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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
James, Theology of
The Letter of James is a practical exhortation, assuming more theology than it teaches. Some claim that the letter has no theology. The validity of this assertion depends on what is meant by "theology." On the one hand, James has little to say about most Christian doctrines, nor does he consistently relate his exhortations to the person of Christ. In fact he mentions Jesus Christ only twice (1:1; 2:2), and only once as the object of belief (2:1). If, then, by theology we mean a system of belief that consistently refers to the person and work of Christ as a major focal point, then the Letter of James does indeed lack a theology.
This is, however, too narrow a definition of "theology." Understood as the set of beliefs that are explicitly stated and implicitly assumed as the basis for its exhortations, theology is very much present in the letter. James, after all, is writing to Christians who already know the basics of the Christian faith; his purpose is to bring their conduct in line with those beliefs. Moreover, we must not overlook the specific theological teaching that is found in James. His letter makes an important contribution to our understanding of issues such as the relationship of faith and works, prayer, the nature of God, and materialism. All these are set in a practical context, but it will be a sad day for the church when such "practical divinity" is not considered theology.
Therefore, while the occasional and homiletical nature of the letter prevents us from sketching a theology of James, we can survey his contribution to several important areas of theology.
God . If we use the word "theology" in its strictest sense, as the doctrine of God, then James certainly has a considerable amount of theology. For James consistently bases the kind of conduct he expects of his readers on his understanding of the nature of God. Christians are to live, James argues, in full consciousness of the character of the God they serve. Thus, it is because God gives "generously without finding fault" that Christians should not hesitate to ask him for wisdom (1:5). The goodness of God's gifts is emphasized in 1:17, where James also stresses the invariability of God's character. God gives everything that is perfect, James asserts, and is incapable of being enticed by evil. Because of this, people are foolish to think that God would ever be the author of their temptation (1:13).
Theology proper is also at the heart of one of the key texts in the letter, 4:4-10. James here indicts his readers for their worldliness and summons them to repentance. Both the indictment and the summons are based on God's character. Because God "jealously longs" for the spirits of those he has redeemed (NIV marg.; cf. also NASB), his people must give themselves wholly to their God; to give our affections to the world is to commit spiritual adultery (v. 4). But because God is also gracious (v. 6), he willingly accepts back those who turn to him in sincere repentance (vv. 7-10).
James, of course, believes that there is only one God (2:19)"one Lawgiver and Judge" (4:12). Striking, therefore, is James' application of the appellation "Judge" to Jesus Christ (5:7-9). Moreover, while James uses "Lord" to denote Jesus (2:1; 5:7,8), he uses it also to denote God the Father (3:9; 4:10; 15; 5:4,10, 11,15). By speaking this way, James implies that Jesus is God.
Eschatology . Many of James' ethical exhortations find parallels in Jewish and even pagan Greek literature. What makes James' teaching Christian is the eschatological context in which it is set. James warns about the coming judgment (1:10-11; 2:12-13; 3:1; 5:1-6,9, 12) but also draws attention to the reward that will be given those who have proved faithful in service (1:12; 2:5; 4:10; 5:20). James teaches that this time of judgment and salvation is imminent: "the Lord's coming is near"; "the Judge is standing at the door" (5:8-9). These statements need not be taken to mean that James was sure the Lord would return within his own lifetime. He is teaching, rather, that the time of the coming of the Lord is unknown and that it could, therefore, take place within a very short period of time. As do other New Testament writers, James views the uncertain time of our Lord's return as reason for holy living.
James also refers clearly to the "present" eschatological dimension. Christian existence (1:18; 2:5; 5:3 [probably]). James holds to the same kind of "inaugurated eschatology" typical of the New Testament perspective: the days of the fulfillment of God's promises have begun, but a climax to those days is yet expected. It is the eschatological tension of that "already but not yet" that is the basis for James' ethics.
Faith, Works, and Justification . James' most controversial theological contribution is his teaching about the relationship of faith, works, and justification in chapter 2. He stresses that right belief must be followed by right action (vv. 17,20, 26). He is worried about people who were confining faith to a verbal profession (v. 19) or to empty, insincere good wishes (vv. 15-16). This faith is dead (vv. 17,26) and barren (v. 20) and will be of no avail the day of judgment (v. 14). This faith of which James speaks, a faith that people are claiming to have (v. 14), does not correspond to James' own teaching about faith. He views faith as a firm, unwavering commitment to God and Christ (see 2:1) that is tested and refined in trials (1:2,4) and which grasps the blessings of god in prayer (1:5-8; 5:14-18). These texts show that it is wrong to accuse James of having a "Sub-Christian" or "sub-Pauline" conception of faith. Rather, James and Paul are in complete agreement on this point. As Paul himself says in Galatians 5:6 , it is "faith expressing itself through love" that counts before God; so James notes that faith without works is dead.
However, on another point, it is claimed that James and Paul are in disagreement: the place of works in justification. Paul stressed the complete sufficiency of faith for justification: "we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Romans 3:28 ). James, on the other hand, claims that "a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (2:24). Some see these two perspectives as contradictory, and as representing two different approaches to the question of salvation in the early church. But we are not forced to this radical conclusion. Understood in their own contexts, and with careful attention to the way each is using certain key words, James and Paul can be brought into harmony on this issue. First, Paul and James are combating different problems. Paul is contesting a Jewish tendency to rely on obedience to the law for salvation. James is fighting against an underemphasis on works, an attitude that turned faith into mere doctrinal orthodoxy. Naturally, then, what they say on this matter will be coming from different perspectives.
Second, Paul's claim that a person cannot be justified on the basis of works of the law is speaking about works that precede conversion. James, however, is talking about works that stem from and are produced by faith: works that follow conversion. The works done before a person has faith in Christ and works done as a result of faith in Christ are obviously going to have different roles in salvation.
Third, and most important, the justification that James and Paul are speaking about are different things. Paul uses the Greek verb dikaioo [12:37). James is referring to a verdict that is based on the actual facts of the case: God declaring a person to be righteous on the basis of works as the fruit of faith. While Paul, then, is looking at the beginning of the Christian life, James is looking at its end. Paul makes clear that it is by faith alone that we can enter into a relationship with God. James is teaching that once that relationship is established there must be works flowing from it that will be used by God at the last judgment as evidence of our genuine union with Christ.
The Law . While conflict between James and Paul is usually seen on the matter of justification, the place of the Mosaic law in the Christian life is also an area of difficulty. Paul tends to suggest that Christians are no longer directly under the Mosaic law (Romans 6:14-15; 7:4; Galatians 5:18 ). James, on the other hand, calls on Christians to be doers of the law (4:11) and insists that the "whole law" will be the standard of judgment (2:9-12). Quite apart from whether this understanding of Paul's teaching is correct, we must recognize that James does not as clearly uphold the law as these texts might suggest. In this regard, his qualifications of the word "law" are significant. He calls it "the law that gives freedom" (2:12), "the perfect law that gives freedom" (1:25), and the "royal law" (2:8). While Jews sometimes used this language about the law of Moses, the context of James suggests that he intends something different. The law in 1:25, for instance, is related to the "word of truth" by which Christians are born again (1:18) and to "the word planted in you" that brings salvation (1:21). This shows that James aligns his law very closely with the gospel. Similarly, James' designation of the law as "royal" probably alludes to the love command as the "law of the kingdom" that Jesus has inaugurated.
James, then, does not seem to be alluding directly and simply to the Old Testament law in these passages. Reference to the law of Moses may be included, but the primary reference is to the law as Jesus has fulfilled it and taught it. This is confirmed by the frequency with which James alludes to the teaching of Jesus in his letter. Thus, James' "law" is the standard of conduct taught by Jesus that is to be applied to those who belong to the kingdom of God.
The Christian Life . James makes his most important contribution to this area of theology. As we stressed earlier, James' ethics are firmly rooted in his eschatology. His advice, while sometimes having the quality of timeless, "wisdom" teaching, is always oriented to the "saved but not yet glorified" situation of his readers. He realizes that his readers will not be able to escape entirely from the impulse to sin (3:2) but he wants them to work strenuously toward the goal of "perfection" or "completeness" (1:4). James is particularly upset about his readers' tendency toward "doubleness": the condition of being divided in loyalty between God and the world. Thus, he condemns his readers as "double-souled people" (dipsychos [1:6; 4:8). Such a "divided" condition reveals itself in speech (3:9-10) and in the failure to live out one's faith in practice (1:19-2:26). James' desire is that Christians leave this unstable and inconsistent "halfway faith" and move toward a whole-hearted, unvarying commitment to God.
James' insistence that Christians practice, and not just listen to, the word of God (1:22) is part of the same emphasis. Obedience to "the law of liberty" must be heartfelt and consistent. Central to this "law" is Jesus' own demand that we love one another (2:8): a demand that he scolds his readers for violating when they show favoritism toward the rich (2:1-7). Following Christ's law also has social implications. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means having a pure and undefiled religion that will show concern for the underprivileged and disadvantaged (1:27) and in a meek and unselfish attitude toward others (3:13-18).
Materialism . James' social concern surfaces particularly in his denunciations of the rich and commendations of the poor (1:9-11; 2:5-7; 5:1-6). Liberation theologians have seized on this language to support their own radical political agenda, but an understanding of the background of James' language shows how unwarranted this use is. Old Testament writers often use the word "poor" to characterize people who are righteous and the word "rich" to denote people who are wicked. This "religious" significance of the terms is found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 5:3 ) and has influenced James. Thus, James' strong condemnation of the "rich" in 5:1-6 is directed simply to people who are wealthy but to people who have abused their wealth, as the basis for his denunciation in verses 2-6 makes clear. In fact, it is likely that in 1:9-10 James recognizes the presence of rich people among his congregation. Similarly, James' assertion that God has chosen the poor (2:5) means not that all poor people are chosen by God to be his people, but rather that God has in fact chosen many poor people precisely because their attitude of humility and openness to the Lord enables them to have the kind of faith that God rewards.
Douglas J. Moo
Bibliography . P. H. Davids, Commentary on James; M. Dibelius, James; S. Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James; R. P. Martin, James; P. U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James; D. J. Moo, The Letter of James; J. H. Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of James .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'James, Theology of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bed/j/james-theology-of.html. 1996.