James, an “Epistle of Straw”? Not So Fast!

Whenever I read the letters of Paul and his great doctrine of justification by faith, […]

Todd Brewer / 3.26.15


Whenever I read the letters of Paul and his great doctrine of justification by faith, there is always lurking in the background the problem posed by the Epistle of James and its not-so-apparent direct refutation of Paul. And in any discussion of justification by faith there always lurks the specter of James, always calling into question whether Paul was really correct in his understanding. Admittedly, for the longest time I never quite knew what to make of James 2, and its contradiction of Paul’s thesis that Abraham the ungodly was justified by faith, without works (Romans 4). It was Martin Luther who famously called James an “Epistle of straw” because of its disinterest in Christ.

11913109Some seek a resolution to the New Testament dispute by simply ignoring James: understand Paul and what he is saying first before you allow James to muddle the situation. Paul was entirely right and James either is plainly wrong or he didn’t know what he was talking about, or worse, he is uncomfortable with the radicality of Paul’s gospel. Others suggest that James and Paul are simply using the same language of faith and works, but they mean entirely different things. Faith, for Paul, is an unyielding and complete devotion of oneself that also includes obedience (Rom. 1:5), while James seems to understand faith as a rationalist assent to propositional truths (hence why the demons seem to also believe, James 2:19). Still others see James’ critique of Paul as a warning against Paul’s supposed antinomianism. Preach justification by faith and you get lazy Christians – or so it is suggested time and time again…

I find each of these solutions to be unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I find Paul’s great genius to have a real vitality and solace to the problems of life. Paul preaches so powerfully in a way that just isn’t true of James. And however much I have tried to harmonize the two I still persistently find James to be more of a gadfly than an innovative thinker.

All that by way of introduction to the problem and the recent book, “Not by Paul Alone”, by David Nienhuis, I’ve found to be a tremendous help to this conundrum. What this book has so surprisingly highlighted for me is so many of my questions about James have been misguided because they have sought to understand James without reference to why it was in the New Testament in the first place. Aside from Neinhuis’ startling (but plausible) suggestion that James was written in the second century, he shows that it is only the ascent of Marcionitism that James came to be utilized by the church Fathers. For more on Marcion see here, but the short of it is that Marcion held to Paul alone as the only true voice of Christianity. One effect of this radical interpretation of Paul was a wholesale denegration of the Old Testament god of wrath and its law of judgment. Marcion was the first genuine antinomian.

It was striking to discover that the very first reference to the Epistle of James in all of Christianity occurs in the writings of the 3rd century theologian Origen. Prior to Origen there is the grand total of ZERO references to James. If you have issues with James’ presence in the New Testament, blame Origen – but buyer beware! Coinciding with a rise of prominence of the figures of Peter, James, and John in the 2nd century, Origen cites James against Marcion to show that “everywhere faith is joined with works and works are united with faith” (Comm. Rom. 2.9.408). While this may be something with which Paul would agree, it is significant to note that Origen specifically appeals to James to refute Marcion’s misunderstanding of Paul.

500Looking forward in time, it is primarily because of Origen’s use of James that the letter came to be accepted by the early church. This implies that “James found its canonical ‘home’ when it was read as a corrective to those [read Marcion] who misread Paul in an antinomian or anti-Jewish manner” (Nienhuis, p.60). From Origen onwards, James stands as an authoritative voice against Marcion and others who utilize Paul’s anti-law statements to completely disassociate Christianity from Judaism. If Tertullian deemed Paul to be the “apostle of the heretics” (Adv. Marc. 3.5), the Epistle of James and the other catholic epistles ensured that such heresy would no longer have a place in the church.

Many will find Neinhuis’ suggestion of a later date for James’ composition to be more fodder for why James shouldn’t be in the canon in the first place, but (fortunately) that’s not a question we get to decide. Instead, the better question is why James was included in the first place. And setting aside the insuperable question of when and why James was written, the reason for its inclusion in the canon is the forestall particular abuses of Paul.

Seen from this light, the Epistle of James poses less of a threat to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone than it does to misuses of Paul toward genuinely antinomian or anti-Jewish ends. Paul was neither of these possibilities (thankfully!) and the continued presence of James within the canon functions as a persistent obstacle to such heresy in the church. So to my mind, it is no longer a question of whether James and Paul can be harmonized, or whether the “straw” of James can be rescued from needlessly tainting Paul’s “pure gospel”. James was never read by the church on its own, apart from Paul. It might even be said that James functions within the New Testament as a protector and defender of Pauline justification by faith. James ensures that Paul’s gospel preaches a lively faith that cannot be divorced from its very Jewish roots.


6 responses to “James, an “Epistle of Straw”? Not So Fast!”

  1. Michael Cooper says:

    Todd, This is excellent!!! I had come to read James as a foil to Neoplatonism, and really a sort of “working class” version of what Paul is getting at beginning with Chapter 12 of Romans. The idea that faith can be separated from “doing” in this world I think would have seemed as absurd to Paul as it seemed to James, and as it would have to any Jewish Christian. Much of the debate on this has come from mistakenly equating “Doing” with “Works”. For Paul, “works” is very specific short hand jargon for “making oneself acceptable to God by performing the requirements of the law of Moses.” Saying that we are “saved apart from works”, is a far different thing from asserting that “faith” and “doing” in this world can and should be seen as separate, distinct and even antithetical.

  2. Cal says:

    While I appreciate the working through, Paul isn’t so Pauline as Luther(ans) make him out to be. What of Paul’s admonition in Romans 12 about being broken off for disobedience? Or in 1 Corinthians 10 where Israel after the Flesh is to instruct us, hence why God punished the Church with people getting sick and dying because of unworthily partaking of the Supper(!) and crushing their fellow brethren.

    The Desert monks said Satan was the best ascetic, he never ate or slept, but this did not make him holy. Paul would tell us we are saved by faith alone, grabbing onto the Risen King. But the Devil can be the best sola fide advocate too.

  3. Tim says:

    Well, it’s important to note that the author James was kinda a nobody. He just calls himself a servant. There’s no reason to connect with any well-known figure as Catholics like to do. He was probably just some pastor in the Jewish part of the Christian world. He’s evidently Jewish anyway. It’s likely in my opinion that he hadn’t read Paul’s letters. It makes sense.

    Was he refuting Marcionites? No. I mean look at how often he keeps mentioning the rich. That’s obviously the reason he talked about deeds as well as belief. There were some wealthy Christians around him who were still materialistic, didn’t want to share their goods, looked down on the poor Christians, still maintained their connection with other wealthy people etc etc. Remember, the early Christians were half-communists and always gave attachment up worldly goods. James wasn’t gonna stand for this. So he argues that you can’t be that kind of Christian. I agree with him.

    Would he still say to wait for an imminent coming (chapter 5) of the Lord in the 2nd century? No. And as I said, he’s criticising these rich people throughout the letter, and the Marcionites were not rich and hedonistic.

    However, this James is no theologian. He’s unsophisticated in his speech which accounts for his blunder in going to far and saying that deeds justify. And as I said, he may have been isolated from Pauline Christians. He’s also somewhat naive; he’s kinda over-confident in healing prayer, and places a great, almost superstitious, emphasis on not swearing oaths.

    In short, James couldn’t have been written very late. On the other hand, it was written late enough that rich Christians had influence. James himself couldn’t have been anyone well known, and that’s why his letter was little known until a century or so later.

    James has some authority, but should be read critically. He’s not Paul. And even Paul wasn’t perfect (though his Euangelion was).

    Caveat: I’m not a scholar!

    • Todd Brewer says:

      Hey Tim, thanks for reading and commenting! Always glad to get feedback.

      I’m on the fence when it comes to a late dating of James and you bring up some good points. I do think he’s offering some response to Paul. The similarities of argumentation are too strong (like citing Genesis 15:6). And the lack of citation in the 2nd century is surprising if it is early. That said, it’s hard to imagine a second century writer producing a text with so little interest in Christology, even though the strongly Jewish character of the text is plausible in the second century, given the persistence and creation of various Jewish-Christian texts in that time.

      That’s why I wasn’t all that interested in pinpointing the origin of the text. Nienhuis’ argument for its composition as a canon-conscious text, correcting Pauline abuses, does make it a late work. But I think he insight into the function of James within the creation of the NT canon still holds, and was what I was drawing reference to in the article. Regardless of why the text was written, the reasons for its incorporation into the canon still shed light on how the text was understood by its earliest interpreters and that matters as much, if not more, than the unanswerable question of why it was written in the first place. Without its use and interpretation by Origen and others, we wouldn’t even know it ever existed!

      • Tim says:

        I think it must have been written late 1st century, neither early nor late. And I do agree, it can be useful as an antidote to antinomianism (or Mammon-worship for that matter!). But Luther had a point in rejecting it, if you think about it, because there are other texts, even in Paul, that can serve that purpose as well, and so James could be considered just an annoying complication. Luther was a “simplifier” theologian: he cleared less important things away to get to the heart of the matter (eg. his liturgy was actually simpler than Calvin’s). Some other theologians – “balancers”, let’s call them – prefer to keep in the picture some more peripheral things to bring more diversity and balance, and general enrichment, to Christians (Origen definitely fits this description). I think either of these ways are acceptable. I would keep James in (barely). I’m fine with Luther disregarding the letter.

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