According to James: Studying Norman Shepherd (Part 1)
When I find a book that I like I can't help but devour it. I think I've got around 500 books in my library. Some of them I've never read, or only made it through a few chapters. Others I've read once, but there are a few that I've read multiple times, and keep coming back to. I've only owned "The Way of Righteousness" by Norman Shepherd for about two months, but it already falls in the last category.
I'd never heard of Shepherd until this year, but I was familiar with many of the views and concepts he presents in his work. I was particularly pleased with his treatment on "Justification According to James."
I listened to a lecture of his the other day, and he said he taught seminary students the doctrine of justification for about 9 years without ever bringing up James' epistle. He then said that the more he read and studied what James had to say, the more he realized he needed to bring it into the classroom.
I'm just a young man in my 30's. Norman Shepherd has been in a controversy about justification since the 1970's, before I was even born. I'm not seeking to really add to anything he's said per say (in this blog series), but I'd like to give my thoughts on portions of his book. I've read it now three times. I've also listened to lectures of his on the subject multiple times.
The first comment that got my attention was this statement from page 20 (which is actually page two of the first chapter).
"We tend to think of Paul on justification as very clear and easily understood, but we regard James as a problem to be solved rather than as a clear and authentic proclamation of saving grace."
I've talked with scores of folks about justification, many pastors included. If James is ever brought up in the conversation, they pretty much regard it as second class, not really necessary, or an addendum. Sometimes I've found they've never really tackled James at all.
I think it's often because they are scared what other pastors or theologians might think or say or label them as if they go "too deeply" into faith that works. Maybe they think they'll sound too "Roman Catholic," I don't know.
I do know this -- Shepherd is living proof that when a Protestant theologian decides to unpack and exegete James 2:14-26, it certainly lessens his popularity among peers.
Why do we view James as a problem to begin with? Why do we view the Bishop of the church at Jerusalem to be less an authority on justification than Paul? Why is it that we begin in James thinking, "Let me see how this harmonizes with Romans," instead of exegeting the text by itself as we have no problem doing when walking through texts like Romans 3-5?
If we're asked a question about James 2:14-26 and the first thing we do is jump to another text to explain it then we don't really have an argument against Shepherd's view.
Shepherd has done a diligent job at showing me, more clearly than any author I've ever read, to go into James 2:14-26 ready to understand it first in light of the epistle of James as a whole. After we spend time doing this we can branch out and seek harmonization; that's fine. But let's give Elder Ya'acov (James) respect. The Holy Spirit was carrying him along in writing too.