Luther’s Epistle of Straw: The Voice of St. James in Reformation Preaching

This work challenges the common consensus that Luther, with his commitment to St. Paul’s articulation of justification by faith, leaves no room for the Letter of St. James. Against this one-sided reading of Luther, focused only his criticism of the letter, this book argues that Luther had fruitful interpretations of the epistle that shaped the subsequent exegetical tradition. Scholarship’s singular concentration on Luther’s criticism of James as “an epistle of straw” has caused many to overlook Luther’s sermons on James, the many places where James comes to full expression in Luther’s writings, and the influence that Luther’s biblical interpretation had on later interpretations of James. Based primarily on neglected Lutheran sermons in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this work examines the pastoral hermeneutic of Luther and his theological heirs as they heard the voice of James and communicated that voice to and for the sake of the church. Scholars, pastors, and educated laity alike are invited to discover how Luther’s theology was shaped by the Epistle of James and how Luther’s students and theological heirs aimed to preach this disputed letter fruitfully to their hearers.

DeGruyter have sent along a review copy.

The great achievement of Lane’s revised Promotionsarbeit is his proving beyond any reasonable doubt that Luther’s view of the Letter of James is more nuanced than his Preface to James and Jude in the September Testament would lead us to believe.  The common view of Luther’s opinion of James is gloriously and meticulously overturned and the wrong-headedness of the constant parroting of Luther’s little phrase ‘epistle of straw’ is on full and fantastic display.

Lane achieves this by first of all closely examining Althamer’s 1527 annotations on James and this is followed by a very useful and accurate exposition of Luther’s own exegesis of James.  This in turn gives way to a look at the Letter of James in the Postils and this naturally leads to a wider historical examination of James in the later Lutheran Orthodox tradition.  The volume concludes with a summary of Lane’s theses (46 of them.  He should have just done 95, but I’m sure he had his reasons for doing just under half of that), an appendix containing annotated editions of Luther’s five sermons on James in English translation, a bibliography, index of persons, index of subjects, and index of biblical texts.

Lane makes his way through the primary sources with the skill of a seasoned historical researcher.  His grasp of Luther’s Latin and German is superb and his familiarity with the secondary literature is remarkable (given the breadth of that literature in these troubled times).  Unlike too many Luther ‘scholars’, Lane doesn’t cite secondary sources as his first or only resource.  And that’s refreshing and noteworthy.  Far too many know Luther only at second hand and that lack of first hand familiarity shows on every page of their work (e.g., the horrifically ignorant book on Luther of Eric Metaxas is a premier case in point).  Metaxas is no Lane just as a firefly is no star.

Lane’s book is further worthy of commendation because he doesn’t drag his argument out unnecessarily.  He says what needs to be said and he moves on.  At around 226 pages, then, it is a volume that can be worked through in a few days instead of the few weeks required of those wordy tomes which strive too hard to say too much and at the end turn up saying hardly anything worth remembering.

I would like to conclude this review with a quote from Lane’s work with which I agree 100%-

I believe it is fair to say that modern scholars continue to underestimate the hermeneutical and rhetorical precision of Luther and his theological heirs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  In their careful and often colorful exegesis of James 1, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lutherans demonstrate a lively biblical theology that extends far beyond the Pauline context (p. 188).

Scholars today need to take that seriously.   Get this book.  Read it.  Learn.