Martin Luther’s Problem With the “Epistle of Straw”

Luther removed seven entire books from the Old Testament, and fought to strip away sections of the New Testament as well

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), “Portrait of Martin Luther”
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), “Portrait of Martin Luther” (photo: Public Domain)

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)

This scripture 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.”

“I think highly of the epistle of James,” Luther said, “and regard it as valuable although it was rejected in early days. It does not expound human doctrines, but lays much emphasis on God’s law. … I do not hold it to be of apostolic authorship.”

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 and 2nd Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach and 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 the 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.