1. Tell us a bit about your background and family.
My wife and I grew up together as best friends in our local Baptist church outside of Kansas City. We shared our excitement about the Gospel in helping lead a Bible study in our high school and eventually married and served for a few years doing mission work in Mexico and Eastern Europe. We now have three children, Maddie, Evan, and Aidan who we enjoy watching grow up and growing deep in the Lord.2. Describe your educational journey and what lead you into NT studies and ultimately your dissertation research in James.
My university studies were interrupted (almost ended!) when I decided that I had been, to that point, a Christian of modest knowledge and even less action and therefore decided to serve as a missionary for three years. During those overseas experiences I remember finding myself in a situation where our evangelistic team working in Romania had to quickly shift from street evangelism to discipleship ministry because of the number of people who had responded to the Gospel. I was charged with teaching several groups of new believers in a particular apartment block and found that I had very little to teach them. It was then that I sensed the call to return to university for the express purpose of going on to seminary, so if ever I was in the same position I would be better equipped.
While in seminary my wife and I initially pursued training for future service in missions, but quickly discovered that whether teaching on the mission field or in the US, I would need a terminal degree. So I talked with my seminary professors about how and where to begin pursuing a PhD in NT. Through a variety of very different sources I continued to receive the same recommendation to study with Richard Bauckham
at the University of St. Andrews, in St. Andrews, Scotland. This seemed like the most unattainable program and destination but eventually that is exactly where we ended up.
I had already been interested in James because of an experience I had in Belarus during a mission trip. After preaching a very zealous (and youthful) sermon on Jesus’ love for sinners, an elderly woman stood to her feet at the back of the school room where we were meeting and through a translator asked me in Russian, “What about the suffering?” I remember finding myself at a total loss for words. Shortly after that encounter I began to read James and found some initial answers regarding the role of suffering in the Christian life. Though I have been studying James for several years now I still am deeply challenged by the idea that trials work endurance in the life of a believer and that James himself teaches how real wisdom is displayed: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (Jas 3:13b).3. Speaking of your dissertation, the revised form entitled Purity and Worldview in the Epistle of James has recently been published by T&T Clark. Could you explain how James’ purity language encompasses more than just the moral sphere and what worldview the epistle expresses to its readers?
Considering the function of purity language in James began as a discrete investigation of an interesting way of describing wisdom (“wisdom from above is first pure” 3.17), but quickly developed into a unique avenue into exploring how the letter creates a worldview for its audience. Whereas commentators frequently restrict the categories for purity language in James to either ritual or metaphorical (and uniformly conclude the language is a metaphor for personal morality), I found such analysis overly restrictive and neglectful of how purity language was used in the first-century. Current research of purity language in ancient Israel calls into question the rigid either/or categorization of purity language. Such descriptions of purity are not only unjustifiably restrictive, but they also fail to account for the function or meaning of the language within the rhetorical goals of a composition.
My central argument is that purity language both articulates and constructs James’ worldview and thus serves as an important theme in the text. After developing a more representative list of the ways purity language was used in the first-century, I used those categories as a heuristic guide to understand the function of purity and pollution in James. This analysis demonstrated four specific things: 1) though purity language occurs relatively infrequently, it is used at crucial points of the letter (1:26-27; 3:6, 17; 4:8); 2) that the use of purity and pollution specifically functions within the overall strategy of contrasts in James which are designed to lead readers to a decision; 3) that the majority of the time purity language labeled “the world” (and by extension those associated with it) as set against the implicit purity of God; and therefore, 4) the readers of James must be separate from the impure world (that is, they must be “pure”) in order to be wholehearted in devotion to God (“perfect”).
Because the purity of the audience is directly related to their proximity to the world (the ambient culture), I considered specifically what kind of separation is envisioned by the use of purity language. While purity is indeed boundary language, the cultural stance of James is complex. The author shows signs of acculturation, yet this acculturation is employed to call the audience to specific points of separation from surrounding culture, namely separation from patron-client relationships with the “rich” and use of inappropriate and deceitful speech. Thus I do not think James is not calling for sectarian separation from the surrounding culture (as others have argued), but rather is a complex document demonstrating cultural accommodation while calling forth specific socio-cultural boundaries between the readers and the world all for the purpose of begin wholly before and for God.4. Explain how an understanding of the ‘two ways’ motif helps illuminate James’ theological message rather than focusing on the structure of James’ epistle which seems to suffer from a hopeless lack of consensus in Jacobean scholarship.
The related issues of structure and coherence in James have been perennial questions for students of this letter. Though a number of studies have begun to appreciate the coherence of James, there has been little consensus regarding James’ structure. I suggest that a more profitable question may be: How does the Letter of James communicate its message? Or even better: What is James’ strategy for instructing his audience? Rather than leading to debates over which structuring technique James most closely approximates, this question helps clarify the purpose of the letter.
I think that merely identifying a plausible structure, while helpful, does not uncover the author’s communicative intention. Especially in the case of James, the quest for structure does not pay the returns one might think. Therefore one must consider how James’ communicative strategy unfolds through his argumentative logic—a logic, some scholars have argued is fashioned around key thematic contrasts. Working with the basic insights of L. T. Johnson
and others on this point, I have argued in a recent article that the contrasts in James function to move readers to a decision between one of two extreme ‘ways’ or ‘paths’ of living and that these contrasts largely function along the lines of the traditional Jewish “Two Ways” motif.
In exhibiting the typical features of the “Two Ways” motif, James consistently contrasts different ways of living: “the way of life” and the “way of death”. The goal of this form of teaching is to inculcate virtues while at the same time weakening the hold of vices—to weaken the grip of the world’s alternate view of reality. As individuals entered into new covenant relationship with God through “faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” they needed continued reorientation of both perception of reality and behavior. One’s past perceptions and behaviors stood as a significant obstacle thus James used the pedagogical style of “Two Ways” to develop new dispositions—literally to retrain the follower with new virtues while extirpating ingrained vices. Clearly James’ communicative intent was to challenge his readers to make a choice in light of two clearly antithetical ways of living and their respective ends—James persuades his readers to be animated by the “word/law/wisdom” on the path of life.5. You have also done some work on Jude. Can you talk about the apparent neglect in scholarship concerning this epistle, and second, how Jude’s polemic against the false teachers may in the end prove redemptive?
I think Jude has suffered from consistent neglect for two reasons: 1) an obvious reason is its length—at a mere 25 verses it is easy to pass over without notice; and 2) Jude has suffered from the unfortunate characterization as an undisciplined, violent polemic—of course which has led to negative assessment of the epistle’s theological value. Especially on the second point, too many studies have over emphasized the letter’s polemical section to the detriment of its positive theological voice. There are some notable exceptions that have avoided this pitfall however. Richard Bauckham argues that Jude’s polemic reveals a skillfully woven argument contained in vv. 5-19 which serves the overarching appeal of the letter. He suggests viewing the polemical section as a support for the central appeal of the letter—the appeal to ‘contend for the faith’ in vv. 3-4 as the theme of the letter which comes to a climax in vv. 20-23. J. Daryl Charles expresses a similar evaluation.
Now the second part of your question is more complicated and contested. I gave a paper at the SBL Consultation on “Methodological Reassessments of the Letters of James, Peter, and Jude” (November 2007) where I argued against the traditional view of how vv. 22-23 function in the letter. The traditional understanding of vv. 22-23 is that Jude’s audience is exhorted to extend mercy to members of the community who are wavering in their faith due to the influence of the false teachers. This position rests upon two assertions: first, that διακρινομέ
νους be translated ‘doubt’ and second, that the three relative pronouns (ό̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̖̀̀̀̀̀ὕ
ς) in vv. 22-23 refer to subcategories within Jude’s audience—namely, some ‘who doubt’ (v. 22), ‘others’ and ‘others’ (v. 23). Contrary to both of these points I argued that 1) διακρινομέ
νους in v. 22 should be rendered ‘those who dispute’ (which is generally not controversial); and 2) that the μὲ
construct in a series here is anaphoric (distributing a sentence into clauses offering further description of the same group). Thus, rather than a final condemnation of the false teachers, I argued that the climax of the letter calls Jude’s readers to show mercy to this group (‘those who dispute’, v. 22), while not allowing themselves to be polluted by their sinfulness (defilement)—‘hating the clothing stained by the flesh.’ Though I argued with vigor I did not convince many in the room. But it was a good experience.