Sunday, August 13, 2017

Paul and James on justification

Substantively, I don't have anything revolutionary to say about the relationship of James and Paul on justification. I subscribe to the traditional Reformed position on sola fide. However, as I read NT scholars on the subject, even when they are right on the substance, I think there's a lack of clarity in how they expound and defend the traditional position.

1. Before getting to the exegetical questions, a few preliminary points. To judge by their writings, Paul is more intellectually gifted than James. As a result, his discussion of justification is more complex. 

That doesn't mean one is right and the other is wrong. According to the organic theory of inspiration, God creates people with particular aptitudes, and providentially gives them a particular background that conditions their interests. Inspiration doesn't submerge their personalities. Their natural aptitude selects for different aspects of the truth. Under inspiration, Paul and James both articulate the truth, but Paul is more sophisticated, so he goes deeper into the issues than James.

2. There's a debate about how James and Paul are interrelated. Options include: (i) They wrote independently of each other. One is not opposing the other; (ii) Paul is opposing James; (iii) James is opposing Paul.

If you subscribe to inerrancy, then that rules out (ii-iii) as live options. In addition, you can deny inerrancy but still opt for (i). For a defense of (i), cf. R. Bauckham, James (Routledge 1999), 1.2-1.3; L. T. Johnson, The Letter of James (Doubleday 1995), I.4.d.

3. Linguistically, the key verb in 2:19 can mean "to justify" can mean "to acquit, vindicate". It can also mean to "demonstrate" that someone is righteousness. 

However, even if, for argument's sake, we think James uses the verb in the sense of "shown to be righteous," that only pushes the question back a step, because there's the question of what James means by "righteous". 

Rahab is one of James's paradigm-examples, yet she's hardly a paragon of virtue. Indeed, she's a counterintuitive example to a righteous individual. 

James views righteousness as living by faith in revealed truth. And that's the acid test of faith. You really believe in something to the degree that you are prepared to act on it, especially if that entails sacrifice. Abraham left everything behind to follow God. God later rewarded him materially, but that's not how it got started. Rahab took a huge risk in collaborating with the spies. For James, true faith is obedient faith.

4. It's necessary to distinguish between the meaning of words and the meaning of concepts. Suppose I ask you what "cancer" means? That's ambiguous. Is that asking what does the word "cancer" mean? If so, you can look it up in a dictionary.

However, knowing what the word means doesn't tell you what cancer is. It doesn't explicate the nature of the disease. Indeed, a variety of a cancers with different prognoses and treatment options. 

By the same token, Paul and James operate with different concepts of justification and righteousness. They use the same words to denote different categories.

As a result, faith has a different function in relation to justification in the respective theologies of Paul and James. For James, faith and works are complementary, due to how he views righteousness (see above). For Paul, these are antithetical (see below). 

5. If I understand what he's up to, Paul's doctrine of justification by faith is teasing out the implications of vicarious atonement and penal substitution. 

i) In vicarious atonement, the Redeemer atones for sin on behalf of and in place of the redeemed. That's the general principle. In penal substitution, the Redeemer is punished on behalf of and in place of the redeemed. That's a special case of vicarious atonement.

ii) That's why, for Paul, works cannot contribute to justification. Due to the vicarious dimension of justification, justification is grounded, not in something you did, but something done for you. 

iii) And that's why faith has a different function in relation to justification for Paul than it has for James. James doesn't frame a righteous standing in terms of vicarious atonement and penal substitution. This doesn't mean he'd deny that. But his position is categorically different.

For Paul, faith is in part a negation of works. A way of saying justification is not by works. In addition, justifying faith is an acknowledgement of vicarious atonement and penal substitution. Trusting in Christ alone to act on your behalf and in your stead; to do for you what you can't do for yourself. 

6. For Paul, to be justified is to enjoy an ascribed status rather than an achieved status, precisely because it's grounded in vicarious atonement and penal substitution. In a sense, Paul believes in justification by works, but the justifying work is the redemptive death of Christ. 

To illustrate: take a father, a son, and the son's best friend. Ordinarily, a father will do things for a son that he won't do for a stranger. 

Suppose the son's best friend needs a big favor that only the father is in a position to grant. Suppose he asks the father directly, but is turned down. The father would do that favor for his son, but not for a stranger. 

Suppose, though, his son asks his father do help out his best friend. The father may accede to his son's request. 

In a sense he's doing that for his son's best friend. The best friend is the recipient and beneficiary of the favor.

In another sense, he's going that for his son, in deference to his son, because of what his son means to him.

The upshot, though, is that he's treating his son's best friend as if he's his own son. 

To take another example, suppose a king adopts a peasant. The peasant instantly acquires the social status of a royal prince. An ascribed status, by virtue of adoption. 

To take a further example, suppose a conqueror establishes a kingdom. That's an achieve status. 

Suppose his son inherits the kingdom. That's an ascribed status. 

This is more then hypothetical. Take the real-life case of Moses. He was born a slave. On the lowest rung of the social ladder. Even worse, he was born under sentence of death.

When, however, he was adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, that was an instant and enormous social promotion. An unearned advantage.

For Paul, to be justified is an ascribed status rather than an achieved status. You might say it's achieved by Christ, but not by the beneficiaries. For them rather than by them.

That's also why, for Paul, justification is a once-for-all-time event rather than an ongoing process. 


  1. Could I add something to point 2?

    Another possibility: James's audience was taught justification by faith alone, they distorted it, and James had to write them to correct the error. That would makes sense.

  2. "For James, true faith is obedient faith."

    What's the difference between "obedient faith" and obedience and faith?

  3. For James, it's a quality of genuine faith. You don't really believe something unless you're ready to act on what you say you believe, especially if you have something to lose by acting on what you profess.