Summarizing the Theology of James


Divided Loyalties
The best place to begin describing the thought of James is with the concept of "double mindedness" (e.g., 1:6-8):

"Let him [or her] ask in faith, doubting nothing. For the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven by the wind and tossed. Do not let that person think that he [or she] will receive something from the Lord--a man with two souls, unstable in all his ways."

We shouldn't think of this as honest doubt. This is a person whose loyalties are divided between God and the world. In other words, maybe we should read James 4:1-10 first before we reach our final understanding of 1:6-8:

4:4--"Adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is to be an enemy of God? Therefore, whoever wants to be a friend of the world constitutes an enemy of God."

4:8--"Purify your hearts, two souled ones."

Who are these "two souled ones," these "double minded"? They are those whose "battles" and "warings" come from "your passions waring in your members" (4:2). "You ask and you do not receive because you ask wrongly, so that you might spend [the answers] on your pleasures" (4:3).

Clearly James does not view this situation as a hopeless situation. Indeed, the double minded person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord, except perhaps to lose their "life" in death (5:20). We would thus be wrong to connect this language with 3:2--"we all stumble much."

But we should connect these comments with 1:13--

"let no one being tempted say, 'I am tempted by God' ... Each person is tempted when he [or she] is dragged off and enticed by his [or her] own desire. Then when desire has conceived it bears sin..."

We should not think of this as inevitable in James' thought. This is still the person whose passions, whose desires indicate a divided loyalty between God and the world.

Double-mindedness underlies James' teaching on all the other major themes in the epistle. So the double-minded person praises God and curses others from the same mouth (3:9). The double-minded person takes his or her wisdom from below rather than above (3:15). The double-minded person is tempted to rely on the rich for his or her patronage rather than from God above, the giver of every good and perfect gift (1:17). This person's "faith" is little different from that of the demons--it does not issue in action (2:19).

The Rich
A significant amount of Jesus material seems to underlie James. One such teaching, although James does not mention it, is Jesus' saying that "You cannot serve God and wealth." James has very strong words to say against the rich.

1:9-11--"Let the humble brother boast in his exaltation. But the rich person in his humilitation, for like a flower of grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with heat and dries out the grass and its flower falls off and the beauty of its face perishes."

As with the introductory comment on double-mindedness, we best understand what this opening comment on the rich is about by turning to later comments in the epistle:

2:6-7--"But you have dishonored the poor. Are not the rich the ones exploiting you and dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the good name which was invoked over you?"

These comments remind me 1 Corinthians 6 and Romans 2:24. It of course seems unlikely that James would have known of 1 Corinthians unless the epistle is pseudonymous. Was it really widespread that the rich dragged Christians into court? Or perhaps this is more a statement of James' experiences in Jerusalem than of widespread practices in the Diaspora?

In any case, we see in this comment the connection between double-mindedness and the trials of which James speaks in 1:2. The trials that James primarily seems to have in mind are trials brought on by the wealthy and the double-mindedness he primarily has in mind is the temptation to rely on them, the earthly rather than on our true Patron, God:

1:16-17--"Do not err, my beloved brothers, every good giving and every perfect gift is from above, descending from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning."

The double-minded person is not true to the "word of truth" that God has implanted within them (e.g., 1:18, 21). This seems to be Stoic imagery of the logos seeds in each one of us (probably an indication that at the very least, James has had some significant help in drafting this Greek epistle).

The rest of James of course has nothing good to say about the rich. 2:1-13 is about showing favoritism to the rich over the poor. The double-minded person does not have their priorities right. They should rather be following the kingdom law of loving their neighbor (2:8), showing mercy (1:13), helping poor, widows, and orphans (1:27), not judging (11-12), quarreling and warring (4:1), or grumbling against each other (5:9).

Rich merchants do not rely on God. They do not have an attitude that says, "If the Lord wills, I will do such and such." Rather they make their own plans and think their life is in their own power (4:13-16). Here we think of some Jesus material like Luke 12:13-21. Hopefully, James does not have Paul in mind, who was a merchant who went and spent a year in such and such a city!

Rich landowners abuse those who work for them, failing to pay them their wages (5:1-6). Here James surely alludes to situations in Palestine in particular. I suspect that the leaders of Jerusalem are most in his mind, and the killing of the "righteous one" is either an allusion to Jesus or, if pseudonymous, perhaps even an allusion to the murder of James himself by the high priest (which of course would also imply that deception was not involved).

There is hope for the double-minded person who errs by relying on the earthly, the animal, the devilish (cf. 3:15). Brothers can bring back the sinner who wanders from the truth in these ways, save them from death, and cover their sins (5:19-20). 5:13-18 point out that prayer and the fellowship of the synagogue are means for restoration from sin and sickness that comes from sin.

From 2:6-7 above we can infer that the primary source of trial in James' mind is oppression by the rich. Although James 1:3 is valid no matter what the source of external hardship or persecution, the epistle of James seems to have oppression by the rich particularly in view.

1:3-4--"Consider it all joy, my brothers, whenever you fall into various testings, since you know that the proving of your faith produces endurance."

This opening theme peeks out at 2:6-7, as we mentioned, and then returns near the close of the letter just as it appeared at the beginning. 5:10-11 returns to the topic of suffering and uses Job as an example (some suggest the Testament of Job might have influenced James' picture of Job, since in Job itself Job does grumble a bit about his suffering).

Wisdom from Above
The person in trial can seek wisdom, true wisdom, to endure:

1:5--"If someone of you lacks wisdom, let him/her ask from God who gives to all genuinely and does not reproach [for asking] and it will be given to him."

The context of the double-minded person is invoked in the next verse of the person who doesn't really what true wisdom or God's patronage but tries to be friends with the world and its patronage as well (cf. 4:4). The double-minded person envies and has worldly ambition (3:14). That is earthly wisdom, not true wisdom.

3:15-18--"This is not the wisdom coming down from above but is earthly, animal, demonic. For where there is jealousy and discord, there is disorder and every wicked deed. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, genuine. And the fruit of righteousness sows in peace to those who make peace."

This verse reminds us of the beatitude about peacemakers, as well as of 1:20, which has already warned that anger does not produce the righteousness of God. So wisdom here is about a certain kind of behavior more than a particular kind of understanding. Wisdom from above is about loving one's brother and not about worldly ambition or favoritism to the wealthy.

Words and Deeds
Finally, all of the themes we have mentioned above connect to perhaps the best known feature of James--its emphasis on deeds that live out a person's words. The double-minded theme again lies in the background here. The double-minded person says that they are serving God but in fact his or her true loyalty actually lies with the world. They are hearers of the word implanted in them but not doers (1:22).

Their wisdom is like the wisdom of the demons (cf. 3:15), who believe in one God, but are still scared of the judgment that is to come for them (2:19). The double-minded person may say praises to God with his or her tongue, but the "cursing" of their brothers and sisters shows that they are not fully loyal to God (3:10).

2:14-26 thus has the famous teaching of James on the importance of our deeds matching our words. It is not enough to "say" the right content of faith but faith that counts is faith that leads to action. Luther's sparring with James over justification by faith has unfortunately made it difficult for us to hear these verses in the context of James itself. It does seem likely that Paul stands somehow in the background of these words (are we really do suppose that James and Paul both came to use Genesis 15:6 to make opposite points by coincidence?).

But James' point is not primarily to spar against Paul or, more accurately, a perverted version of Paul. James' point is that it is a person who is double-minded and friends with the world for whom deeds of concrete love do not follow from faith. The person for whom this is not true is not justified in God's "court." This is a soul headed for death (5:20).

James' teaching on the tongue in 3:1-12 takes us one step further. If 2:14-26 is about our deeds matching our words, James 3 takes us the rest of the way in critique of our words themselves. We can suspect that the double-minded person's words are not even so right as they might think.

So all these themes--trials from the rich, the need for heavenly wisdom to face them properly, the need for a faith that leads to concrete, loving action toward brothers and sisters in need rather than envy and selfish ambition--all these themes relate to the danger of double-mindedness and divided loyalties, friendship with the world and living out of our passions and desires rather than from the word implanted within us. Far from a random collection of unrelated wisdom sayings, the book of James presents us with layers of interrelated themes.