That the authority of this Epistle hath been questioned by some anciently, appears plainly by Eusebius and Jerome, who speak suspiciously of it; and that it hath been denied by some more lately, is no less clear (to say nothing of Cajetan and Erasmus) in Luther, who (though in his after-writings he was more modest) at first spoke slightly of it; and some of his more early followers were of his mind. But as for the ancients, (admitting the two forementioned authors wrote their own sense, and not, as some think, and their words cited by Brochmand and others may well import, the opinion of other men), why should not this Epistle, being unquestionably received by most of the fathers and primitive Christians before Eusebius or Jerome were born, and many councils, be more effectual to prove its being canonical, than the doubts of a few to persuade us to the contrary? What do we find in it disagreeable to the doctrine of the gospel, unbecoming the style of an apostle, or the Holy Ghost's inditing? Hath it not the same majesty, purity, spirituality, efficacy, and power on men's consciences, that other Scriptures have? To Cajetan and Erasmus we oppose the universality, not only of protestants, but of papists themselves; and to Luther all the modern Lutherans, who now generally receive it. That which drew Luther himself to reject it (to speak a little of that as being of weight) was, partly the seeming difference between James and Paul in the point of justification, which will be spoken to in Jam_2:1-26; and partly his speaking nothing (though he wrote to Christians) of the death, or merits, or resurrection of Christ, &c. Whereas, indeed, though he is more sparing in handling evangelical doctrines, yet several he toucheth upon: what doth he mean but the gospel of Christ by the ingrafted word, Jam_1:21, and law of liberty, Jam_1:25? And who doth he understand by the judge, Jam_5:9, but Christ? And whose coming doth he speak of, Jam_1:7, but Christ's? And how expressly doth he mention the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ!Jam_2:1. But the truth is, the persons for whom this Epistle seems designed, and the scope of the writer, call for such a way of writing, as here we have. He bends himself mainly against a licentious, sensual sort of professors, who boasted of the name of faith, but wanted the thing, and (being rather libertines than saints) blemished the Christian profession with unsuitable practice. These he takes upon him to correct, and evinceth their faith and religion (being barren of good works) to be vain. It was not therefore necessary he should so largely insist upon the doctrine of faith, when his chief design was to reform manners. Paul having many times to do with men of Pharisaical spirits, or such as were difficultly weaned from Judaism, and an opinion of self-righteousness, makes it his business to settle the doctrine of grace, and justification by faith; and why may not James, having to do with those who (probably, and as Austin thinks, misunderstanding Paul) abused the doctrine of grace, and turned it into an occasion of licentiousness, be allowed to tax that abuse, and insist the more fully on matters of practice, and press them to live up to their faith, and bring forth fruits answerable to that holy truth they had received? Remedies must be suited to diseases: there is as little need to urge a Solifidian to rely on grace of which he already presumes, as to persuade a Pharisee of the necessity of good works, upon which of himself he lays but too much stress.
But as the authority of this Epistle hath been questioned formerly, though with little reason, so the penman of it is still doubted of, perhaps with more. However, this question is less material; we need not be over solicitous to know what amanuensis the Spirit of God made use of in penning it, so long as we find the impress of God upon it. It is certain that this James was not the son of Zebedee, whom Herod had beheaded (if chronology fail not) before the writing of this Epistle, Act_12:1. It is not certain that there were three Jameses, two of them apostles, and the third (called Oblias, and James the Just) one of the seventy disciples; the Scripture mentioning but two, one the son of Zebedee, the other of Alpheus, called the brother of the Lord, Gal_1:19, as being of kin to his family; and said to be a pillar, Gal_2:9, and joined with Peter and John. And though some have thought the James there mentioned to have been the third James, called Oblias, and one of the seventy; yet it is more probable that he was indeed no other than the son of Alpheus, and one of the twelve: nor is it likely, that one of the disciples should be numbered as one of the three pillars, and therein preferred above so many apostles. This James, therefore, upon the whole, I take to be the penman of this Epistle; and his not calling himself an apostle, need not be objected against his being so, when he doth no more in omitting it than Paul doth in four of his Epistles, viz. to the Philippians, both to the Thessalonians, and that to Philemon.
Why this Epistle is called general is much questioned, and a satisfactory reason not easily given. Some think, because it is not inscribed to any particular church or person, as Paul's are. But then why are the two latter Epistles of John reckoned among the catholic or general ones, though directed to particular persons, and that to the Hebrews not counted among them, though it have no such particular inscription? Others think, that this and the six other were called catholic, upon their catholic or general reception and approbation among the churches, in opposition to the Epistles of Barnabas, Ignatius, Clemens, &c., which never were received as any part of the canon. These are the best reasons of this title I meet with; which is the more probable, let the reader judge.
The matter of this Epistle is, in a manner, wholly practical, but very various; though chiefly, either corrective of the vices and abuses which had crept into the conversations of professors; or monitory and hortatory, partly to awaken the drowsy among them out of their stupidness and security, and stir them up to the practice of their neglected duty, (to which he points them particularly, by minding them of approaching judgment), and partly to persuade sincere and humble believers to patience under tribulations and oppressions, by propounding unto them suitable encouragements for their support and consolation in such a condition. Many excellent and useful truths are promiscuously laid down throughout the whole, which cannot easily be reduced to any certain method, but will be severally spoken to in the respective places where they occur.