Critical Scholarship, James and Paul, and the Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture

You may have heard of the debates in New Testament scholarship regarding the supposed antithesis between James, the brother of Jesus, writer of the famous epistle, and Paul, the greatest mind of the early church. There is a supposed contradiction between James and Paul regarding the doctrine of Justification. Evangelical Christians, which assert the Divine Inspiration of Scripture, are, by virtue of their worldview, required to respond to such claims. For them, every word in the 66 books of the original autographs of Scripture, written by Prophets, Apostles, and their close servants, is the very Word of God. This being the case, it perfectly coheres as a document because God Himself is not liable to sin. Since God is not liable to sin, He is not liable to err. The Bible, therefore, cannot err because God cannot err (infallibility). And the Bible has not erred because God is infallible (inerrancy). This being the case, Evangelicals necessarily have to rationally reconcile any apparent contradictions in Scripture. If a formal contradiction did exist in what Evangelicals regard as Scripture then the God they worship would, in fact, err (and is, therefore, a different God than they believe in) or the transcendent God they worship did not, in fact, write the Bible which they regard as the Word of God. Thus, in the case of the apparant contradiction between James and Paul, specifically regarding the doctrine of justification, rational reconcilliation is an absolute practical necessity for the Christian church. Thankfully, the Protestant church has already recognized this fact and many persuasive arguments have been produced regarding the doctrine of justification. At first glance, it appears that Paul, who states that justification is by faith apart from works of the law contradicts James who states that faith without works is dead and that justification is by works and not by faith alone. Yet, at the same time, when one surveys the Biblical text, reading it in context, one realizes that Paul’s main message regarding Justification is not contradictory to James doctrine in the second chapter of his epistle. They are using the term justification in contexts which broaden the entire scope of the churches theological edifice systematically.

In Romans 1-5, Paul teaches about the alienation of man from God due to sin. Paul uses the language of condemnation to refer to the natural man. Natural man sins against God. He hates God. Therefore he is under God’s just condemnation. In the second chapter of Romans, Paul addresses Jewish Christians. Though having the law of Moses, Jews are also condemned because they fail to keep the law in its fullness. Paul’s point is that all men stand under the law condemned. There is no argument that fallen man can place before the throne of God to justify himself. All are sinners. All are unrighteous. All deserve condemnation. And, apart from an answer to this problem, all will surely receive that condemnation. Paul’s answer to the problem of transcendent sinfulness and consequent alienation from God is the manifestation of a justifying righteousness inherent to the propitiatory work of Christ on a Roman cross. Mysteriously, God imputed the sins of His people on Christ 2,000 years ago. The sins of His people were thrust upon the savior. Having paid the penalty of sins for His people, the savior rose from the dead. It would be unjust for Him to stay dead because He had, in fact, completely absorbed the penalty for sins on the cross. He, in a mysterious manner, absorbed an infinite penalty in finite time and space due to the infinite worthiness of His person as the God-man. Therefore, it would be unjust for God to keep Him in the grave. Just as the penalty for sin is death, Christ died fully satisfying that penalty on the cross. Due to His sin atoning work being completely accomplished, God had to raise Him from the dead because God is, by necessity of His own nature, just. Thus, Christ, by the just God, was justified, in His resurrection. Through the evidence of the resurrection, all men can know that they to, if they are mysteriously united to Him, such that He represents them, can be justified before the tribunal of God. Their sins no more count. Christ, having taken all their sins, gives to them His righteousness. The Pauline premise is that, in order for all glory to go to God and not to man, this righteousness is applied to sinners through faith apart from works of the law – faith alone (sola fide). In other words, men work for nothing in the apprehension of this free gift of righteousness sincerely offered to them in the Gospel. Rather, they receive and rest upon Christ alone as He is presented to them in Scripture. They look upon the triumphant lamb, having triumphed over Satan, sin, and death and rest upon Him alone for forgiveness. This is the great Pauline doctrine of justification.

Yet what of James? James asks what the goodness of having faith apart from works is? What does it do? What does it accomplish? What is the point of saying that you believe in Jesus without manifesting the life of Jesus in your own? What is the point of claiming that you belong to the savior if you do not live for the savior? If anyone claims to be in Him ought they not walk in the manner in which he walked? This is James first point – faith, without works, is dead – it is a faith akin to that of demons. Demons believe, but they show nothing of being united to Jesus Christ. James second point couches the context of his section on justification. He commands that his hypothetical conversation partner show him his faith apart from his works, and he will show you his faith by his works. His argument is, essentially, that if demons believe, but have no actual works, their “faith” is dead. It produces no salvation. The faith of demons is the faith of hell. And faith without good works is the faith of hell. Therefore faith without works is dead. It produces no salvation for the individual and no benefit for the world around it. It is the faith of mere intellectual apprehension and servile fear. It is, in the final analysis, useless. In order to prove his point, James reminds of us Abraham. Distinguish reader between Abrahamic faith and the faith of demons. Abraham’s faith was the type of faith that caused him to trust God so strongly that he was willing to sacrifice his own precious son, Isaac, on the altar because God commanded him to. James sees this as a “completion” of Abraham’s faith. Faith, true and saving faith, contains with it inherently the principle of motion which actualizes unto good works. In other words, true and saving faith necessarily produces good works. This is James’ point. This actualization, James refers to as a justification. Yet the context of that justification is evidence of the substantiveness of one’s faith before the judgment of other men. For Paul, justification refers to the declaration of righteousness which is conferred to those who believe in and are united to Jesus (it is from God to man), for James it refers to the practical revelation of true and substantive faith in the other from man to man. It is James who asks us to show us our faith by our works, not God. God knows the substantiveness of the individual’s faith, whether it is Christian or that of demons, because of His own power of perception. The evidence of faith which distinguishes Christian faith from that of demonic faith is good works. Pertaining to personal interactions, we are justified, that is, evidenced to have true, substantial, righteousness conferring faith, by works and not by faith alone. In this regard, James does not contradict Paul, rather, he distinguishes true and justifying faith (in the Pauline sense) from the false faith of demons.

It is apparent, therefore, exegetically, that there is no substantial conflict in the biblical text between Paul and James. Yet is critical scholarship completely wrong? Is there no tension between Paul and James on a practical level, even if not in the text? What if they, pertaining to their personal Theological systems, apart from what they wrote down in the biblical text, had formal contradictions in their unscripturated ministries? If men from James, as Paul states in Galatians, came in to spy out the liberty the Galatians had in the Gospel, were actually faithful disciples of James himself, would such a formal contradiction in any way undermine the Evangelical doctrine of the infalliblity and inerrency of Scripture? If James and Paul, on an uninscripturated level, differed, to some extent, in their Theological beliefs, would this undermine the Evangelical doctrine of Scripture in the least? The answer is, emphatically, no. Even if James and Paul had disunity regarding some of their Theological convictions as to the law and good works, it does not necessarily follow that the text of Scripture is therefore contradictory. In the text of Scripture, Paul and James are not revealing the entirety of their own theological edifice (what man can in one letter?). They are only revealing a part of their convictions. And it is the part which is inscripturated and under inspiration, not the entirety of their lives and dogma, which must be reconciled and shown to be consistent. The entirety of James’ and Paul’s Theology did not have to agree, only what they wrote had to agree. How they used the words “justification” didn’t have to agree, only the substance had to concur. Therefore, if, in fact the critical scholarship is right in part, about there being a conflict, theologically, between James and Paul, that fact alone does not refute the Evangelical doctrine of the Inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, such a reality, if proven, would manifest the wisdom and power of God. Though Paul and James may be wrong in many areas of their Theological constructs, they were not wrong in what they wrote under divine inspiration. These men were not constantly inspired, but they were inspired in what they wrote. Therefore, let us suppose the finitude of James in his writings and the finitude of Paul in his. Let us also suppose that the one fulfills what the other lacks in his writings with his own, pertaining to justification and emphasis. If such is the case, would not the entirety of the inscripturated writings, having been inspired by God, be a greater servant of our entire theological edifice than to be disciples of James or Paul alone? Whether one believes in aspects of critical scholarship or not. Whether or not there are, at points, disputes between James and Paul. Whether or not it is someday proven (or shown to be most likely) that the Apostles differed in parts of their Theological edifice, it does not thereby necessitate in the least that the Scriptures they penned are contradictory at all. If such is true it only evidences their own finitude, and the magnificent wisdom of God – using broken sticks to make straight lines.

All that to say, critical scholarship may still be entirely wrong.


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