The Catholic Epistles give us a unique window into early Christian theology and practice. These letters highlight the centrality of love for not only fellow believers (1 Peter and 1 John), but the neighbor in general (James). They explore the inevitability of trials and testing in life that are ultimately from God and therefore strengthen faith (James and 1 Peter). Throughout these letters one finds the pervasive contrast between allegiances to God and this “world” as incompatible (James and 1 John) along with an emphasis upon the reality that true faith is always accompanied by a transformed life, faith is united with “works” (especially James 2:14–26). Finally, the concern for correct doctrine both in the face of false teaching (2 Peter and 1 John) and the influence of immoral living (Jude) surfaces again and again.
Though other New Testament letters are also concerned with the connection between orthodox teaching and moral living, the Catholic Epistles are especially focused on this connection. James focuses on hearing and doing, having faith and works integrated together and 1 Peter encourages Jesus followers to live out their new identity in Christ among a watching, unbelieving world. First John specifically connects an orthodox confession of Jesus with the moral duty of loving other believers and keeping God’s commands. Both Jude and 2 Peter address threats facing the early church. Jude confronts those who deny right doctrine through their immoral and lawless lifestyles, while 2 Peter counters false claims which regard the prophets and Christian expectation for Christ’s return as cleverly invented myths. These are some of the particular ways the Catholic Epistles enrich the life of the church by focusing on the connection between theology and ethics — or between faith and works.
What Are the Catholic Epistles?
The Catholic Epistles include the letters of James, Peter, John, and Jude, but why are they called Catholic Epistles? It should be said that these are Catholic letters not because they are somehow especially connected to the Roman Catholic Church, but rather because the term “catholic” means universal. Traditionally, Catholic Epistles and General Letters have been used as interchangeable titles for these New Testament books. In this sense, the term “catholic” or “general” is a genre distinction. That is, a catholic or general letter is a letter written to a non-specific, or general audience.
Why are the Catholic Epistles Important?
Now that we understand what letters we are talking about and what to call them, why focus an entire book on them? As already mentioned, these letters often stand in the shadow of the Gospels and Paul, but they are as much part of the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ as these other works. Christians have received these books as part of holy Scripture from the beginning and this is the first reason to focus on them. These letters make up part of the New Testament witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As such they offer a complementary, non-Pauline witness to Christian practice and belief. Though there are other non-Pauline perspectives in the New Testament (Gospels, Revelation, sections of Acts), these letters give a clearer picture of early church life because of their occasional nature.
A second reason to focus on the Catholic Epistles is that the early church thought they were written in order to defend orthodox faith and morals against the rising challenge of heretics. John’s letters are interested in combating false teaching by citing agreed upon apostolic confessions of high Christology — “Who is the liar, if not the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” (1 John 2:22) and “Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2 John 7). Likewise, both Jude and 2 Peter are clearly focused on defending the “once for all entrusted” faith by combatting false teaching (2 Peter) and false living (Jude).
Finally, the Catholic Epistles are important in that they make it clear that Christian faith is a matter of practice as well as of formal belief. James, Peter, and John are all agreed on the assumption that “faith without works is dead.” The “works” spoken of in these letters are not those of the Mosaic Law but those deeds that spring naturally from faith in Jesus Christ — most importantly deeds of charity or love. The early church summarized these “works” as self-sacrifice, generosity, humility, and love. The emphasis on such deeds meant that Christians must be prepared to live their lives and give their lives for the faith. The patient endurance of suffering here and now, living out Christian faith in the midst of a hostile world, is a preparation for this supreme sacrifice, as the example of Jesus’ earthly life bears witness. This is why the Catholic Epistles are so important.
Adapted from the forthcoming book tentatively titled Reading the Catholic Epistles by Darian R. Lockett (associate professor of New Testament). Copyright (c) 2020 by Darian Lockett. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, www.ivpress.com.