The Letter of James | Douglas J. Moo

Biblical scholars make a name for themselves by writing a commentary on Romans. The ability to survey the vast amount of secondary literature, follow the arguments in the text, and chart your own course are daunting. When I took a class on Romans in Seminary, I was assigned two commentaries: James D. G. Dunn (Word Biblical Commentary) and Douglas J. Moo (New International Commentary on the New Testament). While I lean more towards Dunn’s interpretation or Romans, I was struck by the depth and readability of Moo’s work.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Romans scholar also wrote a commentary on James! Those two books seem to go together like oil and water! Moo highlights the difficulty (140):

Jas. 2:24: A person is justified by works and not by faith alone
Rom. 3:28: A person is justified by faith and not by works of the law

I had to know how a Pauline scholar came to grips with the message of James.

James is famous for being a disjointed tract. While Moo acknowledges its frequent shift in foci, he does an excellent job at drawing the isolated pericopae together across the chapters and explaining how they aid in the interpretation of each other. A good example of this is how he relates the patience that James requires of his audience despite their trials (James 5:7) with the introductory comments on joy in trials (James 1:2-4).

As for the central conundrum between Paul and James—justification by works or by faith—Moo makes three points:

  1. Paul’s “works of the law” is different from James’ “works”. James is speaking of any good deed, while Paul has something specific in mind. (If Moo were a New Perspective on Paul theologian, this point would be easier to make!)
  2. Paul speaks of “faith” where James speaks of “faith alone”. James is criticizing the sort of “faith alone” (without works) that Paul would equally criticize.
  3. Paul uses “justify” to refer to “the initial declaration of a sinner’s innocence before God” (141), where James has God’s eschatological verdict in mind.

Moo does a fine job at acknowledging the difficulty while charting a reasonable way forward.

The Letter of James is a readable commentary for the thoughtful layperson with more than enough depth to keep the pastor engaged. I’m richer for having read it.

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