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.
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.