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 whatis meant by "theology." On the one hand, James has little to say about mostChristian doctrines, nor does he consistently relate his exhortations to the person ofChrist. In fact he mentions Jesus Christ only twice ( 1:1 ; 2:2 ), and only onceas the object of belief ( 2:1 ). If, then, bytheology we mean a system of belief that consistently refers to the person and work ofChrist 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 theset of beliefs that are explicitly stated and implicitly assumed as the basis for itsexhortations, theology is very much present in the letter. James, after all, is writing toChristians who already know the basics of the Christian faith; his purpose is to bringtheir conduct in line with those beliefs. Moreover, we must not overlook the specifictheological teaching that is found in James. His letter makes an important contribution toour understanding of issues such as the relationship of faith and works, prayer, thenature of God, and materialism. All these are set in a practical context, but it will be asad day for the church when such "practical divinity" is not consideredtheology.
Therefore, while the occasional and homiletical nature of the letter prevents us fromsketching a theology of James, we can survey his contribution to several important areasof theology.
God. If we use the word "theology" in its strictest sense, as thedoctrine of God, then James certainly has a considerable amount of theology. For Jamesconsistently bases the kind of conduct he expects of his readers on his understanding ofthe nature of God. Christians are to live, James argues, in full consciousness of thecharacter of the God they serve. Thus, it is because God gives "generously withoutfinding fault" that Christians should not hesitate to ask him for wisdom ( 1:5 ). The goodnessof God's gifts is emphasized in 1:17, where James also stresses the invariability of God'scharacter. God gives everything that is perfect, James asserts, and is incapable of beingenticed by evil. Because of this, people are foolish to think that God would ever be theauthor 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. Boththe indictment and the summons are based on God's character. Because God "jealouslylongs" for the spirits of those he has redeemed (NIV marg.; cf. also NASB), hispeople must give themselves wholly to their God; to give our affections to the world is tocommit spiritual adultery (v. 4). But because God is also gracious (v. 6), he willinglyaccepts back those who turn to him in sincere repentance (vv. 7-10).
James, of course, believes that there is only one God ( 2:19 )"oneLawgiver 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 ; James 5:7 James 5:8 ), he usesit also to denote God the Father ( 3:9 ; 4:10 ; 15 ; James 5:4 James 5:10 James 5:11 James 5:15 ).By speaking this way, James implies that Jesus is God.
Eschatology. Many of James' ethical exhortations find parallels in Jewish andeven pagan Greek literature. What makes James' teaching Christian is the eschatologicalcontext in which it is set. James warns about the coming judgment ( 1:10-11 ; 2:12-13 ; 3:1 ; James 5:1-6 James 5:9 James 5:12 )but also draws attention to the reward that will be given those who have proved faithfulin service ( 1:12 ; 2:5 ; 4:10 ; 5:20 ). Jamesteaches that this time of judgment and salvation is imminent: "the Lord's coming isnear"; "the Judge is standing at the door" ( 5:8-9 ). Thesestatements need not be taken to mean that James was sure the Lord would return within hisown lifetime. He is teaching, rather, that the time of the coming of the Lord is unknownand that it could, therefore, take place within a very short period of time. As do otherNew Testament writers, James views the uncertain time of our Lord's return as reason forholy 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 NewTestament perspective: the days of the fulfillment of God's promises have begun, but aclimax 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 theologicalcontribution is his teaching about the relationship of faith, works, and justification inchapter 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) orto 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 Jamesspeaks, 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 andChrist (see 2:1 )that is tested and refined in trials ( James 1:2 James 1:4 ) and whichgrasps the blessings of god in prayer ( 1:5-8 ; 5:14-18 ). Thesetexts 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 completeagreement on this point. As Paul himself says in Galatians 5:6, it is "faithexpressing itself through love" that counts before God; so James notes that faithwithout works is dead.
However, on another point, it is claimed that James and Paul are in disagreement: theplace of works in justification. Paul stressed the complete sufficiency of faith forjustification: "we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing thelaw" ( Rom 3:28 ).James, on the other hand, claims that "a person is justified by what he does and notby faith alone" ( 2:24 ). Some seethese two perspectives as contradictory, and as representing two different approaches tothe question of salvation in the early church. But we are not forced to this radicalconclusion. Understood in their own contexts, and with careful attention to the way eachis 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 Jewishtendency to rely on obedience to the law for salvation. James is fighting against anunderemphasis 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 lawis speaking about works that precede conversion. James, however, is talking about worksthat stem from and are produced by faith: works that follow conversion. The works donebefore a person has faith in Christ and works done as a result of faith in Christ areobviously going to have different roles in salvation.
Third, and most important, the justification that James and Paul are speaking about aredifferent things. Paul uses the Greek verb dikaioo [dikaiovw]("justify") to depict the dynamic activity of God graciously giving the sinner anew status. The new status is based on the sinner's union with Christ through faith. Thus,for Paul, dikaioo [dikaiovw] is a term that denotes the transfer of a person from therealm of sin and death into the realm of holiness and life. James, however, uses dikaioo[dikaiovw]with a meaning well attested in the Old Testament, in Jewish sources, and in the Gospel ofMatthew (cf. e.g, 12:37 ).James is referring to a verdict that is based on the actual facts of the case: Goddeclaring a person to be righteous on the basis of works as the fruit of faith. WhilePaul, then, is looking at the beginning of the Christian life, James is looking at itsend. Paul makes clear that it is by faith alone that we can enter into a relationship withGod. James is teaching that once that relationship is established there must be worksflowing from it that will be used by God at the last judgment as evidence of our genuineunion with Christ.
The Law. While conflict between James and Paul is usually seen on the matter ofjustification, the place of the Mosaic law in the Christian life is also an area ofdifficulty. Paul tends to suggest that Christians are no longer directly under the Mosaiclaw ( Rom 6:14-15 ; 7:4 ; Gal 5:18 ). James, onthe other hand, calls on Christians to be doers of the law ( 4:11 ) and insiststhat the "whole law" will be the standard of judgment ( 2:9-12 ). Quiteapart from whether this understanding of Paul's teaching is correct, we must recognizethat James does not as clearly uphold the law as these texts might suggest. In thisregard, his qualifications of the word "law" are significant. He calls it"the law that gives freedom" ( 2:12 ), "theperfect law that gives freedom" ( 1:25 ), and the"royal law" ( 2:8 ). While Jewssometimes used this language about the law of Moses, the context of James suggests that heintends something different. The law in 1:25, for instance, is related to the "wordof truth" by which Christians are born again ( 1:18 ) and to"the word planted in you" that brings salvation ( 1:21 ). This showsthat James aligns his law very closely with the gospel. Similarly, James' designation ofthe law as "royal" probably alludes to the love command as the "law of thekingdom" that Jesus has inaugurated.
James, then, does not seem to be alluding directly and simply to the Old Testament lawin these passages. Reference to the law of Moses may be included, but the primaryreference is to the law as Jesus has fulfilled it and taught it. This is confirmed by thefrequency 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 thosewho belong to the kingdom of God.
The Christian Life. James makes his most important contribution to this area oftheology. As we stressed earlier, James' ethics are firmly rooted in his eschatology. Hisadvice, while sometimes having the quality of timeless, "wisdom" teaching, isalways 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 wantsthem to work strenuously toward the goal of "perfection" or"completeness" ( 1:4 ). James isparticularly upset about his readers' tendency toward "doubleness": thecondition of being divided in loyalty between God and the world. Thus, he condemns hisreaders as "double-souled people" (dipsychos [divyuco"], 1:6 ; 4:8 ). Sucha "divided" condition reveals itself in speech ( James 1:1 James 3:9-10 ) and inthe failure to live out one's faith in practice (1:19-2:26). James' desire is thatChristians leave this unstable and inconsistent "halfway faith" and move towarda whole-hearted, unvarying commitment to God.
James' insistence that Christians practice, and not just listen to, the word of God ( 1:22 ) is part ofthe same emphasis. Obedience to "the law of liberty" must be heartfelt andconsistent. Central to this "law" is Jesus' own demand that we love one another( 2:8 ): a demandthat he scolds his readers for violating when they show favoritism toward the rich ( 2:1-7 ). FollowingChrist's law also has social implications. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means havinga pure and undefiled religion that will show concern for the underprivileged anddisadvantaged ( 1:27 )and in a meek and unselfish attitude toward others ( 3:13-18 ).
Materialism. James' social concern surfaces particularly in his denunciations ofthe rich and commendations of the poor ( 1:9-11 ; 2:5-7 ; 5:1-6 ). Liberationtheologians 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 useis. Old Testament writers often use the word "poor" to characterize people whoare 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., Matt 5:3 )and has influenced James. Thus, James' strong condemnation of the "rich" in5:1-6 is directed simply to people who are wealthy but to people who have abused theirwealth, as the basis for his denunciation in verses 2-6 makes clear. In fact, it is likelythat 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 thatall poor people are chosen by God to be his people, but rather that God has in fact chosenmany poor people precisely because their attitude of humility and openness to the Lordenables 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.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'James, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".