Tag Archives: James and Paul

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:24

James 2:24
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

With this verse the illustration concerning Abraham is concluded and James universalises and applies his argument. “You see” (horate) is second-person plural and marks a transition from James’s argument with his imaginary interlocutor, to him addressing his listeners as a whole. His conclusion makes two assertions, the one positive and the other negative (McKnight, 255). The positive conclusion is: “you see that a person is justified by works.” James emphasises the works by placing them before the verb: hoti ex ergōn dikaioutai anthrōpοs (literally, “that out of works, a person is justified”). This picks up the language of verse 21 where James has previously argued that Abraham was “justified by works.” The negative conclusion follows: “and not by faith alone” (kai ouk ek pisteōs monon).

The supposed contradiction between James and Paul is sharpest with this verse, where James appears to directly contradict what Paul asserts in Romans 3:20, 28:

For by works of the law no one will be justified in his sight … For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Moo argues correctly that Paul would wholeheartedly agree with James concerning his argument “not by faith alone,” but that “it is impossible to imagine Paul saying, ‘a man is justified by works’” (Moo, 115). Once more, however, we must insist that Paul and James are engaged in different arguments due to the different circumstances each is facing. Paul speaks of the beginning of the Christian life, of the initial justification of sinners by grace through faith—without works “of the law.” One’s obedience to the law’s dictates, especially the so-called “boundary markers” of Judaism by which one might be considered “in,” provide no basis for justification. Further, the faith spoken of by Paul is steadfast faith in God through Christ. This faith is not antithetical to works, and will indeed issue in all kinds of works, though these works are the expression of the faith by which the person has been saved.

James, in contrast, is arguing against what may be considered a distortion of Paul’s teaching, whereby one considers that an intellectual commitment to monotheism is sufficient to please God. Further, he is speaking not of initial justification but of final judgement, in which one’s works demonstrate the reality of one’s faith. Nor is James saying that one is saved by the works “of the law,” although his overarching use of works may include obedience to the Torah as it was mediated to the messianic community through Jesus. His emphasis in the chapter as a whole is on works of mercy toward the poor, and obedience toward God.

The key to the verse is the little word “alone” (monon). Justifying faith is never “alone,” but comes to expression in action. The problem with the position set forth by the interlocutor is that faith is separated from works and considered sufficient and complete without works. Faith, however, is a whole-of-life reality, engaging the whole person in response to God, and so cannot be limited to a cognitive or confessional commitment that does not issue in a whole-of-life response to the will and ways of God. Such “faith” is not faith at all, does not justify, cannot save, and is dead.

We must also be clear that works are not “added” to faith, as though the two ideas were separable. Rather, works of obedience and mercy are the way in which faith becomes visible in one’s life and in the world, and so is shown to be faith. Scot McKnight provides excellent insight into the relation of faith and works, while arguing that we allow the biblical text itself to lead the way we think of this relation, rather than forcing it to conform to a predetermined theological conviction:

I see a tendency, which seems to me to be a subtle attempt to let the Reformation have too much influence on exegesis, to prefer this formula: faith is demonstrated by works. What this does is salvage faith as the sine qua non of salvation. which may well be sound theology, but it lacks the nuance of James. (Some have argued that it is James who lacks the nuance and is in need of help.) Instead of locking into the term “demonstration,” I suggest we use each of the four terms James himself uses, and I suggest we use these terms liberally:

Works show faith (2:18).          
Faith works with works (2.22a).
Faith is perfected by works (2.22b).      

Works fulfill faith (2.23).          

While we may be most comfortable with the first and least comfortable with the second, both the third and fourth are instances as much, if not more, of the second as of the first. Yes, works demonstrate faith, but they also perfect and fulfill faith and, as James goes to great pains to emphasize, the two work together to produce a working faith that saves. His emphasis is on their inseparability, not on distinguishing them or on their sequential relationship (McKnight, 244, original emphasis).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:23

JamesJames 2:23
Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 

James now brings his illustration of Abraham justified on account of his works to its climax. His obedience in the “binding” (Aqedah) of Isaac constitutes the fulfilling of Genesis 15:6 which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Episteusen de Abraam tō theō, kai elogisthē auto eis dikaiosunēn).

James cites the LXX version of this text, as Paul does in Romans 4:3; the two citations are identical, even including the added de. That both authors use the same text indicates its significance in early Christianity, although they are using it differently, as we noted in our comment on verse 21. Genesis 15 records a visionary encounter Abraham experienced, in which he is allowed to dialogue with God. Abraham complains: what is the point of God’s promise of blessing if he has no heir to pass the blessing onto? God leads Abraham to view the starry night sky and says, “See the number of the stars? So shall your offspring be” (v. 5). Verse six, then, is the verse cited by James (and Paul) about Abraham’s faith and his being regarded righteous by God.

Paul uses this text to show that Abraham was justified by God solely on the basis of his faith, prior to his receiving the sign of circumcision. James, however, in a manner not unlike that common in Judaism, sees in this statement “a type of timeless sentence written over the life of Abraham” (Davids, 129). That is, God’s justification of Abraham is not limited to this occasion, but is a summary of God’s attitude toward Abraham on the basis of his whole life. Indeed, Davids suggests that the deliverance Abraham (or more correctly, Isaac) received in Genesis 22, was a reward for his prior works of righteousness, understood in terms of hospitality and mercy (130). Although Davids’s first point has merit, his second seems unlikely.

In what sense, then, are we to understand the first part of James’s verse: “Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says…” (kai eplērōthē hē graphē hē legousa). The key term here is eplērōthē (“fulfilled”) which is sometimes used in the New Testament to describe an Old Testament passage finding its “fulfilment” in the New Testament. That is, the Old Testament passage may be seen (a) as a prophecy that has come to pass, or (b) as a text that has deeper meaning and more enduring significance in the light of the coming of Jesus. Neither of these possibilities fit the context here.

Moo suggests that James sees the Genesis 15:6 text “fulfilled” in Genesis 22 in terms of confirmation and validation. That is, Abraham was truly counted righteous by God on account of his faith in Genesis 15, and his subsequent obedience in Genesis 22 demonstrates the validity of this divine judgement.

The initial declaration of righteousness on the basis of faith is given its ultimate meaning and validity through the final declaration of righteousness on the basis a ‘faith that works’ (Moo, 114).

Like Davids, Moo understands James as citing the verse “as a ‘motto’ standing over all of Abraham’s life” (114).

McKnight’s view differs again. Noting that “fulfilled” can mean to “fill up” and so to have a similar sense to “perfected” in verse 22, he sees James referring not to the Scripture itself being fulfilled in Genesis 22, but to what the Scripture says being fulfilled. That is, it is Abraham’s faith that is fulfilled—perfected—in the test of Genesis 22.

Thus, the Aqedah brings to full completion the faith Abraham exercised in Genesis 15 when he complained that the promise of a child was unfulfilled. … The faith that trusted YHWH’s word came to completion when Abraham lifted Isaac to the altar (254).

This view does justice to both Genesis 15 and 22, as well as James. In Genesis 15 Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have a child, and through that child, an “astronomical” progeny. In Genesis 22 he offers that child to God still believing God’s ability to bring the promise to pass. Thus James is correct to see the two as linked: the faith with which Abraham trusted God and so was counted righteousness, was not perfected until it was tested. In this way, the statement of Genesis 15 refers not solely to the trust of that chapter, but indeed stands as a declaration over the whole of Abraham’s life, and so includes the works which are the expression of his faith.

“And he was called the friend of God(kai philos theou eklēthē). Again James draws on Jewish tradition generally, and two Old Testament texts specifically (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8) in which Abraham is described as God’s friend. In the first text Jehoshaphat ascribes the term to Abraham (perhaps remembering the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15?). In the second text, God himself refers to Abraham as “my friend.” James’s use of the image of friendship in this context clearly shows that justification should not be understood in merely judicial or legal terms. To be counted righteous is to be brought into a right relationship with God not simply in a legal or judicial sense, but to be brought into a kind of relational closeness and fellowship with God that is best described as friendship. Again, Scot McKnight is helpful here:

To be God’s friend is to be in the people of God…, to be in the right, to be saved, and to be a person who in fellowship with God lives out the life God designs for those on earth (255).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:21

JamesJames 2:21
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

With this second rhetorical question James introduces his first biblical illustration to demonstrate that faith without works is fruitless. The grammar of the sentence (ouk) indicates that a positive answer is anticipated to this question, that is, that “our ancestor Abraham” (Abraam ho pater) was indeed “justified by works” (ex ergōn edikaiōthē). That James refers to Abraham as “our father” indicates the Jewish heritage of his readers, and of the interlocutor, and calls to the evidence stand the progenitor of the whole race. If this was the case with Abraham, why would it be any different for his descendants?

James asserts that Abraham was justified by works when or because or as “he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (anenegkas Isaak ton huion autou epi to thusiastērion). The participle anenegkas has been translated in each of the ways suggested in the various English versions of the New Testament. While the translation when may be the best (Vlachos, 96), each is possible, and perhaps in the end it makes little difference: it was because and as Abraham offered his son to God that he was justified. This, at least, seems to be James’s intent.

The event to which James refers is described in Genesis 22:1-6 where God tests Abraham and Abraham obeys God’s voice. Abraham’s obedience results in the confirmation of the blessing promised by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and the reiteration of the blessing pronounced in Genesis 15:1-6. We have already seen in the first chapter of this letter that the themes of testing, and of hearing and doing are prominent for James. It may be that these elements in the Abraham story drew him to use Genesis 22.

In verse 23 James will support his contention that Abraham was justified by this act of obedience by referring back to Genesis 15:6. James does not read the text in Genesis 15 in a chronological sense as though Abraham was first justified and then later obeyed. Rather, he reads the story as a whole in which Abraham’s trust in God (Genesis 15) and his obedience to God (Genesis 22) are all of apiece. Abraham’s actions of obedience were not simply a demonstration of his faith but were the expression of his faith.

Two aspects of James’s teaching in this verse are worth considering. First, Abraham’s “works” in this illustration are not those of care and compassion toward the poor, but of devotion and faithful obedience to God. This suggests, perhaps, that the works that James has in view in the entire passage are not simply works of mercy, but all those works which issue from a genuine faith in God.

Second, we must consider what James means by the term “justify.” It is very easy to read James through a Pauline lens and suggest that the term is identical in both New Testament authors. Such a move is problematic since it would then mean that James and Paul stand in stark contradiction to one another with Paul arguing that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” and James arguing the opposite (cf. Romans 3:28). A number of commentators, however, note that whereas Paul uses the term to speak of the initial work whereby sinners are brought into right relationship with God on the basis of faith, James uses the term to speak of the ultimate declaration of God in the last judgement on the basis of a whole life lived. The matter, therefore, is between initial and final justification (see, e.g. Moo, 110).

I will take this matter up further once the whole passage has been studied.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:19

JamesJames 2:19
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.

In verse 19 James addresses the opponent introduced in verse 18, the argument still using the second person singular you. Having, in verse 18, denied the argument that faith and works are two different ways in which one can live before God, and having insisted that faith and works belong inseparably together, James now sharpens his point.

“You believe that God is one” (su pisteueis hoti heis estin ho theos). There are numerous variants in the Greek manuscript tradition for this phrase (see McKnight, 233-234, whose partial list includes ten variants), but basically they reduce to two primary ideas: that God is one, or that there is one God. Many commentators prefer the translation “God is one” as the NRSV has it (cf. NIV), though both possibilities amount to the same confession of monotheism.

James appears to affirm this belief: “you do well” (kalōs poieis). This would be hardly surprising given the confession of monotheism was basic in Judaism and Christianity. Further, James uses the same phrase (kalōs poieite) in verse eight to affirm those who keep the royal law of love. Yet the context here suggests that James is being ironic or sarcastic, because he immediately pours scorn on this person’s belief. It is as though James is saying, “You believe that God is one—whoopy doo!” For “even the demons believe…” (kai ta daimonia pisteuousin).

This is a savage piece of rhetoric which cuts the legs out from under his opponent. It is immediately apparent that James views faith in a different way to his interlocutor. Faith is not simply belief; faith is more than belief, even orthodox belief. To believe in the unity of the one God was quite unusual in the ancient polytheistic world, though it formed the foundation of Jewish and Christian spirituality. The belief—which in and of itself is correct—is not yet faith, however. In chapter one we saw that James associates faith with a steadfast and enduring commitment to God. In chapter two we find that faith has implications: one cannot hold “faith” in Jesus Christ and simultaneously hold convictions, attitudes or behaviours that are contrary to Jesus Christ (2:1). That is, faith conforms the believer to its object, and for James, God—the object of faith—is generous (1:5), the God who chooses the poor (2:5). Faith, therefore, is not simply an intellectual acknowledgement of a point of doctrinal truth. Faith involves an existential commitment of the whole person to the person and will of God. Faith is self-involving, drawing the life of the believer into the life and activity of God.

It is clear that James is challenging a sub-biblical and non-Pauline understanding of faith. Both Paul and James—together and the whole New Testament—understand faith to be far more than assent to a doctrinal point. If James is reacting here against a form of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith without works, it is not Paul’s teaching, but a distortion of it that is at issue.

Belief is important: it provides structure and orientation for faith. But faith is more than belief. An orthodox confession, by itself, is not salvific: faith issues in salvation. Faith is oriented toward God and conformed to God. It issues in a life of deeds that image the character of the generous, ever-giving Father of lights.

Thus James asserts that his opponent’s belief is not faith at all. He is no better than the demons who likewise acknowledge the fact of God’s oneness, but who are against God and his work. At least the demons “shudder” (phrissousin)—at least their faith has some consequence, which is more than James can say of his interlocutor!

Some Books Cost Too Much

the-missions-of-james-peter-and-paul-tensions-in-early-christianityWhile reading a commentary on James I came across references to Chilton & Evans (eds.), The Missions of James, Peter & Paul: Tensions in Early Christianity. It looked interesting enough for me to look for it on Google, check the table of contents, and look at a review. The review by Pieter Lallemann was not too complimentary:

This sequel to James the Just ( 1999) contains 16 essays by 10 scholars who set out to consider the three missions against their Jewish backgrounds. In two contributions Jacob Neusner presents much rabbinic material for comparison and then uses this to maximize the differences between James and Paul. Richard Bauckham likewise takes his point of departure in Jewish material—views on the impurity of Gentiles—but he rather uses it to argue for basic agreement between, and the historicity of. Gal. 2 and Acts 11 and 15. This is the essay to which I would give pride of place. It is comprehensive and convincing. In the following essay John Painter goes over much the same ground and also involves Matthew in the comparison, to draw conclusions which differ markedly from Bauckham’s.

Two very useful studies discuss archaeological evidence: Marcus Bockmuehl on Bethsaida and its connections with Simon Peter; Evans on Peter, James and contemporary burial practices. There are straightforward comparisons of the attitudes of Paul and James to such issues as the use of rhetoric (Painter), judgment (Marianne Sawicki), charity, riches and poverty (Peter Davids), and suffering (Davids). Chilton argues—I think unconvincingly—that James was a Nazirite. The contributors differ in their assessment of the value and reliability of the accounts in Acts 11 and I5, and as to whether the Epistle of James primarily has a Jewish (Davids again) or a Hellenistic (Wiard Popkes) background. The volume is presented as the outcome of several conferences (p. 211), but there are neither responses nor summaries, the essays do not interact and are not even cross-referenced. It would have profited immensely from some real editing. Its price would lead us to expect just that (JSNT 28:5 (2006), 16).

Still, our library did not have it and I thought it could be a useful addition. Until I checked the price: A$309.31 (freight-free). Ai-ai-ai! The book is hardback, over 500 pages in length, and published by Brill; nevertheless, some books just cost too much!

It may be more than a little bit naughty, but for anyone interested, I also found a PDF copy online which I have dutifully saved…

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26 (Cont’d)

JamesLast week I paused the verse-by-verse commentary of James in order to provide an orientation to this important section in James’ letter. I will continue these reflections today. Last week we noted that James and Paul use similar terminology in their teaching but with different meanings. If we are to understand the broader message of the New Testament with respect to these matters—faith, works and justification—it is essential to grasp what each of these authors is saying in their own context. A number of commentators insist that James and Paul are not at odds with one another as is sometimes supposed; rather, their respective visions of the Christian life are “complementary not contradictory” (see Moo, 45-46; Newman, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 1056).

Behind both Paul and James’ understanding of justification stands the reality of divine judgement—a point raised by James in the verse immediately prior to this section (James 2:13). It is plain that for both James and Paul believers will stand before God at the final judgement. This is the ultimate cosmic context within which all history and every person, including every Christian person, stands. Mark Seifrid, therefore, notes that

No less prominent is the theme of individual judgment according to works (Heb 9:27-28; Rev 1:7; 2:7; 2:23). Each one will be called to give an account for his or her deeds (Heb 4:13; 13:17; 1 Pet 4:5-6). The NT authors are careful to apply the prospect of judgment to Christians themselves. As the judge of all, God will render his verdict impartially. Believers, although they name God as “Father,” must not presume upon grace (1 Pet 1:17-19; Heb 10:30; cf. Jas 2:9). … If the cross has worked a right standing with God for the believer, how is it that the believer must yet face judgment? Between this prospect and the proclamation of forgiveness in Christ stands an irreducible paradox. Yet to a certain extent lines of convergence can be traced. … That is not to say that all uncertainty is removed from the visible community of Christians; otherwise the warnings of judgment would make no sense. The church on earth yet remains under testing. Nevertheless, where saving realities are present they manifest themselves in persevering faith and obedience, which secure the believer in the final judgment (“Judgment” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 623-624).

What James attacks in this section is a kind of false faith limited to doctrinal correctness, which he warns will not suffice in the day of judgement. To say this, however, is not to say that one’s works are sufficient for justification. James never contemplates the idea that works could exist without faith. Rather, true faith issues in works of perseverance, obedience, faithfulness and mercy with the result that one’s faith is shown to be genuine (Davids, “Faith and Works” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 368). In this respect both Paul and James are in agreement.

Why then, is it necessary for James to take this approach in his teaching? Davids suggests that perhaps there is conflict in the community, where some people are refusing to share their resources with others who are needy (Davids, “Faith and Works,” 368). A better proposal, I think, comes from Moo who suggests that James is facing false teachers who are distorting Paul’s teaching of justification, suggesting that one must only “believe” with no further requirement in terms of the outworking of Christian life and service. The verse-by-verse study will provide an opportunity to test Moo’s proposal.

The relevance of James’ teaching today need hardly be questioned. On the one hand, some Christians seem to suggest that Christian faith stands or falls with right-believing, as though the content of one’s belief is what justifies. This is clearly and decisively repudiated by James in this passage. Faith cannot be reduced to right-belief. Certainly our beliefs structure, strengthen and support our faith, but they are not our faith. While sound beliefs are desirable, and wrong beliefs are to be avoided, it is certainly possible to have genuine faith in Jesus even without correct beliefs. Nevertheless, even today there are those who distort Paul’s teaching of grace, perverting the gospel to teach a self-centred and consumerist doctrine. Here the relevance of James’ message is plain.

Others make the opposite mistake and suppose that our works, especially humanitarian works of mercy and justice, are what justify us. The call to mercy and justice found in both the Old and New Testaments is addressed to the community of God’s people, to those who have already come into a saving relationship with God through grace, and who are therefore called to imitate God and express his goodness in the world. Works of justice and mercy are an expression of faith not a replacement for faith. Though Christians must surely give thanks for and support those who participate in such work, they also do well to bear witness to Christ as the source, motivation and goal of all such work.

In the early twentieth-century, Christoph Blumhardt, a German Pietist pastor and Social Democrat member of the German Reichstag (Parliament) was a controversial figure because he refused to allow Christians to become comfortable as bourgeois members of society, insisting rather that faith in Christ must move us to participate in the ongoing work of his kingdom:

Neither in heaven nor on earth is it possible just to settle down comfortably in something through grace and do nothing and care for nobody else. If I am saved by grace, then I am a worker through grace. If I am justified by grace, then through grace I am a worker for justice. If through grace I am placed within the truth, then through grace I am a servant of truth. If through grace I have been placed within peace, then through grace I am a servant of peace for all men. (Blumhardt, “Joy in the Lord,” in Action in Waiting, 66).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26

James(I know it is late Monday, but I will keep the regular title of this post for continuity’s sake!)

Read James 2:14-26

Before I tackle this passage verse-by-verse, I want to stand back a little to get an overview of some the issues connected with this most central and most controversial of sections in James’ letter. The central message is unambiguous, being repeated three times: “faith without works is dead” (2:26; cf. vv. 17, 20). The issue is not so much understanding what James has said, as it is the apparent conflict between what James says here and what is said in other New Testament texts, especially Paul. A comparison of two key texts sets the issue in stark relief:

James 2:14, 21          
What use is it, brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but he has not works? Can that faith save him? … Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

Romans 3:28
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

The centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith for Luther, and in Protestantism generally, caused Luther famously (or perhaps infamously) to relegate James to the least of the books in the New Testament:

Which are the true and noblest books of the New Testament? … In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it (Luther, “Preface to the New Testament” in Lull, T. F. (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 116-117).

Many Christians have for centuries followed Luther’s lead, subordinating James to Paul and as a result not hearing James’ distinctive message as clearly as they might. Some modern scholars have suggested that the New Testament documents represent different forms of Christianity; thus Paul’s writings express the faith and experience of a law-free Gentile church, while James expresses the faith and experience of a law-affirming Jewish Christianity (see Moo, 45, who cites as an example, Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 251-252). The question we face is whether there is a fundamental disjunction between the message of James and that of Paul, with respect to this central issue.

The major part of the problem revolves around the language and imagery used by James, including the key terms faith, works and justified, as well as his use of Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his works. Paul uses these same terms in his letters when discussing justification, and also uses Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his faith without any works. A careful examination of the passage, however, shows that James and Paul are approaching this topic from different directions and use the same terminology in different senses.

Thus, when Paul speaks of faith, he has in mind personal, whole-of-life commitment and allegiance to Jesus Christ. James, too, can speak of faith in this sense (cf. James 1:3, 6-8; 2:1, 5; 5:15). But in this passage, James is speaking of “faith” in an entirely different sense: he is speaking of one who claims to have faith, probably understood in the sense of right-belief, but whose life shows no evidence of genuine whole-of-life allegiance to Jesus. In this case, their life contradicts their profession. James mocks this kind of “faith” which is limited to doctrinal correctness: “the demons also believe!” (v. 19). For James, this kind of mental assent which does not penetrate to the heart and find expression in the concrete action of life, is no faith at all.

When Paul speaks of “the works of the Law” he usually has in mind the ceremonial works including such things as circumcision, Sabbaths and holy days, food laws, etc., although it is also true that he repudiates all and any kind of work whether ceremonial or moral as the basis of one’s justification by God (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9). But, and this is important, Paul never diminished the abiding validity of the moral demand of the law. So in passages such as Galatians 5:6 (“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love”) or 1 Corinthians 7:19 (“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God”) we find a message very similar to that which James presents in this passage. Significantly, James appears entirely unconcerned about the issue of circumcision, perhaps because he was writing to Jewish Christians. More importantly, however, and despite the portrayal of James in Acts 21:18-26 and Galatians 2:12 as one who continued as a law-abiding Jew even as a Christian, in his letter James never appeals to or affirms any aspect of the ceremonial law, even while he assumes the continuing validity of the law itself. Even in this passage, James’ emphasis is on works of mercy toward the poor—continuing the theme of 2:1-13, the work of obedience to God in the case of Abraham, and faith itself as a work in the case of Rahab. The key for James is that genuine faith is active, issuing in obedience to God.

Finally, James and Paul are using the term “justified” (dikaioō) in different ways, something also illustrated in their different appeals to the example of Abraham. Paul speaks of justification as one’s initial transfer into right relationship with God on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, received through faith, just as Abraham also was justified by God on the basis of his faith prior to receiving the covenant sign of circumcision. James in this passage is speaking of one’s ultimate justification at the final judgement where the authenticity of one’s faith is demonstrated by the works and activity of one’s life (so Moo, 46-47; Seifrid, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 624). Thus, although Abraham was initially accepted into right relationship with God, his faith was tested and proven—even by God—over the course of his life, and so demonstrated as genuine.

James’ Love Command – Victor Paul Furnish

Victor Paul FurnishThe parenetic tract of James is a loosely arranged collection of traditional admonitions designed to provide practical moral guidance. The author believes that Christians are in constant danger of being corrupted by worldly standards and values (1:27). If one is a “friend” of the world he cannot be a “friend of God” (4:4). Truly to “love God” (1:12; 2:5) means to resist the allures of one’s base worldly desires (1:13-14). The author’s other and more famous formulation of this idea is: “faith without works is dead” (2:14ff.) (Furnish, The Love Command, 175).

In his discussion of the love command in James 2, Furnish asks whether James identifies love as the very essence of the Christian law. Can James, as Wendland has suggested, be called an “apostle of love”? Furnish answers his question in the negative:

It would appear that the commandment of Lev. 19:18 is regarded as one among many which are to be kept by the faithful Christian. In itself it does not constitute or even summarize the essence of the “royal law.” This phrase designates “the whole law” with its various commandments (v. 10).  (179-180)

Furnish argues that the terms “royal law,” “perfect law,” and “law of liberty” are synonymous terms, “used to characterize the whole Christian message of salvation” also referred to by the terms “word,” “the word of truth,” “the implanted word,” etc. (180-181). This means that James’ vision of Christian life, as Furnish understands it, “has a nomistic structure,” although he also argues that Christian obedience is not simply identified with keeping the Old Testament law: for James, only the ethical demands of the law are significant and relevant for the Christian (177). For Furnish, then, James does not refer to Leviticus 19:18 because Jesus taught it as part of the double-command: “it is explicitly commended as authoritative because it is scriptural, not because it is a command from Jesus” (177).

While this writer surely understands love of one’s neighbor to be a vital component of the Christian life, he hardly deserves to be called “an ‘apostle’ of love.” His exhortations proceed not from a declaration of God’s gift and demand of love but from his conviction that the “royal” and “perfect law of liberty” is the embodiment of wisdom. This wisdom is the essence of God’s gift, to be sought and received by faith and then exhibited in an upright life. … Paul’s ethic develops from his gospel that love is the controlling and sustaining power of salvation (the new age) already inaugurated in Christ’s death and resurrection. The ethical teaching of James stands in the wisdom tradition of Hellenistic Judaism. Obedience is not viewed as one’s acceptance and expression of Christ’s love but as performance of the new law. This is called “royal,” “perfect,” and the “law of liberty” because its commandments are understood to be exclusively ethical and to require concrete moral deeds. When it is held that “pure religion” is helping those in need (1:27), the point is not to exalt the love command as normative for all ethical action, but that religion finds its true expression in the moral life, not in the cultic (181-182).

Comment

Furnish evidently considers James as a Hellenistic work, probably later rather than early, and having its provenance in the Hellenistic rather than Palestinian world. He sees James’ understanding of the law as shaped by Hellenistic Judaism, evidenced in the terminology used: “law of liberty” is found first amongst the Stoics, then in Hellenistic Judaism; “perfect” is a term used in Judaism for the whole law (cf. Ps. 19:7); and there are precedents in Hellenistic Judaism for speaking of a “royal law” (180). This provenance diminishes the idea of James standing in a Messianic Jewish context decisively shaped by his elder brother.

His view of James as concerned with moral rather than cultic aspects of the law is certainly correct, and his understanding of James as standing in a Hellenistic wisdom tradition is intriguing; there is much in James that celebrates wisdom as God’s good gift, and which associates wisdom with moral virtue.

Nevertheless, James 2:5 does speak of those who “love God,” and also speaks of the basileia—the same word used to describe the “royal” law. Further, the association of the love command with mercy in 2:13—a text Furnish dismisses as “a separable maxim only loosely connected with the paragraphs to which it has been attached” (178), suggests that, contrary to Furnish, James views the whole section of 2:1-13 in terms of mercy—practical love expressed toward those in need. If this is the case, then the love of command of Jesus may well be seen in this text, which in turn leads us to commend Davids’ view rather than that of Furnish, that is, that James viewed the law, not simply as the whole Mosaic Law or at least the ethical aspects of it, but that law as it was mediated by Jesus, “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (Davids, 100). Then verses 10-11 are read merely as a rhetorical gesture rather than as James insisting that every aspect of the Old Testament (moral) remains binding for the Christian. Nor does this view require the loss of Furnish’s emphasis on James as standing in a wisdom tradition, but rather supports it, for in 3:17 that wisdom which is from above is “full of mercy and good fruits.”

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:18

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:18
In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

The first question to be asked of this verse concerns whether James is writing with respect to the creational or redemptive work of God. If verse 17 is understood in a creational sense, it is possible to read this verse in the same way. Humanity, generally, has been created in the divine image by God’s word of command to be the first amongst God’s creatures. In our comment on the previous verse, however, we concluded that although the text could be read in a creational sense, it is better to understand it in terms of an exhortation to the believing community. So here, James uses language that elsewhere in the New Testament refers to God’s salvific work. The “word of truth” refers to the message of the gospel (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:7), which, more broadly, is understood as the instrument by which men and women are brought to faith and so to salvation (cf. Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25). The emphasis on divine sovereignty in this verse echoes Paul’s similar emphasis in Ephesians 1. The broader context of verses 13-18 suggests that James is piling up reasons for why his hearers should not blame God for the trials they experience. God’s will and activity toward us has ever been gracious and kind. God does not tempt us with evil, not only because his goodness is incapable of evil, but because such an act would also be counter to his ultimate purpose, which is to establish his people as the paradigm of his intent for the whole creation. God does not will evil, sin and death, but life.

“In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth” (βoulētheis apekyēsen hēmas logō alētheias). βoulētheis is an aorist participle meaning “by an act of will, deliberately” (Zerwick-Grosvenor, 692). The use of the aorist participle with the verb indicates that God’s action was the outworking of his logically prior determination. The implied subject of the verb (apekyēsen) is the “Father of lights” from verse 17. Salvation, a premier example of a “good and perfect gift,” has its ground in the divine purpose and intent. If James’ messianic community has experienced salvation, it is because God has purposed it; the whole emphasis is on God’s purpose and God’s activity, and so on grace. As such, this verse could have been written by Paul, and undermines the idea that James has a soteriology of works rather than grace.

The verb itself is daring, for apekyeō is properly applied to a female, and literally means to give birth (from kyō, to be pregnant). The image is applied metaphorically to God—the “Father of lights” gives birth!—and is almost certainly deliberately used by James here in contrast to its previous use in verse 15. Whereas human desire leads to sin which gives birth to death, God’s will gives birth to new life and new creation (see McKnight, 129). The image of salvation as new birth is found elsewhere in the New Testament in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, in John 1:13; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, and in 1 Peter 1:23. Although it is common to think of being born again in personal and therefore individual terms, McKnight (130) argues that the “us” (hēmas) in this text, refers to the messianic community which God has “delivered” into the world. McKnight’s emphasis is a helpful corrective, and a reminder that while salvation is personal, it is neither private nor simply individual, but has a corporate intention and public aspect. Indeed, McKnight goes on to say that,

The “new birth” of James is both intensely personal and structurally ecclesial: God’s intent is to restore individuals in the context of a community that has a missional focus on the rest of the world (131).

This intent comes more fully into view in the final phrase of the verse, “that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (eis to einai hēmas aparchēn tina tōn autou ktismatōn). With this phrase, the whole saving purpose of God comes into view, and God’s salvific work is identified as the fulfilment of his creational activity. Because God has his eye on the whole of creation, he has brought forth the community of God’s people. They are the “first” of the harvest, and the promise of the full harvest which is yet to come. In the Old Testament, the first fruits belonged to God, whether the firstborn in a family, the first animal of the herd, the first grain of the field (see, e.g., Exodus 13:1-2; 22:29-30), and had to be offered to God or otherwise redeemed. As the first fruits of his creation Christians are God’s treasured possession, the first harvest of his intention that the whole creation shall be renewed and redeemed. God is giving birth to a new creation and believers, having been brought forth by the gospel, are the first fruits of this renewed world. It should be noted that the New Testament uses the idea of regeneration both with respect to the salvation of individuals and of the cosmos itself (see, e.g. Titus 3:5; Matthew 19:28; cf. Acts 3:21). The Father of lights has not abandoned his creation but is leading it towards its consummation.

That God’s intent is the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) does not imply universalism, especially in James, where the threat of judgement is very prominent and directed especially against the rich. Rather, and this picks up McKnight’s insistence that the messianic community has a missional focus, the redeemed community is to function as a picture of God’s intent for all humanity, and as the instrument by which God will continue his harvest. This reminds us of the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3, where God called Abram because he had his eye on “all the families of the world.” So God has brought forth the church, not simply to be the sole recipient of his goodness and blessing, but that through the church, his every good and perfect gift might also be directed to every creature. Such a gracious God is not leading people to fall as some in the community seem to be asserting (v. 13). Rather, the good and gracious God is one who strengthens them to endure the test that God’s purposes for them and for the entirety of the creation might be realised (Davids, 90).

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:12 (#2)

Saint_James_the_JustAs we noted in our previous discussion, this verse trades on the concept of God’s promise and its future fulfilment. Christian hope rests on the reality of this promise, and if it be anything less than a sure and steadfast divine commitment, Christian hope, endurance and faithfulness loses its sure foundation. In the face of trials and temptations, Christians cling to their hope on the basis of their trust in the divine promise. The concept of God’s promise is common in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews exhorts his audience to faithful endurance on the basis of God’s promise (6:10-15; 8:6; 10:23; 11:11). In Galatians 3 Paul refers to God’s promise nine times and traces it to the promise given to Abraham. In 2 Corinthians 1:20 Paul assures his readers that all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ. Behind this emphasis on the divine promise stands a firm conviction in the utter faithfulness of God who will fulfil the promises he has made. In one sense the fulfilment of the promise is wholly dependent upon this faithfulness, and so in hope and trust, we cling to the promise and wait expectantly for God’s act of fulfilment. In another sense, however, the promise is conditional, and it is this aspect that we find developed in James.

One of the aspects of James’ theology that becomes apparent in this verse is a sense of conditionality with respect to the believer’s reception of the divine promise. James does not so much pronounce the blessing as identify what the blessing is (the crown of life) and stipulate the grounds on which it is received (standing firm in trials, loving God). Although James does not use the language of “reward” in this text, the idea is present. Those who fulfil the conditions stipulated will receive the promised blessing. Some might find the idea of “reward” too close to the concept of merit, and so antithetical to genuine Christian faith and spirituality. Luther famously referred to James as less than apostolic, and to his letter as “an epistle of straw” as compared to those other New Testament works which set forth Christ and salvation more clearly (Luther’s Works, 35:362; cf. 395-397). Yet the New Testament often calls believers to consider the blessing which awaits them, and so be encouraged in faithful endurance.

For James, faith and salvation are not the fruit of a simple profession of faith which does not come to expression in the lived experience of the believer. Genuine faith is active and enduring. Faith, in this context at least, consists in faithfulness, and there is no possibility of a separation between faith and praxis, the two belonging together as two aspects of the one reality. This connection between fidelity and blessing was typical of early Christian thinking, according to Scot McKnight, who notes that “James 1:12 is more like Jesus and 2 John and Revelation than like Paul” (111), although Paul also can speak of “faith which works through love” (Galatians 5:6), and of the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Nevertheless, Paul’s more consistent theme is to speak of faith as distinct from works (Romans 3:21-31), or even over against works (cf. Galatians 3:7-14). As a result, some commentators, pastors and Christians seek ways to bring James’ message into alignment with that of Paul. It is an error, however, to assimilate James too quickly to Paul, for such an approach limits and flattens the diverse New Testament witness. It is a far better approach to allow James’ distinctive contribution to stand in all its stern power. James and Paul sing from the same page but sound different notes, James’ harmony complementing Paul’s melody. A better musical analogy would suggest the two authors represent two songs on a single album, each distinct yet part of a larger whole, each contributing in their own voice and style to the overall project. Christian witness, spirituality and life require both voices to sound, both songs to be heard, both compositions to be accepted on their own terms. We will have occasion to discuss the relation between James and Paul at greater length in chapter two. Suffice it here to say that James’ intent is to insist upon the nature of faith as active and enduring, and to insist also that eschatological validation of one’s faith will be predicated upon the kind of life which demonstrated the genuine nature of that faith.

To say all this, however, is not to suggest that James’ spirituality is one of works undertaken in order to earn merit, achieve salvation, and so gain the promised reward. The final phrase of James’ exhortation is crucial: “which [God] has promised to those who love him.” Love for God is the motivation by which we stand firm under trial, refusing to buckle in the face of pressure, stress and affliction. Love for God undergirds the enduring faith which James has portrayed so steadfastly thus far. Those who persevere under trial and stand firm against temptation do so because they love him. By shifting his emphasis to the believer’s love for God, James clearly indicates that the work of faith over the course of one’s life is an expression of this deeper inner motive. Our faithfulness springs from this love which finds its root in his initiating love for us, grounded in the promise of this ever and always generous God, and the gift of salvation by which he has brought us forth (cf. vv. 5, 18). Our faithfulness toward God is but the echo of his greater, prior and all-encompassing faithfulness toward us. But faithfulness it must be.

What does it mean to love God? In broader biblical perspective we see that love for God involves keeping his commandments (John 14:15). It means to keep his word in our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). In this context, however, it might best be understood in terms of loyalty to God and to God’s will in the face of pressure to compromise and capitulate. It means to look to God, to hope in God, to approach God in prayer, and to trust in God. It means to rejoice in God and find our boasting, joy and life in him. The Christian life is neither a cynical quest for reward nor a fearful avoidance of hell. It is not simply a stoic endurance of affliction or a herculean withstanding of temptation. It is a life of joy rather than gritted teeth, of hope rather than fear, of faith rather than despair, of generosity rather than selfishness, and supremely, of love.