The good, the goofy and the egregious, a review of a new commentary on the epistle of James by Blomberg and Kamell in Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.
I received this copy for free on the condition of a review from me. I was very excited to receive a commentary for review. I was even more excited that it was on James which I had been studying with my church's young adult group this autumn. There were questions from the group we couldn't answer, and I hoped some of them could be answered in this commentary. I have a bad habit when it comes to perusing new books and magazines. I tend to start at the end and work towards the front. At the end, I encountered a goofy statement, which I will specify later, that put a bad taste in my mouth. So I realized I need to start at the front of the book. I know that it's hard to write at the end with the same passion and clarity that one started with in the beginning, and that I had to let them show me their best efforts in the beginning. I was rewarded.
The introduction to the series informed me that this was a commentary for someone who know Koine Greek and would like to see it applied in Bible interpretation. But it also promises to stay out of the weeds, so that the busy pastor can get enough meat for his own devotional study as well as enough to share with his congregation. As someone trying to retain his NT Greek, but unable to retain his Hebrew, I was happy that the format keeps the greek, but transliterates the Hebrew. It felt like this series is for people like me. This is good. It also explains the layout for each section of Bible discussed, e.g. literary context, main idea, translation and graphical layout, structure, exegetical outline, explanation of text, and, finally, theology in application. Frequently, the authors for this epistle, often left the section under translation empty and referred to the graphical layout. Literary context and exegetical outline also overlapped greatly. I think these sections are too muddled, and come across a little goofy. The explanation of the text is usually excellent. I really enjoy the interaction with multiple approaches to the passage in discussion. Although the bibliography is large, the index shows that only seven or eight other commentators received the bulk of the dialog. I really like footnotes, which this series uses. When books use endnotes, I need two bookmarks, because I am constantly checking the references. I want to know if statements are assertions or examples. Footnotes make this essential step much easier for me. I also appreciate references to ancient readings. References to Augustine and the inter-testamental book Sirach make the research more commendable. Overall, I think the authors were consistent in keeping their application apart from the explanation. It is impossible to do this perfectly, but the effort is duly noted. However, it is the application sections that tended to disappoint me the most. I will provide examples soon.
Nevertheless, the introduction to James is excellent. They argue well for an early date. A good argument considers many other options and shows the weaknesses leaving theirs as primary. They show in the introduction that they can do this very well. Later on, they tend to resort to assertions, which leave this reader, who so throughroughly enjoyed their well developed arguments earlier in the book scratching his head. I have to blame the editor here, for not challenging the authors to flesh out their assertions. [I will provide an example soon. I want to move through the book sequentially, and not jump out of order.] Their arguement for the coherence of the epistle is also excellent. I am fully persuaded by their understanding of the flow in Jame's thoughts. They do seem to have an ax to grind against the "name it and claim it" stream of theology, and frequently note where James' statements would contradict their understanding of this perticularly American theology. However, accustomed to their careful argumentation in other areas of this commentary, I was disappointed to not see them attempt to interact with any defenders or advocates of this theology and how they might understand James. Hence, although I am sympathetic to the authors disdain of this theology, I have no way of knowing if they are attacking a straw man or a well informed understanding. This is an example of theirs of being telling me instead of showing me. I wish an editor had challenged them instead of giving them a pass on this one.
Any evangelical commentary on James that seeks respect also needs to understand well historically and widely the issues of faith and works that James brings up in chapter 2. By arguing for an earlier date than Paul's epistles to Rome and Galatians, they can offer an explanation that avoids conflict with Paul. "Perhaps "works" might by better translated as "action" in this context [James 2:14 -JPU] to 'avoid confusion with Paul's teaching [against] nomistic religion, i.e., "works of the law." ' " (p. 129) They quote Martin from the WBC commentary on James. Further on, when discussing James 2:17 they elaborate, " 'Works' here are not the Pauline 'works of the law,' such as circumcision, but rather the works of love, such as caring for those who are in need, not showing favoritism, being humble, or being slow to speak. In essence, works are te sum total of a changed life brought about by faith. Where 'Paul denies the need for "pre-conversion works," ' James emphasizes the absolute necessity of post-conversion works.' p. 132 Again they quote Martin. I appreciate two other quotes they use to elucidate this conversation between apostles when they are discussing James 2:24. "As Joachim Jeremias famously epitomized it, Paul speaks of Christian faith (trust in Jesus) and Jewish works (obeying the law so as to justify oneself), whereas Jamers refers to Jewish faith (pure monotheism) and Christian works (good deeds that flow from salvation). Or as Frances Gench nicely phrases it, 'Paul is dealing with obstetrics, with how new life begins; James, however, is dealing with pediatircs and geriatrics, with how Christian life grows and amtrues and ages.' " p.139 I think these quotes show their agreement with evangelical thought on this passage. I wish they had delved more into Orthodox and Catholic thinking however. They did a great job in discussing this passage, but then things went goofy and egregious in their application section.
In the Theology in Application section following their discussion of the second half of James 2, red flags started to rise for me. The first flag for me is this line,
James's language does, however, support a properly qualified liberation theology and lordship salvation. While not necessarily justifying violence of Marxism in pusuit of one's cause, James certainly would share the concern of liberation theologians to do far more for the poor, individually and sytemically, than many branches of recent Christianity have attempted...It is precisely those people who do make this claim [Christians - JPU] who incur the scorn of devotees of other religions that recognize the need to do good in the world, thereby making it harder for such people to discern and accept authentic Christianity! pp. 143-144The oxymoron of "qualified liberation theology" made me raise my eyebrows. Is it qualified when it's not marxist? Does such non-Marxist liberation theology exist? Has liberation theology actually brought people into the kingdom of God? If they mean social justice concerns, why not speak that way, instead of bringing in the heavily laden with too much baggage badly worked out liberation theolgy? And why the sympathy to the canard of the church does nothing to impress the other religions in the world? No religion has done more to improve the lives of world's poorest and weakest than Christianity. Certainly, individual Christians disappoint, which James accosts, and even larger groups of Christians are not outward focused, but overall, no other religion can hold a candle to Christianity in regards to social justice in terms of scope and influence. Finally, I was the most concerned with their wavering on death bed converts, who are unable to work out their faith. If they had listened to their quote of Gench earlier, this should not have even been a topic without certainty. However, they write, "But what of those who seemingly have no opportunity to demonstrate good works at all, such as deathbed converts? It is hard to know for sure, but one can easily imagine their very professions of faith inspring others who hear (or hear of) their words, as with the classic example of the criminal on the cross with Jesus ( Lk 23:40-42). Thus they have exhibited at least one, highly significant good deed..., to say nothing of whatever other changed attitudes have occurred, whether or not they have the opportunity to express them to anyone else." p.146. I am not sure what they can't know for sure. Jesus himself said in John 6:29 Jesus told them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.” In Luke 18:14, after comparing the repentant tax collector to the arrogant Pharisee in the temple, Jesus concludes "I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” I feel that Blomberg and Kamell have stepped outside evangelical and Biblical thought by doubting the grace of God even for one at death's door, who may not be able to respond to the invitation to adoption vocally. This, to me, is egregious.
In contrast, when they moved to James 4:1-12 and discussed in the application section the topic of judging, I was blessed. They write,
The problem in most Christian contexts, however, is not in dealing iwth the extreme, clear-sut cases, but in finding fault with fellow believers in teh grayer areas. Stulac suggests three ways in which Christians are often too quick to criticize: "judging the motives behind other's words of actions in church business, judging how others spend money and judging how others are rearing their children." p. 202Disappointingly, they seem to exhibit this very behavior in the very next application section. Regarding James 4:13-17 they draw the following for application.
The percentage of needy in America today may be noticeably smaller, but worldwide the suffering as a result of a lack of material resources remains staggering, and it is the wealthy West that has replaced Rome as the primary exploiter of the natural resources of poorer countries to sustain our ever-fattening consumer demands. Obesity is at an all-time high in the United States, while millions starve to death elsewhere. p.211A couple things shock me, but probably not as the writers intended. "Exploiter" is a charged word. Although it is a nuetral word in essence, it's implication is negative. Also, I'm not sure what resources we are exploiting without fair exchange. We buy oil from Mexico and Canada, who don't mind our business. We buy hybrid cars which require batteries and chargers that depend on rare earth metals. A poor country who might sell those metals, certainly are not driving these hybrids, nor have any other use for those metals, but appreciate having something to export, and a country willing to pay for it. These are but a couple counter-examples to SHOW, instead of asserting, that the reason applied toward application is sometimes deficient. The last sentence I quoted is especially weak. It almost seems to claim that Americans are fat because we are taking food out of the mouths of the hungry around the world, which is untrue. Almost all famines are due to the politics of wicked governments. The US gives food away all over the world, but some governments, e.g. North Korea, use that food to feed the politically connected and armies, but not the weak. The 1980's response to Ethopian famine, for which there was plenty of food but corrupt politicians, was Band-Aid which sent money to Ethiopia, which used that money to buy weapons. However, it seems the authors are judgmental of American spending and eating habits, while teaching us to apply principles against such postures. This is goofy, if not egregious.
Finally, I must point to the goofiness at the end that I read in the beginning. It seems to come from the pen of someone with little historical perspective. They write,
A generation ago it was almost unheard of to raze an entire building just to put another one on the same site, or to level a whole shopping center to replace it with a new one, or to tear down an entire athletic stadium just to bulid a larger, fancier one; but today all of these are common occurrences. How many churches think that the only realistic option when they outgrow one facility is to build a bigger, more upscale one, with perhaps millions of dollars diverted from truly helping the world's destitute, physically and spiritually? One shudders to think of the potential judgment of God being stored up by so many examples of profligate waste. pp. 233-234These sentences are judgmental and ahistorical. Razing buildings with the intent to replace them has been happening for millenia. Sometimes the bricks from one building are removed to build a new one. Sometimes buildings are added onto to make them bigger. I'm not sure if the authors are advocating more suburban sprawl. Sometimes buildings are replaced because fixing the current one costs more than knocking it down and starting over. Sometimes older buildings are poisonous due to lead paint, asbestos, and mold and are not worth rehabilitating. Perhaps the authors have no appreciation for great cathedrals. But I do. Is it really a matter of right or wrong, or just opinion? It seems out of line for them to predict judgment for how some church groups choose to worship God with the money God has given them. If anything, it seems contradictory to what they preach on judgment earlier in the book. I proclaim it goofy.
Overall, this really good commentary, has some really goofy parts, and some egregious parts. Thus, in my calculation, this results in a goofy commentary. As with all commentaries, one needs to enjoy the meat and spit out the bones. I think a tougher editor might have reduced the amount of bones in this book. I think I will hold onto this one for the really good content, but not share it without plenty of preparation for the borrower.