Practical Faith & Active Love: Meditations on the Epistle to James. By Joel W. Huffstetler. Berkeley, CA: The Apocryphile Press. 2020. 109 pp. Paper, $16.95.
Joel Huffstetler is an Episcopal priest. This book originally caught my eye because I was curious as to how somebody from his background would interpret the book of James. Most Evangelicals are accustomed to a Lordship view of understanding the book.
This is a short book, but Huffstetler refers to many different evangelical scholars. It is not a commentary on James. Instead, the author gives meditations about how the teachings in James relate to the current COVID-19 crisis and racial social unrest. Huffstetler says that the teaching in James can help the church, the culture, and the nation.
Readers of JOTGES will be disappointed that Huffstetler does not have a high view of inspiration. He says that there is a “possibility” that the author was the brother of the Lord and lived in the first century. However, it is interesting that he says the book is a NT example of Wisdom Literature and is concerned about physical health (p. xiv). Throughout the book he notices how there are many parallels with James and the Sermon on the Mount. For Huffstetler, it is clear that he sees James as helpful in the area of discipleship. This is a departure from most Evangelicals.
Huffstetler does not have an interest in the Lordship theology debate surrounding the book, so it is significant that he says that James deals with how a Christian can mature in the faith. God uses trials to produce that maturity (p. 2). Unfortunately, he applies this to the nation, and not just the individual believer. COVID-19 is a trial for our country and James teaches that we as a nation can come through this as a better country. In his meditation on Jas 1:16-18, Huffstetler does not even mention the new birth for the individual.
The major weakness of the book is that it does not address the exegetical meaning of any of the verses. Time and time again, it speaks of the turmoil in our country. Huffstetler never mentions eternal life. He does, however, talk about putting our Christian faith in action, specifically how we can respond to the current crises (p. 18).
Huffstetler rightly sees that James speaks at length about the damage the tongue can do (p. 23). In addition, Jas 2:1-9 warns against making distinctions between people based upon wealth. However, he does not see this as a warning about how we treat those within the church. Instead, he sees the application of these things in the death of black men at the hands of police and racists (p. 32).
When it comes to James 2, Huffstetler says that our faith should lead to good deeds and that our deeds reflect our faith (p. 34). He does not fall into the trap of many Evangelicals who say that a faith that does not produce works never existed. James is speaking of a practical faith that makes a difference in the lives of others. Christians should concern themselves about how they can do that (p. 38).
The author says that James is as practical today as it was when it was written. The sins of the tongue can be committed on social platforms like Facebook and email. James himself was tempted to misuse his tongue, and we can be especially tempted in such environments to speak too quickly and in an unloving manner.
In discussing Jas 3:13-18, where James speaks of wisdom as being peaceable, Huffstetler demonstrates what is the biggest weakness of the book. He does not apply this wisdom to situations among believers. Instead, he says that we must be willing to change our minds about social and political things, such as the racism we see in the culture today (p. 50).
Free Grace readers will appreciate that Huffstetler takes the view that Christians can fail to persevere in good works to the end of their lives. He says that James addresses believing readers as the “sinners” in Jas 4:8, and that believers may indeed find themselves in situations where they need to repent (pp. 53-54). Huffstetler says that James teaches us that believers can be guilty of murder if they are greedy and withhold what is necessary for living to those who are economically disadvantaged (p. 69). The point is that believers need to have a social conscience.
This book is a mixed bag. Huffstetler is very liturgical in his faith. He often speaks of The Book of Common Prayer, and how the meditations of this book can be used in the liturgy of the church. He also is very ecumenical. When he applies the teachings in the book of James to the righteousness of the BLM movement and how social unrest in our nation should be addressed, he is taking teachings meant for the church and forcing them onto situations involving unbelievers. These are all negative aspects of the book.
But there are also some positive things. Huffstetler recognizes that the book of James is a practical book and one that teaches believers how they can mature in their faith through trials. He rightly sees it as Wisdom Literature. It is good to see that someone not involved in the Free Grace/Lordship debate understands that believers can fail in the issues James discusses. James wants his readers to be wise. He wants believers’ actions to reflect what they believe. Our faith can mature, but there is no guarantee it will. For these reasons, I recommend the book.
Kenneth W. Yates
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society