Volume 45 - Issue 2

The “Epistle of Straw”: Reflections on Luther and the Epistle of James

By Martin Foord


Many believe that because Martin Luther called James an “epistle of straw” he wished to remove it from Scripture. And he has been accused of doing this according to his individual whim. This paper firstly seeks to show that Luther wished to keep James in the New Testament and his decision was not based on personal whim. Luther was able to call James an “epistle of straw” and retain its canonicity because he held to a two-level view of the New Testament: James was excluded from the top tier and consigned to the lower tier of New Testament books. However, secondly, this paper subjects Luther’s position to a theological critique. It is found that Luther’s two-level understanding of the New Testament, and his conclusions about James, are ultimately unconvincing because they are not faithful to Scripture itself.

Martin Luther famously called James an “epistle of straw.” This has led many to think he wanted James eliminated from the Bible.1 In particular, Roman Catholics have accused Luther of excising Scriptural books according to his individual opinion.2 However, both accusations are mistaken. Luther’s understanding of James’s status is more nuanced and cannot be understood apart from his theology of the NT canon. This article attempts firstly to clarify Luther’s understanding of the place of James in Scripture. Then, secondly, it provides a theological critique of Luther’s position.

1. Understanding “Epistle of Straw”

Martin Luther’s stance on James is clearly seen in his prefaces to the NT books from his German translation of the Bible, first published in 1522. Luther dubbed James an “epistle of straw” not in his preface to James but originally in his more general preface to the NT. However, Luther’s declaration was removed from this preface in all editions of his German Bible after 1537.3 It did not mean Luther dramatically changed his view about James. But it signals that care should be taken about extracting too much from the phrase “epistle of straw.”

Secondly, despite Luther’s early assertion that James was an “epistle of straw,” he did not wish to excise it from Scripture completely. In his German translation of the Bible Luther retained James among the NT books. If he believed James was not canonical it would have been absent. It is true, Luther ordered the NT books differently to the traditional list of the Latin Vulgate. He relegated James, as well as Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, to the end of the NT canonical list. This indicated something about his understanding of the NT canon, to which we shall return.

Thirdly, it is misleading to say that Luther called James simply an “epistle of straw” as though the entire letter was useless. His statement in context designated James an “epistle of straw” in comparison to the central NT books:

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.4

Hence, it is not as if James has no edifying content whatsoever. Luther could say:

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.5

Here Luther extols the book because it unpacks the law correctly; it does not teach commands contrary to the rest of Scripture. Indeed, Franz Graf-Stuhlhofer has shown that Luther quotes from James almost as much as the Synoptic Gospels throughout his works.6 Moreover, Luther preached five times on James during his career after expressing his first change of mind about the book in 1519.7

Fourthly, one must grasp what Luther meant by the word “straw.” It was not a term of abuse. Rather, Luther had in mind Paul’s use of the word in 1 Corinthians:

If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. (3:12–13 NIV)

“Straw” here simply means easily-burned fodder along with wood and hay that will not last. Luther also uses “straw” when speaking of Hebrews:

Therefore we should not be deterred if wood, straw, or hay are perhaps mixed with them, but accept this fine teaching with all honor; though, to be sure, we cannot put it [Hebrews] on the same level with the apostolic epistles.8

In other words, Hebrews contains some helpful material despite other less-edifying content, namely straw.9 When Luther uses the image “straw” from 1 Corinthians 3 elsewhere in his writings, it refers to an impure form of God’s word. Regarding the marks of God’s church throughout history he says this:

The holy Christian people are recognized by their possession of the holy word of God. To be sure, not all have it in equal measure, as St. Paul says. Some possess the word in its complete purity, others do not. Those who have the pure word are called those who “build on the foundation with gold, silver, and precious stones”; those who do not have it in its purity are the ones who “build on the foundation with wood, hay, and straw,” and yet will be saved through fire.10

When Luther speaks of James as an “epistle of straw” he simply means it does not possess God’s gospel word with the purity that other NT writings possess; not that the letter is useless. “Straw,” after all, does not destroy the foundation. It does not strengthen that foundation and ultimately will not last.

2. Luther’s Understanding of James

What then was Luther’s understanding of the status of James? This is only appreciated when we grasp Luther’s doctrine of the NT canon. He believed the NT contained two kinds of books: the “chief books” and those that were of less value.11 The early church fathers Origen of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea also distinguished between two kinds of NT works: the recognized books (traditionally called the homolegomena) and the disputed books (traditionally named the antilegomena).12 The criterion Luther used to distinguish between the chief books and the others was apostolic authorship. For this reason, he judged four works to be outside of the chief books: Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation.13 Unlike the rest of the NT these four works contained “straw,” they were not as pure.

So why did Luther believe James was not a chief book? Firstly, he concluded that its author “James” was not an apostle. Luther noted that the epistle of James contains sayings found in Peter’s first letter and Paul’s Galatians. Yet the apostle James (son of Zebedee) was martyred earlier than Peter and Paul (Acts 12:2). And thus, the “James” who wrote this letter must have done so after the death of James Zebedee. Luther concluded the “James” who authored the letter “came along after St. Peter and St. Paul.”14

Secondly, Luther believed James could not be apostolic due to its content. In the first place James never once mentions the death or resurrection of Christ, the very heart of the gospel. Luther explains,

Now it is the office of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and resurrection and office of Christ, and to lay the foundation for faith in him, as Christ himself says in John 15[:27], “You shall bear witness to me.” All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate Christ.… But James does nothing more than drive to the law and to its works.15

Rather in Luther’s mind, James simply preaches law, and does so chaotically.

Luther judged that James failed the apostolic content test in a second way: it contradicted justification by faith alone. He stated that James is “flatly against St. Paul and the all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works.”16 Luther was aware that James’s statements about justification could be harmonized with Paul’s. But even if this was so, he argued that James interpreted Genesis 15:6 (Jas 2:23) in a manner contrary to Paul (Rom 4:3).

Concerning James’s contradiction of Paul on justification, some have drawn attention to Luther’s controversial statement later in his life: “I almost feel like throwing Jimmy [the book of James] into the stove” (1542).17 This assertion appears in a licentiate examination of one Heinrich Schmedenstede over which Luther presided. In the examination Schmedenstede was to respond to a series of theses, one of which concerned justification by faith alone (thesis 21). Schmedenstede was to defend it against the objection: “James [2:22] says that Abraham was justified by works. Therefore, justification is not by faith.” Schmedenstede retorted, “James is speaking of works as the effect of justification, not as the cause.”

Luther responded by expressing how much trouble James gave to evangelicals because the “papists” used it to prove their understanding of justification, ignoring the rest of Scripture. That is, Luther seems to be saying that the papists read the rest of Scripture on justification through the lens of James. Strikingly, Luther then claimed he did the opposite, he read James through the lens of the rest of Scripture:

Up to this point I have been accustomed just to deal with and interpret it [James] according to the sense of the rest of Scriptures. For you will judge that none of it must be set forth contrary to manifest Holy Scripture. Accordingly, if they [the papists] will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it.18

Here we see Luther’s unwillingness to dispense entirely with James; he will use it to affirm what is found elsewhere in Scripture. And if the papists contradict him, he will contend against it. It is in this context, that Luther stops speaking in Latin, the language of the university, and in frustration exclaims in German:

I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did.19

This is a classic example of Luther’s inimitable hyperbole. But even here he does not go so far as to say he actually will throw James into the stove. The “priest in Kalenberg” refers to a person who was visited by a duchess. To make the room warm for the visitation he put wooden statues of the apostles into his stove. The last statue happened to be James, and the priest was believed to have said:

Now bend over, Jimmy, you must go into the stove; no matter if you were the pope or all the bishops, the room must become warm.20

When context and hyperbole are taken into account, Luther is not saying anything substantially different about James than he has maintained since his first German translation of the NT in 1522.

Finally, and importantly, despite Luther’s placement of James outside the “chief books,” he explicitly said this was his own individual opinion. And Luther was happy if people thought differently: “Therefore I cannot include him [James] 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.”21 Here we see that Luther recognizes the limits of his personal judgement. It is erroneous to claim that Luther excised James from the NT according to his individual whim. He respected the church’s tradition about James.

3. Reflections of Luther’s Position

Was Luther correct about James and the NT canon? We now turn to a theological evaluation of Luther’s position on James; we move from historical theology to systematic theology. Luther is correct to see the pivotal role of the apostle in the NT canon. The NT corpus nowhere explicitly says there will one day be a written Scripture for the church. A written NT arises from the notion of apostolicity.

In the NT an apostle is one sent to deliver a message given by the sender (John 13:16). And so, Christ sent the apostles into the world to deliver a message he entrusted to them (John 20:21; Gal 1:1). Essential to this task was being a witness of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 9:1; 15:5–8). In order to safeguard the accuracy of Christ’s message, he promised that the Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth (John 16:13; 1 Cor 2:13), which is tantamount to the doctrine of inspiration. Given this understanding of the place of the apostles, the only way their message could exist for all future believers (John 17:20) was to commit it to writing (John 20:31; 2 Pet 1:12–15). Hence, the criterion to include writings in the NT is apostolicity. And this includes the writings of apostolic co-workers in conjunction with an apostle. For example, Silas and Timothy co-author 1 and 2 Thessalonians with Paul (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1). And the teaching these three propagate is the word of God (1 Thess 2:13), has the authority of Christ (1 Thess 4:2), is to be believed and obeyed (2 Thess 2:15), and when neglected leads to excommunication (2 Thess 3:6, 14). Not only is the criterion of apostles and their co-workers found in the NT itself, it is taught in early church fathers like Irenaeus and Tertullian.22 For example, Tertullian says,

We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament [i.e., the NT] has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel. Since, however, there are apostolic men also, they are yet not alone, but appear with apostles and after apostles; because the preaching of disciples might be open to the suspicion of an affectation of glory, if there did not accompany it the authority of the masters, which means that of Christ, for it was that which made the apostles their masters.23

However, Luther did not sufficiently recognize the evidence for the apostolic authorship of James. Two of the twelve apostles were named James: James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus. Luther rightly concluded that James Zebedee was martyred too early to be the likely author of James (Acts 12:2). And little is known of James Alphaeus’s role in the early church. The author of James must have had a recognized authority to be acknowledged by “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (Jas 1:1). There is one other James who best fits this position: James the brother of Jesus (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3).

Christ sent his twelve apostles. But over and above these he sent further apostles (1 Cor 15:7). The “last” apostle was Paul (1 Cor 15:8). And another was James the brother of Jesus. He was not one of the twelve but later become an apostle (Gal 1:19). It appears the resurrected Christ himself commissioned him (1 Cor 15:7). Moreover, this James was not any apostle but one of the three “pillar” apostles alongside Peter and John (Gal 2:9). Indeed, this James became the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 21:18; Gal 2:12). He seems to have had a special authority at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13). And given these credentials, scholars have concluded that James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus, who was an apostle, is the best candidate as the author of James.24

But what of Luther’s claim that James is not apostolic in content because it never mentions the death and resurrection of Jesus? Here Luther exposes an assumption about the content of apostolic preaching: apostles must always preach the death and resurrection of Christ for salvation. Luther cites Jesus’s words in John 15:27 as proof: “And you [apostles] also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” Luther’s demand is related to his characteristic understanding of the gospel and his distinction between law and gospel:

For this I must consult the Gospel and listen to the Gospel, which does not teach me what I should do—for that is the proper function of the Law—but what someone else has done for me, namely, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has suffered and died to deliver me from sin and death. The Gospel commands me to accept and believe this, and this is what is called “the truth of the Gospel.”25

For Luther, the gospel preaches promise and a response of faith, whereas the law preaches command with a response of works. Hence, Luther believed that repentance was the call of the law, not the gospel.

It is true that the apostles were to preach the gospel. But they were to preach more than the gospel. The reformed tradition that arose in the reformation era differed with Luther over the demand of the gospel. It held that the gospel called for both faith and repentance (Acts 14:15).26 Thus a crucial aspect of apostolic preaching was the repentant lifestyle that is worthy of the gospel. This matches Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels. He preached the gospel itself, but also the way of life befitting the gospel, seen in say the Sermon on the Mount. There is no reason in principle that an apostolic writing could not be largely instruction about the Christian standard of living. It was a necessary aspect of apostolic preaching. So, the books of Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John do not specifically mention the death or resurrection of Christ but focus on issues of practical living. Then why not James? As John Calvin put it,

If James seems rather more reluctant to preach the grace of Christ than an apostle should be, we must remember not to expect everyone to go over the same ground.27

Furthermore, Luther failed to account for the occasional nature of the letter of James. It is not simply a timeless summary of the Christian lifestyle. The epistle was written to certain believers in a particular historical setting for a specific purpose. The Swiss reformer, Heinrich Bullinger made just this point: “St. James writes to converts of the Lord Christ, and therefore, he delivers nothing in this epistle about the first principles of the faith and doctrine of our religion”; rather, James “corrects certain sins which were appearing in God’s people.”28

The reformed tradition at the reformation had no trouble reconciling James’s teaching on justification with Paul. The classic solution was to recognize that the word “justification” has several meanings in the NT, and that James and Paul used the word in a different sense.29 For Paul justification was “to declare righteous” whereas for James it was “to prove righteous.” As William Tyndale aptly put it, “And as faith only justifieth before God, so do deeds only justify before the world.”30

A final point needs to be made about dividing the NT into two tiers of books. This does not accord with the doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration (2 Tim 3:16). There are not levels of inspiration in Scripture. Some books are not more inspired than others. True, some books may be more central to the overall message of Scripture. But this does not make them more inspired. Romans may be more significant than Philemon, but both are just as inspired as each other. Thus, on this account of inspiration there can only be one class of books in Scripture. So, whilst Origen and Eusebius may have listed a two-tiered NT canon, many others in the early church simply listed one kind of book in the NT, that which was canonical. We find this in certain quasi-official canonical listings such as Athanasius’s thirty-ninth festal letter,31 the Synod of Laodicea (c. 363),32 and the Third Council of Carthage (397).33

4. Conclusion

We have seen firstly that accusations of Luther wishing to remove James from Scripture are simplistic and hence misleading. This is because Luther held to a two-tiered view of the NT, or what has been called a canon within the canon. So, whilst Luther wished to place James outside of the “chief” books, he did not wish to exclude it from the NT entirely.

Second, it has been shown that Luther proposed his conclusions about James not as absolute for all believers. He was happy if others disagreed with him because he recognized there was difference of opinion about James in the Christian tradition. Luther was aware that his own individual opinion needed regulation by tradition.

But third, we have also seen that Luther’s position about a two-level NT and the exclusion of James from the chief books are ultimately unconvincing. The Bible’s own teaching about its inspiration rules out any notion of a canon within a canon. Moreover, the evidence from the New Testament itself indicates that James was written by an apostle and contains apostolic content and hence is fully and truly inspired Scripture.

[1] Devin Rose, The Protestant’s Dilemma: How the Reformation’s Shocking Consequences Point to the Truth of Catholicism (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2014), 67–68.

[2] Philip Blosser, “What Are the Philosophical and Practical Problems of Sola Scriptura,” in Not by Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, ed. Robert A. Sungenis (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing, 1998), 54.

[3] Martin Luther, Word and Sacrament I, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann, Luther’s Works 35 (St Louis: Concordia, 1960), 358 n. 5, 362.

[4] Luther, Word and Sacrament I, 362 (emphasis added).

[5] Luther, Word and Sacrament I, 395.

[6] Graf-Stuhlhofer, Franz, “Martin Luthers Bibelgebrauch in quantitativer Betrachtung,” Theologisches Gespräch: Freikirchliche Beiträge zur Theologie 24 (2000): 119, cited in Jason D. Lane, Luther’s Epistle of Straw: The Voice of St. James in Reformation Preaching, Historia Hermeneutica Series Studia 16 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017), 6 n. 22.

[7] See Lane, Luther’s Epistle of Straw, 54–89.

[8] Luther, Word and Sacrament I, 395.

[9] Luther held that Hebrews 6:4–6 and 10:26–27 clearly taught that a baptized person who fell into serious sin could not repent, which he believed was “contrary to all the gospels and to St Paul’s epistles,” Word and Sacrament I, 394.

[10] Martin Luther, Church and Ministry III, ed. Eric W. Gritsch, Luther’s Works 41 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1966), 148–49.

[11] Luther, Word and Sacrament I, 393, 398. Luther’s original phrase is “hewpt bucher” or in contemporary German “haupt” books. Martin Luther, Deutsches Bibel, ed. J. K. F. Knaake and G. Kawerau, D. Martin Luthers Werke 7 (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1906), 344, 386.

[12] Origen’s NT list has been lost but is cited in Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 6.25. Eusebius twice discusses the NT canon in Ecclesiastical History 3.3.5–7 and 3.25.1–7.

[13] Luther did not think that the apostle John wrote Revelation. Presumably Luther believed that Mark and Luke-Acts were written under the supervision of Peter and Paul respectively and hence could be judged as having apostolic authorship, as the early church maintained.

[14] Luther, Word and Sacrament I, 397.

[15] Luther, Word and Sacrament I, 396–97.

[16] Luther, Word and Sacrament I, 395.

[17] Martin Luther, Career of the Reformer IV, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann and Lewis W. Spitz, Luther’s Works 34 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1960), 317.

[18] Luther, Career of the Reformer IV, 317.

[19] Luther, Career of the Reformer IV, 317.

[20] Luther, Career of the Reformer IV, 317 n. 21.

[21] Luther, Word and Sacrament I, 397.

[22] Irenaeus, Against all Heresies 3.1.1; 3.14.1; Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.2; The Prescription against Heretics 6; 22.

[23] Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.2 (ANF 3:347, emphasis added).

[24] For a good discussion of the debate see, Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 9–22.

[25] Luther, Lectures on Galatians 1535: Chapters 1–4, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther’s Works 26 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963), 91.

[26] For more on how the Lutheran and Reformed tradition differed at the Reformation over this issue see Martin Foord, “‘A New Embassy’: John Calvin’s Gospel,” in Aspects of Reforming: Theology and Practice in Sixteenth Century Europe, ed. Michael Parsons (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2014), 138–49; Martin Foord, “Salvation Accomplished: Henrich Bullinger on the Gospel,” in Celebrating The Reformation: Its Legacy And Continuing Relevance, ed. Mark D. Thompson, Colin Bale, and Edward Loane (London: Apollos, 2017), 103–18.

[27] John Calvin, The Epistle of James, ed. and trans. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance, Calvin’s Commentaries 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 259.

[28] Heinrich Bullinger, In Epistolam Divi Iacobi, Arg., In Epistolas Apostolorum Canonicas Septem Commentarii (Tiguri: Christoffel Froschoverus, 1558), 109.

[29] For example, Calvin, Institutes 3.16.11–12.

[30] Tyndale, “The Prologue upon the Epistle of St James,” in Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures, ed. Henry Walter, The Works of William Tyndale 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1848), 526.

[31] Athanasius, Letter 39 (NPNF2 4:551–52).

[32] Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 129–34.

[33] Canon XXIV (NPNF2 14:453–54).

Martin Foord

Martin Foord is an ordained Anglican minister who lectures in systematic theology at Evangelical Theological College Asia in Singapore.

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