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The Second Battle of James

The Second Battle of James: Reformation Disputes over the Epistle of James (1547-1551)

SBL 2017 International Meeting in Berlin (7-11 August)

The Epistle of James is renowned as a Reformation battleground. While the reception history of James in the early sixteenth century, particularly within Lutheran circles, has been well researched, the fate of James in the later Reformation deserves more attention. The years following Luther’s death (1547-1551) saw renewed and intense debate about the apostolic authorship and canonical authority of James. Three encounters within this “second battle of James,” as I have chosen to call it, will be examined. Firstly, the Augsburg Interim of 1548 defended the sacrament of extreme unction by grounding it in James 5:14-15 and by asserting that the commands of James, legate and apostle, should be received as the words of Christ himself—an assertion which provoked an unprecedented storm of attacks on James, epistle and apostle. Secondly, the Council of Trent took up the issue of James’s apostolic authority in two sessions on extreme unction, briefly in 1547 and at greater length in 1551. Bishops and theologians defended James against his Protestant detractors even as they disagreed among themselves on how to weigh and interpret his instructions regarding anointing the sick. Thirdly, both John Calvin and Ambrosius Catharinus published commentaries on James in 1551, and each commentator defended James from critics within his own confession. This examination of the “second battle of James” suggests two revisions to the reception history of James in sixteenth-century Europe. Firstly, the diversity of opinions concerning James, intraconfessional as well as interconfessional, warns against any glib reference to a monolithic “Catholic,” “Protestant,” “Lutheran,” or “Reformed” view of James. Secondly, this “second battle” indicates that the primary locus of Reformation disputes over the apostolicity and canonical authority of James was not James 2:14-26, as one might expect, but James 5:14-15.

Beth Langstaff, Ph.D.
Institut zur Erforschung des Urchristentums
Neckargasse, Tübingen
49-7071-980-1005 / Sekr. -1006