Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Luther: We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school [Wittenberg]

This is a follow-up to my earlier critique of  Shoebat's Martin Luther- The Bare Truth Unfolded. Their recent hit piece includes some Luther quotes I've never gone into detail on or have never covered. For instance, they state the following in regard to Luther's view of James:

If there was any book in the New Testament that was more subject to attack by Martin Luther it was none other than the Epistle of James. This was simply because Luther had become an antinomian and thus wanted an easy salvation that was devoid of repentance in accordance with faith. Sounds like most of Protestantism today, doesn’t it? Let us see what his actual words are regarding the Epistle of James: “We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school [Wittenberg], for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any.” (Lecture at Wittenberg, 54, 424-425) For Luther to blasphemously accredit the Blessed Apostle James as an unbelieving Jew who had no contact with Christianity is laughable to say the least and blasphemous at worst! No wonder we have in a number of Protestant churches and theological colleges, people who have no reverence for anything sacred and also who attack our Lord Jesus Christ and His Blessed Apostles!

Over the years, I've put together a number of posts on Luther's view of James. For example, see Luther's "Epistle of Straw" Comment or  Six Points On Luther’s “Epistle of Straw. I've only mentioned this Luther comment cited by in passing.

Documentation cites "Lecture at Wittenberg, 54, 424-425."  Someone coming across this quote probably pictures Luther lecturing to his students, and the quote is part of a documented lecture.  The simple fact is that neither the documentation nor the context assert this. is assuming it. Nor does explain what "54, 424-425" refers to. Is volume 54 of whatever it is they're citing entitled, "Lecture at Wittenberg" or is it a document from some unnamed 54th source?  Well, "54" refers to Luther's Works, vol. 54, English edition (often referenced as "LW"). is in error when they state, "Let us see what his actual words are regarding the Epistle of James." Vol. 54 is a collection of Luther's Table Talk utterances. The Table Talk is a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends and students, published after his death, there is no proof they are his "actual words." Since the statements contained therein are purported to have been made by Luther, they should serve more as corroborating second-hand testimony to something Luther is certain to have written or said.

No. 5443: Luther Has Low Opinion of Epistle of James Summer or Fall, 1542 
We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning [Jas. 1:1; 2:1]. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did. He wrote not a word about the suffering and resurrection of Christ, although this is what all the apostles preached about. Besides, there’s no order or method in the epistle. Now he discusses clothing and then he writes about wrath and is constantly shifting from one to the other. He presents a comparison: ‘As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead’ [Jas. 2:26]. O Mary, mother of God! What a terrible comparison that is! James compares faith with the body when he should rather have compared faith with the soul! The ancients recognized this, too, and therefore they didn’t acknowledge this letter as one of the catholic epistles.” [Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 54: Table Talk. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, and H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 54, pp. 424–425). Philadelphia: Fortress Press].

This 1542 Table Talk utterance does reflect Luther's earlier view of James- that he was not an apostle, but rather a later Christian. His earlier preface to James (1522) states, "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" (LW 35:395). In the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) Luther states, "[M]any assert with much probability that this epistle is not by James the apostle, and that it is not worthy of an apostolic spirit; although, whoever was its author, it has come to be regarded as authoritative" (LW 36:118). The editors of LW 35 point out that the "ancients" Luther probably had in mind were Eusebius and Jerome (LW 35:395, fn 47). The editors likewise posit that the "many" may have included Luther's Roman Catholic contemporaries, Desiderius Erasmus and Cardinal Cajetan. (LW 36:118, fn. 213). Interestingly, The New Catholic Answer Bible (using the NAB) states, "The person to whom this letter is ascribed can scarcely be one of the two members of the Twelve who bore the name James, for he is not identified as an apostle but only as a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (p. 1341). They also reference the fact that some scholars hold "James is a pseudonymous work of a later period" (p. 1341-1342).

 As to whether or not Luther tried to have James thrown out of the Wittenberg school, I'm not aware of any actual writings from Luther in which he wrote this. It is true though that Luther was bothered by the polemical Roman Catholic use of James throughout his career, so it wouldn't be much of stretch to believe he made this rhetorical comment.

The phrase "some Jew"  sometimes get highlighted as an antisemitic slur. See for instance the debate between Bill Rutland (Roman Catholic) and Wayne Greeson (Protestant): "Is Roman Catholic Tradition Our Authority For Faith And Doctrine."Rutland says,
The truth is…Martin Luther took books out of the Bible. Martin Luther using a Jewish Council convened in 90 A.D. called the Council of Jamnia removed the dueterocanonicals from the Old Testament. Not only did he do that but he even removed the Book of James from the New Testament calling it an ‘epistle of straw’ and claiming that some evil Jew had written it to lead Christians astray and it was put back in after the cajoling of the other Reformers (p.31).
The comments about works are also consistent with Luther's earlier views, but is in blatant error when they say "Luther had become an antinomian" because he "wanted an easy salvation that was devoid of repentance in accordance with faith." See my detailed link here, or scroll through my compilation of statements from Luther on faith and works. Luther taught a life under the cross, which is a life of discipleship of following after Christ. Our crosses though, do not save. They serve the neighbor. We are called to be neighbor to those around us. Detractors often selectively quote Luther’s opinion of James. Most often cited are only those comments that express negativity. If one takes the times to actually read Luther’s popular preface comments about James, he praises it and considers it a "good book" "because it sets up no doctrine of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God."

The comments about "no order or method in the epistle" are also consistent with Luther's earlier views.  His earlier Preface to James states, "he throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper" (LW 35:397).  What Luther refers to as the unnatural order of the book, The New Catholic Answer Bible says in a more polished way:
From the viewpoint of its literary form, James is a letter only in the most conventional sense; it has none of the characteristic features of a real letter except the address. It belongs rather to the genre of parenesis or exhortation and is concerned almost exclusively with ethical conduct. It therefore falls within the tradition of Jewish wisdom literature, such as can be found in the Old Testament (Proverbs, Sirach) and in the extracanonical Jewish literature (Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Books of Enoch, the Manual of Discipline found at Qumran). More specifically, it consists of sequences of didactic proverbs, comparable to Tb 4:5–19, to many passages in Sirach, and to sequences of sayings in the synoptic gospels. Numerous passages in James treat of subjects that also appear in the synoptic sayings of Jesus, especially in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but the correspondences are too general to establish any literary dependence. James represents a type of early Christianity that emphasized sound teaching and responsible moral behavior. Ethical norms are derived not primarily from christology, as in Paul, but from a concept of salvation that involves conversion, baptism, forgiveness of sin, and expectation of judgment (Jas 1:17; 4:12) (p.1341).

So this Table Talk comment could be reflective of Luther's lifelong doubt about the canonicity of James. There were occasions though throughout his career that he referenced James, and not in a derogatory manner. Such citations are not proof that he changed his mind on the canonicty of James, but they are proof that is exaggerating when they state, "If there was any book in the New Testament that was more subject to attack by Martin Luther it was none other than the Epistle of James."

At times it does appear Luther accepted James as an apostle and his book as canonical. For instance, in 1536 Luther preached on James 1:16-21. It is curious that in the sermon, Luther refers to James as “the apostle,” and it is also interesting that he does discuss the gospel and the Resurrection. Luther was also aware of the common protestant harmonization of Paul and James, and even at times offered it himself:
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. [The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther Vol. 2:2 (Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), p. 308].
For the entire context of this sermon, see this link.

Throughout their article, it was not entirely clear that is a blatant defender of Rome and all things Roman Catholic. If they are, they would be guilty of the same sort of double standard that the typical defenders of Rome are.  Erasmus, Luther, and Cajetan formed their opinions on the canon previous to the Council of Trent’s canon declaration. They had the liberty to speculate within the Roman theological tradition. Even Luther did not mind if people disagreed with him on James: "Therefore I cannot include him among the 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" (LW 35:397).

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