The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 2: James in the Christian Canon

With the many diverging perspectives with regards to the identity of the author of James has led it also to become subject to scrutiny with regards to its canonicity –that is its place as to whether or not it is to be considered rightly as Scripture.

In fact church history itself testifies to several disputes over the place of the epistle in canon Scripture, which is prominent in Martin Luther’s consignment of it as an ‘epistle of straw’ to which he wrote: “Therefore, St. James’ epistle is really and epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it[1].”

Luther’s supposition of the epistles’ worth finds substance in his conclusion that: in comparison to books such as Romans and Galatians, the Gospel of John and 1st Peter. James bears “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” As according to Luther it does not bear witness to Christ or to such cherished Reformation themes of salvation that one appropriates by faith alone, in Christ’s accomplished work of redemption in contrast to that of the Pauline epistles of Romans and Galatians as well as to that of John’s Gospel and 1st Peter which Luther considers as documents that were to be prized as the “true kernel and marrow of all the books,” because they would “show you Christ” and “teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know[2].”  As a consequence such an appraisal, Luther deemed James unfit to qualify as a book that is to be considered as Scripture, consequently marginalizing the epistle along with its message from the rest of Reformation movement that burgeoned later.

Such controversy over James’ canonicity even goes way back in church history, in fact questions of one sort or another about James can be traced back farther than the Reformation. The Muratorian Canon, a list of books accepted as canonical that is typically dated to Rome in the middle of the second century, does not list James as part of the canon. Writing in the early fourth century, the church historian Eusebius still refers to James as one of the “disputed” books, although he himself deems it apostolic and orthodox and states that it is recognized or accepted by many. The late fourth-century church father and translator of the Vulgate, Jerome, asserted that James had been accepted into the church “little by little.”[3]

With the epistle being surrounded by debate over its canonicity with regards to its authorship and the substance of its message it finds itself frequently treated merely as a reference manual to what modern Christians call as: practical Christian living[4].

In fact, Luther’s harsh evaluation of James as a book bereft of the gospel and of Christ still lingers on in modern interpretations[5]. Ironically, however the very assessment of James as a book of practical wisdom reflects Luther’s judgement of its shortcomings, inasmuch as it implies that James lacks any genuine theological insight or foundation though it can be pressed into service as a book with “practical” guidelines for everyday life highlights precisely the separation that James itself decries,[6] thus haunting the modern interpreter with a staggering call to revisit the Epistle and its message yet again.

[1] Luther, Martin. Selected Writings of Martin Luther, ed. Theodore G. Tappert, (Minneapolis: MN, Fortress Press, 2007)
[2] Achtemeier, Paul et al. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001) p. 491
[3] Achtemeier, Paul et al. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology pp. 492
[4] I believe this is commonly found in what Paul Matheny defines as ‘popular piety’ (On the Genealogies and Geographies of Philosophical and Theological Thinking: An Introductory Text p.117) where appropriation of Scripture is often judged by their practical consequences, which is evident in ‘how-to’ sermons and instructional modes of teaching in the church, as such appropriation of Scripture concludes that a course of an action or concept is right if it brings good results, wrong if it doesn’t seem to work.
[5] Charles R. Swindoll’s, James: Practical and Authentic Living is a classic example of such treatment of James, to which he states that James is “a book that gets down to where we live”. Swindoll suggests that James will help us get off the fence and move in a direction that could ultimately change our lives. The same could also be observed in Harold Fickett’s, James: Faith That Works, where he writes that James talks about vital everyday matters. The book presents itself as a Bible study guide to discovering how the readers’ faith can be one that practically work.
[6] Achtemeier, Paul et al. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology p. 491

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