Fall Newsletter Excerpt

Spinning Gold From Straw: Reading James on His Own Terms

By Pastor Steve Berkenpas

Martin Luther considered James offered little to the Christian life, and the lack of depth in contribution meant that his letter ought to be considered ‘an epistle of straw’ compared to the others (see quote below). When looking at Romans and Galatians from Paul or looking at the first letter from Peter, all of the other letters were simply more weighty, more valuable, in Luther’s eyes. All the things of true value for salvation, everything that you needed to know about the nature of God is already found in those books. James, by contrast has nothing to contribute with regards to the gospel.

While Luther is the most famous case against James, his comments reverberate through history and many Biblical scholars and theologians have agreed with him. If not in saying this, in their silence and refusal in turning to James for deeper insights to who God is and how that reflects in how we should live. This is, at least in part, due to Luther’s influence in who we should be paying attention to when we read the Bible: the apostle Paul. Luther gave significant attention to Paul’s letters, especially their emphasis on salvation by grace alone. Luther’s study sparked the Reformation as he spent much of his life pushing back against the notion that we needed to do extra things, have extra approval from the church in order to be assured of salvation. Luther leaned especially hard on Paul’s letter to argue against this.

When he came across James and his large emphasis on a faith that is lived, Luther and others since his time have often read from the lens of Paul. Rather than having James stand on his own, people often will focus on a dozen or so verses in James that plunks the epistle into a conversation on faith and works and try to reconcile him with the apostle Paul before pausing to see what the whole of James has to say.

In our time working through James, the emphasis will be on seeing what James has to say to the Christian life and the hope will be that we allow James to speak on his own terms. When we look at James on his own, we will find that even though James doesn’t have much to say about Jesus’ life, his teachings look a lot like Jesus’. His work is the type of writing and preaching that we might expect to find from someone who has been with Jesus. These positive parallels are perhaps a better place to begin than trying to reconcile James with Paul, though we will take time to examine whether there is truly a conflict between the two.

In the end, I hope that we will be able to see some golden thread and something of real substance from the Epistle of James. Rather than being a mere Epistle of Straw, James gives depth and weight into our understanding of the Christian life. His work, when carefully examined, when allowed to reflect into our own lives, is set to produce something that is beautiful: people of abundant mercy, who reflect the living God more and more as they seek to follow where he leads.

In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”

– Martin Luther on James