Reviews

A Commentary on James by Aída Besançon Spencer (Kregel Series) — A Book Review

Aída Besançon Spencer has contributed a significant resource in the study of the Letter of James. I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Kregel Publications, in exchange for an honest review.

When evaluating exegetical commentaries, I typically look at three areas: 1) key features (usually dictated by the commentary series); 2) discussion regarding introductory issues (authorship, date, provenance, etc.); and 3) interpretation of specific disputed passages. In this review, I have selected specific items from each category pertinent to the Letter of James.

Aida Besancon Spencer (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Senior Professor of New Testament at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Spencer has worked as a community organizer, social worker, minister, and educator in a wide variety of urban settings. Her other publications include 2 Corinthians in the Bible Study Commentary Series and Paul’s Literary Style.

Key Features

The Kregel Exegetical Library has provided scholars and pastors with useful features that make this fairly new commentary series a must-have in the study. In James, Spencer divides the Letter according to its chapter divisions. Each section begins with the author’s personal translation and grammatical analysis of the text. Spencer includes grammatical labels in parenthesis after the translation of each sentence. For example:

  • “1:2a     Consider for yourselves all joy, my brothers and sisters, (initial sentence; main clause)
  • 1:2b       whenever you might fall upon various trials, (subordinate adverbial clause; temporal; answers when).”

These labels are helpful; however, a diagram or indentation into columns, rather than paragraph format, would be more visually intuitive for pastors who may not quite follow the grammatical relationship the author is presenting.

Each section also ends with a discussion on theological and homiletic topics. The Kregel series provides not merely an exegetical discussion on the text, but also an aid to the pastor’s pulpit ministry.

Various tables and charts are found throughout the commentary. For example, Spencer has provided a chart that summarizes her own approach to the theme of James (p. 45). The chart demonstrates how Spencer’s theme, “Become doers of the Word” (1:21–22) and the three categories of “trials,” “wisdom,” and “wealth,” tie the whole letter together.

Other interesting charts include the “Gender Language in James Chapter 1” (pp. 109–110), “Summary of James’s and Paul’s Use of Abraham in Genesis 15:6” (p. 153), and “Different Translations of the Quotation in James 4:5.”

Structure of James

Spencer’s unique contribution to the study of James is her proposed theme and structure. The difficulty of identifying the theme and structure of James naturally leads to the lack of consensus among scholars regarding theme and structure. Spencer, following Peter Davids, centers on the three dominant themes of wisdom, wealth, and trials, but adds “doers of the Word” as the theological center of James, which is ingrained in the structure of the letter.

Spencer takes the concept of “Receive the implanted word” as the bookends of the entire letter (1:1–27; 5:13–20). The middle, chs. 2:1—5:12, is divided into five sections, which can be summarized as “lay aside evil deeds”: partiality (ch. 2), misuse of tongue (ch. 3), fighting as the world fights (ch. 4), wealth (5:1–11), and oaths (5:12). Each of these sections ends with a reason that incorporates the theme of “becoming a doer of the word.” Thus, Spencer concludes that “becoming a doer of the Word” is the central theme of James, with 1:21–22 as the key verse.

Interpretation of Problematic Passages

In this short letter, several points of interpretation are worth analyzing. I have selected two: 1) does James contradict Paul on justification (2:14–26)? 2) What does it mean that elders should pray over the sick and anoint him with oil (5:14–15)?

James and Paul on Justification (2:14-26)

It is commonly argued that James contradicts Paul’s teaching on justification. For Paul, justification is by faith alone apart from works (cf. Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16; Eph. 2:8–9). Yet James seems to be proposing justification by works when he says, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17).

Spencer approaches this problem in several ways. First, she points out that the main principle of the entire section (2:14–26) is that “verbal espousing of faith not demonstrated in action is not a saving faith” (p. 139).  She also highlights that Paul’s use of “works” refers to “works of the law” while James refers to “works of the word” (1:21-22). Furthermore, she prefers ἔργον (ergon) to be translated as “action(s)” instead of “work(s).” She argues that,

The difference in translation indicates the difference in concept. Actions (or works) are a result of genuine faith, but they do not justify someone. Paul writes about “works” of the law (νόμος), whereas James writes about “works” of the word …. Paul agrees with James that repentant believers who turn to God should do deeds consistent with repentance (Acts 26:20). He explains, we have been created in Christ Jesus “for good works [actions] which God prepared beforehand that in them we might walk” (Eph. 2:10).

page 143

Regarding James’ and Paul’s use of Abraham and their seemingly contradictory conclusions (cf. Rom 4:2–6; James 2:21–23), Spencer points out that both agree that “it is Abraham’s faith that God reckons or counts as righteousness” (p. 147). But their different audiences lead to two different, but complementary, applications. Spencer also points out that Paul’s citing of Genesis 15:6 relates to the circumcision event in Genesis 17, but James’ citation relates to the offering of Isaac in Genesis 22.

Elders Praying over the Sick (5:14-15)

Another difficult passage in James is the prayer of the elders for the sick and the seeming guarantee of healing, “and the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.” Spencer provides word studies on ἀσθένεια (translated “sick” in v. 14) and κάμνω (translated “sick” in v. 15). In solving this problem, Spencer points out that σῴζω can refer to physical/temporal healing or spiritual salvation (1:21; 5:20). While Spencer leaves the door open for physical healing, she emphasizes that the ultimate salvation is the sick person’s future resurrection.

Analysis

In interpreting the two passages above, Spencer exercises careful linguistic analysis with special attention to literary context, the use of OT, and the author’s flow of argument. Though I’m still not convinced of her argument on the difference between Paul’s “works of the law” and James’ “works of the word,” her argument provides a fresh insight in this Reformation-old debate. Perhaps Spencer’s focus on 1:21–22 as the key text of James drives this distinction. 

Spencer’s analysis and conclusion of 5:14–15 is in keeping with other orthodox interpretation. She provides excellent words studies on the two words used for “sick” (ἀσθένεια and κάμνω). She lists several contexts where ἀσθένεια is used to refer to “weak faith” (Rom 4:19; Heb 4:15; etc.). She also notes that κάμνω simply means “to work, labor, or to be weary.” She listed the idea of “to lose heart” from Hebrews 12:3 and “weariness of soul” in Job 10:1; 17:1–2. Despite these excellent word studies, Spencer has not entertained the possibility that “sick” in 5:14–15 could be better translated as “spiritual weakness” or perhaps what Martyn Lloyd–Jones called “spiritual depression.”

Overall, Spencer has provided excellent discussion based on thorough linguistic and grammatical analysis of the Greek text of James. While she does not entertain other proposed views of interpretation, she presents her own arguments with clarity and exegetical precision. This makes her commentary shorter and easier to digest.

Conclusion

With this commentary, Dr. Aída Spencer has gifted the church and pastors with a tool for further research on the letter of James. Spencer adds another angle from which to view the theme and structure of the Letter of James. Her analysis uses the tools of structure, repetition, and careful observation of themes in the letter. While not all would agree on her proposed central theme, her conclusions push the conversation on theme and structure forward and are worth investigating.

While the translation and grammatical analysis could be made more visually pleasing by using indentation and columns, the details given will aid a discourse analysis of James. These grammatical connections help pastors and Bible teachers to follow James’ train of thought in the letter.

After analyzing specific passages, I will point out a minor quibble. Due to dividing the commentary into five chapters corresponding to the chapters of James, it could be difficult to locate specific verses that a reader wants to investigate. Analyzing the passage as a whole discourse rather than individual verses has its benefits for understanding Scripture, but perhaps highlighting specific verse numbers as the discussion moves along would be helpful.

Spencer’s discussion on problematic passages like James 2:14–26 and 5:14–15 demonstrates sound hermeneutics with use of linguistic and grammatical tools. Though one may disagree with specific points of interpretation, Spencer’s views are within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy and her exegetical analysis are worth considering.

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