Reading James: The Challenge
“I’m really struggling to preach about Jesus from the book of James.”
A Sunday School teacher at our church recently approached me about the topic. The class is enjoying the book, and so is the teacher, but it’s become apparent that it’s hard to “get to Jesus” through typical exegetical methods. “I feel like every week I preach Christ the same way: ‘James commands us to do this or that, I consistently fail to do this or that, and so Jesus forgives me for this or that.’ Am I missing something?”
No. And Yes.
On the one hand, “no,” this Sunday School teacher is not missing something. It’s difficult to “get to Jesus” in James precisely because James doesn’t talk much about Jesus. Missing something? Quite the contrary; by respecting the tone and tenor of the text, and by attempting to match that tone and tenor in the teaching, something very important is happening: James is being respected as a unique and valuable witness to the faith.
On the other hand, it’s likely that “yes,” several things are missing, but nothing that can’t be recovered by a “due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1.7). To be more specific, it’s likely that a greater appreciation of the genre and literary style of James will result in a fuller understanding of the Christology of the book.
In other words (and here we come to the thesis of this series of posts): a natural and exegetical reading of James presents the modern reader with certain challenges, but in the end it’s precisely these challenges that function as the very hermeneutical clues that direct the reader to the Gospel in James: the “royal law” of Jesus Christ is the “implanted word,” and that word has in turn “brought us forth…that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures” (Jas. 2:8; 1:18, 21).
We begin this series, then, with an examination of the challenges in James. Those challenges will provoke us to reconsider the genre and literary character of the book, which in the end will serve to indicate for us its Christological substructure.
The Challenges of Reading James
I’ve written elsewhere that the key to understanding any particular book of the Bible is, first and foremost, to read the entirety of the book in a natural and ordinary way (which is harder than it sounds: part 1, part 2). Try to read it as if you are reading it for the first time, paying attention to the things that make it interesting and unique. Then sit back and answer some “forest” level questions. What was the book about? Describe its style. The tone. The flow. How did the author go about making his or her point? How was this book similar to other books you have read, and how was it different?
When you do this with James, a couple of things likely jump out at you from the very beginning. There are a lot of commands in this book! It all sounds very demanding and authoritative. It’s very much focused on our behavior, on what we do and why we do it. At times it even sounds quite harsh, for example by condemning hypocrites and evildoers (Jas. 2:8-9, 19; 5:1-6), or by ridiculing folly and sinful behavior (4:13-17). Some might even accuse James of being legalistic—in fact, many have made just this accusation, even going so far as to warn people against reading this book. We will want to challenge this conclusion, but before doing so we need to recognize another aspect of the epistle.
In addition to being more focused on our behavior than other books of the Bible, James also seems less focused on what we generally consider to be “the gospel.” James seems to have an over-abundance of commands and a simultaneously short-supply of Christology. You may have noticed as you were reading that there are only two places where Jesus is explicitly mentioned (1:1 and 2:1), and both of them are (seemingly) in passing. There is no extended Christological discussion like those we find in Paul (Eph. 1, Rom 3:21-6:23), nor does Christology appear to be part of the theological logic of the epistle, as we might argue for other highly imperatival-heavy books like Philemon, Hebrews, or 1 Peter. Additionally, there is no discussion of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life; instead James extols the power of the “royal law,” “the perfect law, the law of liberty,” and “the word of truth” (Jas. 2:8, 1:25, 1:18).
The challenge here should not be underestimated. We are not imagining things when we see these differences, and so we shouldn’t pretend like they don’t exist. It’s easy when reading a book that challenges your assumptions to treat its unexpected features as problems to be solved, or even to ignore them entirely, but in reality what you have here is a gift. Far from being problems, these kinds of observations are precisely the kinds of things that help us to understand James better.
The Irony of the Problem
The “difficult” sections of James are the keys to their own resolution. The heavy focus on imperatives, the condemnation of hypocrisy, and the confrontational style of James direct the astute reader of the Bible to similar literary precedents: Proverbs, prophetic judgement, and Jesus’ own teaching.
How do the similarities (and differences) between James and these other Biblical documents help us resolve the problem? Because genre and style matter. And we will turn to that topic in our next post in the series.