Rhetoric: in the time of the New Testament, it was a valued skill. A person could be trained in rhetoric and argument, and make a living as an orator or public philosopher. After all, there was to TV to watch, no Netflix to binge; oratory was entertainment. People would pay to hear a good debate or a talented speaker, and the rich would offer their patronage just to bask in the reflected glow.
Some of the biblical writers, too, knew a bit of rhetoric. They didn’t just write off the tops of their heads. Rather, they often crafted their words according to the literary and rhetorical standards of the surrounding culture, communicating in forms that their readers would recognize.
And that means that the apostle James wasn’t above using a little loving sarcasm where it was needed to make a point.
Previously, we’ve watched James make the argument that a living faith shows itself in faithful deeds and loving behavior. “Show me your faith apart from your works,” he says, “and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18b, NRSV). Though he uses the word “faith” twice, the meaning shifts from the first use to the second, from something like so-called “faith” to authentic faith.
He then follows that statement with what I take to be a brief bit of rhetorical sarcasm:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. (James 2:19, NRSV)
The first sentence seems to echo what faithful Jews knew as the Shema, the Hebrew word for “hear”:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut 6:4-5)
The Hebrew of verse 4 is a bit ambiguous. It can be read as above, or as “The LORD our God is one LORD,” or “The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” or “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” Whatever translation one chooses, however, the Shema voices the central Jewish conviction that there is one and only one true God who is worthy of devotion and worship; all other gods are false.
To the extent that James is writing primarily to a Jewish audience, the statement “You believe that God is one” is an obvious one. What Jew wouldn’t believe that and still be a Jew? Thus, the “you do well” isn’t a commendation for exemplary spirituality. Essentially, it means, “Well, bully for you.”
And should anyone still think they deserved some credit for that belief, James adds that even the demons believe that there’s only one God — and they believe in God enough to fear him.
What James seems to be saying, then, is this: So, just like every other supposedly faithful Jew, you believe that there is only one God. Bully for you. Your faith is in the same league as the demons, who have never done anything good for anyone! At least their belief is strong enough for them to shudder with fear. What about you? What’s the evidence of your belief?
We shouldn’t think of James as being abusive or punitive in his words. He adopts a sharp rhetorical style to make his point — a particularly important point for the life of faith and the well-being of the church. He writes to congregations riven by conflict, and we can easily imagine how brothers and sisters may have taken sides and lined up against each other, all claiming to believe, all claiming to have the right belief.
One might say that such conflict is demonic.
But in a sense, James seems to imply that at least the demons would know better.