Studies in Galatians Episode III: Mariam J. Kamell on Reading Galatians and James Together

galatians and christian theologyIn this, the final post of our series looking at some of the essays in Galatians and Christian Theology, we are turning to Mariam Kamell’s, “Life in the Spirit and Life in Wisdom.” Kamell’s background is in the study of wisdom in the Epistle of James and in Jewish wisdom literature. She is currently a New Testament professor teaching out at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.

The Apostles Paul and James were spiritual brothers in Christ. However, many get the impression that they must have been testy, quarrelsome siblings. Near the beginning of her piece, Kamell notes that, “There may be no two other epistles in the New Testament that have been so consistently contrasted to each other theologically as Galatians and James” (p.353). Martin Luther, in his typically blunt way, described James as someone who “wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task” (Word and Sacrament I). 

Kamell thinks that many Christians have been too quick to pit Paul and James against each other, spending too much time focusing either on their contentious relationship suggested by Galatians 2 (“certain men came from James”) or “on their different views of the law and Abraham in Galatians 3 and James 2” (p.354). One common way of reading them in light of each other has been to interpret James’s insistence that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17 NRSV) as meaning that true faith in Christ leads to good works as a necessary consequence of being made a new creation in Christ. An example of this can be found in Reformed theologian Thomas Schreiner’s 2015 book, Faith Alone, where he asserts that “justification is by faith alone, but it is a faith that expresses itself in good works” (p.206).

Rather than strictly focusing directly on the faith vs. works issue in her essay, Kamell instead chooses to compare Paul’s treatment of life in the Spirit in Galatians 5-6 with James’s account of living according to wisdom.

Life in the Spirit in Galatians

As we observed in our last post, many people have assumed that the main substance of Paul’s theological arguments in Galatians are largely confined to Ch. 1-4, with Ch. 5-6 being full of secondary, ethical exhortations. Though this view may be slightly less popular now than in the past, it is still worth addressing. Kamell mentions the work of New Testament scholar Frank Matera, who contends that the final chapters of Galatians, far from being secondary to Paul’s main point, are actually where “Paul’s argument against circumcision reaches its culmination” (p. 355). Like Matera, Kamell finds Galatians 5-6 to be essential to Paul’s argument, especially since “5:1-6:10 describe ‘not ordinary ethical conduct but behavior which characterizes those led by the Spirit,’ and this behavior results from being in Christ” (p.355).

It is essential to remember that for Paul, freedom in Christ means (among other things) being free from adherence to regulations that divide the community along ethnic or other kinds of lines. Kamell adds that, “If freedom comes through Christ and is evidenced by life in the Spirit, then the law as embodied by circumcision or separate table fellowship cannot bring about life” (p.355). So what does this freedom marked by walking in the Spirit look like then?

First of all, she notes, it is a freedom that is paradoxically centered on serving one another in love (Gal. 5:6,13-14). This differentiates it from some more modern conceptions of freedom, which define it more as “license to live as we please” (p.355). Kamell helpfully makes this distinction more clear when she adds that, “this freedom is from a focus on the self and its desires to service of one another” (p.355). The true freedom that comes from life in the Spirit, according to Paul, is in stark contrast to a way of life controlled by one’s desires. Therefore, Kamell tells readers:

Paul begs them [the Galatians] to live as guided by the Spirit (5:18), having crucified “the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24), which is necessary to “inherit the kingdom” (5:21). Galatians 5:1-6:12, therefore, is the continuation of Paul’s fundamental argument throughout Galatians: the locus of salvation is in Christ and his Spirit, not in the external Torah regulations or libertine freedom. The ethics of this section are in no way secondary for Paul’s argument. Rather, surprisingly, Paul reserves his harshest language for this section because how one lives expresses the new reality in Christ. (p.356)

Reading Galatians 5-6 and James Together

Kamell believes that when we read through the Epistle of James and keep Galatians 5-6 in mind, a surprising number of similarities in both language and theme stand out (p.356). First of all, both Galatians and James wholeheartedly affirma that the crucial beginning point of the Christian life is brought about graciously by God. The key to understanding James, according to Kamell, is “the presupposition of a new birth by God’s will, which is the fulfillment of his new-covenant promise to Jeremiah” (p.357). Seen in this light, the ethical exhortations of James function much like Paul’s words in Galatians:

Since they [James’s audience] have received this rebirth, they will act accordingly because it empowers them to live free of the cycle of sin and death. As for Paul, so also with James, living out their freedom in service to one another in community is paramount (James 1:26-27; chap. 2; 4:1-12). For both Paul and James, Christianity—life in the Spirit—is worked out together. (p.357)

Paul and James speak of desire and its frequently negative role in the lives of Christians in similar ways. In Galatians, desire is most often found in the passages concerned with showing the desires of the flesh to be in opposition to those of the Spirit (p.357). Likewise, in James 1:14-15 we see the life cycle of desire, sin, and death portrayed as being “fundamentally and even eschatologically opposed to the life that comes through the rebirth given by God” (p.357). In both Galatians 5-6 and the Epistle of James, we therefore seem to find a shared perspective:

Selfish desires are tied to the old life, which, according to both Paul and James, is bound by the law of the flesh and destined for death. To live as controlled by desires, characterized by competition and strife, should be a serious warning sign. Wisdom, for James, frees the individual and community from the control of self-centered desire, just as the Spirit does for Paul. (p.358)

This highlights what might be the strongest area of congruence between James and Galatians. For Paul, one of the more discernible marks of those following Christ is the gift of the Spirit, which leads to the cultivation of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23) (p.359). In James, the gift given by God is wisdom “from above” (James 3:17), which is full of mercy and results in its own fruits. Here, Kamell follows the work of Peter Davids, who argues that passages like this in James are evidence of a “wisdom pneumatology” (p.359). In Kamell’s estimation, this proposal is quite plausible since throughout many parts of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit “takes on much of the prior function of Wisdom (as characterized in Proverbs and subsequent Wisdom literature) in revealing God and empowering righteous living” (p.359).

Other parallels between Galatians 5-6 and James that are worthy of note include references to the Law being summed in Jesus’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14; James 2:8), and exhortations for those who have been caught in sin to be restored (if possible) into fellowship with other believers (Gal 6:1; James 5:19-20). Kamell notes that these additional (if smaller) parallels show that both James and Paul highlight the emphasis on living life together in authentic Christian community (p.360).


So what are some insights that can be drawn from this study? By this point, it seems obvious that the exhortations contained in these passages are no mere “ethical niceties.” They contain essential parts of the portrait of life in Christ painted by both authors (p.362). The beginning point, in both Galatians and James, is grace. Kamell provides a nice summary of the thrust of her essay when she writes:

For both Paul and James, there is an empowering agent without which it is impossible to live righteously. Paul emphasizes the role of the Spirit in empowering, while for James it is wisdom that empowers… The Spirit is given by God as a response to faith, not to works (Gal. 3:1-5), just as wisdom is given by God as a response to faith because one lacks it (James 1:5-8). In both cases, the empowering agent cannot be earned, only given. (p.362)

In the end, Kamell does well to repeatedly highlight for potentially forgetful readers the fact that it is God who enables and empowers the righteous living of Christ’s followers, as imperfect as these efforts are. It is not due to anything in ourselves that we are able to carry out good works. Rather, it is because of the work of God in us. It also would be wrong to come away from this study with a triumphant, overly-optimistic view of the Christian life. Cultivating the fruit of the Spirit, and growing in wisdom “from above” are things that take place over the long haul.

So maybe Paul and James don’t appear quite so quarrelsome anymore. One way or the other, looking at the role of the Spirit in Galatians 5-6 and the wisdom ideology present in James does indeed seem to be a fruitful way of finding common ground in the seemingly disparate worlds of these two Apostles.


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