Bible Study Helps: James

Those reading through the book of James will find these resources of some real help:

Although only five-chapters long, James is an interesting and perplexing book for so many reasons. Questions abound as to almost everything about the book, including its unifying theme, its organisational composition, its intended purpose and audience, etc. Dan McCartney puts it this way in his commentary:

Controversy has continued to swirl about the book, however. Almost every aspect of interpretation, its author, its date, its original audience, its theological substructure, its organization (or lack of organization), its overall purpose (especially whether it is in any way a reaction to some form of Paulinism), its unity, and even the meaning of several of its words, phrases, and sentences have been heavily debated, and many matters remain without anything close to a scholarly consensus.

Or as Donald Hagner says about it:

James has been acknowledged as perhaps the most puzzling book of the NT and for a variety of reasons. Its fragmented form and content are unusual, its organization is unclear, its authorship and therefore date and provenance are uncertain, its addressees a question mark, its purpose vague, its Christian doctrine practically nil, and hence its reception in the early church was notably slow. Very little indeed is known concerning this document, and the challenge is to make what we can from its content alone.

Also, many have wondered if it conflicted with the Pauline message of faith that saves, rather than works that saves. While Luther did refer to it as an “epistle of straw,” he did not deny the canonical status of the book as some have supposed. He included it in his German New Testament.

Daniel Doriani discusses some of the reasons that Luther and others had some big questions about James:

First, Luther says, James contains almost nothing of Christ and the gospel. By this he meant that he found none of Paul’s gospel of justification by faith. Instead he found an insistence on works that, so he thought, supported the Roman Catholic position on faith and works. Second, Luther says, James does not appear to be written by an apostle. Third, scholars say that the clear, confident style of James’s Greek, the large vocabulary, and dense syntax, are too refined to come from the hand of a Galilean Jew. Fourth, in a criticism that might contradict the previous one, Luther and others charge that James is disorderly, flitting from topic to topic without any proper connection of the thoughts. Finally, the early church did not immediately receive James as part of the New Testament canon.

He goes on to briefly reply to these various charges and then says: “Readers may think that a reply to James’s critics is misplaced in the preface to an expository commentary. Yet the theological and moral value of James rests not upon the affection with which Christians receive it, but upon its origin, in divine inspiration, and its status in the canon.”

Concerning the authorship of James, that too is a big discussion, with a number of folks called James in the NT. But most scholars take it that James the brother of Jesus is the author of the book, and that it was likely written quite early on, perhaps around the mid-40s (James died in A. D. 62, and he makes no mention of the important Jerusalem Council of A. D. 48-49).

While scholars still differ on the overriding structure of the book, and the best way to outline it, there are still quite discernible themes that are to be found there. Douglas Moo for example offers these seven main themes: God; eschatology; the law; wisdom; poverty and wealth; the Christian life; and faith, works, and justification.

Let me speak to just two of these. Many have noted how the book of James resembles the wisdom literature of the OT (eg, Job and Proverbs). Wisdom is seen as being a gift of God. It is dependent upon the meditation of Scripture as well as the observation of the world. It means applying biblical truth to what we find happening around us.

This means that James is a very practical book. R. Kent Hughes notes that since this is likely the earliest NT book written, it “thus reflects Jewish-Christian teaching in its initial stages of development.” Moreover,

The Epistle of James enlarges our practical understanding of faith. To be sure Paul is practical, but normally he begins with an imposing theological argument (for example, Romans 1-11 or Ephesians 1-3) and then gives practical exhortation (for example, Romans 12-16, Ephesians 4-6). James, however, begins right off with a series of practical admonitions and continues on nonstop to the end.

As to this supposed contradiction between James and Paul on the issue of faith and works, the simple answer is this: both agree that real saving faith results in good works. What James is dealing with in James 2:14-26 is a false faith. He is arguing: ‘can that kind of faith save you?’ And ‘No’ is the answer to that question. McCartney offers these comments:

James does not say, “If someone has faith but has not works . . .”; he says, “If someone claims to have faith but does not have works. . . . ” The claim to faith is not the same as faith…. 

The “works” that James has in view are “faith-deeds,” the kind of actions that are as endemic to and characteristic of faith as heat is to fire or as breath­ing is to life for human beings, as James will make clear in 2:20-26 ….

James’s principal point is not in doubt, in any case: that which distinguishes living faith from dead faith is works of faith. By no means does any of this suggest that one could create genuine faith by works, any more than an effort at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation could revitalize a corpse. 

Douglas Moo puts it this way concerning this false faith: it is

a matter of speech without action (vv. 15-16); verbal profession without trust and commitment (vv. 18-19). It is this dead, barren faith that James designates by ‘faith alone’ in verse 24. Paul himself would have been second to none in condemning anyone who thought that this faith could justify…. James is concerned not that works be ‘added’ to faith, but that one possesses the right kind of faith, ‘faith that works’. Without that kind of faith Christianity becomes a barren orthodoxy and loses any right to be called faith.

But for a much more detailed discussion on this important matter, see this recent piece of mine: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/12/06/james-paul-faith-and-works/

Image of James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) by McCartney, Dan G. (Author) Amazon logo

More can be said, but in sum, Blomberg and Kamell say this about the book:

With this short letter, therefore, we have what is probably the first NT document written and the first existing Christian writing of any kind of which we know…. Faith in action, especially in social action, remains central for this author. Like the OT prophets and as with Jesus, James sees no tension between (and indeed weds closely together) orthodoxy and orthopraxy – correct belief and correct behaviour.

James expository commentaries

Doriani, Daniel, James, (REC, 2007)
Hughes, R. Kent, James (PTW, 1991)
Kendall, R. T., Justification By Works: Sermons on James 1-3 (Authentic Media, 2002, 2005)
Kendall, R. T., The Way of Wisdom: Sermons on James 4-5 (Authentic Media, 2002, 2005)

James critical commentaries

Adamson, James, The Epistle of James (NICNT, 1976)
Blomberg, Craig and Mariam Kamell, James (ZECNT, 2008)
Burdick, Donald, James (EBC, 1981)
Davids, Peter, Commentary on James (NIGTC, 1982)
Davids, Peter, James (NIBC, 1983, 1989)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Letter of James (AB, 1995)
Kistemaker, Simon, James and I-III John (NTC, 1986)
Laws, Sophie, The Epistle of James (BNTC, 1980)
McCartney, Dan, James (BECNT, 2009)
McKnight, Scot, The Letter of James (NICNT, 2011)
Martin, Ralph, James (WBC, 1988)
Mayor, Joseph, The Epistle of St. James (Macmillan, 1897)
Mitton, C. Leslie, The Epistle of James (Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1966)
Moo, Douglas, James (TNTC, 1985)
Moo, Douglas, The Letter of James (PNTC, 2000)
Motyer, Alec, The Message of James (BST, 1985)
Tasker, R.V.G., The General Epistle of James (TNTC, 1957)
Stulac, George, James (IVPNTC, 1993)
Witherington, Ben, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude (IVP, 2007)
Wright, N. T., The Early Christian Letters: James, Peter, John, and Judah (WJK, 2011)

As to my preferred commentaries on James, see Blomberg, Davids (1982), Johnson, McCartney, McKnight, and Moo (2000).

Other studies

Bruno, Chris, Paul vs James: What We’ve Been Missing in the Faith and Works Debate (Moody, 2019)
Davids, Peter, A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude: Living in the Light of the Coming King (Zondervan, 2014)
Morgan, Christopher, A Theology of James (P&R, 2010)

Happy study and reading.

(Australians can find most of these books at Koorong.)

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4 Replies to “Bible Study Helps: James”

  1. Dear Bill,
    First, I agree with your understanding of faith and works here. Second, like soooo many others, I ‘bucked’ at the notion that I needed some ‘works’ to round out my salvation, I.e., how many mission trips must I make per year, how many times do I help at the church dinner, etc. to earn my points, but slowly came to realize that the more I fell in love with the Father, the more I desired to demonstrate His love to those around me…they were no longer ‘works’ (dang, I HAVE TO…) but rather, “Father, give me a servant spirit and show me what I can do.” If you would permit me, NO LONGER A WORK, BUT A FRUIT. Please understand that this is the revelation I have had and do not want to foist it on anyone else. Believe me, I DO have to pray daily and WORK at being a consistent servant. But, let me reiterate, I firmly believe that the more you know the Father and His unbelievable love for you, the more you will desire to SHARE that love, in all its forms with those in your life…call them ‘works or call them ‘fruit’.

    As always, thank you Bill and where I am off the mark, please correct.
    Respectfully’ Ron Adams

  2. Thanks Ron – yes sounds good to me. The pattern is basically consistent throughout Scripture. In the OT, God graciously saved Israel, and then the law was added to show the people what their thankful response should be now that they are the people of God. The same today: salvation begins with justification, God’s gracious provision for our sinful condition, and that is followed by our thankful response in doing good works (sanctification). So yes It can be stated rather simply: before we are saved we have no real desire and ability to please God with good works, but after we are saved we have both the desire and the ability, because of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Makes all the difference in the world, and yes, the good works are the fruit and faith is the root.

    And as I say in the article:

    But for a much more detailed discussion on this important matter, see this recent piece of mine: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/12/06/james-paul-faith-and-works/

  3. Hi Bill, thank you for your explanation of the justification by faith works issue, as is usual you have been able to shed light on a topic that can be a little troublesome to those who would uphold the faith alone teaching of the reformation and have shown that the issue is the quality of a person’s faith which shows weather its real. Many blessings to you, and a happy Christmas.

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