Friday, November 16, 2007

Faith fulfilled by works (Part I)

James 2.14-26 clearly teaches that a saving faith is a working faith. It has long been a passage of debate because it presents such an apparently different take from Paul on the role of works in justification. The next couple of posts will seek to explore this crucial passage, attempting a close reading to understand what James is saying and then connecting it to the Pauline doctrine of justification. This post presents background information, a translation of the passage, and analysis of its structure; the next provides exegesis; and the last compares James to Paul.

The author is "James, the servant of the Lord." Carson et. al. walk through possible Jameses and conclude that the best fit is James, the half-brother of Jesus on the grounds that the epistle shows linguistic similarities to James' speech in Acts 15 and that the other candidates are either too obscure or else died too early (CMM, An Introduction to the New Testament 410-413).

I agree, and would add this: The writer of this epistle could easily have spent significant time with Jesus. He seems to be familiar with Jesus' teachings in a way that does not simply parrot the gospels (4.11-12; 5.2,12), and he also shows similarities in his use of imagery and in his analysis to Jesus' teachings and interactions (compare for example Jas. 4.13-17 to Luke 12.15-21, or Jas. 4.4 to Matt. 6.24). I would estimate that James has more allusions per verse to Jesus' teachings than any other of the NT epistles.

The date is contested. Many would give it a date in the 40s; CMM takes this approach (414) on the supposition that James is reacting to a distorted form of Pauline teaching without having the benefit of having spoken to Paul directly. This is plausible, but so is the argument that James is writing at a time when there are Christians scattered far abroad, and when enough time has elapsed for Paul's teachings to become distorted. Such reasoning would place James in the late 50s, with a terminus ad quem in 62, when (as Josephus records), James was killed. I prefer the later date, but it makes little difference.

What seems beyond doubt is this: James 2.14-26, by its concern over "faith apart from works" and by its choice of Abraham as an example, seems familiar with a basic argument of Pauline theology. He is in some way countering teaching that was current within the churches, and this teaching bears the unmistakable echoes of Romans 4, though it was clearly a distortion of Paul's gospel. This point will be important for connecting the message of James together with the message of Paul.

The other crucial preliminary is that James is a New Testament example of wisdom literature. That is, James is written in the mode of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, conveying truth by means of practical advice and certain unmistakable literary techniques.

James' advice echoes that of Proverbs. The topics of wisdom (1.5), the tongue (1.19-27; ch. 3), and wealth (2.1-9; 5.1-7) are prominent. Likewise, James makes use of the "wisdom" literary techniques: strong imagery (3.6-8 and 5.2, e.g.), paradox (1.2; 1.10-11; 2.13; 4.11), hyperbole (4.9), and riddle (2.10; 3.11-12) are all part of his method.

Of these, the riddle is most important for our passage. In Proverbs, truth is often expressed in terms of a riddle; wisdom comes from figuring out the meaning of the riddle (e.g., Prov. 14.4). As we shall see, James 2.14-26 contains a riddle that must be puzzled out.

The text itself is found here:

James 2.14-26 in Greek, NASB, and ESV

My own translation, which attempts to capture some of the word play involved:

14 What's it worth, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith, but has no works? Such faith is not able to save, is it? 15 If a brother or a sister are naked and lacking in the daily necessities, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warm and satisfied", but does not give to them the necessities of the body, what's it worth? 17 Thus also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. 18 But if someone says, "You have faith, and I have works" – show me your faith without the works and by my works I will show you my faith. 19 "You believe that God is one." Nicely done. The demons also believe – and tremble. 20 Do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is worthless? 21 Abraham our father, was he not justified by works after he gave up Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 You see, the faith worked together with his works, and the works completed the faith. 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled, the one that said, "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness", and he was called "God's friend." 24 You see, by works a man is justified, and not solely by faith. 25 Likewise also, Rahab the prostitute, was she not justified by works after receiving the messengers and sending them off in a different direction? 26 Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

Here, I've made some translation decisions that need justifying.

In v. 18, I take James to be quoting a possible objection, and then responding to it. Hence, the quoted objection should end at 18a, with James' response in 18b.

In v. 19, the second half appears to be a sarcastic response to the first; I take it to be parallel in structure to v. 18.

Verse 24 the major Protestant translations translate as "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone", which is a faithful literal translation. It suffers from the disadvantage of leaving the door open to the reading "By works, you see that a man is justified...", which some commentators have taken. As shall be argued later, this is not a possible reading. Most telling at the translation level is that v. 22 and v. 24 have the same sentence structure, and in v 22, the οτι clearly extends to the end of the sentence. Hence, I've tried to render the two verses in parallel ways.

Also, the verbs βλεπεις (22) and ορατε (24) are not perfectly parallel, and they are technically in the indicative mood (the first for certain; the second by extension). Nevertheless, the sense in English is the language of proof: "You see that..." (drawing on the question in v 20). Hence, I've rendered them both in a colloquial "You see, ...", which lingers somewhere between the indicative and imperative.

Finally, the structure of this passage is fairly clear:

  • thesis: faith without works cannot save (14)
  • argument by analogy (15-16)
  • restatement of thesis (17)
  • objections answered (18-19)
  • restatement of thesis (20)
  • example of Abraham (21-23)
  • restatement of thesis (24)
  • example of Rahab (25)
  • summary restatement of thesis (26)

The thesis, "faith without works cannot save", is restated in various ways as a kind of chorus. It develops throughout this section into "faith without works is dead", a strong expression of the fact that a worksless faith is not a saving faith.


No comments: