Hebrews, James

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Ronald K. Rittgers
Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament 13
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , November
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume in the Reformation Commentary Series continues the high standards and great benefits of the series. Portions of exegesis/interpretation from Reformation era figures are assembled in relation to the continuous passages of a biblical book. In this volume, two “controversial” New Testament books are considered. 

The authorship of Hebrews was contested from the early church era with arguments for and against authorship by the apostle Paul. Yet the theological content of Hebrews supported its inclusion in the canon. The authorship of James has also been contested. Controversial in this epistle was James 2:14-26, where the teachings of James on faith and works was construed by some to be counter to the emphasis of Paul on salvation by faith alone. This had led Luther famously to declare James was an “epistle of straw” and that “it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (200). Luther found that in teaching, James “does not once mention the passion, the resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ. He names Christ several times; however, he teaches nothing about him but only speaks of general faith in God” (200). Yet James is in the canon and as this volume shows, efforts were made to reconcile Paul and James on the issue of faith and works. As editor Ronald K. Rittgers points out, “Reformed Protestants and some Lutherans also insist that Paul and James are not opposed in their teaching about justification; rather, they deal with two different kinds of justification, one before God and the other before human beings, because they were addressing two different problems: legalism and works righteousness versus lax Christianity” (xlviii-xlix).

The exegetical selections for Hebrews show the high value Reformation era theologians and preachers placed on the book’s strong Christology. This includes Christ’s person, which was affirmed through Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy; Christ’s mediatorial work for salvation as our high priest; and his suffering and atoning death. Yet Christological controversies also emerge from the biblical book. These include the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper and in what ways the bread and wine are sacramental. Disagreements between Lutherans and the Reformed over the nature of the ascended Christ were divisive as selections from Luther and Calvin here show (17, 18). The relationship of Christ’s humanity and divinity, his being seated at “the right hand of God,” his “ubiquity”—or not—had important implications for the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper—a key divisive issue among Reformation church bodies. 

A value of this series, including this volume, is that we get an “up close and personal” view of the exegetical findings of Reformers, on which their theological doctrines were based. In Hebrews 4:14-5:10 where the author discusses Jesus, the Great High Priest who has suffered, the role of Jesus as sin-bearer for each believer is examined by Luther. Luther emphasized Jesus’s suffering and death on behalf of each believer. The death of Christ must be personally appropriated for its benefits to be real. Luther wrote: “One should note that it is not enough for a Christian to believe that Christ was appointed to act on behalf of human beings unless he believes that he, too, is one of them. For both the demons and the godless know that Christ is a priest for humans, but they do not believe this way about themselves” (69). Thus Luther’s constant insistence on the need for faith comes through in the Christological descriptions of the work of Jesus Christ.

Another key issue for Protestants of the period was their insistence—against the Roman Catholic view—that Jesus Christ was the full, sufficient, and final offering for human sin (Hebrews 10:12). Thus Christ is not to be “re-sacrificed” in each celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass. Heinrich Bullinger wrote: “Mass-mongers, yes, I address you who would peddle the Mass as a sacrifice that washes away the sins of the living and the dead…your Mass is ineffective and useless, and your sacrifice is a fraud” (134). Against the Roman view that “we sin daily; therefore we sacrifice daily,” Bullinger maintained, “the sacrifice of Christ is single, and single in such a way that it was offered only once, it cannot be repeated, nor does it need to be. For all by itself it is always sufficient to pardon every last sin that we may commit in the course of this life” (134). 

Weighing in on the faith and works issue (James 2:20-26), Zwingli said James was saying that “faith operating as mere affectation was understood as a dead and empty faith”…a “mere faith, which many people were boasting of in his time” (235). For Zwingli, “faith is declared to be true and effectual by deeds…and it is cold apart from love, nor does it deserve to be called faith, but it is dead and useless, just as a body destitute of life is dead and useless” (235). True faith must be expressed in love for others. 

This volume both supplements contemporary biblical commentaries and stands apart from them. Rittgers says that “all of the sources exemplify the close connection between theology and the Christian life that is so typical of ‘precritical’ Christian exegesis. They are all, at root, pastoral or devotional sources that seek to nurture Christian faith and life; not one of them engages in interpretation of the biblical text for purely ‘scholarly’ reasons” (l). This spirit is captured by Johann Oecolampadius who wrote on Hebrews 12:2-3: “We have the mightiest captain of faith in Jesus, who longs to lead us by the hand, and he does this so delightfully because he is our way, our forerunner, and our shepherd, the one most ready to help us” (174).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald K. McKim is an Indepdent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ronald K. Rittgers holds the Erich Markel Chair in German Reformation Studies at Valparaiso University, where he also serves as professor of history and theology. He is the author of The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany and The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany. He has also served as the president of the American Society of Church History.


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