Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dialogue on Salvation and Justification, Part 2

My Response to Peter--Part 1

Peter cites Romans 3:28 in the last post, and cross-exegetes it with James 2:20. He is right to say that a) they seem contradictory, and b) they are both Scripture and therefore both true. He then tries to show how they are in fact not contradictory, and how each is to be interpreted. He does so in a manner that preserves the Reformation doctrine of Sola Fide (in other words, Peter reinterprets James to relate to Romans, rather than suggesting an alternative interpretation of Romans to relate to James).

The issue, however, is, as usual, one of context. In the contexts of Romans 3 and James 2 (and, for that matter, all of Romans and all of James, and ultimately, all of the Bible together), are we correctly understanding Romans 3:28 and James 2:20 to boil down to "Faith alone with works keeping that faith alive" or some such formulation? In other words, is Romans 3:28 the Rosetta Stone, by which all other texts regarding justification must be interpreted, or does it itself require interpretation?

To answer this question, I will examine the immediate contexts of Romans 3 and James 2, and then briefly outline the arguments of Romans and James. Finally, I will examine the remainder of Peter's arguments and questions.

Romans 3:
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every man be false, as it is written, "That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged." But if our wickedness serves to show the justice of God, what shall we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God's truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?--as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:
"None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands,
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one."
"Their throat is an open grave,
they use their tongues to deceive."
"The venom of asps is under their lips."
"Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness."
"Their feet are swift to shed blood,
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they do not know."
"There is no fear of God before their eyes."
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
The bolded portion is the verse in question. Chapter three is outlining the effects of sin in the lives of people, and the place of the Law to save them from that sin. And it is over that word, "Law," that the whole point hinges, and it is that same word, "Law," that lets us know the meaning of Romans 3:28, and its relation to James 2.

But the thing about the book of Romans, which many people to whom I talk seem to fail to grasp, is that Paul is writing this letter all of a piece. It flows through a masterful soteriological argument from chapter 1, verse 1, until chapter 16, verse 27. Chapter three, by itself, is nearly incomprehensible without chapters 1 and 2, and 4, and probably 5. And 4 and 5 and 6 build on chapter three, etc. Thus, taking chapter 3, verse 28, and ripping it out of the context of Romans as a whole, and saying, "See? Sola Fide! It doesn't get any clearer!" is, in fact, muddying the waters quite a bit.

So, what is this "Law" to which Paul is referring? When we look back at chapters 1 and 2, we see the argument thus: Ch 1: The Gentiles have turned away from the natural world around them, which points to God, and instead worshipped the world itself instead of God, and so he gave them over to sin and condemnation. Ch 2: The Jews, tempted to feel some pride at this, because God gave them the Law, are actually worse off, since in their failure to keep the Law, they have actually done worse for themselves in sinning. In fact, according to chapter 2, God judges us according to how much knowledge He has given us, and in theory, it is possible, even easier, for a Lawless Gentile to be saved through almost accidentally keeping that law of conscience, than for the Jew to be saved by keeping the Law of divine revelation. Thus we come to chapter 3. In the beginning verses, Paul clearly tells us what exactly he is referring to throughout the chapter (and especially in verse 28), by reference to "the Law". It is, specifically, the Mosaic Law. Paul is not referring to an abstract "natural law" that we should all know and follow, or to a general idea of morality and "good deeds". He has in mind specifically that codified list of morality found in the first 5 books of the Old Testament. This is demonstrated specifically by his discussion contrasting circumcision and uncircumcision, which, as a sign of inauguration into the Old Covenant, stands for having to keep that Law (and thus bringing us to a fuller comprehension of Paul's discussion of Baptism in chapter 6, the New Covenant parallel to Circumcision).

Paul finally contrasts obedience to the Law with faith, telling us that slavish obedience to this code can never save us, but rather, that code teaches us how impossible it is for us to be saved through our own efforts at obeying it. Thus, Christ has come to remit the guilt of our failures to keep the Law, and that, through faith, we now enter into that salvation which he brings. Paul then moves on to the discussion of Abraham as a model of Christian faith, since Abraham was accounted righteous through his faith in God before the Law ever came into effect. I could go on with an outline of the argument of Romans, but what I have laid out is sufficient to demonstrate the meaning of Romans 3:28--specifically that Paul is juxtaposing faith with obedience to the Mosaic Law, not good deeds in general.

If Paul's argument pitted faith against the necessity of good works, then his whole argument would fall apart into self-contradiction, since in chapter 2, he says it is possible for those with or without the Law to be saved, so long as they seek after that salvation through good works (Romans 2:6-7). His argument here presupposes that the person doing the works has faith that those works will be rewarded with eternal life, and thus he exercises that faith through his works (cf. Hebrews 11:6).

In chapter 4, in his discussion of Abraham, Paul again implicitly shows how good works and obedience must go along with that faith in order for it to save, because Abraham's belief that God would grant him a son had to be accompanied by an action--specifically, sex with his wife. He could have sat back, and waited for this son to show up, but if he never took the act of faith, by having relations with Sarah, that son would not have shown up. And, as we know from their particular geriatric circumstances, it was certainly an act of faith to even attempt sexual relations, let alone expect any fruit from them!

Therefore, Romans 3:28 does not, in fact, teach Sola Fide, but a saving faith that is not dependent on absolute obedience to the Mosaic Law. Let us now turn our attention to James:
James 2
My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "Have a seat here, please," while you say to the poor man, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honourable name which was invoked over you? If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself," you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," said also, "Do not kill." If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God.

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.
James, here, seemingly is writing to those who interpreted Paul's words in Romans to equal an antinomian Sola Fide doctrine. And so, James writes his epistle to remind Christians of their duty to live a moral life of good deeds. He begins with a discussion of an application of the Mosaic Law in the life of believers, showing how if they break one point of it, they are guilty of all of it (similar to Paul's point of "all have sinned, etc."), but then James turns around and points out that he is referring to the principle behind the Mosaic Law, and reminds his readers that we, on the other hand, must be obedient to a different law, which he terms the Law of Liberty--a law whose chief commandment is to show mercy to others, and whose chief reward is having mercy shown back to us, therefore Mercy triumphs over Judgement.

Having established the New Law as his thesis, James goes on to the famous Catholic proof text against Sola Fide. And really, it is very straightforward. Objections to James' teaching come only, it seems, from the misunderstanding or misinterpretation of Paul's words in Romans 3:28, and the doctrine of Sola Fide created from it. Protestant polemics involving James 2 seek to rework it into the Sola Fide framework, but it never really succeeds.

The main way they do this is by making a distinction between the kinds of faith that James is writing about--saving faith and "dead faith". They quote the end of James 2:14, "Will that faith save him?" to demonstrate that "that faith" is different than "this faith". The problem is, if you closely re-examine the text as quoted above, from the RSV, it does not say "that faith" but "his faith": "Can his faith save him?" In fact, the original Greek doesn't even say "his faith". It simply asks, "Can faith save him?" James is not making a distinction between two types of faith: saving faith and dead faith, or good faith and worthless faith, or some such. He is talking about "Faith", and says that "Faith" has works, or it is dead. He brings that home at the end of chapter 2, by saying that just as a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without works. Note what he is saying: not that it is possible to have "dead faith". There is no such thing. There is simply faith, which can be dead or can be alive, depending on whether its spirit remains in it: and that spirit is "good works."

James gives examples, and one of the examples is the same person that Paul discusses, but at a different point in his life. The principle is the same, though: Abraham's faith was manifested by his works, and without the works, Abraham really wouldn't have had faith at all. Thus, as James says, Abraham was justified by his works, while Paul says, Abraham was justified by his faith. There is no difference, since each are emphasising an aspect of Abraham's justification over and against the opposite extreme error. Paul, against legalism; James, against antinomianism. The truth, as is usual, is in the middle: Faith and Works go together and together only do they justify us.

This leads us to the second way in which Protestants tend to get around this truth and make Sola Fide out of James' writing: Saying that James is saying that works justify faith, while faith justifies the person. In other words, Faith saves, but works show that that faith is saving faith, or that the works prove that the person is saved by faith.

But the logic here breaks down. For if a person is justified by faith, but that faith needs to be itself justified by works, then it is evident that ultimately, works justify the person. It is faith and works, together, which justify, and the way that Protestants tend to rearrange the order to retain Sola Fide leads to logical inconsistencies that actually place works in the primary justifying position. It would be better to maintain that works justify a person, but faith justifies those works. Here, faith has the primary operation, but here, at the same time, Sola Fide is most obviously not present. In fact, this is closer to the Catholic view of faith and works!

I've said nearly all I have to say at this point about the relationship between James and Romans, and how they in fact neither contradict, nor teach Sola Fide. There is, of course, more I could say about Romans and James, but I will address that if and when people ask questions. Otherwise, I may as well just write a book ;)

My next post will deal with answers to the other passages, arguments, and questions which Peter raised in the last post.

God bless

(Category: Soteriology: Justification.
The Church: Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus--The Church and other Christian denominations)

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