A Theology of James

Enough controversy, it’s time to get back to work.  I had four assignments to do this week: I have completed 0 assignments, and 4 unrelated blog posts, and it’s thursday.  Distracted much?  Anyways, I have been charged with the task of writing the theology of James in less than 1200 words, but as I read through it I find that getting to 1200 might be a challenge.  I’m good at either summarizing big ideas simply, or expanding on them at length; this one fits somewhere in between.

The central theme of James is maturity, which is explained through ethical instructions focusing on saying and doing.  In fact, on a close reading I find very little theological instruction in James; it is amostly completely ethical, and focused on showing what it means to be a mature Christian.  This is described in both positive and negative terms: positively, we are to ask God for wisdom; negatively, we should not question God’s answer or we will be double-minded.  Positively, we are to be quick to listen and slow to anger; negatively, we cannot tame the tongue, so we ought not claim to be teachers or to speak our plans boastfully.  And on it goes, giving both instructions and warnings that cumulatively describe the difference between a mature Christian and a double-minded hypocrite.

Perhaps the strongest term to describe the mature person is “integrity”, though James himself doesn’t use the term.  Wise, patient, pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere (3:17) – all of these terms describe the mature Christian that James urges his audience to become, but the words he uses to describe the opposite – perhaps what his audience was, and should not be – tend to imply a lack of integrity.  For example, in the first exhortation to ask God for wisdom, wisdom is not contrasted by ignorance, but by being “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind…he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (1:6, 8).  The warning is that “when he asks, he must believe and not doubt…” – but doubting here is not referring to wondering in your heart about God’s character or nature, but about whether or not God has actually given you wisdom.  What that implies is that you’ve asked God to help you make a wise decision, and then you second-guess the wise answer He has given you and go your own way anyway.  The problem is not that you doubt, but that you, though you ask for wisdom, ignore it and act foolishly anyways.  The problem is double-mindedness.

This gets even clearer as we go along.  1:13-18 expands on this notion of doubting God’s wisdom by talking about temptation and good gifts.  We Christians cannot say that God is tempting us, nor can we say that good gifts come from anyone but Him.  Can we follow Christ, and yet blame Him for our temptations?  Can we claim to receive all that we have from Him, but then claim that our good gifts are not from Him?  These claims are troublesome on their own, but they reveal double-mindedness, a lack of integrity.  1:19-21 contrasts quick tempers with the righteous life God desires, and moral filth with “the word planted in you, which can save you”; our actions should conform to our creeds.  1:22-25 is even more clearly about this integrity: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”  The person who does the opposite, actually living out the law that gives freedom, will be blessed in what they do.  Empty talk is worthless religion, but religion that God accepts involves taking care of God’s people and maintaining moral purity (1:26ff).

Half of chapter 2 is taken up with a warning against showing favouritism, and how that practice is not only against the law and the gospel, but (in this James is very polite, and avoids the word) makes one a hypocrite, a law-breaker who claims to keep the law.  Breaking one law, no matter which law it is, still makes one a lawbreaker!  The second half of the chapter cuts away any other excuses a person might have for hypocrisy: it removes the claim of faith as validation for lack of deeds.  Faith without works is dead, and those who were commended for their faith in scripture were not commended for their belief, but for the actions that such belief inspired (2:14ff).  Claiming to be faithful, while lacking the deeds to prove it, shows a lack of integrity.

Chapter three begins with a relatively lengthy description of the impossibility of taming the tongue, using vivid imagery to describe how difficult it is to watch what we say.  However, the last paragraph of the section (3:9-12) shows the thing that James is really warning against: lack of integrity in our speech!  “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be.” (3:10)  In the second half of this chapter, James goes on to contrast wisdom from below (3:14-16)  and above (3:17-18): the former is “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice”; the latter contains almost every positive adjective in the book of James.  What is interesting is that James does not warn against just having “bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts”, but his instruction is specifically that if you do have such in your heart, “do not boast about it or deny the truth” (3:14).  Once again, James calls for integrity between what we believe and what we do and say.  Though a Christian is not immune to envy and selfish ambition, we should continue to act like a Christian by not spreading it around.

In chapter 4, James notes that the quarrels among the people are because they don’t get what they want.  But they don’t get what they want because they don’t ask God for it (showing a lack of belief, or even a failure to even think to ask God for their desires), and when they do think to ask God, they do so with selfish motives, which of course is the opposite of the humble stance that prayer implies.  There is no real relationship with God here, even among these so-called Christians, so James urges repentance.  “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8).  To James, a sinner is one who is double-minded, lacking integrity.  The response to sin is to humble yourself before God; but what other cure is there for double-mindedness, except humility?  James goes on to warn against judging one another, because in so doing we judge the law – and the Lawgiver.  “But you – who are you to judge your neighbour?” (4:12).  Judging others is hypocrisy, as Christ Himself made very clear, because none of us are perfect enough to judge another.  James finishes the chapter with a warning about boasting, which amounts to the same thing: how can a finite human know what we will be able to do tomorrow, let alone a year from now?  Boasting shows a lack of humility and maturity, surely, but James says “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (4:17).  It is a sign of hypocrisy.

Chapter 5 contains James’ harshest words, directed at landowners who have not paid their workers fair wages, or perhaps have not paid them at all.  James implies, by saying that they have failed to pay, that they had promised to do so.  Their hoarded wealth is a testimony against their lack of integrity.  James goes on with an apparently general comment, but by using a farming metaphor and warning against grumbling against others, it is at least implied that he’s speaking to those workers, reminding them that the Judge – Christ – will return soon, and it is not up to them to judge others.  Patience and perseverance are virtues to be practiced – and as we saw in 1:2-4, trials build perseverance, and perseverance builds maturity, which James goes on to describe in terms of integrity in our Christian words and deeds.  He drives it home with a final word about integrity: “Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else.  Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned” (5:12).  When I was a kid, I didn’t realize what this meant; I immediately stopped saying “Hell yeah!”, because I wasn’t supposed to swear – my “yes” had to be just a plain “yes”.  Now of course I realize that James is talking about integrity: a person’s word ought to be good enough to act as a guarantee, without an appeal to some higher authority.

James ends his letter with exhortations about prayer, which are not at all foreign to his primary topic of Christian maturity and integrity.  He began by urging his audience to ask God for wisdom, rebuked them for improper prayers in chapter 4, and now gives them an example of a proper response to God.  In the rest of the book, James tells them how they ought not to respond to the trials they face; now he tells them how they ought to, in prayer for themselves and for each other.  This is the Christian life of a mature believer: prayer.  Anyone who turns someone back to prayer from the other way of life, saves them.

In short, the theology of James is that God opposes the double-minded, in all of the forms that that takes, and the proper response to Him is patient, humble prayer, and action that corresponds to Christian ethical teaching.

Well, I’m over 1500 words; now to cut it down.  Any thoughts on this paper are appreciated; my brain is dulled by my cold, which kept me from sleeping much last night.

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2 thoughts on “A Theology of James

  1. Great job, especially in a short word limit. It was interesting hearing your take on a couple of the sometimes contentious passages in James (i.e. 1:13-18, and 5:12). I always appreciate a fresh take as I, like others, read James with a guilty conscience and found it a bit heavy handed. At least I’m in good company, as Martin Luther wanted it removed from the Canon. Have “integrity” as a central theme for James is a refreshing take on the book.

    Overall, nothing I would change and I’m not sure where you’re going to have to prune from. Perhaps the boasting part? It’s worthwhile to read, only that if you have to cut something, the exhortation of humility is found in other parts of the paper.

    • Thanks Jonathan 🙂

      I imagine I’ll probably re-write most of it this afternoon. A little tinkering with each sentence can usually cut out several unnecessary words. I appreciate your feedback.

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