Luther famously called the letter by James as a ‘right strawy epistle,’ one that had minimal value for the Christian faith. He apparently didn’t fully reject it, for he put it in his translation of the Bible, albeit at the back of the book. Perhaps he figured that Germans were just getting started on reading through the Bible in a year, and he was hoping they’d never get to the end!
What troubled Luther about James was specifically 2:14–26. It seemed to flat out contradict Paul’s declarations in Romans, especially Rom 3:28. In this brief paper, we will examine the passages in Romans that are most relevant to Jas 2:14–26.
Rom 3:28 says: λογιζόμεθα γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει ἄνθρωπον χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου—There are several elements in this verse that stand in formal contradiction with Jas 2:24. There we read: ὁρᾶτε ὅτι ἐξ ἔργων δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος καὶ οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως μόνον. The lexically identical elements found in both texts are as follows: (1) δικαιόω, (2) πίστις, (3) ἄνθρωπος, and (4) ἔργον. In addition, there are conceptual parallels: (5) ὁρᾶτε has its counterpart in λογιζόμεθα; (6) χωρίς corresponds to οὐκ ἐκ. In the broader context as well, there are significant parallels: (7) an appeal to the Shema, specifically Deut 6.4, to make the point (εἷς ὁ θεός in Jas 219; Rom 3:30); (8) the use of μόνος (Jas 2:24; Rom 3:29), though in different contexts;1 (8) an appeal to the life of Abraham for theological grounding (Jas 2:21–23; Rom 4:1–25); and (9) specifically to Gen 15:6 as the theological kingpin in the argument from the life of Abraham (Jas 2:23; Rom 4:3). Such parallels are surely more than a remarkable coincidence!2 The problem, of course, is that James seems to be diametrically opposed to Paul:3 one says that a man is justified by faith [alone], while the other says that this is not the case.
We are left with the following interpretive options: (a) James and Paul are talking about completely different things, and the parallels are simply coincidental.4 But there is no place else in the entire NT where these parallels occur. That sort of answer seems to be a mere expedient to rid oneself of a great difficulty. (b) James and Paul are talking about the same thing, and they have different, even opposite, viewpoints on it. We will see that this is also highly unlikely.5 (c) James and Paul are talking about different aspects of salvation, and their terminology is parallel because they are arguing against a form of doctrinal statement (without the substance) from one camp that made its way into the other. I take it that this last approach satisfies the data best.
Briefly, the following points will be made: (1) The subject matter of Jas 2 has to do with how true Christians must act in financially stressful times. For several reasons, I would date James to the mid–40s, shortly after the Mediterranean-region famine that Agabus prophesied (Acts 11:28). Because of this famine, lack of food and clothing became much larger problems than they had been previously. And catering to the rich became a temptation, more so than previously. James wrestles with this issue, reminding his readers that their faith had better be backed up by works of mercy. This is not the issue that Paul wrestles with per se. (2) When James wrote his letter, Paul had not yet gone on any missionary journeys. Most likely, he had not written any epistles to churches either (for there would be no reason to do so until he had traveled somewhere). So, if James is reacting to Paul, he is not reacting to Paul directly, but to Pauline slogans that were forged in Paul’s ministry in Antioch, an area in which many diaspora Jews and Jewish Christians would have had contact. James thus seems to be reacting to Paul’s ‘sound bite theology’ that his readers would have picked up without understanding its contents. Of course, there would have been the natural temptation for the readers to not think through the real contents of Paul’s message, especially since it was more convenient for them to use his words as an excuse to not help the poor. (3) In light of this possibility, it makes eminently good sense to see most of the constituent elements that are parallel between Jas 2 and Rom 3 as bearing a different sense. Indeed, even if we do not take into account the likelihood that James is reacting to Pauline slogans devoid of their real meaning, an exegesis of both passages shows that they are not using the terms in the same way. Thus:
In sum, James and Paul seem to be talking about two different aspects of salvation. James is addressing the vindication down the line that one is saved; Paul is talking about the front-end, that which is needed to ‘get in.’ Just because their emphases are different does not mean that their viewpoints are necessarily opposed to each other. If the date of James is correct, then by Acts 15/Gal 2 (c. 49 CE), both had either reconciled or found that they did not really disagree. This means either that the letter of James errs (in that James would have changed his mind later) or is really not out of harmony with Paul. The latter seems eminently more likely in light of the different meanings that the major shared elements have in the two books. It has been said that “faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.” I believe that both James and Paul could agree with that statement.
2 It seems that a decent master’s thesis, or even doctoral dissertation, could trace these ideas in Jewish literature to see if in any other place there is such a high cluster of verbal and conceptual parallels. I have not done this, but am unaware of anyone putting forth any such texts. It thus seems that, apart from some passage coming to light, we should regard James and Paul as interacting with one another to some degree.
3 One of the remarkable lacunae in most commentaries on Romans is any discussion of the tension between Jas 2 and Rom 3. Such things are regularly addressed in commentaries on James, but not on Romans. This is most likely due to a tacit ‘canon within a canon,’ in which Paul’s thought is considered normative and everyone else has to adjust to it.
4 This is the viewpoint of Zane Hodges. His view is that salvation in Jas 2:14–26 is not eternal salvation. But with the heavy cluster of parallel words and thoughts between these two passages, that conclusion seems to be farfetched. (Part of the way he argues is that in James salvation is never eternal. However, James is NT wisdom literature, with almost self-contained pericopae. It is not only possible, but likely, that what he means in one place with his terminology may be quite different from what he means elsewhere. As witness to this fact are the legions of organizational schemes offered for this little letter. That is, no one has produced a convincing case for an outline of James. At the same time, all of chapter 2 seem to cohere as a unit, for it all deals with works of mercy in the Christian community and one’s relation to the poor and rich.)
5 Even Werner Georg Kümmel, the scholar whose Introduction to the New Testament has been the standard liberal introduction, could not bring himself to seeing James and Paul at odds with each other.