In my previous post on the Epistle of James and the origins of its place in the New Testament Canon I noted (following David Nienhuis’s excellent work on the subject) that James found its canonical home within the New Testament as a corrective to the persistent threat of Marcionitism. While Marcion, reading Paul, divorced the God of gospel from the demigod of the Old Testament, the Epistle of James was written to ensure that this God and his commandments are not be discarded as obsolete. Rather than Marcion’s supposed antinomianism, the Epistle of James ensures that genuine faith is a “lively faith” (Thomas Cranmer).
The question/criticism immediately arose over how the Epistle of James functions today. While I highlighted its origins in the canon of the NT and its role in the Patristic period of church history, I had not thoroughly outlined what we are to do with James now. Here I want to suggest that presence of James in the New Testament should continue to ward off the specter of Marcion in the church. While genuine Marcionistism died off long ago, in many ways his legacy has proved to be remarkably persistent. What follows is two examples of modern Marcionitism and the role James plays in correcting these failed projects.
The first one is an obvious one, though it has so seamlessly integrated into some branches of modern theology that its relationship to Marcion has been obscured. In his 1777 essay, “The Education of the Human Race”, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing suggests that the world history is a single educational process moving from childhood to adolescence, to adulthood. Judaism in particular was an rude, child-like religion that must be further educated through the teachings of Jesus. The Old Testament is to dispense in favor of the new teachings of the New Testament. Yet, for Lessing, the education of humanity continues into his own day as the triumph of reason spurs the human race onto adulthood. Instead of Paul’s own Christocentric understanding of history, this three-fold division of human history is alive and well in the writings of the philosopher Hegel, the psychologist Freud, and right up into dispensationalism and the process theology of the 20th century. At its core, Lessing’s neo-Marcionite understanding of history demands that later revelation is a corrective to infantile error. One does not need to search hard to find even more examples of this today. Against this narrative stand the Epistle of James (and I Peter), which repeated affirms the continued veracity of God’s revelation in the Old Testament for Christians. James is a constant reminder that God, revelation, and world history are not an onward and upward trajectory toward greater perfection. There is certainly a complexity to contemporary issues and problems to which our answers may be novel compared to what came before, yet bare contrasts to prior epochs along the lines of Lessing are to be avoided.
The second, more obvious, parallel to Marcion is seen in what is known as the “apocalyptic” school of Pauline interpretation. For some of its proponents (though not all!), the radically unconditional character of Christ’s faithfulness suggests that grace is efficacious apart from human action and faith. Salvation is so “wholly other” and occurs on the cosmic scale, that it radically subordinates, if not precludes, its subjective effects on humanity. Consequently for Douglas Campbell, the unconditional revelation of Christ so sharply contrasts with the judicial and conditional systems that faith itself is seen as unnecessary. This pushes the faith-works contrast of Paul into oblivion such that James’ insistence upon a salvific faith that works appears to be either asking the wrong question altogether or, indeed, is based upon an outdated understanding of God.
Without addressing the very real issue of whether this is what Paul thought, James’ is a useful corrective in two ways. Again, James repeated affirmation of the constancy of God’s revelation forestalls any Marcionite contrast between a retributive God and the benevolent God of Jesus. More pointedly, James’ insistence upon a lively faith ensures that a canonical reading of Paul never divorce the redemption of Christ from its subjective appropriation in faith. Said another way, against some Apocalyptic Paul scholars James ensures that the efficacy of Christ’s work actually or efficaciously extends to the one who believes and that this faith has a very real relation to one’s salvation. In the same way that grace works in practice, so too does faith work as a good tree bears good fruit.
If the inclusion of James ensures that faith is a subjective and lively faith, a canonical reading of James ensures that this lively faith be understood as a gift (grace) and that this faith working through love (Gal. 5:6) depends upon God’s initiative. God’s one-way love produces love for others (1 John 4:19). James is entirely silent on the subject of grace. But within its canonical context set along side of Paul, this silence is not to be understood to be disagreement. So while James was received by the church as a corrective to combat potential misreadings of Paul, this likewise indicates that the Epistle of James was never intended to be read alone without Paul. Those who find in James a warrant for legalism are just as guilty as Marcionites. The church has needed and will continue to need both James and Paul, standing shoulder to shoulder as advocates of justification by grace through faith.