Zondervan has been putting out a series of “A Theology of…” books for the last few years. Now along with Bock’s volume on Luke-Acts and Kostenberger’s on John, we have the next volume by Peter Davids, A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude. Davids is no stranger to the Catholic Epistles having written commentaries on each of these books (James [NIGTC], 1 Peter [NICNT], 2 Peter and Jude [PNTC, which is very good, my review upcoming]). Having done his PhD thesis in 1974 on Judaistic themes in James, this book comes 40 years later, almost like an anniversary to that thesis (though if that really was the plan, I haven’t received the memo).
Pretty much, the way this book works is that Chapter 1 is the introductory chapter which covers common issues and themes between the letters. This chapter focuses on the unity of the four letters. Davids views issues like the authors’ Greco-Roman background, their theology, Christology, view on sin and its source, and their eschatology. Along with this we have to deal with the issues of implied authorship and pseudonymity, as each of these letters are under suspicion of having been written by someone other than the named authors (James, Peter, and Jude).
Chapters 2-5 cover recent scholarship of each book, some introductory issues (date, authorship, historical situation, false teachers, literary structure, outline, etc).
Next is a rhetorical commentary of the particular book which looks at how the letter is divided into different sections that complements the whole.
Next comes Important Theological Themes (ITT) which deals with a variety of (you guessed it) themes (e.g., the nature of God, Jesus, the community, eschatology, revelation, cosmology, salvation, divine messengers, ethics, etc).
Finally, the chapters end with the Canonical Contribution. What does each letter bring to the table? What aspects of theology do we gain from these four letters? What more do we learn about our God? Though many are related, this section too can vary from issues like the role of Jesus, to a theology of suffering and healing, to the role of scripture and how the letter relates to the OT and NT, to standing firm in the faith without falling.
The Chocolate Milk
Davids, recognizing the emphasis that has been placed on Paul’s letters, calls for a refocusing on these four small letters. He doesn’t want to downplay Paul’s letters by any means, but he wants to lift up the forgotten and have Christians realize the significance found in these letters. Commentaries on James boomed in the 1990s, but before that there were only a few to be found. Many in the last 50-60 years are seeing the importance of these letters in the life of the church.
In this importance and with the theological focus of the four letters, Davids shows in some places how these letters are connected. While the connections don’t abound, throughout the commentary on each book Davids will cite how an idea in James is found in Jude. And while the rhetorical commentary moves quickly, Davids shows you the main idea and what is really important to know.
When you’re teaching or preaching on a book, it’s hard to find a good place to go that gives you good, deep, holistic information in a short span of time. An annoying aspect of preaching is getting to the end of 1 Peter and realizing that your message on The Living Hope in 1 Peter 1 would have been ‘better’ if you had known how 1 Peter 5 fit into the context. While you won’t be able to study an entire book of the Bible and be finished with your sermon preparation in a week, having a volume that summarizes the message and theology of the Catholic Epistles certainly helps one get a firm grasp on the letters.
The Spoiled Milk
Despite the above section, I don’t think this volume is up to par with the Luke and John volumes. While the ITT section is helpful, I thought it was lacking.
Davids gives it two long paragraphs on the Theology of Healing in James and despite saying that “James gives us the most explicit teaching about healing in the New Testament,” Davids doesn’t give us much to read about James’ idea of healing and the theology surrounding it in (the same goes with his Theology of Suffering section). With all the commentaries under his belt, I thought there should be more depth in the ITT sections (though some are very good).
I’m curious as to Davids’ resoning in distancing himself from accepting James’ conception and approval of the divinity of Jesus. Davids doesn’t deny that James may have thought of Jesus as divine, but he doesn’t explicitly affirm it either (pg 74, fn. 128; pg 75; 2.4.3). Davids acknowledges James’ confession of Jesus as “our glorious Lord, the Anointed One (2.1; cf. 1.1), and agrees that “since James does not discuss the topic [of Jesus’ divinity], we have no reason for saying that he did not believe in it” (74, fn. 128).
Yet it seems that what hinders Davids from giving a definitive answer is the date of the writing (if James would have been alive when the idea of Christ as divine was being thrown around) and the precision of scholarship in general. Perhaps we don’t have an explicit statement from James speaking of Christ as Son of God, nor a text on the Holy Spirit, but should we conclude that James is a binitarian who doesn’t think Jesus is divine?
But perhaps I’m the one who’s being too hard. And this issue does not cause the book nor the author’s arguments to fall apart. David’s has spent much more time studying the Bible than I have, he knows more about the history and Christological discussions of the time, and perhaps he did not have enough space to better formulate his meaning. But if James thought of Jesus as “divine-less,” how did this letter end up in the NT canon anyway?
If you are a teacher or a pastor who is going to be going through these four letters, this volume is for you. Regardless of some of the spoiled comments above, those issues are only minor. If I taught on a class on these general epistles I would use this book. Heavily. And I would consider getting Davids’ commentaries too. In fact, I’ll be reviewing his 2 Peter & Jude commentary in the PNTC series in a while, and I look forward to reading it. Despite a few questionable comments Davids has, he’s been studying these letters now for 40 some-odd years. You shouldn’t pass that up.
- Series:Biblical Theology of the New Testament Series
- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Zondervan (October 21, 2014)
- Amazon: US // UK
[Special thanks to Emily, Sarah, and Zondervan for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]