Epistle unaffected by Paul’s theology

An open bible sitting on a rock.
 on November 1, 2016

About the only book in the New Testament not affected by Paul’s theology is the Epistle of James. There are several reasons this epistle has avoided Paul’s thoughts. Credited to James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the young church in Jerusalem, it was written very early in the life of the church and is very Jewish in content, dwelling on obedience to God’s law (hearing and then doing). There is also no mention of the passion of Jesus, the resurrection or the Holy Spirit – topics that were so much a part of the early church’s proclamation. In fact, the name of Jesus is mentioned only twice in the five chapters.

The Epistle of James is a series of moral laws and exhortations, typical of much Jewish preaching of the day. Preachers were taught not to dwell too long on any one subject, so they would read out a series of laws with brief commentaries, one after the other. This letter is a good example of that Rabbinic style.

Perhaps the epistle was a sermon preached especially to those Jewish Christians who were on the verge of fleeing Jerusalem during the first wave of persecution and the beginning of the dispersion, and James was trying to encourage them to lead a moral life in exile. This would place the letter very early in the life of the church, perhaps as early as 40 CE – before Paul’s writings were in circulation. The main theme of this letter was to be “doers of the word and not hearers only. Faith without works is dead.” This is very different from Paul’s talk about being justified by faith alone.

This little epistle is experiencing a renewed existence in the life of the church, especially with the rebirth of healing ministry so much in evidence today. It is in James that we read those beautiful words, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over you, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick” (James 5:14).

This demonstrates quite clearly the practice of the first-century church. It has also become the practice of the 21st-century church and the church throughout the ages. Many Christians today are practising the same ministry given by Jesus to the first Christians and passed on to us.

How do we reconcile Paul and James? Let us look briefly at St. Paul’s “justification by faith.” Although it is mentioned in a number of epistles, the most complete summary of his theological position is found in the first seven chapters of his Epistle to the Romans. However, if I know that I am saved by my belief in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, then good works should naturally follow. If Jesus is my saviour, I must do something about the poor and disadvantaged in our midst. If I know I am saved by my belief in Jesus Christ, my response must be to help others come to this belief too. Thus I am called to be an evangelist or a witness to the saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We need to remember that Paul’s letters are occasional documents, written at various times and places to address specific issues. Much of the time he is handling emergencies, addressing practical problems and misunderstandings, responding to threats and defending himself against his enemies. He often assumes rather than explains the details of his teachings. His letter to the Romans is a fortunate exception to this general rule. It comes very close to a formal treatise, expounding Paul’s view of the Gospel.

Perhaps that is why Paul expands so thoroughly on justification by faith in Jesus Christ in his letter. This is central to his proclamation and has affected theologians throughout the ages, from Augustine to Martin Luther to more modern-day theologians like Paul Tillich. Dare we ignore this topic? I trust you have enjoyed this dialogue with Paul, our first Christian theologian.


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