James Week 1
Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies
One God, Made Known in Diverse Ways
Most folks I know conceive of the Bible as relatively uniform. It is God’s word — a single book that tells a single story about a God of singular importance and power. People say, “The Bible says …,” and some churches identify themselves as “Bible-believing.” A closer examination of the Bible’s contents, however, reveals at least two things. Chief among them is the fact that the singular God of the Bible is far more complex than we might realize at first, a God who is made known in diverse ways.
The church would ultimately come to agree that the most “biblically wise” way to conceive of this God is in a threefold manner — a “Father” who is over us in power and holiness, a “Son” who is with us as our friend and companion on the way, and a “Holy Spirit” who resides within and among us to empower our works and direct our decisions. God is singular and diverse at the same time.
Accordingly, the Bible of this God reflects the identity of its Maker. Indeed, on close examination the singular Bible turns out to be a collection of diverse texts. Better: it is a collection of collections! One collection is called “Torah” (or “Pentateuch”), another is called “Prophets,” another “Gospels,” and still another “Pauline letters.”
The Catholic Epistles
A less well-known collection is called “Catholic Epistles” and consists of seven letters — one from James, two from Peter, three from John, and one from Jude. They are found near the end of the New Testament, after the letters of Paul and before the last book of the Bible, the Revelation to John.
The word “catholic” is often translated “universal” or “general,” but it carries the sense of “wholeness.” Why title this collection “catholic”? There is, on the one hand, a well-known ancient tradition stating that “catholic” refers to the letters’ addressees: While Paul’s letters are written to particular congregations and individuals, these letters are more like encyclicals addressed to the “whole” church. Take a moment to look over the address section of each of these seven letters; you’ll note that most are written to broad, general audiences. This is why Paul’s letters are titled according to their recipients (e.g., “The Letter to the Romans”), while the Catholic Epistles are titled according to their authors (e.g., “The Letter of James”).
On the other hand, the historical record also retains the sense that these letters were included to “round out” the apostolic message and keep it “whole.” The evidence we have strongly suggests that the Catholic Epistles were included in the Bible to function as a corrective for those who championed Paul’s letters in a manner that got them into trouble, oftentimes because their reading of Paul led them to divorce Christianity from its Jewish roots (anti-Judaism), or divorce faith in Christ from obedience to Christ (antinomianism), or divorce the activity of the Spirit from the model of the Son (taking various forms of enthusiasm or Gnosticism). [Author’s Note 1]
Martin Luther and the Catholic Epistles
These strong “Paulinists” still exist today, of course — and while they may appreciate the much-loved 1 Peter or 1 John, they tend to consider the letter of James to be a bit of a problem. Perhaps the most well-known Paulinist was the Reformer Martin Luther. He considered James to be so very incompatible with the “gospel according to Paul” that he even sought to marginalize its presence in the Bible. When he created his German translation he pulled James out of canonical context and moved it to an appendix (along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation).
He also did not include these in his appendices and cross-references, effectively de-canonizing these texts. Among his many famous sayings about James is the one in which he called it “an epistle of straw” because “it lacks the evangelical character” of other biblical texts. Worse, it seemed to completely contradict Paul! He said, “Many sweat to reconcile St. Paul and St. James, but in vain. ‘Faith justifies’ and ‘faith does not justify’ contradict each other flatly. If anyone can harmonize them I will give him my doctor’s hood and let him call me a fool.” Apparently Luther’s theological commitments kept him from fully appreciating the full diversity of the Bible God gave us! On another occasion he even said, “One day I’m going to throw little Jimmy into the stove!”
Who Is James?
James? Little Jimmy? Who is that? Consciously or unconsciously, readers who have spent some time in the Bible will automatically turn to the narrative portions of the New Testament to search for a character who fits the bill. There we find quite a few different individuals named James (indeed, three are named in Acts 1:3 alone). Best known is James, the brother of John. That more famous James, the one seen so often alongside Peter and John in the gospels, is executed by Herod in Acts 12. That chapter also includes the story of Peter’s arrest and miraculous escape from prison (12:3–17). When Peter announces his deliverance to some fellow Christians, he tells them to tell the news “to James and the brothers” (12:17). But wait — wasn’t James just put to death?
Well, the gospels also list a brother of Jesus named James (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). Though he is rather underrepresented in the New Testament, we know from historical evidence that Jesus’ brother James was honored as one of the greatest of the first-generation apostles. Paul identifies him as “James, the Lord’s brother” who, along with Peter and John, made up the three acknowledged “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). Though the story is not narrated in Acts, Jesus’ brother James apparently received a resurrection appearance from Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7), and with it, presumably, a commission to become head pastor of “First Church Jerusalem.”
We can tell this is the case when we turn to the other two places this James appears in Acts. In the story of the “apostolic council” in Chapter 15, Paul, Peter, and others offer testimony for and against the unrestricted inclusion of Gentiles in God’s covenant community, but it is James who sets forth the ultimate authoritative judgment on the matter by appealing to the Jewish scriptures (Acts 15:13–21), our Old Testament. Later, after Paul returns to Jerusalem from his missionary travels abroad, he stops to offer report to “James and the elders” (21:18). While James clearly approves of Paul’s work among the Gentiles, he commands Paul to publicly perform a temple ritual to dispel rumors that Paul is teaching Jews to forsake the observance of Torah (21:17–26).
Clearly Paul and the “Jerusalem Pillars” are partners in ministry, but notice something: Whenever James shows up in the narrative, it is to make sure that the mission to the Gentiles moves forward in faithful accordance with the Jewish scriptures. It is as though James is present to remind us that a Gentile, non-Jewish church must never be allowed to become a pagan church.
Put another way: the fact that God loves the world must never be taken to mean that the church may become worldly! [Author’s Note 2] It must retain its Jewish roots, recognizing that its God is the God of the Jews, the God truly and faithfully revealed in the writings of the Old Testament. It must walk in the wisdom of God’s ancient people and avoid the “worldly” wisdom of its resident culture.
Much more can be said: Though the function of the Jewish Law had changed in light of the grace made known in Jesus, the church must still connect faith in Christ with obedience to Christ. Similarly, though the Holy Spirit had been poured out liberally on all flesh, the church must make certain that the activity of the Spirit be expressed according to the model of humanity God provided in the Son.
All that is to say, against the tendencies of some misguided “Paulinists,” James insists that Christian faith must be whole. It must account for the whole Scripture, Old and New Testaments. It must retain a whole understanding of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. It must reach down into the whole self — words and actions, creeds and deeds, head-heart-hands wholeness.
The letter of James leads the way in guiding believers into a more whole faith. As such it is a challenging letter, one that confronts our self-deception, calling us on the carpet for the myriad ways we allow our faith to be characterized by half-hearted, tepid obedience. When it comes down to it, most of us think we can be friends of the world and friends with God. James will work hard to convince us that retaining such a notion is seriously unwise.
Speaking of Wisdom
Some of our Lectio readers might be wondering why we’ve chosen to pair James with selections from Old Testament Wisdom literature. Though James comes in the form of a letter, as you read you’ll note that it seems more like a collection of aphorisms and short sermons than a typical letter. Indeed, much of James reads like Old Testament Wisdom literature! More than half the verses in this letter come in the form of moral exhortations and “wise sayings.” It includes beatitudes (James 1:12, 25; 5:11), woes (5:1), and examples of wise living (2:20–25; 5:10–11, 17–18). It contrasts the wisdom that comes “from above” with the wisdom of the world (3:13–18). In fact, the letter begins with the presumption that believers will require wisdom from God in order to remain faithful (1:5–8). [Author’s Note 3]
As you prepare to read James, I want you to think about a couple of things. First, become mindful of the sources of “wisdom” that direct your steps in this life. What values and commitments have the greatest influence on you? What is the wisdom of your earthly “tribe”? In what way might your primary sources of wisdom be out of step with the wisdom of God?
Second, think about your knowledge and use of Scripture. What are your “go to” Bible texts? How many of the key texts that inspire your faith and beliefs come from the letters of Paul? How many come from the New Testament, and how many from the Old Testament? How many of them offer comfort in place of challenge? How many simply enable you to affirm your existence, allowing you to justify your way of life in this comfortable culture of ours?
Pastor James, the pillar of the Jerusalem Church, promises to bring us back to the path that leads to God. Our task now is to listen to what this wise Word says, even if it makes us a bit uncomfortable.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Dr. Nienhuis asserts, “[O]n close examination the singular Bible turns out to be a collection of diverse texts.” How do you react to this statement? Has your experience with the Bible convinced you more of its diversity or its unity? In what ways have you seen each? What is at stake in emphasizing one over the other?
- One collection within this diverse text is the Catholic Epistles, which includes the letter of James. What has been your experience with these letters previously? What are you looking forward to in your current study of James?
- Dr. Nienhuis notes that Jesus’ brother James had come to be one of the primary leaders of the early church, as well as the author of this letter. Had you come to know James the Lord’s brother before reading this Lectio? How does an awareness of the author’s identity affect your reading of this letter?
- This week’s Lectio makes a unique observation about the places in which James “shows up” in the narrative of the early church. What is this observation, and why was this role necessary as the church began to grow? What do you think the difference is between Gentile and Pagan?
- In the closing paragraphs, Dr. Nienhuis provides several framing questions for our study of James. Take some time to reflect on these questions, and consider sharing your reflections with a friend or family member.
- Regarding sources of wisdom or influence in your life:
- “What values and commitments have the greatest influence on you? What is the wisdom of your earthly ‘tribe’? In what way might your primary sources of wisdom be out of step with the wisdom of God?”
- Regarding your engagement with Scripture:
- “Think about your knowledge and use of Scripture. What are your ‘go-to’ Bible texts? How many of the key texts that inspire your faith and beliefs come from the letters of Paul? How many come from the New Testament, and how many from the Old Testament? How many of them offer comfort in place of challenge? How many simply enable you to affirm your existence, allowing you to justify your way of life in this comfortable culture of ours?”
- Regarding sources of wisdom or influence in your life:
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