Throughout the history of the church, commentators on the epistle of James have variously reconciled the author’s view on the doctrine of justification with the apostle Paul’s by explaining that they were either referring to two different circumstances or that one’s works perfected or illustrated one’s true faith. Certain interpreters in the sixteenth century, however, opposed the reconciliation of James and Paul. Martin Luther’s largely negative remarks on James, for instance, were both widespread and enduring.

     Although post-Reformation Protestants adopted many of Luther’s views—most significantly, the doctrine of justification by faith alone,which asserts that people are justified before God by faith and not by anything they do—they did not reject the canonical authority of James as Luther had done. This is especially the case for Puritan interpreters. Those in the Puritan tradition, such as the English biblical commentator Thomas Manton, collectively regarded the letter of James as apostolic (written by an apostle), canonical (correctly included in the canon as “Scripture”), and even theologically significant (since it demonstrated the importance of works after salvation).

Beginning with the post-Reformation commentators, Puritan interpretation of James 2:14-26 focused on two interrelated themes: the analogy of faith and scope, which allowed for the reconciliation of Paul and James. First, the “analogy of faith” became a cardinal doctrine within Reformed biblical interpretation. This is especially apparent in troublesome passages like James 2:14-26, which appeared to contradict theologically fundamental statements of Paul’s such as, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28, ESV). In short, the analogy of faith restricted what any given passage of Scripture could mean since no passage could signify something contrary to the cardinal articles of the faith. In the case of James 2:14-26, the Puritans believed that Romans 3:28 prohibited that James 2:14-26 could mean that a person could be saved before God by works.

Second, the primary way for Puritans to interpret James 2:14-26 in accordance with the analogy of faith was by carefully recognizing the “scope” of both James and Paul, with the term “scope” referring to the endpoint of any given passage (John Calvin, for instance, argued that the “scope” of all Scripture was Christ). According to Puritan interpreters like Manton, the error of theologians like Martin Luther was their failure to correctly identify the “scope” of Romans and James. Rather than appealing to the biblical canon itself, for instance, Luther appealed to another authority—namely, the principle that Scripture is only correctly so called if it preaches Christ. The Puritans, by contrast, appealed directly to Scripture, and thus interpreted James in light of Paul in a way that reconciled the two according to the analogy of faith. Puritan interpreters believed that the “scope” of Romans was justification. The “scope” of James, therefore, was not justification—at least not justification before God. The Puritan mindset can be formulated as follows:

  1. The analogy of faith determines that Scripture coheres (and accords with the fundamental articles of faith).
  2. Apparent discrepancies in Scripture are to be resolved not simply theologically but exegetically—by noting the “scope,” “drift,” “proposition,” “argument,” or general point of each book and each section.
  3. The scope of Romans is justification before God.
  4. The scope of James is not justification before God.
  5. Thus Paul and James do not contradict each other.

Although the modern-day architect of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Martin Luther, would not have disagreed with each of the Puritans’ propositions, he never would have formulated them in this way. In fact, even the very first article—that the analogy of faith determines that Scripture coheres—indicates a difference between Luther and the Puritans. Given the fluidity of the canon during the early part of the sixteenth century, interpreters like Luther developed other interpretive methods when adjudicating the relation between Paul and James. As mentioned above, Luther developed the hermeneutic that all canonical books must preach Christ (and certainly not works); if they did not, they were not properly called “Scripture.” Since Luther believed that James did not preach Christ, Luther relegated James to a secondary canonical status; the Puritans, by contrast, reconciled it with the “scope” of Paul’s thought: justification by faith alone.

Despite the Puritans’ sharp disagreement with Luther over the canonicity of James and his use of “scope,” they nevertheless fully agreed with him that Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the lens through which to interpret James. Justification is by faith and not by works, in other words, and Paul’s clear words on the subject determined the interpretation of James’s less clear (that is, divergent) words. And although a strand within Protestantism—represented by the Anglican Bishop George Bull—argued vigorously that James’s clarity on the subject of justification should interpret Paul’s obscurity, both “faith alone” and the “analogy of faith” won the day, indeed, the centuries.

The result of this victory, however, has meant that subsequent interpreters have so meshed James’s theology into Paul’s that it is virtually impossible for a modern interpreter on James to not begin his or her comments on the letter without a reference to either Paul or Luther. Whether or not Bull is correct to interpret Paul through the lens of James, one wonders what would happen if interpreters presupposed that the “scope” of James 2:14-26 was true justification and then interpreted Romans or Galatians according to the “analogy of faith.” Whatever the case, the Puritans’ robust disagreement with Luther about his interpretation of James reveals how easy it is for even theologians of similar theological traditions to read the same Bible in opposing ways on account of their different systems of interpretation.

Dr. Derek Cooper is assistant professor of world Christian history and director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Biblical. He is the author of several books. For those interested in learning more about the Puritans in general or about how Martin Luther interpreted the book of James, check out Dr. Cooper’s book Thomas Manton: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Pastor. His faculty page can be found at




0 # gary 2013-11-04 15:28
Many Reformed Protestants, including Baptists and evangelicals, are under the impression that the Reformation began due to a dispute over the Doctrine of Salvation. They are wrong. The first episode of the Protestant Reformation...the LUTHERAN Reformation...was not about was about Satisfaction.

Let me explain.

The Catholic Church in the early 1500's was teaching that in order for a Christian to enter heaven, he had to be purified of the sins which he had committed after his salvation; and for the overwhelming majority of catholic Christians of that era, salvation had occurred in their infant Baptism. There were very few adult converts to Christianity in that time, as had been the case in the Early Church. All of Europe had been Christian for hundreds of years.

During the preceding centuries, the Church in Rome had come up with the false teaching that Christ did not make satisfaction for ALL of your sins when he died on the cross. Christ only made satisfaction for original sin, the sin you inherited from your Grandfather Adam. All sins committed after salvation were YOUR responsibility. You needed purification of these "post-salvation" sins in order to enter heaven as "perfect"...sinless. So, from a few vague passages of Scripture, the Church of Rome came up with the concept of Purgatory; a place for Christians, in which their souls are purified by fire: a place where Christian souls burn to pay for their "post-salvation" sins. Once you have spent an adequate amount of time paying for your sins in the flames of Purgatory, you then get released and allowed into heaven.

In the early 1500's, the Pope was building his grand, luxurious palace in Rome, St. Peter's Basilica. Someone came up with a brilliant idea: Let's sell indulgences! Let's tell the Christian people that they can give money to the Church in exchange for the forgiveness of the temporal punishment for post-salvation sins. Translation: Give money to the Pope, and he will reduce your time in Purgatory! The money started pouring in! If you had the money, you would have been foolish not to shell out some cash to the Church to cut down the number of years that you would be roasting in Purgatory on your own personal "Purgatory spit", right?
Continued here:
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0 # trlkly 2014-01-16 16:40
I've never seen the supposed contradiction between James and Romans. Sure, I can understand how a naive reading of James could seem to contradict Romans, but if you look carefully, they say the same thing, with James just adding on.

Paul says that we are justified through faith, not works. But does James ever say that works justify you? No, he says that faith without works is dead. So all he is saying is that living faith inherently causes works. He's saying that faith that does not produce fruit is not real faith at all.

In face, James goes on and on about how true faith is what saves you. He just proves that all true faith is followed by action.

I don't see why you need to define the scope of James to figure this out. James accedes throughout that faith is what justifies you. He just defines faith as being more than just claiming you believe.
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0 # Derek Cooper 2014-01-17 10:26
Thanks for the comments.

Although many of us today have been able to reconcile James and Paul, that has not been the case with previous interpreters. They saw palpable differences between these two authors, which really culminated with Luther.

The German Reformation was a complex event that included more than theological concerns. Luther struggled with language in his "Ninety-five Theses" in 1517, but later came to explain his break with Rome for a variety of reasons, including, in just one example, his disagreement with Rome over the number of sacraments. See, e.g., "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church," which he wrote in 1520.
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