The Letter of James (the Apostle James pictured above) has a long and fascinating history. Early patristic writers (such as Eusebius) point out that it was not considered apostolic by a minority voice but that in the majority it has always been considered apostolic. But even among the small dissenters the issue was not one of theology but literary or more commonly that it was quoted less often than the other non-disputed NT writings in the earlier patristic fathers. It was not (as with many other things) contested on theological grounds (mainly the so-called problem of Paul's soteriology with James) until the 16th century, most notable with the attack by Martin Luther1. In many ways Luther is the father of modern biblical criticism in terms of wielding the blade of the critic in one hand and theological bias in the other. He would push sachkritik (content criticism) farther than anyone before based on a theological notion. Luther's descendants were not long to arrive and would innovate many other modes to question James in general and the relationship of James and Paul in particular2. All such complaints and detractions I believe can be explained when we understand the intention behind the writing of James. It is not a systematic theological exposition of soteriology but rather is written in a practical fashion. In other words, James is not turning his equipment and venturing to give a detailed point by point systemic definition of soteriology but rather he is interested in the praxis over the outworking of soteriology.
It is very likely that the Apostles James and Paul knew each other in person and hence it becomes harder to believe the notion that they were at odds in doctrine. One way around the dilemma has been to argue that James is writing before he met Paul face to face and thus "not understanding Paul's position fully" he writes to counter a faulty understanding of Paul3. But in order to believe this view and entire reconstruction needs to be erected, all built on an immense argument from silence with no early patristic support at all. Another school has held the idea that what James is refuting is not Paul per se, but a group that has either knowingly or not distorted Paul's gospel4. In the final analysis, all such mirror readings that have James refuting some misunderstood Pauline teaching stands on shaky ground and it is best to take James at face value and in a plain reading of the texts. Moreover, the most natural understanding of the events surrounding the composition of James is to assume that he was very familiar with "true" Pauline teaching in general and Pauline soteriology in particular. And it is not Pauline teaching he is attacking (since his soteriology is identical to Paul's) but misunderstandings of Pauline theology5.
Early and unequivocally in the letter, James makes clear his intention in writing; it is an exhortation for his readers to remain steadfast in their faith, for true faith in times of testing produces (1:2-3). The man who remains steadfast throughout life, will thus receive the στεφανον της ζωης, which God has promised to those who love him (1:12).
These seemingly works-righteous statements are prefaced in James as also they are in Paul (cf. Rom 2:6-7, 13 / Rom 3:22, 26; et al.) in that they are not of human origin but they are given to us by God as gifts (1:17). It is not of our will but by God's that he has even brought us forward, by the word of truth, first fruits of his creatures (1:18). Man's anger does not produce the righteousness of God (1:20) but rather we are to receive the implanted λογον which saves us (1:21). It is God who has chosen those who are rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom (2:5) the implication being crystal clear that this richness in faith and subsequent eternal life is not of human origin but of God's grace. This indeed sounds a lot like Paul and is a testament that James and Paul were in agreement theologically not at odds.
It is with all this in mind that we should be doers of the λογου, and not just hearers (1:22). For what good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have these works? Is this a true saving faith? (2:14). For faith by itself without works is a dead faith (2:17). In contrast, James can say that he can show his genuine faith in that he is exemplifying these works in his life (2:18). The classical example in Scripture of this writes James is Abraham, whom Scripture said was counted righteous because he believed (2:23). But was he counted righteous solely on account of this belief? Absolutely not, it was the outworking of this faith through works in Abraham's life that justified him (2:21-22).
All this leads to James stating, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24). This summation coupled with all that James has stated before acts as a perfect capstone on the Catholic conception of justification and salvation. It is a full orbed concept that displays a multi-faceted doctrine. It is a working faith that justifies not a dead faith. Paul and James are not in disagreement either knowingly or unknowingly but are perfectly in line is the Catholic understanding. The great Catholic Bishop of Hippo, Augustine commenting on James 2:5 is completely in line with Paul's stress (and official Catholic doctrine) on God's initiating grace,
"The Elect were chosen before the foundation of the world in that predestination in which God foreknew what He Himself would do...to that end, assuredly, which has no end...By Choosing them, therefore, He makes them rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom. Rightly, then, is He said to choose in them that for the making of which in them He chose them." (De praedestinatione santorum liber ad Prosperum et Hilarium primus. 17, 34).
In like manner, according to the patristic father Gregory of Nyssa commenting on James 2:17 (and in line with Paul in Romans 3:28) works in and of themselves can never justify a man, they must be coupled with the correct faith,
"Paul, joining righteousness and faith and weaving them together, constructs of them the breastplates for the infantryman, armoring the soldier properly and safely on both sides...For faith without works of justice is not sufficient for salvation; neither, however, is righteous living secure in itself of salvation, if it is disjoined from faith." (Hom. on Eccl).
This line of thinking continues in one of the most up to date summaries of Catholic doctrine, (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. Doubleday, 1995). First and foremost, salvation is initiated by God's grace,
"The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus' proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt 4:17). Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high." (CCC. 3. 1. 1989. The Catechism here cites Trent in full agreement (DS 1528)). Grace is a completely free undeserved gift from God which helps us respond to his call (CCC. 3. 2. 1996). Citing 1 Cor 2:7-9, the Catechism states that grace depends entirely of God's gratuitous initiative, which surpasses the power of human intellect and will (CCC. 3. 2. 1998). Justification is the acceptance of God's righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, (CCC. 3. 1. 1991). Justification is merited for us by the life and death of Christ, (CCC. 3. 1. 1992).
In agreement now with James and the rest of the New Testament, the Catholic Catechism now stresses the reality of man's role in justification. Justification establishes (through a renewed will) a cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom. On man's part this involves two things, his very ascent in faith and in his cooperation in works of charity through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, (CCC. 3. 1. 1993, citing Trent, DS 1525). Citing Augustine (In Jo. ev. 72, 3) the Catechism goes on to state beautifully that of all of God's handiwork, justification is the most excellent works of God's love made manifest in Christ Jesus, granted by the Holy Spirit, (CCC. 3. 1. 1994). Citing Augustine again, (De gratia et libero arbitrio, 17; De natura et gratia, 31) the Catechism confidently holds that the preparation for man to even accept grace is already a free gift from grace. Through this preparation we are sustained in our collaboration in justification through faith and sanctification through charity. It is God's work from first to last, since it is God who began to move our will for us even to will to cooperate in the first place as Augustine notes in the citations, (CCC. 3. 2. 2001). Citing Augustine yet again (Confess. 13, 36, and hence displaying the immense role this great patristic father plays in Catholic soteriology), the Catechism states that God free initiative demands man's free response since God has now created in man his image by conferring on him, along with freedom (of the will), the power to know and love Him (CCC. 3. 2. 2002).
Hence these works or fruits in the Christian life are a guarantee that grace is at work in us and should spur us on to an ever greater faith and attitude of trustful poverty (CCC. 3. 2. 2005; citing Matthew 7:20). Citing Augustine in full on this point, "You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts" (En. in Ps. 102, 7) the Catechism sets the record straight on the reality that even our works in life are ultimately God's gifts to us as well, we have received everything from Him, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man, (CCC. 3. 2. 2006-07).
"The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful." (CCC. 3. 2. 2008).
This is the Christian teaching of salvation stemming from Christ our Lord into the writers of the New Testament (in complete harmony with Paul and James) handed down to the patristic fathers (as seen in Augustine) and codified beautifully in Catholic doctrine. It is not salvation by faith alone, with works playing no part whatsoever (other than show evidence of salvation). James makes this crystal clear and the Greek is unmistakable as most modern translations evince. We are not simply declared righteous with Christ's righteousness alone but rather coupled with the declaration we are also made righteous to be presented as the holy and spotless bride of Christ to the Father. This making is not of our own but even this is God's Trinitarian work in us as a free gift.
1. James, according to Luther, did not exemplify Paul's "true" soteriological teaching, namely sola fide and thus was considered inferior. James "mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture." (Luther's Works. 35, 397). Furthermore, "it is an epistle of straw" (Ibid., 35, 362). Even though James is not a "chief book," Luther nevertheless did not stop anyone from acknowledging James for it's "good sayings." (Ibid., 35, 397). For a deep analysis of Luther's annotations on James see W. Walther, (TSK: 66, 1893). Notice that in the 16th century the Catholic scholar's Erasmus and Cajetan also disputed James apostolic character but on different grounds, linguistic, grammatical, but even when they did they were very respectable paying full homage to the great lineage of Catholic commentators on James, such as Augustine, Jerome and Bede. James soteriology was in full harmonization with Paul writes Erasmus, while Paul has a different context in mind (law of Moses), James is writing in practical terms, concerned about piety and charity, (Annotationes, 1031). For an equally early and point by point response to these objections to James see Robert Bellarmine, (Prima Controversiae Generalis: De Verbo Dei Quatuor Libris Explicata). On early Protestant positions that Paul and James are in harmony see Philip Melanchton, (Loci Communes Theologici, 1559, IX, V, 2, 12); Ulrich Zwingli, (Expositio Fidei, 1531, fol. 14v); Jean Calvin, (James, pp. 314)
2. Such as the view that James as we have it today was never a Christian work at all, rather an original Jewish source that was later hijacked by early Christian scribes and mixed with dominical Christian traditions, (so. F. Spitta, Zur Geschichte und Literatur des Urchristentums, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1896, pp. 1-239). Or those that hold James as being pseudepigraphical, (Martin Dibelius, (Epistle of James, Fortress, 1976)).
3. F. C. Baur (Paul, The Apostle of Jesus Christ, Williams & Norgate, 1875) was one of the first modern historico-critical scholars to give a large presentation that James and Paul were at odds on justification. See also; W. M. L. De Wette, (Jakobus, Hirzel, 1847); H. J. Holtzmann, (Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Theologie, JCB Mohr, 1897); G. Kittel, (Zeitschrift fur die deutestamentliche Wissenschaft: 41, 1942); Rudolf Bultmann, (Theology of the New Testament, Charles Schribner's Sons, 1955, pp. 2, 131); Werner G Kummel, (Introduction to the New Testament, Abingdon, 1975, pp. 414-16). And more recently Douglas Moo, (James: PNTC, Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 26) has argued that James at the point of composition was unaware of Paul's "true teaching" on soteriology since they had not met yet. So then what James attacks is a misnomer of Paul's actual teaching. But such an explanation opens up a more gruesome can of worms than it seeks to answer. If this were true, it would call into question the very idea of the inspiration of Holy Scripture since it would contain a book (by an inspired Apostle) attacking a true misunderstanding that he held of the doctrine of another inspired Apostle (Paul). Simply stating that this is because they have not met yet is dancing around the question for even if James was written prior to their physical meeting it is very likely that he has been given a detailed theological account of the "true" Pauline teaching.
4. J. A. Bengel (Gnomon Novi Testamenti, 1773) gave the best expression of this view in the 18th century. But even Bengel defended the harmonization between James and Paul, (ad loc.)
5. In fact the view which holds James and Paul in tension or misunderstanding has been aligned by a host of modern commentaries, a few examples from a wide range of theological traditions; A. Neander, (James Practically Explained, 1850); H. Ewald, (Jakobus Rundschreiben, Dieterich, 1870), W. Beyschlag, (Jakobus, 1882); T. Zahn, (Introduction to the New Testament, 1897); are but a few early examples. Usually Catholic commentators defend the theological harmony between Paul and James while it is Protestant commentators that are the usual suspects that deny this and give alternate explanations.