17 December 2013

Book review — James: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, by William Varner

by Dan Phillips

(Logos Bible Software, 2012)

This book is another addition to Logos' growing Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series. I reviewed the first volume by Gary Derickson previously, and will refer you thither to come up to speed about the aim and focus of this series. I really think EEC has tremendous promise, and love the facets of the books' layout for each section:
  • Introduction
  • Outline
  • Original Text
  • Textual Notes
  • Translation
  • Commentary
  • Biblical Theology Comments
  • Application and Devotional Implications
This is a genius design. All those strengths are present in this volume by Varner, minus Derickson's lamentable weakness for Hodges' gutless-grace views.

That author, William Varner, is a professor of Bible and Greek at The Master’s College, guides tours in Israel, has authored a number of books, and pastors the Sojourners Fellowship at Grace Community Church. He's written before on James, on the Psalms, and on Jesus as Messiah. Here Varner incorporates some of his earlier material on James in a full-orbed commentary.

The book opens eye-catchingly:
After four hundred years of languishing in a backwater of neglect that was largely influenced by the opinions of two German “Martins,” the Letter of James is finally emerging into the light of serious scholarly attention.
The two "Martins" are Luther and Dibelius. Varner himself thoroughly engages the literature on James, old and new, as witnessed by 852 footnotes. Given the wealth of writing on James, though — including thirty significant commentaries in the past 40 years — why another? Varner answers:
‎Some may wonder if there is anything more that needs to be said about James. I can only say that there will always be a need for good commentaries on a biblical text, because “God yet has light to spring forth from His word” (attributed to a Pilgrim pastor). Furthermore, the application of fresh linguistic methods to exegetical analysis demands an occasional fresh look at familiar biblical passages.
One of the specifics I found most interesting and educational was Varner's emphasis on James' prominence in the early church. Before reading him, asked who the prominent leaders were, I would have answered "Peter and Paul." But Varner asserts that research on James "has led to a new perspective on James the leader and also on James the letter. There is still a need for a fresh reading of the James materials, and to that end results of my own fresh reading are offered."

For instance, Varner notes that
‎A careful reading of Luke’s account in Acts and Paul’s comments in Galatians fully supports the idea that James was not merely a significant leader in the early church and not just the leader of the Jerusalem church, but that he was the leader of the church. The implications of this fact are significant not only for the Roman Catholic attitude toward Peter, but also for the Protestant evangelical attitude toward Paul.
Ironically, Varner observes that it was a chapter written by still another “German Martin” (Hengel) that first raised the possibility of a new perspective on James.‎

So what is the "new perspective on James"?
The argument is that after the Pentecostal effusion James rose quickly to a parity of leadership with the traditional apostles and by the early forties was the leader, although as a primus inter pares (“first among equals”), not only of the Jerusalem church (a point usually recognized) but of the entire Jesus movement. If a stranger arrived in Jerusalem or in Antioch between the years A.D. 40–62 and asked, “Who is the person in charge of this movement?” any knowledgeable Christian, including Peter or John or Paul, would have answered without hesitation, “James.”
Vaerner also points out neglected indications of James' priority, such as the fact that apart from alluding to "the tribe of Christians" in the Flavian Testimony about Christ, James is the only NT church figure Josephus mentions.

Varner sees James as "‎probably the first NT document written and the first Christian writing of any kind," written about 46-48. He has a good section on literary connections with the OT, notes the absence of allusion to cultic elements, and notes the frequent resorting to Lev. 19 connected with Christian specifics, ‎which "suggests the function of James as a sort of halakhic midrash (“commentary”) on Leviticus 19." He also includes a solid survey of James' relationship to 2nd Temple literature.

A judicious section on James' theology counters Dibelius' assertion that James "has no theology," as well as criticisms of un-Christian/Christless orientation. I was helped by Varner's observation that "allusions to the oral teaching of Jesus are so abundant that it is not going beyond the evidence to call James the most Jesus-soaked book in the NT after the Gospels" (emphasis added).

Further on that subject, Varner discusses standards of identification, and says that
‎When we realize...the thorough way in which Jesus’ teachings permeate the writing, we could conclude that, after the Gospels, James is the most Jesus-centered book in the NT canon. While Paul theologizes about Jesus, he displays a measured interest in the teachings of Jesus (Acts 20:30). However, almost every point that James makes is grounded in or illustrated by an adapted saying or aphorism that echoes in some way a logion of his brother.
He shows by a table how "‎the teaching of Jesus in some way influences every paragraph of the book." Later, in the commentary, this perspective often "pays off," as in his treatment of 2:5. Varner uses this as an occasion to delve into reflections of Jesus' words in James, probing "layers at which many commentators cease exploring." For instance he sees this verse as echoing Matt 5:3//Lk 6:20b, and says "‎It is more than a chance similarity because both Jesus and James mention the poor as recipients and heirs of the kingdom."
How does Varner deal with the perceived clash between James and Paul? He laments, "Rarely has reading James apart from its being a foil for Pauline theology ever really taken place." He also says, very pointedly: "If either Paul or James is opposing the other, neither has done a very good job, because neither addresses the central point of the other’s argument." Specifically, James' "concern is not 'Should a person have faith?' but rather 'When is faith dead and when is it alive?'"

As Varner later observes:
James and Paul are not opponents facing each other with swords drawn. They are standing with their backs to each other, each drawing swords as they face a different opponent.
Aside: a helpful feature of this book is a list of foreign and technical words. Oddly, however, in discussing James' literary type, Varner uses the uncommon word "protreptic" and doesn't define it or list it later appendix.

In his commentary, Varner shows that he is a very attentive reader of James, frequently featuring judicious observations on James' use of word linkage, catchwords, and alliteration, as well as employment of discourse analysis. And though very scholarly, Varner writes with a pastoral eye. Note his comment on 1:2 —
‎The salutation of 1:1 might sound like a mockery to those who were suffering under various trials, but James proceeds to show that these very trials are grounds for joy. For this thought, see also Matthew 5:10–15 and 1 Peter 4:12–14, where the teaching is that suffering is not strange or foreign to the Christian life, but is a part of the training for glory. Therefore, χαίρετε [rejoice]! The idea is exemplified by the disciples in Acts 5:41: “… rejoicing (χαίροντες) that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for the name.” “Joy is the proper perspective for the test of faith: ‘consider it sheer joy.’ This joy, however, is not the detachment of the Greek philosopher (4 Macc 9–11), but the eschatological joy of those expecting the intervention of God in the end of the age (Jud. 8:25)” (Davids, 67–68).
Every word and every turn of James' syntax receives thorough analysis and documentation. Varner's style of writing is solid and broadly accessible. Sometimes, it's just plain fun. For instance, after a very technical exegesis of 1:5-8, in the Biblical Theology Comments Varner refers to "‎Mr. Facing Both Ways" from Pilgrim's Progress. Also, Varner calls the χρυσοδακτύλιος of 2:3 "Mr. 'Goldfinger'"! And how many other technical, exegetical commentaries on James will reference Cool Hand Luke, as Varner later does?

One interpretive quibble I might voice is on 1:5-8, where I would have liked to see Varner more explicitly counter the (mis-)reader who would take this as a prescription for mysticism. (My own attempt to do this can be found in God's Wisdom in Proverbs, 107-126.)

Despite the thoroughness of the volume, I might have wished for more, here and there. For instance, still with the stench of Hodges' influence over the commentary on the Johannine epistles, on 2:26 I would have liked to see Varner interact with the pernicious idea that the faith being dead means that this faith was once alive, so it's really saving faith, just not robust in-fellowship faith. You know, it isn't really really dead, it's just restin', just pinin' for the Fjords. Yuck. Varner clearly does not hold that view but, as I say, I'd have liked to see specific engagement and annihilation.

I would have liked more comment on the grammatical force of the aorist passive imperative in 4:10 (ταπεινώθητε — get yourselves humbled?). How do I actively obey the command to receive an action? However, in the Biblical Theology comment section Varner does say:
To “humble ourselves before the Lord” means to recognize our own spiritual poverty, to acknowledge consequently our desperate need of God’s help, and to submit to His commanding will for our lives. As was already mentioned, this humility is exemplified in the tax-collector of Jesus’ parable, who because of the consciousness of his own sin, called out to God for mercy. In response, Jesus pronounces him justified, and declares: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). This saying was echoed later in 2 Corinthians 11:7 and 1 Peter 5:6 and becomes part and parcel of the rich series of paradoxes which convey the true nature of the Christian life (e.g., the last shall be first; the slave will be truly free; to die is to live; to be humbled is to be exalted—see the homiletical suggestions below).
Also, I was a little surprised not to read any comment per se on the unusual words ἡ εὐχὴ or τὸν κάμνοντα in the commentary on James 5:15.

If these are even seen as issues, they are minor. The beauty of the EEC series is that Varner easily might expand any of these with ease in future editions. In the course of reading, I found a host of typos, as I had with Derickson, again making me wonder about the thoroughness of the editorial process; but these were submitted to Logos and were or are being corrected — something impossible in hard-copy volumes.

I recommend Varner's commentary on James. Any evangelical pastor who wants to preach or teach on James must have Varner. Happily for you, there's time to get it for your pastor for Christmas! I appreciate Logos providing it to me for my impartial review, and happy to make a hearty recommendation.

Also: I just learned that this volume will be the inaugural volume of the EEC series to be printed as a hard copy.

Dan Phillips's signature


Paul E said...

Thanks for the review. I recently finished preaching through James this past October, and I found Varner to be very beneficial. Though some of his insights that you mention were indeed helpful, the layout in discourse analysis was what I benefited from most.

Rich Tatum said...

Wow, what a thorough review, Dan! I loved the quote about James being the most "Jesus-soaked" book in the NT apart from the gospels.



Rich Tatum said...

Wow, what a thorough review, Dan! I really appreciated the call-out about James being the most "Jesus-soaked" book of the NT apart from the Gospels. Interesting insight.



JackW said...

Seems like those Logos guys are always editing and re-editing, huh?

Doug Hibbard said...

I will be watching for this to hit the print shelves.

I hate that budget issues kept me from jumping on the initial pre-pub price for the whole EEC series, but I couldn't find the money then. Having to do it piecemeal. This'll be the first piece.

Doug Hibbard said...

On a semi-related note, to those of you who are stricken with budget issues, I would note that one can "rent" the EEC series from Logos. Obviously, a perpetual rental would be foolish, but you can access the material temporarily if you need it for a sermon series.

Brett said...

Dan, do you happen to know the release date for the hard copy of this volume? Thanks in advance!

DJP said...


Aaron Snell said...

I taught through James this last summer, and greatly benefited from this commentary. I think the fact that the commentary was rooted primarily in the discourse analysis approach (and in fact thus helped me to really see the structure of the text) was for me the most helpful aspect. Good review, and good resource to spotlight.

Aaron Snell said...

Brett - it's already released. I own it. Softcover, published by Kress, copyright 2010.

DJP said...

No, Aaron, the Kress volume isn't this.

Aaron Snell said...

Oh, interesting. Never mind. The Kress book is good, too.