Rev Professor W Gordon Campbell
Professor of New Testament at Union CollegeView all articles
Anybody reflecting on Martin Luther’s legacy will, sooner or later, have to ponder why he dismissively labelled “right strawy epistle” the Letter of James. We can shed some light on this verdict if we understand Luther’s view of the canon of New Testament Scripture.
The index of books found in every German Bible that Luther published - like those of his inaugural 1522 New Testament or its 1530 revision (both seen here) - indicates a clear separation of four books (James included) as an unnumbered appendix to a numbered list containing the remaining twenty-three in familiar canonical order.
Luther’s own explanation allows us (as in the following table) to differentiate eight distinct levels of relative importance among the twenty-seven books, from greatest to least: this “user’s view” of the New Testament canon is reconstructed from the twenty Prefaces which Luther wrote to introduce the whole New Testament, parts of it or its individual books.
Clearly, for Luther nothing beats Romans - “really the chief part of the New Testament, and… truly the purest gospel”, as he puts it - while only Revelation is more marginal than James! From this hierarchy of books it is immediately apparent that, when Luther thinks of James as straw, he may be thinking comparatively or relatively.
Do Luther’s words confirm this and, if so, what is his warrant for ranking the New Testament books like this? First of all, Scripture is one and the whole New Testament boils down to the one and only Gospel that delivers and saves us, if we believe in Christ. Editions of the General Preface to his New Testament, prior to 1534, state: “[t]hus one may be sure that there is only one gospel, just as there is only one book—the New Testament—one faith, and one God who gives the promises.”
Secondly, Scripture points to Christ, proclaimed in the Gospel and grasped by faith that justifies - as presented by Paul in Romans. This is for Luther the kernel of the Gospel and the principal content of New Testament Scripture. For Luther, Christ alone saves and we encounter Christ savingly in Scripture alone, through faith alone.
In Luther’s hand, these three alones combine to form a criterion for sifting the canon. Whilst Scripture is one, since only faith in Christ alone can justify, whatever Scripture most explicitly promotes Christ (Romans) has absolute priority. Thereafter, the degree to which a book propounds saving faith in Christ determines its place in the pecking order. Books that, to Luther’s mind, promote Christ less or hardly at all (such as James), bring up the rear. Luther is especially dismissive of Jas 2.14 with its verdict that faith is vain and empty, unable to save, if no works substantiate its reality.
This is the comparative context in which Luther can say of James, “I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books” - while still acknowledging that the book contains “many good sayings” and, whenever the Sunday lectionary required it (twice yearly), even preaching on James! As a whole, the Lutheran tradition still debates whether to follow Luther here, or to what extent.
We may note, by way of a postscript, how from the start the Reformed tradition approached the canon - and therefore also James - rather differently. After his cousin Olivetan’s death in 1538, John Calvin revised the second edition of his French Bible - the 1540 Sword Bible, so-called. In its table of contents (as shown), James is in its usual place between Hebrews and 1st Peter - signifying that there is no problem with it.
We know that Calvin was no less committed to Christ or the Gospel than Luther. Yet he had a further commitment - to all Scripture (2 Tim 3.16) - and demurred, as a result, from identifying any centre to the New Testament canon or developing any criterion for assigning relative value to its individual books, which he regarded instead as complementary.
On that basis, unlike Luther Calvin received James “without dispute” (as he says in his Commentary on James), welcoming his message that the person “who professes to be faithful should show by works that his faith is genuine.”
For a much fuller discussion of this topic, see Prof. Campbell’s “Luther, the Letter of James and ‘all Scripture’ (2 Tim 3.16): when faith that justifies works to critique the canon.”
This is the author’s English translation of a contribution just published in French in Yannick Imbert (ed.), La foi et les œuvres, coll. Aiguillages théologiques, Charols/Aix-en-Provence, Excelsis/Kerygma, 2019, pp.59-74 - based on a paper presented at a conference with the same title (Faith and Works), organised in March 2017, in Luther Year, at Faculté Jean Calvin, Aix-en-Provence. It is accessible via Prof. Campbell’s RESEARCHGATE link on his page on the College website.