Richard Bauckham on Wholeness in James

One of the major themes weaved throughout the book of James is the idea of “wholeness.” Often in our translation the word for wholeness (τέλειος) is translated as “perfect.” This is an unhelpful translation because it gives that connatation that James is just calling for a sinless morality. James envisions wholeness as a life that is characterized by both doing and being. We cannot “do” without “being” and likewise we cannot “be” without “doing.” Richard Bauckham, in his excellent book on James, lays out five ways that James speaks of this wholeness[1]:

  1. Integration - The whole self is devoted to God. This includes the heart (thoughts, feelings, will), tongue (speech), and hands (deeds)[2]. One cannot worship God with his heart but lack proper speech ethics. In the same manner, one cannot do good deeds without a heart devoted to God. For James, this type of person is a “double-minded” person who is not fully devoted to God. Wholeness as integration is also a community excersise. Someone cannot be completely devoted to God without being person “characterized by peaceable, gentle, considerate, caring, and forgiving relationships (Jas. 2.13; 3.13, 17; 4.11–12; 5.16, 19)[3].”
  2. Exclusion - The whole person is one who excludes values and actions that doesn't make up a τέλειος type person. One cannot be devoted to the world and God but must choose one or the other (Jas. 4.4).
  3. Completion - This is related to the integration since according to James a person cannot be halfway devoted to God. A whole person is one who has faith but also deeds (Jas 2.14–26), endures completely (Jas 1.2–4, 12; 5.7–11), and not only hears the words of God but also does them (Jas. 1.22–25)[4].
  4. Consistency - Bauckham argues that consistency is “another way of considering the first three[5].” These aspects cannot be done intermittently but must represent a consistent life that is completely devoted to God.
  5. Divine Perfection - We can only be a whole person because “God himself is characterized by wholeness and consistency[6].” Just as God himself is whole so too should we be a people characterized by wholeness. God is completely devoted to himself (holy) and for his people this means that they are completely devoted to him (Dt. 4.4–6).

The theme of wholeness pervades the book of James. It is also a key theme in the Gospel of Matthew. This also ties in nicely with a virtue ethic understanding of Paul and especially the Sermon on the Mount. I hope to explore these themes more closely in the future but for now I leave you with a final excerpt from Bauckham’s book:

Wholeness is a goal towards which one can move only in relation to a center which is already whole and from which one can gain wholeness. This means moving in one direction rather than others. It means rejecting values and behavior which are inconsistent with the goal. It means refusing all the idolatries which dominate and diminish human life in favor of the one love which can truly liberate and include all that Is good[7].

  1. Bauckham, Richard. James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. New Testament Readings. London ; New York: Routledge, 1999.  ↩

  2. 178  ↩

  3. 178  ↩

  4. 181  ↩

  5. 181  ↩

  6. 182  ↩

  7. 183  ↩