Martin Luther’s hostility to the Book of James is well-known, and I’ve mentioned it in other contexts, but I wanted to consider today the implications for the Lutheran view of justification, at the heart of the Reformation and of modern Catholic-Protestant disputes.
Here’s what Luther had to say about the Book of James:
In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works. It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac; though in Romans 4 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15. Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works of Moses’ statement in Genesis 15. For Moses is speaking here only of Abraham’s faith, and not of his works, as St. Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. This fault, therefore, proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.
In other words, Luther taught that the Book of James contradicted the doctrine of sola fide, or justification by faith alone. If he’s right about this, then either the Bible is wrong, or Protestants are wrong. As far as I can tell, this leaves Protestants with three options:
|Sir Joseph Noel Paton,
Dawn: Luther at Erfurt (1861)
(1) The Book of James teaches false doctrine, antithetical to the Gospel. In other words, Luther is right. If this is the case, you should cut that Book out of the Bible. But of course, this raises all sorts of problems. Because then, you’re not deriving their views on justification from Scripture, but creating a Bible that agrees with the views you already hold.
(2) Luther didn’t understand the Book of James, or how it related to justification. This is a huge blow to Luther’s credibility, and substantially undermines the Reformation. This is the doctrine Luther viewed as the most important, the doctrine that justified (if you’ll pardon the pun) the entire Reformation, since (in his words), “if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.” This is the doctrine he referred to simply as “the Gospel.” But if Luther doesn’t understand how justification works in the writings of St. James, why should we believe that he understands the way that justification works in the writings of St. Paul?
(3) The doctrine of justification by faith alone is wrong. In this view, the Reformation was started because Luther was proclaiming a false doctrine, which the Catholic Church recognized and rejected as false. But if this is true, the Reformation was a mistake that needs to be fixed.
In any case, if the Reformation stands or collapses on the strength of the doctrine of sola fide, it’s remarkable that the father of the doctrine, Martin Luther, admitted that it was contrary to a Book we know today to be Scripture.