In reading Timothy J. Wengert’s new book, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, he addresses almost immediately the issue of Luther’s estimation of the book of James and especially his characterization of it as a “real strawy epistle.” Before we get to that though Wengert offers this intriguing quote from Luther which few people are aware of regarding the book of James. Luther said, “I praise James and hold it to be a good writing because it does propose human teachings but drives God’s law hard.” (4) That came as news to me. But the following was also enlightening regarding the “strawy epistle” comment. I start with Luther’s words and then Wengert’s commentary.
“In sum, St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle; St. Paul’s letters, especially the ones to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians; and St. Peter’s first epistle are all books that show you Christ, and they all teach which is necessary and salutary for you to know, even if you do not see or hear any other book or teaching. It is for this reason that James’s epistle is in comparison a real strawy epistle, for it has no evangelical character about it.”
“Note a few things here. First, Luther placed James alongside the other New Testament authors, who (unlike James) he calls saints. Second, his main point of contrast was that these books ‘show you Christ.’ This was really Luther’s only criterion for judging Scripture, so that in contrast he said about James that it has ‘no evangelical character about it.’ By that he meant it preached law, not gospel. Third, he used the word ‘straw’ not as some sort of strange German insult but as an echo of Paul’s picture in 1 Corinthians 3:12 about building on the foundation of Christ with either straw or gold and precious stones. James builds on the foundation all right, but he uses only straw, in contrast to the gold standard of John, Paul, and Peter.” (3)
Timothy J. Wengert (PhD, Duke University) is Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor, Reformation History, at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He has authored or edited twenty books, including The Book of Concord (2000 translation, coedited with Robert Kolb). He received the Melanchthon Prize from the city of Bretten, Germany (Melanchthon’s birthplace), for contributions to the field of Reformation scholarship and has written over one hundred articles. He is also associate editor for the Lutheran Quarterly and has pastored churches in Minnesota and Wisconsin.