Chapter 6: James

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 6: James

The Gospel of Christian Action

The Letter of James has always had a kind of question mark against it. Eusebius, the great Church historian, made in the fourth century an investigation of what might be called the status of the books which the Church used, and as a result classified them as those which were universally accepted and those which were disputed. Amongst the disputed he lists James. "It is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it." He refers to "the so-called Letter of James" as being among the disputed writings, "which nevertheless are recognized by many" (The Ecclesiastical History 2:23.46; 3:25.3). Jerome, the great Latin scholar who in the fifth century was responsible for the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate, in his brief biography of James, says: "James wrote a single Letter . . . and even this is claimed by some to have been published by someone else under his name, and gradually, as time went on, to have gained authority" (Lives of Illustrious Men 2). The Letter of James was not even translated into Syriac until the middle of the fifth century AD. It is not that the early Church questioned the value of the Letter of James, but it did question its authorship.

Doubtless all such criticisms would have had very little effect on the later acceptance of the Letter; but what really did affect the status of James was Luther's series of adverse verdicts upon it. Luther indicated the inferior value he set on four books of the NT by the very way in which he printed the index page of his New Testament. He put Hebrews, James, Jude and the Revelation into a little group by themselves, separated from the others by a space, and, unlike the others, unnumbered. This printing lay-out was followed in the English versions of Tyndale (1525), Coverdale (1535), Matthew (1537) and Taverner (1539). The first English Bible to print the books of the NT in their present order, which is the order of the Vulgate, was the Great Bible (1539), which was followed by the Bishops' Bible (1568), and by the Authorized Version (1611).

But Luther did more than this. He repeatedly in so many words attacked the Letter of James. He wrote in The Preface to the New Testament:

In sum: the Gospel and the First Epistle of John, St Paul's Epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians and Ephesians: and St Peter's first Epistle, are the books which show Christ to you. They teach everything you need to know for your salvation, even if you were never to see or hear any other teaching. In comparison with these the Epistle of James is an epistle full of straw (eyn rechte stroorn epistel), because it contains nothing evangelical.

(The reference to 'straw' is from I Corinthians 3:12). He developed this attack in The Preface to the Epistles of St James and St Jude. James is quite in error when he represents Abraham as being justified by works. He has nothing to say of the Passion, the Resurrection, the Spirit of Christ. He mentions Christ only twice. Luther then goes on to give his own principle for the evaluation of any book:

The true touchstone for testing any book is to discover whether it emphasizes the prominence of Christ or not. . . . What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand what does preach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod does it.

This test James does not fulfil. "I", says Luther, "therefore refuse him a place among the writers of the true canon of my Bible." Again in 1527 we find him saying that James "was neither written by an apostle, nor has it the true apostolic ring, nor does it agree with pure doctrine". Philip Melanchthon thought that it was quite possible to harmonize the teaching of James and the teaching of Paul. But in the Table-talk Luther is quoted as saying: "Faith justifies," and "Faith does not justify" are plain contradictions. Whoever can reconcile them, on him will I put my cap, and allow him to call me a fool.' It is quite clear that a book subjected to attacks like this from a man like Luther begins with a handicap, although Calvin was perfectly right when he said that he saw nothing in James to criticize, because it was quite unreasonable to expect every man to present the argument for Christianity and Christ in exactly the same way

When we turn to examine the teaching of the Letter of James, we are immediately confronted with a problem. It is almost impossible to make a connected analysis and scheme of it. In many ways it is easily the most contemporary book in the NT. It might have been written yesterday, and there is hardly a sentence in it which does not speak vividly and directly to today. But it has this characteristic of disconnectedness. That is so because James is not really a letter; it is rather a sermon. It may indeed well have been an actual sermon of James the brother of our Lord, which someone took down, and translated, and issued to the Church at large. The deliberate characteristic of Jewish preaching was disconnectedness. The Jewish Rabbis declared that the preacher must not linger long on any subject, lest he lose the interest of his audience; he must move quickly from one matter to another. Hence one of the Jewish words for preaching is charaz which means stringing beads together. So E. J. Goodspeed says of James: "James is full of gems of religious thought. The question is: How are they related? The work has been compared to a chain, each link related to the one before it and the one after it. Others have compared its contents to beads on a string. . . . Perhaps James is not so much a chain of thought, or beads on a string, as it is just a handful of pearls, dropped one by one into the hearer's mind." This is simply to say that James is a typical Jewish sermon, cast in the form of a letter for the whole Church to read.

The people to whom James wrote were living in a world where it was not easy to be a Christian. They were involved in many a trial (1:2). The trials were not the trials of persecution, which, agonizing though they may be, have nonetheless a certain dramatic, romantic and heroic quality about them. The trials were the trials of men and women who were trying to live the Christian life of mercy, meekness and humility in the midst of an aggressive, self-assertive, competitive and ostentatious society, in which wealth was the touchstone of success. They were confronted with the task of being Christian in a world which was thoroughly worldly. Just because of this there were certain vices and dangers which threatened the life of the Christian in a very special way.

(a) There was a danger which threatened their church life, the danger of what the AV calls respect of person. The RSV calls it partiality, and the NEB, putting it into contemporary language, calls it plainly snobbery. In 2:1-7 there is vividly portrayed what could happen in the Church of those days. When a rich man entered the church he was treated with almost fawning attention, and when a poor man entered, he was treated with complete disregard or open and active contempt. A situation like that was almost bound to arise in circumstances in which it was something of an event for anyone of any social standing to become 2 Christian (I Corinthians 1:26). James is quite certain that there are no distinguished visitors and no very important persons within the fellowship of the Church.

There may well be a further echo of this in James's injunction: "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren" (3:1). It is not improbable that there were too many who sought the prominence and the publicity and the prestige which a preacher and a teacher might enjoy. James was sure that, whenever social or intellectual snobbery enters the Church, the Church ceases to be a fellowship and becomes no more than a copy of the competitive society which is the world.

(b) There was a danger which threatened their business life. They were apt to make plans in which God was left out of the reckoning (4:13-17). They formed their schemes and their plans as if they were masters of time; it never struck them to say, "God willing". In their absorption in the art of making money, they had forgotten God.

(c) There was a danger which threatened their personal life. They were apt to set themselves up as critics and judges of others, forgetting that the function of judgment belongs to God (4:11, 12). He who sets himself up as a judge of his fellow-men usurps that prerogative which belongs to God.

(d) To James the possession of riches came very near to being a sin. There is an Amos-like quality in his denunciation of the rich. Riches are a perishing commodity, as evanescent as the flower doomed to wither in the heat of the sun (1:10, 11). The rich oppress the poor, and drag him into court for debt (2:6, 7). If the rich realized the doom which was inevitably coming upon them, they would be in mourning and lamentation. Their wealth is rotten and rusted because it has been gained at the cost of cheating the labouring man of his wages and killing the righteous man (5:1- 6). It would be difficult for James to believe that great wealth was ever honestly attained.

(e) At the back of all this is the passion in the heart of man (4:1-6). It is this passion of covetousness and desire which drives a man to false ambition and to crime, which sets men at war one with another, and which vitiates even prayer by making prayer selfish. Let them humbly submit to God and courageously resist the devil. Let them acquire real cleanness of hands, real purity of mind, real singleness of heart; let them learn a godly sorrow and penitence which will make them humble before God (4:6-10). And let them not forget that the more knowledge a man has, the greater his responsibility and the greater his guilt if he sins (3:1; 4:17).

(f) The greatest threat of all comes from the tongue (3:2-12). A little bit guides the horse, a little rudder steers the ship, a little spark sets the forest ablaze. Of all living things the tongue alone is beyond taming. The same tongue can bless God and curse men, which is as unnatural as it is for a fountain to produce both sweet and salt water. Let a man control the tongue, and he can control anything. Few men have been more aware of the peril of the uncontrolled tongue than James was.

It is in view of this that James preaches a religion of the most intensely practical character -- and it is precisely that characterstic which will in due time lead us to the main problem of his Letter. True religion is to help the widow and the orphan and to keep oneself untarnished by the world (1:27). A man must be a doer of the word as well as a hearer of it, or his whole religion is an act of self-deception. The so-called wise man must demonstrate his alleged wisdom by showing it in his works. To bring one convert to Christ will cover a multitude of sins (1:22-25; 3:13; 5:19, 20).

But all these passages pale into comparative insignificance beside the almost belligerent passage on faith and works in 2:14-26.

Faith without works is dead, or, as the NEB renders it, faith that does not lead to action is a lifeless thing. What is the sense of expressing pious wishes for the feeding and the warming of a poor brother, and then doing nothing about it? Can anyone show his faith apart from his works? You say, I believe in God; you repeat the creed every day. The devils do the same and even tremble while they do so -- but they are nonetheless devils for all that. Scripture itself shows the connection between faith and works. Abraham had faith in God and because of that faith he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac his son at the call of God; and it was precisely that action which proved the reality of his faith. It was by her action in protecting the Jewish scouts that Rahab was justified. The body without breath is dead; faith divorced from deeds is lifeless. Clearly, James is writing con amore with a passionate belief in what he is saying; and equally clearly James is writing the soundest commonsense. James instinctively sees law and religion walking hand in hand. Religion is the perfect law, the law of liberty, the law that makes men free (1:25). Religion is the royal law, the law that bids a man love his neighbour as himself (2:8).

The obvious question here is, Is James flatly, and perhaps even deliberately, contradicting Paul? Can a man's faith save him? demands James (2:14). Faith if it has no works is dead (2:17). It was Abraham's action in being willing to sacrifice Isaac that saved him (2:21-23). You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (2:24). On the other hand we have Paul saying: "We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28). "A man is not justified by works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ . . . for by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified" (Galatians 2:16). The whole of Romans 4 is written precisely to prove that it was not by any work or works but by faith that Abraham was justified. Is Luther rght? Is there here a flat contradiction which no amount of ingenuity can harmonize? There is no simple answer to this question, but there are certain things which we must note.

1. Jewish religion unquestionably believed that good works did matter and that a man could by his good deeds win the approval of God. "All is according to the amount of work," said Akiba (Sayings of the Fathers 3:19). "It pleased God", said Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashya, "to make Israel able to acquire merit; therefore he multiplied to them Law and commandments." "Let a man", says the Talmud, "regard himself as if he were half-guilty and half-deserving, and then, if he fulfils one commandment, happy is he, for he has inclined the scale to merit; equally one sin will turn the scale the other way" (Kid.40 b). All the blessings are to those who are saved by their works; the righteous trust in them and are heard by God; Hezekiah trusted in his works, and had hope in his righteousness (II Baruch 51:7; 63:3). The righteous who have many good works laid up with God shall out of their deeds receive their reward (II Esdras 8:33). Every man shall find his reward before him according to his works (Sirach 16:14). These good works can even protect others. "Your works", says Baruch, "are to this city a firm pillar and your prayer a strong wall" (II Baruch 1:2). There is even a treasury of merit and the works of the patriarchs and the prophets will be available for their descendants.

But one question has to be asked -- What works? There is no doubt as to the identity of the works in question.

Alms to a father shall not be blotted out,

And as a substitute for sin it shall be firmly planted.

In the day of affliction it shall be remembered to thy credit;

It shall obliterate thine iniquities as the heat the hoarfrost.

(Sirach 3:14)

Give alms of thy substance; turn not away from the face of any poor man, and the face of God shall not be turned away from thee. As thy substance is give alms of it, according to thine abundance; if thou have much, according to the abundance thereof, give alms; if thou have little bestow it, and be not afraid to give alms according to that little; for thou layest up a good treasure for thyself against the day of necessity; because alms delivereth from death, and suffereth not to come into darkness. Alms is a good offering in the sight of the Most High for all that give it.(Tobit 4:7-11)

"Almsgiving", says the Talmud, "is a powerful mediator between the Israelites and their Father in heaven; it brings the time of redemption nigh" (Baba Bathra 10 a).

All this is of the first importance, for it is quite clear that in the highest Jewish thought works are love in action, works are caring for our fellow-men. And the first and the simplest fact about James is that to him works are never works of the Law. He never mentions legalistic piety. His whole mind and heart and intention are fixed on the ethical works of mercy, justice, truth, loyalty, kindness and love. For James works are very nearly exactly what Paul meant by the fruit of the Spirit. James never even hinted that faith was expressed in, or a man justified by, what Paul called works of the Law.

2. It is equally true that James is thoroughly representative of NT thought. It is fruits fit for repentance John the Baptist demands (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8). All the world must see a Christian's good deeds and give the glory to God (Matthew 5:16). Men are known, like trees, by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-21).

No one in fact stressed this more strongly than Paul. Every one of his letters builds up to an ethical climax; his theology always ends in ethics. God will render to every man according to his deeds (Romans 2:6). Every man will give an account of himself to God (Romans 14:12). Every man will receive his own reward according to his labour (I Corinthians 3:8). We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that everyone may receive the things done in his body (II Corinthians 5:10). The Didache speaking of almsgiving says: "If you have something to give, you can through your own hands give a ransom for your souls" (Didache 4).

The ethical stress is an absolutely essential part of NT teaching, and there are many passages in which Paul and James echo each other.

3.And yet the fact remains that there is a difference between the atmosphere of James and the atmosphere of Paul. Luther's reaction is proof enough of that. When all is said and done the emphasis of James is on works and the emphasis of Paul is on faith. What is the cause of this difference? Or, is there a real difference between them? To these questions there are two answers.

(a) It might well be not Paulinism but a perversion of Paulinism against which James's face was set. We have already seen, when we were studying the Gospel in Paul, that there is no easier doctrine to distort than the doctrine of grace; there were those who made grace simply an excuse for easy sinning. And it was always possible to misrepresent Paul into saying that all that mattered was faith and grace and that a man's actions were of no importance whatsoever.

(b) It is even more possible that what roused James's wrath was a misinterpretation of the meaning of the word faith. There are two kinds of faith. There is intellectual faith, in which a man accepts with his mind the mental proposition that something is true, but does not necessarily allow it to have any effect on his actions. And there is total faith, in which a man so commits himself to the confidence that something is true that it affects his whole life. To take a simple example, I believe that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides -- but it makes no difference to me. But I believe that six and six make twelve and I will therefore steadily and strenuously refuse to pay one shilling and two pence for two sixpenny articles. The first kind of belief has no effect on my actions; the second kind of belief affects every one of my actions. This kind of thing can work in a slightly different way. I can believe that a thing is true and I can have a deep-down conviction that I ought to act on it, and yet I can refuse to act on it. Again to take an example, I may believe that the connection between smoking and lung-cancer is established; I may know well enough that I ought to stop smoking; and yet I may continue to smoke. Here again belief has failed to affect action.

Now it may well be that James is preaching against that kind of faith which is academic acceptance of a proposition or even conviction that something is true, without accompanying action. This is certainly not Pauline faith, for, as we have seen, Pauline faith is committal to a person and his promises and demands. But nonetheless the other kind of faith always has been, and is still, tragically common, and James may well be condemning, not Paul, but those who either in ignorance misunderstood, or by design misinterpreted, the Pauline doctrines of grace and faith.

(c) It is maybe even more likely that Paul and James are speaking about different stages of the Christian faith. When Paul said that no man can ever get into a right relationship with God through works he is certainly thin king of the initial step of the Christian life. He is thinking of that moment when a man abandons the vain delusion that he can do something to save himself, and casts himself unreservedly on the mercy and the love of God. In that moment a man well knows that works are irrelevant and that all that matters is the love of God. Now clearly James is thinking of a much later stage in the Christian life; he is thinking of the man who has taken that decision, who has made that committal, and who has set out upon the Christian way. In other words he is thinking in terms of sanctification far more than in terms of justification. We have already drawn the distinction, and here we see the difference in action. It remains for ever true that a man is not saved by works, but he is saved for works. By no means can a man's good deeds save him; but equally by no means can a man be called a Christian if his so-called committal to Christ has had no ethical effect upon his life, for the simple reason that, if there is no ethical effect on his life, his committal is not true committal. With this Paul would whole-heartedly have agreed, for this is the very thing that he kept saying over and over again.

The real fact is that there is no contradiction between Paul and James other than a purely verbal one, and that contradiction only appears if the whole background of thought is neglected. Paul and James are not antithetic and contradictory; they are complementary and mutually completing. They are not to be set over against each other, as if it was a case of "either, or"; they are to be taken together, because it is a case of "both, and". In the beginning works cannot save a man; in the end a man is saved for works The initial movement is a casting oneself on God; the steady progress is an ethical advancement, and in a pagan society James was right, for the Gospel which wins men is the Gospel of practical action which demonstrates that men are redeemed.