James has often been read in light of the Apostle Paul. There’s obvious reasons for this tendency: (1) Paul is so influential to our understanding of the New Testament. It’s hard not to read all of Scripture in reference to Paul. (2) James and Paul talk about similar ideas and use even similar language. (3) Key figures from church history have read James this way and we have tended to follow their example. When, we read James on his own terms, however, we find that he is not referencing Paul at all.
There have generally been three views on James’ epistle and its relationship to Paul’s theology. The first view suggests that James is directly responding to Paul. This was Luther’s view. He stated outright that James “is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works” (Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament, 35:396). Within this view it is argued that James, as a Jewish Christian, was writing intentionally to correct what he saw as poor theology within Paul. There is, then, no possibility to harmonize the two authors, for they do not belong together.
The second view argues that James is addressing misunderstandings of Paul. Within this view it is not Paul directly with whom James has issue but those who have twisted his words and ideas. The doctrine of Justification by Faith had morphed into a sort of antinomianism, and James is writing to correct this abuse of Paul’s teaching. Acts 21:17-26 would seem to corroborate this view, as there James warns Paul that his views are misunderstood by some. John Piper actually holds this view and argues that Paul himself responds to these abuses and so James’ words align well within proper Pauline theology (see “Does James Contradict Paul?”)
Finally, the third view simply concludes that James is writing without any reference to Paul at all. There are several good reasons to support this view. One good reasons to read James apart from Paul is that this epistle is likely one of the earliest written. At that point in history Paul’s letters would not have had enough time to circulate, let alone grow in influence, and therefore there is no need to discuss Paul. I have already explored issues of dating James and so won’t rehash those here, but needless to say that James’ theology builds off of Jesus’ discussion of the Kingdom of God and does not reflect the more advanced theological interests and concepts of later Christianity. It is a more theologically primitive work, and shows no signs of interest in the concepts that Paul writes about after him.
Furthermore, similarities in language are likely representative of shared Jewish heritage and nothing more. The major reason James has been read with reference to Paul is the similarities between Romans, Galatians, and James chapter 2. The discussion of faith and works is clearly found in each letter and yet the differences between Paul and James are obvious. We see it most notably in Paul’s use of Abraham (justified by faith, Rom. 4:1-3; Gal. 3:6-9) and James’ use of Abraham (justified by works – James 2:20-22). James’ concern, however, is hypocrisy and genuine vs false faith. These are not Paul’s concerns. Paul’s concern is primarily soteriological and how one is made right with God. James wants to help his readers see that a profession without evidence is empty and “dead faith.” Each author turns to Abraham and to concepts of justification, righteousness, faith, and works because these are the concepts known to them in Judaism. But beyond shared heritage these two authors do write in dialogue with one another and are addressing totally different situations.
Lastly, if James was writing to interact with Pauline thought, or even misunderstandings in Pauline thought, he failed to address the significant issues. He does not speak to matters of the Sabbath, circumcision, or food laws. These are all major issues in Paul’s writings and are at the heart of much of the debate about justification among the Judaizers. James addresses none of these matters, and that raises real questions about what exactly he is responding to. It seems an insufficient response to Paul if that is how we are to read his letter.
Apart from similar phrasing, James is not referencing Paul in his own epistle. We will see this more clearly once we get into the exposition of the text, but we can also more confidently assert this idea once we understand the purpose behind James’ letter. We will turn to consider that next. Needless to say, however, James had his own concerns and interests in this epistle and they are not centered around Paul’s theology.