Sunday, February 20, 2005

James on faith and works

“a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)

Let's have a think about James' take on faith and works. Firstly, there is the question of whether James and Paul's writings are independent of one another. This seems to me extremely unlikely – they both refer to Abraham in the context of talking about justification, faith and works.

This raises the question of whether James is deliberately trying to contradict Paul. After all, he writes:
“a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
whereas Paul says:
“a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16)
“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Rom 3:28)

Let's assume that there is no contradiction, that both authors are correct and that both agree the other writer is correct.

First of all, it follows by pure logic that what Paul means by “works of the law” cannot be what James means by “works”, otherwise there is a straight-out logical contradiction. I have discussed many times here the importance of understanding Paul's “works of the law” as referring to ceremonial observance of the Mosaic law and not as a reference to good works in general. This merely proves the point. James, by contrast, is clearly thinking of generic good works.

So we now have:
Justification is NOT by works-of-the-law but BY faith (Paul)
Justification is NOT by faith ALONE but BY good-works (James)

To resolve this remaining contradiction we need to admit that Paul is not claiming justification is by faith alone, and that he admits either that justification is by both faith and good-works or that his definition of faith takes good-works for granted as a part of faith.

In my previous post I discussed the probable meaning of faith, and concluded that evidence is good for thinking faith is best understood as meaning “loyalty”. If we accept that that is indeed what Paul means by the word, then we are rescued from our problem.

Paul's position is then that:
It is neither the having of, nor the careful observance of, the ritualistic Mosaic law that justifies; but instead what justifies is loyalty to God.

So what is James saying? He attacks those who claim to have faith, and claim that their faith will justify them, yet they have no good-works. They speak religious sounding words, yet they do not have practical love (James 2:14-16). He points to the demons who have “faith” yet not works (James 2:19). In what sense is he using “faith” here? He could be thinking of “belief”, or he could be thinking that the demons know that God is their ruler, yet they in practice ignore him. Whatever submission they have only goes as far as factual knowledge and doesn't occur in practice. This makes me think James has a slightly different definition of faith to Paul – I don't think Paul would agree that the demons had “faith” in the sense he uses it in. James concludes by likening faith and good-works to a body and spirit (James 2:26), which is an interesting analogy to think about – works are the flesh of faith and both fit together inseparably.

So what could have led James to write this? If he agrees with Paul, why would he write a letter that comes near to contradicting Paul word for word?
I suggest that he is defending Paul against misunderstanding. Peter writes:
“our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Pet 3:15-16)
Clearly, it was a problem that people were misunderstanding Paul. I suggest James has a particular group of people in mind who have misunderstood what Paul was saying, and James is arguing against them rather than Paul. That is why James' language almost contradicts Paul – he's deliberately contradicting people who have built their doctrine around certain phrases of Paul's writings. These people appear to have construed faith as something internal only, and thought Paul was attacking works in general and denying the necessity and efficacy of good-works. James, thus, comes to Paul's rescue and insists that works are essential to the concept of faith and cannot be separated from it, and that justification is not merely by faith.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Meaning of Faith

Perhaps the single greatest issue of theology in the present day is our understanding of “faith”. I will argue here that “loyalty” is the best translation of it and that, as such, it is totally inseparable from works and essentially means the same thing.

Outside of the Bible, what is the Greek word for faith (pistis) used to mean? We're in luck... the first century Jewish historian Josephus uses it in his writings.

In his autobiography, Jospehus describes a time when he was the leader of a small army, and another group had tried to kill him. Josephus captures the enemy leader and says to him “repent and have faith in me hereafter” (Life 110). What Josephus clearly means by this is “become part of my army, and obey my commands.”

Later he speaks of a city that had turned against him, which after he has forced them into submission again, he rebukes them for revolting “from their faith in me” (Life 167). Again, he's speaking of their loyalty to him.

What exactly is the quality that Josephus is getting at? Think about his usage of the word in an army and the concept of soldiers following their leader. What is the relationship between a soldier and their commanding officer like? The solider is loyal and trusting, he follows his superiors' commands, when the captain leads the charge into battle the soldier is right there behind him following in his footsteps. The concept is one of “followingness”, obedience to orders, loyalty, faithfulness, allegiance etc. English is really missing a word to describe this quality of a soldier... the quality of “followingness”.

Another approach to finding the meaning of the word is to look for synonyms. Where in the Bible is a sentence used that could well have contained the word “faith”, but instead contains another word in place of it? If we look for synonyms, we find that the major synonyms used time and again are “obedience” and “follow”. Notably “belief” is never used as a synonym. Greek contains several words for intellectual beliefs and to the best of my knowledge not once are any of them used as synonyms for “faith”.
Here are some of the uses of these synonyms:

Lu 11:28 But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!"
Ac 5:32 “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."
Ro 2:8 “while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”
2Th 1:8 “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
Heb 5:9 “and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”
1Pe 4:17 “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
Ro 6:16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
Ro 15:18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed,
Ro 16:19 For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.
2Co 7:15 And his heart goes out all the more to you, as he remembers the obedience of all of you, and how you welcomed him with fear and trembling.
2Co 9:13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,

Mt 4:19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."
Mt 10:38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Joh 10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
Joh 10:27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
Joh 12:26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Ac 5:37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
1Ti 5:15 For some have already turned away to follow Satan.
1Pe 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
2Pe 1:16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

In short “faith” is following an example, command, or person. It is loyal allegiance and obedience.

Since the Reformation there has been a concerted attempt to separate faith from works because of a reading of Paul that misunderstood his condemnation of works of the law as being a condemnation of all human effort toward salvation, and so it was thought that Paul was contrasting mere belief in God (“faith”) against human attempts at righteousness through “works”. If we accept that this is a misreading of Paul, and accept that faith itself refers to obedience and loyalty, then it breaks the faith vs works dichotomy.

Can someone obey without doing any works? If they are "saved by obedience" is it their obedience that saves them or their works done in obedience? Clearly that is not a sensible question: To speak of obedience apart from works is absurd and it is equally reasonable both to speak of them being saved by their works and of them being saved by their obedience because the two are totally inseparable. If Christ leads the way through a forest, someone can hardly follow Christ without putting one foot in front of the other and walking in the footsteps of Christ. Their walking gets them out of the forest, and following Christ gets them out of the forest, it's merely two ways of describing one and the same thing. You can call it “works” or you can call it “faith”, and you're still talking about the same thing. If someone is prepared to follow Christ out the forest they are as good as out of the forest already, the rest is merely a matter of time: Their attitude is all that matters.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Second Clement

Of the early Christian writings that didn't make it into the New Testament, the one most worth reading is probably 2 Clement. Probably written in the early second century, it's really the oldest surviving non-biblical sermon. It's certainly worth a read. Particularly interesting are the quotes from Jesus that are not found in our gospels... 2 Clement was written at a time before the four gospels as we have them were accepted as standard. Obviously Jesus said heaps of things in his life, not all are recorded in our gospels so it is fully possible that the words the author quotes are authentic words of Jesus.

Here are his quotes from Jesus. You might well recognise some as very similar to things found in the gospels:

Jesus: “Even if you were nestled close to my breast but did not do what I have commanded, I would cast you away and say to you, “Leave me! I do not know where you are from, you who do what is lawless.””

Jesus: “You will be like sheep in the midst of wolves.”
Peter: “What if the wolves rip apart the sheep?”
Jesus: “After they are dead, the sheep fear the wolves no longer. So too you: do not fear those who kill you and then can do nothing more to you, but fear the one who, after you die, has the power to cast your body and soul into the hell of fire.”

Speaker unclear, but it could well be Jesus: “How miserable are those of two minds, who doubt in their hearts, who say “We heard these things long ago, in the time of our parents, but though we have waited day after day, we have seen none of them.” Fools! Compare yourselves to a tree. Take a vine: first it sheds its leaves, then a bud appears, and after these things an unripe grape, and then an entire bunch fully grown. So too my people is now disorderly and afflicted; but then it will receive what is good.”

Jesus: The kingdom will come “When the two are one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female is neither male nor female.”
According to the author of 2 Clement, this saying means that the kingdom will come when there is no hypocrisy, when the goodness of our souls equals the goodness of our deeds, and when we make no distinction between sexes [perhaps meaning we put aside lust?].

Jesus: “Woe to the one who causes my name to be blasphemed.”