There is good evidence to suggest that James was the brother of Jesus, and James was a significant leader (many would suggest he was the first bishop) of the church in Jerusalem. There is no doubt that James would have heard Jesus’ insights on the Beatitudes many times, and, as bishop of the fledgling church in Jerusalem, he attempted to apply such incisive wisdom to the parishioners in Jerusalem and many Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world and ethos of the time.
James wrote the book of James (probably one of the earliest Christian letters), and the missive has had a substantive impact on the origins of the catholic church, throughout church history and now. Although Martin Luther held high the centrality and authority of the Bible, he was most selective in how he priorized what was of primary and what of secondary importance in the Bible. Luther thought James was but a meagre piece of straw, and not to be taken with the same level of seriousness as the gospels and many of the Pauline epistles.
What was it about James that so offended Luther, and how did Luther go amiss and astray by relegating James to a lower level of worth in the New Testament? There are three central areas where James and Luther (if they had been contemporaries) would have clashed. Sadly so, significant clans in the Christian tradition have followed Luther rather than James in their understanding of the Bible. The results have been somewhat problematic. It is ironic, though, that Luther held high the Bible, and yet his read of it was somewhat erratic and reductionistic. Let us, though, touch on the three areas where James and Luther parted paths and why.
First, James never thought that the Jewish Law was an oppressive and overbearing set of rules, ordinances and commandments. In fact, James thought the Jewish Law was the ethical gateway to freedom and real liberty. The Law could be compared to a series of markings or cairns along the way that affirmed for the pilgrim that they were on the right path. The Law was never meant to be a rigorous and unflinching set of rules by which God would judge and dismiss those that violated such standards. The heart of the ‘perfect law’ (1:25) or ‘royal law’ (2:8, 2:12) was a generous concern and loving attentiveness to the needs of others. The core of the Law was about mercy and kindness, and James urged his readers to ‘speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom (2:12)’. The Law, therefore, was not a taskmaster and brooding overlord that was meant to reveal how fallen and sinful humanity was, is and ever shall be. It was meant to be a kindly pointer and marking to the path of life and life abundant. Many Jews at the time of Jesus and James understood the Law in this way. Luther’s read of Paul took quite a different interpretive approach to the Law.
It is important, of course, not to equate Luther and Paul’s read of the Jewish Law. Much work has been done on clarifying how Luther distorted Paul’s read of the Law, and even more work has been done on clarifying Paul’s more positive read of the Jewish Law. When I was doing my doctoral studies at McMaster University in the 1980s, McMaster was a centre and hub of Jewish-Christian and Oriental Studies (Islamic Studies had been shaped and guided by W.C. Smith in the 1950s at McGill University). Professor George Grant had been at the forefront from the early 1960s in making McMaster one of the leading universities in North America and Europe in Religious Studies. Professor Ed P. Sanders was teaching at McMaster when I was there, and much of his work made it abundantly clear that the Pauline read of the Jewish Law had been somewhat distorted by the protestant reformed tradition. Sanders’ many books on Paul, the Law and the Jewish tradition (Paul and Palestinian Judaism: 1977, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People: 1983, and Jesus and Judaism: 1985) did much to highlight Paul’s more nuanced read of the Jewish Law and the role it played in the Jewish ethical tradition. I was doing my doctoral thesis on Martin Buber when at McMaster, and Buber, as a leading Jewish exegete and translator of the Hebrew Bible, thought that significant elements of the Christian tradition had seriously misunderstood the meaning and role of the Jewish Law. In fact, it was Buber, as the leading German Jew in Germany in the 1920s-1930s, that challenged Luther’s translation of the Bible into German. Buber did a more dynamic translation of the Hebrew Bible than did Luther, and Buber pointed out serious problems with Luther’s understanding of the Jewish Law. Buber anticipated, in many ways, the conclusions that Ed Sanders had reached in the 1970s-1980s.
Luther, like Paul to a lesser and more complicated degree, thought the Law was the means God used to make it obvious that humanity could never attain the expectations of God. The standards were so high, and humanity, even the best, failed to attain and live consistently in the light of such standards. This meant that humanity was a failure before God, inadequate and unable to live a life, in thought, word and deed that God expected. The fact that a weak and fragile humanity failed to meet the Divine standards meant that guilt and remorse were built into the human condition. There were the Divine standards, there was the impossibility of perfectly meeting them, there were more attempts, more failures, and the cycle of attempts, failures and guilt seemed to have no end. Luther lived this circular reality, and it almost broke him. Needless to say, his view of the Law was quite different from that which we find in James, Buber and a more nuanced read of Paul via the scholarly work of Professor Ed Sanders. There is no way out of Luther’s iron cage if it is seen as the Jewish notion of the Law. The answer, of course, for Luther, was that Jesus the Christ bore our sins, as the sacrificial Lamb that pleased God the Father, and once deed was done, and accepted in faith, humanity was seen by God as just because of Christ’s freely given sacrifice. The penal or juridical theory of the atonement dominates the day within such an approach. But, does the Jewish Law necessarily need to be read through the eyes of Luther and tribe? This is where James and Luther part paths. This leads to the next point.
Second, Luther took the position that faith should be understood in a legal and juridical manner. We are justified by grace through faith. It is when humans realize that they are ensnared in either original sin or total depravity, and the Law makes this abundantly clear, and they turn to God through Christ, they are free from the demands of the Law and freer yet to live in Christ. Luther’s view of faith, therefore, has a great deal to do with a certain theological position and the embracing and acceptance of it. It has less to do, initially and primarily, with action in the world, and much more to do with assenting to a legal understanding of the Law that can never be fulfilled and Christ’s way out of such a guilt driven agenda. But, was this James’ understanding of faith? It is impossible to read James and nod to Luther. James, again and again, linked and connected faith with action, faith with compassion, faith with justice and mercy. In fact, James walks the reader into an understanding of faith that is more about interior listening, hearing and living that which has been heard (1:22-23). James does not hike the path of Luther in his read of the meaning of faith. Faith is about living forth the ‘word planted in you’ (1:21). The test of faith is not whether someone claims to believe in God or Christ (even the demons can affirm God exists), but much more about how life is being lived in the world in a practical and ethical way (1:22-25, 2:14-17, 2:18-26). James, in this sense, is true to Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount. We have, therefore, two quite different ways of understanding the faith journey: James and Luther. It is almost as if James had anticipated those like Luther, and the problematic way those like Luther defined the meaning of faith. There is no doubt that James’ approach to faith does mean that Christians are expected to exercise their will and live in this world in a responsible manner. James constantly exhorts Christians to listen, think, make wise decisions and act on them. Genuine faith is not about assent to a legal metaphor; it is about living, through costly grace, a demanding and wise life of ethical compassion in this world. There is, of course, a type of latent Pelagianism in James and the Beatitudes. There is God’s grace, but there is also human responsibility to listen, hear and act (‘synergism’ is the word used that merges God’s grace and human response). We are not passive puppets dangled by God’s omnipotent hands. We are expected to respond to the grace offered and mature in living from such a place. It is in this sense that Pelagius was wiser than Augustine, Erasmus finer than Luther. Pelagius and Erasmus understand the tensions that exist between grace and human freedom in an exegetical and theological way that Augustine and Luther never did to the same degree and in the same way.
The different ways of understanding the Jewish Law and faith for James and Luther have serious implications for life lived when it comes to social justice and class distinctions between the upper and lower classes, the wealthy and the poor. This brings me to my final point.
Third, James, as the bishop and lead pastor of the church in Jerusalem (and those scattered from Jerusalem), pleaded and argued in James that the poor, marginalized, widows, fatherless and orphans had to be kept front and centre in the Christian vision (1:9-11, 1:26-27). In short, James attempted to undercut the class structure of the late antique world by offering ‘preferential option for the poor’ (2:1-7, 2:14-17). James could be quite scathing when his eyes turned to the rich and their insensitivity to the poor and needy (5:1-6). He was equally critical of those that would fawn on the wealthy and ignore the needy. This was not the way of Christ. This was not the way of James, Jesus’ brother. The position James took, therefore, flipped the social standards upside down. The poor were the real teachers, and the rich were to be held suspect. James, though, is more subtle than this. He was aware that a new justice Pharisaism often creeps into such a perspective, and he was keen to ward off this cul-de-sac. This is why wisdom is so central in the thinking of James (1:5, 3:13-18). It is wise person and sage that is wary of judging others in haste, and many is the justice and political ideologue that ignores James’ sagely advice. James has, in fact, done and exquisite job of blending the Jewish wisdom tradition of Proverbs with the searing ethical insights of the prophets. But, there is no doubt how James applied both the Law and faith in his pastoral and political vision. I need not trek too far down the trail to evaluate how Luther treated the peasant and lower classes when they asked for basic justice. Their cry went unheard, and when the peasants organized and began to act, in faith, on their concerns, Luther waxed eloquent about bringing in the military to brutalize the poor and needy. Luther served the middle and upper class, whereas James held the lower class and peasants high on his theological pedestal.
James and Luther parted paths on their understanding of the Jewish Law, faith and, in many ways, prophetic action. Luther was, in many ways, the apologist for the middle-upper classes (bourgeois Christianity), whereas James, (ever faithful to the Jewish prophetic tradition as embodied in the Sermon on the Mount) held the banner high for an emerging prophetic Christianity. Those who linger long and meditatively at the motherlode of James will emerge with a much different understanding than those that genuflect at Luther’s feet. James aphorist insights are like golden nuggets and sparkling jewels. Needless to say, we desperately need more of those who stand in the line and lineage of James than we do of Luther: James and prophetic Christianity or Luther and bourgeois Christianity? The paths taken do lead to different destinations. Let me end this missive with a well known quote from Luther with an ironic twist by way of conclusion: Here I stand (by James’ side), I can do no other. Perhaps the time has come when James’ more moderate and less anxious Jewish Christian attitude to the Law, faith and Social Justice will offset the excessive attention given to the Pauline-Lutheran tradition. But, even if Paul is held high, he should never be equated or confused with Luther’s read of him. This has caused much confusion within Christian history, theology and pastoral life.Ron Dart