“St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” — Martin Luther
That Martin Luther called the Epistle of St. James “an epistle of straw” is a well-known fact. Those just learning it should not be surprised when they read it, though. After all, in making up his new religion, Luther’s ultimate recourse was to his own intellect. About the nicest thing we can say of such a criterion for truth is that it was not given a divine promise of inerrancy.
Luther’s problems aside for the moment — we will return to them — the study of the Epistle and its inspired author would be well worth our attention even had they not been impugned by the apostate Augustinian Friar. We therefore set out to do three things in this article. The first is to give a brief introduction to St. James and his Epistle. Next, we explore why the reformer had problems with it. Third, we will use the Epistle’s contents to refute certain Protestant errors and defend certain Catholic truths.
“The Just One”
Though there are some who hold a different view, the common opinion among Catholics is that the author of this Epistle is the Apostle, James the Less, the “Brother of the Lord” who was also the first Bishop of Jerusalem. This view was universal in the West until modern scholars, with their historical-critical method, began to question everything. Some orthodox authors of the East, following Eusebius, held that the Apostle and the Bishop of Jerusalem were two different men (see sidebar, page 32).
St. James was murdered by the unbelieving Jews, as is related by both Eusebius of Caesarea and Josephus, the Jewish historian. Because of the growing number of Jewish converts to the Gospel, the Jews, who themselves called James “the Just One,” wished to get him to denounce Our Lord publicly. For some strange reason, they seemed to think he would actually do it. So, on the feast of Pentecost in the year 62, they gave him the “bully pulpit” of the pinnacle of the Temple, from which he could address the large number of Jews and Gentiles present for the holy day. He had agreed with the Jews ahead of time to “persuade the multitude not to be led astray concerning Jesus,” a phrase which obviously meant different things to the agreeing parties. When St. James had taken his place on the pinnacle, the Scribes and Pharisees cried out to him, “Thou Just One, in whom we ought all to have confidence, forasmuch as the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.”
To this, St. James replied, “Why do ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sitteth in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.” St. Hegesippus, the second-century Jewish convert from whose account we are drawing, goes on to relate that “when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another, ‘We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.’ ”
After hurling him off the pinnacle of the temple, they began to stone his mangled yet still-alive body. Like Our Lord, he begged God to forgive his murderers, and some of them, upon learning this, ceased their violence. But the job was finished by a man who struck him on the head with a fuller’s club.
St. Hegesippus gives us a striking literary portrait of our subject: “James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church [of Jerusalem] in conjunction with the Apostles. He has been called ‘the Just’ by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called ‘the Just,’ and Oblias , which signifies in Greek, Bulwark of the people85” (all citations from St. Hegesippus are as quoted in History of the Church by Eusebius of Caesarea II: 23).
Law and Order Man
St. Hegesippus’ description of St. James fits that of a Nazarite of the Old Testament, someone (such as Sampson and Samuel) specially consecrated to God by certain external signs and penitential practices. This picture of the aged Jewish ascetic takes on a more vivid color in the light of certain details from Acts of the Apostles. We know that St. James’ love of the Law of Moses and his zeal to maintain its practices were at the heart of a great controversy in the early Church. Even though “the end of the law is Christ” (Rom. 10:4) and “in Christ it is made void” (2 Cor. 3:14), St. James retained the observance of the Law and insisted that his Jewish converts, who were “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20) should not be exposed to potential scandal by seeing the Apostles cast it aside. After all, the Law was holy, and men living during the time of this controversy would have known that Jesus and His family had observed it faithfully. For these converts, whose personal identity and ideals of holiness were steeped in Moses’ Law, the idea of parting with it was too much.
Rather than being “destroyed” by Christ, the Law was “fulfilled” in Him and given, as it were, an honorable burial. It was something holy but now surpassed by the great Reality it foreshadowed (cf. Mt. 5:17).* During that transitional period, when the Old and New Testaments were overlapping, the Law was, to borrow a famous expression of St. Augustine,86 “dead, but not deadly.” Therefore, the Apostles could still observe the Law, especially for the pastoral reason outlined above.
In this context, St. James’ role in the history of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) is more clearly understood. Aside from being the Bishop of Jerusalem and the oldest of the Apostles, which doubly entitled him to respect and, therefore, a place of honor at the council, St. James also had “a bit of explaining to do” as one known to be a zealous observer of the Mosaic Law, at a time when the Law’s observance was a bone of contention. It is thought by many, and reasonably so, that St. Paul and St. James represented two different parties in the dispute. Even though both sides submitted to the decision of the Council of Jerusalem — which clarified that Gentiles were not bound to the Law of Moses — there was still the touchy issue of whether or not the Jewish Christians should observe it. Two episodes illustrate how touchy the issue was, and St. James enters into both of them. The first is St. Paul’s famous rebuke “to the face” of Peter (Gal. 2:11 ff.), which St. Peter deserved for giving scandal. It was the arrival of some men “from James” which occasioned St. Peter’s withdrawing himself from the tables of the gentile converts so as to keep kosher with the Jews. The second episode is that of St. Paul having to prove his observance of the Law so as not to scandalize newly converted Jews (Acts 21:21 ff.). The Apostle to the Gentiles proved himself by going to the Temple to be ritually purified with four men who had taken a vow. His admirable obedience to St. James on this occasion led to his own arrest, as had been dramatically foretold by Agabus the Prophet (Acts 21:11).
To Whom, When, and Where?
The Epistle was sent to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (1:1), that is, to the Jews of the Diaspora, who were evidently suffering persecution or trials of various sorts, as we garner from the first few verses. The time of the writing is not certain, though it is generally agreed to have been between 45 and 62. Since St. James was bishop of Jerusalem, it is most likely that it was written from there.
The subject matter of the book is mostly moral , that is, it was written to address the behavior of the readers. Much of the letter is the Apostle’s reproof of their bad conduct, which included: contentions, animosities, ambitions, neglect of the poor, favoritism to the rich, impatience with one another, and various other sins against charity, especially sins of the tongue. Although he is teaching all throughout and, consequently, doctrine is present in the Epistle, it has nothing by way of weighty theological argumentation, such as we find in the Epistles of St. Paul. St. James’ letter is a beautiful treatise on virtue and vice that is clear, hard-hitting, and so transparent in its simplicity that there is no complexity for a heretic to hide behind.
Speak of the Devil
This brings us back to Luther. Since the reformer did not think virtue and vice had any role in man’s salvation, and since he had little of the former and much of the latter, the book was simply not to his heretical and immoral tastes. Certainly St. Paul enjoins virtue and good works — even stating that God “will render to every man according to his works” (Rom. 2:6), but there are so many wonderfully difficult places in St. Paul’s writings for the man of bad doctrine to twist up, that Luther somehow felt more at home there. Concerning St. Paul’s Epistles, St. Peter had warned that there are “certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet., 3:16). This is a brief and inspired verbal snapshot of Luther.
To give the reader an appreciation for the reformer’s audacity in judging the Bible, we present the context of Luther’s insult to the inspired word of God. It was in his Preface to the New Testament (1522; revised 1545): “In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it. ( Works of Martin Luther , Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1932, copyrighted by the United Lutheran Church in America, vol. 6. pp. 363 ff., tr. C.M. Jacobs pp. 443-444.)
If there is one text that anyone, Catholic or Protestant, can quote from St. James’ Epistle, it is “faith without works is dead” (2:26). From verse 14 to the end, Chapter Two is a defense of the necessity of good works in man’s justification.
Here is the passage, from verse 14 to 26, which is the last of the Chapter: “What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him? And if a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food: And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself. But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith. Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, offering up Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou, that faith did co-operate with his works; and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled, saying: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him to justice, and he was called the friend of God. Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only? And in like manner also Rahab the harlot, was not she justified by works, receiving the messengers, and sending them out another way? For even as the body without the spirit is dead; so also faith without works is dead. ”
The translation we use here — the Catholic Douay Rheims — is in essential agreement with every Protestant translation consulted. The same holds true for all the passages cited in this article. Protestants are invited to pick up their own Bibles and “search the Scriptures” themselves.
What this passage shows is that the Biblical system of salvation is a Faith-works system, not a Faith-only system or a works-only system. Both must be present. Let’s begin with our Father Abraham.
Abraham was held up by St. Paul as a prototype of the justified soul. The two passages in which he did this — Romans four and Galatians three — show two things. First, the power of Faith to justify the soul “without the works of the Law,” that is, independent of the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, which didn’t come about until 430 years after Abraham. Second, St. Paul also teaches that no works of ours have any supernatural value in the sight of God without Faith in Christ.
What St. James adds to the testimony of St. Paul is that Abraham, in that same pre-Mosaic dispensation, was justified by his works done through Faith . St. Paul’s declaration that “we account a man to be justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28) is not contradicted by St. James’ statement that Abraham was justified by works. The two are no more contradictory than the two propositions: “my mother raised me to be a good boy” and “my father raised me to be a good boy.”
When St. James said “Was not Abraham our father justified by…?” he was not referring to the works of the Mosaic Law, so that is no issue here. He was speaking of “offering up Isaac his son upon the altar,” which brings us to a very important point all too often ignored in the Faith-works polemic: This justification of Abraham was not his leaving the state of Original Sin and entering the state of Justice; it was his increase in Justice, his growth in sanctifying grace. Why do I say that? Because the justifying work that St. James refers to — the offering of Isaac — happened years after Abraham “believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice.” Yet, St. James clearly shows that Abraham’s offering of Isaac “justified” him. That Abraham increased in righteousness, or became holier, gives us a key to this verse: “Seest thou, that faith did co-operate with his works; and by works faith was made perfect?” This is nothing more or less than the Catholic concept of merit: our good works done in grace merit an increase of grace and store up for us treasures in Heaven. By them we cooperate with God; by them “faith,” to use St. James’ words, is “made perfect.” Thus, against the Protestants, the Council of Trent (Session 6, Canon 32) condemned the proposition that “the justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace.”
This teaching on merit flies in the face of Luther, who taught that “the just man sins in every good work” and “a good work, no matter how well performed, is a venial sin” (Condemned Propositions of Luther: Denz. 771); and Calvin, who called good works and defilements” ( Institutes of the Christian Religion , III, 12, 4).
Don’t Forget Rahab
Abraham wasn’t the only type of the justified soul that St. James makes reference to; he also points us to a prostitute of the Old Testament: “Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only? And in like manner also Rahab the harlot, was not she justified by works, receiving the messengers, and sending them out another way?” (2:24-25).
The story of Rahab the harlot is recorded in the Book of Josue (Prot.: Joshua). It begins in Chapter Two and picks up again in Chapter Six. This prostitute of Jericho believed that God was leading the conquering Israelites. She protected Josue’s spies and, as a reward, she and her family were spared the punishment meted out to the other inhabitants of the pagan city. Like Abraham, she believed first, for she made an act of Faith in the God of Israel. Like him, she did a good work: protecting the spies. And like him, she is rewarded: “But Josue saved Rahab the harlot and her father’s house, and all she had, and they dwelt in the midst of Israel until this present day: because she hid the messengers whom he had sent to spy out Jericho” (Josue 6:25). It should briefly be pointed out that Rahab is a type of the Gentile Church of the New Testament. She was “saved” by “Jesus,” for Josue is the holy name of Jesus.
Incidentally, while Rahab lived during the period of the Mosaic Law, she is another example of one justified independently of the Law, since she was a Gentile and therefore not bound to it.
Rahab’s Faith was praised by St. Paul: “By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with the unbelievers, receiving the spies with peace” (Heb. 11:31). So, was Rahab saved by Faith? Yes. By works? Yes. Is there a contradiction? No. If there were, the Word of God would contradict itself.
The Mirror of the Gospel
Our Apostle compares the Gospel to a mirror in which we are to observe ourselves so as to become better. We must do what Our Lord enjoins and not just hear it. Of course, to do it presupposes to believe it , Faith being necessary for good works; yet the blessings of the Gospel — eternal beatitude — are reserved for those who are “doer[s] of the work.” Here are the words of the “Just One”: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if a man be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he shall be compared to a man beholding his own countenance in a glass. For he beheld himself, and went his way, and presently forgot what manner of man he was. But he that hath looked into the perfect law of liberty, and hath continued therein, not becoming a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work; this man shall be blessed in his deed” (1:22-25).
How are we to be doers of the work and not only hearers? Once we have accepted the word, by Faith, we must practice virtue and avoid vice. Here are a few “virtue verses”:
Patience: In the very beginning (1:2-5), St. James tells his readers: “My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations; knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. And patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing.” We are to rejoice in temptations because they try our Faith. Such trials make us patient, and patience perfects us. Thus, we become supernaturally perfected by such trials; by the grace of God, we grow in holiness.
Needless to say, if we aren’t patient, and we fail those trials, then perfection is not achieved. But if we win our trials, then something we do adds to our perfection in the sight of God. It’s very clear, and very anti-Luther.
We get a similar lesson a few lines down, in verse twelve: “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he hath been proved, he shall receive a crown of life, which God hath promised to them that love him.” The crown of life, the supernatural reward promised by God, is given to him who endures. Now, “to endure” is plainly a work — something we do. Consequently, good works have a role in our salvation.
Meekness: “Wherefore casting away all uncleanness, and abundance of naughtiness, with meekness receive the ingrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21).
Humility: “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (4:6). This plainly indicates that the practice of a certain virtue, humility, disposes God to give a man grace. As all virtues are, humility is a “good habit,” that is, a habitual performance of certain good acts. Since these acts are “works,” this is another proof of good works giving us grace.
A little further down, the Apostle declares, “Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10). It is another promise that God will give grace to someone who practices humility. In the previous verse, he tells us how to be humbled. It’s a little list of works: “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy into sorrow” (4:9).
Actions Supernaturally Rewarded
Certain acts are shown to have supernatural rewards. Here is a small list:
Converting Sinners : “My brethren, if any of you err from the truth, and one convert him: He must know that he who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way, shall save his soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins.” Here, we are told that we can save our souls from death by being instrumental in the conversion of our neighbor. What a tremendous promise!
Drawing Nigh to God: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you” (4:8).
Resisting the Devil: “Be subject therefore to God, but resist the devil, and he will fly from you” (4:7).
Prayer: “But if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, which is moved and carried about by the wind. Therefore let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (1:5-7). Wisdom, when it is held up as a good thing in the New Testament (and not mere human sophistry), is a supernatural gift of God. Jesus is Wisdom Incarnate (cf. 1 Cor. 1:24), therefore the wise man is more Christ-like. St. James himself tells us the qualities of the “wisdom that is from above” (3:17). The conclusion is that wisdom (a supernatural gift, that is, a grace ) can be merited by prayer (an act of Faith, that is, a work ).
Note that St. James is teaching believers how to obtain wisdom. Thus, one who already has Faith can be spiritually better than he was before. Grace, therefore, can be increased in us, and our act — prayer — has something to do with it.
Since good works are a necessary part of our justification, they will certainly figure into our judgment after we die. It was the Savior of the world who said, “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then will he render to every man according to his works ” (Mt. 16:27). St. James confirms this relation of our good works to a favorable judgment, and evil works to a negative one:
“But if you have respect to persons, you commit sin, being reproved by the law as transgressors. And whosoever shall keep the whole law, but offend in one point, is become guilty of all. For he that said, Thou shalt not commit adultery, said also, Thou shalt not kill. Now if thou do not commit adultery, but shalt kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. So speak ye, and so do, as being to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment without mercy to him that hath not done mercy. And mercy exalteth itself above judgment” (2:9-13).
Believers will be “judged by the law of liberty” — i.e., the Gospel. Those who show mercy will be judged mercifully, and those who fail to show mercy will be judged more severely. This is the same lesson taught in St. Matthew’s Gospel, both in the parable of the merciless servant (18:23-35) and in the Sermon on the Mount: “For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences” (6:14-15). Now “showing mercy” is plainly a work. With it, we are judged favorably (i.e., saved ); without it, we are judged “without mercy” (i.e., damned ). This verse proves both the necessity of works and the subject of our next section, the fact that true believers can be lost.
Once Saved NOT Always Saved
The Just One sent his Epistle to believing Christians. This hardly needs proof, but such can be found in the many passages (e.g., 1:2) in which he refers to his readers as “brethren.” They had the Faith, but were they thereby assured of their salvation, as Calvin and modern “once saved always saved” adherents would advance? Certainly not!
What the Apostle says about temptation, sin, and spiritual death in this passage must apply to believers, else he would have wasted his time writing it to them: “But every man is tempted by his own concupiscence, being drawn away and allured. Then when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin. But sin, when it is completed, begetteth death” (1:14-15). Clearly, then, justified believers — who certainly fall into the category “every man” — can be tempted, can sin, and can spiritually die. Very clear, and very anti-Calvin.
One effect of Christian Justice is that it makes us friends of God. Here, the Brother of Our Lord shows how sin can make us His enemies: “Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God ? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world, becometh an enemy of God ” (4:4). Heaven is no place for God’s enemies.
In a passage I already cited, we are told of the rewards of one who converts a sinner. The reader should note that the erring sinner was a believing Christian, for St. James said, “My brethren if any of you err from the truth, and one convert him85” (5:19). This verse implies that a Christian believer can err from the truth of the Gospel and be in need of conversion. Believers, then, can lose the Faith, lose justice, and lose salvation.
Another sin is grudging, which was apparently leading to serious breaches of charity among St. James’ readers. Here, he warns of the serious nature of such things: “Grudge not, brethren, one against another, that you may not be judged. Behold the judge standeth before the door.” The King James Version has: “Grudge not against one another, brethren, lest ye be condemned .” Yes, the Christian “brethren” can be judged and condemned.
Other vices shown to mar our relationship with God are tongue wagging (1:26; 3:2 ff.), persecuting the poor (5:4), and pride (4:6).
After the passage in Chapter Two, about good works, probably the best known passage in the Epistle is the one on the priesthood, the sacrament of Extreme Unction, and Confession:
“Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess therefore your sins one to another: and pray one for another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much” (5:14-16).
We point out three things: 1) St. James taught that there was a rite using oil which had the power to cure and to forgive sins. 2) This rite is administered by priests. (Even the Protestant King James Version uses the word “priests” in the above passage.) 3) Christians are to confess their sins to each other.
Regarding point three, it would be ridiculous to confess your sins to someone who could do nothing about them. However, we know from St. John (20:21ff.) that there are men in the Church with power to forgive sins. These men are called “priests,” as St. James has named them in the above passage.
The Fathers of the Church witness to the traditional teaching concerning this passage:
Origen: “[T]he sinner85 does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine85 In this way there is fufilled that too, which the Apostle James says: ‘If then, there is anyone sick, let him call the presbyters of the Church, and let them impose hands upon him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.’ ” Homily on Leviticus , 2:4 (A.D. 244).
St. John Chrysostom: “For not only at the time of regeneration, but afterwards also, they [priests] have authority to forgive sins. ‘Is any sick among you?’ it is said, ‘let him call for the elders of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up: and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him.’ ” On the Priesthood , 3:6 (A.D. 386).
Caesarius of Arles: “[L]et him who is ill receive the Body and Blood of Christ; let him humbly and in faith ask the presbyters for blessed oil, to anoint his body, so that what was written may be fufilled in him: ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he be in sins, they will be forgiven him (James 5:14-15)” Sermons , 13 (265), 3 (ante A.D. 542).
Readers are referred to the “Did You Know85?” of the present issue, wherein is given the testimony of the (schismatic, non-Catholic) Greek Orthodox Church on the existence of seven sacraments. Their belief in the priesthood, extreme unction, and the sacrament of penance is identical to ours because it is based on the unanimous tradition of the Eastern Fathers and the first seven Ecumenical Counsels.
Gold, Not Straw
Luther’s attack on St. James’ Epistle was obviously in his “best” interest. When something contradicts you, the easiest (if not the most honest) way to deal with it, is to deny its validity. What surprises us more than his hatred of St. James’ Epistle is that Luther actually would accept the Gospels or any of the rest of the New Testament.
But that’s an issue for a future article.