How to Read James Theologically
Why should anyone care about the little letter of James? Didn’t Martin Luther call it “a right strawy epistle” and think that it didn’t “preach Christ” enough? Answers come readily. If you care about (A) how to deal with trials and temptations, if you ever need (B) God’s wisdom, especially for the right words in a difficult situation, or if you have any questions about (C) responding to poverty and wealth in our world or in your life, you should care about James. After all, these are his three most recurring topics.
The Structure of James
The structure of James has puzzled readers, but a growing number of commentators recognize that, after greetings in his opening verse, chapter 1 presents these three themes in two cycles (1:2-11; 1:12-27). Verses 2-4 call us to have joy within trials; verses 5-8, to ask God for wisdom who will give it to us generously; and verses 9-11, to understand the spiritual reversal of those who are economically poor or rich. Verses 12-18 outline how external circumstances can turn from trials to temptations to sin based on our response to them. Verses 19-26 expand on wisdom in the area of speech, illustrating how to be quick to listen but slow to speak or become angry. Verse 27, finally, defines true religion as including a right response to the most dispossessed of society. Some have suggested that verse 27 also forms the thesis statement for the entire epistle.
There is less agreement on the outline for the rest of the book, but a plausible case can be made for James cycling back through the three key themes once more, this time in reverse order. All of chapter 2 can be seen as related to the issue of rich and poor. Verses 1-13 are clearly about not showing favoritism to the rich or discriminating against the poor. Then, the famous passage on faith and works in verses 18-26 actually grows out of a blistering indictment of believers being in a position to help the most extremely needy fellow Christians in their own midst but doing nothing but offering them good wishes (vv. 14-17). In that kind of context, any profession of faith proves vacuous.
Chapter 3:1-12 discusses the dangers of the tongue, while verses 13-18 contrast wisdom from God with that which is of the world, the flesh and the devil. Once again speech and wisdom are linked. The misuse of one’s speech in anger recurs in 4:1-12.
While money matters reappear in the last part of the letter, 4:13-5:18 can also be viewed as returning to the theme of trials and temptations. The temptation to try to become rich apart from seeking the Lord’s will appears to beset the traveling merchants in 4:13-17, with 5:1-6 depicting the trials inflicted by the rich unbelievers on the poor, Christian day-laborers. Verses 7-12 provide the proper response to this oppression. Finally, verses 13-18 offer a possible antidote to the trials of severe through prayer and the anointing of oil. Although short and abrupt, verses 19-20 form the letter’s conclusion, commending those who help a wayward Christian come back to the Lord.
Theology and Relevance of James
If this structure is at all on target, then not only does it confirm the three major themes of the letter, it also shows James’ synonymous and inverse parallelism, with the themes occurring in a sequence of ABC, ABC, and then CBA. Both of these forms of parallelism were popular in the ancient Mediterranean world as mnemonic devices, but inverse parallelism (or chiasm) indicates that the central component is the most crucial of all. This would mean that the proper response to wealth and poverty (C) is the book’s single most important topic. A fourth key theme, even if not as central as the three just noted, is prayer, especially as it punctuates chapters 4-5. A unifying motif, which runs like a thread typing each part of the letter together, is God’s simplicity (or singlemindedness) vs. human duplicity, with the injunction to Christians to imitate God in his unrelenting focus on the good (e.g., 1:8, 17; 2:1, 9; 3:9-12; 4:4; 5:12).
The right attitude to riches is crucial in our modern world, so sick with “affluenza”. A correlation can be traced between societies that once were hungry for God and saw many come to Christ only to settle into complacency, and their economic or material growth and prosperity. Jesus’ words that one cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13) should continue to haunt us. As many have observed, American Christianity is 3000 miles wide but only one-inch deep. As John and Sylvia Ronsvalle of empty tomb, inc. in Champaign, IL, have been demonstrating for decades, we have the money to eradicate world poverty and complete world evangelism if American Christians alone would all tithe but our average charitable giving levels vacillate between two and three percent and we spend almost all of it on ourselves.
Dealing with trials well is another extraordinarily weak feature of American Christianity. Christian counselors frequently identify a theology of suffering as what their Christian clients most lack. The health-wealth heresy proves remarkably seductive. People give up their faith because God has not adopted their agendas, which leave no room for heartbreak or for God’s power to be perfected in their weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). First-world Christians medicate themselves at record levels, to the point of addiction, when in fact they have things better, physically speaking, than any generation in human history.
As for wisdom, especially in speech, one needs only listen to political debates or talk-show commentary, or read the never-ending barrage of on-line insults rather than courteous and constructive dialogue, participated in by Christians seemingly as much as by anyone else, to discern our shortcomings here. We even have a president who routinely lies, avoids, and mocks the press, tweets international insults, and some Christians who would never have tolerated such behavior had it come from a different political party alternately downplay its evil or even try to justify it. Meanwhile, the world looks on and rejects Christianity because it believes that we are inextricably aligned with such hate-speech.
Prayer is likewise anemic in most church gatherings, limited to perfunctory opening and closing remarks. Personal devotions are also on the wane. Is James relevant? Whose alleged faith, lacking deeds of Christian mercy, is actually dead? Might millions of people who still check the box “Christian” when census-time comes, maybe even among those who still go to church with some regularity, , maybe even among so-called evangelical churches, in fact not be saved at all? Will we make James’ themes a priority in our preaching and teaching? It was Calvin who stressed that though we are saved by faith alone, the faith that saves is not alone. Genuine faith transforms one’s life, at least to some degree, in each of these areas. If there is no significant difference between the lifestyles of the believer and the non-believer in the issues James stresses, we have every reason to question whether the Spirit of God has ever taken up residence in that supposed believer.