Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Absurdity Of Setting James' Gospel Against Paul's

We've been addressing the doctrine of justification in Paul and James in some recent posts. The subject usually comes up in discussions between Protestants and Catholics or Protestants and Orthodox. But it's also occasionally brought up as an alleged contradiction in the Bible. I'm not going to repeat all of the arguments for reconciling Paul and James. A lot of that ground has been covered many times, by many people. What I want to do here is address some of the issues involved that aren't discussed as often.

Paul thought highly of James. He describes him as an apostle (Galatians 1:19), wanted to meet with him (Galatians 1:19) and coordinate his efforts with him (Galatians 2:2, 2:9-10), placed him in the same category as Peter and John (Galatians 2:9), named him first among those three (Galatians 2:9), and said that he had James' right hand of fellowship (Galatians 2:9). James was communicating the same gospel Paul was (1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Galatians 2:9). Paul repeatedly groups himself with James (1 Corinthians 9:5, 15:1-11, Galatians 1:19, 2:9-10). That sort of relationship with James went on for years. It's seen in 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and elsewhere. If James held to another gospel, Paul probably would have treated him the way he treats supporters of other gospels in 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and other places. Instead, James is treated the way I've described above.

Luke corroborates what Paul reports in his letters. He repeatedly portrays James as in good fellowship with Paul, including in the justification-related contexts of Acts 15:1-30 and 21:18-26.

The same sort of relationship between Paul and James is further corroborated by the sources of the patristic era. A heretical source will occasionally set Paul and James against each other, but there's no good reason to trust those sources on this subject, and they're far outnumbered by other sources who contradict them. (Remember, since Paul's letters affirm his good relationship with James, the patristic sources who endorse documents like 1 Corinthians and Galatians are accordingly implying agreement with what's said about Paul and James in those documents. High views of documents like 1 Corinthians and Galatians are found as early as the first century: e.g., in the New Testament in 2 Peter 3:15-16 and in the patristic literature in First Clement 47.) The consensus of the patristic sources is that Paul and James had the sort of good relationship that's affirmed repeatedly in the New Testament.

It's easy to reconcile Paul and James. There are many indications that James is expanding upon Paul's gospel, a gospel he also accepts. One of the most important aspects of James 2 is James' use of the same Old Testament figure Paul focuses on (Abraham) and his agreement with Paul in citing Genesis 15:6 (James 2:23). In all likelihood, James 2:24 is intended as a further unfolding of Paul's gospel, the gospel James had just affirmed in 2:23 (and had supported in other ways, such as in his view of our guilt and dependence on grace in 2:10-13, by distinguishing between different types of faith in 2:14 and 2:19, etc.).

Notice, also, the lack of any direct reference to Paul or his letters in James 2. And note how the arguments James responds to, such as the demonic faith of 2:19, aren't found in Paul. He's responding to non-Pauline (and anti-Pauline) views. If James 2 was meant as a case against Paul, it's a remarkably incompetent, weak, and ineffective one.

But set aside Paul and James' texts on justification for a moment. Even without looking at how easily the texts can be reconciled, the notion that the two men believed in such contradictory views of justification is highly dubious. Multiple early sources, including Paul himself, as well as a wide number and diversity of later sources, tell us that Paul and James were in good fellowship. It's unlikely that they contradicted each other in their view of justification in the manner people sometimes suggest.

And I don't see how it helps the critic's case much to deny James' authorship of the letter attributed to him. The letter still would seem to come from some circle, a school of James or whatever you want to call it, that thought highly of him. If James himself agreed with Paul on the gospel, how likely is it that James' early disciples would be contradicting Paul in the way critics suggest? The idea that an early follower of James or group of followers contradicted Paul, instead of James himself doing it, is more defensible, but that isn't saying much. It's still a highly problematic position to take. Or if the author of James is supposed to be somebody who didn't even think highly of James, then why was he writing in James' name, why was his letter so widely accepted among Christians who held a positive view of both Paul and James, etc.?

The most sensible explanation of the totality of the evidence is that Paul's letters and the letter of James aren't contradicting each other on justification. They're expounding on the same gospel from different angles.


  1. In case anybody thinks James 1:1 may have some other James in view, I'll address that issue briefly. I'm not going to get into a lengthy discussion of the authorship of the letter. You can find a discussion of the subject in some depth in a lot of commentaries and New Testament introductions, for example.

    The James of James 1:1 seems to have been prominent enough to be recognized without further elaboration about his identity. Jesus' brother is the best candidate. Other Christians named James either weren't prominent enough to be mentioned in the New Testament or were mentioned there, but not as prominently as Jesus' brother.

    Some of the language of the document, like the "greetings" of 1:1 (see Acts 15:23), are reminiscent of what's attributed to Jesus' brother elsewhere. You can find discussion of other examples in commentaries on James and other sources that address the letter's authorship.

    The mainstream view in ancient Christianity was that the James referred to in 1:1 is Jesus' brother.

    For reasons like these, the brother of Jesus is, by far, the best candidate for the James who's in view in James 1:1.

  2. Jason, I wonder if you could help settle this related issue. James 2:24 is used so often by RC apologists, and it seems to me that the controversy hinges on the word "see." We often say "See what I mean?" in conversation, and we are really saying "Do you understand what I mean?" If the Greek word translated as "see" in this verse could also be translated as "understand" or "recognize", then the RC argument is strengthened. But if the proper translation and understanding is "see visually with my eyes", then that would completely dismantle the RC argument. James would simply be writing about the visible observable behavior of a professing Christian. Thank you in advance for addressing this point.

    1. Steve,

      I think the Protestant and Catholic positions are both reconcilable to either view of James 2:24. Other verses in James 2 refer to being justified by works without referring to seeing. Though the issue you're bringing up has some significance, it doesn't do much to settle the larger dispute over the passage as a whole.

      I'm not aware of any way to demonstrate that the seeing in verse 24 is a reference to physical sight. The seeing in verse 22 doesn't refer to physical sight, and it's the use of the term that's closest to verse 24. I doubt that verse 24 has physical sight in mind. But both verses (22 and 24) refer to mental perception by people other than the one justified, regardless of whether physical sight is involved. A Protestant interpretation doesn't depend on the involvement of physical sight. There's too much evidence against a Catholic interpretation (inside and outside of James) for a Catholic view of the seeing in James 2:24 to carry much weight. Even if you grant their interpretation of the phrase in question, the overall balance of the evidence is against their view of justification, by a wide margin.