Recently, Dr. Varner was kind enough to allow me to interview him about his recently published commentary on James, “The Book of James–A New Perspective: A Linguistic Commentary Applying Discourse Analysis.” Before we begin the interview, I would like to say a few things about Dr. Varner.
Dr. Varner is professor of Greek at my alma mater, the Master’s College, where I had the privilege of learning Greek from him. As you may know from previous posts on my blog, I have an immense love for the Letter to the Hebrews. It was in Dr. Varner’s Greek Exegesis class that my fascination for Hebrews turned into a love and a passion. But my relationship with Dr. Varner is more than professor-student. I have served with him as his research assistant on a number of projects, one of them being his commentary on James. He is a man who loves the Lord, his family, his students, and the church of God.
[CK]First off, thank you Dr. Varner for taking the time to answer a few question. If you can, can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself, where you teach, where you did your graduate work, where you pastor, etc.?
[DrV]I was saved at the age of 17, did my undergraduate work at Bob Jones University, then went on to receive my M.Div. and Th.M. (NT) at Biblical Seminary in PA. Along the way I also picked up an M.A. in Judaic Studies at Dropsie College and an Ed.D. in theological education from Temple University. I teach at The Master’s College and also pastor the Sojourners Fellowship at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA.
[CK]You have recently published a commentary on James. What attracted you to James and what makes your work stand out amongst many well written and useful works on James?
[DrV]I preached through James as a pastor, but what prompted the commentary was an invitation from Stanley Porter to contribute a commentary on James to a Linguistic Commentary on the NT. After two of the volumes were with the editor, the European publisher canceled the project, so Stan released me to seek another publisher. It is distinct from other good commentaries because it is one of the few commentaries applying discourse analysis consistently to the text.
[CK]Briefly, can you explain what Discourse Analysis is and how it is helpful for tracing the flow of thought?
[DrV]Discourse Analysis looks at a text as a whole “discourse.” It is best defined simply as an examination of grammar above the level of the sentence, where most traditional analysis ends. It pays attention (1) to the devices an author uses to “glue” together his discourse like cohesion, (2) to stress the most important points he is making by prominence and peak, and (3) to develop the linear flow of his argument by repeated grammatical functions and/or words.
[CK]Some commentators have understood James to be a collection of sayings (i.e. Dibelius). How does a commentary like yours, which argues for unity in James, answer arguments like these?
[DrV]I believe Dibelius was entirely wrong in viewing James as a haphazard collection of disconnected sayings. My discourse analysis shows that James had a consistently applied idea of the Jewish “two ways” schema that is portrayed in what I call his “peak” paragraph: James 3:13-18. There James portrays a bi-polar contrast between wisdom from above and anti-wisdom (wisdom from below). I believe that such a schema is stamped then on every other paragraph of the book. The readers, addressed as “brothers,” must choose to follow the Divine way or the human way. Each paragraph is opened by “brothers” plus an imperative command or a rhetorical question that provides the topic which is then applied within the paragraph.
[CK]I personally enjoyed your chapter on “A New Perspective on James.” What is this new perspective, and why did you include this as an appendix in your book?
[DrV]I am not offering a new perspective on James’ theology, like that in the new perspective on Paul. I am suggesting a new perspective on the absolutely important role that James played from roughly 42 AD until his death in 62 AD. I argue that he was not only the head of the Jerusalem church, but that he was recognized as the head of world Christianity. If someone asked a Christian leader during this time, “Who is in charge of this ‘Jesus movement’?,” he would be pointed to James. James has too often been viewed simply as a foil for Paul’s teaching. I argue that everyone, including Paul, recognized James as the human head of the church.
[CK]As a pastor yourself, how did the needs or your flock influence your writing a commentary of this nature?
[DrV]Those who hear me preach know that I strongly emphasize application in my messages. The life-relatedness of the Scriptures is very important to me. The strong practical bent of the book of James appeals greatly to me. It is not hard to apply James. He is already doing that when he writes!
[CK]Who are some of your greatest influences?
[DrV]My seminary professors, Tom Taylor and Gary Cohen, and my pastoral mentor, Bob Vandermey. CHS Spurgeon’s autobiography was crucial to me. But I don’t want to forget my aunt and uncle, Buz and Rainy Reece, to whom I dedicate the commentary.
[CK]I know that you are currently working on another commentary on James to be published by Logos Bible Software. Do you have any other projects coming down the pipe?
[DrV]I am under contract with that European publisher to produce a scholarly commentary on Jude and 2Peter. I have finished a 105,000 word devotional commentary on the Psalms. Zondervan is looking at it right now. I am also researching to write a chapter on early Jewish Christianity to be part of a volume responding to the radical Bauer/Ehrman reconstruction of heresy and orthodoxy.
Dr. Varner, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. I look forward to the release of your next commentary on James, and pray that you find a publisher for your devotional work on Psalms.