Book Review: James by Dan G. McCartney
The book of James has often been the center of controversy. From Luther’s wondering if it should even be included in the canon (he did include it by the way) to people in our day pitting James against Paul against Jesus. As Reformed Christians we believe “the whole counsel of God” is a unified whole from Genesis to Revelation and that we are to “interpret Scripture with Scripture.” Therefore, Jesus, Paul, and James all need to be saying the same thing! Dan McCartney in his BECNT commentary on the epistle of James does a wonderful job of working through the tough issues that many have with this epistle.
The BECNT series has as a goal to avoid treating exegetical questions “in relative isolation from the thrust of the argument as a whole” (ix). McCartney answers questions not just within the argument James is making (“the importance of true faith and the danger of a false, self-deluded, hypocritical faith” ) but within the Bible’s argument that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone because of the finished work of Christ alone. Throughout the commentary we are brought to connections from James to the Old Testament, the Gospels, and even Paul. This concern of placing James and his emphases within its broader contexts is a strong feature of this volume especially for those teaching or preaching through James. We are continually convinced that James agrees with Paul and with Christ. For pastors preaching on some of these tougher parts of James we can calm the fears of our hearers that Christ’s work alone saves fully and completely, and any works that we do are out of gratitude and only serve to prove the genuineness of our faith.
There are a couple of other features of this volume that I appreciated greatly and they bracket the actual commentary itself. The first is the introduction and the second are the excurses at the end (think of it as an Oreo cookie—the top and bottom cookies are great on their own, but combine them with the creamy center and everything is just grand!). One thing that stands out concerning the introductory material is that it is very extensive—no leaf has been left unturned—but yet it is a joy to read. I looked at other BECNT commentaries that I have on my shelves and here are the relative lengths of the introductory material compared to the length of the actual commentary: Luke – 2.6%, John – 3.1%, Acts – 6.7%, Romans – 3.4%, Philippians – 20.7%, and 1 Peter – 21.3%. James’ introduction by comparison is 40.0% the length of the actual commentary! Again, I see this as a benefit of the book and not a hindrance. McCartney arranges the information very methodically and makes it very easy to see all the differing views in comparison with each other before making his own conclusions on many topics concerning this epistle. Having this material allows the reader to have confidence in the authenticity of James as a canonical book as well as putting in its proper historical context so that any apparent differences with Paul can be worked out.
The second feature to highlight are the excurses McCartney gives after the close of the commentary proper. Essentially these are brief summaries of what has been given throughout the commentary’s exegesis applied to specific questions being asked of James today: “Faith as the Central Concern of James,” “Faith, Works, and Justification in James and Paul,” “James and Wisdom,” and “James and Suffering.” These are relatively short (5, 8, 13, and 8 pages respectively) and are quite helpful.
Since this volume is a commentary something should be said about the commentary proper! The text is arranged by sections and then pericopes (as to be expected) with each beginning with a brief summary to orientate readers. The exegesis and exposition is done primarily verse-by-verse, but at many points multiple verses are grouped together to keep the arguments within their proper contexts. As mentioned above, McCartney does a great job of pointing the reader outside the Book of James and back to Christ’s teaching, Paul’s letters, or even the Old Testament (especially the Psalms, Proverbs, and prophets). When there are important variations of interpretation on a particular text McCartney very systematically presents the options and their strengths/weaknesses before making his own conclusion. This is one of the goals of the BECNT series to not “avoid the difficult questions,” but also to not to “cover every conceivable issue that might arise” (ix). McCartney gives very balanced presentations of the “problems” and carefully exposits the Scripture to underline how the text needs to be properly understood.
Overall, I find the BECNT series to be very helpful and James is no exception. The text does contain some technical interactions with Greek words and grammar for those trained in such matters, but not to such an extent that a layperson would be overwhelmed (most of the “heavy lifting” concerning the Greek text is handled on its own at the end of the sections). I would recommend pastors and those interested in studying James to have this off their shelves and opened often.
Reviewed by Mark Vander Pol