THE THEOLOGY OF PRAYER
C. RICHARD WELLS
One of the strangest and saddest omissions in modern theology is
prayer. A. Strong, for example, devoted but six pages to prayer under
the heading of providence.1 M. Erickson's fine recent work contains
only two pages on the subject, also under providence.2 On a single
page W. G. T. Shedd lists prayer as one of the external "means of
sanctification," along with Scripture, "Providential discipline," and the
"sacrament of the Supper."3 C. Hodge interprets prayer in light of both
providence and sanctification, still in less than twenty pages.4 Examples
need not be multiplied.5
Whatever accounts for this degree of neglect may also explain the
near oblivion to prayer as a major theme in the Epistle of James. The
introductions to James only rarely include prayer among the theological
themes, motifs and values of the Letter. Interpreters tend to orient the
1 A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, three volumes in
2 M. Erickson, Christian Theology (3 vols;
3 W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic
Theology (3 vols;
4 C. Hodge, Systematic Theology (3 vols.;
5 Interestingly, of the major contemporary theologies, K. Barth's Church Dogmatics
interpretation of prayer in terms of the "election of Christ" will be considered later. The
section on prayer in Calvin's Institutes remains as the standard. Institutes of the Christian
Religion (ed. John T.
treatment on the subject is D. Bloesch, The Struggle of Prayer (
and Row, 1980).
86 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
theology of James around the nature of God, wisdom, righteousness
and sin, or perhaps in prolonged reaction to Luther, faith and works.
Most writers discern a combination of theological ideas, and many
would agree with B. Reicke that the practical dimensions of James
virtually preempt theological unity.6
It is worth considering, however, whether the theology of prayer
gives the Epistle precisely that theological unity it seems to lack. An
observation by J. Adamson is telling. In his introduction to the "anoint-
ing" passage (5:13-18), Adamson argues that, despite the sundry
hermeneutical problems, "[James] observed care in structure sug-
gests that throughout there is one dominant theme, prayer." At that
point, Adamson begins his commentary on the passage by noting: "In
the end of his Epistle, James comes round to where he began."7
The remark is particularly telling in that James not only begins and
ends his Letter "with trials;" as Adamson correctly points out, but.
James also begins (1:5-8) and ends (5:13-18) with prayer as the
instrumental means for managing trials. And the fourth chapter, which
represents a major shift in emphasis, begins with prayer as well (4:1-3).
The centrality of prayer in James provides the impetus for this
article. The first section of the article will relate prayer to the overall
purpose of the Letter. Detailed exegesis of the three prayer passages in
James will constitute the second section. The final section will analyze
the theology of Prayer in James in a more technical fashion.
Prayer and the Purpose of James
Most interpreters would agree that, in some way or other, James
was written to contradict a defective understanding of faith. "Pithy,
prophetic, practical," writes A. M. Hunter, ". . . what James is driving
at from start to finish is a Christian profession which will issue in
practice."8 D. Guthrie suggests that while "it is not easy to arrive at any
definite conclusion regarding the purpose" of James, it is clear that
6 B. Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude (AB: Garden City: Doubleday,
1964) 6-7. His terse conclusion is that while the purpose of James is "to admonish the
recipients to Christian patience," it actually "consists of a series of admonitions on
different themes which are dealt with one after another without any clearly discernible
plan." Similarly, A. Clarke (The New Testament of Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Vol.
II. Romans to
thinks it a connecting link between prophetic Judaism and Christian faith. Apart from
two references to Christ, it need not be Christian at all, he argues. Not unexpectedly,
then, "[t]here is neither plan nor arrangement in it; but it contains many invaluable
lessons which no serious person can read without profit."
7 J. Adamson, The Epistle of James (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 196.
8 A. M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament (3 ed.;
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 87
“[t]he Epistle is essentially practical and would appear to be designed
to correct certain known tendencies in behavior."9
The likelihood that the author was James, the half-brother of the
and pastor of the
purpose uniquely intelligible. Owing no doubt to a pastoral heart, the
Letter reads more like an impassioned sermon than a treatise.11
Eminently practical, the Epistle here and there exhorts and admonishes,
exposes, explains, warns and comforts. James is preoccupied with the
relation of theology to life. He cannot abide a speculative, cerebral
the letter, viz., “wisdom.” Clearly wisdom means something to James
other than mental acuity. The whole point of the contrast between “the
from above” (3:17) and the “earthly, natural, demonic [
dom]” (3:15) is moral. Whatever may be claimed for the wisdom from
below, it fails as true wisdom because it does not issue in “righteous-
James thus stands within the tradition of wisdom in the OT and
later Judaism. G. Fohrer has shown that the counterpart of sofi<a
(“wisdom”) in the OT, MkH, relates not to “the theoretical mastery of
the questions of life and the universe,” rather “to prudent, considered,
experienced and competent action to subjugate the world and to
master the various problems of life and life itself.”12 Wisdom has a
profoundly ethical character.
No dichotomy exists, however, between ethical behavior on the
one hand, and the true knowledge of God on the other, either in James
or in the OT. Thus E. Jacob can speak of the “wise men” (MmkH) as
9 D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (3 ed.; Downer's Grove: InterVarsity,
10 There is no need to rehearse the arguments about authorship. Guthrie (ibid.,
736-58), surveys the field in considerable detail and concludes that "[i]t would seem
preferable to incline to the traditional view." Even attempts to reconcile the problems
associated with the traditional view usually involve James the Lord's brother. W. E.
Oesterley ["The General Epistle of James," The Expositor's Greek New Testament (5
ed. W. R. Nicoll;
suggests that James represents a kind of Jewish-Christian Mishna, the original Jacobean
material being expanded by later commentary. Even W. Marxsen [Introduction to the
New Testament: An Approach to Its Problems (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968) 231] who
supposes that the Epistle must be "post-Pauline," believes it plausible that "a writing by
James forms the basis of the document as we know it." Note that all quotations from
Scripture are NASV unless otherwise noted.
11 Hunter, New Testament 109. Actually, Hunter says, James consists of "five little
12 G. Fohrer and U. Wilckens, "sofi<a, sofoj," TDNT 8 (1971) 476.
88 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
channels "through which God's presence is communicated to men."13
To know wisdom is quite literally to know God (Prov 9:10).
Perhaps then J. A. Kirk is correct when he suggests that James' use
of the concept of wisdom parallels the use, by other NT writers, of the
concept of the Holy Spirit.14 Kirk argues his case along three lines.
First, he argues that the wisdom contexts of James are more or less
exact parallels of other NT passages where the Holy Spirit rather than
wisdom is the subject. Thus Jas 1:5 parallels Matt 7:7 (as frequently
noted in the literature). In both passages, "asking" (ai]te<w) dominates,
in James with the conditional "in faith," in Matthew by repetition (five
times). Additionally, in each passage the Father is prominent as the
giver, in James by comparison between 1:5 and 1:17, in Matthew by the
context fixed in 7:11. In the Lucan parallel to Matthew (Luke 11:13),
however, the Father is not "in heaven" (7:11), He gives as the "heavenly
Father" e]c ou]ranou? (cf. Jas 3:15); and, the "good gifts" He gives are
specified as "the Holy Spirit."
According to Kirk, the second wisdom passage (3:9-18) parallels
the Pauline contrast between the fruit of the Spirit and the works of the
flesh (Gal 5:19-23). Both passages build on the analogy of "fruit" (Gal
5:22; Jas 3:18). Kirk hypothesizes that the reference to "spirit" in Jas 4:5,
if construed as man's spirit, provides not only a balance to "wisdom"
(Holy Spirit?) in Jas 3, but also corresponds to "flesh" in Gal 5, thus
completing the parallel.
Kirk also observes that other NT passages make wisdom christo-
logical (e.g., 1 Cor 1:24, "Christ. . . the wisdom of God"). Other
passages make it either a divine gift,15 or a humanistic function which
hardens and blinds one to the things of God (cf. 1. Cor 2:11-12).
Finally, Kirk argues that some significant OT contexts either
identify the Holy Spirit and wisdom, ascribe similar functions to them,
or make wisdom the supreme gift of the Spirit. Allowing for the
intertestamental period, the identification becomes nearly total. Kirk
supposes that Jewish Christians in a Palestinian milieu could readily
appropriate a similar identification in James.16
Kirk is convincing. The purpose of James is the production of a
certain kind of person--"perfect and complete" (1:4). The develop-
ment of character, however, only begins with faith, for trials constitute
13 E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)
14 J. A. Kirk, "The Meaning of Wisdom in James: Examination of a Hypothesis,"
NTS 16 (1969) 24.
15 Cf. Eph 1:11 where Paul prays that the Father may give pneu?ma sofiaj. The
phrase clearly links the Holy Spirit and wisdom, if it does not identify them.
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 89
a "testing for your faith" (1:3). Wisdom, on the other hand, permits the
testing of faith to have its "perfect result."17 But wisdom is God's gift.
If wisdom virtually comprehends the work of God in the believer's
life, prayer is the (only) medium by which that work is actualized. The
faith which is tested by trials appropriates wisdom by prayer, and
wisdom is sufficient to accept trials as agents for the development of
character. It is not too much to say, then, that for James prayer
incarnates the whole of the life of God.
This thesis makes A. Motyer's structural analysis of James very
attractive. Motyer divides the Epistle into three parts: (1) a large
thematic content section (1:12-5:6), oriented around the notion of
Christian growth in stages of "birth" (1:13-19a), "growth," (1:19b-25)
and “development” (1:26-5:6); (2) an introduction, and (3) a con-
clusion, each built around the dual concepts of "patience" and
"prayer."18 Motyer fails to integrate the three sections, however, and
does not indicate how the third prayer passage in James might affect
With prayer at the theological center of the Epistle, the purpose of
to prayer, and both of course related to the pastoral purpose. The first
division (1:9-3:18) may well be taken as an exposition of 1:5-8. The
material of this section builds on the theme expressed in 1:5-6: ". . . if
any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives. . . (ai]tei<tw
para> tou? didontoj qeou?) . . . But let him ask in faith (ai]tei<tw de> e]n
pi<stei). . . ." The theme is double-edged in that prayer depends on the
nature of God, and faith has only to apprehend that nature. God not
only delights to grant wisdom fully, he effectively actualizes himself in
the life of the believer when he does. A dynamic interplay produces the
"perfect" (telei<oj) man.
James characteristically oscillates between "faith" and the "nature
of God" in the first section. Thus 1:13-17 speak of God's nature in terms
of the kinds of gifts He gives, while 1:19-25 speak of faith in terms of
doing the Word, not just hearing it. In 2:1-13, the "faith in our glorious
Lord Jesus Christ" must recognize the nature (cf. 2:1, dochj!) of God
17 This is confirmed by the fact that the brethren should count as joy the experience
of trials "knowing (ginw<skontej) . . . endurance" (1:3). As R. Bultmann ["ginw<skw,"
TDNT 1 (1964) 704) points out, the NT use of ginw<skw diverges from the character-
istic Greek usage in that the former appropriates the OT sense which "is no mere
question of objective confirmation but of a knowledge which accept the consequences of
knowledge." The use of e]xe<tw (1:4) bespeaks this acceptance of consequences.
18 A. Motyer, The Meaning of James, The Bible Speaks Today (Downer's Grove:
InterVarsity, 1985) 12-13.
90 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
who chose "the poor of this world to be rich in faith" (2:5). It may even
be possible to interpret the "faith and works" passage (2:14-26) in
terms of this structure. If faith lays hold of wisdom through prayer, and
if wisdom actualizes the life of God in a fallen world, then the real
thrust of the context is the relation of character (telei<oj) to prayer-
wisdom, rather than the relation of conversion-faith to works of the
law. James returns to the nature of God motif in chap 3 with his lament
that the tongue blesses “our Lord and Father” while it curses “men,
who have been made in the likeness of God” (3:9).
The first division reaches a climax in 3:13-18 with a recapitulation
of wisdom. God's wisdom is categorically “from above” (a@nwqen).
How else could it be realized, then, but by prayer? James has come full
circle (cf. 1:5, 17).
The recapitulation of wisdom also provides a transition to the
second major division (4:1-5:18), because God's wisdom contrasts so
dramatically with man's wisdom. James has already hinted at the tragic
distinction between the two wisdoms (cf. 1:20); but, here, the opposition
becomes central. Whereas the first division focuses on the nature of
God, the second focuses on the nature of man.
Once again, prayer dominates. The very nature of man, charac-
terized by “earthly” wisdom, keeps believers from praying (4:2) or
from praying aright (4:3).
As in the first section, the theme appears to be double-edged.
Whereas the proper response to the nature of God is faith, the proper
response to the nature of man is humility-confession: "Draw near to
God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners;
and purify your hearts you double-minded" (4:8). In both cases the
proper response is prayer-response, and the overarching goal is the gift
of wisdom producing the “perfect” (telei<oj) character. And once
again, as in the first section, James oscillates between the nature (of
man)19 and response (humility-confession)20 motifs. The division con-
stitutes a nearly verbatim exposition of the “earthly” wisdom described
The third prayer passage presents a peculiar set of problems,
solution for which awaits the exegesis to follow. For present purposes,
19 E.g., "who are you?" (4:12); "you are just a vapor" (4:14); "you boast in your
arrogance. . . evil" (4:16); "your miseries are coming" (5:1-6); and "strengthen your
20 E.g., "Come now" ( @Age nu?n; 4:13, 5:1); "you ought to say" (4:15); "Do not
complain. . . may not be judged" (5:9). All of these exhorations and warnings center on
prayer-kinds of attitudes.. See Calvin's (Institutes 3.20.28) discussion of "private prayer ."
21 The "from below" wisdom (3:15) is e]pigei<oj (cf. 4:13-15; 5:1; 5:4). yuxikh< (cf.
5:5) and daimoniw<dhj (cf. 4:11-12). It produces zh?loj (cf. 5:8-11) and e]riqei<a (cf. 5:121).
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 91
it will suffice to note that the two double-edged themes recur: (1) The
(giving) nature of God ("the Lord will raise him up," 5:15) and faith
("the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick," 5:15).; and
(2) The (weak and sinful) nature of man ("if he has committed sins,"
5:16; "nature like ours," 5:17) and humility-confession ("confess your
sins," 5:16). The passage appears to recapitulate the entire letter much
as the discussion of the two wisdoms recapitulated the first section. If
so, then the theme of the Epistle of James may well be summarized by
5:16b: "The effective (i.e., "in faith") prayer of a righteous man can
accomplish much (i.e., the life of God is actualized)."
Prayer and the Life of James
Before leaving this introductory section, a word is due relative to
the life and character of the Lord's brother. At least two distinctive and
relevant features emerge from the extant biographical information.
Both Josephus and Eusebius have versions of the death of James.
Eusebius' account derived, by his own testimony, from Hegesippus, a
second century writer whose chief interest evidently lay in opposing
Gnosticism. Hegesippus' account included many details about James'
character and practice.
The versions differ significantly, however, as to the details of
during the interval between the death of Festus and the arrival of
the new procurator from
According to Josephus, "the most equitable of the citizens" protested
the unlawful assembly and sentence, some even going to meet Albinus
himself. James and some others were accused, according to Josephus,
as "breakers of the Law."22 Hegesippus, on the other hand, claimed
that certain scribes and Pharisees, who deeply respected James, (called
Just), led him to the
the misunderstanding that Jesus was "the Christ." Instead, James
affirmed his own belief, whereupon the scribes and Pharisees threw
J. B. Mayor agrees with Lightfoot that the former account poses
fewer problems in detail than the latter.24 Nevertheless, the kernel in
both accounts, and in fragments of others that survive, attributes to
James received at home,25 and the restored vision received from his
23 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.23.
24 J. B. Mayor, The Epistle of James (2nd ed.;
25 Note that Joseph was called di<kaioj (Matt 1:19)!.
92 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
brother, combined to produce a reverence for the Law as the very
revelation of God.26 Life ordered in such a way comes very close to the
wisdom James espouses in his Epistle.
A second feature of James' character is even more striking, in light
of the present case. Hegesippus described James' lifestyle specifically
and comprehensively in terms of prayer. His full account bears notice:
But James the brother of the Lord, who, as there were many of this name,
was surnamed the Just by all, from the days of our Lord until now,
received the government of the church with the apostles. . . . He was in
the habit of entering the temple alone, and was often found upon his
bended knees, and interceding for the forgiveness of the people; so that
his knees became as hard as camel's, in consequence of his habitual
supplication and kneeling before God.27
Furthermore, however spurious the narrative may be historically,
Hegesippus added that when he was stoned James "knelt down saying,
'I entreat thee, 0 Lord Cod and Father, forgive them, for they know
not what they do.'"28
The Epistle which bears his name betrays the very character of
James. If, as Phillips Brooks said, "preaching is truth through per-
sonality,"29 this sermonic letter is best understood as an extension of
James the Just.
II. The Prayer Passages of James
Since the prayer passages in James have been set already within a
contextual framework, the purpose of this exegetical section can be
defined rather narrowly. The focus now becomes content rather than
purpose and structure. "What" James teaches about prayer replaces
"how" or "why" he structured his Epistle around the prayer motif.
Exegetical studies provide the data for analysis of James' prayer-
Praying for Wisdom--Jas 1:2-8
The first prayer passage is 1:5-8, set in the larger context of 1:2-8.
Kirk summarizes the argument of this context according to the follow-
26 Mayor, James xli,
27 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2,2.3.
statement of God's will, communicated in any other way than the personality of brother
man to men is not preached truth."
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 93
"The brethren" and "Trials" = "The testing of faith"
"The testing of faith" and "Wisdom" = "Steadfastness"
"Steadfastness" and more "Wisdom" = "Perfection and completion"30
to return suddenly to the original thought. The mention of "wisdom" at
1:5 inaugurates this tendency. The main verb of this passage, h[gh<sasqe
("to consider"), indicates a considered response to the "trials" into
which believers invariably (note "when," o!tan) fall. It represents active
wisdom31 in the face of that which serves as a "means of testing."32
James describes the ultimate goal of this process of active wisdom both
positively ("perfect and complete") and negatively ("lacking in
nothing"). James does not, therefore, introduce wisdom in 1:5, he
returns to it, and shows it to be contingent.
The contingency of wisdom is expressed in two ways. First, the
use of a first class conditional sentence demonstrates that James does
not regard wisdom as a "possible" or "probable" lack, but as a universal
lack--he "assumes the reality of the condition."33 The contingency is
simple awareness. Second, wisdom is a gift of God, who gives however
in answer to prayer. Thus the imperative, ai]tei<tw ("let him ask"), is
juxtaposed with kai> doqh<setai ("and it will be given," future indica-
tive).34 The indicatives show that James encourages "asking" as an
ongoing practice and "giving" as ongoing response.35
A certainty which countermands the contingency of wisdom is
expressed in several ways. One is the use of ai]te<w ("to pray") itself. In
contrast to the other major NT words for "pray,"36 ai]te<w connotes
30 Kirk, “Wisdom” 31.
31 h[ge<omai can mean "to lead," or, as here, "to believe" or "regard as.'' F.
Buchsel, "h[ge<omai," TDNT 2 (1964) 907. Thayer [Greek-English Lexicon of the New
Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962)] noted that the word indicates a belief
resting "on the due consideration of external grounds."
32 This is the significance of doki<mion (1,3). w. Grundmann, "do<kimoj," TDNT 2
33 A. T. Robertson and W. Hersey Davis, A New Short Grammar of the Greek
Testament (10th ed.;
"earthly" wisdom in 3:13ff, this may be an ironic twist by James.
34 The "asking" and "giving:' juxtaposition constitute a kind of tacit third class
condition where the condition is undetermined but the conclusion is sure, James used the
imperative, not the subjunctive, however, in what would have been the protasis. First
and third class conditionals frequently occur together, and serve to sharper the distinction
between the two. Cf. Robertson and Davis, Grammar para. 353.
Moody, 1979) BO.
36 proseu<xomai (pray worshipfully), eu@xomai (earnestly wish), de<omai (supplicate),
e]rwta>w (freely pray), and e]ntugxa<nw (draw near, perhaps on behalf of another).
94 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
simplicity, if not childlikeness.37 Again there is juxtaposition, this time
with a[plw?j ("generously, simply"). The believer asks simply, God
gives "to all men simply."38 The parallel with Matt 7:7 is unmistakable.
Clearly both texts stress the simplicity of the act of prayer itself: "It is as
if the NT witnesses wished particularly to encourage men to pray, by
assuring the suppliant that his requests are heard by God."39
Another expression of certainty in this prayer passage is the
participle dido<ntoj, translated "who gives." The unusual position
(dido<ntoj qeou?) "gives a special prominence to pasi?n a[plw?j."40 In
summary, it is God's nature to give the wisdom necessary for maturity
simply--so ask simply.
A third expression of this certainty completes a cycle by reintro-
ducing the notion of contingency: "But let him ask in faith." As wisdom
depends on the asking-giving dynamic, so receiving depends on the "in
faith" dynamic. So the believer must ask mhde>n diakrino<menoj, literally
"in no way at variance with oneself." This phrase, together with
"double-minded" (1:8) and the simile "like the surf of the sea. . ." (1:6)
suggest an inner conflict which results in psycho-spiritual distress and
failure. The believer simultaneously asks and doubts.
For James then the "one who doubts" represents the very negation
of prayer.41 Prayer is simply resort to the giving nature of God. Doubt
effectively denies that nature. Heb 11:6 echoes the conclusion: "[H]e
who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of
them who seek Him." Simply stated, prayer is the fulcrum that balances
an awareness of need with an awareness of supply.
Praying with Intent--Jas 4:1-10
As previously noted, the fourth chapter appears to shift the focus
of the Epistle of James, specifically toward human nature. The question
of how prayer relates to this new focus is complicated somewhat by
James' use of technical terminology and asyndetic form.
The passage is dominated in the first place by four technical terms,
po<lemoi ("quarrels"), ma<xai ("conflicts"), strateuome<nwn ("that wage
war"), and foneu<w ("commit murder"). The first two words move the
(1) At wanting something, especially for onesself; (2) At "demanding;" and (3) At less
intimacy. G. Stahlin, "ei]te<w," TDNT 1 (1964) 192-93.
38 Henry Alford, Alford's Greek Testament (4 vols.;
reprint 1976) 4.2.276.
39 H. Schonweiss, "Prayer," DNTT 2 (1976) 857.
40 Mayor, James 37.
41 Thus 1:7: "For let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 95
readers abruptly from "peace" (3:18) to armed conflict, for thus the
terms appear in every literary genre and milieu.42 The latter two words
likewise have rather narrow, technical nuances, "waging war," and
Besides the use of technical language, the use of asyndetic structure
(which recurs, incidentally, in the third prayer passage), dramatizes the
intensity of the conflict, but tends to obscure its essential character. The
context of the passage, however, seems largely to resolve the problems.
On one hand, the contrast between "quarrels" and "peace," so weIl-
attested in the literature,44 relates the summary wisdom passage of
3:13-18 to the prayer passage of 4:1-3. On another hand, the juxta-
position of h[donw?n ("lusts," 4:1) and moikali<dej ("You adulteresses,"
4:4) links the prayer passage with the repentance passage of 4:4-10. G.
Stahlin has shown that by NT times h[donh< ("lust") had developed, in
Greek literature at least, a slight "declension of meaning" in the
direction of "sensual [especially sexual] lust."45 As always, however,
h[donh< in the NT represents "a definite orientation of life" which is
"opposed to God."46
Therefore, James locates the great struggle between the wisdom
which eventuates in "righteousness" and "peace," and the "earthly"
wisdom which eventuates in "hostility toward God" and "quarrels and
conflicts." The first comes "from above," the second e]nteu<qen (literally
"from here").47 The dichotomy was introduced earlier. Jas 1:13-17 had
contrasted the produce of lust (cf. 4:2) and the giving of God (cf. 3:15).
In light of these parallels, it is pointless to demand a particular
object for the "asking" which James mentions in 4:2-3.48 The emphasis
obviously falls on the sorts of people who ask (or refuse to ask) rather
than on the requests themselves.
42 R. C. Trench [Synonyms of the New Testament (9th ed.;
Eerdmans, reprint 1953) 322] supposes that the two terms differ principally in scope,
po<lemoj; signifying "war," ma<xh signifying "battle:" BAGD note that ma<xh refers to
fighting without actual weapons, as a fistfight. The juxtaposition of the terms, however,
makes Trench's distinction wholly acceptable.
43 Thus Thayer and BAGD.
44 O. Bauernfeind, "po<lemoj," TDNT 6 (1968) 502-13.
45 G. Stahlin, "h[donh<," TDNT 2 (1964) 919.
47 The word invites the image of a speaker's pointing to his own chest.
48 P. Davids [Commentary on James (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982)
1. 41-47, 56] writes that the object might well be for "material goods," especially in view of
the "poverty-piety" theme of the Epistle. He would agree, however, that the primary
focus of this, and other prayer-objects in James is "relationship with God." It is, as Calvin
(Institutes 3.20.2) notes, "by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are
laid up for us with the Heavenly Father."
96 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Indeed, the kind of person who prays (ai]te<w) forms the core of the
passage in its broad context, and ties this passage to the initial prayer
passage (1:5-8). This characterological analysis investigates two prob-
lems: (1) the psycho-spiritual dynamic of interpersonal conflict; and
(2) the psycho-spiritual dynamic of divine human estrangement.49
The Dynamic of Interpersonal Conflict
As noted earlier, the problems of 4:1-3 revolve around language
and structure. Is the language metaphorical or literal? Who are the
referants? Does the Sitz im Leben make material differences in the
meaning? What logic properly comprehends the asyndetic arrange-
ment of 4:2?
As noted earlier, one category of difficulties in the interpretation of
the passage arises out of the technical vocabulary. None of the words
presents a real problem, however, except foneu<w ("to kill"), "As it
stands," M. Townsend declares, "it is difficult to see how this can mean
anything other than 'you murder' or 'you kill.'"50 On the other hand, it
is at least as difficult to take the whole account literally, if the readers
are Christians.51 Small wonder that Calvin, Luther and a number of
others followed Erasmus in his emendation of foneu<ete to fqonei?te
("to envy"), an expedient devoid of MSS support. The evidence pleads
for some other explanation.
Two options are plausible. James could have in mind the involve-
ment of believers in Zealotry.52 A variation, offered by J. P. Lange and
J. J. van Oosterzee, has James passing from Jewish Christians to
Judaizing Christians, and beyond them, to the "real Judaistic Jews,"
with a missionary purpose in mind;53 Lange and Oosterzee conclude
49 The author uses "psycho-spiritual" for what some might mean by "psychological"
and others by "spiritual." The latter two terms are ambiguous at best. Therefore,
"psycho-spiritual" is used to indicate that a relationship exists between the psychological
life of man (in the most comprehensive sense) and his nature as a morally responsible
50 M. Townsend, "James 41-4: A Warning against Zealotry?" ExpTim 87 (1976) 211.
51 Alford (Greek 312) takes the word literally in a Christian context, and cites the
examples of David and Ahab as justification.
52 Townsend, "James" 212-13. Davids (James 33-34) also hints at a "temptation to
join the Zealots."
53 J. P. Lange; and J. J. van Oosterzee, "The Epistle General of James," James-
Letters of John and James (CBC; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1965) 124-25]
contends that James' words are ambiguous enough to allow application to non-Christians:
"a general moral challenge to society ," The specificity of the charges and warnings do not
seem to warrant this liberty. Cf. R. V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James (Tyndale
NT Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) 33-38.
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 97
that "quarrels and conflicts" represented the actual situation in first
century Judaism. On this understanding, "you kill" can bear the full
weight of literal interpretation.
Another option involves taking foneu<w in a figurative sense, along
with the other technical terms in the passage. BAGD indicate the
admissibility of such a move; and, in light of James' argument and
usage, it makes good sense. On this account, James distinguishes the
manifestations of conflict from the human dynamic. The use of "mem-
bers" is particularly significant not only because the word me<loj refers
to a part of the body (cf. 3:5), but also because both the OT and the NT
regard the use of the me<loj as a responsible act toward God.54
The second type of diffculty in this passage has to do with the
asyndetic structure of the material. The problem is apparent in the A V
rendering of 4:2:
You lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you
fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.
On this reading, two difficulties appear. One is that "you commit
murder" and "you are envious" seem not only grossly mismatched, but
out of any reasonable order. The second is that a Greek basis for "yet"
does not occur in the text.
P. Davids solves the dilemma by taking foneu<ete ("you commit
murder”) as figurative and by placing a kai< between polemei?te ("you
quarrel) and ou]k e@xete ( You do not have) on the strength of a
minority textual attestation.55 He proposes a four part scheme:
a e]piqumei?te (“You, lust”)
kai> ou]k e@xete (and do not have)
b foneu<ete kai> zhlou?te ("you commit murder and you are envious")
kai> ou] du<nasqe e]pituxei?n ("and cannot obtain")
a' ma<xesqe kai> polemei?te ("you fight and quarrel")
[kai>] ou]k e@xete dia> to> mh> ai]tei?sqe u[ma?j ("[and] you do not
have because you do not ask")
b' ai]tei?te ("You ask")
kai> ou] lamba<nete dio<ti kakw?j ai]tei?sqe i!na. . . 56 ("and do not
receive, because you ask. . . .")
54 J. Horst, "me<loj," TDNT 4 (1967) 559-60.
55 The UBS does not mention the variant. The Nestle-Aland apparatus traces the
reading to the" Alexandrian" texts and P, it vgcl, and sy, even though it adopts the shorter
56 Davids, James 157-58; cf. also R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistle
to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1938) 623-24.
98 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Despite an impressive symmetry, this scheme seems to miss two
important points. First, the passage is ruled by a characterological
assessment. Therefore, other things being equal, "quarrels and con-
flicts" should be taken as effects, not causes. Second, the scheme is
assymmetrical precisely at the critical point of prayer. Prayer clearly
does not belong to the "effect" of "battling" and "warring." James has
already said that the "quarrels and conflicts" result from "lusts." His
point here, then, would seem to be that what "lust" (h[donh<) hopes for,
prayer alone realizes. Lust, operating apart from prayer, amounts to
"earthly" wisdom. It results in struggle, not "righteousness-peace"
Granting Mayor's contention that foneu<ete kai> zhlou?te ("you
commit murder and you are envious") is an "extraordinary anti-
climax,"57 the best sense of the passage develops from a perception of
the tension between what the (weak and sinful) person desires and how
it is obtained. The terms h[donh<, e]piqumi<a and zhlo<w thus become
functionally equivalent58 and the argument flows thus:
4:1 Consequences of exercising "earthly" wisdom
4:2a Analysis of the frustrated dynamic of need and fulfillment
e]piqumei?te kai> ou]k e@xete foneu<ete
kai> zhlou?te kai> ou] du<nasqe e]pituxei?n
ma<xesqe kai> polemei?te
4:2b-3 Analysis of the potential dynamic of need and fulfillment
ou]k e@xete dia>. . . .
ai]tei?te kai> ou] lamba<nete . . .
Understood this way, the passage answers negatively and anthro-
pocentrically to the positive and theocentric assertion of 1:5-8. In both
instances, circumstances and conditions external to the believer serve
as a means of testing the inner life of the believer in his relation to God.
And in both cases, prayer articulates and incarnates that relation. In the
former passage, prayer represents a means, a potentiality which faith
may simply grasp. In this passage, prayer represents a critique of
alienation, that is, prayer-life betrays true desire.
The life derived from the "pleasures that wage war" serves itself
as an end, therefore, while the life "in faith" exists as a means to an end.
Significantly, this passage cycles back in 4:2b and 4:3 to the opening
thought of 4:1. The self-seeking may not pray at all; and if they do
pray, they pray only to gratify the lusts which orient their lives.
57 Mayor, James 130. The order is reversed, no matter what latitude in meaning the
terms may permit.
58 Curtis Vaughan, James: A Study Guide Commentary (
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 99
An interesting exegetical point arises here. The verb ai]te<w ("to
pray") occurs three times in this passage, first in the middle voice, then
in the active, and again in the middle. Mayor, J. Moulton and G.
Milligan, and others59 suggest a possible intensified earnestness in the
middle as opposed to the active. Despite Hiebert's argument that the
reflexive nuance of the middle sufficiently conveys the sense of the
passage,60 it is hard to resist Moulton's contention that a subtle differ-
ence in meaning not only fits the context, but gives a very fine shade to
James' tightly woven logic.61 Following Moulton's interpretation, and
in light of the present argument, the passage might read:
You do not have [your true desire] because you do not ask [in faith to
the giving God].
You ask [superficially as a religious duty] and do not receive [cf. 1.7!]
because you ask amiss [earnestly but wrongly].
The Dynamic of Divine-Human Alienation
The second major theme in the context of this second prayer
passage relates to the alienation of a believer from God. The abrupt
vocative "You adulteresses" (4:4)62, which identifies the subjects of 4:1-
3, shows that the dynamic of need-fulfillment does not operate in a
vacuum. It rather operates in direct relation to God. The radical
disjunction between the "from above" and the "earthly" wisdom
recurs. The context of 4:4-10 adds two qualities to this disjunction that
First, James suggests a correlation between the frustrated need-
fulfillment paradigm and alienation from God. The one who lives
according to lusts, therefore, stands as an "enemy of God," being
simultaneously "a friend of the world." In this case, as throughout
Scripture, e]xqro<j ("enemy") denotes one whose inner disposition is
one of hostility, and from whom "quarrels" might be expected.53 And,
whatever the final solution to the complicated set of possibilities in
59 Mayor, James 133; BAGD; Moulton and Milligan. J. Ropes [A Critical and
Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James (ICC; New York: Scribner, 1910)
60 Hiebert, James 248 tn.
61 J. Moulton, A Grammar of the New Testament Greek (2
T. Clark, 1901) 1.100-61.
62 Doubtless the correct reading, moikoi> kai> being added perhaps to balance a
literal interpretation of the word (Tasker, James 88), or to direct the address to both
sexes (Lenski, Interpretation 627). The symbolism of spiritual infidelity finds precedent
throughout both Testaments, however, in the husband (God)-wife (people of God)
theme (cf. Matt 12:39).
63 W. Foerster, "e#xqroj," TDNT 2 (1964) 811-15.
100 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
4:5,64 clearly James establishes the fact that the life which is governed
by selfish motives is fundamentally incompatible with the life of God.
Not unexpectedly, then, James can label his readers not only "sinners,"
but "double-minded." The similarity with 1:8 is patent. He who asks
apart from faith is "double-minded"; but the condition is psycho-
spiritual and behavioral, not judicial or rhetorical.
The second quality which this context adds to the disjunction
between the two wisdoms is functional. Implicitly at least, if not
explicitly, James prescribes prayer as the corrective to alienation:
"Draw near to God and He will draw near to you." The clause is
striking and vivid. The verb e]ggi<cw ("to draw near") is used in two
basic ways in Scripture. In the LXX (and Philo) it has a more strictly
religious (cultic) sense of approaching God on the basis of righteous-
ness.65 In the NT, it reflects almost wholly the eschatological hope of
anomaly, characterized, so it seems, by a melding of the cultic and
eschatological ideals. In both passages (Heb and Jas), the realization of
the kingdom opens the way to God (in prayer) as never before. At the
same time, prayer realizes the extraordinary eschatological benefits of
the rule of God.
Another cycle is complete. Prayer, in this second passage, stands
both as critique of alienation (4:2-3) and as a means to the realization
of the deepest longings. Whereas in 1:5-8 effective prayer requires only
the proper response to God's nature, here it demands proper response
to human nature. The key description of that response is "humility," as
the citation of Prov 3:34 (LXX, J as 4:6) and the summary statement of
4:10 show. Taken as a whole, the material of 4:6-10 suggests a two-
sided qualification of prayer as the response .of humility,67 followed by
1. God promises to give grace [cf. 1:5!] to the humble (4:6), that
[on the one hand], to those who submit to God (4:7a),68 and,
[on the other hand], to those who recognize and resist the chief
adversary of that commitment (4:7b).69
64 Hiebert's exegesis (James 2.55-57) is thorough and his conclusion attractive: "The
Spirit which He made to dwell in us yearns enviously."
65 Cf. Exod 3:5; Lev 21:21; Ezek 40:46.
66 Cf. Matt 3:2; Mark 1:15; Matt 21:34. Cf. also Jas 5:8! H. Preisker, "e]ggu<j," TDNT
2 (1964) 331.
67 Hiebert (James 260) calls 4:7 "the basic demand" and 4:8-10 the "specific
elements required for a renewed attitude Godward."
68 "Submit" is u[pota<ssw. In general, the term suggests "readiness to renounce one's
own will for the sake of others." G. Delling, "ta<ssw," TDNT 8 (1972) 45. .
69 Oesterley (James 460) notes the intensely Jewish sense here of Satan as "some-
thing in the way."
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 101
2. The right approach to God in prayer, realizes this gift (4:8a), so,
"Cleanse your hands" (4:8b) and "Purify your hearts" (4:8c),70
only let the cleansing be complete (4:9).71
3. Your earnest, sincere humility will be rewarded (4:10).
The passage simultaneously restates the “nature of God” theme in light
of the human condition, and adds the "nature of man" theme in light of
the divine assurance.
Prayer as Ministry--James 5:13-20
Historically, the notion of praying for the sick has dominated the
interpretation of this third prayer passage.72 And a natural reading of
5:14-15 certainly seems to imply that healing of physical afflictions
governs the thought here. Several features of the context, however,
raise considerable doubt that this in fact obtains, at least obtains so
First, 5:13 seems to answer, with a kind of generic principle, the
exhortation of 5:7-12 to endure circumstances in the hope of the
parousia (5:7). Prayer, rather than inappropriate complaints (5:9) or
oaths (5:12)73 is appropriate to trials. The repetition of a form of
kakopaqe<w ("to suffer") in 5:10 and 5:13 strengthens the idea. This is
true even though 5:10 has the substantive (a hapax legomenon) with an
active force ("enduring affliction"), while the verb of 5:13 connotes the
experience of sufferings per se, yet qualified, as throughout James, by
the idea that hardship tests psycho-spiritual life.74 Further, by juxta-
posing the ideas of hardship and prayer, cheerfulness and praise, James
manages to comprehend the whole of the Christian response to tem-
poral conditions.75 If the passage as a whole relates to healing,
70 Both expressions are taken from the OT purification rituals (cf. Exod 30:19-21; Ps
24:4). To the degree that a difference exists between them it may be that the former
points to behavior, the latter to attitude (Motyer, James 152)--thus answering to po<lemoi
and e]xqra< above.
71 It is tempting to find an allusion in 4:8-9 to Isa 29:131
72 Calvin's (Institutes 4.19) exposition of the passage to refute the Roman Catholic
practice of "Extreme Unction" illustrates.
73 Interestingly, both words suggest a kind of perverse prayerfulness: (1) stena<zw
has the idea of groaning by "reason of a condition which man suffers and from which he
longs to be free because it is not in accord with his nature, expectation, or hopes."
J. Schneider, "stena<zw," TDNT 7 (1971) 601. In contexts such as Rom 8:23, the word is
virtually equivalent to "pray." (2) Similarly, o]mnu<w connotes an invocation (thus Moulton
and Milligan, p. 448).
74 W. Michaelis, "pa<sxw," TDNT 5 (1967) 937; also BAGD. Note that James parallels
kakopaqe<w and eu]qume<w in 5:13, indicating that the psyche, not circumstances, defines the
75 "proseuxh< denotes prayer comprehensively." J. Hermann and H. Greeven,
“eu@xomai," TDNT 2 (1964); H. Greeven, "proseu<xomai," 807. The use of ya<lllw, unusual
102 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
therefore, it seems best to consider it a specific instance (5:14-15) of a
more general milieu (5:13).76
Second, the terms used for the ideas of sickness and healing admit
some ambiguity. The term translated "sick" (a]sqene<w, 5:14), bears the
sense "to be weak or feeble" (Thayer). It is thus used in the majority of
instances. Sickness is clearly a secondary idea here. Similarly, ka<mnw in
5:15 can mean "to be sick," but principally denotes "to be weary,
fatigued" (BAGD). The context of the word's only other NT occurrence
(Heb 12:3) makes this clear. The terms for healing likewise do double
duty in the literature. By far the most characteristic use of sw<zw ("to
save," 5:15) is the theological.77 Of the other instances of the word, less
than twenty relate specifically to physical restoration, the majority of
those in the Synoptics (none in John). Significantly, in no single instance
does the word apply to healing of a part of the body--rather the term
refers to restored wholeness, realized characteristically through faith.78
The use of e]gei<rw ("to raise up," 5:15) is more striking still. Very rarely
used in healing contexts (Mark 1:31; 9:27; Acts 3:7), and only once of
the Lord (Mark 9:27), the term refers almost exclusively to resurrection.
If James has the healing acts of Jesus in view, then, he seems to
transcend the restrictions of physiology. Even the most nearly thera-
peutic term in the passage, i@aomai ("to heal"), frequently refers to
Third, the real crux of the passage is 5:15, where "will restore"
(sw<zw) and "will raise him up" (e]gei<rw) are future, indicating that
James "does not contemplate failure."80 However, prayer with the
certainty of healing contradicts any number of NT passages (1 Cor
Fourth, the use of "therefore" (5:16) clearly links the anointing
passage (5:14-15) with the mutual confession-intercession of 5:16a. In
fact, the notions of prayer and confession of sin seem to parallel in the
two instances. In each case eu@xomai ("to ask") or a cognate describes
the act of prayer, while "sin" appears in each as limiting factor. In the
first case, the sins are forgiven (future indicative) through prayer. In the
second, they restrict the efficacy of prayer-hence, the exhortation to
in the NT, conveys, from LXX and the context, a sense of worshipful gratitude. G.
Delling, "u[mnoj," TDNT 8 (1972) 499.
76 Thus Mayor, James 163.
77 In over ninety of some 120 occurrences.
78 E.g., Acts 14:9; Matt 9:22; Matt 5:34; and Luke 8:48,50.
79 Cf. “by His wounds you were healed”. (1 Pet 2:24); also Matt 13:15; John 12:40;
Acts 28:27; Heb 12:13. .
80 Hiebert, James 322. Doubtless a gnomic future (cf. BDF para. 348).
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 103
Fifth, the "healing" passage(s) culminate with the OT example of
Elijah. Notably, James does not mention healing at all in the context,
focusing rather on the (remarkable) fact that the prophet "was a man
with a nature like ours" (5:17).81 Elijah is an ordinary man, but he is an
extraordinary man of prayer,82 and thereby realizes extraordinary
things. Effective prayer distinguishes Elijah from ordinary folk.
Finally, the concluding verses of the Letter reiterate some of the
key thoughts of the prayer section per se. The idea of mutual ministry
recurs, as does the notion of sin as a threat, and of the hope of
deliverance (sw<tei, future indicative). While some intepreters83 find
little or no connection with the preceding material, a number of others
link the thought.84 Davids may come closest when he suggests a kind of
on the one hand [the exhortation] flows out of the theme of confession
and forgiveness of the preceding section (5:13-18) and on the other gives
what must have been the author's purpose in publishing the epistle, i.e.,
turning or preserving people from error, . . .85
If Davids is right, James has woven his purpose and theme very finely.
The life of prayer reaches its climax in restorative wisdom, which
purpose James, the man of prayer, has for himself in the Letter.
On the basis of this kind of interpretation, 5:13-20 forms a striking
progression of ministry, from coping to altruism, covering, in principle
at least, the full range of human experience. Note that the ministry
moves in stages from the occupation of the self with the self (in all
kinds of circumstances), to the concern of the self wholly with
another.86 Explicitly or implicitly, prayer governs every level of the
progression. Note also that, in this scheme, James appears to follow a
generic concept with a specific action in two cycles.
81 Note that the copulative h#n imperfect, indicating the Elijah struggled through-
out life with the shared human condition.
82 While the use of proseu<xomai and its cognates is unremarkable (see above),
James uses an unusual construction to describe Elijah's prayer-life. Elijah proseux^?
proshu<cato ( prayed with prayer ). BDF (para. 198) call this a special case of the
associative dative which intensifies the force. Taking the dative with Robertson (Gram-
mar para. 347) as the case of "personal interest" used "with persons or things personified,"
the intensification must lie, presumably, with the quality of personal involvement, rather
than earnestness of effort. One might almost say that James cannot distinguish prayer and
relationship with God. The specific prayers (for drought and rain) come as articulate
pieces of the life of God. Cf. Adamson, James 201.
83 Cf. e.g., Hiebert, James 331; Adamson, James 202; Ropes, James 313.
84 Alford, Greek 329; Mayor, James 177; Vaughan, James 122 ("Close and clear");
Lenski, Interpretation 671; Tasker, James 142 ("not very clear").
85 Davids, James 198.
86 See Williams, James 141, for a discussion of the pure altruism m 5:19-20.
104 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Ministry to self (5:13-15)
(Generic) By the self (5:13)
Prayer as proper response to all circumstances.
(Specific) By others, called by the self (5:14-15)
Request for prayer as awareness of need.
Ministry to others (5:16-20)
(Generic) With others, consideration of the self (5:16-18)
Prayer (intercession) as mutual awareness of need.
(Specific) For others, self transcended (5:19-20)
Outgrowth of prayer-ministry as response to wrong behavior.
What, then, of the "healing" passage? Clearly, corporeal healing
occupies a place on the periphery of the whole discussion, if it enters at
all. Nevertheless, one must account for the fact that the majority of
interpreters find that sort of healing in the passage. If the verses do
constitute what Motyer calls a "case,"87 physical sickness and healing
certainly fit the context well enough; and, the language, while a bit
ambiguous, does not rule it out.
As noted earlier, the crux interpretorum of the healing passage is
5:15, especially the first half: "and the prayer offered in faith will restore
the one who is sick." The possibility of psychosomatic88 involvement
creates no great problems, since connections of sin and sickness are
common in the ancient world, and acknowledged in the modern. The
crux identified here turns on the answer to the question: "What did
James actually describe?" Further, the answer hinges on two ancillary
questions: (1) "What is the 'prayer of faith?'" and (2) "What does 'will
restore' (and by implication 'will raise up') mean here?"89
The answer to the first of these two questions begins with the word
used for "prayer," eu]xh<. Rare in the NT, the word can mean "a vow"
(cf. Acts 18:18), as well as, of course, "prayer"; but, with the nuance of
87 Motyer, James 209.
88 "Psychosomatic" properly refers to illness caused by psychological (psycho-
spiritual) disorder; "somatoform" to symptoms with no organic basis.
89 The answer to these questions affect all other questions about the passage.
Lenski's (Interpretation 660-62) contention that a]lei<fw (5:14) must be medicinal not
sacramental or symbolic is groundless. Cf. BAGD. Ropes (James 305) sees the use of oil as
a refutation of pagan practice. Schlier distinguishes a]lei<fw from xri<w only in terms of
external application, although the former may have "its own inner meaning." He notes a
long and varied history of the practice; (1) As "bodily comfort" expressing a "mood of
joy" (Matt 6:17); (2) A "mark of honour" (e.g., Matt 26:7; Luke 7:38); and (3) For the
sick--medicinally, sacramentally and otherwise--in Jewish, Greek and Christian tradi-
tions. H. Schlier, "a]lei<fw," TDNT I (1964) 229-30. Obviously, the meaning of a]lei<fw
here depends entirely on the interpretation of the crux.
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 105
"invocation" and "wishing."90 The word thus contrasts specifically with
the oath-making of 5:12, and bespeaks the orientation of the elders
(and of the ka<mnonta who summon them).
Whether one reads the genitive "of faith" as subjective ("prayer
proceeding from faith"), or attributive ("a faith-kind of prayer")
appears to make little material difference.91 Hermeneutic rather than
grammatical considerations dominate here. Two possibilities are open.
One is that the prayer of faith is a "charisma" on the order of 1 Cor
12:9-10,92 or a technical term for "the prayer prompted by the Spirit-
wrought conviction that if is the Lord's will to heal the one being
prayed for."93 The other is that the prayer of faith is intense, earnest or
sincere prayer. The first set of options mollifies the problem of the
certainty which both "restore" and "raise up" demand. It also har-
monizes extraordinarily well with 5:16 if the participle translated
"effective" is passive,94 possibly, in the latter case, even if it is middle.95
Despite Tasker's opinion that "there can be no Christian prayer at all
without, faith,"96 the second option integrates very well with James'
emphasis on praying "in faith." The major objection to the interpreta-
tion is that it seems to force a guarantee of healing if prayer is earnest,
or faith strong enough.
Perhaps another alternative should be sought. Might not Alford's
contention that "restore" "can only be used of corporeal healing"
because James mentions the possibility of sin separately97 ignore a third
option? D. Hayden argues that physical sickness and healing lie entirely
outside the scope of the passage--James "is rather giving instructions,"
he says, "for dealing with persons who are discouraged or depressed."98
Hayden may overstate the case, but his point is well-taken. In view of
90 H. Greeven, "eu@xomai," TDNT 2 (1964) 776-78.
91 Most interpreters take it as subjective. Cf. Mayor, James 168; et al.
92 Lange and Oosterzee, "James" 139.
93 Hiebert, James 322.
94 Thus Mayor, James 177-79; Ropes, James 309; et al.
95 Cf. Adamson, James 205-10. In this latter case the prayer of faith would grow out
of the operation of prayer. C. S. Lewis ["Petitionary Prayer: A Problem without an
Answer," Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967) 150] has an interesting
insight that bears on this point: "Whatever else faith may mean (that is, faith in the
granting of the blessing asked,. . . ) I feel quite sure that it does not mean any state of
psychological certitude such as might be--I think sometimes is--manufactured from
within by the natural action of a strong will upon an obedient imagination. The faith that
moves mountains is a gift from Him who created mountains." This is the only hint of an
answer Lewis can find to the paradox of praying "according to Thy will," over against
"whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith."
96 Tasker, James 130.
97 Alford, Greek 327.
98 D. R. Hayden, "Calling the Elders to Pray," BibSac 138 (1981) 258.
106 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
the ambiguous terminology, might not sw<sei ("will restore") denote
deliverance from the psycho-spiritual effect of illness, rather than the
This hypothesis preserves for sw<zw its usual sense of restoration to
wholeness;99 and, equally importantly, affirms the consistency of James'
use of the term. If physical healing is in view, sw<zw is used anomalously
in this passage.100 In addition, this hypothesis allows to the verb ka<mnw
its primary sense: "weariness of soul" (perhaps as a result of sickness).101
Most significantly, however, this proposal integrates the passage with
the dominate motif of prayer as the actualization of wisdom. James
emphasizes throughout his Letter endurance in trials, not removal of
trials! The "prayer of faith" thus becomes full trust in God to carry one
through. Finally, this hypothesis fully accepts the implications of
ambiguity in the terms used for the ideas of sickness and healing. In
James, no circumstance (including physical illness) is a simple datum.
It is a peira<smoj or "trial," a doki<mion, or "means of testing" faith.
Illness calls for prayer only because it tests the soul; but, where sickness
weakens (a]sqenei<a), prayer is "strong" (polu> i]sxu<ei, 5:16).102
A. Motyer103 entitles this third prayer passage "The last word:
prayer and care." An apt description in light of the logical flow of this
letter. In broad outline, with prayer as the theological core, the Epistle
might be structured as follows:
1:1-8 Theme: Prayer is the grasp of faith on the God who freely
1:9-3:12 Exposition: Faith is the active apprehension of God's nature.
3:13-18 Transition: God's wisdom and man's wisdom are irrecon-
4:1-10 Theme Interpretation: Prayer acknowledges human nature
in relation to God's nature.
The free play of human nature ("earthy
dom") opposes the life of God.
99 Historically, the "healing" function of pastoral care identified by Clebsch and
Jaeckle [Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective (New York: Jacob Aronson, 1964) 7]
has been understood this way: "A representative Christian person helps a debilitated
person to be restored to a condition of wholeness on the assumption that this restoration
achieves also a new level of insight." Cf. also H. Newton Maloney, Maloney, ed,
Wholeness and Holiness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983) 26-27. The question, says Maloney,
is "one's status in relation to one's body."
100 The word occurs five times (1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20; and here). In every other
instance, the meaning is clearly (if broadly) psycho-spiritual,
101 Thus BAGD and Thayer. Moulton and Milligan point out that the idea of "illness"
per se is derivative. Cf, the use in Heb 12:3.
102 See Hiebert, James 326,
103 Motyer, James 167.
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 107
5:8-12 Transition: Wisdom accepts circumstances in light of God's
5:13-20 Theme Application: Prayer (individual, ministerial, inter-
cessory) represents the means to and ministry of this
wisdom (patient endurance).
III. Conclusion--The Theology of Prayer in James
This article began by noting the tragic omission of prayer in
theological reflection. Tragic, to be sure, not surprising. Skeptics are
not the only people who wonder about the necessity, the efficacy, or
the rationality, of beseeching a Being who presumably knows and wills
the best for his own creatures, comprehensively and ceaselessly.104
Only half a step separates the doctrine of divine sovereignty from the
devaluation of prayer altogether.
James will have none of this. His theology of prayer, like every
element of his Epistle, is pragmatic-practical or pastoral theology, in
contemporary terms. If 5:16 constitutes a thesis, four pillars support
this pastoral prayer theology. These provide a convenient outline for
this summary of the theology of prayer in James.
Prayer and the Nature of God
Implicit in 5:16, explicit in 1:5 and throughout James is the relation
of prayer to the nature of God. D. Z. Phillips' little paradox that "One
cannot pray to know God's will unless God's will is already known"105
strikes a chord. What one prays and who one conceives God to be can
scarcely be separated.106 In one sense prayer is always confessional.107
The prayer that James describes relates to the divine nature
specifically, however, not generally. Prayer is the simple grasp of faith
upon the God who displays the most profound interest in real life.
the life of God (the Holy Spirit?) realized in the life of man--and the
giving God is anxious to grant it upon request. As vital as it may be in its
104 Cf. D. Basinger, "Why Petition an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Good
God?" Religious Studies 19 (1983) 25-41.
105 D. Z. Phillips, The Concept of Prayer (New York: Seabury, 1981) 157.
106 This, of course, stands behind F. Heiler's classic typologies of prayer. Prayer
(London: Oxford, 1932).
107 Cf. J. Harold Ellens, "Communication Theory and Petitionary Prayer," Journal
of Psychology and Theology 5 (1977) 54. Ellens argues that the "Our Father," at least, is
soley confessional, "opening [one] to see all of his life as from his gracious Father,
108 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
own right, the philosophical rationale for beseeching a truly provi-
dential God is academic here. The only petitions in which James has
any interest are for the ability to cope in the real world. God shares the
interest, as it were; and, through prayer, shares the ability.
Prayer and the Nature of Man
The philosophical/theological problems do not vanish so easily of
course. Given God's interest in man's ability to cope, why does he
want, even require, man to ask for it? James' assertion that "you do not
have because you do not ask" highlights the problem. And, whether or
not the thesis of this article has any merit, his emphasis on prayer as the
proper response of man sharpens the focus even more.
While it will not yield an answer, per se, it may help to observe in
the first place, that James betrays some interest in what psychologists
like to call the "instinct" of prayer. In his classic psychological analysis,
G. Buttrick ventures that prayer “may be the instinct, the motivation
that gathers and unites all our motives"108 What he means is that, if
man is made for God, the only motivation which, if properly obeyed,
can integrate man's being-is prayer. James appears to come very
close to saying just that. Prayer lays hold of the highest realities,
authority, commitments, meanings and values. The magnificent conclu-
sion James draws (4:1-3) is that the life of prayer receives God's gift of
his (man's) own cherished, but unrecognized (unconscious?) desires.
At another level, however, James makes prayer the acknowledge-
ment of human nature. On the one hand, sinful separation from God
vitiates prayer life (4:2-3). The “double-minded,” the “sinners,” do not
pray, or they pray for evil intent. They are separated from God and
from themselves. On the other hand, prayer is an orientation. The
proper response to the human condition is to “draw near” in humility;
that is, to pray (4:6-10). Thus the “righteous man,” whose prayer is
effective (5:16), has only approached, he has not arrived.
At yet another level, James regards prayer as the proper resort of
(weak and sinful) human nature in the face of specific circumstances.
In effect the third prayer passage reverts to the initial exhortation of 1:2
(“Consider it all joy. . . .”), in light of the human condition. Faith turns
to prayer not only because of who God is, but because nothing else will
suffice for the dilemma of living in the real world. Not without reason,
therefore, does James use de<hsij; for "prayer" in 5:16, indicating, as H.
Schonweiss observes, “lack” and “need.”109
108 G. A. Buttrick, Prayer (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1942) 165. Cf. Kirk's
["Prayer and Personality," Iliff Review 19, no. 2 (1962) 24] definition of prayer: "a
fearless serching of the very depth's of one's total self in the presence of God."
109 Schonweiss, "Prayer," DNTT 2 (1976) 860. Perhaps it is significant that this is the
single occurrence of deh<sij; in James. Note the uses of other terms for prayer in the
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 109
James relates prayer comprehensively to the human situation. At
one level, to the being of man, as a responsible creature of God. At
another, to the fallen condition of man. At yet another, to the Sitz im
Leben of the fallen man, in the full range of his personal and inter-
personal experience. The nature of God demands the response of faith.
The nature of man demands the response of humility. The vehicle for
both responses is prayer, and only prayer.
Prayer and the Dynamic of Operation
This modal dimension of prayer qualifies the Jacobean theology of
prayer in another way. Prayer operates dynamically. Notwithstanding
the exegetical questions, the participle e]nergoume<nh (translated "effec-
tive," 5:16) stands for the dynamic quality of prayer. In light of the
less;"110 for on any account,111 etymology transcends syntax (e]nerge<w,
"to work"). In some sense, prayer "works." Lange and Oosterzee may
have a better grip on the meaning, therefore, when they suggest that
prayer is a "passivo-active working, i.e., a working set in motion by a
previously experienced impulse."112
No point in the prayer-theology of James (or of the NT) is more
crucial than this. Prayer constitutes the operative relationship of man
with God. Here, perhaps, is the beginning of an answer to the question
"Why pray?" All of life, especially the Christian life, is relational.
Relationships cannot exist without communication; and, more emphat-
ically, relationships derive their character from communication. James
knows the truth better than the psychologists. He declares that prayer
(communication) has two foci. On the one hand, God is known in
prayer. To be sure, the pray-er comes knowing something about God
already, as one goes to see "a doctor," on the recommendation of a
friend. If prayer is the vehicle of the life of God (wisdom), however, it
acquaints one with God at another level--as one might come to
exegesis. This is Calvin's (Institutes 3.20.6) second "rule" of prayer: "that in our petitions
we ever sense our own insufficiency."
110 Tasker, James 137. There are two basic questions: (1) Does it modify deh<sij
(adjectival) or define i]sxu<ei (adverbial)? and (2) Is it passive or middle?
111 In survey form, the options are as follows: (1) adj., pass. "[Spirit] energized
prayer is powerful." Cf. A. Wallis, Pray in the Spirit (London: Victory, 1970) 23-26;
adj., mid. "Earnest prayer is
powerful" (e.g., R. F. Weymouth,
"Prayer is powerful when it is exercised" (Ropes, James 309) or "actualized" (Mayor,
James 177; also Davids, James 197); and (4) adv., mid. "Prayer is powerful in its
operation" (Adamson, James 205-10) or "when it keeps at work" (Htebert, James 327).
112 Lange and Oosterzee, "James" 141.
110 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
appreciate a particular doctor's manner, compassion or skill.113 God is
known (one says it fearfully) as a person.
On the other hand, prayer invites the truest self-disclosure. The act
of prayer itself acknowledges finiteness and sinfulness (4:6). But in a
larger sense, James envisions Christian life as an ongoing admission
through prayer of weakness and need in the face of reality. As P.
Tournier says it: "When we come, honestly and often, to keep this tryst
with God we discover the God of the Bible, the personal God who
cares personally for us, . . ."114
If man is a person only when he discloses himself as he is to
another as he is, prayer makes sense. Lewis phrases it eloquently:
Ordinarily, to be known by God is to be, for this purpose, in the category
of things. We are, like earthworms, cabbages, and nebulae, objects of
Divine knowledge. But when we (a) become aware of the fact--the
present fact, not the generalisation--and (b) assent with all our will to be
so known, then we treat ourselves, in relation to God, not as things but as
persons. We have unveiled. Not that any veil could have baffled His sight.
The change is not in us. The passive changes to the active. Instead of
merely being known, we show, we tell, we offer ourselves to view.
To put ourselves thus on a personal footing with God could, in itself
and without warrant be nothing but presumption and illusion. But we are
taught that it is not; that it is God who gives us that footing. For it is by the
Holy Spirit that we cry 'Father'. By unveiling, by confessing our sins and
'making known' our requests, we assume the high rank of persons before
Him. And He, descending, becomes a Person to us.115
Prayer and the Effect of Operation
For James, the dynamic of prayer means also that movement
always occurs. The ongoing life of prayer moves one toward the fullest
experince of the life of God--"perfect and complete." The ongoing life
of self-gratification moves one toward sin and finally death (1:14-15).
In some ways, then, Barth is right when he speaks of prayer as a
"confirmation of election." For Barth, the absolute sovereignty of God
rules out synergism of any kind. Man does not "cooperate" with God,
except that in prayer he actualizes the "rejection of sin and election of
lem and the Solution," Journal of Psychology and Theology 3 (1975) 251-56.
114 P. Tournier, The Meaning of Person (New York: Harper and Row, 1957) 171.
115 Significantly, the Prayer Therapy of William Parker and Elaine St. Johns
[Prayer Can Change Your Life (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1957) 163ff.], one of the very
few psychotherapeutic utilizations of prayer, demands "self-honesty" as the first step. To
this degree, Hinson [The Reaffirmation of Prayer (Nashville: Broadman, 1979) 15-19]
has an argument when he warns about the tendency of spontaneous prayer "to lapse into
a one-dimensional style, namely petition." His call for more liturgical forms of prayer as
a corrective may not harmonize very well, however, with James; apparent emphasis on
Wells: THEOLOGY OF PRAYER IN JAMES 111
obedience." Prayer decides, as it were, within the limits of God's
But sin is also “active in history,” Barth warns.117 James of course is
fully aware of it. His entire message presupposes the doki<mion, the
“means of testing” of faith! His Epistle casts the Christian life in terms
of conflict. If prayer is central to that life, it must also be the central
conflict. For that reason, James grants no quarter to the enemies. The
present indicatives (e.g., 1:5; 4:2-3; 5:13) demonstrate that, for James,
praying alone settles the conflict of prayer, and, at last, of the whole
Christian life.118 Thus, in the words of C. Winters, prayer is “circular.”
Each “new life” realized through prayer establishes the “setting” for yet
another.119 The operation of prayer is “effective.” Prayer is not “think-
ing," as John MacQuarrie suggests, even “passionate,” "compassionate,"
"responsible" thinking.120 Nor is it as
therapeutic process which the soul undergoes on its way to the realiza-
tion of the self.121 The effectiveness of prayer inheres its very essence-
the faith-appropriation of God.
James does not need to consider the philosophical/theological
issues of providence or cause and effect. Men should pray because no
other way is open to know the life of God. Nor can the proof that
prayer “works” appear from any account of natural laws, miracles, or
psychological phenomena. For James, life itself vindicates the efficacy
of prayer. In Strong's words:
If asked whether [the] relation between prayer and its providential
answer can be scientifically tested,122 we reply that it may be tested just as
a father's love may be tested by a dutiful son.123
116 Barth, Dogmatics 2.2.194: The prayer of Jesus for God's will creates the
paradigm for prayer in Barth's theology.
118 Even though he does not deal specifically with prayer, Nelson's ["The
Psychology of Spiritual Conflict," Journal of Psychology and Theology 4 (1976) 35-36]
fascinating psychological account of conflict resolution in the Epistle shows that James
interprets the struggle of faith as dynamic, goal-oriented and relational. Nelson points
out that James' emphasis on the act of praying, in the fuller light of God's nature,
remarkably with standard psychological descriptions of conflict-resolution.
119 C. L. Winters, "The Theology of Prayer," St. Luke Journal.16 (1973) 12.
120 J. MacQuarrie, "Prayer Is Thinking," Southwestern Journal of Theology 14
121 E. N. Jackson, Understanding Prayer (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1968)
122 Strong has reference here to the famous "Prayer-test" proposed in 1872, The test
amounted to a controlled experiment in that patients in one hospital ward would "be
of special prayer by the whole body of the faithful" and then compared to similar
in other hospitals and wards. "Prayer-test," Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological,
and Ecclesiastical Literature.
123 Ibid. 437.
112 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Prayer, O. Hallesby declares, is "the breath of the soul."124 An apt
analogy for James' prayer-theology. A living body proves that a man
breathes. Godliness proves that he prays--
And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and
complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask
of God, . . . (1:4-5a).
124 O. Hallesby, Prayer (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1931) 13.
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