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.