Looking at Scripture Mastery - James 2:17-18

Looking at Scripture Mastery - James 2:17-18

Greek: 17 οὕτως καὶ ἡ πίστις, ἐὰν μὴ ἔχῃ ἔργα, νεκρά ἐστιν καθ’ ἑαυτήν. 18 ἀλλ’ ἐρεῖ τις, σὺ πίστιν ἔχεις κἀγὼ ἔργα ἔχω. δεῖξόν μοι τὴν πίστιν σου χωρὶς τῶν ἔργων, κἀγώ σοι δείξω ἐκ τῶν > ἔργων μου τὴν πίστιν.

My Translation: 17 And likewise belief, if it doesn't have labors, is dead, with itself. 18 Yet someone will say, You have belief, I likewise have labors. You've shown to me* Show me your belief apart from labors, I likewise will show you my belief from labors. * I made a mistake as found in the comments below.

KJV: 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. 18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my > faith by my works.

My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.

Just a Warning: This Scripture Mastery Post is LONG

This is going to be a long discussion. By necessity, we're going to be looking at James's approach to faith and "works" in light of Paul's earlier theology as found in letters such as Romans and Galatians. The extremely short version is this: James and Paul are not reconcilable together. They are in direct opposition. And James fundamentally misunderstands Paul's arguments, much to the detriment of his own argument. This is really only a problem if we're assuming that the Christian New Testament must be a coherent whole that always works in concert with itself. However, if we view these two theologies as systems of thought created by distinct and separate individuals, we shouldn't be surprised to see such a variety of thought present between these two ancient thinkers.

A Fundamental Misreading of Paul

First lets look at Paul's theology. Paul's letters to the Romans and the Galatians were incalculably important in inspiring figures such as Augustine and Martin Luther. However, these figures have read Paul from their own cultural perspective instead of trying to puzzle out Paul's arguments in their 1st Century context. The Protestant Reformation in particular enjoyed Paul because he seemed to be speaking against the abuses of the Catholic Church. Reform Christians saw a direct analogy in Paul's arguments about salvation by works and by faith to their own position and that of the Catholic Church. Pharisees and other Jewish opponents to Paul's theology were interpreted in light of this conflict, with the Jews cast as a rule-bound religion where admission to heaven was governed by obedience to rules and thus could be earned through righteous living.

However, during the later half of the 20th Century, attempts by non-Jewish scholars to study 1st Century Judaism revealed a very different religion (of course, most Jews had been aware of it all along). Instead of being a religion based upon works, it was instead a religion based upon the idea of an undeserved (and thus "grace" based) covenant. Jews believed that God had made a covenant with the human Abraham, and that through him all the people of the earth would be blessed. Because of this covenant, God would "save" all who belonged to this covenant and this covenant continued through Abraham's lineage, so that all of Israel was promised to be saved by God. Thus, salvation was not based upon specific actions, but upon belonging to this covenant community. God's purpose in Israel was that he had selected Israel to bring this community to the world, and to govern who belonged to this community God institute a complicated series of laws (given through Moses as the Torah), including circumcision and dietary restrictions. For early Jews, obedience to these laws was not what brought someone into the community, but disobedience and sin would threaten individuals and the entire nation with being pushed out of the community. Constant attempts at obedience kept someone in a state of belonging to the community, a process now called by scholars "covenantal nominism". (Most of the following is informed by scholars such as E.P. Sanders and N. T. Wright. In fact, if you have the patience, Wright's Justification is a fantastic approach to Paul's perspectives on grace, law, and salvation.)

It's an important, though very subtle, distinction. The idea was not that at the judgement God would balance all of your good and bad deeds to see if you "measured up" but rather would look at your obedience to his law to see if you truly were a member of the covenantal community. That community would collectively receive entrance to heaven. Salvation was not an individual story, nor was it deserved.

Paul and The New Covenant

So with this view of Jewish religion at the time, what does that mean for Paul? For centuries now, Reform Christians have read Paul's letters to the Galatians in light of the old view of earned-salvation Judaism. In Galatians, Paul rails against Gentile Christians who are being pressured to be circumcised and observe Torah by fellow Jewish Christians, actions which Paul views as equivalent to "death". Reform Christians assumed Paul was saying that works-based salvation is incorrect and that salvation was only through faith. But what is Paul's theology?

It appears that Paul's viewpoint was not actually to reject the Jewish framework of covenantal nominism, but rather to build upon it. Paul's viewpoint seems to be that God didn't make a mistake in his covenant with Abraham and Israel. God still wishes to use this covenant to save the world from sin and death, but Israel has failed in its mission to do so. They have become too focused on the Law, which was given to them to mark their membership in the covenantal community. So instead of abandoning the covenant, God made the same covenant again with Jesus through his death and sacrifice, standing as a perfectly obedient representative for all of Israel. Now this covenant applies to all who will belong to the community of Jesus (and, through him, will belong to the covenant people of Israel). Membership in this community marks an individual as being "right" or "justified" with God. Justification is a complicated legal term; for many reform Christians, the process of justification has long been viewed as a divine process whereby the sins of an individual are transmitted directly to Jesus (who died for these sins). In the new perspective on Paul, justification simply means that in the final judgement God will view the individual as right. In a court case, generally if a person is pronounced by a judge to be "not guilty" and it later turns out that they actually were guilty, the law is clear that the case has already been decided - there is a difference between the meaning and effects of judgement and actuality. So it is with Paul and justification: membership in Christ brings his followers into a state with God of being pronounced righteous. It doesn't mean that a person is somehow made perfect or sinless, but merely that at the final judgement they've already been pronounced free of the effects of sin and death. For Paul, membership in this covenantal community occurs through belief in Jesus, but this belief must maintain a relationship with the community. So there's no more sin, but there is behavior that is expected of a Christian that marks them as a member of this community.

Paul: Faith and Works

So for Paul, a return to the old method of Judiasm and the Torah is a return to living according to the old rules of the covenant and a rejection of what God has now offered through Jesus. If you want to live by the old rules, then live by the old rules but understand that you are rejecting God's new covenant which has been given and that you are expected to live a harsher law that is now impossible to live. The new covenant, which is actually just an extension of the old covenant made with Abraham, is that we adhere to Jesus and ally ourselves with him through faith that he indeed rose from the dead and our faithfulness to him by freely choosing to be his slaves and him to be our master. This is why Paul rejects Jewish laws for Gentile converts, why Paul argues with Peter about not eating with Gentile Christians, and why some of Paul's opponents accused him of "antinomism," a fancy word meaning "without law". Apparently, some of Paul's opponents tried to counter his theology with a "reductio ad absurdum" of saying that if it's amazing that faithfulness to Christ will allow someone who is a little bit sinful the favor (or "grace") of being justified, then perhaps people should act in a way that is considered to be very sinful so that the favor will be that much bigger and more grand. Paul's response in Romans 6 is "absolutely not" (rendered in the KJV as "God forbid!"), and he goes on to indicate that though humans in Christ no longer belong to sin they should live in a way to show that they belong to Christ. Paul doesn't think that followers of Christ can't continue to sin: he just thinks that membership in the covenantal community of Jesus will have them pronounced righteous at the final judgement. But it's interesting to note that in Romans 6, Paul does not deny what his opponents are saying about his theology, that followers of Jesus are freed from sin and thus are no longer bound to follow the Torah. For Paul, salvation is truly found through a relationship with Jesus that is founded on faithfulness to him. The good works of a Christian are simply evidence that we belong to him, not some sort of mechanic to achieve salvation. Faithfulness to Jesus will produce a Christian who behaves as a Christian should. Faithfulness is supreme.

James: Faith and Works

Well, that's the complicated viewpoint of Paul. What about James? James doesn't agree at all, though again, as we've been talking let's notice carefully that James is not talking about faith and works in the context of salvation but rather is discussing them in generalized terms against each other. In other words, James never says, "Faith without works will not produce salvation" or "Someone only with faith and not works will not see heaven." Instead, we have statements like the one in the given verse above: faith without works is "dead."

James seems to be responding directly to Paul's statements about the supremacy of faith and about the dangers of "the law." However, while for Paul "the law" clearly means the Jewish Torah, for James the "works" described are not the commandments of the Torah, but are good works in and of themselves. From James's point of view, he seems to interpret Paul's theology as this: since faith saves, we don't have to do good things.

The problem is that James fundamentally misunderstands Paul's view of faith. Paul's view is not that faith is a magical process, but rather that faithfulness provides entrance to the covenantal community. James, however, thinks that it is just having the faith that matters for Pauline Christians. And, as James rightly points out, in the Christian worldview even the devils themselves "believe" in Jesus and tremble (but obviously remain evil devils). Simply having faith is not enough for James (otherwise, even the devils would be saved because they believe in Jesus), so it must be faith accompanied by good works. And since James is all about the good works of Judaism (helping the poor and the widows) he rails against this idea of faith without works being important.

James and the Mormons

LDS teachers are fond of pointing out how Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, famously dismissed the Letter of James as "an epistle of straw". To them, Luther's dissatisfaction with James is emblematic of Protestantism's faulty approach to salvation. Mormons themselves have a rocky history when it comes to salvation by either grace and/or works, but usually come down on the side where works are supreme and grace merely makes up the difference for an individual. So for them, in a world where most American Christians are Protestants who view Paul's Letter to the Romans as of paramount importance, using the Letter of James as a counterpoint helps to establish the importance of works in salvation.

Of course, this is at the expense of Romans. If James's point about works being a necessary expression of faith is so important, what are we to do about Paul's Letter to the Romans, where faithfulness to Christ and the new/old covenant supersedes and overrides adherence to Torah? Frankly, most Mormons either

  1. Ignore Romans (devoting only one lesson for the entire year of Sunday School to Romans)

  2. Reinterpret Romans by focusing inordinately on the few verses within it that seem to indicate a works-based theology (though oddly enough, ignoring one of the changes made by Joseph Smith's Translation project to one of these scriptures that actually turns it back into a grace-based scripture, Romans 4:5), or

  3. Claim that errors in translation or transmission have obscured what Paul was actually trying to say (and that what he was trying to say was modern Mormon works-based theology).

However, in the end the solution is pretty much this: Paul and James are two very different writers coming from very different perspectives. James is a Jewish Christian who hates how Paul's theology is saying that Christians do not need to follow the Torah. Paul has a complicated theology based on the idea of God's covenant with Abraham that technically does include the idea of good works in it, but in a very nuanced way that utterly rejects Torah observance. James fundamentally misunderstands this point of view and thus disagrees completely with what he thinks Paul is saying. Mormons themselves also have a great deal of difficulty understanding traditional Protestant theology of sola fide, and unfortunately their general hesitancy about modern biblical studies will mean that they will ignore the new field known as the New Perspectives on Paul that attempts to reintroduce Paul's theology into its 1st Century context. This new perspective actually benefits the LDS viewpoint immensely, but I have no hope that CES will ever approach it with acceptance. Until then, Mormons will continue to use James as a blunt object in their fights against faith-based theologies when some knowledge of the context might help them to be a bit more charitable in their use of it.

Why Do I Think This Scripture Was Chosen?

I think this scripture was chosen because it's an obvious challenge against the doctrine of the supremacy of faith and faithfulness that arises from Romans. Unfortunately, as Protestant influence itself continues to wane in the developed world, this sort of nuanced theological debate continues to matter less and less. Whether or not salvation is by faith alone or is earned through works is not really an important distinction for most secular humans in the modern world, and in those areas where it is, the Bible is not a coherent whole and supports both. Mormons may feel that by appealing to James they can "prove" that works matter in faith, but while they rightly feel that James is a difficult book to deal with for a sola fide theology, they have just as much problem with the presence of Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and many of the other writings of Paul and possibly-Paul that support the Protestant theology of the supremacy of faith and faithfulness in salvation.

See other posts in my Scripture Mastery New Testament Series

Tom Doggett

Tom Doggett

I'm a programmer, Ancient Greek reader, feminist, spouse and partner, and a dad.

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