“A Right Strawy Epistle”: Reformation Perspectives on James -- By: Timothy George

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 04:3 (Fall 2000)
Article: “A Right Strawy Epistle”: Reformation Perspectives on James
Author: Timothy George


“A Right Strawy Epistle”:
Reformation Perspectives on James1

Timothy George

Timothy George is the founding Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of John Robinson and the English Separatist Tradition, Theology of the Reformers, and Faithful Witness: The Life of William Carey, as well as several scholarly articles. Dr. George also serves as a senior advisor for Christianity Today.

The history of theology is the story of how the church has interpreted the Bible. While many other factors must also be taken into account, the church has always tried to define its faith in terms of its grasp of the Word of God in Holy Scripture.2

This principle has important implications for the way we study the Bible today. It requires that we take seriously the exegetical tradition of the church as an indispensable aid for a contemporary interpretation of the Bible. It is not enough to come to the study of the text with the New Testament in one hand (even if we read it in the original Greek!) and the latest commentary in the other. We must also examine carefully how God has spoken in his Word to other Christians of different ages, in various cultures and life settings. How they have understood—and misunderstood—the Scriptures will significantly supplement our own investigation of the text.

The Scriptures have spoken in new and fresh and powerful ways throughout the history of the church. To take but one example, Paul’s reinterpretation of Habakkuk’s dictum, “The just shall live by faith,” rediscovered by Martin Luther through whom it was reclaimed by John Wesley, reemerged as pivotal text in Karl Barth’s Commentary on Romans. As faithful members of the “communion of saints,” that is, the church extended throughout time as well as space, we cannot close our ears to the living witness of the Scriptures through the ages.

The Status of James Prior to the Reformation

At the time of the Reformation the Epistle of James emerged as a source of great controversy among the reformers themselves. In this study we shall see how James was treated, respectively, by Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and the Anabaptists. We may begin our investigation, however, by referring to a sermon on James 2:12 preached by the famous Anglican divine John Donne on February 20, 1628. In the introduction to the sermon he described James as

one of those seven Epistles, which Athanasius and Origen call’d Catholick; that is, universal; perchance because they are not directed to any...

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