The Law in the Letter of James (Part 2)

James 2:14-26

This is the famous treatise of James on “faith and works”, which I have discussed at length in a recent study (on the Reformation-principle of justification by faith). Commentators continue to debate the relationship between James’ view on “faith and works” and that of Paul. As was discussed in the aforementioned study, Paul, especially in Galatians and Romans, consistently uses the term “works” (e&rga) as a shorthand for “works of the Law” (e&rga no/mou; for the corresponding expression in Hebrew, cf. the Qumran text 4QMMT). By this is expression is meant the dutiful performance or observance of the regulations laid out in the Torah. In the James treatise, however, it is clear that the author does not use the term e&rga in this Pauline sense.

The context of 2:14-26 demonstrates that “works” refer primarily to charitable acts on behalf of God’s people (believers) in their time of need (vv. 15-16, 25). Thus e&rga here does not refer to the Old Testament Law (Torah), except insofar as such acts of care and compassion represent a fulfillment of the “love command”. While it is not certain that the treatise depends on the previous section (vv. 1-13), there is reason to think that the reference to the “love command” in verse 8 informs the discussion in vv. 14-26 as well.

In other words, by acting with love toward believers (“brothers” and “sisters”) in need, we are fulfilling the Law, as it is embodied in the (single) “love command”. James does seem to share—with Paul and the Johannine writings—the understanding that the Law, for believers, is effectively summarized (and embodied) by the command to love. For more on this, cf. the special note on the expression “the royal law” in 2:8.

James 3:13-17

Following the instruction on ‘taming the tongue’ in 3:1-12, the author turns from the tongue (speech) to the heart—that is, the underlying intention (and impulse) that leads to the things we say and do. In this regard, it is worth considering how James views the means by which one controls the tongue (i.e., how one speaks). The motifs of the bit/bridle used to control a horse, or the rudder that steers a ship, are traditional, and can be found in a wide range of Greco-Roman philosophical and wisdom texts. It is especially common in Stoic authors, and is perhaps best exemplified by Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish contemporary of James); see, for example, his lengthy statement in On the Special Laws III.223ff (for other references, cf. Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 186-190).

According to this line of philosophical argument, it is the mind, or reason, the highest part of the soul, that is able to curb the lower passions and base impulses. For James, and from the early Christian standpoint, it is the soul (and mind) that is conformed to the Divine Wisdom, as represented especially by the teaching and example of Jesus. In verses 13ff, the author contrasts the Wisdom “from above” (a&nwqen) with the ‘wisdom’ that is earthly (“upon the earth,” e)pi/geio$). The heavenly, spiritual Wisdom is characterized by gentleness and humility (prau+/th$, etc), and the speech and conduct of believers should demonstrate such Wisdom. A person’s “works” (actions) will come naturally out of a habitual behavior that is imbued with the Wisdom of God. The term for this ‘habitual behavior’ is a)nastrofh/, which literally means “turn up,” i.e., turn/move about. The true believer will live and move in accordance with God’s wisdom.

The main point, in terms of our study here, is that the guidance is internal (coming from within the person), rather than governed through external means (i.e., laws/regulations that are imposed from without). Though the Spirit is not specifically mentioned in this context, there are general parallels with the contrast, between heavenly and earthly wisdom in vv. 13-17, and Paul’s famous treatment of the “fruit of the Spirit” (vs. the “works of the flesh”) in Gal 5:16-24. For James, the locus of this ethical conflict is in the heart (v. 14), though there is certainly still a place for external teaching (especially that which reflects Jesus’ teaching) in helping Christians develop a pattern habitual thought and behavior that is guided by Wisdom.

James 4:7-10

The author’s ethical instruction continues, along much the same lines, in the next section (4:1-12). The righteous (believers) are contrasted with those who remain rooted in the world and follow the worldly passions. The key verb is e)piqume/w, which means to have one’s impulse (qu/mo$) upon (e)pi/) something; in English idiom, we would say, ‘have one’s heart set upon’ something. The worldly (= ‘earthly,’ cf. above) impulses are directed toward various kinds of sensual pleasure (h(donh/), which, when unchecked, ultimately leads to sinful and violent behavior.

Again, the source of this conflict is within the person. Here, instead of the term “heart” (kardi/a), the word pneu=ma (“spirit”) is used (v. 5). This is not a specific reference to the Holy Spirit, but to the traditional philosophical idea of the ‘higher part’ of the soul; or, framed in more dualistic terms, it is the good part (the “good spirit”) that is in conflict with the “evil spirit”. It was instilled by God as pure and good, but is attacked, and can be corrupted, by the impulse toward sin and evil.

James goes no further than this traditional idiom, and no systematic treatment of the soul, the effect of sin, and what is changed for believers in Christ, is offered here. Even the exhortation that follows in verses 7-10 is traditional in orientation, and is framed in general religious terms that would be accepted by Jews and Christians alike. Two verbal imperatives introduce the instruction in verse 7: u(pota/ssw (“be under order”) and a)nqi/sthmi (“stand against”). The first verb indicates the believer’s relationship to God: to be (or put onself) under order to God—which may be explained as the order of things as God has arranged it. The second verb refers to the opposite: the believer’s relationship to the Devil. This exhortation to “stand against” the Devil is also found in 1 Peter 5:5.

For Israelites and Jews, the primary way that one puts himself/herself under order to God (vb u(pota/ssw) is by faithfully observing all that God commanded in the regulations, etc, of the Torah. James, like many early Christians, has clearly generalized and internalized (or spiritualized) this dynamic. One is to “come near” to God, and thereby cleanse (vb kaqari/zw) and make oneself holy (i.e. pure, vb a(gni/zw). The wording in verse 8b likely alludes to Psalm 24:4, combining the idea of clean hands (action/behavior) and a pure heart (intention/thought/desire).

The adjective “two-souled” (di/yuxo$) is parallel with “sinner” (a(martw/lo$), and characterizes the wicked worldly ones as those whose own (good) spirit is influenced (and corrupted by) the evil spirit. This also suggests a person who is of “two minds”, with a tendency to upright, but also to sinful, thought and behavior. In the Testament of Asher (3:1) this is described as “having the face of goodness and the face of wickedness”; the terminology is part of a traditional Jewish ethical instruction that was inherited by early Christians (cf. Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 226-7).

James 4:11-12

The answer for Christians, with regard to how they/we are to respond in the face of such ethical conflict, again has an inward focus. This begins in verse 9 with the exhortation to mourn and weep, suggesting an attitude of repentance. The wording is similar to Jesus’ Woe in the Lukan Beatitudes (6:21, 25), in which case it derives from an original message of judgment (against the wicked). But this simply reflects the ‘reversal of fortune’ motif in such ethical instruction: i.e., the one who mourns now will rejoice in the end (and vice versa). In other words, the righteous person who mourns for his/her sin and suffering now will not come to mourn in the final Judgment.

Along with this attitude of repentance, the believer should have a spirit (and mind) of lowness (tapeino/$) and humility “in the sight of the Lord”. The teaching in verse 10 is proverbial, and may reflect the saying of Jesus in Matt 23:12 par.

A more direct command is given in verses 11-12, along with a shift back to the theme of the tongue (i.e., our speech/speaking). Clearly, the tendency to speak evil reflects a conflict (and corruption) in the heart. The specific verb used here is katalale/w, “speak against,” or “speak down (on)”. While the proper meaning is general—that is, speaking evil against someone (in any manner)—it can also have the more technical sense of slandering someone. It is typically included as part of traditional sin/vice lists (cf. 1 Peter 2:1-2, 12), and is especially significant as being representative of the (non-violent) evil that can be directed against another person.

It is this representative character of “speaking evil” that explains the author’s comments that follow in vv. 11-12. James treats this sin as a particularly egregious attack against the Law itself. Let us see how he phrases the matter:

“You must not speak against one another, brothers. The (one) speaking against a brother, and (thus) judging his brother, speaks against (the) Law and judges (the) Law; but if you judge (the) Law, you are not a doer of (the) Law, but a judge.” (verse 11)

By speaking against another person, one speaks against the Law, which essentially means that such a person brings judgment against the Law, putting himself/herself in the role of a judge. But since God is the source of the Law, such a person essentially puts himself/herself as judge in place of God—which would be the height of wickedness. While this certainly involves a bit of rhetorical hyperbole by the author, the basic point is clear enough, and generally follows the early Christian tendency to epitomize the entire Law in the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18). We see a similar general principle expressed in the Testament of Gad 4:1f, where sin against another person (summarized as “hatred”) is especially egregious, since

“…it works lawlessness even against the Lord Himself. For it will not hear the words of His commandments concerning the loving of one’s neighbour, and it sins against God.” (Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 228-9; transl. Charles)

The fact that this situation described by James involves speaking evil against another believer (“brother”) strongly indicates that the term “law” (no/mo$) here refers specifically (and especially) to the “love command” —that is, the Law as it now applies to believers in Christ (cf. the earlier note on 2:8). The final warning in verse 12 reinforces how serious a matter such “evil speaking” is.

James 4:17

One final verse should be considered, at least briefly, in our study. It is the maxim given by the author in 4:17:

“Therefore (the one) having seen (what is) fine [i.e. good] to do, and (yet) does not do (it), it is sin for him.”

It ties the idea of sin to the failure to perform certain actions. This could well be seen as reflecting a traditional Jewish understanding of the Torah regulations as binding (obligatory) requirements. A failure to perform (or observe) any of these requirements represented a fundamental sin, and a violation of the covenant that had to be rectified (through ritual means). As we have seen, such a view of the Torah does not appear to be in view for the James (and the Jewish Christians to whom he is writing). However, is it possible that he still has in mind a certain set of obligatory commands, involving things that must be done?

Most of the ‘commands’ and exhortations provided by the author are framed as negative prohibitions (“do not…,” “you must not…”), and these tend to relate in some way to teachings of Jesus, such as those recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (on the parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount, cf. the list in Part 1). A good example of this is the prohibition against swearing oaths in 5:12, which almost certainly represents a version of Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:34ff, also recorded separately in other early Christian writings (e.g., Justin, First Apology 16.5).

As far as positive actions are concerned, these are more or less subsumed under the “love command”, called the “royal law” in 2:8, and properly represents the Law of Christ, the perfect “law of freedom” (1:25). As I have noted, the letter of James shares with other early Christians the emphasis on the “love command” as an embodiment (for believers) of the entire Old Testament Law. While this effectively reduces the Torah regulations to a single command, it involves a principle that relates to virtually every area of the believer’s life.

Where James differs from other New Testament authors, is in his tendency to preserve the context of the love-principle, within the teaching of Jesus—which he frequently quotes or makes allusion to (without necessarily stating that it comes from Jesus), in a manner that Paul, for example, does not. He essentially treats these as authoritative teachings, but as part of a wider ethical and religious instruction that is to be internalized, until it becomes an integral and habitual part of one’s thought and action. While James (and his audience) may have possessed an authoritative collection of sayings, similar to the Sermon on the Mount (of which there are numerous parallels and allusions in the letter), there is no indication that these were thought of as anything like a law-code that would take the place of the Torah. The work known as the “Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]” (Didache), in its early chapters, comes closer to that kind of treatment of Jesus’ teachings, but I do not find it present in the letter of James.

References marked “Dibelius-Greeven” above are to Martin Dibelius, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, revised by Heinrich Greeven, translated by Michael A. Williams. Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1975).

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