In order now to understand and rightly apply the Epistle of James, we must endeavor to form a distinct conception of those to whom it was addressed, and whose peculiar circumstances he had especially in view.
We can, indeed, say nothing definite in regard to the region where these churches are to be sought. The Epistle itself furnishes only general information, sufficient, however, for the practical purposes we have now in view. The essential points are these: There were churches consisting exclusively of Christians of Jewish origin, in which all the practical errors of Judaism were associated with faith in Jesus as the Messiah; and in which there were many, who gave little or no evidence of the new creation which is the necessary product of that faith.
That wholly earthly direction of mind, which was often connected with false zeal for the honor of God; the insatiable love of gain, and consequent divisions from the clashing of selfish interests; these were the faults which they had brought with them from their earlier Jewish state, into their new Christian relation. The aristocracy of wealth held in check the pervading spirit of Christian love, whose office it is to repress and triumph over all earthly distinctions. Instead of being obliterated by that spirit of love, the distinctions caused by the unequal distribution of wealth, were recognized and maintained at the expense of that fraternal relation, which should characterize a community of Christians. Furthermore, it belonged to the defects of this false Jewish spirit, that, instead of regarding piety as a whole, proceeding from the inward temper of the heart and embracing the entire life; it held only to particular observances of the outward life, in which piety should manifest itself, -- that tendency to the external in religion of which we have spoken. This manifested itself in the great value attached to external descent from the theocratic people, to circumcision and the works of the Law, making justification dependent thereon. This same spirit now passed over to the Jewish Christians; and became especially prominent, wherever they had the ascendency in opposition to Gentiles and Gentile Christians.
This tendency was one which, from its very nature, belongs exclusively to no age; it was no mere thing of the past, extinguished with Judaism once for all, and never to reappear in the Christian church. The declaration of the preacher of wisdom is applicable here, -- that |what has been will be, and there is nothing new under the sun.| What we here term the Jewish spirit, had not its origin in anything inherent in Judaism as a divine institution; but is to be referred rather to the nature of the unrenewed man, drawing down the divine to his own level, and seeking to appropriate it to himself without renouncing his own peculiar nature. Now as the nature of the unrenewed man remains ever the same, there must at all times proceed from it this same erroneous tendency, which we may characterize as in its spirit and nature Jewish. This Jewish spirit shows itself equally, when the unrenewed nature of man mingles its disturbing influence with the conception of Christianity. It is seen in the disposition to value one's self on the ground of descent from a Christian people, or from some particular nation distinguished in earlier times for its piety, and on this account assigned a more conspicuous place in the history of God's kingdom; without considering that if his own life does not correspond to the peculiar character and position of such a people, this connection, instead of being his glory, will become his condemnation. So is it also with pretensions based on a father's pious deeds, without any effort to imitate his example. So is it when connection with a particular church is made one's only boast, his sole ground of hope, and no importance is attached to the practice of genuine Christianity; when, in short, in the outward organization of the church, the essence of Christianity itself is forgotten. In each and all of these cases, we perceive the same practical error of the Jewish spirit. So if we base our confidence on a zealous devotion to the external observances of Christian worship, attendance upon divine service, the celebration of the sacraments, without going beyond the outward form; this is in spirit precisely the same, as that Jewish reliance upon circumcision and the works of the Law. The name alone is changed; the thing itself remains the same. Hence all the arguments and warnings against such a tendency, which we find in Paul's Epistles, may be applied with equal propriety to these same practical errors in every age of the church, although the particular forms of it with which he contended may exist no longer.
It does not appear indeed, in the Epistle of James, that he combats this tendency in precisely these forms, as is the case in Paul's writings. Yet is the root, the essential tendency, the same. He is obliged to instruct his readers in the nature of true religion, -- wherein that form of religion, of which they made so much account, must therefore have been deficient. It is only a different form of development which is here treated of; the same radical tendency is too obvious to be mistaken. There were two leading forms of this tendency. One of these consisted in an undue estimation of outward works of the Law. The other exalted the mere knowledge of the Law, of the true God and of what pertains to his worship, into the principal thing; and on the ground of knowledge merely, -- of the mere profession of belief, of faith simply as an act of the understanding, -- claimed superiority over the Gentiles, although the course of life by no means corresponded to this knowledge and outward profession. Paul likewise combats, in the second chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, this false reliance on mere knowledge of the Law. Of the same character was that dead learning in the Scriptures, such as Christ condemned in the Pharisees, who thought that in them they had eternal life, and yet would not be directed by them to him who alone could bestow eternal life. The consequence was, that each one was anxious to gain currency for his own religious views, to set himself up as a teacher for others, without first taking care to mould his own character in conformity with divine truth. Hence arose the contests between these would-be teachers; another form of that bias to the external and the literal, but springing from the same root as those before described, -- no less capable of co-existing with an ungodly life, and of serving as a support for it.
The question now arises, -- does the false idea of faith and the over-estimation of mere faith, which James opposes in this Epistle, belong also to this same radical tendency; or are we to regard it as something different, and derived from another source? Do we find here so clear a reference to the Pauline idea of faith, as to make the conclusion necessary, that the doctrine of justification by faith, as taught by Paul, had been misunderstood and misapplied in these churches? Some might have imagined, that they could glory in justification solely by faith in the Redeemer, while they continued to live in the practice of sin. Against such misunderstanding and perversion, Paul himself seeks to guard his doctrine, in many passages of the Epistle to the Romans. In later times, -- when the doctrine which Paul made it his especial object to maintain in opposition to Judaism and judaizing teachers, had been re-established in its rights by Luther, in opposition to a Jewish spirit which had once more crept into the church; there then followed a new service of the letter, a new phase of this tendency to outward forms, and again the connection between faith and life was rent asunder. Much which James says of this tendency in his day, might be applied to this case with equal propriety.
This question, whether James is here contending against a misapprehension of the Pauline doctrine, or has no reference whatever to it, -- is by no means necessarily connected with the question of the relation of Paul's teaching to that of James. James might have intended to oppose a misunderstanding of Paul's doctrine, -- nay, even the doctrine itself, if he had first met with it in this erroneous form, without previous understanding with Paul in regard to his object; and yet a perfect harmony might be shown to exist between the two methods of exhibiting truth, each serving as the complement of the other. For it may easily happen, when one man has formed, -- in accordance with his peculiar course of training, and the bearing of the counter-view which is before his mind, -- his own peculiar mode of conceiving and stating a truth; that the very opposition made to it by another, conceiving the same truth from a different point of view, may show their essential agreement, -- what was intended to counteract serving only to explain and complete. Thus a representation of Christian truths, even if called forth by opposition to the peculiarly Pauline form of doctrine, might have found place as a completing link, in that collection of writings containing the original pure revelation of Christian truth. Both these forms of conception and teaching might constitute parts of the same whole, as being mutually completive, in the one revelation of the Holy Spirit through different human organs inspired by him. Their relation to each other must therefore be especially considered hereafter.
Now although it is possible that such a form of externalizing, as the one we have mentioned, might attach itself to the Pauline doctrine, and though, as we have seen, this was afterwards actually the case; the question still remains, whether we are justified in assuming this in regard to the particular churches brought to our knowledge in this Epistle. It was in churches like these, formed among Jews and exclusively of Jewish converts, that a perversion of the Pauline doctrine was most unlikely to arise; inasmuch as the Pauline standpoint was one with which they had nothing in common. The Pauline view of faith presupposes the strongly marked distinction between Law and Gospel, a doctrinal position opposed to legal righteousness, to the merit of one's own works. Opposition to the Jewish tendency to externals was the precise ground on which it planted itself; and where that tendency prevailed, a perverted form of this view could as little gain admission as the view itself.
But to resume our question: may not this particular error, -- the false idea of faith and over-estimation of mere faith, -- which James opposes, be also traced back to the same radical tendency? Let us only compare what precedes and what follows the discussion of this topic in the second chapter. It is preceded (chap. i.) by a rebuke of those who founded an imaginary claim on the mere hearing of the word, on the mere knowledge of it, without holding themselves bound to practise it; to which is added the rebuke of a mere fancied and seeming service of God. What now is this but that very same spirit of reliance on the external, which manifests itself in a mere adherence to certain articles of faith, -- faith in the one true God, the Messiah, -- and on this ground alone claims to be righteous, without recognizing the demands of this faith upon the life? As knowledge and practice are at war with each other, so are faith and life. A merely theoretical faith corresponds exactly to a merely theoretical knowledge. The same man, who satisfies himself with being able to discourse much of the law without obeying it, is also the one who makes a boast of his faith, without holding himself bound to the practice of that which faith requires. The same man who finds the essence of religion in certain external works, and claims to be a true worshiper of God merely on the ground of professing the true religion, is the one also who claims to be accounted righteous through a faith which produces no works. If we turn now to what follows (chap. iii.), we find that James is here rebuking those who were ever ready to exalt themselves into teachers of others; but who, by teaching what they did not practise, made themselves the more liable to condemnation. What then is this but that same radical tendency over again? And on what ground should we be justified in rending the intermediate passage from its connection, and making it refer to something else, the explanation of which must be sought elsewhere than in this one radical tendency?
It is true, that in the manner of meeting these errors, which we will now further consider, James is distinguished in a peculiar way from Paul. It is the more practical man in contrast with the more systematic; the man to whose wholly Jewish development, faith in Christ was superadded as the crown and completion, -- in contrast with him, whose faith in Christ took the form of direct opposition to his earlier Jewish views, as the centre of a wholly new creation. Hence with James, opposition to error takes more the form of single propositions and exhortations; with Paul it is a connected view, in which all proceeds from one central point. With James the reference to Christ appears only as one particular among others, a peculiarity especially objected to this Epistle, as if Christ were not to be found in it; while with Paul, on the contrary, the chief object is to exalt Christ, who is everywhere placed foremost, and is everywhere represented as the centre of the whole life, from whom all is derived, to whom all is referred. But yet, in these single propositions and admonitions of James, we are able to trace the higher unity lying at the basis; and can show that all have reference to Christ as the living centre, even though he is not expressly named. There may be a form of moral development, which receives its true light and its true significance through reference to Him as its centre and source, although he is not expressly recognized by name; and his name may be often on the lips, while yet the whole inward character has formed itself without reference to Him. In this light we must now endeavor to understand the controversial and admonitory passages of this Epistle.
The churches to whom it was addressed consisted of rich and poor; and undoubtedly the latter were the more numerous class among the Christians. We know that the Gospel everywhere, and especially among the Jews, found freer entrance with the poor and lowly than among the rich and powerful. Not that riches in themselves exclude from the kingdom of God, or necessarily form a hindrance to faith in the Gospel. When Christ says, that it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God, he means such as he who gave occasion to these words; those to whom, -- though perhaps unconsciously, -- the earthly is the highest good; whose treasure being on earth cannot, therefore, be in heaven; whose heart belongs to the earth where their treasure is, and is therefore far from that direction towards heaven, without which no one can ever share in its blessedness. Indeed he himself adds in the same connection, that although the salvation of a rich man is impossible with men, i. e. by mere human means, yet with God all is possible. He would say by this, that divine help is needful, in order that riches may not prove a hindrance to the attainment of the kingdom of God. This then is the import of the words; not that riches in themselves are a hindrance to this object, but that misdirection of the affections into which the rich man more than others is liable to fall. The rich should be awakened to a consciousness of this, and should be incited by a sense of the difficulties inherent in his case, to apply to God for the strength which he needs; that even while in possession of all earthly riches, he may still keep his treasure in heaven and his heart directed thither. In this Epistle itself we learn what is necessary to the rich for this purpose. Yet though riches are not, in themselves, a hindrance to participation in the kingdom of God, still it was often the case among the Jews, that the rich and mighty forgot in worldly enjoyments the higher wants of the inner man; lost the fixed consciousness of dependence on Him, whose power confers and disposes all; imagining that they possessed all things, they had no room left for the feeling of want and of the necessity of deliverance from it. Thus too in the Old Testament, the rich, the proud, and the ungodly are often ranked together as of one class.
But every external situation may become, according to one's temper of mind, either a help or a hindrance to salvation; and nothing can here injure or promote his interests independently of his own will. Thus may poverty also, -- that physical want which depresses the spiritual nature, which prevents the inner man from awaking to self-consciousness, and to the feeling of his higher spiritual wants, -- prove an obstacle to the attainment of the kingdom of God. Poverty, too, has its peculiar dangers, and this is not overlooked in this Epistle. In general, however, it was the poor and lowly, pining under the oppressions of the rich and powerful, and under the pressure of physical want, who most readily felt the need of deliverance from spiritual want, from inward poverty of soul. On this feeling of physical need, could more easily be engrafted that consciousness of the soul's necessities, through which they might be conducted to the Saviour. As in their case, there was nothing to deceive the soul into a seeming satisfaction of its wants, they could the more easily be drawn to that which furnished the true satisfaction for all its higher necessities. Moreover, the poor in this world could more readily than the rich attain to that poverty of spirit, to which, as Christ says, belongs the kingdom of Heaven. Thus the Gospel found, among the Jews, a readier reception from the poor than from the rich; and on this account, Christians were reproachfully called The Poor. We do not mean by this, that all these poor who received the Gospel, had been led to it by true poverty of spirit, and had thus been prepared to receive, as poor and needy, the true riches of the Gospel. Among them too was to be found the influence of that carnal mind which prevailed among the Jews, -- begetting, not the true hope of the heavenward directed spirit, but rather the expectation of a recompense for bodily privations in the imagined carnal enjoyments of the kingdom of Christ. Now the faith of such, if we choose to call it by that name, had its source in the carnal mind of the natural man; and hence, the earlier form of this natural man was transferred with them out of Judaism into a professed Christianity, -- where it was, as we shall see, opposed and rebuked by James.
As the poorer and lower class, the Christians had, as we have intimated, much to suffer from the persecution and oppression of the powerful and rich; partly on account of their religion, partly for the promotion of selfish interests, their religion serving as the pretext. The rich who called themselves Christians without being so in truth, were infected with the common vice of the rich among the Jews, and failed in the exercise of love and even justice towards their poorer brethren in the faith. Accordingly, we find in this Epistle words of consolation and encouragement for the oppressed and suffering, and of rebuke for the rich both within and without the church.