by Christ’s completed work.

20. For solely by faith in Christ, once promised, now delivered, the whole church is justified, from the beginning of the world to the end.

21. Thus it is by faith alone, so that neither reason, nor law, nor the very fulfillment of the law, which is called love, accomplish anything toward justification.

Those involved in the discussion considered Catholic counter arguments as well. At one point, James 2 is raised as a potential counter argument: “James says that Abraham was justified by works. Therefore, justification is not by faith.” Protestant Heinrich Schmedenstede countered this by saying, “James is speaking of works as the effect of justification, not as the cause.” Luther then gave his opinion:

“That epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest. Up to this point I have been accustomed just to deal with and interpret it according to the sense of the rest of Scriptures. For you will judge that none of it must be set forth contrary to manifest Holy Scripture. Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did.”

Luther does not deny the answer put forth by Schmedenstede. What Luther does point out is heavy Roman reliance on James 2. It troubled him that this passage weighed so strongly in Roman arguments against justification by faith alone. Interestingly, he says that he has previously interpreted it “according to the sense of the rest of Scriptures.”

But what of the comment “I feel like throwing Jimmy in the stove”? What is not explicit in the context above is the historical background of Luther’s comment. The editors of Luther’s Works explain, “The preacher of Kalenberg, when visited by the duchess, heated the room with the wooden statues of the apostles. The statue of James was the last and as the preacher shoved it into the stove he exclaimed, “Now bend over, Jimmy, you must go into the stove; no matter if you were the pope or all the bishops, the room must become warm.”
"Luther claimed James was an 'epistle of straw' and meant to be cast into the stove because it lacked 'the nature of the gospel.' By these actions and comments we can see that Luther knew sola fide wasn't scriptural and wouldn't fly with that pesky epistle of straw hanging around the back of the bible."
An interesting fact about the "epistle of straw" comment (hardly ever mentioned by Luther-detractors!) is that it only appears in the original 1522 Preface To The New Testament. Luther saw fit to retract the comment. Subsequent citations of this quote should bear this in mind (but in practice, most Roman Catholics would have a hard time giving up this quote). If Luther's Preface to James is read carefully, he praises James and considers it a “good book” “because it sets up no doctrine of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.” Luther clearly values the law of God. Rarely have I seen Luther detractors inform its readers that Luther praises James, or point out Luther’s respect for God’s law. Luther then says he is going to state his own opinion, “without prejudice to anyone." Luther does admit to a contradiction between Paul and James in this preface, though he was aware of the harmonizing solution.

Luther also says he cannot include James among his “chief books though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him.” In a conversation I once had with a Roman Catholic, my opponent underlined the words, “cannot include him among the chief books,” while I, utilizing the same quote underlined “though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him.” The Roman Catholic emphasized Luther’s questioning of James, while I emphasized how Luther was not dogmatic: he allowed people the freedom to disagree with him.

In his Preface to James, one of the first thing Luther wants to tell his readers is his awareness that the book of James has an uncertainty in regards to its canonicity, and that he does not consider James an apostle. The editors of Luther’s Works include an interesting footnote after the word “ancients,” noting that both Eusebius and Jerome raised or confirmed similar doubts to the apostolicity and canonicity of James. Even though Luther new the harmonizing solution between James and Paul (and used it occasionally), it is probably the case that the question of James’ apostleship out-weighed it. In my opinion, Luther over-reacted to heavy Roman Catholic reliance on the book of James.

Here's something I've stated in the past about Roman Catholics using the "epistle of straw" comment. 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 Revelation. The 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 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 Roman Catholics follow the criterion put forth by the Roman Catholic Church: Roman Catholic theologians are granted the freedom to hold opinions on matters not settled dogmatically. If they do, well, I'll at least respect them for being a consistent Roman Catholics. 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.


Martin Yee said...

Hi James,

Wow! Excellent piece. Better than anything I ever read on this topic. Thanks a lot.


James Swan said...

Thanks Martin.

I think Luther's position on James isn't as simple as some make it out to be.