Martin Luther and the “Epistle of Straw”

Martin Luther and the “Epistle of Straw” September 15, 2015

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

James 2:14-18

MARTIN LUTHER, 1529 by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This scripture–the second reading from the liturgy on Sunday, September  13–must have posed quite a problem for Martin Luther!

In fact, Luther referred to the Book of James as an “epistle of straw” and sought unsuccessfully to have the entire book removed from Sacred Scripture. Why? Because it didn’t agree with his newly-reasoned idea of “faith without works.”

After his break from the Catholic Faith, Martin Luther taught that the only way to respond to God’s plan of salvation for all mankind is to simply trust in his perfect love. Under that theology, doing “good works” or obedience to God was not necessary for salvation. From Luther’s reliance on “faith alone” as the sole foundation of the believer came the oft-quoted “sinner’s prayer.”

Luther removed seven books from the canon of Scripture: Tobit, Judith, 1st & 2nd Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach & Baruch, as well as sections from the books of Esther and Daniel. He tried unsuccessfully to also remove James and Revelation, both of which included certain texts which disproved his theology. 

But the version of the Old Testament which was used at the time of Christ–and which Jesus himself would have used in the Synagogue–was the Septuagint. This version of the Bible included the seven books which Luther removed, called the Deuterocanonical books. It was the version of the Old Testament which was used by New Testament authors and by all Christians during the first century A.D.

Why would Luther have taken it upon himself to “correct” all those Christians and even Christ himself? Many theologians believe that Luther felt guilt for his own sins, and changing to a “faith alone” theology allowed him to absolve himself of responsibility for his sins.

Still today, as a result of Luther’s biblical meddling, Protestant theology differs from what had been consistently taught from the time of Christ through the Reformation. For example, in removing the books of Maccabees, Luther eliminated from Scripture the evidence in support of praying for the dead, and hence, for Purgatory.

Was Luther right, that only faith in God was needed for salvation? Well, how does that idea match up against the words of Jesus Himself in Matthew 19:17-19, where he said:

“. . . If you would enter life, keep the commandments . . . You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and mother, and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”


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  • duh…

    What a smug childish little article. You obviously have no knowledge of Martin Luther’s theology, or the history of Biblical scholarship. Before you decide to take Luther’s ideas out of context and straw man a position you clearly know nothing about, how about actually studying it. I would recommend reading books on Luther by actual Luther scholars (something you are clearly not). Also, perhaps you could study a text or two on the history of the Bible and hermeneutics.

    • Zaara Madison

      I am very happy that I was baptised Roman Catholic soon after birth.
      My Sacrament of Confirmation gifted to me during my teen years.
      The Sacrament of Marriage was bestowed 32 years ago

      I personally believe that Martin Luther, who was a Catholic Priest had gravely wounded the Sacred Heart of my Lord Jesus Christ, Who is true God and true man in Whom I believe, in Whom I hope and Whom I love above all things.

      Instead of keeping His flock as Christ’s ordained shepherd-priest, Martin Luther with his pride, scattered His flock.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    … which Jesus himself would have used in the Synagogue–was the Septuagint

    Why would Jesus have used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible when he spoke Aramiac, and not Greek?

    • kathyschiffer

      The Septuagint was in Greek, yes; but it was a translation of the ancient Jewish texts, and it was these texts in their entirety which were familiar to Jesus and were used in the Synagogue during his lifetime.

  • davend

    Wow, someone has been reading the work of some hack Catholic apologists.

    1) First off, if you want to write about Luther you might want to begin by reading the Joint Declaration on Justification on the Vatican website.

    2) Although Luther wasn’t particularly fond of the deuterocanonicals because he didn’t believe they added any understanding of Christ or salvation, he didn’t remove them from the canon of scripture. Go to any good academic library and take a look at Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible.

    3) Luther didn’t unsuccessfully “try” to remove any books from the Bible–that’s just a complete and absolute falsehood. Who would have stopped him? Luther was solely in charge of his translation project.

    4) There is no evidence that Jesus spoke or read Greek. The evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls is overwhelming that scriptural texts in this part of the world were maintained either in Hebrew or Aramaic.

    5) There was no Septuagint “version” of Scripture at the time of Jesus. (The codex wouldn’t even be invented for another 300-400 years.) There were individual books of the Bible translated into Greek over a long period of time on individual scrolls which were of varying availability and located mostly in Greek speaking areas such as Alexandria. There was no Septuagint “canon” at the time of Jesus–and the one that would develop eventually has more books than the Roman Catholic canon does anyway. If you want to argue that Jesus used “the Septuagint,” you’re also going to need to explain why the Church “removed” books like 3 and 4 Maccabees or the 151st Psalm.

    6) The Septuagint wasn’t used by “all” Christians–only the Greek speaking ones that didn’t read Hebrew. The majority of the first Christians were Aramaic speakers. By late antiquity there were more Aramaic speaking/reading Christians than Latin or Greek speaking ones.

    Articles like this make Catholics look grossly ignorant of basic Biblical scholarship– and as though the Church simply invents historical facts to suit its own rhetoric ends. It’s just plain embarrassing.

    • I don’t know what hack theologians you’re talking about, but right here in Wikipedia it talks about the New Testament works that Luther tried to remove:

      Here’s the quote:

      “Luther made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (notably, he perceived them to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola gratia and sola fide), but this was not generally accepted among his followers. However, these books are ordered last in the German-language Luther Bible to this day.[5]”

      If the Pope today were to refer to any of the works in Bible as works “of straw” the Protestant world would be aghast and in an uproar. And rightly so. What it shows is that Luther was an egomaniac who placed his ideology above Bible.

      • davend

        “I read it on Wikipedia! It must be true!”

        And exactly who told Luther he couldn’t do it, the Pope? Luther’s Bible translation project was entirely orchestrated by him. He deferred to no one.

        • Let me see, that wikipedia quote was footnoted. Where is the substantiation to your claim? Plus the wikipedia quote is common knowledge. You are claiming something that goes against common knowledge. The burden, my friend, is on you to prove the wikipedia entry and common knowledge wrong. You haven’t substatiated anything. Before you start calling anyone a “hack theologian” I want you to prove you’re not a hack. who are you to make unsubstantiated claims?

          And by the way, I hope you’re also not disputing that Luther called the Epistle of James “an epistle of straw.” Because he did. Where does he get the audacity to claim any part of the Holy Word to be full of straw? That shows you what an egomaniac he was.

  • The epistle of James is one of my favorite works in the entire Bible. Read the Gospels and you will see that Christ substantiates James’ faith and works. There are some admirable things about Luther, but there are also a lot of things that are not admirable.