In 2023, two of our 16 PhD students were studying the letter of James. Francie Cornes set out to discover what drew them to the letter and to ask whether scholarship on this letter still struggles with questions about its place in Scripture.
Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, once described the letter of James as ‘an epistle of straw’ (Word and Sacrament I). Luther’s comment has contributed to centuries of debate over the letter and how to read it in relation to the rest of the Bible. At the heart of the issue is whether the letter is consistent with the rest of Scripture. James points to our actions as being the marker of our faith, and says that ‘faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead’ (James 2:17). At first glance, this seems out of step with Paul’s writing about salvation by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). We sat down with two Tyndale House readers who are working on PhDs researching the letter of James to find out why they think it is worth studying and how we can have confidence that the letter fits into the story of Scripture.
Nick List is in the third year of his PhD. He is exploring theodicy (understanding the relationship between God’s goodness and the existence of evil) and anthropology in the letter of James. Nick’s project asks questions such as: how does the letter of James depict God’s character in response to human experiences of evil? And what does that mean for first and second century AD ideas about humanity and how we relate to God?
Joe Allen is starting his second year of a PhD looking at Christology in the letter of James, looking at what James does and does not say about Jesus. Whilst their projects are quite different, both Joe and Nick have had to face up to the debates surrounding the letter. Before delving into their reasons for studying James, they explained to me what the issues are, and why James has sometimes been neglected in scholarship.
Why are some people unsure about the letter of James?
It turns out there were two particularly influential Martins involved. As already mentioned, the first was Martin Luther, who wrote: ‘Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others [John’s, Paul’s and Peter’s writings], for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.’ (Word and Sacrament I).
In Luther’s view, the letter does say some helpful things, but by focusing on our works as the marker of our faith, he felt that James didn’t make it clear that our works do not save us; we can only be saved through Jesus. Therefore, Luther relegated it to the back of the New Testament. Joe explains, ‘That judgement has had a big influence on subsequent interpretations of the letter right through to the present day. There’s been a feeling that James is peculiar or deficient in some way.’
The second Martin was Martin Dibelius, a German biblical scholar in the late 1800s. He wrote a commentary on James, stating that the letter is just a random collection of sayings drawn together and famously said that James ‘has no “theology”’ (A Commentary on the Epistle of James, Fortress Press, 1976).
Nick adds, ‘So again, it’s led to neglect within scholarship because, if you’re a biblical scholar who is interested in theology and interested in cohesive arguments, then James is not the text for you, according to Martin Dibelius. So, I feel like we’re only at a point in the recent history of scholarship that we’ve got over the hang ups of both Martins and can read the text again on its own terms.’
Despite all this, Nick and Joe are spending at least three years studying the letter. So why do they think it’s worth studying and can be trusted as the word of God? Throughout our conversation, two big ideas stand out.
The letter of James does fit with Scripture
In response to the question of how we can trust that the letter warrants a place in Scripture, Nick begins by saying that the text speaks for itself: ‘I think there is a recognition that there are true and helpful things commended in the letter and if people actually live that way, it’s a perfect representation of discipleship in the Christian life.’
For Joe, it comes down to James’s idea of who God is. In James’s letter, ‘you see a God who is the Father of lights, who consistently gives good gifts to his creation. And this God resists the proud, but he gives grace to the humble, and he’s ready to forgive sin, he is ready to heal. It says that when we’re consumed as a community by envy, God gives more grace.’ Joe continues: ‘And for me, if that’s at the centre of James’s theology, as Nick says, it speaks for itself. It makes total sense in light of the rest of Scripture.’
Regarding the difficulty of relating James to Paul’s letters, Joe has found that there is consistency between them in his research. In Martin Luther’s view, ‘[the letter of James] is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works [2:24]’ (Word and Sacrament I). Joe acknowledges that this apparent contradiction could cause us to doubt the trustworthiness of James. ‘I’d say that it makes us go back to Paul and ask: what does he actually say about works in the Christian life? And you see that Paul, as well as James, has a really high view of works as flowing out from faith. I think James helps us to read other parts of the New Testament. And when we do that, we see that James is consistent with those parts.’
Another criticism of James is that his writing seems to contradict some of the Old Testament. Nick argues that James is theologically in line with the Old Testament, but we need to understand the Graeco-Roman cultural influences on language and rhetoric in the letter to see this. Often in scholarship, James has been viewed as a ‘Jewish wisdom text’. If we read the letter in that context, we may find it jarring when it appears to contradict mainstream Jewish thought. For example, James says God does not test because he does not associate with evil (James 1:13). It’s an idea that feels at odds with episodes in the Old Testament like the testing of Abraham in Genesis 22. Through his research, Nick has instead been comparing the letter to Graeco-Roman writings by contemporaneous thinkers who subscribed to philosophies such as Middle Platonism. Nick has found that a culture’s prevailing assumptions about God’s goodness shape the way people talk about God. Even if the Christians in that culture hold to the same theology as believers in other places, their way of expressing things will inevitability be shaped by their immediate context.
This approach has helped Nick to explore how, in a culture influenced by Platonic thought, the idea of testing would be unavoidably associated with evil. James therefore doesn’t describe God as testing people and instead traces the source of evil to human desire. The central idea is consistent with the rest of Scripture, yet the language used is shaped by the letter’s context. Nick reflects: ‘By reading James alongside a slightly wider corpus of contemporary literature, we can see how we can account for what otherwise seem to be perplexing features of the text when read against the traditional Jewish background.’
Joe was also keen to stress that James does have a Christology (a theology about Jesus Christ) and so fits in with the overarching gospel narrative of the Bible. The letter begins, ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (James 1:1). ‘Even that is quite significant,’ Joe says. ‘It’s saying that this Jesus Christ is worthy of James’s devotion, that he’s the Lord, that he is Christ, he is the Messiah.’ Joe points out that in the following chapter it says, ‘show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory’ (James 2:1). We see again how, for James, Jesus is the Lord of glory that we know from Scripture, and that James’s view of faith is ultimately orientated around him.
The letter of James is relevant and helpful for Christians in 2023
Both Nick and Joe have been struck by the pattern that James sets out for Christian living in a secular culture. Joe says the letter is ‘really compelling as a vision for how we live in the world.’ Nick too explains, ‘I think Christians are perennially having to ask questions about cultural engagement, and their place within society. [The letter] is a good model for thinking through how we relate to those outside of the Church and in the broader world.’
Throughout our conversation, one theme Joe and Nick both kept returning to was the focus on wealth. James calls for Christians to live distinctively by treating the rich and poor with impartiality (James 2:1-9) and warns against wealth (James 5:1-5). Nick explained that in the society James was addressing, the rich held all the high positions in society, so James saying that Christians should treat people impartially would have gone against the social norm. Joe adds, ‘Many of us in 21st century Britain would fall into James’s category of the rich. And James has a stern word to us: don’t you know this can be really dangerous for your walk with God?’. Nick points out that living in a radically different way to the culture around them would put Christians in a precarious position. But James also encourages them about the benefits they would gain from enduring trials and that it would result in them being perfect, complete, and lacking nothing (James 1:2-4). James offers a compelling vision for Christian living in the modern world, addressing speech, prayer, peacemaking, humility and mercy, and offering a strong call to live distinctly in an age where wealth and social disparities seem to grow ever wider.
From our discussion it was clear that both Joe and Nick have been personally challenged by the persistent relevance of the letter of James. Far from being ‘an epistle of straw’, the letter continues to challenge social norms and offer profound insights for the lives of Christians today. They certainly made a convincing case for why there is still more for future PhD students to study in the letter.