James, an interview

Mike Bird who, along with my colleague Joel Willitts, blogs here at Patheos at Euangelion, interviewed me about the James commentary (The Letter of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament)), and now that he’s published it I thought I could post it here.

What was your first experience with James as a Christian and as a Teacher?

I read James in high school, but it was in college – as a sophomore – that I took a serious interest in James. I memorized in the KJV and read it – with my Greek text next to me (which I could barely read) – with Lenski’s commentary. It was an exhilarating experience for me.

When I was a young professor at TEDS I asked permission to teach James as the second course in exegesis, got that permission, and began teaching it then – and taught it annually for about a decade. Those first few years involved concordance work on everything, careful sorting of commentary options, and constant chasing down of questions that occurred to me and to my students.

I’ve not taught James as a book study since leaving TEDS, though I’ve sketched every year in our survey courses.

There’s a story about this commentary. I was scheduled to write the Baker commentary on James but, when I couldn’t meet the deadline – and had actually missed it and knew that it was going to be more than a few years down the road before I could get to it, I felt the honest thing to do was to tell Moises Silva that I couldn’t meet the deadline. He accepted my resignation, assigned it to someone else, and Dan McCarthy, as it turns out, did complete it – and it was actually in print before mine was. Several years later after failing to meet the deadline for Baker, after dinner with Gordon Fee, he asked me if I was interested in writing James for the NICNT … and I said to him, “Yes, I can do it now because I have nothing on my schedule for the next few years of that magnitude.” So, I took up the NICNT after not being able to meet the deadline for the BEC James.

You make the claim in the introduction that “James pushes back against Christians who are too Reformed” and “the more uncomfortable Christians are with James in a Luther-like way, the less they really understand Paul”. What did you mean by that?

Let’s admit that Luther didn’t like James, and that Luther thought James had no gospel to it. It is my contention that if one feels that in James then there’s something wrong. There’s plenty of gospel in James – and I recently gave a paper on that topic – but there’s not as much as the kind of soteriology Luther (and other Reformers) liked in James for him to see it as gospel. I’ll put this slightly differently. I have a book coming out later this summer called  The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, and in that book I will contend that we have too easily equated soteriology with “gospel” and have missed what Jesus and the apostles mean by gospel. If I’ve got gospel right, there’s gospel in James and Luther made a mistake on this one. Now yet another way: if soteriology is how we frame the message of the Bible then we may have trouble with James, but there’s more to the gospel story than the saving impact of the gospel.

There are a lot of parallels between James and the Synoptic tradition. You even suggest that James has his own “wiki version” the sayings of Jesus. How does James apply the Jesus tradition?

I have a chp length study on this in a book called Preaching Character: Reclaiming Wisdom’s Paradigmatic Imagination for Transformation, edited by David Bland and David Fleer. My contention is this: James treats Jesus’ teachings in the tradition of Jewish wisdom. That is, instead of reciting or quoting, James has both absorbed the teachings of Jesus and has re-expressed or “applied” those teachings in a new context. Most James scholars will say at one time or another that nearly every paragraph in James reflects the Jesus tradition, but the alarming fact is that James only quotes Jesus one time – on oaths. Though I think he’s quoted Lev 19:18 in James 2 because Jesus taught him the significance of the Jesus Creed. Still, it is something of note that James reflects Jesus so often but quotes him – without attribution – only once. That’s the sort of thing we find in the wisdom tradition, and an exceptional study of this was done by Richard Bauckham.

It has been claimed that James is a synagogue sermon with some Christian trappings. Why do you think that is a false estimation of James?

Yes, that’s a false estimation. I’m not sure we even know what synagogue sermons looked like, let alone know that James is one with some Christian bits added in. The problematic dimension of James’ theology is that is so Jewish, but what makes this so counter-intuitive for theologians is that James’ theology is not theirs! Which means they don’t see how James’ theology fits into the biblical story, and that’s probably true because they run everything through a Protestant version of soteriology. That’s repeating myself, so I’ll not say more. James reflects what was most likely very common Christian Judaism or Jewish Christianity – depending on how you like to express it – and that is to say that James reflects precisely the sort of thing Jesus was aiming at with his contemporaries and what, so I think, Paul would have liked in the Jewish communities who followed Jesus as Messiah.

What in a nutshell is your take on James 2:14-26 especially in light of your remark that “works show faith; faith works with works, faith is perfected b works, works fulfill faith”?

Is there a way to talk about James 2:14-26 in a nutshell? I return to my point: we are so shaped by soteriology in the Protestant tradition, and that means justification, that when anyone uses our terms differently we think they’re wrong or from another planet. I don’t accept the notion that “justify” means “prove” in James 2, since James is talking about acts that “save” (2:14ff). For James faith and works are inseparable; he doesn’t have the issue with earning salvation that shapes how many of us think of justification by faith. Further, it is likely that James knows about Paul and even uses his terms, but I suspect he’s using them in a version or with an understanding before Paul had framed his theology as we see it now in Romans. In other words, a case can be made that James is responding to “Pauline” theology before it became what we know.

Is James ragging on Paul here?

No. This is a tough one because it’s hard to prove, but I suspect James is responding to a pre-canon or pre-Romans Paul, or to representation of Paul before Paul wrote Romans. But I think James would see problems with the way many have talked about Paul and about justification because he lived in a theology that saw faith and works as inseparable.

Martin Luther called James “An epistle of straw”. How would you reply to Luther?

I understand the reaction of Luther to all things connected to works. And his theology of the saving work of Christ on the basis of faith alone, without works, is fundamental to my own faith and to our faith, but Luther’s reaction to James is blurred by his reaction to the Catholic theology he so despised. I’m reading Luther’s Sermon on the Mount now and he can’t go one paragraph without swatting Catholic leaders. It’s relentless and, if I can say this fairly about him, blinding. His context made it difficult for him to see what James was on about.

And it makes me wonder what we are blinded to today because of our context.

With regards to James 3:1, why does James warn about teachers who abuse power that lead to a “fractured and fractious community”?

Because they were the root of the problem. I take, as you know Mike, 3:1-4:12 as one unit and shaped as a text aimed at teachers – they are never out of his vision. Leaders, perhaps even more then than now, set the tone and they establish both cohesion and fractures. He knows the teachers are the ones who are to set the tone with wisdom that is practiced with humility, and he knows that the peaceful actions bring peaceful communities, and he knows that wrath never brings the will of God. The leaders – teachers who use their words to create worlds  of meaning – are the ones who can make or break a community.

In light of James 5, what does James have to say to Christians who live lives of relative affluence?

I’d add the last paragraph of James 4 to this. The words of these two paragraphs potently warn us about trusting in our own plans, about thinking we are economically sufficient, about abusing our power by doling out less than a fair wage … and he knows God is watching and God will judge. I’m reminded by your question of Jesus’ parable from hell in Luke 16. We’ve just sorted this all out of late, and what we’ve figured out is if we’ve got the right view of hell. Which may be one of the world’s bitter tragedies: the point of the parable was not to give us the right view of hell but to warn us about how we treat the poor. And that leads us to Matthew 25, and the final judgment based on how we treat those who are suffering – and I’m not convinced this is simply about the poor but about poor missionaries – and we are reminded over and over that God will judge us on how we live: compassionately or not, with justice or not, helping those in need or not. James lives in this stream of thinking: and he knows that rich oppress and that the poor have some kind of privilege, and he tells us to cease from trusting in our riches and to take care of those who work for us. Humbling theme in the Bible that should never lead us to think we’ve got it made or we’ve got it right.

Why has James been so popular among Emergent Churches?

I can’t say I’ve seen that so much. But let me take a guess. First, it sees the Christian life in terms of how we live and how treat the poor (and also in terms of not being spoiled by the world’s sin) and in terms of works. Second, it’s not so much about how to get saved and how to be “in” vs. “out,” and it’s about living obediently – that’s an emerging theme. In other words, James is of value because it’s critical of the establishment and creates a vision that is radically actionable.

If you had one message from James to preach/teach, what would it be?

Our task is to live the teachings of Jesus in our context by learning how James made Jesus live for his messianists. In other words, the book is loaded with a Christology that needs to be ours. What Jesus said is for us today.

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  • normbv

    There seems to have been some tension between Paul and James. It almost appears that Paul’s concern with James and his followers was their continued Judaism tendency and their effect upon the Gentile converts.

    Gal 2:9-14 and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. … (11) But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. (12) For BEFORE CERTAIN MEN CAME FROM JAMES, he was eating with the Gentiles; but WHEN THEY CAME HE DREW BACK AND SEPARATED HIMSELF, fearing the circumcision party. (13) And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (14) But when I saw that their conduct WAS NOT IN STEP WITH THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

    And it appears that James likewise was concerned with Paul’s perceived freedom in regards to the Law in Jerusalem. But is also seems that James was going out of his way to mediate for Paul with the Jewish Christians. I don’t think James would have done so if he was substantially at odds with Paul theologically.

    Act 21:18-22 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. (19) After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. (20) And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, (21) and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. (22) What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

    Paul effectively states that he accommodated the Jewish Christians which means he was ahead of the game concerning understanding the freedom in Christ.

    1Co 9:19-20 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (20) To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.

    We also seem to have the possibility of a snapshot in time from the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls which appear to be very much in tune with the James Jewish tradition of holding on to the tenets of the Law. Those writings seem to reflect Jewish messianic ideology and are very likely to have been very similar to the earliest Christian mindset of Judaism as represented by James and his Jewish followers. We know that Paul constantly had to deal with the Judaizers in their attempt to turn his Gentile converts over into a hybrid Jewish Christian legalism. This problem does not appear to be completely a mistaken idea about those under James influence from Paul’s perspective.

    Gal 5:3-4 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

    However there is the issue that the Jewish Christians indeed felt they needed to be in compliance with Judaism until the judgment came upon the ruling Jews who persecuted them for their allegiance to Christ. There seems to be a dual mode for the Jewish Christians contrasted to the Gentile Christians and so we need to keep their two approaches in the context of the transition that was occurring at this time in the first century.

    It’s easy to see how Luther could be confused, but the solution is to look for the gospel commonalities and recognize the two groups of the faithful that are traveling divergent paths in the transition from one era to the new one. Their perspectives will indeed not look the same. In fact within the Dead Sea Scroll literature one can find not only James mind but Paul’s as well as both of them pulled from OT and Second Temple Judaism literature to form their messianic approaches.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, do you see some validity in those who think that too many post-Reformation commentators read the ‘faith vs works’ issue that Luther faced into Paul, James and Jesus with the Pharisees? From my readings on Jesus, 2nd Temple Judaism had a prominent place for grace and did not see their “works of the Law” as saving them, but as an expression of obedience for being saved. Do you see the 1st century situation this way to some degree?

  • Scot McKnight

    Norm, this a good post to say this. Your comments tend to be too long. Everyone has to read what is there and long comments tend to end conversations. 250 words is plenty. Thanks.

    John, yes that covenantal nomism is in the right direction. Us merit language us metaphor. See Gary Anderson’s book on Sin.

  • alison

    Still trying to figure out the grammar of the first question.

  • Paul Johnston

    One of the first steps necessary for Christian reconcilliation to occur, is for the historic legacies of Luther and Calvin to wholly articulate an all encompassing and biblicly consistent theology of “Works”. RC doctrine clearly distinguishes the two, wholly acknowledging the a priori requirement of grace through faith while at the same time the consequential logic “works” then suggest about faith.To wit, what true faith made manifest through human expression, (works) would look like. Works as a means of redemption…wait for it….wait for it…have never been RC Canon. The centuries old Protestant arguement is simply untrue.

    With regard to the more particular issue presented in this post it would be prudent not to conflate the disagreement between St.James and St. Paul over, “circumcison or not circumcision” the particulars of Jewish law and it’s supposed applications to the Gentiles, with an imagined disagreement between them with regard to the more broadly theological discussion of “faith vs.works”.

    St. Jame’s gospel is clear in demarcating his position. St. Paul’s positon in Roman’s, particularly what we have called Chapter 2, to my mind, has been grossly misrepresented by much of Protestantism. Rather than a general indictment against works, which chapter 2 unequivically affirm, St. Paul subsequent reproach was addressing the danger to the Jews of assuming arbitrary observances and pieties, in of themselves, were sufficient for salvation. They are not and this alone, was St. Paul’s point. This was the danger he was addressing. To suggest that St. Paul’s emphasis was beyond this, that works, rightly understood as “love practiced and lived” were enimical to the Christian vocation, are to make St.Paul, given the body of work we can attribute to him through this letter and other letters and epistles, out to be either an inconsistent fool or a hypocrite.

    Faith without works IS dead. St. James tells us directly and all the Gospels and the life Of Lord Himself testify to this truth.

    Justified through faith? Through grace, as a gift.Absolutely true! The question becomes then, what is this thing we call faith? What does this gift from God “look like” in us. Is it simply a declartion of creedal understandings which we study and give verbal assent, or is it more accurately decribed as a type of life lived?

    When the idea of “works” are rightly understood as being synonymous with how Christian love is to be expressed and lived, a right understanding of what works are and their importance to the Kingdom, both here and now,will be understood.

    To my mind their is no inconsistency within scripture. The inconsistency is with human critics who have misrepresented the Gospels for personal reasons.

  • normbv

    Ok, here is the stripped down 250 word version without the scriptural context. Hopefully the readers have enough information.

    There seems to have been some tension between Paul and James and it almost appears that Paul’s concern with James and his followers was their continued Judaism tendency and their effect upon the Gentile converts. [Gal 2:9-14]

    James likewise was concerned with Paul’s perceived freedom in regards to the Law in Jerusalem. But is also seems that James was going out of his way to mediate for Paul with the Jewish Christians. I don’t think James would have done so if he was substantially at odds with Paul theologically. [Act 21:18-22]

    Paul effectively states that he accommodated the Jewish Christians [1Co 9:19-20]

    It appears Paul constantly had to deal with the Judaizers in their attempt to turn his Gentile converts into a hybrid Jewish Christian legalism. This problem does not appear to be a mistaken idea about those under James influence from Paul’s perspective. [Gal 5:3-4]

    There seems to be a dual mode for the Jewish Christians contrasted to the Gentile Christians and so we need to keep their two approaches in the context of the transition that was occurring at this time in the first century.
    It’s easy to see how Luther could be confused, but the solution is to look for the gospel commonalities and recognize the two groups of the faithful that are traveling divergent paths in the transition from one era to the new one.

  • Patrick

    The initial point above I think makes good logic, James uses words Protestants associate only with eternal salvation, but, that wasn’t his point.

    The examples he gives fit into this view.

    “What good is it to pray for the hungry, let’s go ahead and feed our neighbor”.

    That’s faith in action God expects from His people, but, James would not contend feeding the hungry EX faith in Jesus was a way into God’s kingdom and I contend James would agree if we do not demonstrate our faith we still belong to Christ, we just suffer in various ways for the lack of obedience.

    He also uses Hagar as an example of “active faith”. Hagar’s belief about Yahweh saved her soul, her actually getting up and leaving Jericho saved her life on earth from destruction.

    That was faith in action. Had she stayed in Jericho, she dies then and there, but, she still belongs to Yahweh.

    One example not in James would be the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem 70 AD. Would they exercise active faith and obey Christ’s warnings(Matthew 24) or sit there and get killed in the conflagration? If they sit, they still belong to God, but, they suffered needlessly due to their non active faith.

  • Amos Paul

    I’ve personally found John Wesley’s 3 Part understanding of Grace to be particularly useful in viewing James and Paul (read: Grace, Works, etc.) together.

    Wesley believed, at least as a heuristic device, that we can view Divine Grace consisting of three components.

    1) Pre-Venient Grace, the hint of Divine relationship and Grace that we are born with that calls us toward relationship with God.

    2) Justifying Grace which comes about when we respond to the call of God’s Pre-Venient Grace.

    3) Sanctifying or Sustaining Grace which is the Grace that works in us as we actively grow in our relationship with Christ and as humans.

    In this light, James can be seen as discussing the part of Grace we actively live out once we have been Justified. Indeed, it is the point of our lives to live in such a manner. We most certainly may be fully cured of our sinfulness or disease of darkness one day, but just because we have been Justified (promised the ultimate cure) does not mean we shouldn’t start taking it right now!

  • Scot McKnight

    Patrick, but, but, but…

    Notice James says “Can that kind of faith ‘save’ him?” I take “justify” and “save” to be synonymous, or mutually interpreting, words in 2:14-26. And we must ask what the word “useless” is on about: useless for what? Can’t be useless for the Christian life, so it most likely refers to ultimacy. And “made perfect” in James is one of those ultimate approval words, too. And then too faith without works is “dead” — dead for what? Same answer, so it seems to me.

  • Bob Smallman

    Can’t wait to pick this one up, Scot, and use it. Your predecessors in the NIC of James have been uniformly disappointing! Over the years I’ve given both away.

  • Patrick


    Check the initial context for the chapters 1 and 2 discussion( most of them anyway). 1:2-3 “post salvation testing”.

    Then consider Abraham’s justification in 2:22. It says it was because his faith was “perfected” after testing. Jesus was said to have had His faith “perfected” in Hebrews under suffering.

    Saved,justified,sanctified, all can have eternal and temporal import in Scripture. Perfected faith to the level of Abraham or Jesus is not the threshold for salvation and it is progressive over time, salvation is not.

    Literarily doesn’t work.

    It contradicts the rest of the entire Bible on testing and failure or success for we believers.

    It doesn’t work to place a text meant for post salvation testing and cram it into competition with a text meant for pre salvation common grace ideas such as John 3:16, 3:36, 20:34.

    James went out of his way literarily there to speak of works before faith for a reason in the Abraham passage.

    I think to show another way this isn’t “saved” as Billy Graham would tend to use the term. Faith literarily would have been the first, works second if he was saying, “hey , you can’t just believe you have to show some evidence of works”.

    This is a post salvation testing teaching. Abraham’s faith was perfected during this one, that puts him in high cotton. in thousands of years of history, we have only a handful of those. That cannot be salvation information.