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How We Taught the New Testament in the Past: Lesson 42: “Pure Religion”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 30, 2011

The current lesson has as its stated purpose “to help class members understand the characteristics we should develop to live our religion more fully” and selects several verses from the Epistle of James for particular discussion. A Gospel Doctrine lesson from 1947, taken from Russel B. Swensen, The New Testament: The Acts and the Epistles (Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union Board, 1946) provides background on the Epistle and suggests four broad themes which may help present teachers link the disparate elements of the current lesson and place them in context.

The Epistle of James

When a church becomes well established, prosperous, and large, the evils of inertia, pride, apathy, superficial orthodoxy, and class distinction often appear. they are somewhat similar to the physical ills which afflict the body after the vigor of youth has departed. such a condition, which had arisen within the ancient Christian Church, impelled a talented and vigorous writer to deliver a message of incisive wisdom and lofty morality. It was composed in the form of a letter, or rather a written sermon, and is preserved for us today in the present Epistle of James.

It is really a series of moral exhortations with very little theology or even any emphasis upon Jesus, except for the inevitable Second coming and final judgment. It has a spirit and a moral emphasis strongly reminiscent of the Gospel of Matthew and to a lesser degree of the other Synoptic “Gospels. It is quite Jewish in its attack upon an orthodoxy of mere creedal conformity. there are marked similarities to a second century Christian writing called the “Teachings of the Twelve Apostles,” which was composed in Syria. therefore, there is a strong probability that Antioch, the same center from which Matthew came to us, was also the place of the authorship of this great epistle. The date is most difficult to determine, and there is no unanimity concerning it. However, as it seems to reflect a knowledge of the gospels, Paul’s letters, Hebrews, and I Peter it might be ascribed a time immediately after the end of the first century A.D.

The author does not call himself an apostle, but merely “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.” (1:1.) The early Greek fathers regarded James, the brother of Jesus, as the author. The practical wisdom and vigorous moral teachings bear this out. However, the excellent Greek, whose vocabulary and imagery betray no evidence of translation Greek, and the habitual quoting from the Greek Old Testament indicate that this was probably the author’s mother tongue. The omission of any emphasis upon circumcision and the ceremonial Law, which was such a vital issue between James and Paul, and was so heavily stressed by the former, are difficult to reconcile with the supposition that James was the author. Likewise, the presence of many wealthy members within the Church to the extent of becoming an acute problem, points to a relatively late date. It must be borne in mind that the Jewish Christian church was notorious for its poverty in the days of Paul and James the brother of the Lord. However there is a strong probability that the writer was a Jewish Christian of some such center as Antioch. The allusion to the “twelve tribes” probably means the whole of Christendom. The Christians regarded themselves as the true heirs of Israel, as this allusion seems to indicate. An evidence for the late date is the fact that it was not quoted by Christian writers before the time of Origen, who lived from 184-254 A.D.

The mood and spirit of the letter is dominated by a passion to elevate the moral living of fellow-Christians. The author is especially keen in disparaging “faith without works,” and seems to be in disagreement with Paul’s justification by faith without works, as expressed in Romans 3:28. however, there would be no vital disagreement if the Christians lived up to Paul’s conception of faith, which was such a potent spiritual power and productive of moral righteousness. What seems to be attacked, then, are those who assume that their orthodoxy of belief is the essential aspect of religion. From the second century on, there grew up a tendency in Christianity to regard theological conformity as the true heart of religion above everything else, even above moral living. Pride and smugness were the fruits of this emphasis. Rich Christians assumed they were devout believers because of it and pursued their business enterprises with a sharp disregard of the rights of the laboring classes and the welfare of the poor. However, in addition to stressing a vital faith of “moral works” and attacking the evils of wealth, there is a vigorous criticism of the harm done by gossip, slander, backbiting, and other excesses of the human tongue. also there is much concern with the purity of motive and sincerity of heart, which is much like the words of Jesus relative to the same theme. there is not a comprehensive list of all moral requirements. the author is a writer of concise speech and seems to think that, should he succeed in impressing these basic ideals upon the readers, that other evils, such as licentiousness and vice, would be overcome.

Inasmuch as the letter is broken up into many miscellaneous maxims, statements, and repetitious exhortations, it is difficult to treat the letter in the sequence of its ideas. therefore, the four major topics mentioned above will be discussed individually. the conception of faith is strongly similar to that emphasized by the Latter-day Saints. It is not deeply mystical and theological. Because of this feature, Luther called it an “epistle of straw” and wondered how it became a part of the New Testament. There is no mention of spiritual rebirth and mystical communion as an aspect of faith, but the living and doing of actions which exhibit and develop faith.

It has a strong emphasis upon prayer as a source and example of faith. It was one of these statements concerning prayer which the Prophet Joseph Smith read and inspired him to pray in the Sacred Grove concerning his desires for spiritual wisdom. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” (1:5, 6.) When one is troubled he should pray, and likewise when ill, he should seek recovery by calling in the elders to pray over him. “Is any among you afflicted? [in trouble] let him pray … Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” *(5:13-16.) The above passage is most significant, as it is cited by the latter-day Saints as a justification of their practice of laying on of hands for the healing of the sick. Incidentally, it is also used by the Catholics to justify their sacrament of Extreme Unction, wherein persons at the point of death call in the priest who anoints them with oil and receives a last confession. The power of prayer is further exemplified in the ministry of Elijah the prophet, who caused a drought for three and a half years by prayer. (5:17-1`8.)

Genuine faith will enable one to endure trials (1:12; 5:10, 11), and also temptations. (1:13-18.) It is expressed in patience in waiting for the Second Coming of the Lord. As the farmer sows his crops and then waits for the sprouting and harvest with confidence so they should regard the promises concerning the Lord’s coming (5:7-9.) A deep concern for the moral well-being of a fellow man is a characteristic of faith. The reward of one who performs this Christian service will be great indeed. “Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” (5:20.)

But the primary emphasis upon faith is relative to the achievement of righteous moral actions. They should obey the message of Christ, not merely listen to it. “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” (1:22.) The man who does not do the will of God is like one who looks into a mirror and then straightway forgets what he looks like. (1:23, 24.) The classic expression of this moral ideal is found in an extended statement which seems aimed at those who feel that mere orthodox belief is sufficient for salvation. (2:14-26.) The theme of this is stated in the first verse of this pronouncement “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? … Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man say, Thou hast faith, and I have works. Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (2:14, 17, 18.) Abraham is then cited as the perfection of a salvation by works, a paradox on Paul, who used the same patriarch to illustrate salvation by faith. (2:21-23.) Likewise Rahab the harlot was justified or acquitted by works, a reflection of the citation of her by the letter to the Hebrews. (2:25.) And finally the conclusion is reached, “for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (2:26.)

One of the major works of the faith thus defined above, is the attitude of love and the performance of charity and kindness to the weak and the poor. The essence of pure religion is thus defined. “If ye fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well. … Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. … If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled, notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” (2:8; 1:27, 2:15, 16.)

The attack upon the wealthy and rich members of the Church has a sharp vigor reminiscent of the Gospel of Luke. Wealth as such is not condemned. But its possession seems to have lulled its owners into a smug orthodoxy and a rank complacency toward the sufferings of others. They should know that their physical security is as transient as that of wild flowers. (1:11.) When they lose their wealth they should rejoice at their low estate. (1:10.) The social discrimination within the Church is savagely attacked. (2:1-13.) It appears that the best sweats in the worship service were being given to wealthy members. (2:1-4.) They humiliate and oppress the poor. (2:6, 7.) They disregard their neighbors and love themselves alone. (2:8.) this breaking of the first commandment as stressed by Jesus, that of loving one’s neighbor, makes them guilty of disobeying the entire Law of God. (2:8-13.) They are going to suffer much because of their exploitation of the laboring masses and sensual indulgence. “Behold the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth. And the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton.” (5:4, 5.)

The purity of heart and motives which Jesus taught are given special emphasis in this letter. the believers are to know, first of all, that temptation is not sent to them from God, but arises within their failure to curb their own desires. But all worthy and good inspiration comes from God. (1:13-18.) They should be thoroughly humble (3:1) and avoid the temptations of pride, jealousy, and strife. The role of the peacemaker should ever be their ideal. (3:18.) Words of virtue cannot come from a corrupt heart. (3:11, 12.) The proud and mighty plans of the wealthy businessmen are condemned because of the excess of pride with which they are conceived. They should know how transitory are the things of this world. (4:13-17.) sincerity and truthfulness should eliminate the practice of oath-taking or swearing. (5:12.) And all friendship or lust for the things of this world should be overcome. (4:1.5)

The great harm wrought by excessive, careless, and evil speech is sharply attacked. The readers are cautioned to be quick to hear, but slow to speak. (1:19, 20.) A marked characteristic of the genuinely religious person is his ability to control his tongue. (1:26.) they are not to swear careless oaths. (5:12.) When in trouble they are to pray, when happy to sing a hymn as ways of expressing their emotions without excessive words. One of the most bitter attacks and satires against the evil tendencies of human speech is stated in this epistle. (3:1-12.) It is a classic of invective utterance and vivid metaphor.

“Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor [pilot] listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. So is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setting on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind. But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. … Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.” (3:3-13.)

The literary features of James are distinctive. Perhaps even more than the letters of Paul, it is like a spoken discourse and has many of the qualities of the Stoic diatribe type of discourse. It has the same rather digressive statements of many diverse topics that are generally related. A modern sermon is praised for its harmony and unity; the Stoic sermon deliberately aimed to express a wide variety of moral exhortations. There is much sharp and biting sarcasm, particularly with reference to the sins of the wealthy, and the evils of the tongue. there are many challenging assertions with vivid bits of dialogue as if the questioners of the author were face to face with him. There is the same sharp vigor which is expressed in this letter to the extent of fifty-four imperatives in a total of one hundred and eight verses. The author expresses himself very aptly from a rich abundance of choice maxims, derived from a rich moral and religious experience, Old Testament references, and a knowledge of other New Testament writings, such as the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, and I Peter. This is evident upon painstaking analysis. In spite of some similarity with the digressive tendencies of the Stoic diatribe, he exhibits a marked consistency as a literary personality. He has only a few basic themes and he plays back and forth upon these as if they were the ever-recurring motifs of a great symphony. he has a fondness for vivid figures of speech and has many choice similitudes drawn from nature and human experience to illustrate his ideas. Finally, he is no novice in the effective use of the Greek language. He uses it as a capable rhetorician and exhibits some of the choicest Greek in the entire New Testament to rank alongside with that of Hebrews and I Peter.



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