Did St. James contradict St. Paul?

Hi Jason,

Since my perspective is a bit different than the one’s already expressed, I’ll start from your opening article.

You said:

In this series we have been exploring the issue of soteriological paradigms, and I have been arguing that the kinds of things that Jesus and the New Testament writers said about the gospel in general, and about justification in particular, may be able to be squeezed into the Reformed paradigm with sufficient exegetical gymnastics, but they certainly would never have arisen from it.


If ever there were an example of this, it is the second chapter of the epistle of St. James (you know, the epistle that Luther wanted expunged from the canon because it failed to agree with him). We read in 2:14-26,
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in 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 good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Some things to note:
(1). The entire pericope is soteriological in nature and stems from the question of whether faith can “save” the man who has no works. Thus there is more in view here than merely whether or not the man with faith but no works is vindicated in the eyes of men.
(2). James’s appeal to exemplify justification by faith and works is to the aqeda, the binding of Isaac (which took place both many years after Abraham was initially justified, as well as in a secluded place with no human witnesses before whom Abraham could be “vindicated”).

Agreed. That is why he says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works ….

(3) James uses “save” and “justify” interchangeably, and insists that faith without works accomplishes neither.

(4) James’s example of a needy person is perfectly parallel with Jesus’ teaching on the final judgment, according to which those who care for the poor are granted entrance into the eternal kingdom.


(5) James’s appeal to Genesis 15:6 mirrors Paul’s appeal to the very same passage when discussing Abraham’s justification, strongly indicating that the two men are speaking of the same idea.

Not exactly.

a. I don’t believe that St. Paul and St. James contradict each other.
b. But that doesn’t mean that St. James did not set out to contradict St. Paul. More on that below.

(6) The conclusion that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone” makes no sense if what James has in view is vindication rather than justification. If James were indeed speaking of vindication, he would have simply said, “a man is vindicated by works” without the addendum “and not by faith alone.” James is clearly seeking to correct an error,

Exactly! And I believe the perceived error which he wanted to correct, is this:
Romans 3:28
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

In my opinion, Luther and St. James both understood that St. Paul was teaching that works have nothing whatsoever to do with justification. Luther and St. James are making the same mistake here. (I’m speaking shorthand here, because St. James may be addressing someone’s understanding of St. Paul’s teaching.)
I believe St. James sets out to contradict that teaching.

and there is no evidence that anyone in his day was teaching that men are vindicated by faith alone.

True. But, as noted elsewhere, many other Catholics have added the word “alone” behind “faith” in Rom 3:28. But they understood St. Paul correctly.

In my opinion, you can add “alone” to St. Paul’s teaching if you understand that he is making reference to the justification which occurs in the Sacraments. The Sacraments are the work of God. It is God who washes us of sin in the Sacraments. Especially in the Sacrament of Baptism.

St. James, however, is not speaking of the Sacraments. But of the justification which will be adjudicated by God on the Last Day (Rev 22:12-15). This is the basis of all justification.

We are justified in the Sacraments. But even those who are justified in the Sacraments will stand before the Just Judge on the Last Day.
Romans 14:10
But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

(7) That James is not speaking of the vindication of someone who is already a believer is  further clarified by his appeal to Rahab who, he says, was justified “in the same way” as Abraham. The harlot was “justified,” not vindicated, when she sent the spies in the wrong direction (just as Abraham was “justified” in both Gen. 15 and Gen. 22, despite his having been initially justified many years earlier in Gen. 12).


(8) The illustration of the body without a spirit is the final nail in the coffin for the Reformed position, for it demonstrates that James is not comparing one kind  of faith with another — so-called “saving faith” versus mere “ordinary faith. In his illustration, the body is a true body whether or not it is animated by a spirit, and likewise, faith is faith whether or not it is animated by works. Thus the corollary to the dead and spirit-less corpse is not the wrong kind of faith, but faith alone. The illustration makes no sense otherwise.

I’ve heard that argument. I’m not sure I agree that both are not true.
a. I first heard that argument expressed by J. Martignone. (I hope I spelled that right.) I think its a good argument and I believe it is true. But I don’t think it is true to the exclusion of the other.
b. I believe St. James makes a comparison to the Demons, who “believe” and yet tremble. Belief is frequently equated to faith. In this case, he means belief without trust, without obedience and without righteous works to support and confirm that belief. Obviously, the so-called “faith” of a demon could hardly be called “faith” at all.

This is what google brought back when I asked for a definition of faith.

1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

belief – trust – confidence – credence – credit

Therefore, St. James is referring to some sort of “dead” faith which is not animated by works. It is a different sort of faith. St. Paul calls it “weak” faith. A faith which doesn’t perform:

Romans 4:
19 And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: 20 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; 21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. 22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.
Abraham did not have this sort of faith.
Therefore, I believe both arguments are true and teach against faith alone. It is hard for me to distinguish between the two.

The teaching of James, when all of this is taken into account, is completely inconsistent with the Reformed view that justification is by faith alone without works, and that James is speaking about a different kind of justification than Paul was when he spoke of the same OT character (Abraham) and cited the same OT passage (Gen. 15:6). And moreover, even if this pericope could be forced into a Reformed rubric, any honest exegete should admit that if James had been operating from that rubric, he simply wouldn’t have said things in the way that he did.

In a word, Luther was right to have seen James as a serious threat to his gospel. But rather than wishing he could “throw Jimmy in the stove,” he would have been wiser to rethink his views in the light of this writer who, like it or not, was canonical and completely in line with Jesus and Paul.




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