Tuesday, May 11, 2010

James 2: Justification by Works

Alright, dear readers: today, we're doing some New Testament basics, so if you feel you've got the whole Jesus thing down, feel free to skip this post and check out my recent entries on gay prostitute rental and blaspheming Polish pop stars. Or check out this video of a kitten sneezing.

As I've previously mentioned, Saint Paul is the first great interpreter of the Christian message. In a series of widely influential letters to the early church, he develops a theology that centers on a doctrine later called "justification by faith."

This doctrine can be explained in the following terms: at Sinai, the Jewish people are given the law of God--basically, an expanded version of the Ten Commandments. By following this law, they can theoretically be righteous, good, and just. According to Paul, however, the Jews fail to do so because humans are imperfect; they cannot be justified by their works.

When Jesus arrives, the whole game changes. Given the fact that humans can never be righteous on their own (as the Jews prove), all humans err. Jesus's death on the cross, then, serves as a sacrifice for human error. To escape sin, humans must simply have faith that the sacrifice is real and efficacious. This faith justifies humanity in a way that works cannot. Cool, huh? (The preceding is a review of Paul's letter to the Romans; for more of my take on Romans, go here.)

Paul summarizes in Galatians 2:16: "a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." Justification by faith proves to be a very tidy interpretation of Jesus's death and resurrection, and many early Christians adopt it whole-heartedly.

But not the author of the New Testament book of James. James, it seems, is unimpressed, and in his writings, he throws Paul under the bus and tries to explain just how troublesome his ideas can be.

Justification by faith is an extremely useful notion for Paul. It has the double purpose of de-emphasizing Jewish law and rendering Christian salvation simple and accessible. Its main weakness, however, is that it makes the establishment of a Christian ethic more difficult: if faith, not works, makes a person righteous, how can one claim that ethical action is necessary, or even important?

Perhaps sensing this weakness, James enters the fray and turns Paul on his head. Reversing the language of Galatians 2:16, James writes, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24).

This after earlier, similar statements: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?" James is not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater; he understands the importance of Pauline faith, but he rejects the notion that after Christ, ethical action is no longer important.

One of James's main problems with justification by faith involves the difficulty of identifying true faith on the basis of spoken testimony. "Show me your faith apart from your works," he writes sardonically. "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder" (2:18-19). His point is clear. Anyone, even devils, can claim faith in Jesus. The true Christian backs up his or her faith with good deeds.

What kind of good deeds, you ask? "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27). (I got your social justice right here, Glenn Beck.)

James concludes in 2:26: "faith without works is [...] dead."

All James's ranting seems a damning critique of Paul. Martin Luther, himself a great admirer of Paul, famously called James an "epistle of straw" and wished it excised from the Bible. However, James is likely less concerned with Paul himself than with those who would misuse his descriptions of faith to justify hedonism, greed, or antinomianism. Paul never advocates unethical behavior--indeed, he's thoroughly prudish. But in focusing on faith at the expense of works, Paul opens a door to the possibility of unethical behavior.

James just slams it shut.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We here at "Eat the Bible" love your comments--please share.