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.


Anonymous Nato said...

Just a question, wasn't james written after romans?

Blogger Andrew said...

It's generally thought so. But on the other hand, most of the scholars that think so generally think that James didn't write James (ie its either written by another James than Jesus' brother, or someone pretending to be that James).
Among those who think that it is written by the authentic James brother of Jesus, opinion seems to be divided about whether to date it before or after Romans.

However I think the issue of who wrote first is fairly irrelevant to my argument. Either Paul and James agreed in meaning or they did not. Assuming they did agree then we need an explanation of how to understand their nearly contradictory words.


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