Does the letter of James have a unified theme?

James-the-JustThe letter of James is popular and potent, combining vivid and memorable imagery with a directness of command and application. But it also offers a number of striking puzzles:

  • Why does it not refer to the basic elements of Christian faith that you might expect, like the cross, the resurrection and the Holy Spirit?
  • How can we understand its structure and flow of argument, given that chapter 1 offers an overview of issue, and the following chapters revisit these issues, but not in the same order?
  • How do we reconcile its configuration of faith and works, which appears at times to contradict comments that Paul makes on the same issue?
  • What kind of literature is it? It has some hallmarks of wisdom literature, yet includes an eschatological perspective, and corresponds closely with some of the teaching of Jesus—all in the form of a circular letter.
  • Does it have a unifying theological theme?

Following the ideas of Richard Bauckham, who argues that James is echoing the ‘wisdom’ teaching of Jesus, I suggest that the central confession from James 1.17 and James 2.19 that God is one and unchanging offers a unifying theological theme. The unity, or integrity, that God has is the goal (telos) of Christian maturity.

The idea of ‘being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5.48) is an important theme in the New Testament.

  • teleios (complete, mature, perfect) occurs 19 times in NT, including James 1.4, 17, 25, 3.2.
  • teleio (to bring to completion, to finish) occurs 23 times in the NT (including a summarizing of Jesus’ work on the cross) and James 2.22.
  • telos (end, aim, purpose) occurs 40 times in the NT and in James 5.11.

Since word teleios occurs only once in the body of the text, it is worth asking the question: ‘What does perfection look like for James?’ Perhaps the answer is ‘oneness’ or integrity or unity.

The Unity of God

The confession that ‘God is one’ (from Deut 6.6) was and is central to Jewish belief, and occurs near the middle of James (James 2.19). This belief is worked out in the notion that God is unchanging (James 1.17, which includes one of the occurrences of teleios in James), since there are not two sides to God, a dark side and a light side, but one. It is also worked out in the idea that it is not God who tempts; God does not (on the one hand) lure us into evil and then reprimand us for not doing good. His purpose for us is consistent—that we should be perfect.

The Unity of Humanity

The reason why the lowly can boast and the proud should be humble (James 1.9–10) is in the face of the great leveller, death—we all share a common mortality, and any distinction made on the basis of temporary, observable features of life which undermines this notion of unity is not to be trusted. The notion of ‘favouritism’ or ‘partiality’ (James 2.1, 9) is expressed by the word prosopolempsias which is relate to the word prosopon (face), that is, partiality involves looking on the outward (face) rather than the inward (heart) and separating the two.

The Unity Within and Among Believers

Trust in God is the opposite of being ‘double minded’ (James 1.7 and 4.8). And in different ways, there is a clear emphasis on the practical unity of believers, not least in confessing to one another and praying for one another (James 5.16).

The Unity of Speech and Thought

The only occurrence of telieos in the body of James comes in relation to the use of the tongue: the one whose speech is under control is perfect (James 3.2). If we speak evil, then we are like a spring that, instead of giving one kind of water, gives two (James 3.11) and this falls short of the perfection to which God calls us.

51RjGaMkm2LThe Unity of Faith and Action

The key emphasis of James in the section on faith and action (James 2.14–26) is that the two belong together. Faith that is real expresses itself in action and that the two belong together; for Abraham, ‘faith was active along with his works’ (James 2.22). There is no sense here of James opposing the one with the other—rather, the opposite. Interestingly, this is precisely the point at which James again draws on the idea of perfection, in this case in using the verb teleio.

The Unity of Present and Future

Many commentators note how unusual it is for literature focussing on the importance of wisdom and sharing characteristics of ‘wisdom’ literature to have an eschatological focus as James does. But there is a sense in which James is calling for a unity of perception here. If the future shows us what is true, then we need to live in the light of this in the present. Any separation of the present appearance of things and the future reality of things is misleading. The future stands on the doorstep of the present (James 5.9) as indeed Jesus proclaims in his first preaching.

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3 thoughts on “Does the letter of James have a unified theme?”

  1. Since working with the Orthodox Church in Romania I often think that the difficulties we have with some of the New Testament arise from our western forensic categories of thinking and theology. Putting the literature back into its cultural and literary context can cause these difficulties to disappear and the purposeful structure of the original to clarify.

  2. Well reasoned.

    Thanks for posting the link at M. Malcolm’s blog.

    I really appreciate how you’ve brought to fore the “perfection” theme in James, and connecting it to Matthew 5 is really necessary, in my mind.

    It’s interesting how the ???- language ends up playing such a big part in the catholic epistles, particularly James and 1 John.

    • Thanks Geoff. I do think it is important…though still haven’t decided at what level it functions (exegetical, theological, canonical or something else).

      Sorry my blog does not support other languages. What was the word in your comment?


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