This book is a PhD dissertation submitted to the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and published in the series Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (WUNT). Baker demonstrates that “speech-ethics is a major concern in the Epistle of James” (6). The phrase “personal speech-ethics” is a term coined by Baker to summarize the way speech impacts interpersonal communication (2). Some scholars have dubbed the ethics of James “sub-Christian” but Baker’s goal is to show the explicit Christian theology undergirding the letter again and again (15-16).
The book has five parts: Part 1, The Rudiments of Speech Ethics; Part 2, The Evil of the Tongue; Part 3, Speech in Inter-Human Relationships; Part 4, Speech in Divine Human Relationships; Part 5, The Relationship of Speech to Truth.
In each part Baker surveys various background literature before he gets to the letter of James itself. He looks at Near Eastern Wisdom Literature, the Old Testament, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Qumranic Literature, Rabbinic Literature, Graeco-Roman Literature, Philonic Literature, and the New Testament. The result is that this book is not only about speech-ethics in James, but about speech-ethics in much of the ancient world. This approach has advantages and disadvantages. At times I felt bogged down in all the background literature. On the other hand, Baker’s survey of the background literature is a treasure chest of interesting quotes and historical context. For example, Near Eastern Wisdom Literature contains this quote from Ahiqar: “A word is a bird: once it is released no man can recapture it” (27). He gives memorable quotes from Rabbinic Literature: “Judge everyone with the scale weighed in his favor (Aboth 1:6)” (156). The rabbis also said, “A person is completely devoid of wisdom when displaying angry speech.” The rabbinic writing Sifre Numbers 60a uses Moses hitting the rock in anger as an example of this (56 n120). Baker also gives a good survey of speech-ethics in the Old Testament, especially Proverbs.
Baker’s survey of speech-ethics in the Graeco-Roman world is a good reminder of the natural knowledge of God and the civic righteousness which allows society to function well. For example, Isocrates said, “Throughout all your life show that you value truth so highly that your word is more to be trusted than other men’s oaths (To Nic. 22)” (270). Other similar quotes abound.
At the end of the book, Baker helpfully highlights some emphases in James which “are distinct from what is found in the background literature” (287). He writes, “No one else like James ties a person’s spiritual and ethical development to his speech ethics. … James places [speaking and listening] at the forefront of the spiritual battle” (287). But Baker also says that for James as well as for the rest of the Bible, a person’s speech is often reflective of what is in his heart (cf. Matthew 15:19). Therefore, we would note that a Lutheran pastor seeks to aim at changing the heart through the gospel, not merely or primarily cleaning up someone’s speech.
In contrast to the Graeco-Roman background, James shows the thoroughly corrupt fallen nature of the human tongue (287). Baker lists other distinctive emphases of James in contrast to the background literature and he concludes: “The distinctive ideas and emphases of the Epistle of James vary in nature from section to section. However, it can be observed that they tend to gravitate toward dramatizing the spiritual ramifications of speech-ethics, especially for the individual but also for the Christian community” (289).
By “dramatizing” I think Baker means that James is concerned to show that speech-ethics are a big deal to God, even if the members of James’ congregations don’t think that speech ethics are that big of a deal. James highlights speech-ethics as part of his “concern for the spiritual growth and well-being of his audience” (289).
In regard to the exegesis of James, Baker walks through many passages that deal with speech-ethics. James 1:19 states that a person should be “slow to speak.” Baker rightfully comments that “a person should approach the opportunity to speak with caution” (87).
In James 3:8 the tongue is called a “restless evil” (ἀκατάστατον κακόν). Baker comments that the tongue “is hard to catch. One can never anticipate when or how it will attack. The play on the movements of a wild animal is quite apparent” (130). Trying to tame the tongue is like trying to chase down and capture a wild dog with your bare hands.
Baker rightfully says that, according to James, hurtful speech can be very destructive to a Christian congregation: “The prohibitions of 4:11-12 and 5:9 express the author’s intense desire to put an end to the hurtful grumbling, unsuitably critical speech which denies those in the Christian community the peace and harmony which should be theirs as brothers and sisters in Christ. … James has made something as seemingly minor as ‘harmless’ gossip not only a moral crisis, but a spiritual crisis of the utmost dimension” (182).
Baker achieved his goal of setting forth the interpersonal ethics of James and the uniquely Christian theology supporting the letter’s encouragements. This book might not be the one we rush out to buy, but its encouragements (really James’ encouragements) are always apt. The speech-ethics contained in James have their place in our preaching, teaching, counseling, and personal lives, as the Spirit works to strengthen believers in this area of sanctification. The tongue remains difficult for any man or woman to tame–a humble reminder for professional communicators of God’s law and gospel!
William Baker is professor of Ministry and Biblical Studies at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. His other books include Preaching James, coauthored with Tom Ellsworth, and Sticks and Stones: The Discipleship of our Speech.