February 22, 2009

James' Epistle, c.AD 52 (part 2)

The History of James & Paul is far more compelling to me than whatever theologians want to say about their writings. I stand with conservative christian beliefs as a rule, but I have no current religious affiliation or particular theological training. I'm into history and chronology, so what bothers me is the idea that some peoples' need to view certain verses a certain way seems to hinder overall interest and efforts at reconstructing one reasonable and cohesive event sequence for the NT as a whole.

The traditional dating of James' Epistle is a typical case in point. I don't care how theologians reconcile the writings of James and Paul. The men themselves (and some of their followers) remained sharply opposed in many ways, for thirty years if not more. To act as if James' Epistle would not or could not have been written after the council in 50 (or after Galatians) is biased historiography indeed. Moreover, such bias is unnecessary. As best I can tell, conservative theology in this case doesn't actually require any particular historical sequence in order to defend the scriptures or preserve the faith on the relevant issues at hand. Therefore, christians should be only more eager to seek out a more objective view of the facts.

The idea that James and Paul actively wrote statements attempting to correct one another in writing should not hinder our faith in either man or their writings OR the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Not in the slightest. To illustrate: I recently had several e-mails with a really good friend where we kept misunderstanding each other. Our contradictions were superficial, which is to say, non-existent, but it took some time for us to build a common voice in the conversation. Before that realization came, we believed ourselves to be in disagreement and kept trying to correct one another's key points on the topic. Till the end, we were each mistaken about the other's accuracy. But throughout the conversation, we were both speaking truth. That's basically how it seems to have gone for James and Paul.

Today, many normal believers admit some confusion when the writings of James & Paul naturally sound so conflicting. Likewise, many first century christians also seem to have had trouble understanding at the time. Romans was written partly because Gentiles and Jews alike kept misinterpreting, misapplying and/or misrepresenting Paul's message. Similar conflicts seem to have ended Paul's welcome in Asia - and the Epistle of James was absolutely in Asia before that time came. (I personally believe 1st John was an attempt to reconcile the confused factions by refocusing the debate squarely onto the Lord, using new terms. But that's a whole other series!) Even if these authors did at some point officially reconcile their different points of view, those differences remained strong enough to help divide whole regions of churches. Therefore, it seems most logical by far to suppose those differences took James & Paul more than a brief span of time to clear up, simply between themselves.

In fact, it has long (and wisely) been suggested by conservative scholarship that James himself actually did misunderstand Paul's teaching on "justification" - at least for a time after first having heard it - and that James (2) best fits into some period before James and Paul were able to sit down and reconcile such semantics man to man. I do agree this was very likely the case. However, it is far too much to assert that any semantic unity was necessarily achieved by the year 50 AD, if it happened at all. (Future posts in this series will revisit this point in detail.)

For now, it is reasonable enough to believe that James and Paul simply failed to understand one another perfectly and most likely did in fact attempt to correct one another in their writings, but this view does not require us to believe either man spoke in error at all. Any faith-based reading merely has to believe they were "talking past one another", and evidently God himself used the apparent conflict to get both points of view into print! (That is, assuming the composition of scripture was no accidental affair, during the divine manipulation of first century history.)

In all this, my starting point is simply to suggest that our theological judgment should follow historical study instead of begging it. It is not necessary to put James' Epistle before 50 AD for either theological or apologetic reasons. From here, we proceed.

To be continued...

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