Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Brief Survey of James, Part 2

A Brief Survey of James, Part 2

Theological Issues:

The primary, if not only, theological issue raised by the Epistle is James’ contention for “justification by works.”  All Christians, even Arminians, realize the need to harmonize, or synthesize, James’ statements with the apparently contradictory teaching of St. Paul.  Taking for granted the fundamental unity of God’s written word, we must assume different usage of the words “justification” and “faith” by the two authors.

Luther’s objection ("an Epistle of straw, and destitute of an evangelic character") was due to his mistaken idea that it[1] opposes the doctrine of justification by faith, and not by works, taught by Paul.  The two apostles perfectly harmonize because they are looking at justification from distinct standpoints.  Paul considers faith in the justification of the sinner before God, whereas James views it in the justification of the believer manifestly before men.  James confronts the Jewish error that the possession and knowledge of the Law would justify them even though they disobeyed.[2]  James 1:3; 4:1, 14 seem to allude to Romans 5:3; 6:13; 7:23; 14:4.  Plus the tenor of James 2:14-26 on justification seems to allude to Paul’s teaching – correcting false Jewish notions different from those Paul combated.  These errors, however, were not completely unnoticed by Paul.[3]  And, strangely enough, Luther clearly understood James’ point about the nature of faith.  In the preface to his commentary on Romans he asserts that it is “impossible to separate works from faith – yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”[4]  This was the understanding of faith accepted by all the Reformers.  The seventeenth century Puritan writer Walter Marshall wrote: “Holiness… [as love of God and humankind] is considered, not as a means, but as a part, a distinguished part; or rather as the very central point in which all the means of grace, and all the ordinances of religion, terminate.”[5]

In illustration of James’ meaning concerning faith and works, we might consider the case of Noah.  He built the ark, we are told in Hebrews 11, by faith.  Had Noah’s faith been a purely notional assent to doctrinal propositions, he would have perished with the rest of the antediluvians.  There would exist no evidence of his “faith.”  While God may have seen such a faith, it would have remained unseen by men.  James calls such faith “dead.”  He does not say that the faith is unreal.  There is a world of difference between an imaginary friend and a corpse for a friend.  One does not exist; the other is only a shell of the real thing.  Paul calls such faith, “a form of godliness, denying the power thereof.”[6]

Two textual issues are of particular interest to this writer.  The first is Erasmus’ emendation of 4:2.  In the 1500’s, Erasmus edited the best Greek manuscripts of his day to retranslate the New Testament because of the terrible state of the extant copies of St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.  So bad were the copies, Erasmus claims they gave birth to several doctrinal errors.  When he reached verse 2, he conjectured φθεiτε instead of φονεύετε.[7]  This changes the rendering from, “you kill and covet,” to, “you envy and covet.”  Erasmus may be correct.  Secondly, in 5:12, many old manuscripts have ἵνα μὴ ὑπὸκρίσιν instead of ὑπὸ
κρίσιν.[8]  The former reads, “So that you do not fall into hypocrisy.”  This would appear to be the correct rendering, considering the rest of the verse: multiplying our words beyond a simple, “Yes,” or, “No,” leads to hypocrisy.


The destruction of Jerusalem seems to be foretold in James 5:1ff.  This was the way the passage was understood by the ante-Nicene Church.  The prophesied destruction ensued shortly after James’ martyrdom.  Hegesippus, quoted by Eusebius relates that he was set on a pinnacle of the temple by the scribes and Pharisees, who begged him to restrain the people who were in large numbers embracing Christianity.  "Tell us," they said in the presence of the people gathered at the feast, "which is the door of Jesus?" James replied with a loud voice, "Why ask ye me concerning Jesus the Son of man?  He sitteth at the right hand of power, and will come again on the clouds of heaven."  Many thereupon cried, Hosanna to the Son of David.  But James was cast down headlong by the Pharisees; and praying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."[9]  He was stoned and beaten to death with a fuller's club.  The Jews, as we know from Acts, were incensed at Paul's rescue from their hands, and therefore determined to wreak their vengeance on James.  The publication of his Epistle to the dispersed Israelites made him loathsome to them, especially to the higher classes, because it foretold the woes soon to fall on them and their country.  Their taunting question, "Which is the door of Jesus?" (i.e., by what door will He come when He returns?), alludes to his prophecy, "the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. . . behold the Judge standeth before the door"[10]   Hebrews 13:7 is probably an allusion to the martyrdom of James, who had been so long bishop over the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, “Remember them that had the rule over you, men that spake unto you the word of God; and considering the issue of their life, imitate their faith."


The style of the Epistle is compact and terse.  The Epistle is pervaded by a Hebraic character, appearing in the occasional poetic parallelism.[11]  The images are analogical arguments, combining logic and poetry at the same time.  The Epistle is eloquent, yet persuasive at the same time.  It is similar in some respects to Matthew, the most Hebrew of the Gospels.  This is what we might expect from the bishop of Jerusalem writing to Israelites.  The doctrines of grace, the distinguishing features of Paul's teaching to the Hellenists and Gentiles, are less prominent as being already taught by that apostle. James complements Paul's teaching, and shows to the Jewish Christians who still kept the legal ordinances down to the fall of Jerusalem, the spiritual principle of the law, namely, love manifested in obedience.  The higher spirit of Christianity is seen putting the Jewish law in its proper place.  The Law is enforced in its everlasting spirit, not in the letter for which the Jews were so zealous.

[1] James 2:14-26
[2] Compare 1:22 with Rom 2:17-25).
[3] Rom 2:17ff.
[4] Luther, Martin – Commentary on Romans, Preface
[5] Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, 1692
[6] 2Tim. 3:5
[7] James Moffatt’s New Testament
[8] Ibidem
[9] Ecclesiastical History, 2.23
[10] James 5:8, 9
[11] James 3:1-12


  1. How would you interact with Greg Bahnsen's comments on James in regards to justification and faith:
    “I think [this] is rather convoluted. Let me very briefly point out, some people will say James can’t mean the word justify in a forensic sense, because then he would contradict Paul. Paul says we are justified by faith, not works. James says we are justified by works. So if they both mean ‘justify’ in the forensic sense, there is a contradiction. Well, I don’t think so, because in Galatians 5:6 Paul teaches exactly what James does. Paul says we are justified by faith working by love. We are justified by working, active, living faith. I think that’s what James is teaching. They mean exactly the same thing. But nevertheless some people have insisted-and this has been a bone of controversy in my denomination even, because a professor at Westminster Seminary insisted James means this in the forensic sense. Now. people who don’t like that say, It is to be taken in the demonstrative sense. The problem is, the demonstrative sense of the word justify means “to show someone to be righteous,” and that doesn’t relieve the contradiction between James and Paul, because Paul in Romans 4 looks at Abraham as an example of how God justifies the ungodly. James is saying, Look at how God justifies someone demonstrated as godly. The contradiction is not relieved. And so what you really get–and this is crucial, this is a crucial point–modern interpreters who don’t like what I am suggesting and what Professor Shepherd is suggesting end up saying that to justify in James 2 really means “to demonstrate justification,” not to “demonstrate righteousness.” That is, they make the word to justify mean “to justify the fact that I’m justified.” And the word never means that. That’s utterly contrived. It means either “to declare righteous” or “to demonstrate righteous.” It does not mean “to justify that one’s justified.” Am I making myself clear? I’m suggesting that the reason Paul and James are not contrary to one another is because the only kind of faith that will justify us is working faith, and the only kind of justification ever presented in the Bible after the Fall is a justification by working faith, a faith that receives its merit from God and proceeds to work as a regenerated, new person.”

    1. Thanks, Erik, for interacting. I think the whole issue can be boiled down to saying that we are justified by faith alone, but that justifying faith is never alone. In other words, true faith lives according to what it believes. Any attempt to read more than that into James creates, rather than solves the tension, and ultimately ends in Pelagianism.


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