Although it is an age-old problem repeatedly tackled by the great masters, I continue to bump into the question of faith and works. The question is put best in hermeneutical terms:
Paul says, "We are justified by faith, not by works lest any one should boast."
James says, "Faith without works is dead."
How do we reconcile these two statements?
As I see it, there are three alternative ways to tackle this problem.
The first is to assume that the differences between Paul and James are irreconcilable. We are thus in a position to choose between them or, better still, try to keep them in balance by our own theological ingenuity. This is just another "paradox of the faith" that we keep in tension. Although I am quite comfortable with acknowledging diversity and even divergence among the apostolic witnesses, I am suspicious of any solution that places all the weight on our own hermeneutical prowess. Yes, we must synthesize the canon. But we must be careful to not jump the gun. Perhaps the two statements will bear further analysis, rendering such a synthesis moot. This approach is just too easy for my taste. Such a balancing act glosses over the real problem by a lazy appeal to mystery. There must be a better way to lead us into the mystery of our faith, not just around it.
Another way to tackle the problem is to give pride of place to one statement over the other. Both are affirmed, but one as the primary statement and the other as a supplemental point. For instance, one might emphasize the Pauline "faith without works" formula, considering the Jacobean "dead faith" formula to block an antinomian misapplication of sola fide. Alternately, one might emphasize James' "faith plus works" formula, introducing Paul's concept of faith without works as a warning against a legalistic misunderstanding of the Christian life of good deeds. This is certainly a more subtle approach. It certainly attends to the differences while including the whole canon. The only problem is how to decide who gets pride of place. Certain traditions will obviously lean toward one or the other. But which way should we lean? There seems to be no Biblical warrant to prefer one over the other. So, once again we find ourselves back in the drivers' seat.
Thankfully, there is a third way. Rather than balancing the difference or emphasizing one over the other, we can ask the analytical question: "What does each author mean by the word faith?" Although such an analysis does not always save the day, here it does. Why? Because the Greek word pistis, translated in both texts as "faith," has a wider range of meaning than any one English word can bear. Pistis can mean either (1) belief, (2) trust, or (3) faithfulness. Although it can mean any of these, it seldom means more than one at the same time. With this range of meaning in mind, let's look again at the two apparently contradictory statements, plugging in the definition most appropriate to the context:
Paul says, "We are justified by trust, not by works that any one should boast."
James says, "Belief without works is dead."
Despite the differences in their portrayals of the Christian life, Paul and James are not incompatible at this point. They are making two different claims about two very different matters. Paul is pushing us to trust in God for our justification, not our own works, which leads to a prideful attitude. James is telling us that simply believing God exists is not enough (even the demons do that!); we must pursue a life a good works. Both of these principles are true and good. They do not contradict because they are responding to different problems. Neither rules the other out, but both tell us much about how we are to live: trust God for our salvation, and live a life pleasing to him.
Thus by an analysis of the meaning of the faith, the two principles can be held together without irrational juxtaposition or arbitrary preference.
Do these seem to be the logical alternatives to dealing with this sort of problem?
Are there others?
Did I misrepresent any of the options?
Is my account of faith's range of meaning accurate?
What other matters might faith's range of meaning illuminate?
Where else might this approach to apparent contradictions be used?