Johnson on Theology and Ethics in the Letter of James

Yesterday, I was looking at Luke Timothy Johnson’s “EPILOGUE: The Importance of James for Theology” in his collection of essays, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004). I don’t think I ever read this essay when I bought the book after it first came out. I was pleased to see that one of the main arguments of my current M.A. thesis on coherence and discourse structure in James agrees with Johnson’s discussion (pp. 246-8) of James’s theology.

Most distinctive in James’s understanding of God (as patristic interpreters and Kierkegaard perceived) is that God is the giver of gifts. James makes the point three times. In 4:6, James takes from the text of Proverbs 3:34 (“God resists the proud but gives grace to the lowly”) the lesson that “God gives more grace” (meizona de didōsin charin). That this is neither a random nor a careless observation is shown by James’s very first statement concerning God in 1:5, that God “gives to all simply (haplōs) and without grudging (mē oneidizontos).” Finally, there is the programmatic statement in 1:17, “every good and perfect gift comes down from above from the father of lights with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration.” Taken together, these three statements assert that God’s giving is universal, abundant, without envy, and constant. Such a view of God is the basis for James’s perception of reality as God’s creation, open to his constant care but also answerable to God as the source of all that is good. This view of God is, in turn, the deep premise for James opposing an ethics of solidarity to the logic of envy, for in the first the world is construed as an open system in which cooperation makes sense, while in the second the world is considered a closed system in which competition is demanded.

This theme of God giving is implicitly in the letter a lot more than what Johnson states, and even with the “give” terminology in 5:18 (where heaven “gave” in response to Elijah’s prayer). I love how Johnson develops this discussion of God’s gifts in terms of the world being an open system where God’s gifts oppose a closed system where we would have to compete in envy with one another.

Because God does not exist in isolation from the world but is in constant and active relationship with the world, human existence is defined in terms of a story in which both God and humans play roles. The story has as its past what God has already done: created the world and humans as representatives (“first-fruits”) of that creation; revealed his will in the law and the prophets and “the faith of Jesus Christ”; implanted in humans the “word of truth” and “wisdom from above” and “spirit.” The story has as its future what God will do in response to human behavior within God’s creation: God will judge the world; will reward the innocent and faithful and persevering, who have spoken and acted according to “the royal law of liberty.” And God will punish the arrogant and oppressive who blaspheme the noble name by their aggressive and hostile attitudes and actions against God’s people. The present of the story-line is found in the moral decisions made by James’s readers, above all their choice to live as friends of the world or as friends of God (4:4).

Relating what God has done and will do in the past and future to our present moral decisions is exactly what I do in my thesis. Most people think of James in terms of the imperative wisdom ethics. But this cannot be separated from the indicative statements about God.

It is of first importance, then, to understand that James does not “do theology” in an abstract manner, as a form of speculation about or study of God. Rather, James uses his theological propositions precisely as warrants and premises for his moral exhortation. His statements about God and his commands do not sit side by side in accidental juxtaposition. The two kinds of statements are intimately related. In James’s 108 verses, there are some 59 imperatives (46 in the second person, 13 in the third person). And these imperatives are almost always accompanied by explanations or warrants, for which James uses participial constructions (1:3, 14, 22; 2:9, 25; 3:I), gar clauses (1:6, 7, 11, 13, 20, 24; 2:11, 13, 26; 3:2, 16; 4:14), and hoti clauses (1:12, 23; 2:10; 3:1; 4:3; 5:8, 11). The commandments are also sometimes connected to purpose clauses (1:4; 5:9) or used in the context of an implied argument signified by the use of oun (4:4, 7; 5:7, 16), dio (1:21; 4:6), or houtōs (1:11; 2:12, 17; 2:26; 3:5). In these connections, it is always the theological statement that stands as the cause or the purpose or the motivation or the warrant for the moral action recommended. James’s moral exhortation, in short, is grounded in James’s understanding of how humans are related to God. Because of this, each of the moral exhortations in James invites reflection by readers not only about their own lives—how to translate and perform James’s script in the texture of their actual existence—but also about the nature of the world and of the God who creates, shapes, and saves the world in which humans are invited to participate as a sort of “first-fruits.”

I don’t always agree with everything that Johnson says about the Letter of James, but I resonate with these three paragraphs more than just about anything I have read in Jamesian scholarship.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: