Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Luther: The Book of James Is Nonsense

"If nonsense is spoken anywhere, this is the very place. I pass over the fact that many have maintained, with much probability, that this epistle was not written by the apostle James, and is not worthy of the spirit of the apostle." ('Pagan Servitude of the Church,' ed. Dillenberger, p. 352.)

This Luther snippet was being used on a discussion board by a Roman Catholic. It probably originated from this page: The Truth About Martin Luther and Why So Few Read His Works. The ironic thing about this web page is that it isn't Roman Catholic, but vehemently against Roman Catholicism. The man who wrote this web page appears to be a radical KJV only advocate.

I've documented a number of times that Luther didn't think the apostle James wrote the book of James, but rather a post-apostolic Christian wrote it. Luther wasn't alone with this sentiment. His contemporaries, Erasmus and Cajetan felt the same. That's two fairly reputable Roman Catholic scholars. From a Romanist perspective, these three men held their opinions previous to Trent's dogmatic canon declaration. Thus, within the confines of Romanism, they had liberty to say such things. Also, Luther, Cejetan, and Erasmus had some important voices of history on their side as well: "Eusebius classed it among the antilegomena or contested writings. Jerome (circa 340–420) says it was regarded as pseudonymous in the Latin church" (LW 36:118). For Roman Catholics to cite Luther's opinions on the non-canonicty of James really boils down to a gross double standard. Their own system allowed him the freedom to hold his opinion.

The part of this Luther snippet that most interested me is the first part: "If nonsense is spoken anywhere, this is the very place." If you read this quote at face value, it appears Luther is saying the book of James is nonsense. Now if you read Luther's preface to James, recall he praises James and considers it a “good book” “because it sets up no doctrine of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God,” and that he would "not prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him." So the part about James being "nonsense" jumped out at me immediately.

The web page cites the quote as being from 'Pagan Servitude of the Church,' ed. Dillenberger, p. 352. "Dillenberger" is a reference to Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. by John Dillenberger, New York: Anchor Books, 1962. It a small collection of Luther's writings (used copies are fairly cheap). My copy is from 1961, and the quote isn't on page 352, it's on page 351 (There appears to be a 1962 edition). "Pagan Servitude of the Church" is more popularly know as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520. In fairness, I've got to give this radical fundamentalist credit. He actually provided a reference that more or less made sense. Even if I didn't have Dillenberger's book, I had enough information to track down a context in Luther's Works, or even an online resource. If only Roman Catholic polemicists could do likewise.

Dillenberger actually provides a good portion of the context. His translation is from The Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, volume 1, The Basis of the Protestant Reformation, translated and edited by Bertram Lee Woolf (London: Lutterworth Press, 1953), pp. 208-329.

Luther writes:

The Sacrament of Extreme Unction
The theologians of the present day have made two additions, well worthy of themselves, to the ceremony of anointing the sick. In the first place,they call it a sacrament; and in the second, they make it the last. Thus we have nowadays a sacrament of extreme unction which is only to be administered to those who are on the brink of death. As the theologians are very acute in argument, perhaps they relate it to the first unction of baptism, and the two subsequent unctions of confirmation and ordination. This time, they have something to throw in my face; it is that, on the authority of the apostle James, here are both promise and sign: things by which, as I have hitherto contended, a sacrament is constituted. The apostle says: "Is any among you sick? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him" [Jas. 5:14 f].Behold, they say, the promise of forgiveness of sins, and the sign of the oil.

My reply is: If nonsense is spoken anywhere, this is the very place. I pass over the fact that many have maintained, with much probability, that this epistle was not written by the apostle James, and is not worthy of the spirit of an apostle. Nevertheless, no matter who may have been the author, it has the authority due to custom. Yet, even if it were by the apostle James, I would say that no apostle was licensed to institute a sacrament on his own authority, or, to give a divine promise with an accompanying sign. This pertains to Christ alone. That is why Paul says that it was from the Lord that he received the sacrament of the Eucharist [I Cor. 11:23]; and that he had not been sent to baptize, but to preach the gospel [I Cor.1: 17]. Nowhere in the gospels is there any mention of this sacrament of Extreme Unction. But, allowing that to pass, let us look at the actual words of the apostle, or whoever was the author, and we shall see, at once, that those who have multiplied the sacraments have paid no real attention to his words.

As the context shows, it isn't the book of James that is nonsense, rather it is those who argue for the sacrament of extreme unction using James. Luther explains what he means. Notice in his argumentation, he treats James as the writing of an apostle.

Firstly, if they hold that what the apostle said in the present instance is true, and ought to be kept, by what authority have they changed and restricted it? Why do they make an extreme unction, to be administered only once, out of what the apostle intended to be of general application? It was not the apostle's intention that it should be extreme, or that it should be given only to those at the point of death. Rather he says, purely and simply: "Is any among you sick?"; he does not say: "Is any among you at the point of death?" I shall ignore the sapient remarks on this subject in Dionysius's Ecclesiastica Hierarchia; the apostle's words are plain; Dionysius and the Romanists alike rely on them-but without obeying them. It appears, therefore, that, without any other authority than their own choice, they have wrongly interpreted the words of the apostle, and transformed them into the sacrament of Extreme Unction. This has been to the harm of the other sick persons whom they have deprived, on their own authority, of the benefit of the anointing as appointed by the apostle.

Here is a nicer point: the promise of the apostle expressly says: "The prayer of faith shall cure the sick, and the Lord will grant him recovery", etc. [Jas. 5:13-15]. You will have noticed that, in this passage, the apostle commands anointing and prayer in order that the sick man may be made well and recover, i.e., not die; and the anointing, therefore, is not that of extreme unction. This point is also proved in that, to the present day, while the Romanists are administering the last unction, prayers are said asking for the sick man's recovery. But the Romanists maintain, in spite of those prayers, that the unction is only to be administered to the dying, i.e., not in order that such a person may get well and recover. If this were not a serious matter, who could help laughing at this pretty, neat, and sensible comment on the apostle's words? Do we not here plainly detect that stupid sophistry which, both in this passage as well as in many others, affirms what Scripture denies,and denies what it affirms? Shall we pass a vote of thanks to these egregious masters of ours? Surely I was right in saying that nowhere else have they spoken such utter folly as in dealing with this passage!

Furthermore, if Extreme Unction is a sacrament, there should be no doubt that it is (as they say) an efficacious sign of what it signifies and promises. Now, it promises the health and recovery of the sick man, as the words plainly say: "The prayer of faith shall cure the sick, .and the Lord will heal him"[Jas. 5:15]. But every one knows that this promise is seldom,or never, fulfilled. Scarcely one in a thousand is restored, and then no one thinks it is by the sacrament, but by the help of nature or medicine. Indeed, they attribute to the sacrament the opposite effect. What, then, is our conclusion? It is that either the apostle did not speak the truth when he made this promise, or else that this unction of theirs is not a sacrament.A sacramental promise is certain, whereas this is usually fallacious.

But let us again take cognizance of the care and insight of these theologians; we may note that they mean it to be "extreme unction" just in order that the promise shall not hold good, or, lest the sacrament be a sacrament. For if it is extreme,it does not heal, but increases the infirmity. If it healed, it would not be extreme. Thus, it comes about, according to the exegesis of these masters, that James is to be understood to have contradicted himself: he instituted a sacrament to avoid instituting a sacrament! and the Romanists wanted to have the unction just in order that it should be untrue that the sick were healed by it, as James decreed! If this is not talking nonsense,then what is?


Anonymous said...

Excellent, James, simply excellent.

I must confess, James, that your work on how Roman Catholics apologists, lay and professional, use Luther was instrumental in my loss of respect and trust (and my wife's) of the intellectual environment of Roman Catholic apologetics, even though there are a remnant who do have intellectual integrity.

Pilgrimsarbour said...

Thanks for all your great efforts regarding Luther, James. I'm so glad that someone makes time in their busy life to follow up on the seemingly ubiquitous online unscholarly and scurrilous attacks on the Reformers and the theology of the Reformation.