The views of Luther and Calvin regarding the relationship between Paul and James - this is not merely a matter of historical curiosity. Rather, it points towards a way of overcoming the evangelism - social concern polarization.
Both Luther and Calvin were committed to the principles of “grace alone”, “faith alone”, “Christ alone” and “Scripture alone”. Both viewed the epistle of James in relation to what was regarded as “the incontrovertible and central message of salvation” (Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, (1975; Dutch, two volumes, 1965, 1967), p. 95).
They did, however, reach different conclusions concerning this epistle. Luther held that it “has no evangelical nature to it” (p. 93; cf. C. E. B. Cranfield, “The Message of James”, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 18, No. 2 (June 1965), p. 182). Calvin wrote that “it contains nothing unworthy of an Apostle of Christ” (Calvin’s Commentaries - from “The Argument on the Epistle of James”; cf. Cranfield, “The Message of James”, p. 183).
Berkouwer insists that Calvin’s favourable estimation of the epistle of James does not reflect a weaker commitment to the doctrine of the Gospel (Faith and Justification, (1954; Dutch - 1949), pp. 131-139). His interpretation of the Paul-James question is in line with Calvin’s view.
Berkouwer holds that Luther’s criticisms of James reflect a limited insight into the relationship between Paul and James (Holy Scripture, p. 96). He interprets Luther critically and appreciatively. His perceptive remarks are most pertinent to the development of a theology of social concern. Critical of Luther’s principle “that which sets forth Christ” in his interpretation of James, Berkouwer insists that every exegetical principle must proceed on the basis of the recognition of “the limitations and continuing growth of our insight” (p. 96; cf. Cranfield, “The Message of James”, p. 182, n. 6 where it is suggested that words written by Luther two days before his death (cited from W. Niesel, Reformed Symbolics: A Comparison of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism, (1962), p. 227) “seem to indicate a humbler attitude toward Scripture, and perhaps Niesel is right in seeing in them something of a recantation of earlier too cocksure utterances” (p. 183 - continuing n. 6, begun on p. 182; referring to Niesel, p. 230)). Berkouwer says, “It is incorrect to say that Luther later retracted his criticisms (of the epistle of James) ” (Holy Scripture, p. 95, n. 111, brackets mine). Berkouwer is quite correct since there was no specific retraction of Luther’s criticism of the epistle of James. Irrespective of the particular question of Luther’s view of the epistle of James, the words written by Luther two days before his death embody an important recognition of the limitation of theology’s grasp of the meaning of the Scriptures.
Appreciative of the Biblical character of Luther’s understanding of the Gospel, Berkouwer issues this warning to contemporary theology: “the methodology of every ‘canon-in-the-canon’ is dangerous, especially when it manifestly contradicts the church’s - and Luther’s - recipere of the gospel” (p. 97; “and Luther’s”, emphasis mine; “recipere”, italics original). Like Luther, Berkouwer emphasizes the relationship between Scripture and the Gospel. The confession of Scripture’s canonical authority does not, for Berkouwer, involve an assertion that “its boundaries must be readily provable and perspicuous” (p. 89; cf. Chapter 10, pp. 267-298). He relates this confession to “the message of salvation … the foundation on which the church is built” (pp. 90-91). the Church confesses that she has heard and received the Biblical testimony concerning Christ (p. 90). The Church was, in Berkouwer’s view, “led, in the matter of the boundaries of the canon, by a basic commitment centred in the gospel” (pp. 102-103 - “A true confession of Holy Scripture is possible only when one has yielded himself to the testimony of Scripture … one can never legitimately devaluate Scripture while intending to pay attention to the content of the message”). This search for Christ in the Scriptures need not lead to “distinctions between ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ in the canon in a manner which presupposes that the periphery is unimportant” (p. 90). The idea of “a reduction to the ‘canon-within-the-canon’ is fraught with the danger that the canon of Scripture will be replaced by “a canon of our own creation … a projection of our own minds” (p. 103). This danger must be carefully avoided if Christian living is not to be impoverished by a one-sided emphasis on either personal faith or social concern.
In his interpretation of the relationship between Paul and James, Berkouwer uses theological principles employed by Luther. He does not, however, reach Luther’s conclusions. Berkouwer points out that “Luther is able to speak of the sure fact that Scripture is a light clearer than sunlight … it stands in immediate relationship to saving faith, and difficulties with some words do not affect the clarity” (p. 277).
Luther emphasized the importance of the ‘Scripture alone’ principle: “We must let Scripture have the chief place and be its own truest, simplest and clearest interpreter … I want Scripture alone to rule, and not to be interpreted according to my spirit or that of any other man, but to be understood in its own light and according to its own Spirit” (A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians , (1953), p. 9 ; cited in the “Editor’s preface” from the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, (1938), Vol. 7, pp. 97 ff.).
The relationship between Luther’s view of Scripture and his view of the epistle of James is complicated (Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, p. 130, n. 50). Luther did not regard the epistle of james as apostolic yet he did regard it as canonical. he held that the epistle of James was, compared with Paul’s epistles, “truly an epistle of straw”, yet he frequently quoted James without criticism, especially 1:18 for which he had “a special love” (p. 130, n. 50, citing J. Haar, Initium creaturae Dei, (1939), pp. 28 ff.).
The tension between Luther’s concern with “the apostolic, evangelical content of Scripture” (Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p. 93) and his principle, “Scripture is its own interpreter” is not, in Berkouwer’s view, an insurmountable tension. he suggests that Luther’s criticisms of James reflect an “impetuous” (Faith and Justification, p. 130, n. 50) reaction to “Roman Catholic opposition … (which) emphasized the words about being justified ‘not by faith alone’” (Holy Scripture, p. 94 - Berkouwer points out that Luther “at first, in his commentary on Romans, … saw no contradiction between Paul and James (and that) he later arrived at his critical position regarding the latter” (brackets mine); cf. Luther, Lectures on Romans, (1961), pp. 100-102).
Berkouwer maintains that Calvin, who faced similar opposition, “saw a harmony in the witness of Paul and James which Luther missed” (Faith and Justification, p. 131). This harmony becomes clear when the “difficulties with some words” (Holy Scripture, p. 277) are understood in the light of luther’s principle, “let Scripture … be its own truest, simplest and clearest interpreter” (Luther’s Works, (Weimar edition), Vol. 7, pp. 97 ff.)
Berkouwer’s view of the Paul-James question is most instructive for the discussion of the evangelism-social concern polarization. he holds that “James is concerned with those who have not understood nor brought into practice the close connection between faith and works” (Faith and Justification, p. 132). He states that “on this point there is no divergence from Paul” (p. 133). Discussing James’ reference to demonic faith (2:19), he states that”the mere faith James is against is existentially aloof from its object” (p. 134) and that “this ‘merely believe’ is quite different from Paul’s ‘through faith alone’” (p. 134).
A proper understanding of the relationship between Paul and James is, in Berkouwer’s view, grounded in the recognition that Paul, in Romans 4:3, cites Genesis 15:6 - “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” - while James (2:21) begins from Genesis 22 - Abraham’s willingness to offer his son Isaac (p. 135).
Berkouwer observes the relationship between Genesis 22 and Genesis 15 in the thought of James:
“As to this ‘work’, this act of faith, James makes this surprising statement that the Scripture is therewith fulfilled, which says, ‘And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God’ (James 2:23). James too, then, quotes the text from Genesis 15 which Paul has used. But James cites it in a special connection; Genesis 15 is fulfilled in what occurs in Genesis 22. Faith and work - James sees their inter-woven congruency over the totality of life” (pp. 135-136, emphasis original).
Berkouwer contends that James’ attack on “dead faith” (p. 137, emphasis original) and his protest for faith as “a truly experienced reality” (p. 136), which dominates the whole of life, does not conflict with Paul who speaks against the works of the law but not against the works of faith.
“That this whole whole James vs. Paul affair could have arisen at all is ascribable to a failure to distinguish between works of the law and the works of faith” (p. 137).
This interpretation, which refuses to be caught on the horns of a faith-works dilemma, is of great significance for the discussion of the evangelism-social concern question. It presents a perspective in which the fullness of truth is preserved over against every tendency to misinterpret the message of the Gospel by emphasizing one aspect of the other out of its Biblical proportions.