Friday, April 29, 2005

Faith & works-2

“What is ‘Faith’?

His answer is, of course, ‘faith,’ but his phrase is not just ‘faith,’ never mind “faith alone.” Instead, he tells them “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith doing work. There it is, faith and work right there together. The faith which is belief in the living God must produce something in life. St. Paul calls it ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 16:26).”

i) But according to Bruce’s interpretation of Gal 5:6, “In keeping with the general teaching of this and other Pauline letters, faith is viewed as the root, love as the fruit,” ibid. 232.

Yet if faith is the root, and love is the fruit, then love and faith are not synonymous. Rather, what you have here is a cause-and-effect relation. And it is certainly not the case that causes are identical with their effects. For example, God is the cause of the world, but God and the world are not the same thing.

ii) You would never know from his citation of Rom 16:26 that there is more than one interpretation of this phrase. Cranfield, for one, in his classic two-volume commentary, cites no fewer than seven!

This two-word phrase is so compressed that it is probably not possible to arrive at a definitive interpretation. But I take it to mean that there is a moral imperative to believe the gospel. To believe the gospel is to obey God’s command to believe in his Son, while to disbelieve the Gospel is a comparable act of disobedience. This interpretation enjoy s the support of Pauline usage (cf. Acts 17:30; Rom 10:16; 11:30-31)

“As Akin points out, the formula is ‘intrinsically misleading’ since Protestants always have to explain that they don’t simply mean “dead faith” or simply intellectual assent.”

How is sola fide “intrinsically misleading”? Any theological formula will require a definition of terms.

“A Misunderstanding From the Beginning

Whatever St. Paul meant by faith as a badge of covenant membership, it seems that he was misunderstood by some of his readers from the very beginning since the Epistle of James deals with this very problem of people who assume that faith alone, in the sense of intellectual assent, is enough to be seen as a true member of the covenant community.”

i) This assumes that Paul what meant by “faith” was a badge of covenant membership. But that is denied by critics of the new perspective.

ii) To use James to interpret Paul is sloppy theological method. You can’t, without further argument, employ one author’s usage as an interpretive grid to construe another author’s usage, for different authors may use the same words in different ways.

For example, the Council of Trent and the Westminster Assembly both use the word “justification,” but it would hardly be accurate to reinterpret Tridentine usage in light of Reformed usage.

There is no reason to assume that James was commenting on Paul. Notice that there is no reference in his epistle to Jewish/Gentile relations in the church, which is the point of departure for the Pauline doctrine.

And there is no reason to assume that James is using the word in the same specialized sense as it acquires in Pauline thought. A word is not a doctrine. The reason we have a Pauline doctrine of justification is not because Paul uses the word, but because he has laid out a detailed theological model of justification—such as you don’t find in James.

From what I can tell, James is making a much simpler point, where faith and works are equivalent to hearing and doing (1:22-25). Don’t be hearers of the word only, but doers as well. This is a common admonition in Scripture.

I’d only add that if Fitzmyer wrote the standard Catholic commentary on Romans, then Luke Timothy Johnson wrote the standard Catholic commentary on James (in the same Anchor Bible series). And Johnson denies that James is interacting with the Pauline doctrine of justification. Again, is there a reason why Deavel turns a blind eye to contemporary Catholic scholarship on the very books he cites in defense of his own interpretation? James is making a different point from Paul--which is to distinguish between nominal and genuine faith.

“If after circumcision, then the true sign of Abraham’s covenant would be circumcision, the touchstone of fidelity to Torah. If not, then the sign would be something else.”

Where in Rom 4, or elsewhere, does Paul characterize faith as a “sign” of covenant membership? Faith is not a sign of our justification; rather, faith is a condition of our justification. This is not a matter of mere externals, but a living faith in God, engendered by grace.

“It’s difficult to know what it refers to, but there’s another passage, 2 Peter 3:15-16, where St. Peter refers to St. Paul and his writings…Are we dealing with the same ‘faith alone’ problem that the Epistle of James addresses?”

Notice that Deavel poses a question rather than an answer. This is the appeal of someone who has run out of arguments, and is casting about for any bit of stuffing to fill out his anorexic case.

“A Different, Catholic, Scriptural Language

We have noted that the language of ‘faith’ alone and even ‘faith alone,’ properly understood, can be used to signify what grounds our justification both now and at the last day. Protestants are not necessarily wrong in so doing. But, we noted, that language can be misleading, and in the case of “faith alone,” it can be literally ‘unbiblical.’”

i) From a Protestant perspective, faith is not the ground of our justification. The ground of our justification is penal substitution. Faith is merely a condition of its individual application to the sinner.

ii) In what sense is it unbiblical? Because that exact phrase is not used in Scripture? Well, in that sense, a lot of Catholic vocabulary is “literally unbiblical.” Nowhere in Scripture do you find such words as penance, purgatory, indulgence, co-redemptrix, the Mass, the immaculate conception, the treasury of merit, &c.

Sola fide is just a handy slogan. The salient question is not whether the slogan is found in Scripture, but whether the concept is found in Scripture. The Reformed doctrine of justification is a theological construct, based on many lines of exegetical evidence.

“It’s important for Catholics to remember and explain that their own emphasis on “works” of charity as the final “badge” of justification is just as biblical.”

Not only is this contrary to traditional Protestant theology, it is also at variance with traditional Catholic theology. The Tridentine doctrine of justification is certainly not synonymous with the new perspective on Paul. So if Wright is right, then Rome is wrong.

“Catholics are usually more comfortable with the Gospels since they are generally the text preached upon at Mass and they bear a special place in Catholic liturgy. What does Jesus say about being right with God? Let’s start with the story often described as the ‘rich young ruler’ in tradition.”

Well, Catholics may be more “comfortable” with the Gospels, but this has absolutely nothing to do with the Pauline doctrine of justification.

“Here is the question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? What does Jesus then ask him about? Theology? What he believes? No, what Jesus asks of the man is whether he follows the commandments…Does Jesus ask what he believes? Does he ask how the ruler’s prayer life is going? Perhaps the man expected that and was ready to be commended for it. What Jesus instead tells him he lacks is yet another good “work”—selling his possessions to give to others. And then, says Jesus, follow me. What does Jesus look for in the man except for good works?”

i) Once again, Deavel is confounding salvation with justification, as though they were interchangeable.

ii) And even on its own terms, Deavel completely misses the point of the story. The young man thinks that he is better than he really is. So Jesus calls his bluff. Far from commending works-righteousness, the purpose of the challenge is to deflate that very presumption. Jesus dares the young man to do better, which exposes his venality.

“Believing is important, but the only way to know if you really believe is by what you do… But the only way to know we abide in him is if we keep his commandments.”

Deavel is now confounding a condition of justification with a condition of assurance, as if they were the same thing. The fact that justification is contingent on faith, while assurance is contingent on obedience, does not imply that justification is contingent on obedience. That is a complete non sequitur. One might as well say that if seeing is contingent on eyes, and hearing on ears, then seeing is contingent ears.

“Take I John 2:4-6…The only justification for us at the last judgment seems to be what we did (works of love) and didn’t do (sins) if we are to believe what the New Testament writes almost constantly.”

Notice, once more, the patent equivocation of terms. For this inference to follow, Deavel would need to establish that John is operating here with a Pauline-style doctrine of justification.

“And what’s more, even St. Paul uses that language. If we go back to Romans, the same letter in which St. Paul repeats so many times that justification before God is based solely on ‘faith apart from works of the law,’ we find that he can also use the same ‘works’ language when he talks about the “day of wrath” or, as we would call it, the ‘last judgment’:

For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Rom. 2:6-11)

St. Paul has here in chapter two the same polemic against thinking that adherence to the entire Torah is the way to be justified in God’s eyes. The Jew may be judged first and the Greek (or Gentile) second, but the criterion is the same: ‘works,’ ‘obey the truth,’ and doing—‘well-doing’ or evil-doing. St. Paul has no problem saying either that our final justification before God is due to faith alone or to works alone.”

Notice, yet again, Deavel’s bait-and-switch scam. If Paul has no problem saying that we are justified by works, then what doesn’t he just say so? But Paul, in the very passage cited by Deavel to prove his point, never uses that language. He doesn’t say that we are justified by works, but that our works figure in the final judgment, where the damned are punished according to their evil deeds while the redeemed are rewarded according to their good deeds.

In Reformed theology, sanctification is a necessary condition of salvation, but not a condition of justification. There is nothing in the passage to overturn that view. Deavel doesn’t seem to have a very secure purchcase of the position he is opposing.

The carrot-and-stick approach is a basic feature of Biblical pedagogy. Rewards are an incentive to good behavior, while punishment is a deterrent to bad behavior. There is nothing here about merit.

“Akin explains that their position was that keeping Torah, ‘works of the law,’ is necessary and sufficient for a right relationship with God. St. Paul’s point is that: ‘It is not necessary, so Gentiles do not need to become Jews.’”

I thought that Deavel subscribes to the new perspective on Paul. If so, what is wrong with saying that Jews were saved by their fidelity to the Old Covenant?

“But if the fuss is based on a misreading, the misreading is based on what I think is a deeper mistake that lies at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. That mistake is summarized by Louis Bouyer as the doctrine that ‘it is impossible to affirm and uphold the sovereignty of God without a corresponding annihilation of the creature, especially man.’”

This is a caricature of the Reformed position. For one thing, we’re not talking in generic terms about man’s relation to God, but in specific terms about the sinner’s relation to his Judge.

“Similarly, a Presbyterian pastor friend once wrote to me that he could never be a Catholic because the Catholic position was a sort of “synergistic” understanding. Synergy comes from the Greek words, meaning “work together” or “work with.” He seemed to assume that salvation was a sort of potluck supper where God brings some grace, I bring some freedom, and then I sit down and have some salvation. Of course this is not true, as the Council of Trent said in chapter eight of its decree that “none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification.” But what is odd is that his use of the term “synergy” is yet another biblical, indeed Pauline phrase for our relationship to God.”

i) Deavel suffers from a shaky grasp of his own theological tradition. In Catholic theology, the sinner does not merit justification by condign merit, but he does merit justification by congruent merit.

ii) The business about synergism is yet a semantic fallacy, confusing dogmatic usage with Biblical usage. “Synergism,” as a dogmatic term in Reformed theology, has a technical meaning which it does not possess in ordinary Greek usage.

“James Akin notes that salvation is spoken of quite often throughout the New Testament in terms of synergy, for example in 2 Cor. 6:1 where St. Paul urges the Corinthian Church, ‘Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”’ Akin says that this means ‘it is either possible to accept the grace of salvation at one time and then have it be vain, or it means that it is possible to accept the grace of the offer of salvation and have it be vain because you fail to cooperate with the offer—either of which means that Grace is not irresistible.’ If grace is not irresistible, said my Calvinist friend, then God is not in charge, not sovereign.”

i) Within the space of the a single paragraph, Deavel repeats the same mistake, confusing dogmatic usage with Biblical usage. The Reformed doctrine of grace is a theological construct based on multiple lines of exegetical evidence. It is not based on the mere occurrence of the word. Deavel is yet again confounding words with concepts.

ii) He is also assuming, without benefit of argument, that “grace” in 2 Cor 6:1 has reference to subjective rather than objective grace. But both in context and in Pauline usage, this is more likely a shorthand expression for the gospel of grace or preaching of the word (cf. 11:14; Act 20:24). Calvinism distinguishes between the decretive will of God, which is irresistible, and the perceptive will, which is resistible. See this distinction on display in Exod 4:21-22; 7:2-3.

“Romano Guardini, in his delightful little book on the Our Father perfectly described the “problem” with grace: I)

One cannot reduce it to a system. It is not a doctrinal structure of “ifs” and “therefores” but a dialogue between the child of God and his Father—a prayer of love.”

i) This has no bearing on the Pauline doctrine of justification.

ii) There are plenty of “ifs” and “therefores” in the letters of Paul.

iii) Guardini blindly begs the question of how one comes to be a child of God in the first place. Of how this loving relationship is established.


  1. I, by the way, emailed Mr. Deavel with links to your responses just for the hell of it...

  2. Dear c.t.,

    Thanks for the tip. The bloglosphere is too sprawling a thing for me to keep track of, so every extra pair of eyes comes in handy!


  3. Hello gentlemen and brothers in Christ,

    The challenge is renewed:

    "All in a Day's Work (More Groundless Insults From Steve Hays)"


    If Steve declines (as he did before) perhaps c.t., will take up the challenge (as he seems quite confident of his abilities to do so)?

    Yours in Christ,

    Dave Armstrong

  4. Thanks for your article. I have a question and a comment:

    Far from commending works-righteousness, the purpose of the challenge is to deflate that very presumption. Jesus dares the young man to do better, which exposes his venality.

    Based on your statement above, how can Jesus not be commending works righteousness if He is daring the young man "to do better"? The requirement for him to "do better" is still fulfilled by works, i.e. selling his possessions to give to others and then following Jesus.

    Deavel suffers from a shaky grasp of his own theological tradition. In Catholic theology, the sinner does not merit justification by condign merit, but he does merit justification by congruent merit.

    Actually, I'm pretty sure it's the opposite. "Condign merit" is the merit Catholics use when speaking of God rewarding works with eternal life, because that is what He has promised. ["God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life" (Rom. 2:6-7)] Congruent merit does not obligate the receiver of the action to give a reward.

    See ->

    Thanks and God bless.

    1. jpk_99, I understand where you are coming from, but I don't think Jesus is commending works righteousness. As Steve said, "Far from commending works-righteousness, the purpose of the challenge is to deflate that very presumption. Jesus dares the young man to do better, which exposes his venality." In other words, Jesus is first of all showing him that he CAN'T do it. This is the point of the passage.

      I also don't think the point of Rom 2:6-7 is to encourage us to work for eternal life. The point is to remind us that we can't earn it! It comes in the context of saying that Jews also fall short and need to be justified by faith apart from their works of the law. It is to reminds them that they deserve the opposite actually.

      However, it is true that there is a relationship between our works and receiving eternal life in a final sense. But this relationship is not that eternal life is a reward for our works, or that our works merit eternal life in any sense. Our works are the evidence of true faith, and so we can't expect to receive eternal life without them (in an ordinary sense, assuming that we live long enough unlike say, the thief on the cross). And this is the point: it acts as a warning to those who expect to receive eternal life in a final sense, but have no fruit to show their faith was genuine.

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  7. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."

  8. jpk_99 said: Based on your statement above, how can Jesus not be commending works righteousness if He is daring the young man "to do better"? The requirement for him to "do better" is still fulfilled by works, i.e. selling his possessions to give to others and then following Jesus.

    You're confusing salvation (from Judgment) with living and seeing the Kingdom perspective that Christ told the Pharisees existed even in that very day. Seeing/living the Kingdom on Earth is completely different than the eternal/Heavenly mindset. Works gets you to the Kingdom of God on Earth, faith (for the 1st century Christians) got them to the eternal/Heavenly Kingdom.

    James was not talking of doing "works" for justification of God -- James was talking directly to first century Jewish believers ("Christians") who were prophecized to possibly fall from their faith. James knew that he had to keep his flock together, so he reminded them of their faith, and the fact that they were to be examples to other Jews. If you are to be a positive example, you have to do more than talk-the-talk ("I have faith in the Lord"), you also have to walk-the-walk ("good works"). James knew this, and it made sense to the only people he wrote to -- 1st century Jewish believers, not faithful Christians 2000 years later.