Book Review–The Letter of James (Douglas Moo)


Douglas Moo has a well-earned reputation for being one of the finest New Testament commentators, and this volume in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series is no exception to his usual high standard of work. It begins with a thorough introduction, which includes a defence of James the brother of Jesus as author. He dates it in the mid 40s, with the assumption that James was not yet familiar with what Paul meant by “justification by faith”, but had heard the phrase being used (or abused). He devotes several pages in the introduction to the topic of “faith, works and justification”, in which he compares James and Paul’s teaching. He does not see a fundamental contradiction, rather that they are bringing complementary teachings targeting different errors: “Paul strikes at legalism; James at quietism.”


The commentary itself is based on the NIV text and works through usually a verse at a time. He doesn’t assume the reader has knowledge of Greek, although some understanding will help. His interest as a Bible translator shines through as he often explores the semantic range of a word, and he likes to highlight good translations (and occasionally criticise – such as the use of “happy” instead of “blessed”).

He breaks the letter up into small chunks, while acknowledging that it is very hard to find a structure to James. He keeps the sermon-like feel to James by making his section headings read like sermon points.

Whilst the Pillar series is primarily focused on explaining the text, there is latitude to discuss the theological implications, which Moo often does, albeit succinctly. He is a cautious exegete, never making the text say more than it actually does. He is particularly helpful in the parts where James is accused of being at odds with Paul, by looking at the different ways they each use the words “faith”, “works”, and most importantly “justify”.

Moo believes that “the heart of the letter is a call to wholehearted commitment to Christ.” He is especially helpful in highlighting links to the teaching of Jesus, as well as how James understood the “law”. Having read a few commentaries on James now, I would say that Moo remains my favourite. Sometimes I wish he would be a bit more preachy, but it is an invaluable aid to any serious study of the book of James.

Moo on Wholehearted Commitment to Christ

From the preface of the Pillar New Testament Commentary on the Letter of James by Douglas Moo:

I remain convinced that the heart of the letter is a call to wholehearted commitment to Christ. James’s call for consistent and uncompromising Christian living is much needed. Our churches are filled with believers who are only halfhearted in their faith and, as a result, leave large areas of their lives virtually untouched by Christian values.

Book Review – Pillar Commentary on Colossians & Philemon

The Pillar New Testament Commentary series is often described as a mid-level commentary, falling somewhere between popular level expositions on the one hand and more academically minded exegetical commentaries on the other. However, weighing in at 450 pages, a more detailed exegesis than his previous Pillar offering on James, so don’t expect a light read.

Colossians Intro

In his introduction to Colossians, Moo deals with two major questions. First is the identity of the author, and second the identity of the false teachers. On the authorship question, he begins by surveying the case against Paul, before providing his own response to it. As with O’Brien’s commentary on Ephesians, he strongly rejects the pseudepigraphical hypothesis. Moo thinks it most likely that Paul wrote it from Rome in AD 60-61.

As for the identity of the false teachers, Moo settles on a syncretistic mixture of paganism, local folk Judaism and Christianity, following Clinton Arnold’s proposal. The best section of the introduction though, is his brief analysis of the theological themes in Colossians. Unsurprisingly the centrality and supremacy of Christ is picked out as the key theme, and there is some interesting material on demythologising the powers (which he returns to in his commentary on 1:16), as well as some helpful thoughts on the place of “rules” in the Christian life.

Colossians Commentary

The commentary itself as extensive and thorough with each verse having a few pages of comments. Moo gives a great deal of attention to structure, especially in introductions to sections. Unsurprisingly, given his involvement with the NIV, he also shows a lot of interest in English translation choices. The commentary itself is based on the TNIV, and Moo will often highlight which translations he feels give the best sense of a verse. In some places he chooses to provide his own paraphrase, which is a helpful way of summarizing, especially if multiple options have been considered.

Colossians is a densely packed epistle. Barely a verse goes by without some tricky concept requiring explanation. Moo sure-footedly guides us through the exegetical possibilities, outlining the major interpretive options before giving us his judgment. He is rarely dogmatic, usually indicating with words like “perhaps”, “probably”, or “tentatively” the degree of certainty he feels about his conclusions. Paul’s statements are often illuminated by considering them in light of the false teaching, in light of his other writings, and detecting many echoes of OT language.

I won’t go into details on his exegesis, but I’ll mention a few highlights. I found him very helpful on circumcision and baptism in 2:11 and on the meaning of the “elements” (στοιχεῖα) in 2:8. I also gained a new perspective on 3:9-10 where he argues that the concept of the “old self/man” does not refer to a nature or part of the individual human being, but rather that the “new self” is a corporate entity (c.f. Eph 2:15 – one new man / humanity).

Philemon Introduction

The introduction to Philemon addresses two main issues. The first, more briefly, he considers a recently proposed alternative to the "traditional" view that Onesimus was a runaway slave. That is, the idea that Onesimus had deliberately gone to Paul in order that he might act as mediator in a dispute. Moo slightly prefers the traditional view.

The other major issue he addresses is that of the New Testament attitude to slavery. He outlines the usual reasons why the NT lacks the explicit condemnation of the institution of slavery that many modern Bible readers would like to find, but does go a little further by tentatively suggesting that the NT writers themselves had not necessarily reached a place where all the implications of their views were fully worked out. Although this sounds like it could be an uncontrolled hermeneutical framework, allowing justification of almost anything, Moo does at least attempt to constrain it by affirming that the NT writers were prevented from writing anything that contradicted the implications of the gospel.

Philemon Commentary

Again, the commentary is thorough. Whenever there is a phrase that could be taken in more than one way (several examples are found in Philemon 6), Moo will carefully outline the possible options, together with supporting evidence, before opting for his favourite. Sometimes I felt that he considered the merits of options that did not seem substantial enough to warrant the space devoted to them (e.g. on verse 9).

Moo considers “fellowship” to be one of the key themes of the letter of Philemon. Whilst he acknowledges that we cannot be sure, he does think that v16 and 21 do hint that Paul is hoping that Onesimus would be set free.


No one who has read any of his previous commentaries will be surprised to learn that this is another excellent offering from Moo. The attention to detail will be a blessing to anyone wanting to home in on a particular word or phrase, but at the same time may make for slow progress for those who like me are working through the entire book.

For my purposes, I would have gladly sacrificed a little detail on structure and allowed Moo to elaborate on some of his interesting ideas such as that of biblically oriented environmentalism mentioned in his comments on Col 1:20. But it would appear that Moo has decided to leave the preaching mainly to Paul and only give pointers towards how he would preach the passage himself.

It is not hard to imagine that Moo will take over the baton from O’Brien of having written the premier evangelical commentary on Colossians & Philemon (which I confess to not having read yet). That is not to disparage O’Brien’s highly regarded work in any way, but Moo’s is more up to date (O’Brien’s was published in 1982), slightly longer, and the Pillar series layout is significantly more reader-friendly than the Word Biblical Commentary series.

Moo on the New Perspective

Continuing with my introductory looks at the New Perspective on Paul, Douglas Moo deals with the subject in his outstanding NICNT commentary on Romans. He first touches on it in a section on the theme of Romans in his introduction (pp. 22-30), but interacts more directly with Sanders and Dunn in an excursus entitled “Paul, ‘Works of the Law,’ and First-Century Judaism” (pp.211-217).

The Reformers, following Luther’s lead, made chapters 1-5 the heart of the letter with their theme of justification by faith. Stendahl thought that Luther’s problem “How can a sinful person be made right with God?” was not Paul’s. Paul rather, wanted to know how Gentiles could be incorporated with Jews into God’s people, and the “introspective conscience” of western Christians has caused them to miss the point. So, for the New Perspective, chapters 9-11 become the heart of the letter. Moo also describes other systems that make chapters 5-8 or 14-15 the expression of the central purpose of the letter.

Moo rejects the relationship between the two peoples – Jews and Gentiles – as the main theme of Romans. Instead, “the bulk of Romans focuses on how God has acted in Christ to bring the individual sinner into a new relationship with himself (chaps. 1-4), to provide for that individual’s eternal life in glory (chaps. 5-8), and to transform that individual’s life on earth now (12:1-15:13). … The individual and his relationship to God are important in Romans; and there is not as much difference between the thought world of Paul and that of Luther or ourselves as Stendahl and others think.” (p.28, emphasis his). However, Moo does not consider the theme of the letter to be justification. The theme is the gospel, a theme broad enough to encompass the diverse topics in Romans.

The excursus first considers the various options for a synthesis of Romans 2:13 (“doers of the law will be justified”) and 3:20 (“no one will be justified by the works of the law”). For Moo, the solution is the implied logical step “no one can do the law”, which is a problem of human nature that transcends ethnic divisions.

Moo then introduces Sanders’ concept of “covenantal nomism” – Judaism did not require works as a means of entry into salvation, but only to maintain their status in the covenant which they had received by election (the law was not the means of “getting in” but “staying in”). If Sanders is right, this poses a problem – what was Paul arguing against in 3:20 if no one believed you could earn your salvation? Dunn’s proposal is the “best supported and most reasonable” of the options. He views “works of the law” as referring to Jewish obedience to those laws that marked out their own peculiar national status as God’s people.

But Moo does not accept either Sander’s dilemma or Dunn’s solution. Dunn has failed to notice that Paul’s criticism goes beyond adherence to certain ethnic identity markers – in chapter 2 they are liable to judgement because of their disobedience to the law, which includes doing the “same things” (2:2-3) that the Gentiles do.

Moo also believes (along with Dunn and Wright) that Paul’s argument is an attack on “covenantal nomism”. For Paul, the promise of salvation in the Scriptures is in the Abrahamic covenant rather than the Mosaic. Along with many critics of the New Perspective, Moo believes Sanders underestimates the legalism present in both the theology and practise of Judaism of the time. “The gap between the average believer’s theological views and the informed views of religious leaders is often a wide one. If Christianity has been far from immune from legalism, it it likely to think that Judaism, at any stage of its development, was?” (p. 216)

Moo concludes with his own summary of Paul’s argument. He says “If the Jews, with the best law that one could have, could not find salvation through it, then any system of works is revealed as unable to conquer the power of sin. … ‘Works of the law’ are inadequate not because they are ‘works of the law‘, but, ultimately, because they are ‘works.’ This clearly removes the matter from the purely salvation-historical realm to the broader realm of anthropology.” (p. 217, emphasis his)