The message that James is trying to get across has been found by an ordered study of his epistle from beginning to end. It is possible to look at the epistle in another way. In dealing with his subject, James lets slip in many beliefs and practices that he uses as illustrations or to support his arguments. Although these are not the main presentation of James, they reveal the contours of the faith which he professes and assumes. We can note some of these in this second reading of the epistle.
The first principle of belief that appears is the unity of God. James comes down very firmly on the unity of God. This begins in 1:17, where James makes the assertion that God, or `the Father of lights', as he puts it, does not change. The changelessness of God has very important theological ramifications. There is hardly any expression in the Bible that more clearly supports the idea of God's absoluteness than this. Changelessness is inconsistent with the concept of a god who incarnates, moves in time and space, eats, sleeps, breathes, dies, resurrects, or bears offspring, since all of these activities entail change.
In 2:19 James takes issue with the belief that confession of the unity of God is sufficient for salvation. This is a belief that is current among a certain quarter of Muslims today. James's position is that, although such a confession is the first pillar of belief, still it is not in itself sufficient for salvation. Taking the narrow view of the confession of the unity of God, it is only natural that James would reject this easy, inactive road. Interestingly enough, the attitude that James condemns here is not the faith-without-works position known in Christianity, something unknown to him, but an attitude in the early church which is much closer to something cropping up today in some Islamic circles, the magnification of the confession of the unity of God to the detriment of the other pillars of practice. One occasionally finds a Muslim who considers that the Shahadatan or confession of the unity of God and the apostlehood of the prophet suffice without carrying out the points of practice in prayer, fasting, and so on.
The unity of God is reiterated in 4:12, where James says that there is but one lawgiver in reference to God.
The justice of God is an underlying understanding in the epistle. In 1:13 James takes a clear position that God does no evil. James rejects the stand that God can be arbitrary in judgement. In 4:12 James supports his view by noting God to be a lawgiver, on the basis of which He is able injustice to save and destroy. Finally, he implies in 5:9 that God's judgement based on behaviour is not only sure but impartial, therefore just.
The epistle of James is strongly based on the prophetic tradition. The principle is overtly stated in 5:10. `Take the prophets for an example.' The sequence of prophets upon which he bases his line of thought is as follows: Abraham (2:21-23), job (5:11), and Elijah (5:17-18).
The idea that the verbal law or revelation must be supplemented by a divine revelation in real flesh and observable actions is only a logical corollary to James's practical emphasis of works that demonstrate faith. The principle is clearly seen in such texts as 2:1, where Jesus is referred to as `of glory' and 1:17 where God is referred to as the `father of lights'. The somewhat obscure wording `every good gift and every perfect gift' becomes clear in this context, if it refers to the bounty of divine proof. An idea which is historically and theologically close to the messianic promise and the concept of divine guidance in the flesh, is the idea of the perfect man. This appears in 1:4 and 3:2. This belief is often coupled with the veneration of the human face, or person. This extension is found throughout the spirit of the epistle, but especially in 3:9 and 4:11.
Finally the belief in the Day of judgement is strongly implied throughout the epistle and often mentioned outright, as in 5:1-3,9.
Besides beliefs, a number of religious practices are mentioned. Prayer (note 5:13,16) is mentioned and with it presumably ablutions (4:8). The fasting of the Day of Atonement is probably referred to in 4:9, and is reminiscent of how many Muslims celebrate the same date in Muharrem. The giving of alms is central to the epistle, but mentioned especially in 1:27 and 2:15-16.
Some liturgical formulas and religious expressions of speech occur in the epistle. The Islamic `Depart in peace' (2:16) and `If the Lord will' (4:15) are complemented by the Jewish prayer formula 'Baruch atta Adonai' (Blessed art Thou, O Lord) in (3:9). The phrase `God most gracious, ever merciful' of the Qur'an of course has its roots in the Torah. It is paraphrased here in 5:11.
There seems to be one point above all others that lends a sectarian character to this book, which could otherwise be within the mainstream of Islam or Judaism. That is the prohibition of swearing (5:12). This could be an echo of the teaching of Jesus, already referred to earlier, which was a prohibition of the misuse of swearing.
The final chapter of James mentions a number of religious practices which have been preserved in Christian tradition probably to a great extent because they are mentioned here. Among these are anointing and prayer for the sick by the elders of the church (5:14), and the practice of the confessional (5:16). It is extremely doubtful that either of these at the time of James appeared in so institutionalised a form as they do today in Christianity. Their appearance in Islam is probably closer to the spirit of the text. On the other hand, in all likelihood the singing of Psalms was an intensely institutionalised practice in the early church while Christians and even Jews have more or less lost Psalm singing as an institution today. Although the Psalms are sometimes mentioned in connection with the life of Muhammad in Islamic tradition, their liturgical use has practically disappeared.
The Epistle of James would be a good place
to start in a dialogue among the three great faiths of Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam. The Bible as a whole has a very profound core of consistency. If all
would lay aside their traditional innovations and return to the Bible text, we
might see the frontiers of conflict among Christianity, Judaism and Islam
disappear. The heart core of all the revealed faiths is the one true God.