Warning! This is a treatise about important theological distinctions over which wars have been fought. It will be fairly complex and boring but will have a few salacious details about Roman emperors Nero and Claudius. Sorry.
Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
The Bible makes me crazy. It is always contradicting itself. In particular how do I get to heaven? St. Paul says one is saved by faith. St. James says we are saved by works. Which is it?
You are doubtless referring to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans Chapter 4 and the letter of St. James chapter 2:
What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised…. So where then is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Romans 4:3 and following)
And then there is St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the third chapter: Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also, Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Contrast this with St. James’ letter chapter 2:
And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called a friend of God. As you can see, a man is justified by his works and not by faith alone.
It certainly seems that St. James and St. Paul are disagreeing with each other. Your first problem is that you are assuming that the Bible is a book. It is not a book. It is a collection of books each of which has its own context and vocabulary.
Let’s start with the letter of St. James. Around 46 AD Paul and Barnabas are collecting funds in Antioch for famine relief of the Jerusalem poor. In 52 AD they are still collecting funds in Corinth for the relief of the Jerusalem community. I believe that the same famine is also the context for the letter of James. Scholars used to dismiss the letter of James as a rather late addition to the New Testament canon, but much scholarly opinion now recognizes that James is actually a very early letter. It certainly reflects the conditions of poverty about which Paul; and Barnabas are also concerned. Jerusalem is not very well situated for commercial success. Caesarea on the coast was on the road to everywhere. Jerusalem up in the hills is on the road to nowhere. It’s only function then as now is religious pilgrimage.
Modern Jews are always being schmoozed to maintain poor Torah students in Jerusalem. So it was in the past. The first Christians in Jerusalem seem to have been very poor and dependent on the kindness of strangers. Being considered heretical by most of the Jewish population, they weren’t very well positioned for financial success. James is writing to the diaspora and why is he doing so? I am of the theory that it he is writing a fund-raising letter. He is after all, a bishop. For example; What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but not works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and in lack of daily food, and one of you say to them, “Go in peace, be warm and well fed” and yet do not give them the things needful to the body; what does it profit? Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead in itself.
St. James is saying that good works are essential if we are going to be just. This idea of justification that seems so important in the scriptures is hard for us moderns to understand. We think of justice as purely a matter of civil law. This would not be the way the first Christians who were mostly Jewish thought of it. To be just is to be godly. It is above all to be generous because God is generous. The theological virtue of justice is to be rightly related to God and man, to render to God what is His due and to render to our neighbor what is his due. Scripture is clear. We are to be generous to our fellow man, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to see the common humanity that we share and to see the divine image in those around us. We are fooling ourselves if we claim to be just without being generous.
For anyone who hears the word but does not carry it out is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and after observing himself goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and continues to do so—not being a forgetful hearer, but an effective doer—he will be blessed in what he does.… (James 1:23)
If St. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, is schmoozing for shekels to feed his starving community back in the old country his emphasis on generosity makes perfect sense. He may even be correcting a mistaken understanding of what Paul is saying. If the letter of James is written about the same concerns and the same time as Paul is writing, they certainly knew each other and would have been in communication. So, what was Paul saying? More about this thrilling topic next week and the promised gossip about the ancient Romans.
To Be Continued….