It’s not there. Not explicitly. There’s no overt mention of the cross of Christ in the Epistle of James, nor of the resurrection for that matter (although the resurrection is clearly implied in 5:15).
The absence of the cross is striking and it led Martin Luther to degrade James to “strawy epistle” status. In Luther’s words, Paul, John, and Peter “show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know.” On the contrary, James “is really an epistle of straw compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”
If the cross is so important why is it absent from the book of James? Is James deficient? Is my personal emphasis on the cross proven to be faulty by James? These are big questions, and they are big questions that get tackled in Richard Bauckham’s thoughtful commentary on James (pages 135–140), a book I read last week (occasionally I read commentaries cover-to-cover).
First off, Bauckham provides evidence that a substantial Christology undergirds the entire Epistle of James, an important point but one I will not detail here. It’s worth noting that he makes this conclusion:
James’ Christology is closer to Paul’s than first impressions might suggest.
His arguments are solid.
It remains the case that anything like the Pauline soteriological interpretation of and focus on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus is completely absent.
But a second consideration should be borne in mind at this point. James writes paraenesis. …
Pause for a moment. So what is paraenesis?
Paraenesis is defined as “a technical term for moral exhortation and advice. While catechesis is the form of teaching that tends to emphasize basic instruction in the content of the faith [like the theology of the cross and resurrection], paraenesis is the instructional model in which ethical counsel and moral education were provided in a pattern of exhortation applied to practical problems or issues of living” (DLNT). The book of James is largely paraenesis, it has even been called the Proverbs of the New Testament.
Okay, now back to Bauckham:
… An appropriate comparison is not with Pauline letters as such, but with the paraenetic sections of such letters. These may well be among the most traditional parts of Paul’s letters, drawing on common traditions and patterns of Christian ethical instruction.
Romans 12–13 are an extensive example, and are no less lacking in Christology than James is. In the 35 verses of these chapters, Paul refers to Jesus Christ only three times (12:5, 11; 13:14). The frequency is only a little greater than in James (7 references in 107 verses). Two of the references (Rom. 12:5; 13:14) have characteristically Pauline Christological features. Like James, Paul in these chapters probably reflects the teaching of Jesus, but only implicitly (12:14, 17; 13:9), and, again like James, he refers to the law and all of its commandments (13:8-10).
Here’s his point:
Surprising as it may be, it seems that early Christian paraenesis, even in Paul, generally lacked much Christological reference. So James is as Christological as we should expect the kind of Christian literature he writes to be.
Explicit references to the cross are absent in the Epistle of James, but that should not surprise us. This is not uncharacteristic for its genre, even in Paul. Catechesis and paraenesis serve unique functions, functions that complement one another (a point made obvious in the broader context of Romans).
“That there are very considerable differences between James and Paul is not in doubt,” he writes. Yet by looking at the distinct functions of genre, Bauckham helps us see the continuity between James and Paul and, to me at least, suggests one way to reconcile James with Scripture’s overall priority on the gospel.