Formations 09.16.2018: Words of Wisdom

James 3:1-10, 13-18

Illustration of James from the Stavelot Bible.

My grandmother Joan taught me, as she did with all of her grandchildren, to pay attention to language. She had been an elementary-school teacher, so she taught us with sharp, repeated, and mostly frustrating questions.

“I don’t know. Can you?” required us repeat ourselves, this time asking may I, not can I. A more confusing question—“Are you a turkey?”—forced us to distinguish between being done and being finished.

When James resumes the subjects of wisdom and peace, he begins with care in language. The tongue, and perhaps the pen and keyboard, is powerful. Like a rudder or a bit, it may be double-minded. Like a small flame, it may be destructive. “With it,” James reminds us, “we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (v. 9).

James condemns these divergences, but God’s wisdom offers unity. It shapes parts of our lives that are as close as the tongue, just as it shapes relationships in our social, political, and economic lives. By James’s standard, wisdom that brings internal peace and personal righteousness is only God’s if it sows peace and righteousness in the larger world.

If, as they do for me, James’s expectations seem too great, there may be comfort in his attention to language. It is an everyday thing. Like our work, we can ask if our language is merciful, peaceable, impartial, and pure. Is it selfish, envious, ambitious, mean-spirited, or dishonest?

But more than describing words, James wants us to examine where they lead. By God’s wisdom, well-practiced language might spread us out into careful relationships with ourselves and with others.


• When have you struggled to sow peace or show mercy? How would you describe your language, or silence, in these times?
• How has language affected your experiences of events and senses of people?
• How might you offer kind, encouraging, peaceful, or merciful words in the coming week? How might you allow these words to shape your relationships in your communities?

Reference Shelf

Wisdom from God

So far in our attempt to “locate” James we have identified two assumptions that have bedeviled its reading: (1) that it is to be interpreted within the context of Paul’s debate vis-à-vis the Mosaic Law and the admission of Gentiles into the church, and (2) that it is too Jewish to be Christian. We must now briefly deal with a third assumption: that its Hellenistic character must be at odds with its Jewish-Christian content. This is only necessarily so, of course, if we assume that either Judaism or Christianity were completely isolated from the pagan world of the first century. In fact, both communities lived in a world where Greco-Roman culture—not to mention the Greek language itself—was all-pervasive. In which case, it should come as no surprise that James reflects not only the values of Jewish Christianity, but also the ethical concerns of the pagan moralists of his day (L. T. Johnson, “Friendship with the World/Friendship with God,” 27-28). A similar combination of Jewish and Hellenistic ideas can be found in The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Written in Greek probably to a Diaspora community in the second century BCE, this Jewish work later came to be used and interpolated by the Christian church (see H. C. Kee, “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, ” 777-81). Although written in a different genre, in many ways it is comparable to our letter (L. T. Johnson, “Friendship with the World/Friendship with God,” 43-47). Like James, it appeals to the universal precepts of Hellenistic ethics, including the virtues of generosity, self-control, and compassion. Yet at the same time it reflects an antipathy towards the world, expressed in terms of enmity between two spirits or two ways controlled respectively by angels and demons, which will only be resolved in the endtime, when God’s purposes will finally hold sway. Thus, as in James, here we find both Hellenistic ethics and Jewish eschatology happily coexisting.

What distinguishes the teaching of James from that of his pagan contemporaries is not so much particular moral principles as his appeal to their theological bases. Unlike most moralists outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition who were anxious to detach ethics from religion, James grounds his ethical exhortations in his beliefs about the character of God. Thus, behaviour, like God, should be single and consistent (Laws, “The Doctrinal Basis for Ethics in James,” 299-305), an enactment of the covenant obligation to love God and neighbour, for which the believer will be answerable on the day of judgment.

Marie E. Isaacs, Reading Hebrews & James: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 174.

A Word of Peace

The word of truth and its synonyms—the implanted word, the word, the perfect law, the law of liberty, and the truth—perhaps refers to the letter as a whole, and the tradition that stands behind it. This moral tradition with its many links to the sayings of Jesus must be received and practiced in meekness as a right way of speaking and doing, since it will be the basis for God’s judgment. The letter thus prepares hearers for that judgment by clarifying the criterion. The letter models restoration of sinners to the way of truth by instruction in the heavenly wisdom that they are called to practice (3:17). If Christianity for James consists primarily in adherence to a way of life before God, the Way that Jesus taught, then the letter serves as a handbook or epitome to this body of oral teaching. Perhaps this handbook was used in the training of new converts, perhaps as part of their baptismal catechesis or instruction. Perhaps the letter served as a church manual for restoration to the Christian community.

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 330–31.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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