Friday, January 11, 2013


I’m preaching on James this weekend, and I have really enjoyed researching this fascinating text. I came across the following claim made by Donald Hagner in his new book, The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Something to ponder!

“One sometimes gets the impression from some people that all twenty-seven books of the NT, since they are inspired, canonical books, must be of equal importance and value. As a canonical book, James must be heard in the church, and it has much to offer. However, it does not express the gospel, and for that reason it is not the equal of other books” (683)


At 1/11/2013 5:37 PM, Blogger scott caulley said...

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At 1/11/2013 5:57 PM, Anonymous Scott Caulley said...

I'm a great admirer of Don Hagner (and a Fuller alumnus), but I think the second part of statement as quoted here (that James "does not express the gospel") misses the point. This is a very Reformation-oriented view of "gospel" as an abstraction. A more accurate restatement might be that James does not express the Pauline gospel as understood by the Reformers.

We would be much closer to the truth if we approached James from a canonical perspective, asking why it is/how it transpired that the early church began with such a Pauline-dominated collection, and why it is/how it transpired that the church eventually included in the canon these odd little books we call the General Epistles. We should also ask the question from the other side, namely, why is the canon (even with the General Epistles) so dominated by Paul and a Pauline viewpoint?

Lest we conclude that the situation is just a coincidence based on the fact that Paul was such a prolific writer (the church just coincidentally already had a large body of Pauline works), we should not forget that Acts, the narrative that "makes sense" of the history and binds the Paul collection with the Gospels, is extremely one-sided. It presents early Christianity as the Pauline mission, telling the story of the gospel as co-extensive with the departure of Christianity from Jerusalem. And—backing up a step—we should wonder at the role of Luke's Gospel, given the fact that for Luke-Acts the "natural" development of the story of Jesus is a turning away from the Palestinian roots of the "Jesus movement".

Even though we hear echoes of Peter's later ministry from other sources, Peter is completely written out of the narrative after Acts 15. Acts and Paul cannot explain non-canonical traditions about Peter's missionary exploits, or 1st Peter (as author to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor), or even the tradition of both Peter and Paul as apostles of the church in Rome (e.g., 1 Clement).

James and the rest of the General Epistles come off looking like token additions to the collection in the interest of balance. The little letters are so small and quirky, however, as to function as "the exceptions that prove the rule": they hardly balance the scale over against Paul and Acts. Our canon is still very much a Pauline-dominated phenomenon.

Moreover, the modern picture of a Protestant understanding of the NT canon is, well, a post-Reformation picture-- Roman Catholics (and Orthodox) claim Peter, Protestants claim Paul. Of course this is simplistic, but the point still stands.

We may never know much about original Jerusalem Christianity, given the fact that our sources (Paul and Acts) are so slanted. For those of us interested in the history, and committed to the NT canon, this should give us pause.

Scott Caulley

At 1/12/2013 3:34 AM, Blogger James Goetz said...

Hi Chris,

Hmm, in the case of Hagner, the Sermon on the Mount is in a Gospel but does not include the gospel, so the Sermon on the Mount must be secondary in the New Testament. So does Hagner propose that everything in the New Testement that is not the gospel is secondary? Okay, I take some liberty here, but as a far as I know from this excerpt, I disagree with Hagner's logic.

At 1/14/2013 4:02 PM, Anonymous Alan K said...

Hi Chris,

Just like Luther, a canon within the canon. We have to make friends with the fact that James is there. Cheers from North Carolina.

At 1/16/2013 7:16 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for the great comments, guys!

On Matthew, one could argue that the text as a whole contains the gospel - the death and resurrection. Of course, we could also say of parts of any text that it does not contain the gospel, but James as a whole may have caused Hagner's concern. I cannot be certain if that is his reason, however.

At 2/12/2013 2:58 AM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Have you ever checked word clouds of the New Testament texts? James is one of the very few books of the New Testament where "Jesus" and "Christ" are not among the important words. So I think "doesn't proclaim the gospel/good news" is an accurate description of James. That's regardless of whether you take Paul's view of Christ's meaning as ideal.

I think there is some validity to the "canon within a canon" on historical grounds: some books, like Hebrews and James and Revelation, didn't enjoy the same kind of acceptance in the earliest church.

Take care & God bless


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